By the summer of 1943, Operation Reinhardt, Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” to his identity politics’ first victim, the Jews, was almost complete: nearly two million Jews in the General Government (German occupied Poland) were killed in industrialized ethnic extermination. National Socialist bureaucrats and technocrats led by SS wunderkind Reinhard Heydrich devised a plan in 1942 to exterminate “non-desirables” as efficiently as possible in order purify Germany of the so-called “untermensch” or “sub-humans”. To this end the National Socialists established three major death camps and an entire support system to liquidate the Third Reich’s Jews and political opponents, Sobibor being the least well known of its murderous sisters: Belzec and Treblinka. By mid-1943, the Jews of Germany and the General Government had almost completely disappeared. Victims had to be sought from elsewhere. In order to maintain the “quotas”, trains full of Jews from as far away as the Netherlands were packed off to the extermination camp at Sobibor in eastern Poland. The National Socialists were running out of Jews to murder in their occupied territories.
The trains from the west arrived with less frequency, and the Jews of the Sonderkommando knew their turn was soon. The Sonderkommando was composed of healthy and skilled Jews taken from the masses of those on the way to “the showers” who could assist the Nazis in running the camp under pain of death. They were sorters of the deads’ possessions, the burners and buriers of their bodies, and the labouers who performed the menial tasks of the camp under the watchful eyes of its Ukrainian guards. (As for the Ukrainians, they had to make a choice between the socialism of Stalin, which starved 8 million Ukrainians to death in 1937/38 or the socialism of Hitler which would murder just as many later in 1941-43.) With no choice but to comply or be killed, the Jews of the Sonderkommando survived to the best of their ability. In the spring of 1943, a “kapo” (a forced Jewish guard that the Nazi’s used to divide the Jewish community) arrived at Sobibor on a train from the recently closed death camp at Belzec, and confirmed what the Sonderkommando at Sobibor suspected: once the camp was closed the Jews who were forced to assist in its administration were killed.
On 14 October, 1943, the Sonderkommando of the Sobibor Death Camp rose up against their jailers and torturers. A Soviet-Jewish Red Army prisoner of war who survived the extermination at Minsk, Lieutenant Alexander Perchesky led the attempted mass escape at Sobibor. The original plan was to silently kill the 16 National Socialist SS overseers, and while the Ukrainian guards were confused, walk out the main gate with all 600 Sonderkommando, and escape into the forest. What actually happened will never be known. Perchesky and his Jewish confederates killed eleven SS administrators and seized the camps armory, but they could not execute their plan. The SS were mostly killed silently but eventually the guards were alerted, and many of the Sonderkommando were killed in the ensuing confusion. Most Jews in the camp were unaware of the plan. Nonetheless, their situation was dire enough that they participated at the moment of decision. 300 of the 600 remaining Jews of Sobibor escaped into the nearby forest, where many joined Polish and Jewish resistance groups. Unfortunately, most, but not all, escapees were subsequently recaptured and shot by the SS and their lackeys.
The Escape from Sobibor was such a stain on National Socialist honor that the chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed. He wanted the camp as anonymous as the 250,000 victims were that passed through. The buildings of Sobibor were bulldozed and pine trees planted over top. The gas chambers were torn down and a road built on their foundations. By 1944, there was no sign the Death Camp of Sobibor existed.
Like every atrocity, victims survive. Some went on and fought in Polish and Soviet partisan units, some just fled. The survivors emigrated to America, Brazil, and Israel, and were instrumental bringing their German National Socialists and their Ukrainian enablers to trial. The Uprising at Sobibor was the greatest mass escape in the history of the Holocaust.
When the Germans conquered Poland in late 1939, they rounded up everyone “with Jewish blood” and forcibly moved them into walled off ghettos. In the Polish city of Warsaw, 400,000 Polish Jews and other National Socialist undesirables were packed into an area of only 1.3 square miles. In the autumn of 1942, Nazi Germany began “liquidating” these ghettos by rounding up a set daily quota of the inhabitants and sending them to the gas chambers. In Warsaw that number was as high as 5,000 a day to the Death Camp at Treblinka.
