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.
Mission of Mercy
On December 20, 1943, American B-17 bomber pilot Charlie Brown and crew attempted to bomb an aircraft production facility in Bremen, Germany. The factory was surrounded by 250 anti-aircraft guns, which damaged Brown's B-17, Ye Olde Pub, disabling two engines and forcing the plane out of formation. The damaged aircraft was set upon by German fighter planes, which seriously wounded several crew members and knocked out all but one of the plane's engines.
While the fighters turned their attention to other prey, Ye Olde Pub was spotted by German fighter pilot Franz Stigler, who was refueling. Stigler caught up with the plane and was about to blast them when he saw the crew was seriously wounded. A combat veteran with 22 confirmed kills, Stigler was reluctant to attack a defenseless aircraft, so instead pulled alongside the B-17 cockpit and signaled the crew to land. They refused. He then motioned in the direction of Sweden, but the Allied crew didn't understand (who would really? "Oh, right, you mean Sweden, of course.")
Stigler flew side-by-side with the bomber, afraid his own military might identify him (his behavior might get him executed). As the bomber approached the safety of the English Channel, Stigler saluted and peeled off. Miraculously, Brown kept the plane in the air and made it to England. He often wondered why his German counterpart hadn't shot him down so, after the war, placed an ad in a WW II newsletter for pilot veterans. Stigler, who relocated to Canada, spotted the ad. The two reunited, and Stigler explained that to shoot at them would have been dishonorable. The pair became close friends until their deaths in 2008.
The Art Forger and the Reichsmarschall
In May 1945, in the Netherlands, an art dealer named Han Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with selling a Vermeer painting to Hermann Goering, a leading member of the Nazi party. This form of collaboration carried a death sentence, and Van Meegeren was wise to confess to a lesser but no less remarkable crime: he claimed the work in question was a forgery, and he had forged it and other Vermeers art appraisers deemed genuine.
In 1937, Van Meegeren, an aspiring artist who disliked modern art and was frustrated by being ignored, began forging paintings to mock the art establishment. After his first forgery was declared a genuine Vermeer and sold for millions, Van Meegeren created more. By 1943, he earned the equivalent of $60 million. One of his paintings was sold to Hermann Goering via a dealer, who implicated Van Meegeren after the work was recovered with other Nazi art.
Even after Van Meegeren confessed to forgery, his admission was dismissed. He painted another "Vermeer" in captivity to prove his story. The court dismissed the collaboration charge, convicted him of forgery, and sentenced him to a year in jail. While Van Meegeren's attorneys appealed, the forger died of a heart attack on December 29, 1947.
"The Man Called Richard Sorge Is Unknown to Us"
Richard Sorge was born in Russia in 1895 to a Russian mother and German father. He moved with his family to Germany, where he enlisted in the German Army in 1914, was seriously wounded in the First World War, earned a PhD, and became a radicalized Marxist. He fled to the USSR, became a spy, was assigned to China, and was directed to begin covert operations in Japan. To do so, he traveled to Germany, established cover as a journalist, and was successfully introduced to Eugen Ott, the German military attache in Tokyo.
Sorge's journalism built his reputation as an expert on Japan, and his frank opinions on Nazi policy and leadership and his drunken philandering added to his cover; what spy would act like this? Ott had Sorge accompany him on an official mission to Manchuria, and Sorge's report was forwarded to Berlin, where it was deemed strategically valuable. Sorge even seduced Ott's wife, but the attache shrugged it off; he needed Sorge's input that much. He dubbed Sorge The Irresistible.
By 1938, Ott was promoted to Ambassador of Japan. and had Sorge read his cables and reports before they were transmitted to Berlin. As Germany began its buildup for a full scale invasion of the USSR, Sorge sent warnings, giving Moscow the specific date of the invasion. Stalin ignored this as a Western "provocation" and the Nazi invasion was initially a Soviet disaster. Stalin believed his spy when Sorge relayed information that Japan would not invade the USSR unless the Russians surrendered, allowing Stalin to shift Asian resources to the defense of Moscow. Sorge also predicted Japan would attack Indo-China and American possessions in the Pacific, his last major accomplishment.
Sorge was arrested and condemned. But both Japan and Sorge figured he would never hang. When the Japanese tried, on three separate occasions, to exchange Sorge, the Soviets replied, "The man called Richard Sorge is unknown to us." Stalin systematically eliminated anyone with knowledge of his failure to respond to the imminent German attack of 1941, including Sorge's ex-wife, who was sent to a Siberian labor camp in 1942 and died there a year later. The Japanese finally gave up on exchanging Sorge and hanged him in 1944. In 1961, a French film about Sorge became popular in the USSR and, after personally investigating the case, Nikita Khruschev named him Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR's highest honor.
Mildred Harnack, the Only American Female Executed for Espionage by the Nazis
Mildred Fish was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when she met Arvid Harnack, a Rockefeller Fellow from Germany, in 1926. They married and moved to Germany, where Mildred worked in academia and Arvid secured a position with the Reich Economic Ministry. Throughout the '30s, Mildred and Arvid, alarmed by Hitler's ride to power, communicated with a close circle of associates who believed communism and the Soviet Union might be the only possible stumbling block to complete Nazi tyranny in Europe.
When Mildred returned to the US for a lecture tour in 1937, her family encouraged her to relocate permanently, but she refused and resumed her life in Germany. When war was declared in 1941, she did not leave with other American expatriates. By then, Mildred and Arvid were involved involved with a communist espionage network known by the Gestapo as "The Red Orchestra". The ring, which provided important intelligence to the USSR, was compromised and the members were arrested.
Arvid was sentenced to death and executed on December 22, 1942. Mildred was given a six year sentence, but Hitler refused to endorse her punishment and she was retried and condemned on January 16, 1943. She was beheaded by guillotine at Plotzensee Prison on February 16, the only American female executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Because of her connection to possible communist sympathies and post-war McCarthyism, her story is virtually unknown in the US.