There’s a lot that’s already been said about the horrors of World War Two. Reams of paper have been used trying to understand and explain the terrible insanity that affected so many people in so many parts of the world. After all, it was not only the greatest conflict of the last century; it was the greatest conflict of any century. An estimated 20 to 30 million people were casualties of the war and that’s in the former Soviet Union alone. The Soviets had a particularly rough century, mind you, losing almost ten million of their people in their own internal “purges” before the war.
But the point remains- this was a long, horrible war for countries all over both hemispheres. The Germans, for all of the grief they caused the world by starting the war in the first place, suffered over four million casualties, the Japanese two million. People, at least in the United States, don’t even necessarily think of China as a major belligerent of the war and that country had ten million casualties. The lists of dead, wounded, and missing go on and on like a terrible roll call of despair.
How did all of these people die, though? Everyone knows about the nightmare of the Holocaust, in which over six million Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Catholics and other “undesirables” of the Nazi German Reich lost their lives. Everyone knows about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But what of the forgotten horrors of the war? As we’ve said, this is a conflict that stretched its ugly grasp into every corner of the world. So it’s no wonder, then, that there are literally thousands of awful examples of war doing what it does best- creating brutal episodes of horror and destruction. Here are 15 forgotten such moments from World War II.
15. Katyn Wood Massacre
No country was blameless in World War II- pretty much every single combatant nation had a dirty, little secret about their actions in the war. But the Soviet Union, along with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, had its hands bloodied by multiple transgressions against humanity. One such major transgression was the Katyn Wood Massacre. The Soviets, who had an “agreement” with the Germans, had quietly invaded Poland themselves from the east, back in 1939, when the world’s attention was on Hitler’s invasion of that country from the west. In usual Soviet fashion, the secret police (or NKVD), arrested thousands of Polish intellectuals, teachers, doctors and, of course, officers of the Polish army. They then proceeded to execute as many as they could at various prison camps and also in the Katyn Woods, where mass graves were discovered, ironically enough, by the Germans in 1943. It is estimated that the soviets murdered upward of 20,000 Polish prisoners.
14. The Warsaw Ghetto
No one had it worse than the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. That’s an undisputed fact of history, with a little something called the Holocaust to back it up. But there were also examples of Jewish armed resistance to the Germans scattered throughout the war’s long history. The greatest (or worst) example has to be the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, which saw residents of the “ghetto” (the one part of the city Jews were confined to) rise up against their German overlords rather than be shipped off to the concentration camps. From late April to Mid-May of 1943, outgunned and overmatched Polish Jews fought desperately against all odds for their freedom. The Nazis, never ones to do things by halves, destroyed the ghetto block by block and killed nearly 7,000 Jewish resistance fighters in the process.
13. Malmedy Massacre
In late 1944 the German war machine was grinding to a halt. Worn down by battle on two fronts and six years of war, there was literally little left in the tank for the Germans. However, that didn’t stop Hitler from scraping together every last military resource that he could and launching the German’s last great offensive of the war, the surprise attack that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. This winter assault through the Ardennes forest in Belgium and Germany almost succeeded in knocking huge portions of the British and American armies out of the war. Almost. The Allies regrouped and counterattacked and the war was essentially over in the West. Especially for 84 American prisoners of war who had been captured by advancing German troops near the town of Malmedy, Belgium, at a crossroads called Baugnez, and then massacred by German SS troops in a field nearby. A few prisoners managed to escape and bring news of the massacre to American lines.
12. USS Indianapolis Shark Attack
On July 28, 1945, the USS Indianapolis steamed out of port for a trip to the Leyte Gulf in preparation for an attack on mainland Japan. The war was almost over. In fact, the Indianapolis had been one of the ships that had brought components of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs to the Pacific for assembly. On July 29, the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine. That’s when the horror really began. You see, the survivors had to deal with the nightmare of “schools” of sharks, drawn by the concussions and disturbances in the water, as well as the smell of blood, attacking them as their ship went down. For four days the sailors had to fight off sharks who, finished with the dead bodies, were perfectly happy to attack living men, both in the water and on lifeboats. U.S. Navy rescue planes and ships finally arrived but not before anywhere from two dozen to 150 sailors were killed and eaten by sharks. It is still considered to be the single worst shark attack in recorded history.
