The Second World War was the largest armed conflict in modern history, with more than 100 million military personnel being mobilized. During the war, the world’s great powers organized themselves into two opposing military alliances, the Allies (read more about Allies in WWII) and the Axis (read more about Allies in WWII). The Axis powers included Germany, Japan, and Italy, while the rest of the world’s leaders joined the Allies. Many important military generals and soldiers emerged during the Second World War. However, this article will be examining ten unique people involved with the war, people who made an impact and provide an interesting story.
Homeland: Soviet Union
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was born in Bila Tserkva on July 12, 1916. She moved to Kiev with her family at the age of fourteen, where she joined a shooting club and developed into a sharpshooter. In June 1941, the 24-year old Pavlichenko was in her fourth year of studying history at the Kiev University when Nazi Germany began its invasion of the Soviet Union. She was among the first to volunteer at the recruiting office, where she requested to join the infantry. Pavlichenko was assigned to the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division. She became one of 2,000 female snipers in the Red Army, of whom about 500 ultimately survived the war. Pvt. Pavlichenko fought for about two and a half months near Odessa, where she recorded 187 kills. When the Germans gained control of Odessa, her unit was sent to Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, where she fought for more than 8 months.
In May 1942, Lieutenant Pavlichenko was cited by the Southern Army Council for killing 257 German soldiers. Her total confirmed kills during the Second World War was 309 people, including 36 enemy snipers. Pavlichenko is highly regarded as the most deadly female sniper in the history of warfare. In June 1942, she was wounded by mortar fire, and because of her growing status, was pulled from combat less than a month after recovering from her injuries. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was sent to Canada and the United States for a publicity visit and became the first Soviet citizen to be received by a U.S. President when Franklin Roosevelt welcomed her to the White House. After the war, she finished her education at Kiev University and began a career as a historian. Lyudmila Pavlichenko died on October 10, 1974, at the age 58. She is buried at the Novodevichye Cemetery in Moscow. In 1976, Pavlichenko was commemorated on a second Soviet postage stamp, and a Ukrainian cargo ship was named in her honor.
Juan Pujol was born in Barcelona, Spain. He detested the expansion of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, after his experiences with fascism and communism during the Spanish Civil War. Pujol decided around 1940 that he wanted to make a contribution to the war by helping Britain. He initially approached British commanders, but they showed no interest in employing him as a spy. Pujol then established himself as a German agent, working out of Lisbon. Eventually, he made contact with British intelligence, and again offered his services. This time he was accepted and was relocated to Britain in the spring of 1942, and operated as a double agent under the aegis of the XX Committee. His spymaster was Cyril Bertram Mills, whom he knew only as Mr. Grey. The information supplied by Pujol to the Germans was orchestrated by Mills and included a certain amount of genuine events, in order to make the reports appear more convincing.
Juan Pujol became known by the British codename Garbo and the German codename Arabel. He was one of the most important double agents of the Second World War and played a key role in the success of Operation Fortitude, the deception operation intended to mislead the Germans about the timing and location of the invasion of Normandy towards the end of the war. The false information Pujol supplied helped persuade German intelligence that the main attack would come in the Pas de Calais, resulting in a decision to withhold troops from the area around the Normandy beachhead. The Germans paid Garbo (or Arabel, as they called him) a large amount of money to support his network of agents, which at one point totaled 27 fabricated characters.
For his efforts in aid of the Allies, Garbo received an MBE from the British government. In an ironic twist of fate, following the war Pujol encountered one of his German handlers who honored him with the Iron Cross for his contribution to the German war effort. The Nazis never realized that Garbo had fooled them, and thus he earned the distinction of being one of the few people during World War II to receive decorations from both sides. After the war Pujol faked his death and moved to Venezuela, where he lived in anonymity. He was later reported to be living in Choroní, a town inside Henri Pittier National Park by the Caribbean Sea. Juan Pujol died in 1988 and is buried in the Choroní town cemetery.