At first, the Jewish leaders thought that those collected were just being transferred to labor camps and didn’t fight the arbitrary detentions. But eventually the truth became known. By 1943, less than 100,000 Jews were left in the Warsaw Ghetto, many of whom were in hiding. In response, Jewish resistance groups formed with support from the Polish Home Army and eventually fought back against the quota detentions in January. The surprisingly fierce and widespread resistance caused the Germans to stop the deportations until sufficient strength could be gathered to crush them.
On 19 April 1943, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto resumed. 2,000 SS troops backed up by tanks and 5,000 policemen arrogantly marched into the seemingly quiet and deserted streets. On a pre-arranged signal Jewish ambushes were sprung on the unsuspecting Nazi’s. The initial German assaults were repulsed by the fierce Jewish defenders. They were armed with Molotov cocktails, homemade grenades, small arms, and the fanatical resistance of people who have nothing left to lose. Defeat meant immediate execution, and for their families, hiding in homemade bunkers around the Ghetto, a cattle car to Treblinka. That afternoon, the resistance raised the red and white Polish flag and the blue and white flag of the ZZW (the largest Jewish group in the Ghetto) over Muranowski Square. Embolden by this show of defiance, other Polish resistance groups came to the aid of the Jews by attacking the Germans in other areas of Warsaw and smuggling supplies into the Ghetto. However, the approximately 1,000 Jewish defenders were under no illusions that they could save themselves. Their only hope was that the news of the uprising would make its way to the outside world, and expose the National Socialists for what they really were.
The Germans continued to attack and the battle in Warsaw raged for the next 11 days. The uprising was a great embarrassment to National Socialism: for the Germans to be stymied by “untermensch” or “sub-humans” was contrary to all of their racial propaganda. Hitler authorized the subjugation of the Ghetto his highest priority and flooded Warsaw with additional troops and supplies. With practically unlimited support, it was only a matter of time before the Germans overcame the resistance. Nevertheless, the Germans had to resort to using poison gas and burning down the entire Ghetto before they declared victory in May. The German commander, Juergen Stroop, marked the end of the operation with a small twisted ceremony in which the highlight was his personal pressing the detonator button demolishing the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.
Stroop reported killing “about 13,000” and capturing 56,065 Jews at the end of the operation to “cleanse” the Ghetto. 7,000 were immediately sent to Treblinka and gassed over the next few days. Because Treblinka could not “process” so many prisoners so fast, the remainder were sent to other camps in the General Government (Germany’s official name for Poland, since the word “Poland” was outlawed.), primarily the Majdanek Concentration/Death Camp inside the city of Lublin. Those not immediately gassed were eventually murdered when the Nazi’s liquidated that camp in November.
The outside world ignored the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, despite a frustrated Jewish member of the Polish Government-in-Exile committing suicide over the British unwillingness to do anything concrete to help the defenders. However, the Uprising was a great inspiration to the Polish Home Army and led directly to the general Warsaw Uprising a year later. The Polish Home Army managed to rescue about 400 Jews from the Ghetto, and several hundred more continued to hide in the rubble, sometimes for weeks, until they could escape.
After the war the survivors would form the Lohamei HaGeta’ot kibbutz (literally “Ghetto Fighters” in Yiddish) in northern Israel.
The Japanese offensive in early 1942 against the Allies in Burma wasn’t stopped by any successful defensive action on the part of Allied troops, but by the monsoon and lack of supplies. The British just retreated to India faster than the Japanese could advance. Furthermore, the British retreated towards their supply depots while every step forward took the Japanese further from theirs. Moreover, Japanese supplies couldn’t come directly from their bases in Vietnam due to the harsh terrain of the northern Thai Highlands and the Shan Hills of eastern Burma, both “foothills” of the Himalayas. They had to be shipped down around the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, and then back up to Rangoon, where the transports made excellent targets in the confined waters for Allied submarines. In order to mitigate this extended logistics chain, the Japanese decided to build a railroad through the forbidding jungle and over the steep mountains from Bangkok to Thambyuzayat, Burma, where they could be easily ferried to Rangoon. This would cut weeks off the supply timeline, and save countless ships.
