1942: Coastwatchers on Tarawa

1 comment October 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Japanese military occupying the atoll of Tarawa beheaded 17 New Zealand Coastwatchers, along with five civilians.

Tarawa, a fishhook-shaped atoll that belongs to the Republic of Kiribati, was one of many specks of South Pacific land to which Australia and New Zealand deployed World War II Coastwatchers.

These small teams of mixed civilian and service personnel, as well as locals, kept up 24-hour watch for Japanese naval movements.* The tips provided by coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands during the Guadalcanal campaign led Vice Admiral William Halsey to exclaim that “the coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”

But their lonely forward positions also potentially exposed coastwatchers to considerable danger.

Even as Guadalcanal was unfolding in August and September in 1942, Japan was fortifying the occupied Gilbert Islands** (present-day Kiribati) in the wake of the Makin Island raid. Seventeen coastwatchers in the Gilberts were swept up in the process, and transferred to Tarawa along with five civilians (three British, one Australian, and one New Zealander). There they were held at the atoll’s old lunatic asylum, on the islet of Betio.

On Oct. 15, Allied planes bombed Tarawa. One of the captives got loose and ran onto the beach, frantically trying to signal the bombers. Instead, the Japanese — who fretted prisoners on their occupied islands becoming a fifth column in the event of an attack — summarily executed not only the signaler but all their captives.

“I saw the Europeans sitting in line,” one Tarawa local remembered later.

One Japanese started to kill the Europeans. He cut off the head of the first European, then the second, then the third, then I did not see any more because I fainted. When I came to, I saw the Japanese carrying the dead bodies to two pits.

In November 1943, a U.S. amphibious invasion took back the island at the bloody Battle of Tarawa. Twelve hundred Americans, and several times that many of the island’s Japanese defenders and Korean war slaves, were slain.

Old gun emplacements from that battle — as well as a monument to the New Zealand coastwatchers — can still be found on Tarawa.†

Catch these sights while they last. The average height above sea level for Kiribati is two meters, making global climate change liable to send the nation’s scattered islands to Atlantis. Kiribati residents have already begun turning up in Australia and New Zealand as climate change refugees.


(cc) image from Nick Hobgood.

* When the occasion arose, coastwatchers also rescued stranded Allied servicemen. After LTJG John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat was rammed by a Japanese aircraft carrier in August 1942, it was a pair of Solomon Island natives dispatched by an Australian coastwatcher who found the future U.S. President and his surviving crew.

** Seven other coastwatchers besides those beheaded this date had been captured in the Gilberts when Japan first (but lightly) occupied it following Pearl Harbor. They survived the war as POWs in mainland Japan.

† There was a monument to the dead coastwatchers from shortly after the war. The remains of the seventeen, however, were long neglected by the New Zealand government, and have only recently been turned up … by Americans scouring Betio for casualties from the Battle of Tarawa.

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1942: Vladislav Vancura, “Marketa Lazarova” author

Add comment June 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, leftist Czech novelist Vladislav Vancura was executed at Prague’s Kobylisy shooting range.

An “unsung giant” of European letters, the Bohemian doctor burst onto the literary scene in the 1920s with Pekar Jan Marhoul (Baker Jan Marhoul) and Pole orná a válecná (Fields to Plough, Fields of War). But he was notable for a remarkable perspicacity in style, genre, and artistic perspective throughout his career. He’s often referred to as a poet in prose, and maybe for this reason was equally keen on writing for and directing cinema.

Milan Kundera credited Vancura with “probably the richest vocabulary that any Czech writer has ever had; a vocabulary in which the language of every era is preserved, in which words from the Bible of Kralice [the first complete translation of the Bible into Czech] stand humbly side by side with modern argot.”

His greatest commercial success and possibly his crowning achievement was Marketa Lazarova, a short novel (120 pages in the original Czech) set amid a feud of nobles in he Middle Ages. Only tranlated into English in 2013, it “does for Czech literature something akin to what James Joyce did for English-language literature with Ulysses: breaking with the realism that previously dominated to open up a new frontier in the realm of style.”

Here’s an excerpt (via):

Folly scatters without rhyme or reason. Lend an ear to this tale of a place in the county of Mladá Boleslav, in the time of the disturbances, when the king strove for the safety of the highways, having cruel troubles with the nobles, who conducted themselves downright thievishly, and what is worse, who shed blood practically laughing out loud. You have become truly too sensitive from musing upon our nation’s nobility and fair manners, and when you drink, you waste the cook’s water, spilling it ‘cross the table, but the men of whom I speak were an unruly and devilish lot. A rabble which I cannot compare to anything else than stallions. Precious little cared they of that which you account as important. Comb and soap! Why, they did not heed even the Lord’s commandments.

