1940: Julien Vervaecke, Tour de France cyclist

Add comment May 25th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date — exactly when is forever obscure* — the former Tour de France cyclist Julien Vervaecke was summarily executed by Polish and British soldiers in German-occupied Belgium.

The Belgian velocipeddler raced professionally from 1924 to 1936 and reached the top ten of cycling’s signature event four times — capped by a third-place ride in 1927.

He’s most famous in the annals of his sport for his controversial victory in the 1930 Paris-Roubaix race, when he crossed the finish line second after getting the worst of a late collision with French cyclist Jean Marechal, but was awarded the win by judges who faulted Marechal for the incident. (Vervaecke got the medal but not the branding: it’s known as l’affaire Marechal.)

By the time war clouds had gathered anew, Vervaecke (English Wikipedia entry | German | French) had retired to proprietorship of a restaurant in Menen, on the French border.

As the Wehrmacht blitz overran Belgium, Vervaecke’s home chanced to fall within the British pocket pinned to Dunkirk, 70 kilometers away away. The famous evacuation would commence on May 26.

On May 24, scrambling soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, apparently including some officers of the exiled Polish army,* tried to ransack Vervaecke’s place for supplies, and the ex-cyclist resisted. As with Marechal all those years ago, Vervaecke had the worst of this collision, and the tetchy troopers led him away.

Nobody witnessed what happened to him; his body only turned up weeks later, over the border in France. It’s guessed that he might have been detained and then shot out of hand hours later — more prey to the fog of war.


At least he didn’t die of lung cancer: In a different era for athletics, Vervaecke and Maurice Geldhof take a trip to flavor country during the Tour de France.

* Poland had already been occupied by Germany and the USSR, in September 1939.

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1946: Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher, Zyklon-B manufacturers

3 comments May 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1946, British hangman Albert Pierrepoint hanged seven German war criminals at Hameln Prison.

These seven comprised two distinct groups charged in two very different misdeeds:

Karl Eberhard Schöngarth and four others hanged for executing a downed Allied pilot in 1944.

Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher were executed for a critical support role in the Holocust: they were principles of the chemical manufacturer Testa, which sold Zyklon-B to the Reich for use in the gas chambers.


Zyklon was just a brand hame (“Cyclone”)

Hydrogen cyanide had been employed as a legitimate pesticide and de-lousing agent for many years before World War II. Because of its danger, the odorless deadly gas was sold spiced with an odorant to alert humans accidentally exposed to it.

Tesch and Weinbacher had their necks stretched because they were shown to have knowingly sold this product sans odor, reflecting Testa’s complicity in its intended use upon humans. (A third Testa employee was acquitted, having inadequate knowledge of the firm’s operations.)

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1946: Ten at Hameln for killing Allied POWs

Add comment May 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the British hanged 10 convicted war criminals at Hameln Prison, notably including seven for the “Dreierwalde Airfield murders” of four Allied prisoners of war.

Picture from this book about RAF POWs in wartime Germany, which also supplies the unknown names: A.W. Armstrong and R.F. Gunn of the RAF; B.F. Greenwood and J.E. Paradise of the RAAF.

In that case, two British and three Australian airmen had been captured after bailing out during a March 21 raid. Taken to the nearby aerodrome between Dreierwalde and Hopsten in Westphalia, they were marched out the next day ostensibly for transport to a POW compound. Instead, they all ended up shot by their guards — although Australian Flight-Lieutenant Berick was able to escape, wounded, and survive the war.

The nub of the case was whether the guards cold-bloodedly murdered their prisoners (prosecutors’ version), or whether there was an escape attempt by the airmen that caused the guards to start shooting (defense version).

Berick’s affidavit to the effect that no escape had been attempted weighed very heavily here — that nothing was afoot until he suddenly perceived the guards cocking their weapons. Karl Amberger would testify on behalf of himself and his men that the five had been suspiciously taking their bearings as they marched and suddenly broke off running in different directions.

The defense counsel’s attempt to reconcile these accounts in the haze of war was not fantastical — “saying that the cocking of the action of a weapon by one guard was not unnatural given the fact that five prisoners had to be guarded in a lane in the growing dusk … [while] Berick and the other prisoners probably regarded it as likely that they were to be shot, as others in their position had been, and began to run when it was not necessary.” But it did not carry the day.

