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Legendary Soldiers of World War II
World at War
The last 'great' war in history, was just that. Involving more than 100 million people from over 30 different countries, the effects of such a conflict are still palpable. It was the deadliest conflict in human history with an estimated death toll between 50 to 85 million! The major players in the war included Germany, the United States, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, China, France, and Italy (in no particular order). It was a classic example of Good versus Evil, although that depends on who you ask. Adolf Hitler, "the Fuhrer" of the Nazi party and the Third Reich, was injecting fear in the hearts of many across the globe with his fiery rhetoric, embellished propaganda, and downright scary ideologies in regards to establishing an Aryan master-race(amongst other things). Still bitter about the sanctions placed on Germany following the first world war, Hitler was steadfast and resolute in making the rest of the world pay for limiting the power of his motherland, no matter what the cost. His direct actions forced the good people of this world to come together and put a stop to this madness. Amidst all the fighting taking place emerged some of histories most enigmatic soldiers. The wildly successful and idiosyncratic methods employed by these characters couldn't be imagined by the best of Hollywood's screenwriters. Let's take a closer look at some of the individuals whose battlefield heroics and big personalities helped to turn their own stories into stuff of legend.
"Mad" Jack Churchill
In some cases you have to save the best for first! A Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, Jack Churchill was truly one-of-a-kind and an aberration in every sense of the word. You don't believe me? Where should I start? How about a quote from Mad Jack himself. "Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed." Yes you read that correctly. On battlefields filled with machine guns, high powered rifles, tanks, and heavy artillery; Churchill preferred Medieval weaponry! Throughout the war, Churchill was armed with a longbow, a Scottish broadsword, as well as his trusty bagpipes. He is credited with the last recorded longbow and arrow killing in action, taking out a German officer inside of a French village circa 1940, as an attack signal. According to his son Malcolm, Churchill had stated as the enemy approached,"I will shoot the first German with an arrow."
Next Stop: Norway
After his heroics in France, Churchill was then placed second in command of a group of British commando's tasked with raiding a German garrison positioned in a small county on the coast of Norway. Well, lets just say Mad Jack didn't enter the conflict quietly. As soon as the first watercraft's ramps touched the sand to begin the assault, he leaped from his position and began playing a war hymn on his bagpipes before chucking a grenade at the enemy and then running to join the battle in the bay. For his actions, he received a Military Cross for exemplary gallantry in battle. It was then off to Italy for Mad Jack, where his orders were to capture a German observation post outside of the town of Molina, that controlled a pass leading down to the Salerno beach-head. With the help of a corporal, he infiltrated the town and captured the post, taking 42 prisoners including a mortar squad. Churchill led the men and prisoners back down the pass, with the wounded being carried on carts pushed by German prisoners. He commented that it was "an image from the Napoleonic Wars." Not only was he a one man wrecking crew, he was a military history buff to boot!
Jack Captured? Not For Long...
The next stop for Churchill after his exploits in Italy was a German-held island in Yugoslavia. His objectives were to launch an attack and raid the island but during the assault, he and his assembled crew of soldiers came under a mortar attack and the shelling left all but one survivor. Yes, you guessed it. Churchill was the lone survivor of the mortar shelling, and as the Germans advanced he continued playing ,"Will Ye No Come Back Again?" , on his bagpipes until he was knocked unconscious by grenades and subsequently captured. A little concentration camp in the heart of Berlin(where he was transferred) wasn't going to hold back Churchill, however! In September 1944 Churchill and a Royal Air Force officer crawled under the wire, through an abandoned drain and walked all the way to the Baltic coast.
Near the end of the war, he was sent to Burma where some of the largest land battles between Great Britain and Japan were taking place. However, by the time he reached India the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively putting an end to the war. The reason I make note of this is because of the terrific yet unusual response given by Mad Jack to the abrupt ending of the world conflict. "If it wasn't for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years!" The normal person would be happy that they can finally make the descent out of pure hell. Mad Jack Churchill welcomed an elongated stay! After the war, he carried his eccentric behavior with him. He became an avid surfer( and somewhat of a pioneer), spent inordinate amounts of time playing with radio-operated model warships, and made a habit of tossing his briefcase out of the window of the train he rode to and from his military desk job. This began to startle the train conductors and when asked what the purpose of doing that was, he responded in typical Mad Jack fashion."I'm tossing it in my own back garden so I won't have to carry it from the station." Jack Churchill passed away on March 8th, 1996 in Surrey, England at the age of 89.
For my next account of legendary soldiers of World War II we'll travel to Soviet Russia and take a look at Vasily Zaytsev, one of the most accomplished snipers in military history. Although "Mad Jack" is a tough act to follow, I must say Zaytsev may give him a run for his money. The inspiration for the 2001 feature film, "Enemy at the Gates", Zaystev's heroics at the Battle of Stalingrad was made for the big screen.