‘Tis said that there were countless such ruffians, but this story concerns itself with none save the family whose name most surely calls to mind Václav unjustly. Shifty nobles they were! The eldest amidst this bloody time was baptized with a graceful name, but forgot it and called himself Kozlík till the time of his beastly death.

Vancura’s death was plenty beastly too, albeit not particularly surprising: Communist avant-garde artists in German-occupied Slavic countries didn’t usually fare the best during the war years, and Vancura compounded his risk by taking active part in the resistance. He was among hundreds of Czechs arrested, tortured, and executed in the bloody German crackdown that followed the May 27, 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

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1942: Senitsa Vershovsky, Mayor of Kremenchuk

1 comment January 16th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, Senitsa Vershovsky was shot in the city of Kremenchuk in the Soviet Union, in what is now the Ukraine.

Vershovsky was the mayor of Kremenchuk and was also a major in the Red Army. His executioners were members of Einsatzgruppe A, one of Nazi Germany’s mobile killing squads: they killed Vershovsky for “carry[ing] out his duties in gross defiance of German orders … [and] sabotaging the handling of the Jewish problem by having a great number of Jews baptized in order to remove them from German control.”

Approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Kremenchuk, constituting 40% of the city’s population and they had good cause to remove themselves as far as possible from German control. The Einsatzgruppen, as they did in countless other cities throughout the Soviet Union, rounded up the Jewish population, forced them to dig their own graves, and machine-gunned them by the thousands.

Vershovsky’s attempts to help the Jews under his charge, futile though his efforts may have been, nevertheless deserve a footnote in history. For, as historian Raul Hilberg noted, in all the situation reports filed by the Einsatzgruppen during their 22 months of operation,

This incident appears to be the only one of its kind. The counterpressure was evidently too great. Whoever attempted to aid the Jews acted alone and exposed himself as well as his family to the possibility of a death sentence from a German Kommando. There was no encouragement for a man with an awakened conscience.

In a time of great adversity, Senitsa Vershovsky showed himself to be a courageous and fundamentally decent human being, and he paid for it with his life. The least we can do is remember him.

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1942: Eddie Leonski, the Brownout Strangler

3 comments November 9th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, a boyishly handsome G.I. named Edward Joseph “Eddie” Leonski was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne, Australia.

Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.

This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)

Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”

Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:

Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.

According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.

On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.

Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.

But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.

Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.

At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.

McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.

A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.

Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.

“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”

A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.

Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.

Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.

The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.

Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.

When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)

Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:

That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.

Very Norman Batesian.

Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.

Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”

His remains were moved several times before finally finding a permanent grave in a military cemetery in Hawaii. The Australian modernist artist Albert Tucker made a painting titled “Memory of Leonski.” The film Death of a Soldier is based on his crimes.

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1942: Henryk Landsberg, Lvov Judenrat

Add comment September 1st, 2013 Headsman

[Adolf Eichmann] did not expect the Jews to share the general enthusiasm over their destruction, but he did expect more than compliance, he expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — their cooperation. This was “of course the very cornerstone” of everything he did … Without Jewish help in administrative and police work — the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police — there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower …

To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.

-Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem

Among the many horrors of the Holocaust were the Judenräte, Jewish administrative councils set up under the aegis of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe.

Typically recruited from local elites and granted special privileges by the Germans, these collaborators managed the day-to-day operations of the ghettos, up to and including the horrible sharp end of Final Solution: confiscating Jewish property for the Germans, registering and organizing Jews destined for slave labor or extermination, and even managing deportations with the desperate hope that willingly engaging a sacrifice they could never prevent might enable them to save some others. Once all the deportations were done, the Judenrat itself would be executed or deported: Faust had nothing on this bargain.

Chaim Rumkowski, perhaps the most (in)famous Judenrat administrator, issued posterity the definitive howl of a collaborator’s agony when he was forced by the imminent Lodz Ghetto children’s action to implore Lodz’s families to peaceably surrender their young people to certain death: “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”

Rumkowski, a deeply checkered figure who fended off liquidation of his ghetto until the very late date of 1944, well knew that Judenrat personnel were entirely disposable. After all, he delivered this plaintive speech on September 4, 1942 — just three days after his counterpart in the Lvov Ghetto had been publicly strung up on a balcony.