Three other Germans joined this bunch on the scaffold, for similar but unrelated POW abuses.

  • Erich Hoffmanm, condemned by a joint British-Norwegian court in Oslo for the murder of Allied POWs in occupied Norway.
  • Friedrich Uhrig, for murdering a downed Royal Air Force pilot at Langlingen.
  • Franz Kircher, for killing three airmen at Essen-West.

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1945: Majda Vrhovnik, Slovenian resistance

Add comment May 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Slovene resistance member Majda Vrhovnik was executed by the Gestapo in Klagenfurt, days before the end of World War II.

A University of Ljubljana medical student and Communist destined to be honored as a national hero of Yugoslavia, Vrhovnik (English Wikipedia entry | Slovenian) joined the underground resistance when the Nazis occupied Yugoslvia in 1941. She’d spend the bulk of the war years producing and distributing illicit anti-occupation propaganda but by war’s end she had been detailed to nearby Klagenfurt — a heavily Slovene city just over the border in Austria.

She was finally caught there and arrested on February 28, 1945, and shot in prison even as Klagenfurt awaited Allied occupation which would arrive on May 8.

Her credentials as a patriotic martyr — there’s a Majda Vrhovnik school named for her — would surface her name in 1988 in connection with an affair that helped begin the breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic statelets, when an opposition journalist published a censored article under the pseudonym “Majda Vrhovnik”.

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1944: Four Italian fascist saboteurs

Add comment April 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1944,* four young Italian fascist agents of Mussolini‘s rump state were shot as spies and saboteurs by the Allies at a quarry near Capua’s Sant’Angelo in Formis abbey.

Most of the information readily available about Franco Aschieri, Italo Palesse, Mario Tapoli-Timperi, and Vincenzo Tedesco is in Italian: specifically, in nationalist Italian pages celebrating the sacrificial patriotism of the young men who had parachuted into Allied-controlled southern Italy to operate as partisans. A number of their peers were shot in similar circumstances beginning in late 1943 and in greater numbers through the spring of 1944.

The quartet died game and then some, conferring upon posterity charismatic photos of handsome valor in the face of execution. The most startlingly iconic (at least one design based on it is available for sale) the shirtless and barrel-chested Palesse tied to the stake with an insouciant cigarette a-dangle from his lips. Inevitably their last cries ran to Viva il Duce! and Dio stramaledica gli inglesi! (God curse the Anglos!)


The condemned party in their cell on the morning of the execution, where their confessor remembered “I found them laughing.”


Having shucked off his shirt so the bullets won’t spoil it, Italo (sometimes given as Idalo) Palesse receives the comfort of a priest. (Source)


Franco Aschieri


Vincenzo Tedesco, from the firing squad’s perspective.

Mature Content: Video of this same scene records the men being shot.

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1947: Hisao Tani, for the rape of Nanking

Add comment April 26th, 2017 Headsman

Lieutenant General Hisao Tani was shot on this date in 1947 for his part in the Rape of Nanking.

Tani commanded a division that took part in the conquest and occupation of that Chinese city in 1937, and it was outside its gates — following a Chinese war crimes trial — that he took his leave of this world.

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1943: The massacre of Janowa Dolina

3 comments April 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1943, a Ukrainian militia massacred the Poles of the village of Janowa Dolina (Yanova Dolina).


Janowa Dolina in the 1930s. The village was a model settlement for workers at the nearby basalt quarry, jobs given at that time by official preferences to Poles. It was created in the 1920s, and featured an orderly plot with running water and electricity throughout.

In World War II, each theater of the war was unhappy in its own way. For the beautiful region of Volhynia long straddling the blood-soaked marches between Poland and Ukraine, it meant a ghastly local war under the umbrella of German occupation.

Mostly Polish in the interwar years, when Ukrainian residents chafed under “Polonization” policies, Volhynia had come fully under Soviet control when Berlin and Moscow carved up Poland in 1939, and then, of course, fully under German control in 1941. In these years of ash and bone, ethnic compositions in Volhynia were redrawn with every desperate ferocity nationalism could muster: pogroms visited neighbor upon neighbor, or ethnic cleansing visited state upon subject. It would be Ukrainian ultras positioned in the end to fantasize about ethnic purity by dint of their collaboration with the conquering Reich.

