The Battle of Kursk – an outline

The Battle of Kursk, Germany’s last grand offensive on the Eastern Front and the largest ever tank battle the world’s ever seen, began 5 July 1943.

The industrial city of Kursk, 320 miles south of Moscow, had been captured by the Germans in November 1941, during the early stages of the Nazi-Soviet war, and retaken by the Soviets in February 1943. Now held by the Soviets, Kursk and the surrounding area comprised a salient, or a ‘bulge’, 150 miles wide and 100 miles deep, into German-held territory.

‘My stomach turns over’

Battle of KurskGerman Field-Marshall Erich von Manstein wanted to recapture Kursk as early as March 1943 by ‘pinching the salient’ from the north and south, thereby cutting it off from the rest of the Soviet territory. ‘Operation Citadel’ would also provide, argued Manstein, an immediate morale booster following the German humiliation suffered at Stalingrad, but Hitler wanted to have a new generation of tanks ready before doing so. The normally bellicose Hitler was unusually nervous about the planned offensive, confessing to his general, Heinz Guderian, ‘Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over’. Three times he delayed the date of attack. The delays were to prove fatal.

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The Day Stalin Almost Had a Breakdown

During his thirty-year rule of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin succeeded in stifling all opposition. There was never a serious threat to his leadership. But there was one occasion, at the end of June 1941, when Stalin suffered what may have been a mental breakdown. When, after three days, his colleagues came for him, he fully expected to be arrested.

But they hadn’t come to arrest him, they’d come to plead with him, begging him to return and take control. Stalin had survived and was to remain in power until his death twelve years later. But what had brought about Stalin’s temporary collapse, and why did his Politburo colleagues fail to bring to an end his murderous rule?

We doubt the veracity of your information

On 23 August 1939, the Nazis and Soviets had signed a non-aggression pact. But both sides knew it was never meant to be more than a postponement of hostilities.

In September 1940, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, invited the Soviet Union to join the Tripartite Pact, an alliance of initially three Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) that was drawing more nations to its mast, including Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. In response, Stalin sent his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, to Berlin for talks. The talks failed dismally (Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, described Molotov and his companions as ‘Bolshevik subhumans’). Molotov returned empty-handed to Moscow whilst Hitler announced plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

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Code Name Pauline – book review

Born in Paris to English parents, Pearl Witherington Cornioley was an extraordinary SOE agent who, at one point during World War Two, had over 3,000 fighters under her command. In 1995, her memoirs were published in France. Now, eighteen years later, as Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, they are finally available in English, edited by American author Kathryn Atwood, and published by Chicago Review Press. Atwood first introduced us to Pearl in 2011 in her excellent Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. And here we get Pearl’s story from the woman herself. And it’s quite a story.

Code Name PaulinePearl’s father was a drifter and an alcoholic, rarely at home. Although she states she was “never unhappy at home with Mummy”, it was, nonetheless, a difficult childhood, having to bear her parents’ arguing, often rummaging for food and fighting off her father’s debt collectors. As the eldest of four girls and with an English mother who found it hard coping with life in Paris, Pearl was imbued from an early age with a sense of responsibility; a responsibility that deprived her of a proper childhood. As soon as she was old enough, and following her father’s death, Pearl went out to work to earn money, not for herself, but her mother and her sisters.

The Fall of France

Pearl met her future husband, Henri Cornioley, the son of prosperous parents, in 1933. But with war, six years later, came separation. Drafted into the army, Henri was not to see his sweetheart for over three years. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Pearl and her family, as British citizens, were still technically enemies of Nazi Germany and therefore had to flee. Following a circuitous journey lasting some seven months, they finally arrived in London in July 1941.

Vehemently opposed to the occupation of France, Pearl felt impelled to help the Allied cause and being a fluent French-speaker was able to join the newly-formed SOE (Special Operations Executive). Established specifically to cause disruption and sabotage within Nazi-occupied territories, Winston Churchill hoped that the SOE would “set Europe ablaze”.