Hiroo Onoda was a trained Japanese intelligence officer who attended the Nakano School. On December 26, 1944, he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines, and was ordered to do all that he could to hamper enemy attacks on the island, including destroying the airstrip and the pier at the harbor if necessary. He was ordered to not surrender or take his own life. However, on February 28, 1945, U.S. and Philippine military forces captured the island. Within a short time of the landing, all but Onoda and three other soldiers had either died or surrendered. Hiroo Onoda ordered the men to take to the hills, while he continued his military campaign. In October of 1945 the Japanese men saw their first leaflet which claimed that the war was over. The paper read “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains.” However, the soldiers mistrusted the announcement and concluded that the leaflet was Allied propaganda.
Towards the end of 1945 leaflets were dropped by air with a surrender order printed on them from General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army. Onoda once again dismissed the letters. In 1952, family pictures were dropped from an aircraft urging the men to surrender, but the three soldiers concluded that this was a hoax. The men continued their guerilla warfare for decades after the war. In 1972, one of the Japanese soldiers was shot and killed when he was caught burning rice that had been collected by farmers. At that time, Onoda was left alone in the mountains. However, in February of 1974 he met a Japanese college dropout, Norio Suzuki, who was traveling the world. The men became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter, and the Japanese government located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller. He flew to Lubang and on March 9, 1974 informed Onoda of the defeat of Japan in WWII and ordered him to lay down his arms.
Lieutenant Onoda emerged from the jungle 29 years after the end of World War II, and accepted the commanding officer’s order of surrender. He was still wearing his uniform and had his sword. He also still had his Arisaka Type 99 rifle in operating condition, 500 rounds of ammunition and several hand grenades. This makes him the penultimate fighting Japanese soldier of World War II, before Teruo Nakamura. Onoda killed some thirty Philippine inhabitants of the island and engaged in several shootouts with the police over the years, but the circumstances of the events were taken into consideration, and he received a pardon from President Ferdinand Marcos. Upon return to Japan, Onoda became a celebrity and was so popular that some Japanese urged him to run for the Diet. Hiroo Onoda currently spends three months of the year in Brazil and is politically active.
Fighting Jack Churchill was born in Hong Kong to English parents and was educated at King William’s College on the Isle of Man. He graduated from Sandhurst in 1926 and served in Burma with the Manchester Regiment. During the middle of the 1930s Jack used his archery and bagpipe talents to play a small film role in the movie The Thief of Bagdad. After Poland was invaded in 1939, Churchill quickly volunteered for the Commandos. In May 1940, Churchill and his unit, the Manchester Regiment, ambushed a German patrol near L’Epinette, France. Churchill gave the signal to attack by cutting down the enemy Sergeant Feldwebel with his barbed arrows, becoming the only known British soldier to have killed an enemy with a longbow in the course of the Second World War. Mad Jack soon became known as the English soldier who fought battles armed with a bow, arrows and a claymore (sword).
Churchill was second in command during a raid on the German garrison at Vågsøy, Norway on December 27, 1941. “As the ramps fell on the first landing craft, Churchill leapt forward from his position and played The March of the Cameron Men on bagpipes. He then threw a grenade, and began running towards the bay.” For his actions at Dunkirk and Vaasgo, Churchill received the Military Cross and Bar. In 1944, his unit was ordered to raid the German held island of Brač. During the attack, a mortar shell killed or wounded a large portion of his men. Churchill was knocked unconscious by the grenades and was captured. He was flown to Berlin for interrogation and then transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In late April 1945 Churchill was transferred to Tyrol together with about 140 other prominent concentration camp inmates.