Six Jews (including Henryk Landsberg) hanged in the Lvov Ghetto, September 1, 1942 (via). The US Holocaust Memorial Museum also identifies this clearly distinct execution as a picture of Lvov Jewish Council members being hanged in September 1942.

The city of Lwow/Lvov (or to use its present-day Ukrainian spelling, Lviv) had had a centuries-old Jewish population when the Soviet Union seized it from Poland in consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That population almost immediately doubled as Jewish refugees fleeing the half of Poland that Germany got in the deal poured into the city.

Practically on the frontier of the German/Soviet border, Lvov was captured in the opening days of Germany’s June 1941 surprise invasion of the USSR. In November-December 1941, the 100,000-plus Jews* still surviving in Lvov (after several post-conquest massacres) were crammed cheek to jowl into the new Lvov Ghetto. There they endured the usual litany of privations for World War II ghettos: starvation rations, routine humiliation, periodic murders. forced labor at the nearby Janowska concentration camp.

The ghetto’s first chairman, Dr. Josef Parnas, didn’t live to see 1942 before he was killed in prison for non-cooperation. Dr. Adolf Rotfeld followed him, and died of “natural” causes in office a few months later.

Dr. Henryk Landsberg, a lawyer, succeeded Rotfeld. He had been a respected community figure before the war, but was disposable to the Nazis as his predecessors; during a large-scale Aktion to cull the camp and further reduce its boundaries, a Jewish butcher resisting the SS killed one of his persecutors. Landsberg and a number of the Jewish policemen employed by the Judenrat were summarily put to death.

“I have gladly accepted the nomination,” Landsberg’s successor remarked. “Maybe they will shoot me soon.” He was indeed shot (or perhaps committed suicide to avoid that fate) in the first week of January 1943. (All this from Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation)

The Lvov Ghetto was liquidated June 1, 1943; a bare handful of its former inmates escaped into the sewers or managed to avoid death in the camps before the war ended. After the Red Army took back the city, a 1945 survey of the Jewish Provisional Committee in Lvov tallied just 823 Jews. Today, there are all of 5,000.

* Among the Lvov Ghetto residents was Simon Wiesenthal.

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1942: Stjepan Filipovic, “death to fascism, freedom to the people!”

2 comments May 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1942, this happened:

The young man striking the dramatic pose is Stjepan Filipovic, an anti-fascist partisan hanged in the city of Valjevo by the Serbian State Guard, a collaborationist force working with the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia.

Filipovic is shouting “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” — a pre-existing Communist slogan that Filipovic’s martyrdom would help to popularize. Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu! … or you can just abbreviate it SFSN!

In the city where Filipovic died, which is in present-day Serbia, there’s a monumental statue in his honor replicating that Y-shaped pose — an artistically classic look just like our favorite Goya painting, poised between death and victory.


(cc) image from Maduixa.

Filipovic was a Communist so we’re guessing that he would not have had a lot of truck with the ethnic particularism that’s latterly consumed the Balkans. Times being what they are, however, the national hero to Tito’s Yugoslavia has become a post-Communist nationalist football.

That Valjevo monument — it’s in Serbia, remember — calls him Stevan Filipovic, which is the Serbian variant of his given name. But as Serbia is the heir to Yugoslavia, he at least remains there a legitimate subject for a public memorial. Filipovic himself was Croatian, but his legacy in that present-day state is a bit more problematic: in his native town outside Dubrovnik, a statue that once commemorated Filipovic was torn down in 1991 by Croat nationalists; its vacant plinth still stands sadly in Opuzen. (Opuzen’s film festival, however, awards its honorees a statuette replicating the destroyed monument.)

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1942: Vasily Klubkov, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya’s betrayer

2 comments April 16th, 2013 Headsman

We’ve touched in these pages — one of our earliest posts, in fact — on Soviet war heroine Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a teenager executed by the advancing German army in November 1941 for conducting partisan attacks behind enemy lines.

Zoya’s story became known after the Red Army recaptured village of Petrishchevo, where she was hanged. A January 27, 1942 Pravda article recounted the gallows defiance of the young guerrilla, whom villagers knew only by her nom de guerre, “Tanya”. She had withstood German torture, refused to give them any information, and at her hanging incited her countrymen and -women to resist the invaders. She’s still to this day a beloved national martyr in Russia, which is why she’s also an Ace in our execution playing cards.