11. The Nanking Disaster
Western observers and historians of World War II tend to discredit or outright ignore much of the Sino-Japanese War, the conflict between Imperial Japan (one of the two major Axis powers along with Germany) and China. Much of what happened in this war of extreme racial hatred, naked aggression (by the Japanese), and horror remains unknown in the West to this day. Unfortunately, the fall of the capital city of Nanking in early 1938 is all too well-known for its atrocity. Japanese soldiers, disappointed by their failure to quickly bring China under Japanese rule, and angry at the fierce Chinese resistance they had met in cities like Shanghai, fell upon the relatively defenseless soldiers and civilians of Nanking like a pack of ravenous wolves. Almost 100,000 Chinese soldiers who surrendered were executed. In the ensuing six weeks hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were randomly shot, tortured, bayoneted and worse. Estimates put the number of rapes and subsequent murders at 10,000 women of all ages. Overall, anywhere from 300,000 to 600,000 Chinese were murdered in one of the most inhuman acts of the war.
10. The Siege Of Leningrad
Back we go to the war on the Eastern Front in all of its awful brutality. Leningrad, named after the founder of the Bolshevik (i.e. Communist) state of the Soviet Union, was not only a symbolic prize the German army wanted in their invasion of the Soviet Union, but also an important military resource for the Soviet northern fleet in the Baltic. To that end, the Germans encircled the city in the fall of 1941 and began a siege that would last almost 900 days. That’s a two and a half year siege. Needless to say, with no hope of breaking out and little relief coming in (except for a tiny “ice-road” supply line across Lake Ladoga), the citizens of Leningrad suffered miserably. People ate rats, people ate horses, and people ate each other. And still, starvation was never far from anybody during the siege of Leningrad; almost one million Soviet citizens died in the siege to end all sieges.
Dresden was a city in eastern Germany that was never considered vital to the German war effort- by the Germans and their foes alike. So it was something of a surprise when, in February 1945, just months before the collapse of the Nazi regime and for no real reason, the Western Allies (primarily the U.S. and Great Britain) began firebombing the defenseless city from the air. The air assault would cover three days in mid-February and in that time the entire city was basically leveled by explosions and huge, unchecked fires. No one knows for sure how many German civilians died but estimates range from 30-130,000 people. This episode was the inspiration for American writer Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war classic Slaughterhouse Five, which is considered one of the great pieces of literature associated with World War II. To this day, the scars of the bombing raid can be seen on the few public buildings in Dresden.
Westerners don’t give as much thought or credence to the war in Eastern Europe as they should. Which is too bad as the Russo-German War or the “Eastern Front” was every bit as important as the one in the west and quite a bit more epic. Millions (as opposed to hundreds of thousands in the West) of German and Soviet soldiers and civilians lost their lives in this brutal conflict, where no quarter was expected and no quarter given. Perhaps most important of all the Eastern Front battles was the struggle for the city of Stalingrad. Stalingrad was an industrial city that lay along the banks of the river Volga. The invading Germans desperately wanted it leveled and the equally desperate Soviets wanted to defend it to the last man; it was named after their leader, Josef Stalin, after all. It was a mini-war of its own that lasted for almost six months and caused over two million casualties. The defending Soviets finally won what is considered the greatest battle of their “Great Patriotic War.”
The Imperial Japanese military- army, navy and air force- had their own very particular code of ethics during World War II. A code that allowed soldiers to rape, torture and murder civilians, as in Nanking but also one that supposedly was focused on strength, honor, courage, and living up to the high standards of one’s ancestors. For some, this meant sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the war effort and country, regardless of the cost. A perfect yet horrific example of this was the “Kamikaze” pilots who flew their own planes into enemy ships, essentially making human bombs out of themselves. These pilots were not men who suddenly and impulsively decided to go out in a blaze of glory (although that sort of act occasionally happened on both sides) but rather “professionals” who trained for and fully expected to kill themselves for their own and the country’s greater glory. Every Kamikaze strike, while not always successful, was always a horrendous sight to behold.