After the German Army was defeated, the prisoners were left behind. Churchill walked 150 miles to Verona, Italy where he met an American armoured column. The Pacific War was still ongoing and Churchill wanted to fight, so he was sent to Burma, but by the time he reached India, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed, and the war abruptly ended. Churchill was said to be unhappy with the quick end of the war, saying “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years!” He is also quoted as saying “any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” In his later years, Jack Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became a passionate follower of the surfboard. Back in England, he was the first man to ride the River Severn’s five-foot tidal bore and ended up designing his own surfboard. Jack finally retired from the army in 1959, with two awards of the Distinguished Service Order. He died in Surrey in 1996.
Homeland: United States
Audie Murphy was born and raised in Texas. He was the sixth of twelve children, nine of whom survived until the age of eighteen. During the 1930s Murphy worked at a general store and filling station in Greenville, Texas. At age 18, he was accepted into the United States Army at Greenville. Murphy was turned down by the Marines and the paratroopers for being too short (5 feet 5.5 inches (166.4 cm). He was also turned down by the Navy for being slight of build. Ultimately, Audie Murphy was sent to Camp Wolters, Texas, for basic training. On July 10, 1943, Murphy embarked on his first combat mission, which was the invasion of Sicily. Shortly after arriving in Sicily, he was promoted to U.S. corporal after killing two Italian officers as they tried to escape on horseback. After Sicily was secured from Axis forces, the 3rd Division invaded the Italian mainland, landing near Salerno.
Murphy distinguished himself in action on many occasions while in Italy, fighting at the Volturno River, at the Anzio beachhead, and in the cold, wet Italian mountains. While in Italy, his skills as a combat infantryman earned him numerous promotions and decorations for valor. He then earned the Distinguished Service Cross for a seven week campaign of fighting in France. In France, Murphy’s division suffered 4,500 casualties. He also participated in the battle at Holtzwihr, where Audie was given the Medal of Honor for his decision making, leadership, and tactical maneuvers. In all he spent twenty-seven months in action during the European Theatre.
Audie Murphy became the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War, receiving a total of 33 US medals, plus five medals from France and one from Belgium. It has been said that he received every U.S. medal available at the time, five of them awarded more than once. After the war, Murphy became a celebrated movie star, appearing in 44 films. He also found some success as a country music composer. In 1971, Audie Murphy died at the age of 45 in a plane crash. He was interred with full military honors, and buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Murphy’s grave site is the second-most visited grave at Arlington, after that of President John F. Kennedy.
Rudolf Hess was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and was the eldest of four children. His family moved to Germany in 1908, where Rudolf was subsequently enrolled in boarding school. At the outbreak of World War I Hess enlisted in the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment and became an infantryman. After hearing Hitler speak in May 1920, Rudolf became completely devoted to him. He acted as Hitler’s private secretary and even transcribed and partially edited Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. Eventually, Hess became the third-most powerful man in Germany, behind Hitler and Hermann Göring. Soon after Hitler assumed dictatorial powers, Hess was named Deputy to the Fuhrer. Rudolf Hess was said to be privately distressed by the war with the United Kingdom because he, like almost all other Nazis, hoped that Britain would accept Germany as an ally. On May 10, 1941, Rudolf took off from Augsburg, Germany in a Messerschmitt Bf 110 aircraft. He parachuted over Renfrewshire and landed at Floors Farm near Eaglesham, breaking his ankle in the process.
In a newsreel clip, farmhand David McLean claims to have arrested him with a pitchfork. The goal of Hess’s mission was to bring a proposal of peace to Winston Churchill. It included declarations that would return all the western European countries conquered by Germany to their own national governments, but German police would remain in position. Germany would also pay back the cost of rebuilding these countries. In return, Britain would have to support the German war effort against the Soviet Union, which was in motion. Churchill initially sent Hess to the Tower of London, making him the last, in the long line of prominent political prisoners, to be held in the fortress. Hess was detained by the British for the remainder of the war, for most of the time at Maindiff Court Military Hospital in Abergavenny, Wales. Back in Germany, Hitler had all of Hess’s staff arrested. He also stripped him of all party and state offices, and privately ordered him to be shot on sight if he ever returned.