Like many good rifle shot's, Zaytsev honed his craft and deadly accuracy from a young age amongst the rural backdrop of the Ural Mountains of Western Russia. Specifically, he would hunt wolves and deer with his grandfather and younger brother. His first trophy came in the form of a wolf he shot with a single bullet from a rifle he could barely carry on his back, around the age of 12. His military career started as a clerk in the Soviet Navy but that all changed when(like many of his comrades) he was called to duty during the Battle of Stalingrad which was perhaps the bloodiest and nastiest battles of the entire war.
In order to save 'Mother Russia' from the Nazi advancers, a universal call to arms was sent out to stop the invasion dead in its tracks. Of course, Zaytsev volunteered to be placed towards the frontlines of the Soviet defenses and was subsequently assigned to a rifle brigade. During the battle, he utilized sniper tactics that are still in use today. One such tactic, know as "the sixes" was to cover one large area from three positions, with two men at each point – a sniper and scout. This sniper formation was used as recently as 1991 by Chechnyan rebels during the war for independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Zaytsev was an intelligent sniper that realized the importance of what he called "hide and sting tactics". In other words, always move positions after a shot so as to not be discovered. He was the master of his domain, concealing himself in various positions such as under rubble, inside water pipes, and extremely high points above the battlefield. The results of his utilization of such shrewd sniper tactics, were evident as the dust settled on Stalingrad.
"Legend of Stalingrad"
The 'legendary' aspect of Zaytsev's military career lies in the unusually high and record setting body count he racked up as a marksman. For instance, at the Battle of Stalingrad alone, he killed 225 soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht (German army), including eleven enemy snipers! What's even more astonishing is the fact that he accomplished these feats with a standard issue Mosin-Nagant non-scoped bolt action rifle! Some of his kills were even estimated at more than 1,000 yards away. The aforementioned film about Zaytsev's life was actually based on a real-life encounter with an enemy sniper sent by the Nazi's specifically to take him out.
A Sniper Duel
This was a true heavyweight sniper fight in which Zaytsev delivered the knockout blow. As history tells it, a sniper school instructor named Major Erwin Konig was handpicked by "The Fuhrer" to hunt down Zaytsev who was giving the Wehrmacht all sorts of headaches at Stalingrad. At some point or another, the two deadliest snipers on earth found themselves within yards of each other anxiously anticipating the other to make the first move. A political commissar was excited to see this showdown in the making firsthand so he went out with Zaytsev during the standoff. He noticed something move down the street and stupidly stood up and pointed saying "There he is I see him!". He was exposed for perhaps one second but before Zaytsev could warn him he took a bullet to the skull from Konig. Zaytsev deduced it had to be Konig because the shot was too well placed and too quickly fired. Ingeniously, he placed a glove on a stick and raised it up . When he did Konig shot the glove. He focused his sights on where he saw the muzzle flash come from and put a round in a small triangular dark spot and as luck would have it the shot went through Konig's face and out the back of his head.
A headache for Nazi Germany and a hero to the Soviet Union, Vasily Zaytsev served as inspiration and a highlight for Soviet propaganda. Zaytsev was eventually awarded the distinguished title of "Hero of The Soviet Union" and passed away on Dec. 15, 1991 at the age of 76,leaving behind a peerless legacy of outstanding marksmanship.
Adrian Carton de Wiart
Next up on my legendary World War II soldiers list is Adrian Carton de Wiart. De Wiart was a British army officer that held the title of Lieutenant General. His military career spanned over three separate wars including the Boer War, World War I, and World War II. A quote from the man himself tells you all you need to know about the intestinal fortitude of this war hero."Frankly, I had enjoyed the war." A simple yet chilling statement from a soldier of epic proportions. What's really puzzling (and rather unsettling) is knowing exactly what he went through whilst fighting for The Crown.
During his military service he suffered gunshot wounds to the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; Survived two plane crashes; Tunneled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them! Eat your heart out G.I. Joe! Donning an eye-patch from the effects of the gunshot wound, De Wiart was known affectionately as "the elegant pirate". What is it with these hilariously savage Brits of WW II !? Although well-known in high-class British social circles, he shared few of the characteristics of his elite cohorts. One of his friends described him as, "a delightful character that must hold the world record for bad language." During one skirmish with the "Red Cavalry" of the Red Army in the first world war, he was attacked while on an observation train by an entire company of these horseback soldiers and managed to fight them off with just a revolver from the footplate of his train-car. At one point during the engagement he fell to the tracks but quickly re-boarded and continued the fight!