Like many SOE agents, Pearl was given an honorary rank of second lieutenant in the “vain hope that, if captured, the enemy would treat these ‘officers’ as POWs according to the Geneva Convention”. Pearl’s SOE trainers were much impressed with her. Her weapons instructor referred to her as “probably the best shot (male or female) we have yet had”.

After months of training and preparation, Pearl was parachuted into France in September 1943 disguised as a cosmetics saleswoman. What follows is an account of her work in France, which includes, at one point, being shot at by the Germans. The tone is continually matter-of-fact and the descriptions of her adventures understated. But we know that here is a woman of immense courage, working under the most difficult of situations, fearful of arrest at every turn.

Nothing remotely civil

Following France’s liberation, Charles de Gaulle, “anxious to not credit the British for their help during the Resistance”, ordered Britain’s SOE agents to leave France within 48 hours. As French residents, Pearl and Henri did not fall into this bracket but nonetheless an even greater slight awaited them… Pearl was offered an MBE – the civilian version. Indignant, she refused it, stating that she hadn’t done “anything remotely ‘civil’ for England during the war”. Her obstinacy paid off and in 1946, Pearl was duly awarded the military MBE.

Code Name Pauline is an illuminating read. Atwood introduces each chapter with a summary or explanation written in such a way that, as the reader, you feel you are being gently guided. But at no point does Atwood’s commentary detract from the main narrative.

Atwood, who wrote an article especially for History In An Hour on editing Code Name Pauline, finishes with a number of useful appendices, including brief biographies of the key figures, figures from within Pearl’s story, and national figures such as de Gaulle and Philippe Petain. Following this are extracts from an interview with Henri Cornioley, who died in 1999, a man who obviously enjoyed telling a story. His story of begging to be allowed back into the POW camp he’d inadvertently escaped from is an amusing highlight. The book has a number of photographs, including Pearl in uniform, beside Henri and in her latter years, including a photo taken in 2004 of Pearl alongside the Queen.

In accidental tandem with Code Name Pauline, is a biography of Pearl called She Landed By Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington: the real Charlotte Gray by Carole Seymour-Jones. (Pearl has often been stated as the source of Sebastian Faulks’s eponymous heroine although Faulks denied the connection). Both titles, Atwood’s and Seymour-Jones’s, were published within a month of each other. She Landed By Moonlight has generally received favourable reviews and no doubt was intended to honour Pearl and her work during the war. But, rather strangely for a biography, it reads as a novel, using imaginary dialogue and imagined thoughts. For a woman who was so down-to-earth and fervently opposed to the romanticism of her story, one wonders what Pearl would have made of it.

Pearl Witherington Cornioley died, aged 93, on 24 February 2008. Kathryn Atwood’s finely edited book honours her memory in a manner I imagine Pearl would have thoroughly approved of.

Rupert Colley.

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent edited by Kathryn Atwood is now available for purchase.

See also Kathryn’s History In An Hour article on editing Code Name Pauline and HIAH’s review of Women Heroes of World War II.

Operation Barbarossa: Germany’s invasion of Russia – a summary

On 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. What followed was a war of annihilation, a horrific clash of totalitarianism, and the most destructive war in history.

Hitler’s intention was always to invade the Soviet Union. It was, along with the destruction of the Jews, fundamental to his core objectives – living-space in the east and the subjugation of the Slavic race. He stated his intentions clearly enough in his semi-autobiographical Mein Kampf, published in 1925. This was meant to be a war of obliteration – and despite the vastness of Russian territory and manpower, Hitler anticipated a quick victory (his generals had predicted ten weeks). So confident the Nazi hierarchy, that they provided their troops with summer uniforms but made no provision for the fierce Russian winter that lay further ahead.

Unprecedented, unmerciful, unrelenting

“You have only to kick in the door,” said Hitler confidently, “and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” Two tons of Iron Crosses were waiting in Germany for those involved with the capture of Moscow. This was always going to be the most brutal war, one which could not be “conducted with chivalry,” as Hitler told his generals, but “conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, unrelenting harshness.”

