The European theater in WWII was such a mammoth and complex chapter in history, it's probably impossible to document every astonishing, horrifying, or heartbreaking story from that chaotic milieu. In such an enormous conflict, with so much at stake, it's inevitable some would go far beyond what seems conceivable with regards to compassion, malice, political convictions, or, in some cases, good old-fashioned weirdness. These lesser-known World War II stories are but a few examples of the rare heroism, astonishing cruelty, and bizarre improbability that marked one of the most momentous struggles in the history of civilization. Read on for some amazing true stories from WWII Europe.
The D-Day Medic Heroes Of Angoville-au-Plain
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, thousands of allied paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines in anticipation of the invasion of Normandy. One of the main objectives of the 101st Airborne was to capture the small village of Angoville-au-Plain. When intense fighting broke out over the village, two American medics, Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, set up a medical station in the tiny town church.
US paratroopers established control of Angoville-au-Plain, but German units quickly counterattacked and forced American troops back. Wright and Moore stayed behind, and when German soldiers entered the church, they were hostile to the Americans until they realized the medics were treating their wounded, as well. They left, posting a Red Cross flag at the entrance. For three days, the fighting raged on and the village changed hands several times, but the two medics toiled away, saving 80 lives, including a local teenager.
Today, all of the stained glass windows in the church (the originals were destroyed in the battle) are tributes to Wright, Moore, and the 101st Airborne. Wright visited the church in 2004, and some of his ashes were spread in Angoville-au-Plain's cemetery.
Oradour-sur-Glane, The Town That Died Forever
The Allied invasion of Normandy instigated widespread activity by the French Resistance, including the kidnapping and killing of Helmut Kampfe, a major in the Waffen-SS Das Reich. In the wake of Kampfe's demise, a battalion of the regiment known as Der Fuhrer Regiment made its way to the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane.
Commander Adolf Diekmann ordered the town sealed off, the men locked in barns, and the women and children confined to the church. It's unknown why the town was selected - possibly due to its proximity to the regiment, or because Germans knew it was defenseless.
Diekmann ordered his unit to begin shooting. Residents were incapacitated by shots to the legs, then the barns and church were doused with gasoline and ignited. Hundreds of villagers perished, which was nearly all the residents of the area. Many of the SS present were Alsatian French nationals forced into the German military, and almost all participants escaped punishment. After WWII, French president Charles De Gaulle declared that the village would never be restored, and left as a reminder of the brutal Nazi occupation.
The Amazing And Mostly Forgotten Georg Elser
In November 1939, German carpenter Georg Elser set out for Munich. He was alarmed by what was happening in Germany and wanted to assassinate Hitler before the dictator dragged the country into another costly war. Elser knew Hitler frequently changed his itinerary at the last minute as a security measure, but the one event he never failed to attend was the anniversary celebration of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, the first attempt by the Nazis to seize power. Hitler spoke annually at the site where the putsch began, the Burgerbraukeller beer hall.
When Elser checked out the hall, he noticed a pillar supporting a balcony over the speaker's dais, the perfect spot to plant a bomb. After 30 straight nights of chiseling the pillar, Elser hollowed out a place for his intricately designed, timed explosive device, which was set to detonate right in the middle of Hitler's traditional 90-minute speech. Elser was so methodical, he lined the hole with cork to muffle the ticking clock of the bomb and put tin around it so any attempt to nail decorations through his device would be repelled.
Everything was in place three days before Hitler's November 8 speech. Unfortunately, Hitler was planning to attack France on November 12, 1939. Although he eventually postponed the invasion until spring 1940, Hitler wanted to quickly return to Berlin to oversee the operation. He cut his speech to an hour so he could catch a train back to Berlin. Just 12 minutes after Hitler left, Elser's bomb went off, killing seven people and injuring 63. The carpenter was on his way to the Swiss border, having scouted a route through the frontier months ago.
But Elser hadn't counted on wartime security and was detained as he approached the border. He was arrested and tortured before being placed in the Dachau concentration camp. Hitler was convinced the Allies were behind Elser's conspiracy, and the carpenter was kept alive in the hopes of eventually staging a show trial. However, the imminent end of the war forced Hitler's hand. Elser was secretly executed at Dachau in April 1945. The exact date is debated.
The Execution Of Eddie Slovik
Edward D. Slovik was drafted into the Army in early 1944. His numerous criminal convictions initially disqualified him from service, but after getting married and avoiding trouble, Slovik was sent to France in August 1944. Slovik and a buddy essentially deserted and didn't arrive with their replacement unit until October, but such confusion was common in the chaos of the war, and their absence was overlooked. Slovik informed his company commander he was frightened and didn't want to serve on the front lines.
Slovik's request for reassignment was refused. He subsequently deserted, walking until he reached a rear headquarters unit. There, he presented his commanding officer with a note repeating his refusal to serve in the front lines and his promise to desert if so assigned. He was placed in the stockade and, despite numerous offers to drop charges if he would return to his unit, Slovik refused, figuring that, at worst, he would get a prison sentence. He was court-martialed, refused to testify, was convicted, and sentenced to death. Because desertion was a serious issue, it was believed the military, including General Eisenhower, who signed off on the execution, wished to make an example of Slovik.
On January 31, 1945, he was shot by a firing squad, the only US soldier to be executed for desertion in the 20th century. He was buried in France, in a secluded part of a US military cemetery, until 1987, when President Reagan allowed his reburial in Michigan, next to his wife. In 1974, a film starring Martin Sheen entitled The Execution of Private Slovik was released.