Later on, during the second world war he became a prisoner of war in Italy. As previously mentioned, he attempted escape five different times with the final attempt being the successful one. During one such attempt to flee from capture, he tunneled for seven months and avoided capture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant. This is surprising and amazing to many historians considering the fact that he was in northern Italy, couldn't speak Italian, and was 61 years old, with an eye patch, one empty sleeve and multiple injuries and scars!
The "Elegant Pirate" was so beloved by the British aristocracy, that he was given the title of "personal ambassador" to China by prime minister Winston Churchill. De Wiart passed on June 5th, 1963 at the age of 83 and left behind an endearing legacy of military accomplishment.
The last featured soldier in this piece hails from the good ole USA! To call Audie Murphy a hero does not do his honor justice. Audie Leon Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers of WW II receiving every military combat award for valor available for the U.S. Army as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. This legendary soldier holds a special place in my heart because he fought for my country as bravely as anyone had before or since. At just 19 years of age, Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor after single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January of '45, and then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition!
A Poor Farmboy
Murphy was born poor into a large sharecropping family in Hunt County, Texas. His father abandoned the family when he was a young boy and his mother died when he was a teenager. Audie made the decision to leave school in fifth grade to pick cotton to help out the rest of his family. He also needed to be a master with the rifle in order to put food on the table. Influenced by the attacks on Pearl Harbor, he decided to enlist in the service with the help of his sister who falsified his documents to meet the minimum age requirement for military service. The Marines as well as the Navy turned him down but the Army accepted his offer for service. In the early stages of his military career during basic training it was clear he was an exceptional shot and was awarded with several marksmanship awards.
The Rise of Audie
His legendary heroics and rise in the ranks all began as a scout patrolmen with the killing of two fleeing Italian officers near Sicily. While on Scout patrol during another Italian campaign, he and two other soldiers were ambushed by German machine-gun fire, which killed one of the Americans. Murphy and the other survivor of his group responded by killing five German soldiers with hand grenades and machine-gun fire. While on yet another allied assault campaign Murphy again sprang into action playing the part of hero when he and his company repelled an attack by seven German soldiers, killing three and taking four prisoners. After another act of valor, he was given the promotion to sergeant. Further adding to a growing list of merits, Murphy was then awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for action taken on 15 August 1944, during the first wave of the Allied invasion of southern France.
August 15, 1944
As it goes, Murphy's platoon was attacked by German soldiers while making their way through a vineyard. He quickly retrieved a machine gun that had been detached from the squad and returned fire at the German soldiers, killing two and wounding one. Suddenly two Germans exited a house about 100 yards away and appeared to surrender; Murphy's best friend responded to them, and they shot and killed him. Murphy angrily and valiantly advanced alone on the house under direct fire. He wounded two, killed six, and took eleven prisoner. The little boy from Texas was not done playing the hero part just yet, however.
The Stuff of Legend
In perhaps his most impressive act of bravery for which he would receive the Medal of Honor, Murphy again took the reigns of leadership and ordered his men to retreat to the woods while they were under direct fire from German positions. Murphy (alone) mounted an abandoned burning tank destroyer and began firing its .50 caliber machine gun at the advancing Germans, killing a squad crawling through a ditch towards him. For an hour, Murphy stood on the tank destroyer returning German fire from foot soldiers and advancing tanks, killing or wounding 50 Germans. He sustained a leg wound during his stand, and stopped only after he ran out of ammunition. Murphy rejoined his men, disregarding his own wound, and led them back to repel the Germans. He insisted on remaining with his men while his wounds were treated! By the time he completed his service, word had begun to spread back home about the actions of Audie Murphy and his unbelievable courage on the battlefield.
Because of his heroism and boyish good looks, Murphy became a domestic celebrity after the conclusion of his military service and was able to embark on a 21 year acting career starring in over 40 films and one television series. In addition to acting, Murphy became an accomplished songwriter and breeder of quarter horses that won many races over time. Unfortunately, Audie's remarkable life ended in tragedy. Towards the time of his death he was plagued by what would now be described at PTSD and consequentially became addicted to sleeping pills. He was plagued by money problems and was offered to appear in several alcohol and cigarette commercials ,but in true Audie fashion, turned them down because he did not t want to set a bad example! Audie Murphy tragically passed away in a plane crash on May 28th, 1971 just short of his 46th birthday. A greater American citizen or soldier I cannot think of. His memory pervades and serves as reminder of the indomitable will and spirit of the American people.
I hope you enjoyed my collection of the most legendary soldiers of World War 2 and I also hope that it was somewhat interesting and informative. I failed to include any soldiers from the Axis powers because in my opinion they were fighting for all the wrong reasons. Maybe they were forced to fight for whatever reason, but I hope you understand the intention behind the omission. Please feel free to drop a comment and tell me what you think.
Brendan's Big Bad World War Quiz!
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