11 Facts About World War II We Can't Believe We'd Never Heard Before

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Vote up the facts that are completely new to you.

World War II is a conflict people have studied from all kinds of angles and perspectives, many times offering up the commonly known facts in new ways. From WWII myths that turn out to be false to those that are shockingly accurate, reassessment of the global conflict remains ongoing.

Then there are the facts that seem to show up out of nowhere: new details and insights that weren't in our textbooks, haven't appeared on our screens, and are just completely novel. It's amazing how there seems to be no end to the information out there about WWII, much of which we can't believe we hadn't learned earlier.

Take a look at some of the details we just found out about, and vote up the ones that are new to you, too.

  • Gino Bartali Used His Cycling Fame To Transport Messages For The Italian Resistance
    Photo: Fulgur Photo-Press / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Italian cyclist Gino Bartali was internationally renowned, having won the Giro d'Italia in 1936 and 1937, as well as the Tour de France in 1938. As early as 1938, he showed defiance against Benito Mussolini and his fascist government, refusing to dedicate his Tour de France win to the leader.

    After Germany occupied northern and central Italy in 1943, Bartali took to the road to protect Jews in the country. He rode between cities like Firenze (Florence) and Assisi to deliver communications between members of the underground Italian resistance. He hid the messages in his bike frame and handlebars, but "when Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed."

    In addition to traversing Italy as part of the resistance movement, Bartali personally hid one of his Jewish friends, Giacomo Goldenberg, and his family at his home near Florence. Giacomo's son Giorgio recalled what it was like to be in Bartali's cellar, where he and his family remained safe until Florence was liberated in August 1944:

    [It] was very small... A door gave way onto a courtyard, but I couldn’t go out because that would run the risk of me being seen by the tenants of the nearby apartment buildings. The four of us slept on a double bed. My father never went out, while my mother often went out with two flasks to get water from some well.

    Another son, Andrea, explained that his father never saw his actions as heroic. When people praised him, the elder Bartali would respond:

    No, no - I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I'm just a cyclist.

    886 votes
  • Georgy De Hevesy Dissolved Two Gold Nobel Prize Medals To Keep Them From The Nazis
    Video: YouTube

    In 1933, scientists Niels Bohr and Georgy de Hevesy received two gold Nobel Prize medals from Jewish colleagues in Germany. The winners, Max von Laue and James Franck, sent the awards to the duo in Denmark to keep them from falling into the hands of German authorities.

    When Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, the medals were again within the reach of the Third Reich. An added concern was that the names of von Laue and Franck were engraved on the backs of the awards. Should those be discovered, it would be clear that the scientists had dispatched them to Denmark, violating the law against sending gold out of Germany. 

    At first, according to de Hevesy, he thought about burying the medals. But fear of them being discovered sent him down another path:

    I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue's and also James Franck's medals. After the war, the gold was recovered and the Nobel Foundation generously presented Laue and Franck with new Nobel medals.

    De Hevesy used aqua regia, a mix of three parts hydrochloric acid and one part nitric acid. After the gold dissolved, which de Hevesy described as a difficult process, he shelved the solution. When Nazis searched the lab, they were none the wiser of the dissolved precious metal in jars nearby. The gold was later recovered from the mixture. 

    952 votes
  • William Overstreet Jr. Flew A Fighter Plane Between The Legs Of The Eiffel Tower
    Photo: US Government Photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    957 VOTES

    William Overstreet Jr. Flew A Fighter Plane Between The Legs Of The Eiffel Tower

    William Overstreet Jr., an American pilot in the 357th Fighter Group, found himself in a dogfight over France during the spring of 1944. Piloting a P-51B Mustang (also called a Berlin Express), he reportedly chased a Messerschmitt Bf 109 as it headed toward the skies above Paris. 

    He fired at the German plane, hitting it numerous times before it flew under the Eiffel Tower. Overstreet, in his own words, followed:

    I was right behind him, right under the Eiffel Tower with him. And when he pulled up, I did get him. But, listen, that’s a huge space... As soon as he was disabled, I ducked down just over the river, a smaller target for the Germans, and I followed the river until I was away from Paris.

    The sight of Overstreet flying low over the city was said to have inspired French Resistance troops and citizens alike, leading to what US Army Chaplain Pastor Jeff Clemmons called an uprising "in defiance of the Germans for a period of three days."

    957 votes
  • Director, actor, and all-around funnyman Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky, served as a combat engineer during World War II, where he took part in the Battle of the Bulge and carried out reconnaissance operations in Germany. Of the experience, he later said, "I was a combat engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in this world are combat and engineering."

    Between November 1944 and May 1945, Brooks was tasked with deactivating land mines as a member of the 1104th Engineering Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division. As men on the front lines, Brooks and his fellow soldiers found themselves face-to-face with German forces on several occasions.

    Brooks reportedly entertained soldiers on the battlefield, singing songs and trying to keep things light because "otherwise we'd all get hysterical, and that kind of hysteria - it's not like sinking, it's like slowly taking on water, and that's the panic."

    962 votes
  • 5
    845 VOTES

    The US Airdropped Pianos To Troops On The Battlefield

    During World War II, Steinway & Sons stopped making its traditional pianos - largely because the materials they needed were shifted to the war effort. The company didn't shut down production entirely, however; it made coffins and parts for military transports. Steinway was also contracted by the War Production Board to make pianos that could be sent into battle.

    Called "Victory Verticals" or "G.I. Steinways," the pianos were "small, sturdy uprights, painted olive drab and shipped by cargo vessels and transport planes to military theaters around the world." Steinway made about 3,000 Victory Verticals in 1942 and 1943, instruments that parachuted with tuning tools and instructions.

    The arrival of a Victory Vertical was a welcomed gift in war. In a letter home from North Africa dated May 6, 1943, US Army Pvt. Kenneth Kranes told his mother:

    Two nights past we received welcome entertainment when a jeep pulling a small wagon came to camp. The wagon contained a light system and a Steinway pianna [sic]... It is smaller and painted olive green, just like the jeep. We all got a kick out of it and sure had fun after meals when we gathered around the pianna to sing... I slept smiling and even today am humming a few of the songs we sang.

    845 votes
  • 6
    782 VOTES

    Germany Only Had One Dock That Could Service Its Largest Ships

    The dry dock at Saint-Nazaire in France was the lone facility where the Nazis could bring their two battleships, the Bismarck and Tirpitz. Located on the Loire estuary, the shipyard had been built to accommodate ocean liners, but once France fell to Germany, it became a strategic stronghold along the Atlantic Wall.

    Germany seized Saint-Nazaire in 1940 and the Bismarck was sunk in 1941, leaving the Tirpitz as a major target for Allied forces. Winston Churchill reportedly said:

    The destruction or even crippling of this ship is the greatest event at sea at the present time. No other target is comparable to it... the whole strategy of the war turns at this period on this ship. 

    To take out the Tirpitz, the Allies went after Saint-Nazaire. In 1942, Operation Chariot was launched to raid the facility, initiated by the explosive-packed HMS Campbelltown ramming the gates and opening up the facility to British troops. Of the 611 men who participated for the British, 169 perished and 32 were taken prisoner. It worked, however, and the massive explosion unleashed by Campbelltown rendered the dock out of commission.

    782 votes