War can be cruel, it can be brutal, and every once in a while it can throw up events that are just plain weird. The Second World War was the largest war ever fought, and it was no exception.
In this list we take a closer look at some of the strangest events from history’s most destructive war.
10. The Toilet Malfunction that Cost Germany a U-boat
In April 1945 the crew of the German submarine U-1206 completed their training, and under their newly promoted commander, Karl-Adolf Schlitt, set out on their first patrol.
While British submarines stored human waste in tanks to be disposed of when they returned to docks, U-1206 was equipped with hi-tech toilets that used compressed air to blast waste into the sea even when deep underwater.
It was, however, a complex system, and on April 14, 1945 it malfunctioned, causing seawater and sewage to flood into the submarine. The situation rapidly deteriorated from disgusting to potentially deadly when the mixture leaked onto the submarine’s batteries, causing them to discharge chlorine gas.
Karl-Adolf Schlitt had no choice but to give the order to surface just off the coast of Scotland, where the U-boat was almost immediately spotted and attacked by the British Royal Air Force.
Three crew members were killed and the submarine was destroyed, all because of a malfunctioning toilet.
9. Yang Kyoungjong
Many people join the army out of a strong sense of loyalty to their country; others are conscripted whether they like it or not. An unfortunate few find themselves forced to fight for a foreign power to whom they owe no allegiance whatsoever. For a Korean man named Yang Kyoungjong this became a recurring feature of his life.
For the first part of the 20th century Korea was occupied by Japan. Koreans were treated as second-class citizens and thousands of them were forced to serve as cannon fodder in Imperial Japan’s growing collection of wars. When Kyoungjong was pressed into service and sent to fight in the Soviet-Japanese War of 1939, his prospects were not good.
Kyoungjong survived, but he found himself captured and sent to one of the Soviet Union’s brutal labor camps. He may well have toiled there until his death but for Nazi Germany’s invasion in 1941.
With the Soviet Union suffering horrific losses and running short on manpower, Kyoungjong was forced to join the Red Army and sent to fight and die on the Eastern Front.
History repeated itself as Kyoungjong was once again captured and recruited, this time eventually finding himself almost 6,000 miles from home in France fighting for the German Army.
Unwilling to fight to the death for Hitler’s dream of a racially-pure Europe, he surrendered to the Allies at the earliest opportunity. Initially believed to be a Japanese soldier who had somehow found himself under German command, the truth of Kyoungjong’s unique story didn’t emerge until some time later.
8. The Puzzle of the Daily Telegraph Crossword
The Allied invasion of Western Europe had a huge amount riding on it. If the 1944 invasion went wrong, then tens of thousands of Allied troops would be killed or captured, and it wouldn’t have been possible to launch a fresh attempt until 1945 at the earliest.
In order to maintain the advantage of surprise the operation was planned in the strictest secrecy. Only a handful of senior officers were aware of the details. It was therefore a cause of immense concern when, over the course of just a few weeks, a whole string of code words relating to the invasion appeared in the answers to the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s crossword puzzle.
These included Overlord (which was the name of the operation itself), Neptune (which referred to the naval component of the assault), mulberry (which was the name given to the top-secret floating harbors developed by the Allies), and on top of all that the code names for two of the five invasion beaches.
Fearing that enemy spies had somehow infiltrated the highest levels of the military, Britain’s secret service pounced. Leonard Dawe, the man who’d compiled the crossword puzzles, was taken away for questioning.
Dawe insisted he had done nothing wrong, hadn’t been attempting to communicate with the Germans, and certainly wasn’t a spy. It seems he was telling the truth. As far as is known Dawe chose the words through sheer coincidence, perhaps having overheard them mentioned by military personnel in his hometown of Bury St. Edmonds.
7. The Battle of Castle Itter
On April 30, 1945 Adolf Hitler shot himself through the head. The war in Europe wasn’t quite over yet, but the Third Reich was clearly doomed. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were on the move, the vast majority heading west attempting to escape the Soviet Red Army and surrender to the Western Allies.
As order broke down the German guards at Castle Itter in Austria fled their posts. The castle had been converted into a prison in which to hold some of Germany’s highest profile prisoners. In 1945 this included two former French prime ministers, the man who had been commander-in-chief of France’s army at the outbreak of war, and one of the world’s leading tennis players.
With the disappearance of their guards the prisoners rightly feared the fanatical troops of the Waffen SS, who were prowling the countryside in some numbers, might move in to finish them off. One of the prisoners set off on a bicycle in search of help. He returned with a ragtag force of a single Sherman tank, 18 Americans, and 10 German soldiers who had agreed to assist in what would be one of the last European battles of the war.
The attack came on May 5. Despite being heavily outnumbered the unlikely force of American and German soldiers, assisted by the prisoners themselves, held the SS off for several hours until help finally arrived. The German commander was killed in action, but the Battle of Castle Itter is believed to be the only time that American and Wehrmacht soldiers fought side-by-side in all of World War Two.
6. The Nazi Invasion of North America
The ability to predict the weather with greater accuracy than an enemy provides a huge and often underestimated military advantage.
Throughout the course of World War two the British and Americans consistently benefited from more accurate reports than their German opponents. This was at least in part because the jet stream means weather systems tend to move from west to east across the Atlantic, making it easier for the Allies to make predictions about the weather in Europe.
In an attempt to nullify this advantage the Germans invaded North America, albeit on a very small scale. On October 22, 1943 a small group of armed German sailors arrived by submarine at a remote part of the Canadian Labrador Coast.
