The 6th June 1944 saw the largest seaborne invasion in history, when the Allied forces of the Second World War launched Operation Neptune – more commonly known as the D-Day landings. The amphibious landings in Normandy marked the start of the Allied invasion of Nazi-held Western Europe.
The invasion was focused on a 50-mile long stretch of Normandy coastline that had been divided into five codenamed sections known as Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, nicknamed the Desert Fox for his leadership of Italian and German forces in the North African campaign, commanded the Nazi defence along what was known as the Atlantic Wall.
Prior to the landings, an airborne force of 24,000 Allied troops had been dropped behind enemy lines to seize or destroy features such as bridges, crossroads and key gun batteries. Despite this, the work of the first seaborne divisions was still difficult as they fought to clear the beaches under heavy fire from the numerous smaller gun emplacements that overlooked them. Rommel had previously identified the Normandy beaches as a possible invasion point and so had installed a range of obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, mines, and anti-tank devices that slowed down the Allied landing.
The Allies failed to achieve all their objectives on the first day and suffered at least 10,000 casualties. However, they did successfully establish a foothold on the continent that was gradually expanded over the next few months and led to the liberation of France and the defeat of the Nazis in the West.
Operation Dynamo, better known as the evacuation of Dunkirk, began.
Applauded by the British press as a heroic and miraculous rescue, Operation Dynamo saw an armada under the command of the Royal Navy successfully evacuate over 338,000 Allied troops from the beaches around the French port of Dunkirk.
The German army had invaded France on 10 May, and within just two weeks had cut off and surrounded a combined force of British, French and Belgian troops. Referred to by the recently-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as ‘a colossal military disaster’ the only hope was to retreat to the port of Dunkirk and evacuate as many soldiers as possible.
Operation Dynamo was overseen by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay who reputedly worked in a room within the cliffs of Dover that once housed an electrical dynamo, though there is no reliable evidence for this claim. The order to begin the operation was received at 18:57 on 26 May, less than a week after planning began.
The operation is famous for the flotilla of ‘little ships’ that sailed from Britain to assist the evacuation. Most of these were used to ferry soldiers from the beaches to the large navy ships that would sail across the Channel, although the majority of soldiers boarded ships directly from the stone and concrete mole that protected the harbour.
The evacuation took place amidst ferocious attacks from German aircraft and artillery. In response the Royal Air Force sent all available aircraft to protect the operation. Churchill later praised the fact that hundreds of thousands of soldiers had been evacuated from Dunkirk, but in a speech on 4 June needed to warn the public that ‘Wars are not won by evacuations.’
Josef Mengele, the Nazi ‘Angel Of Death’, was transferred to begin work at Auschwitz concentration camp.
Menegele had been a member of a right-wing paramilitary group that was absorbed into the Nazi SA in 1934. In 1937 he formally joined the Nazi Party and, the following year, began serving in the SS. By the start of 1943 Mengele had proved himself as both an effective medical officer in the field and a dedicated member of the Race and Resettlement Office.
Having developed an interest in the study of twins as part of his earlier genetics research, Mengele applied for a transfer to the concentration camp service. He was posted to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 24 May 1943 where he initially served as the chief physician in the Romani family camp.
As he moved up the ranks numerous sources record his delight in taking part in the “selections” that determined which prisoners were to be killed in the gas chambers and which were to be spared, as these often provided him with new subjects.
Mengele’s experiments involved such gruesome actions as injecting live subjects with chemicals, purposefully infecting people with diseases and, in one well-evidenced case, sewing two twins together in an attempt to create conjoined twins. Mengele was consequently responsible for the deaths of numerous victims thanks to his sadistic and barbaric actions.
Mengele was evacuated from Auschwitz in January 1945 and gradually moved West, escaping capture by the USSR. He was eventually taken as a prisoner of war by the Americans in June but, due a combination of factors, was later able to obtain false papers and flee to South America where he died, having evaded capture for war crimes, in 1979.
On the 23rd May 1915, Italy entered the First World War on the side of the Triple Entente and declared war on Austria-Hungary. Italy was actually Austria-Hungary’s ally under the terms of the Triple Alliance, but the Italian government had initially opted for neutrality before being persuaded to join with its theoretical opposition. Under the terms of the Triple Alliance, Italy was well within its rights not to provide military assistance to Germany and Austria-Hungary since the treaty was entirely defensive. Since Austria-Hungary had instigated hostilities against Serbia, Italy argued that the alliance was void.