The young woman on the gallows, and in the ghastly post-mortem pictures with her left breast mutilated swiftly became propaganda grist for Moscow.

Zoya’s instant Joan of Arc-like legend invited investigation of the precise circumstances of her capture and death … and this in turn meant extremely dangerous scrutiny for any Soviet citizen in her environs whose behavior in those last days could be held to be in any way sub-heroic.

This brings us to today’s unfortunate entry, Vasily Klubkov, a humble mail-sorter before the war whose picture belongs in the dictionary next to “poor luckless sod.” Just him, Zoya, and everyone else on the terrible Eastern Front.

It was on this date* in 1942 that Klubkov paid the penalty for Zoya’s sacrifice.

Vasily Klubkov and Boris Krainov were other partisans who had been detailed along with Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya to torch some enemy assets on the same mission around Petrishchevo. Practically children all, they each acted independently from the others; long story short, Zoya and Vasily Klubkov were both captured.

Zoya fiercely endured every torture the Germans could throw at her, but Klubkov was made of softer stuff. When an officer pointed a gun at his head and demanded some answers, Klubkov started talking.

“I was a coward,” he later admitted. “I was scared I would be shot.”

Now, this admission very much against his own safety was made to the NKVD in March 1942, and since we already know that Vasily Klubkov was the sort to fold under torture, we can well imagine that the NKVD also got whatever it wanted out of the misfortunate young man. Considering the politicized quality of the trial and the circumstances of the “confession,” it has to be treated with caveats.

Under NKVD pressure, Klubkov signed off on a version of events that just so happened to mesh beautifully with the iconography already forming around the hanged “Tanya”: namely, that he was brought face-to-face with his fellow-prisoner and confirmed her identity, whereas she refused to breathe a word to her captors; that he saw her stripped naked and bashed with truncheons for hours and still summon the fortitude to refuse her interrogators the least satisfaction. Pavel Klubkov gave posterity firsthand evidence of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya’s heroism in captivity.

“Klubkov may have been telling the truth, since it’s easy to imagine a terrified teenager on his first mission agreeing to his German captors’ demands,” notes Andrew Nagorski in The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II. “But there’s no way of knowing for sure how he really behaved, since he surely was just as terrified when he was interrogated by the NKVD. Or how much of what he said about Zoya was accurate, since the NKVD may already have been preparing the transcript with the idea of her elevation to mythic status.”

Heck, the reason the NKVD even had Klubkov to interrogate was that he escaped German custody, another big character red flag as far as the Soviets were concerned. That he escaped from the same custody that martyred Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya probably sealed his fate before he received his first pistol-whipping. NKVD records paint a kid who has already given up.

Well he might have. The verdict of the court was surely ordained from the start, but it was formally delivered on April 3: “Execution by shooting, without confiscation of property due to its absence.”

* Though there are some cites for April 3 out there, it appears that April 3 was the date of his conviction by a military tribunal and April 16 his execution date. This is a bit of a protracted delay by wartime Soviet tribunal standards, but then, Klubkov would have been a person of relevance to the state itself. The highest-ranking official who thought he could approve Klubkov’s execution without asking anyone else might have been a little further up the food chain than for your run-of-the-mill deserter.

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1942: Four Jews from Bedzin and Sosnowiec

1 comment April 13th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, two Jewish men were hanged in the city of Sosnowiec (pronounced sos-no-vitz) in Nazi-occupied Poland, and two more were hanged in the nearby city of Bedzin (pronounced ben-jin).

These executions were witnessed by thousands of people and carefully choreographed, as historian Mary Fulbrook records in her book A Small Town Near Auschwitz:*

The hangings in Bedzin and Sosnowiec had been orchestrated in advance, in meticulous detail, by the Police President in Sosnowiec. The execution in Bedzin was to take place one hour later than the one in Sosnowiec. As much thought was given by the police authorities to questions of security and seating arrangements as might be appropriate for a modern open-air musical concert: this was not to be a simple punishment for an individual offense, as had happened innumerable times, but rather a mass spectacle, intended to have a major impact on the audience…

The identities of the executed Jews in Bedzin have been lost to history. (Correction: Per Yad Vashem, they were Jehuda Warman and “Feffer” (no first name).) They were hanged at the old Jewish cemetery on the corner of Zawale Street, before a crowd of about 5,000, at 5:00 p.m. Jewish workers in the Bedzin Ghetto had their work identity cards confiscated that day and were let out of work early, at 4:00 p.m., and ordered to watch the hangings. Only after they witnessed the executions did they get their work cards back. The bodies remained hanging on the scaffold until 7:30 p.m.