In 1946, Rudolf Hess was convicted of crimes against peace and conspiracy. He was found not guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity, and was given a life sentence. On August 17, 1987, he died while under Four Power imprisonment at Spandau Prison in West Berlin, at the age of 93. Rudolf Hess’ attempt to negotiate a peace treaty and subsequent lifelong imprisonment have given rise to many theories about his motivation for flying to Scotland, and conspiracy theories about why he remained imprisoned alone at Spandau, long after all other convicts had been released. Claims have been made that Hess felt his treaty would be considered. However, confusion remains because Hitler was unwilling to negotiate. In 2007, numerous British news services published descriptions of a conflict between Hess’s Western and Soviet captors over his treatment. Apparently, Soviet captors were steadfast in denying repeated requests for his release on humanitarian grounds.
No single person in World War II was more valuable than a talented nuclear physicist. Niels Bohr was a Danish physicist who made important contributions to understanding the atomic structure, for which he received the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1941, Germany occupied Denmark and Bohr was visited by Nazi soldiers, but he was not removed from his home. In 1943 Hitler ordered Bohr’s arrest. However, he was able to escape to Sweden, and then traveled to London. It has been said that Nazi soldiers were entering Niels Bohr’s front door as he left out the back window. He then joined the top-secret Manhattan Project, where he was known by the assumed name of Nicholas Baker. His role in the project was important and he acted as a knowledgeable consultant. However, he did not develop the project and was quoted as saying “That is why I went to America. They didn’t need my help in making the atom bomb.”
He realized that if captured by the Third Reich, he would have been forced into nuclear research. If Niels Bohr would have been arrested by the Germans, consequences would have been great. Bohr believed that atomic secrets should be shared by the international scientific community, and between Allied nations. During the 1930s he was the mentor of Werner Heisenberg, who was the physicist in charge of the Third Reich’s nuclear weapons program. This made Hitler extremely aware of Bohr’s ability. After the war Niels Bohr returned to Copenhagen and advocated for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. He died in 1962 at the age of 77. Niels Bohr was truly one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century.
Homeland: Soviet Union
Mikhail Devyatayev was born on July 8, 1917 in what is today Mordovia, Russia. In 1941, Devyataev entered World War II as a Soviet fighter pilot. He was highly skilled and fiercely defended his homeland against Nazi invasion. On September 23, 1941, Devyatayev was seriously injured in battle and didn’t resume his duties as a fighter pilot until May of 1944, after meeting with the famous Soviet ace Aleksandr Ivanovich Pokryshkin. On July 13, 1944 Devyataev’s plane was shot down near Lvov over German-held territory. He became a prisoner of war and was held in the Łódź concentration camp. He soon made an attempt to escape, but was caught and transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Devyataev realized that as a Soviet pilot he would receive extreme brutality, so he exchanged identities with a dead Soviet infantryman.
With his new identity, Devyataev was transferred to a camp in Usedom to be a part of a forced labor crew working for the German missile program on the island of Peenemünde. Security was harshly enforced on the Island, with many guards and dogs. However, Devyataev managed to convince the nine other prisoners in his work gang that they could escape and he could fly them to freedom. In the early morning of February 8, 1945, the men killed their German guards and managed to take over the camp commandant’s He 111 H22 bomber and fly it from the island. The Third Reich tried desperately to intercept the bomber and the Soviet air defenses labeled the event an attack and severely damaged the aircraft. Devyatayev managed to land safely in Soviet-held territory. The escapees provided important information about the German missile program, especially about the V-1 and V-2.