Come 1943, Poles comprised a shrinking minority in Volhynia. The prospect of purging this borderlands to cinch its place in a Ukrainian homeland made those Poles an inviting target for a campaign of ethnic slaughter that’s remembered now as the Volhynia or Volyn Massacres. And with the German defeat at Stalingrad and the Red Army’s advance on eastern Ukraine, Reich administration further west had become sufficiently distracted by more urgent priorities that genocidaires* perceived their moment to strike.

“We should undertake a great action of extermination of the Polish element. As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment to exterminate the entire male population from 16 to 60 years of age,” thundered Dmytro Klyachkivsky, a commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), military organ of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B).** “As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment for liquidating the entire male population from the age of 16 up to 60 years. We cannot lose this battle, and it is necessary to diminish Polish forces at all costs. Forest villages and those near forests, should disappear from the face of the earth.”

Many specific atrocities, beginning in February 1943 and continuing well into 1944, comprise this liquidation drive.

The one of interest for this post is the invasion on the night of April 22-23 — the eve and morning of Good Friday — of Janowa Dolina, a predominantly Polish village where 600 were massacred by the UPA and the village put to the torch.†

This horror is commemorated by a monument at the site …


The 1990 monument commemorating Poles murdered by UPA. Here’s a closer view of the stone marker, and here’s the inscription on the adjacent cross.

… but there seems to be a slight difference of opinion: the event is also memorialized by a rival stone erected by Ukrainian nationalists which “gives glory to the Ukrainian heroes” of the UPA for “destroying the fortifications of the Polish-German occupiers.”‡


(Thanks to Sonechka for translation help.)

As anyone holding even passing familiarity with events in present-day Ukraine will surely know this is no mere historiographical quibble; the legacy of the OUN from World War II and of its descendants on the modern far right remain deeply contentious in and out of Ukraine.

* Poland officially (and to the dismay of Ukraine) considers this campaign a genocide. There’s also a Polish film on the horrors of Wolyn.

** The OUN split factionally; the “-B” suffix in this case stands for Stepan Bandera, leader of the most militant faction; his surname is still today a byword and/or slur (“Banderists”) for Ukrainian fascism. Its rival faction was the more moderate OUN-M, led by Andriy Melnyk.

† The territory became Ukrainian — which at the time meant Soviet — after World War II and remains so today, so Janowa Dolina is now the Ukrainian town of Bazaltove. There’s a Flickr album tour of the muddy mining village, including photos of the Polish monument and a separate marker for Soviet POWs, but not the UPA monument, here.

‡ The UPA stone also cites April 21-22 as the date. It appears to me, a distant non-specialist, that the Ukrainian construction on what adherents prefer to more neutrally describe as the “tragedy” of Janowa Valley spreads action over two days and emphasizes alleged guerrilla actions by the UPA against German occupation targets prior to destroying the village.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Put to the Sword,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1946: Masaharu Homma, for the Bataan Death March

Add comment April 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Laid down on the altar I am
Offered as a victim to God
For the sake of
My newly born country

-Verse written by Masaharu Homma awaiting execution (Source)

Imperial Japanese Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma was shot by a firing squad outside Manila on this date in 1946 for the notorious Bataan Death March.

Homma commanded the 14th Area Army tasked with occupying the Philippines immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor opened a Pacific War against the U.S.

Retreating from the Philippines in early 1942, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously vowed, “I shall return.” To Homma’s grief, he did just that.

While MacArthur cogitated his revenge, Homma was finishing off the remnants of his last great stand in the Battle of Bataan. Bataan was a victory for Japan, but a bloody and protracted one; it cost the lives of some 7,000 Japanese, and the three-month battle has sometimes been credited with slowing the Japanese advance sufficiently to safeguard Australia; it also left the occupiers with an unexpectedly huge complement of POWs.

On April 9, 1942, the very day fighting ended at Bataan, transfers began for these prisoners, who would be driven by train and then marched overland some 60+ miles to Camp O’Donnell. More than 60,000 Filipinos and about 15,000 Americans endured this harrowing five- or six-day slog — the Bataan Death March.

A few books about the Bataah Death March

Early reports of the death march made grist for this wartime propaganda poster in the U.S.

