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16 Facts About WWII That Sound Made Up But Aren't

Updated April 26, 2021 6.8k votes 1.3k voters 191.6k views16 items

List RulesVote up the WWII facts that seem hard to believe.

World War II is one of the most transformational events in history. It was the largest and deadliest conflict ever. A combined 70 million people fought on both sides, and between 40 and 50 million people lost their lives. It was so big and so devastating that it fundamentally changed the way wars have been fought ever since. If we're lucky, we'll never see another conflict like it again. 

To people who have never had to live through such a terrible ordeal, some facts about WWII can sound unbelievable. Some of these facts are on the macro level, like the fact that 1930s and '40s aviation was so dangerous that more American pilots perished in training than in combat. But individuals' actions can be just as shocking as any statistic, like the Japanese holdout who kept fighting decades after his country surrendered. 

Here are some facts about WWII that sound made up, but aren't. 

  • 1

    Spanish Double Agent Juan Pujol Received Medals From Both Germany And England (Despite Only Being On England’s Side)

    More people need to know about Juan Pujol Garcia, a Spanish-born spy who hoodwinked Germany even though he had no formal training in espionage. Leading up to WWII, fascist Spain under the rule of Generalissimo Francisco Franco had become allies with Germany. But Pujol, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, hated totalitarianism in all its forms and devoted himself to the Allied cause. After Germany and Great Britain went to war in 1939, Pujol approached the British and offered his services as a spy. But since he had no experience, he was turned down. 

    Pujol wasn't discouraged, and he decided to engage in espionage against Germany all on his own. He approached German officials in Madrid, claiming to be in command of a network of 27 spies that could obtain intelligence about the British war effort. In reality, this intelligence was deliberate misinformation embellished with information he gleaned from encyclopedias. He fed the Germans a steady diet of nonsense until 1942, when he again approached the British to offer his services. The British had discovered that a rogue double agent in the Iberian peninsula had been feeding the Germans misinformation, and realized it was Pujol. This time, they brought him into MI5. Since Pujol was such a convincing actor, MI5 nicknamed him "Garbo" after American movie star Greta Garbo

    The Germans never realized Pujol's true allegiance, and he continued to misinform them until WWII ended. In 1944, Germany even awarded him the Iron Cross for his efforts. The British also awarded him the MBE in 1944, making him the only individual to receive awards from both sides during WWII. After the conflict, word of his accomplishments eventually did get out, and Pujol moved to Venezuela. Fearing retribution from Nazi fugitives living in South America, Pujol arranged for MI5 to declare him deceased. He managed to live in secret until a British journalist tracked him down in the 1980s.

    If all of that sounds like it would make for a great movie, you won't be disappointed: A biopic about Pujol is in development, starring Oscar Isaac.

    Stranger than fiction?
  • Photo: 暗杀教室 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    The Last Japanese WWII Soldier To Surrender Did So In 1974

    After WWII, it's estimated that thousands of Japanese soldiers continued to fight even after their nation had already surrendered. The phenomenon of war holdouts isn't unique to the Japanese military. It's happened in numerous wars throughout history. Often, it's the result of the reality of fighting wars over large distances, since it can be difficult to get the word out that the conflict is over. But the Japanese stragglers are unique because of how long some of them held out. In some cases, Japanese soldiers waged one-man guerilla wars for decades. 

    Hiroo Onoda is probably the most famous of these holdouts, and his case attracted international attention when he was discovered hiding in the Philippines in the 1970s. But he wasn't the final holdout. That would be Teruo Nakamura, an indigenous Taiwanese who joined the Japanese military at the start of WWII. When it ended, he and several other soldiers from his unit dispersed into the jungle of Morotai, an island in Indonesia.

    Nakamura eventually struck out on his own. He survived on fish, whatever vegetables he could cultivate, and whatever food he could forage from nearby farms. When he was finally found in December 1974, the emaciated and terrified Nakamura willingly surrendered, although he did reportedly worry that he would be executed for deserting his post.

    Stranger than fiction?
  • Photo: William Orpen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Helena Bonham Carter's Grandmother Was On An SS 'Most-Wanted' List

    Practically every adult alive in Great Britain during WWII contributed to the war effort in some way, so it's not exactly surprising that many Gen-X Brits have war hero grandparents. But Helena Bonham-Carter's grandmother Violet played a prominent enough role that Hitler personally wanted her gone.

    Violet Bonham-Carter was born into an influential political family in a time when women were discouraged from participating in public life. Despite this, she still became a notable political figure, serving as an informal advisor to her father, Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, and later serving in Labor Party leadership. One of her closest friends was Winston Churchill, and she later wrote his biography. She was also an outspoken liberal humanist and champion of human rights. She vehemently opposed fascism, and was severely critical of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement toward Hitler in the 1930s. In 1934, one year after Hitler took power, Bonham-Carter published a pamphlet titled "Child Victims of the New Germany: A Protest," a polemic against the Third Reich. 

    All of this put Bonham-Carter on Hitler's radar. The Nazis routinely took out their political opponents, both foreign and domestic. The Gestapo kept a list of "undesirable" enemies in other countries to be arrested and executed in the event of a German invasion. This was called "Hitler's Black Book," and it included Violet Bonham-Carter, as well as other influential British citizens like Churchill, actor Noel Coward, and authors H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf.

    Stranger than fiction?
  • Photo: USAAF/361st FG Association (via Al Richards) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    More Americans Perished In WWII Pilot Training Accidents Than In Battle In All Wars Before The Civil War

    War drives technological innovation, but sometimes that technology is developed more hastily than it should be. As a result, the drive for innovation can be just as dangerous as the war itself. 

    Coming into WWII, the use of aviation in warfare was still a relatively new concept. WWI was the first major conflict that included aviation. At the start of WWI, France had the most trained military pilots of any nation, with just 171. But WWI did prove the value of military aircraft. In the ensuing decades, as the world once again crept towards conflict, many nations quickly expanded their aviation arsenals. 

    The oncoming WWII forced the United States to essentially build a military aviation program from scratch. To do this, it needed to design entirely new classes of aircraft in a short amount of time, and then manufacture thousands of them for imminent deployment. It also meant training hundreds of thousands of civilians to become pilots, many of whom had never been on an airplane before. In 1939, the year the conflict began in Europe, fewer than 1,000 American pilots completed basic training. By 1945, that number had grown to 165,000. 

    For pilot trainees in the Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the modern Air Force, lower life expectancy became a fact of life. While over 52,000 American flight crew members lost their lives during WWII, over 15,000 of those deaths happened during training, due to either pilot error or mechanical failure. Service members nicknamed the most dangerous plane, the B-24 bomber, "the flying coffin." Those 15,000 losses outnumber American combat fatalities in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, various wars with indigenous nations, and the Mexican-American War - combined.

    Stranger than fiction?