However, The Soviet police did not believe Devyataev’s story, arguing that it was impossible for prisoners to take over an airplane without cooperation from the Germans. Thus, he was suspected of being a German spy and sent to a penal military unit along with the other nine men. Devyataev spent the remainder of the war in prison. After the war ended, Devyatayev’s classification remained that of a “criminal,” so he was unable to find any work. Soviet authorities eventually cleared Devyataev in 1957, after the head of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolyov personally presented his case, arguing that the information provided by Devyataev and the other escapees had been critical for the Soviet space program. Since that time, Mikhail Devyatayev has become a hero in the Soviet Union, and has been the subject of multiple books and newspaper articles. He died in 2002 at the age of 85 and is buried in an old Arsk Field cemetery in Kazan, near a World War II Memorial.
Elwin F. Knowles was an American naval commander during World War II. He was the captain of the Liberty Ship SS John Harvey. During World War II, a Liberty Ship was a cargo ship built by the United States. In August of 1943, U.S. President Roosevelt approved a shipment of chemical munitions containing a mustard agent to the Mediterranean theater. Knowles and the SS John Harvey were given the task of transporting the chemical weapons. The John Harvey was scheduled to sail from Oran, Algeria, to the port of Bari in south Italy. The vessel was carrying 2,000 M47A1 World War I type mustard gas bombs, each of which held 60-70 lb of sulfur mustard.
The Bari port was routinely packed with ships during the war, and the John Harvey had to wait for several days to unload its cargo. Captain Knowles wanted to tell the British port commander about his deadly cargo and request that it was unloaded as soon as possible, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. On December 2, 1943, 88 German aircraft attacked Bari, killing over 1,000 people, and sinking 17 ships, including the SS John Harvey, which was destroyed in an enormous chemical explosion. The blast caused liquid sulfur mustard to spill into the water and a cloud of sulfur mustard vapor to blow over Bari. Elwin F. Knowles and his crew were instantly killed in the blast. Witnesses aboard USS Pumper, a tanker carrying aviation fuel, said their ship listed 35 degrees when the John Harvey exploded.
During the German attack, the Americans sustained the highest ship losses, losing the Liberty ships John Bascom, John L. Motley, Joseph Wheeler, Samuel J. Tilden and John Harvey. The British lost four ships, the Italians three, the Norwegians three, and the Poles two. In all, 628 military victims were hospitalized with mustard gas symptoms. By the end of the month, 83 of them had died. The number of civilian casualties is thought to have been greater, but could not be accurately determined since many people had fled the city. The sinking of the SS John Harvey caused the single release of chemical weapons in the course of the Second World War by the Allies. The Air Raid on Bari put the port out of commission until February 1944. The event was often reported as the “Little Pearl Harbor.”
Albert Pierrepoint was born in Clayton, which is located in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. As a child he was influenced by his father’s occupation, which was that of an executioner. In the autumn of 1931, Pierrepoint received his first interview at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison. After a week of training at London’s Pentonville Prison, Pierrepoint’s name was added to the List of Assistant Executioners in 1932. During this time in history, executioners and their assistants were required to be extremely discreet and to conduct themselves in a respectable manner, especially avoiding contact with the press. Pierrepoint’s first execution as chief executioner was that of gangster Tony Mancini at Pentonville Prison, London, on October 17, 1941. Following the end of World War II, the British occupation authorities conducted a series of trials for the German concentration camp staff.
During the initial Belsen Trial, eleven death sentences were handed down in November of 1945. It was agreed that Pierrepoint would conduct the executions and, on December 11 he flew to Germany for the first time to execute the eleven criminals. Over the next four years, Pierrepoint traveled to Germany and Austria 25 times to execute 200 war criminals. The press soon discovered his identity and he became something of a celebrity, hailed as a sort of war hero for delivering justice to the Nazis. Pierrepoint resigned in 1956 over a disagreement with the Home Office about his fees. It is believed that he executed at least 433 men and 17 women, including Irma Grese and 202 Nazi war criminals after World War II. Albert and Anne Pierrepoint retired to the seaside town of Southport, where he died on July 10, 1992 in a retirement home.