So far as is known it is the only German military incursion into North America over the course of the entire war. It didn’t last long, with the sailors remaining only long enough to set up an automated weather station. In an attempt to conceal its true purpose they labelled it as belonging to the Canadian Meteor Service.
No such organization existed, but the subterfuge was none the less so successful that the truth of Weather Station Kurt wasn’t discovered until 1981, having sat undisturbed for 38 years.
5. A Reindeer Lived on a British Submarine
In June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in what was the biggest offensive in the history of warfare. As the Soviet Union reeled under the onslaught, Britain and the United States of America attempted to keep the Soviets in the fight.
They sent weapons, equipment, and supplies; almost all of which had to be delivered through the U-boat-infested waters of the Arctic Circle. The British submarine HMS Trident was just one of the vessels tasked with keeping these vital supply routes open.
The Soviets were grateful. So grateful, in fact, that they offered the Trident’s captain a gift in the form of a reindeer. An adult reindeer stands over six-feet at the shoulder and weighs in at more than 200 pounds. As a species they are entirely unsuited to life on a cramped World War Two submarine.
Nonetheless, the British didn’t want to appear rude. They accepted the unconventional gift, named her Pollyanna, and squeezed her onto the submarine through a torpedo tube.
Pollyanna remained on the submarine for six weeks, surviving on scraps from the galley and sleeping in the captain’s quarters. When the Trident returned to port in Britain, Pollyanna was relieved of duty and donated to Regents Park Zoo.
4. An American Warship Almost Torpedoed the President
The first ever meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin began in Iran on November 28, 1943. President Roosevelt, whose health was already failing, had to make a long and dangerous journey through the U-boat infested waters of the Atlantic.
In theory these German U-boats represented the greatest danger, but in practice it was an extraordinary incident involving an American destroyer that could have led to the President’s untimely demise.
Roosevelt would be transported to Iran on the battleship USS Iowa, but before he got underway he asked for a demonstration of the Iowa’s capabilities. What should have been a routine torpedo drill suddenly became altogether more lively when an American destroyer, the USS William D. Porter, broke radio silence with the startling news that they had accidentally fired a live torpedo directly at the President’s battleship.
Roosevelt appeared unperturbed, merely asking that his wheelchair be moved to the side of the battleship so he could watch the torpedo approach. Fortunately for everybody concerned the Iowa managed to evade the torpedo, but the entire crew of the USS William D. Porter were arrested on suspicion of attempting to assassinate the President.
Chief Torpedoman Lawton Dawson was eventually found to be responsible for the mistake. He was sentenced to hard labor, but Roosevelt personally intervened to have the sentence overturned.
3. The Death Match
Football is the most popular sport in the world. Countless matches have been played over the years, but perhaps the strangest, and deadliest, ever was played in 1942 occupied Ukraine.
Ukraine’s official football league had been abandoned in the wake of the Nazi invasion, but an amateur team which contained several formerly professional players was put together by the manager of a bread factory in Kyev.
When the newly-formed team comfortably swept aside opponents made up of Romanians, and another team raised from a German artillery unit, they attracted the attention of the German authorities.
The Germans put together the strongest team they could muster and arranged a date for the match. Given that it was the Aryan master race against mere Ukrainians, they assumed victory to be inevitable. The Ukrainian team, who apparently hadn’t got the memo, romped to a crushing 5-1 victory.
The Germans demanded a do-over and arranged a second match to be played a few days later on August 9, 1942. Despite being warned that any repetition of the first result would be looked upon very dimly, the Ukrainians won 5-3 — with all three of the German team’s goals being scored with the opposing goalkeeper having been knocked unconscious.
Several of the Ukrainian players who took part were murdered by the Nazis over the next few months, earning the game the title of the “Death Match.”
2. A British Officer Went to War Armed with a Longbow
World War Two was a war of technology as well as manpower. Soldiers wanted the best equipment available, knowing it could be the difference between life and death. One British officer served as the exception to this rule, preferring to go into battle armed with bagpipes, a medieval broadsword, and a longbow.
That man was Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Churchill, also known as “Mad Jack” and “Fighting Jack” to his friends. He argued that any British officer going into battle without a sword was improperly dressed. As a deadly archer who had represented Great Britain in the World Archery Championships, if anyone was going to face the Germans armed with a bow and arrow it would be him.
He is often credited with being the last man to kill an enemy using a longbow in combat. He also took part in a raid on occupied Norway and the invasion of Sicily, on both occasions playing his bagpipes before drawing his sword and charging into hand-to-hand combat.
In May 1945, he requested to be transferred to the Far East to join the fight against Japan. As one of the few individuals who’d thoroughly enjoyed the war, he lamented that if the Yanks hadn’t got themselves involved, it could have stretched on for another ten-years.
1. The Flight of Rudolf Hess
Rudolf Hess was a world-famous politician, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler’s designated successor. All of this and more made him one of the last people in the world the British expected to apprehend skulking around a field in Scotland. And yet, in the early evening of May 10, 1941, there he was.
Things got even stranger after he was escorted to a local police station. Hess explained he had flown in to personally negotiate peace between Britain and Germany. The fact that Hitler had not given him permission to do any such thing seems not to have deterred him in the slightest.
He’d made a solo-flight from Germany to Scotland in the hope of enlisting the help of Duke Hamilton the 14th, who Hess believed he had once become acquainted with at a party. This was news to the Duke, who insisted he’d never so much as met the Deputy Fuhrer.
Rather than being rushed to meet with Winston Churchill as he had expected, Hess was arrested and charged with crimes against peace. Psychologists determined that he wasn’t insane, but he was in a delicate mental state. He would remain imprisoned until his death in 1987.