The condemned men in Sosnowiec were 30-year-old Mayer Kohn and his father, Nachun or Nahum.

Nachun (left, with wife) and Mayer.

They’d been caught trading on the black market, probably trying to feed their families, as no one could live long on the official rations. But as Fulbrook points out, the actual offense didn’t matter much to the Nazis:

These coordinated public spectacles of mass hangings do not seem … to have been in direct response to a particular crime; it seems there was a policy of ‘any Jew will do’, although infringements of German rules (including not only black market dealings but also very trivial ‘offenses’) were adduced as the ostensible ‘reason’ for these executions.

Thousands of people, both Jews and Germans, watched Mayer and Nachun Kohn die, then quietly went home.

Although virtually the entire Kohn family perished at the hands of the Nazis, Mayer and Nachun Kohn can claim a bit of immortality by virtue of being mentioned in Maus, Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel about the Holocaust: the author’s father, Vladek, hailed from Sosnowiec.

* The author of A Small Town Near Auschwitz is interviewed in this New Books In History podcast.

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1942: Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle, Darlan’s assassin

3 comments December 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1942, just two days after he had assassinated Admiral Francois Darlan, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle was shot by the Vichy army in Algiers.

Despite its shorthand reputation as a Nazi puppet, Vichy France — especially in 1940-42 — was a more nuanced animal that’s enjoyed increased study of late. Vichy controlled southern France under the obvious pressure of the next-door German occupation and effected state collaboration with Berlin including deportations, but it also maintained diplomatic relations with the U.S. Vichy France even shot German spies.

Vichy was one contender among several for political legitimacy in the aftermath of France’s disastrous 1940 defeat at German hands. The most obvious (and here, topical) rival was de Gaulle’s Free French.


Appropriately, the classic film Casablanca premiered in November 1942, featuring Claude Rains as the unprincipled Vichy Captain Renault. The film’s pro-Free French, anti-Vichy slant was not, however, representative of American foreign policy at the time.

This was the background when, in 1942, the US spearheaded Operation Torch to invade Vichy-controlled French North Africa. “This is not the end,” Churchill epigrammed of the Torch landings. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”* (Correction: Churchill actually said this in reference to the November 1942 Battle of El Alamein, as a very gracious comment observes.)

At the time of that operation, Admiral Darlan happened to be in Algiers. He was the former number two man in the Vichy government, but also a guy whose cooperation with the Nazis had been half-hearted … which is the reason he was the former number two man.

Darlan nevertheless remained the chief of the Vichy armed forces, which meant that it was worth the Torch commanders’ while to come to an arrangement with him when Darlan proved amenable to cooperation.

They cut that deal. Darlan shut down armed resistance and took Vichy North Africa over to the Allies’ side. (He had, indeed, hinted previously to American diplomats that he was prepared to switch sides; see Arthur Funk, “Negotiating the ‘Deal with Darlan'” in Journal of Contemporary History, April 1973.) In exchange, the Allies installed him as High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa — big man on campus for French North Africa.

Like all good compromises, it satisfied nobody.

De Gaulle was enraged: a Vichy official remained in charge of a Vichy state now under Allied auspices. Would Allied recognition set Darlan up to direct France’s postwar direction?

Equally pissed by the defection, Hitler triggered the German contingency plan to occupy Vichy France.† This is why the “especially in 1940-1942” proviso above: after Operation Torch, Vichy France had no independent military muscle, and was significantly more beholden to Nazi Germany.

Back in North Africa, we finally come to our date’s principal.

A 20-year-old student of monarchist and anti-fascist political proclivities, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle (English Wikipedia entry | French) decided with a couple of friends to cut the Gordian political knot that Darlan’s adoption had created.

Bonnier de La Chapelle drew the short straw (literally, they drew straws) for the privilege/responsibility of murdering the Vichy admiral.

Officially, the young man acted alone. Unofficially, there’s been no end of speculation as to the secret intrigues at work. Nobody’s really clear on exactly how murdering Darlan was supposed to advance the gunman’s supposed agenda. And the Vichy French disposed of the killer with suspicious haste.

Just after lunch on December 24, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle surprised Darlan upon the latter’s return to his study and shot him through the mouth and torso at point-blank range. He was arrested attempting to flee.