To construct the 250 mile long railroad, the Japanese conscripted 270,000 local civilians, many of whom supported the Japanese (Thailand was a Japanese ally in World War Two), and 61,000 British, Australian, Dutch, and American prisoners of war taken during the successful Japanese campaigns in Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies. The 330,000 workers were overseen by just 14,000 Japanese. Their treatment ranged from lethal neglect to sadistic torture and mass murder. The terrain of western Thailand and southeastern Burma is some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet, and consists of thick jungle, steep gorges, and fast flowing rivers.
The most famous portion of the Burma Railroad was the Bridge over the Mae Klong River, a tributary of the Khwae Noi River whose valley the Burma railroad followed. On 4 October, 1942, the first Australian troops arrived at a prisoner of war camp at Tamarkan, Thailand. They would start work two days later on two bridges over Mae Klong River. Bridge 277 was a temporary wooden trestle bridge. It would be used until Bridge 278 was completed further upstream. Bridge 278 was a permanent metal and concrete structure assembled from a Dutch bridge dismantled in Java and transported to Thailand. The workers were given just 250 grams of rice a day to eat, in addition to what they could scrounge from the jungle. On 6 October, the Australians and British at Tamarkan numbered 1700.
Bridge 277 was completed in February, 1943, and the Bridge 278 in October 1943, about the same time the Burma Railroad itself was completed. The Burma Railroad was completed ahead of schedule but nearly 66,000 workers died as a result, including 1300 during the construction of the Mae Klong bridges. Just 400 remained to repair the damage caused by Allied air attacks later in the war.
The plight of the prisoners at Tamarkan and the construction of Bridge 277 was immortalized in the 1952 of the fictional book “Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai” (The Bridge on the River Kwai) by Pierre Boulle, and the 1957 David Lean movie of the same name, starring Jack Hawkins, Alec Guiness (Obi Wan Kenobi), William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa. “Kwai” (Burmese for water buffalo) is an English bastardization of “Khwae” (Burmese for tributary). Surviving British and Australian workers despised the movie for the “wonderful” treatment of the Allied characters by the Japanese, and Japanese veterans called the movie racist because they were depicted as unable to complete the bridge on time without the willing help of the Allied prisoners.
In 1970, the Thai government renamed to the Mae Klong River to Khwae Yai (“Big Tributary) due to tourists wanting to see “The Bridge over the River Kwai”.
Despite local successes such as the Battle of Messines and the Canadian victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917 was a disastrous year for the Allies. The Provisional Russian govt was in chaos, and the Russian Army was worse: most units were in the hands of all-powerful “soldiers’ committees” who refused to fight. In July, Russia’s last gasp in the First World War, the Kerensky Offensive, collapsed and the Russians retreated so far and fast that the Germans and Austrians couldn’t logistically advance any further to catch them. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive directly led to widespread mutinies among French units, with entire divisions refusing to attack. Furthermore, although Unrestricted Submarine Warfare brought America into the war, it had also brought Britain to its knees. In June, Prime Minister Lloyd George informed Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, that unless something changed, Great Britain could not continue the war in 1918.
Haig wanted to conduct further offensives in Flanders in 1916 and early 1917, but the battles of the Somme and Arras (in support of Verdun and the French Nivelle Offensive respectively) always took priority. However, in June of 1917, he could do so. First, he could ostensibly claim clearing the U-boat pens in the Belgian ports on the North Sea as an objective. Also, he could capitalize on the capture of the Messines Ridge the previous month. There would be no time to dig further mines, but Haig felt that the German Army was at the breaking point, and one more big push was all that was needed. Haig could not have been more wrong. German morale was as high in July of 1917 as it ever would be in the First World War. The Germans broke the Russian Army, or at least they thought so. (Bolshevism did actually and the Germans capitalized on it, but in the end it doesn’t matter because that’s what they believed.) They thrashed the Romanians, were on their way south to do the same to the Italians, and had given better than they got despite everything the British and French had thrown at them. They suffered massive casualties, but the Allies more so. America’s entry in the war was problematic, but even the densest and most myopic feldwebel in the German Army understood that the victorious troops on the Eastern Front would reinforce the Western Front and defeat the British and French before America doughboys could arrive in force.