Italy therefore remained neutral for the first nine months of the war. However, behind the scenes Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and his minister of Foreign Affairs, Sidney Sonnino, were investigating which side would be the best to join. In a secret agreement signed on 26th April in London, Italy agreed to leave the Triple Alliance, join the Triple Entente, and declare war on Austria-Hungary and Germany. Assuming they won, Italy would in return receive large areas of territory from the Central Powers such as Italian-populated areas of Austria-Hungary and in the region of the Adriatic Sea.
Italy duly entered the war against Austria-Hungary on 23rd May 1915. Despite superior numbers, the Italians struggled against Austria-Hungarians. However, they did emerge victorious and so Premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando went as the Italian representative to the Paris Peace Conference. However, the offers of land were not as much as Italy had hoped for and so he left the Conference in a boycott.
Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy formed the Triple Alliance.
Germany and Austria-Hungary had formed the defensive Dual Alliance in 1879 in which both countries agreed to assist each other if they were attacked by Russia and promised benevolent neutrality to the other in case of war with another nation.
Two years later Italy, which had North African imperial ambitions, was frustrated by France’s seizure of Tunisia. Wishing to secure a foreign alliance in case of future aggression from France, Italy consequently turned to Germany and Austria-Hungary, expanding their established relationship to form the Triple Alliance in 1882.
The alliance provided Italy with German and Austro-Hungarian assistance in case France chose to attack, in return for which Italy would assist Germany if they were attacked. Meanwhile Austria-Hungary benefited from a guarantee that Italy would remain neutral in case of a war with Russia, removing the risk of a war on two fronts and providing some security amidst the rising tensions in the Balkans.
The alliance was renewed in 1887, 1907 and 1912. Meanwhile, in October 1883, Romania had secretly joined the Triple Alliance. This move was so secret that only King Carol I and a few senior politicians even knew.
However, similar to Italy’s involvement in the agreement, this did not result in Romania joining the Central Powers when war broke out in 1914. Having based their decision on the fact that the first country to take offensive action was Austria-Hungary when it attacked Serbia, both Italy and Romania initially opted for neutrality. They claimed that, since the Triple Alliance was defensive, they were not duty bound to support the aggressor.
West Germany’s Federal Archives revealed that forensic tests proved the Hitler Diaries were forgeries.
In the final days of the Second World War, an aeroplane carrying some of Hitler’s closest staff members crashed near the German border with Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s personal valet, Sergeant Wilhelm Arndt, was killed and the personal effects he was carrying on behalf of the Fuhrer were lost. On hearing of the crash, Hitler allegedly exclaimed that, ‘In that plane were all my private archives that I had intended as a testament to posterity. It is a catastrophe!’ Journalist Robert Harris later described this possibility of lost documents belong to Hitler as providing ‘the perfect scenario for forgery’.
A series of diaries purporting to be the lost journals of Adolf Hitler were later forged by Konrad Kujau. Posing as a Stuttgart antiques dealer, he successfully struck a deal with journalist Gerd Heidemann who had convinced his bosses at the newspaper Stern to buy the diaries. They eventually handed over 9.9 million Deutsche marks for 62 volumes, and sold the serial rights to other publications.
Authenticity of the diaries was originally confirmed by historians including Hugh Trevor-Roper and Gerhard Weinberg, but they grew more sceptical as the April 1983 publication date approached. The newspaper subsequently submitted three volumes to the Bundesarchiv for forensic examination. Initial tests highlighted both textual inconsistencies and the presence of materials that didn’t exist until a decade after their alleged creation.
More volumes were submitted for further tests and, on 6 May, the government formally announced that they were forgeries. Kujau was later arrested and imprisoned while the journalist, Heidemann, was found to have skimmed money from Stern’s payments for which he too was sent to jail.
The Battle of Berlin ended after German General Helmuth Weidling surrendered to Soviet General Vasily Chuikov.
Determined to capture Berlin before the Western Allies, Stalin’s generals began their assault on the defensive line of the Oder and Neisse rivers on the morning of 16 April. 2 million German civilians and no more than 200,000 German soldiers were in and around Berlin when the USSR broke through the defences having suffered casualties in the tens of thousands.
