Do you think you’ll make it into the history books? I enjoy pondering the idea of having a section in a textbook — no matter how small — that is devoted just to my incredibly uneventful life. Wouldn’t it be nice to leave a little historical legacy behind? Well, this week we’re looking at events from World War II, when ordinary people had the opportunity to place their names into history books due to their courageous actions and sacrifices. Let’s begin!
It was bold — and to some, stupid — to lead from the frontlines; but French General Henri Giraud had no time to think of other options. His troops in the Ardennes had just met the impressive German 6th Panzer Division head on, and the success of their defense was pivotal. They rushed through a fierce German barrage, eventually taking cover in a machine gun nest near the frontline. The bombardment was ferocious, causing Giraud and his officers to wait for the artillery to cease. When it finally let up, German soldiers surrounded Giraud’s position, and he had to surrender.
As a general, Giraud was supposed to be treated with a higher level of respect than the ordinary prisoner of war. While not by any means living a comfortable life, a man of Giraud’s status was expected to be taken care of, but this was not to be. The Germans were keen on keeping Giraud locked up tight.
After all, the Germans had not forgotten Giraud, the infamous “circus worker” of World War I. After leading a doomed bayonet charge in the early stages of the war, Giraud was taken prisoner — a familiar sounding story right? Giraud — at the time a captain — was seriously wounded, and connected with English nurse Edith Cavell in a hospital in Belgium.
Cavell did more than save Giraud’s life. She went on to save the lives of hundreds of British and French prisoners, orchestrating a brilliant system of escape plans. The prisoners would be brought to her hospital for treatment, and once healed, guides would help sneak them to the neutral Netherlands. Sadly she would be caught and shot a year later for these actions, becoming a martyr in the process. But luckily, Giraud made it through Cavell’s system and fled disguised as a circus worker, coal worker and stable boy amongst other facades. Regardless, the Germans had not forgotten this after all those years.
Giraud was placed into the fortress of Konigstein near Dresden, located at the center of the Reich. The beautiful — and quite historical — castle was surrounded by steep cliffs and monitored by incessant guard patrols. Likewise, Gestapo units lurked in the surrounding towns, alerted at a moment’s notice of any escapees. If you or I were in 61-year-old Giraud’s shoes, we’d probably just admit defeat, right? It’s definitely the easiest thing to do, but nobody quite had the determination or gall of Giraud, and for the next two years he schemed.
There would be no Edith Cavell this time, but by cleverly sneaking codes into letters back home, and connecting with the British Secret Services, Giraud was slowly able to cobble together a plan. He learned German, memorized the surrounding area and prepared disguises and an escape route. The final ingredient was a rope, slowly assembled in secret out of copper wire. This was vital for descending the 150-foot cliffs. In the early morning of April 17, 1942, Giraud set off on his escape.
Making his way down the cliffs of Konigstein, Giraud landed in the valley, beginning his crazy journey to freedom. Dressed up as a businessman and possessing a fake ID and photo, Giraud utilized the German train system to avoid detection by the omnipresent Gestapo, who were rushing to track him down.
The daring of Giraud is simply incredible. Due to his injuries in WWI, he had a noticeable limp, and several times he simply sprinted — despite immeasurable pain — to avoid raising suspicions by German police. Hoping to head to France, Giraud gave up once he discovered every single passenger over 6 feet was being searched in order to track him down. Instead, he aimed for Switzerland.
Taking an old abandoned trail to the Swiss border, Giraud suddenly became swarmed by bayonets, but luckily they were Swiss. He had done it, and to the Nazi’s dismay, the Swiss refused to return Giraud. While too much to discuss here, Giraud went on to play an important role in the Allied liberation of France!
The next event for this week starts with a bang — well, a big bang actually. Operation Big Bang commenced on April 18, 1947, when the British set off thousands of tons of explosives on the German island of Heligoland.
When WWII finished, armaments and explosives were in tremendous excess, and the question of how to dispose of them plagued the Allied powers. Of course, some were dumped in oceans, bays or rivers, but occasionally, smarter methods of disposal came around.
This is where the German island of Heligoland comes into play. Being a prominent naval bastion off the coast of Denmark — and even once a possession of the British Empire — the Allies initially stored munitions in the old submarine units and bunkers built on the small island. Soon, the idea of detonating the explosions came up. If this was done, then the naval base would be inoperational and not a threat to Britain in the future. Likewise, no civilians were present on the island after the Wehrmact evacuated the island in the closing of the war, so civilians would not be at risk.
Thus, on April 18 the bombs went off, making a several kilometer high plum and sinking a portion of the island. Notably, a small detonation took place first to scare away any birds, so don’t worry, no wildlife was harmed! Despite the amount of explosives, the Flakturm (anti-air craft tower, now turned into a lighthouse) and some bunkers survived the blast, and civilians were allowed back five years later. To this day, it is a tourist attraction.
The last event for this week marks one of the final events that Adolf Hitler was to experience. On April 20, 1945 — his 56th birthday — Hitler headed to the streets of Berlin one final time; the last time he was to leave the Fuhrer Bunker.
Soviet forces had devastated the German Army’s defense in the East, and by early March of 1945, Hitler and his staff were isolated in his bunker in Berlin. As his empire collapsed, Hitler was not done taking lives as he and his generals recruited “Volkssturm,” battalions of young students and civilians armed to fend off the Russians. Armed with old weapons, poor supplies and scarcely a helmet, the Volkssturm fought until the bloody end.
Hitler must have known it was futile, but nevertheless on April 20 he went out of his bunker and awarded Iron Crosses to several children who fought for the survival of the Reich. Unceasingly bringing death to his people, Hitler finally took his own life 10 days later on April 30, 1945.
And that’s all for This Week in History! Like always, there is so much history I could not fit in, so I highly recommend you check out Mark Felton’s excellent YouTube channel and his video on Hitler’s last days, or the life of Edith Cavell covered by The Great War channel. See you next week!