Two years earlier, on August 23, 1939, the Nazis and Soviets had signed a non-aggression pact. But both sides knew it was never more than a postponement of hostilities. For the Soviets, it gave them time to build up their defences (in the event little was achieved); and for Hitler the pact gave him time to concentrate on the West (the defeat of France, Britain and elsewhere) before turning his attention eastwards.

May God Bless Our Weapons

Now, in June 1941, with his Western objectives achieved (with the exception of Britain), the time had come.

On the eve of attack, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, wrote in his diary, “One can hear the breath of history… May God bless our weapons!”

Stalin’s spies had forewarned him time and again of the expected attack but he refused to believe it, dismissing it all as ‘Hitler’s bluff’. When warned of the imminent German invasion from a high-ranking Luftwaffe spy, Stalin responded, ‘Tell your “source” to go fuck his mother.’ He ordered another shot for spreading ‘misinformation’.

Stalin strenuously forbade anything that might appear provocative to the Germans, even insisting on the continuation of Russian food and metal exports to the Germans, as agreed in the Pact. He prohibited the evacuation of people living near the German border and forbade the setting up of defences.

So when, at 4 a.m. on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa was launched, progress was rapid. (Barbarossa was the nickname given to Frederick I, 1122-1190, king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor). At first, more frightened of Stalin’s prohibition of ‘provocative’ acts than the German armies, Soviet soldiers didn’t dare fire back. When one desperate Soviet border guard signalled, ‘We’re being fired on. What do we do?’, the response came back, ‘You must be mad; and why isn’t your signal in code?’

(June 22 was not the most auspicious date on which to launch an attack on the Soviet Union. It was on June 22, exactly 129 years before, that Napoleon started his ill-fated invasion of Russia.)

For the good of humanity

Operation Barbarossa Operation Barbarossa was the largest attack ever staged – three and a half million Axis troops, including Romanian and Hungarian, along a 900-mile front from Finland in the north to the Black Sea in the south. The Germans employed their Blitzkrieg, or lightning attacks, that had proved so successful against Poland and France. Their tanks were advancing 50 miles a day and, within the first day, one quarter of the Soviet Union’s air strength had been destroyed – the Russians had left rows of uncamouflaged planes sat on their airfields, providing easy targets for the Luftwaffe.

German soldiers were excited by the prospect of defeating Stalin’s mighty Bolshevik empire. One 18-year-old German tank driver wrote, ‘It’s a German’s duty for the good of humanity to impose our way of life on lower races and nations.’ They, like Hitler, expected an easy victory. An SS sergeant wrote, “My conviction is that Russia’s destruction will take no longer than France’s; I assume I’ll still get my leave in August.”

By the end of October, Moscow was only 65 miles away; over 500,000 square miles of Soviet territory had been captured and, as well as huge numbers of Soviet troops and civilians killed, 3 million Red Army soldiers had been taken prisoner of war, where, unlike in the West, the rules of captivity held no meaning for the Germans. (Of the five million Soviet PoWs taken during the course of the war, 3½ million were to die of malnutrition, disease and brutality. Those who survived returned home to the Soviet Union to be immediately branded as traitors and, in many instances, sent to the gulag.).

Stalin, once his generals had persuaded him that his country was under attack, controlled the Soviet response. His first acts were to order the execution of those who retreated and to send Vyacheslav Molotov, his foreign minister, to formally announce the war to his people. Molotov’s radio broadcast, relayed across cities by loudspeaker, announced this “act of treachery unprecedented in the history of civilised nations.”

The Great Patriotic War

Stalin attempted to control every aspect of operations but only for the first week before suddenly giving up. “Lenin founded our state,” he declared, exhausted, “and we’ve fucked it up.” This “bag of bones in a grey tunic”, as Nikita Khrushchev later described him, disappeared to his dacha where, many believe, he suffered a mental breakdown. Nothing could be done without him, nothing issued in the way of direction.

When, after three days, his Politburo came for him, Stalin feared he was about to be arrested. Instead, they came to ask him what to do. Once stirred, Stalin re-emerged. On July 3, in his first public address since the invasion, perhaps the most important speech of his life, Stalin spoke of “The Great Patriotic War”.