Travelling at up to 30-40km a day, the first Red Army troops reached Berlin in time for Hitler’s 56th birthday on 20 April. Artillery began bombarding the city and didn’t cease until the surrender almost two weeks later. Meanwhile other Soviet units encircled the city leading to Hitler, who was based in the Führerbunker, angrily declaring that the war was lost. Nevertheless he appointed General Weidling to command the Berlin Defence Area with a force of 45,000 soldiers supported by police officers, members of the Hitler Youth, and the Volkssturm militia.
By 30 April Soviet troops had reached the Reichstag and, late that evening, successfully placed a flag on top that was removed the following morning by German defenders. The building was finally taken over on 2 May and a new flag was raised, of which an iconic photograph was taken. General Weidling and his staff surrendered the same morning having failed to negotiate a conditional surrender.
Following the surrender the Soviets sought to restore essential services and provide food to the German survivors. However, some troops who reached the city lacked the discipline of the first echelon and committed shocking crimes against Berliners including rape, pillage and murder.
Vladimir Lenin arrived in Russia after a decade of self-imposed exile.
Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, had left Russia in 1907 after Tsar Nicholas II cancelled many of the reforms he had promised following the 1905 revolution. While abroad he remained busy organising Bolshevik groups and publishing Marxist works, but following the February Revolution and the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 he began making plans to return to Russia.
The country had been weakened by the exhausting toll of the First World War and this, combined with disastrous food shortages, had prompted the popular revolt that overthrew the Tsar. In his place the Provisional Government ruled the country, and they opted to continue the war effort despite strong opposition from the Russian people.
German officials were keen to further destabilise the situation. Despite being at war, Lenin and other Bolshevik exiles were granted permission to return to Russia from Switzerland through Germany in a ‘sealed train’. This meant that Lenin and his companions were never legally recognised as being in Germany.
The group then took a ferry to Sweden followed by a second train to Finland, arriving at Finland Station in Petrograd on 16 April. The next day Lenin published the April Theses in which he denounced both the Provisional Government and the First World War, and claimed that Russia was “passing from the first stage of the revolution…to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.”
Less than seven months later the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in the October Revolution.
The Canadian Corps successfully captured Vimy Ridge in the First World War.
Vimy Ridge was a 7km ridge that had been held by the Germans since the Race to the Sea in 1914. French forces had made numerous attempts to seize the ridge over the next two years at the cost of approximately 150,000 casualties. However, due to the need to move French troops to Verdun, in October 1916 the position was taken over by the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.
By early 1917 the war had become one of attrition. Desperate to break the stalemate, French and British commanders planned a major offensive near the city of Arras to divert German forces from the main French offensive further south. The Canadians were tasked with seizing Vimy Ridge, which the Germans had heavily fortified.
The Canadian Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, and with the assistance of numerous British support units, carefully rehearsed their attack in the preceding weeks. They studied detailed maps and aerial photographs of the enemy lines, laid communication cables, dug a series of tunnels leading directly to the front lines, and stockpiled shells for the enormous artillery barrage that was to precede the assault.
Over 1 million shells were fired at the German lines for a week before the attack. Referred to by German troops as ‘the week of suffering’, the bombardment destroyed many of their defences and left them exhausted. At 5:30 am on 9 April the first wave of Canadian troops advanced behind a creeping artillery barrage through sleet and snow. They captured most of their objectives on the first day, and took control of the final target – a heavily fortified mound known as the Pimple – by nightfall on 12 April.
On the 11th April 1961, the trial of Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann began in Israel. Eichmann was known as the architect of the Final Solution, the man who coordinated the transportation of Jews from across Europe to Death Camps in the East.
At the end of the Second World War, Eichmann had fled Europe in an attempt to escape being tried for war crimes. Eventually arriving in Argentina with his family, he lived for a number of years under the assumed name Ricardo Klement. However, as one of the world’s most wanted Nazi war criminals, the Israeli secret police – the Mossad – spent years tirelessly searching for him. After being given the tip-off that he may be in Buenos Aires, they eventually captured him and forcibly took him to Jerusalem for trial.
With Eichmann sitting inside a purpose-built bullet-proof glass booth, the trial lasted 16 weeks and exposed for the first time the extent of the atrocities that occurred in the Holocaust. Eichmann’s main line of defense was that he was not personally involved with the killings, and was just following orders. However, on the 15th December 1961, the three judges hearing the case unanimously found him guilty of the 15 charges against him and sentenced him to death. Eichmann was executed by hanging six months later, his body cremated, and his ashes scattered at sea.