Haig’s thoughts on the state of the German Army were rooted in the belief that he won every battle so far in the war. He did this by “moving the goal posts” during each battle, i.e. changing the conditions by which he could claim victory. Each offensive’s final objective started out as a breakthrough and destruction of the German Army. When that didn’t happen, he narrowed the focus for victory, almost always to a tactically important piece of terrain, that only had strategic significance because he said so. Then he threw more and more troops into battle to achieve what eventually amounted to a face saving “victory” for the newspapers. He would continue an offensive despite the casualties until he felt he could claim victory. For example, his latest claim to a meaningless victory was the Nivelle Offensive, where he claimed victory after the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge despite the lack of a breakthrough and complete and bloody failure everywhere else. In essence he sacrificed long term success for short term headlines, even though the millions of British and Commonwealth casualties and near static trench lines since 1914 would have had anyone else fired long before.
At the end of July 1917, Haig was going to do it again.
On 31 July 1917, twelve British, Australian, Kiwi, and French divisions, nearly 150,000 men, went over the top in the already tortured, blood soaked, and pock marked moonscape of Flanders around the Ypres (pronounced “E-priss”) Salient.
The hard learned reforms by the Canadians proven on Vimy Ridge had not reached the rest of the force, and the Third bloody Battle of Ypres began after a massive week long area artillery barrage. Surprise was lost, and the barrage just enlightened the prepared Germans as to where to place their reserves. The Allies made almost no gains (they captured only a small portion of the hard fought Plickim Ridge) and incurred massive casualties on themselves.
True to form, Haig reinforced the offensive and ordered it continued. But even Haig had no control over the weather, and unseasonal rains flooded the area. The heaviest rainfall in August in Flanders in 30 years turned the battlefield into a swampy morass. That the bombardment ruined what was left of the any drainage systems didn’t help. Tanks were stuck, supply lories immobilized, and men lived and fought in a sea of mud, which was a ghastly stew of earth, the abandoned or discarded accoutrements of war, and the remains of tens of thousands unburied casualties from the previous two Battles of Ypres. Nonetheless, Haig continued the battle into August and September to little gain.
In mid-September, Haig replaced the local British commander, and the new commander, Gen. Herbert Plumer, understood his superior. He pushed for small, local, intermittent gains; just enough for Haig to signify progress. But by October, Plumer’s gains were not enough and his men were worn out. Plumer stalled in the face of Passchendaele (pronounced “Pa-shin-dolly”) Ridge.
Haig brought up his only troops proven to be able crack a strong German position: the Canadian Corps. LieutGen Currie, the brains and drive behind the success at Vimy Ridge and now the commander of the Canadian Corps, demanded time to prepare the assault. With Plumer’s backing, (Plumer was one of only a few British commanders Currie trusted), Haig relented.
Currie didn’t have the time to dig saps and assault bunkers, but he was permitted to employ his other reforms, namely the planning and preparation down to platoon level and the creeping barrage. With Plumer’s encouragement, Currie began a series of “bite and hold” operations that slowly but consitently devoured Passchendaele Ridge.
However, time was working against Currie and the Canadians. Haig was forced to send badly needed men and material to Italy after the Italian Army’s collapse at the Battle of Camporetto, aka the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. Moreover, German troops were released from the Eastern Front after the October Bolshevik Revolution and they went directly into the line opposite the Canadians. The German counterattacks grew more fierce and several employed mustard gas, whose burns were much more efficient than the chlorine gas used previously. Still, the Canadians held their hard won gains.
But Haig needed a victory before the onset of winter and ordered the Canadians to attack and seize the ridge. There was no time for any further extensive life saving preparations. The Canadian Corps went over the top and into the teeth of the German machine guns and artillery fire. After three bloody direct assaults, British and Canadian troops seized Passchendaele Ridge on 6 November 1917. Haig ended the battle shortly thereafter, and claimed victory.
The Allies gained just nine miles at the cost of 450,000 casualties.
The Canadians, whose soldiers’ exploits months before brought together a country, suffered their first national disaster. The cream of the Canadian youth lay dead on “The Passchendaele”. Because of the their sacrifice and face saving limited victory, the Third Battle of Ypres is more commonly known today as The Battle of Passchendaele, despite Passchendaele Ridge comprising only a small part of the fighting from July to November. But all of the propaganda couldn’t cover up the loss of so many for so little gain. The Battle of Passchendaele was the last and most iconic of the great attrition battles of the First World War. Even more than the Somme, “Passchendaele” became a watchword for a great expenditure of men and material in the name of pride.