By the end of June, Finland, Hungary and Albania had all declared war on the USSR. For Finland it was a ‘holy war’, an opportunity to avenge their defeat the previous year during the Finnish-Soviet ‘Winter War’.

The sides had been drawn, the invasion launched. What followed was the most ferocious war ever known which was to last three years and claim the lives of over five million Axis troops, nine million Soviet troops, and up to 20 million civilian deaths.

Rupert Colley.

Unforgiving SeaRupert Colley’s gripping new novel, set during World War Two, The Unforgiving Sea, is now available.

Join our mailing list and claim a FREE copy of Rupert’s novel, My Brother the Enemy.

The Fall of France – an outline

On 11 November 1918, the French and British allies accepted Germany’s surrender and, between them, signed the armistice that ended the First World War. The signing took place in a railway carriage in the middle of the picturesque woods of Compiègne, fifty miles north-east of Paris. The humiliation of that event ran deep into the psyche of Germany, and none more so than in Adolf Hitler, at the time a corporal in the Imperial German Army.

Hitler in ParisOn 22 June 1940, Hitler, now the German Führer, got his revenge – it was the turn of the French to surrender, and Hitler made sure that it was done in the most demeaning circumstances possible – in exactly the same carriage and in the same spot as the signing twenty-two years earlier.

The Fall of France

Following the 1914-1918 war, the French had built a defensive 280-mile long fortification, the Maginot Line, all along the Franco-German border as protection against a future German attack. The Battle of France began on 10 May 1940. The Germans rendered the Maginot Line obsolete within a morning by merely skirting round the north of it, through the Ardennes forest. Because of its rugged terrain, the French considered the forest impassable. Reaching the town of Sedan on the French side of the Ardennes on 14 May and brushing aside French resistance, the Germans pushed forward, not towards Paris as expected, but north, towards the English Channel, forcing the French and their British allies further and further back. In 1916, the Germans had failed to take Verdun despite ten months of trench warfare; in May 1940, it took them but a day.

Elsewhere, Hitler’s armies were enjoying victory after victory – the Netherlands capitulated on 15 May, followed two weeks later by the surrender of Belgium. Allied forces, with their backs to the sea in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, were trapped. But the Germans, poised to annihilate the whole British Expeditionary Force, were inexplicably ordered by Hitler to halt outside the town. Between 26 May and 2 June, over 1,000 military and civilian vessels rescued and brought back to Britain 338,226 Allied soldiers. But not without scenes of panic, broken discipline and soldiers shot by their officers for losing self-control. Meanwhile, Hitler’s generals watched, puzzled and rueing an opportunity missed.

Winston Churchill may have viewed Dunkirk as a ‘deliverance’ but the French considered the British cowards for what they saw as a betrayal at Dunkirk. Hitler too thought little of the British soldier: ‘They can certainly beat their colonial subjects with a whip but on the battlefield they are miserable cowards’. Continue reading

Charles de Gaulle’s Appeal of 18 June 1940: a summary

Charles de Gaulle’s L’Appel du 18 Juin, the ‘Appeal of 18 June’, is of huge symbolic importance for the French. Former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, once said “We (the French) are all children of the 18 June”.

Charles De GaulleHere, below, is a brief resume of the fall of France and the first of Charles de Gaulle’s many broadcasts from the BBC in London.

On 14 June 1940, Hitler’s forces entered Paris, a city largely deserted with over two million Parisians having fled south to escape the Nazi invasion. Soon the swastika flag was flying from the Arc de Triomphe.

Charles de Gaulle

On 15 June, the French general, Charles de Gaulle, escaped from France to begin his life of exile in London. At the age of 49, De Gaulle was the youngest and most junior general in the French Army and although he had fought at Dunkirk and had met Winston Churchill he was generally unknown.

In London de Gaulle sought permission to broadcast to France from the studios of the BBC. The British government refused until Churchill stepped in and granted the Frenchman his wish.

“I speak for France”

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Anne Frank – a brief biography

“I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me.”

anne frankHer voice has come to symbolise the Holocaust, one victim among the six million who spoke for them all, a testament to all who perished with her.