The very next evening, he was condemned by a tribunal at Algiers. There was already a coffin on order before that body gaveled into session.

For some reason, the condemned thought his perceived service to the nation would out. “They will not shoot me. I have liberated France,” he assured his confessor. “The bullets will be blank cartridges.” They weren’t. Churchill recorded that Bonnier de La Chapelle was “surprised to be shot.”

Darlan was laid to rest later that morning at a dry-eyed requiem service. One British intelligence officer remembered that Darlan’s “murder fell like a stone into a small pond and the ripples were only brief. It was as if Darlan had never been.” (Source for the quotes in the last two paragraphs)

Henri Giraud, a French general who escaped German custody and took refuge in Vichy France — Vichy refusing to return him to the Germans, who openly intended to kill him — succeeded Darlan’s command of the now-Allied-aligned French North African forces and maintained the objectionable Vichy institutions. He joined the Allied Casablanca Conference a few weeks later. Giraud had already secretly arranged with the Allies to take exactly this position and had repaired to North Africa in anticipation of the invasion before being aced out by Darlan.

Giraud’s Vichy North African government gradually increased cooperation with de Gaulle’s Free French; the two eventually co-founded the French Committee of National Liberation, which de Gaulle, of course, eventually took control of.

In 1945, a postwar appeals court posthumously reversed Bonnier de La Chapelle’s conviction — on the grounds that he’d pulled the trigger “in the interest of liberation of France.”

* Stalin, whose Red Army was then fighting the Wehrmacht tooth and claw at Stalingrad, begged to differ. He’d been imploring the western allies to open a second front, and was none too impressed with their calculation that they weren’t ready to invade continental Europe in 1942. “A man who was not prepared to take risks could not win a war,” Stalin griped to Churchill.

** One knock-on effect of Operation Torch: the Germans reinforced North Africa against the Allies’ imminent push. It was in this campaign that future Hitler almost-assassin Claus von Stauffenberg lost a hand and an eye, leading to his transfer back to the Berlin desk job that would give him his opportunity to try to kill the Fuhrer.

† This resulted in Vichy France’s gesture of resistance, scuttling the Toulon fleet to keep it out of German hands … although this also irritated de Gaulle, who wanted the fleet to defect to North Africa instead.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1942: Helmuth Huebener, Mormon anti-Nazi

3 comments October 27th, 2012 Headsman


Poster announces Helmut Hubener’s execution.

On this date in 1942, 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener was executed at Plotzensee Prison for listening to the BBC.

Huebener was a Mormon youth with the political perspicacity to abhor fascism from a very young age: the former Boy Scout (Mormons really take to scouting) ditched the Hitler Youth after Kristallnacht, which happened when Huebener was only 10 years old.

As Germany forged ahead towards worse horrors in the years, conscientious people of all ages had moral dilemmas to resolve. Mormons in Nazi Germany weren’t persecuted per se and to keep it that way that small community generally kept its head judiciously down.

Not Huebener.

Horrified by the privations of their Jewish neighbors, Huebener with fellow Mormon teens Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe began illegally listening to foreign radio broadcasts and using the material to compose anti-fascist pamphlets for distribution around Hamburg.

Themes like Germany’s coming defeat (a Huebener circle favorite) never went over well with the authorities; a 1939 law decreed that “Whoever willfully distributes the broadcasts of foreign stations which are designed to endanger the strength of resistance of the German people will, in particularly severe cases, be punished with death.”

Huebener’s friends, aged 18 and 16, were judged only sufficiently severe for hard labor sentences; both survived the war but have since died. Huebener as the ringleader got the death penalty. (The local Mormon congregation expediently excommunicated him, a judgment later reversed from church headquarters in Salt Lake City.) And clearly Huebener was failing to “support the troops”, in the present-day parlance: his own older brother Gerhard had been drafted into the Wehrmacht and was away at the front.

“My Father in heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong,” young Helmuth wrote shortly before his beheading. “I know that God lives and He will be the proper judge of this matter.”

The Latter-Day Saints church, not usually thought of as a hive of anti-authority activity, has only gradually warmed up to celebrating its appealing young resistance martyr.

In addition to a number of books, Huebener is the subject of the documentary Truth & Conviction as well as the forthcoming feature film Truth & Treason.

A few books about Helmuth Huebener

Three Against Hitler and When Truth Was Treason were written by Huebener’s un-executed confederates.

Novels inspired by Helmuth Huebener

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason,Wartime Executions

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