For the next thirty years “Passchendaele” would be invoked to stop the senseless slaughter of an entire generation of men in a vain attempt at victory.
On 12 Jun 1942, a young Dutch girl received a red and white plaid covered diary from her father for her 13th birthday.
She would start recording her thoughts in it a week or so later. Her father picked the diary out based on her pointing it out on one of their walks along the streets of Amsterdam. That walk would be one of their last.
Otto Frank and his daughter, Anne, were Jews. In July 1942, the Netherlands’ German National Socialist conquerers and their Dutch collaborators would place great restrictions on them in preparation for the implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish population in the country.
The plight of the Dutch Jews was a difficult one. Unlike other countries, the huge population density of the Netherlands meant there were few places to escape to. There were no vast forests for refuge as there were in Eastern Europe. Also, the advanced Dutch civil bureaucracy had records on the entire Jewish population of the country and the Germans quickly identified and located them all. Moreover, although the Dutch people were sympathetic to the Jewish plight under Nazi domination, the Dutch government was unwilling to publicly intervene on their behalf, even passively. Unlike in other countries, the Dutch administration did the bidding of their National Socialist overseers with cold efficiency. In exchange for continued employment, pay, and benefits, the supposedly apolitical Dutch civil service ushered the Jewish population to its death. Few Dutch Jews were detained by Germans: they were identified by Dutch census data, rounded up by Dutch police who went directly to their homes based on Dutch tax files, held in Dutch camps run by the Dutch civil servants and held there by Dutch guards, and sent East to the death camps on Dutch trains run by Dutch engineers and Dutch rail crews.
Anne Frank and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis and their own countrymen. They hid in a small three story room concealed behind a bookshelf in her father’s workplace. They were taken care of by several of her father’s sympathetic coworkers who visited once a day to deliver food and stay for a visit.
Anne chronicled each day in the cramped space in her diary. Her diary was her escape. She wrote of the dreams of a teenage girl, the boredom and difficulties of their existence, her love for and exasperation with her family, the terror of the listening to German soldiers and Dutch police searching the premises, her budding romance with the son of another family in hiding, and most importantly the hopes of survival in one of the darkest periods in human history.
The Frank family survived in hiding for more than two years, almost each day chronicled by Anne. They were arrested by the Gestapo after being betrayed in August 1944, by whom is unknown and subject to much debate. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where she was separated from her father, but was not sent to the gas chamber with the rest of the children because she just turned 15 two months before. Nevertheless, Anne and her sister were transferred to Bergen Belsen Concentration camp to be worked to death. They both died of typhus in March 1945.
Anne Frank’s diary was saved by one of her family’s helpers after their arrest and recovered by her father who survived after being separated from his family. Anne Frank’s unedited record of her family’s existence behind the bookcase was published in 1947 as “The Diary of a Young Girl”.
The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most poignant documents of the Holocaust, and Required Reading for Humanity.
As Israeli commandos stormed the Sabena Flight 571 hijacked by members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September at Lod Airport (modern Ben Gurion International Airport), their brother organization, the hard left Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was planning another attack on Israel, this time directly at the airport itself. The operation was financed with the ransom money the PFLP received from the West German government after successfully hijacking a Lufthansa airplane in February.
After the Sabena hijacking, security to get into Lod Airport was tight. To bypass this, the PFLP planned to fly in from a different airport and attack the terminal from within. Additionally, the PFLP recruited three members of the Japanese Red Army to carry out the attack. They were training with the PFLP at one of their camps in Syria. Their ethnicity was thought to make it easier for them bypass security and avoid suspicion.
On 30 May 1972, the three Japanese men in business suits arrived at Tel Aviv’s Lod airport on an Air France flight from Paris. They strolled over to the baggage claim with the rest of the passengers. Once they claimed their bags, specifically their violin cases, they pulled out sawed off Czech assault rifles, and opened fire on the people in the terminal. One ran out on the tarmac and opened fire on the people descending the stairway off of an El Al flight that had just landed. 26 were killed, including the head of the Israeli National Academy of Science, and 17 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico. 80 more people of many nationalities were wounded.