This crucible of endurance, both physical and spiritual, came by its evil repute honestly; in the age of the Internet, numerous appalling testimonials are within easy reach of a web search. They recount battle-wearied men enervated by hunger and thirst, liable to be summarily shot or bayoneted for making themselves the least bit conspicuous to captors who already disdained them for having the weakness to surrender in the first place.

Some were murdered at the outset: having any Japanese “trophies” on one’s person when captured was liable to be worth a summary bullet, or a quick flash of an officer’s katana. An even more certain death sentence was falling behind on the march, and wounded prisoners could expect no quarter: they had to keep up with their compatriots or the Japanese “buzzard squad” trailing a few score meters behind every marching peloton would finish them off with any other stragglers. In different groups POWs might be thrashed or killed over any trifling annoyance; meanwhile, those suffered to live trudged under a wasting sun, nearly unnourished but for fetid handfuls scooped from mud puddles, dying on their feet hour by hour. Dehydrated to the point of madness, some snapped and ran suicidally for the tantalizing nearby village wells that marchers were prohibited from accessing.

Something like a quarter, and maybe nearer to a third, of the souls who set out on the Bataan Death March never reached Camp O’Donnell. Those who did entered new portals of torment: rent by dysentery and crowded cheek to sunken jowl, prisoners died off daily by the dozens until they were finally dispatched — often crammed like sardines into the bowels of “hell ships” — to different Japanese work camps.

The Bataan Death March was a no-question basket of war crimes, egregiously flouting existing POW treatment accords.* It’s far more questionable whether our man Gen. Homma was the right person to answer for it.

Homma had segued directly from the Battle of Bataan to the succeeding Battle of Corregidor after which he had been cashiered for a homeland desk job.

Ironically, it was an excess of leniency that helped earn Homma his enemies among the brass — the opposite of the thing that hanged him. For many who observed the postwar trial slating him with 48 war crimes violations related to the Death March, Homma was a figure more tragic than wicked, prey to returning victor MacArthur’s pique at the defeat Homma had once inflicted upon him.

Little reliable evidence could show that Homma blessed or even knew of the atrocities committed in the march, but he himself allowed during trial that “I am morally responsible for whatever happened in anything under my command.” According to Homma’s American defense attorney Robert Pelz — a biased source to be sure — the general slipped into genuine disgust and remorse during the trial as a parade of witnesses remembered their ordeals. “I am horrified to learn these things happened under my command,” Homma wrote in a note passed to Pelz at one point. “I am ashamed of our troops.”

The hanging verdict was controversial then and remains so now. “If the defendant does not deserve his judicial fate, none in jurisdictional history ever did,” MacArthur complained. He honored the mercy application of Homma’s wife Fujiko only insofar as to permit the general a more honorable execution by musketry, instead of hanging.

The bulk of the U.S. Supreme Court okayed the procedure by which the U.S. military brought that fate about, although Justice Frank Murphy issued a scorching dissent urging that in the haste and partiality of the proceedings against both Homma and General Tomoyuki Yamashita “we abandon all pretense to justice, let the ages slip away and descend to the level of revengeful blood purges.”

One who would share that sentiment was an 18-year-old Navy man who observed the trial, Bob Perske. Perske would remember this his experiences on the Philippines at the end of World War II “sharpened his sensitivies toward vulnerable persons” and influenced a subsequent career advocating for people with disabilities as well as those caught in the toils of the criminal justice system. Executed Today formerly interviewed Mr. Perske in connection with the wrongful execution of a mentally disabled man in Colorado, Joe Arridy.

* It’s worth noting that Japan was not party to the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of POWs.

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1945: Eliyahu Bet-Zuri and Eliyahu Hakim, Lord Moyne’s assassins

Add comment March 22nd, 2017 Headsman

British-occupied Egypt on this date in 1945 hanged two young Jewish assassins for slaying the British plenipotentiary to the Middle East.

Walter Edward Guinness was heir to the barley beer fortune and a Tory politician of near 40 years’ standing. “Lord Moyne”, to call him (as history does, and as we will henceforward) by his aristocratic honorific, allied with his former rival Winston Churchill in the 1930s as a staunch foe of placating Hitler, eventually serving several roles in Churchill’s wartime government.*

The last and perforce most famous was Resident Minister of State in Cairo from January 1944, where he directed British affairs in North Africa, Persia, and the Middle East, crucially including Mandatory Palestine.