Anne Frank died aged 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in early March 1945, possibly the 7th.

Born 12 June 1929, Anne and her elder sister, Margot, lived their early years in Frankfurt. But in 1933, following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, the Franks, as a Jewish family, became concerned for their safety as the Nazis introduced increasingly fanatical anti-Semitic legislation.

The Franks Move to Amsterdam

In late 1933 Anne’s father, Otto, was offered and accepted a business opportunity in Amsterdam. In February 1934 his wife and daughters joined him in the Netherlands. Of the half million Jews living in Germany in 1933, about 320,000 had emigrated by 1939.

In May 1940 Hitler launched his attack against France and the Low Countries. Rotterdam was heavily bombed and, on 15 May, the Dutch, fearing further losses, surrendered.

Occupied Netherlands

Life for the Jewish population in Nazi occupied Netherlands became increasingly intolerable and dangerous. In July 1942 Otto Frank received an order to report his eldest daughter for a work camp. The Franks, fearing for their lives, decided they had no option but to go into hiding. Continue reading

D-day and Omaha beach – a brief summary

D-Day, 6 June 1944, a date that altered the course of history, saw the largest amphibious invasion ever launched. Led by troops from the US, Great Britain and Canada, and involving Allied divisions from across the globe, the invasion of Occupied France, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy.

Five beaches

The Americans, it was decided, would land on the two western beaches in Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha; while the British would attack via the middle and eastern beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword; and between these two, the Canadians would land at Juno.

At 5.50, on 6 June, the 1,738th day of the war, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.

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The Sinking of the Bismarck – a summary

Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched in February 1939 by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1919-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.” 

On 24 May 1941, the Bismarck, on its first operation, had helped sink the HMS Hood. But in return, it had been damaged and had set a course for northern France to attend to its wounds and repair the leaking fuel tanks. “The Hood was the pride of England,” said the German Fleet Commander, Admiral Günter Lutjens (pictured), over the ship’s loudspeakers, “the enemy will now attempt to concentrate his forces against us. The German nation is with you.”

The crew was nervous but for now at least the ship had slipped away from battle and had managed to remain at large, undetected by the British.

But then Lutjens made a fatal error – he broke radio silence. He radioed back to Germany announcing his intentions. The signal was picked up by the British, and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did their work and roughly located the Bismarck’s position. Then, a RAF reconnaissance plane spotted the trailing oil leak.


26 May 1941 – the British closed in. The aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, launched 15 bombers, known as Swordfish planes, to attack the Bismarck, swooping in low, firing torpedoes. To their annoyance every torpedo missed and, equally, to their surprise the Bismarck failed to fire back. They soon learnt why – it was not the Bismarck they were attacking, but one of their own fleet, the HMS Sheffield.  Fortunately for the commanders responsible, there were no casualties.

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Robert Capa – a brief biography

‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’

Considered one of the greatest war photographers, Robert Capa’s images, especially those taken during the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings, are among the iconic images of the twentieth century.

Robert CapaBorn Andre Friedmann in Budapest on 22 October 1913, Robert Capa had, by the age of eighteen, turned into a political radical, opposed to the authoritarian rule of Hungarian regent, Miklós Horthy. In 1931, Friedmann was arrested and imprisoned by Hungary’s secret police. On his release, after only a few months, he moved to Berlin where he studied journalism and political science while working part time as a dark room apprentice. In 1933, alarmed by the rise of Nazism, Friedmann, who was Jewish, moved to Paris.

Famous American photographer

Two years later, while in Paris, Friedmann met Gerta Pohorylle, a German Jew who had also fled Hitler’s Germany. Together they worked as photojournalists, fell in love and, in an attempt to make their work more commercially appealing, pretended they both worked for the famous American photographer, Robert Capa. Friedmann took the photos, Pohorylle hawked them to the news agencies and credit was given to the fictional Robert Capa. (The name ‘Capa’ was chosen as homage to the American film director, Frank Capra.)

The Falling Soldier Continue reading