One gunman ran out of ammunition and was killed by his comrades. A second ran out of ammunition and killed himself with a grenade. The third was captured when he tried to escape. Kozo Okamoto was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He was eventually exchanged with the PLO in 1983. He currently lives in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
On 8 May 1972, a Sabena Boeing 707, Flight 571, took off from Vienna for Tel Aviv. 45 minutes into the flight, two men and two women of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September hijacked the plane. Despite having the cabin stormed mere seconds before, the pilot made a calm announcement to the passengers and crew that “We have friends on board”.
Capt. Reginald Levy was a former member of the RAF and a veteran of both the Second World War and the Berlin Airlift. 8 May was his 50th birthday. By all accounts, he’s also the guy everyone wanted to have a pint with, and the only reason the terrorists didn’t kill any passengers. When the flight landed at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport (Ben Gurion International Airport), the terrorists made demands for the release of 315 convicted Palestinians held in Israeli jails. But thanks to coded messages sent by Levy to the air traffic controllers, the Israelis were already prepared.
They chartered a flight to Egypt filled with 315 fake prisoners that was to take off in the morning. That night, agents snuck onto the tarmac and cut the hydraulic lines in the landing gear and slashed the tires, preventing the plane from departing. The terrorists were furious, but Levy calmed them down by talking to them to keep them occupied, especially after they separated the Jewish passengers and sent them to the back of the plane. He, “spoke of everything, from navigation to sex”. They trusted him enough that they sent him off the plane with some explosives, to show the Israelis they meant business. Of course, Levy gave all the information that the Sayeret Matkal, the elite Israeli Special Forces, needed to storm the plane. Levy returned with photographs of the bogus prisoner transfer, and assurance that mechanics would fix the plane.
At 4 pm, 16 “mechanics” drove up to the plane dressed in all white coveralls. The disguised commandos breached the plane in five places: the main door, the rear door, the emergency door, and over the two wings of the plane. They killed the male terrorists, and captured the two female terrorists. Two passengers were wounded, one of whom died of her wounds, and one commando was wounded.
Operation Isotope was the first successful operation to seize a hijacked plane. There would be many more. Two of the commandos were future Prime Ministers of Israel, Ehud Barak, and the current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the only commando wounded in the operation.
Reinhard Heydrich was one of Hitler’s favored young Nazi leaders. In 1942 at the age of 38 he was a picture perfect National Socialist: tall, blond, courageous, arrogant, intelligent, and utterly ruthless. In his youth, he was an uncompromising street thug, and quickly rose through the Nazi ranks. He betrayed the SA during the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934 when he saw that Himmler and the SS were Hitler’s personal favorites. He personally sent thousands of Jews to concentration camps four years later during Kristallnacht, or “The Night of the Broken Glass”. He masterminded the fake border attack that gave Germany the pretext to invade Poland in 1939 when he was head of the combined SD (Nazi Party Intelligence), Gestapo, and Criminal Police. In 1940, he ordered the SS and occupying troops to collect Jews and other “undesirables” into ghettos in the newly occupied territories to make their eventual extermination easier. Soon after, he formed the first Einsatzgruppen to follow behind the the German invasion of the Soviet Union and massacre “Enemies of the Reich”. He chaired the infamous Wannsee Conference where the logistical and practical details of the Final Solution were worked out in cold detail. In late 1941, Heydrich was made the military governor of Bohemia and Moravia (roughly the modern Czech Republic). Heydrich ensured the brutal and iron grip of National Socialism was absolute.
Details of Heydrich’s inhuman rule made it to London, and the Czech government-in-exile decided to act. They approved Operation Anthropoid, the mission to assassinate Heydrich. In cooperation with Britain’s Special Operation Executive (SOE), the forerunner of MI6 and the organization responsible for wartime espionage and sabotage on the Continent, six Czech agents were parachuted into the Bohemia from an RAF bomber. Over several months, they slowly made their way into Prague. Once there, they were surprised to find that Heydrich’s control of the city was so complete, that he arrogantly rode in the back of an open topped black Mercedes marked by several small Nazi flags from his opulent home to work every morning along the same route.