Such a figure must necessarily represent many things to different subjects, but to Zionists he represented the hostility to their project of both his own person and (more importantly) of London. While there is endless nitpicking about the man’s precise degree of disfavor for Jewish people or interests, “Lord Moyne was the highest British official in the Middle East,” in the words of Yitzhak Shamir, the emigre terrorist who orchestrated the hit and would one day become Prime Minister of Israel. “Because we fought against the British in this area, we took him for a target. This was the main reason for his assassination.” Nothing personal. (Maybe a little personal.)

On November 6, 1944, two of Shamir’s young cadres in the late Avraham Stern‘s militantly anti-British Lehi network, Eliyahu Bet-Zuri (Ben Suri) and Eliyahu Hakim, ambushed Moyne as his limousine pulled up at his villa, and shot him dead with pistols. (They also killed Moyne’s driver, a Lance Corporal named Arthur Fuller.) Once their affiliations became apparent it was Jewry’s turn to bask in the collective censorious scowl that minorities everywhere can anticipate given any perceived ethnic affinity to the latest atrocity’s author. These sortings-out from the London Times would do almost word for word for whatever horror tomorrow’s news might bring.


London Times, Nov. 10, 1944


London Times, Jan. 29, 1945

Similarly, Lord Moyne’s killers took every pain to link their martyrdom to Jewish/Zionist patriotism, no matter any moderate rabbi’s attempt to wash his hands of it.

Raised in Mandatory Palestine, both Bet-Zuri and Hakim spoke Arabic but insisted on speaking only Hebrew in the Cairo court. They went to the gallows singing the hymn “Hatikvah” — later to become Israel’s national anthem.

In the near term, their deed hardened hearts: “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of an assassin’s pistol, and the labors for its future produce a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, then many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past,” Churchill snarled to Parliament.

But in fact the British reconsideration was soon seen to run counter to the dangerous meddling policing these “gangsters” would have demanded. Within only a few years London struck its colors in the Levant. Bet-Zuri’s and Hakim’s cause triumphed, and they too with it: as Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir arranged for the hanged men’s remains to be repatriated from Egypt; today, both rest in honor at Mount Herzl.

* There was a personal side to Lord Moyne’s anti-Naziism: his son, Bryan, had been abandoned by his socialite wife Diana Mitford … who became Diana Mosley in 1936 when she married British Union of Fascists chief Oswald Mosley, in a ceremony held at Joseph Goebbels‘ home no less.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Egypt,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Israel,Jews,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1946: Max Blokzijl, voice of Dutch fascism

Add comment March 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the Dutch journalist/propagandist Max Blokzijl was shot at Scheveningen for wartime Nazi collaboration.

Blokzijl (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), who had a Jewish grandmother, fought in World War I but had become a war correspondent at Berlin by the end of it, reprising his prewar career.*

From 1918 to 1940 he worked from Germany, and Germany worked on him; in 1935, with National Socialism ascending its zenith in Germany, Blokzijl joined Anton Mussert‘s Dutch knockoff, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging party. He also wrote anonymously for the fascist newspaper De Waag.

When Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Blokzijl decloaked as a fascist and accepted a gig as Berlin’s hand for the Dutch press. He was noted for the wartime radio show Brandende kwesties (Burning Issues) which helped make his the calm and measured voice of Dutch national socialism — an identification which soon proved to be a great liability.

The last Nazi redoubts in the Netherlands didn’t surrender until the very end in May, 1945, and that’s when Blokzijl was arrested, too. He stood a half-day trial on September 11, 1945 for his media campaign “aimed at breaking the spiritual resistance of the Dutch people are against the enemy and infidelity of the people to his government and the Allied cause.”

One could argue that the firing squad was a harsh penalty for a guy who had no direct hand in any atrocities. As with the French propagandist Robert Brasillach, the circumstance of facing the nation’s judgment so directly after the war contributed to the severity of Blokzijl’s punishment: indeed, Blokzijl was the very first Dutchman tried for his World War II behavior, which made a death sentence virtually de rigueur. As he wrote to his lawyers in the end, “I fall as the first sacrifice for a political reckoning.”

* One of his prewar careers: he was also a professional singer.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Treason

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