On the morning of 27 May, 1942, two of the agents ambushed Heydrich at a sharp turn which forced his driver to slow down. One of the agent’s weapons malfunctioned, and a shootout on the street ensued. Heydrich was eventually fatally wounded by a grenade thrown by the other agent. He was rushed to the hospital but would die several days later.
Even before his death, the reprisals began. 21,000 police and soldiers descended upon Prague to search for the agents. A cordon was laid around the city permitting no one to leave. In the next few days, 3000 were arrested and 1357 were summarily executed. 637 more would die under Gestapo interrogation in the coming weeks. When Heydrich died on 2 June, Hitler personally ordered the extermination of an entire Czech village in response. SD agents and German soldiers surrounded the nearby town of Lidice, shot all 172 men and boys over 10, and sent the women and children to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Lidice was then razed to the ground.
Despite the reprisals, it took the Germans three weeks to find the actual killers. They were hiding in the basement of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the city. On 18 June, the SS surrounded the church and attempted to storm it. But the six agents fought for over two hours before they ran out of ammunition. In the exchange, the SS took almost forty casualties. When the SS finally overran the crypt, they found nothing but corpses: the Czech agents used the last remaining bullets to kill themselves rather than be captured.
The Japanese were overwhelmed by the number of Filipino and American prisoners of war after their surrender the day before. LtGen Homma, the Japanese commander of the 14th Army decreed that the prisoners were to be treated humanely. But the Japanese code of Bushido, perverted by militarism and nearly unrecognizable from the code practiced by the samurai, said that warriors should fight to the death, and that prisoners were not worthy of honorable treatment. Influential members of Homma’s subordinates and staff ignored him. One staff planner, Masanobu Tsuji, was sent by the Imperial Army General Staff to spy on Homma, directly issued orders for the massacres in Homma’s name. The Japanese guards had nothing but disdain for the 80,000 in their care. The vast majority of the prisoners went through Hell for at least the next five days; for some the March took as long twelve days.
On 9 and 10 April, the prisoners were massed at Mariveles and Bagac on Bataan where they were searched. Any prisoner that had any Japanese souvenirs or money were beheaded or shot. Additionally, the Japanese singled out any Filipino leaders and executed 400 before dumping their bodies in the Pantingan River. Once they were searched, the exhausted and starving prisoners began a sixty mile march to the San Fernando railhead where they would be put on trains for their trip to a prison camp in Capas in western Luzon.
Any wounded prisoners who were unable to march were killed. In 110 degree heat, with no food and little water, they trudged on, with the Japanese guards using any excuse to beat or kill them. Any prisoner that fell out was killed. Any prisoner that couldn’t keep up was killed. If not by the guards, then by drivers of Japanese convoys who gleefully drove over the exhausted and/or sick prisoners, or by Japanese “clean-up crews” who followed behind. There would be an orange flash, and the simultaneous sound of a gunshot and the thud of the bullet hitting the body.
The prisoners were forced to sit in the sun when they stopped. Though they passed many places where they could get something to drink (the American and Filipinos had been surviving on the local and plentiful “artesian wells” throughout the Bataan campaign, some were just a few feet off the road), the Japanese refused to them water. Any prisoner that went to a well was shot. Eventually, the heat drove some men mad, and they ran for the wells only to be killed before they got there. They were forced to drink out of the muddy ditches in passing; any who got sick were killed. The prisoners were playthings for the Japanese. One survivor described a Japanese officer who swung a baseball bat at the prisoners using a turn at a crossroads as home plate. Any women on the march were brutally raped, tortured, and killed. If there were too many corpses on the road, the Japanese had the prisoners push them into the ditches on the side of the road and bury them. More than a few prisoners were buried alive just because they couldn’t move.
At San Fernando, they were stuffed into cattle cars so tight they couldn’t sit, or even fall over when the passed out from the stifling heat. The crowded conditions of the march was conducive to the spread of several diseases, dysentery being the worst. As on the march, the prisoners defecated where they stood. Once they reached Capos, they were forced to march nine more miles to Camp O’Donnell, a former US Army and Philippine Army post, converted into a POW Camp. Their ordeal wasn’t over though, disease continued to ravage the survivors, and several hundred more died every day for weeks.
80,000 American and Filipinos started on the Bataan Death March, but only 54,000 arrived.