6. North Atlantic U-Boat Campaign
The German “Sea-Wolves” struck terror into the hearts and minds of American and British convoys in the early part of the war. Prowling the waters of the North Atlantic between the U.K. and the U.S., these packs of roving submarines (or U-Boats, as they were commonly called), were swift, silent and deadly, almost always operating with the element of surprise on their side and torpedoing millions of tons of shipping over the course of the war. Which also meant thousands of navy, merchant marine, and civilian deaths, of course. There was nothing more frightening than being on a ship in the middle of the ocean wondering when a torpedo would rip you apart and send you to an icy death. The Battle of the Atlantic, as this campaign was called, is largely forgotten nowadays but at its height, German subs sunk almost 4,000 ships and almost 75,000 Allied sailors and merchant marine seamen were killed.
5. Italy In Ethiopia
Like every other aggressor state in World War II, Fascist Italy under the notorious dictator Benito Mussolini had ideas of territorial expansion wherever it could even remotely justify them. Unfortunately for Ethiopia in 1935, as a sort of precursor to what Hitler would soon do, that meant that Mussolini had set his sights on the small, weak, and ill-defended country. The conflict lasted almost two years, mostly due to Italy’s ineffective and inefficient leadership. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying, as the Ethiopians were subjected to the nightmare of modern warfare by an Italian army that used almost 1,400 airplanes and tanks in their campaign of conquest. The Ethiopian army used less than 25. That’s right, 1,400 to 25. The Ethiopians lost almost a million soldiers. And the Italians, you ask? About 50,000. Something was definitely wrong in that equation.
4. Polish Cavalry Against German Tanks
Poor Poland has always found itself in a bind, historically stuck between two monster-states on either side in Germany and Russia (or the Soviet Union, for our purposes). It’s no wonder then, that the Poles would fare so badly when the Germans brought their armored warfare known as Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) to the plains and cities of their country. The Polish army was well-equipped with great horse cavalry, a historic specialty of the country. The German army was also well-equipped; with modern tanks, artillery, trucks, and armored cars. Can you guess which side won and which side was massacred? That’s what I thought. Thousands of Poles died charging tanks with lances or running away from tanks on horseback or being machine-gunned from tanks while on horseback- well, you get my drift. With that kind of backdrop, the German invasion of Poland was over almost before anyone knew it had begun.
3. The Odessa Massacre
The Germans, Japanese, and Russians weren’t the only ones who had a knack for horrific massacre in World War II. In mid-October of 1941 the Soviet city of Odessa fell to Romanian and German troops. The siege of the city had been long and costly for the Romanians. A few days after taking control, a time-delayed bomb left by the Soviets went off at Romanian headquarters. That was the excuse they needed to begin a vicious series of “reprisals” (i.e. massacres) against the local population of Romani and Jews. The Romani, of course, were more commonly known as “Gypsies” and were treated with disdain and contempt by most Europeans and outright genocidal fury by the Germans and Romanians. Needless to say, things did not go well for the Romani and Jewish populace over the next few weeks and by October 24, 1941, over 15,000 Romani and upwards of 34,000 Jews had been brutally murdered.
2. Ramree Island Crocodile Attack
Imagine being in battle with your enemy and knowing that you are losing that battle. Imagine fleeing from your previously held positions, under cover of darkness, to the only escape route left to you. Imagine that your escape route is a swamp infested by saltwater crocodiles. Have I got your attention yet? That’s precisely what happened to a regiment of 1,000 Japanese troops during the battle of Ramree Island in the South Pacific. After six weeks of intense fighting, British forces thought they had the last of the Japanese survivors hemmed in. But the Japanese fled instead into a tidal swamp, hoping to get to the other side of the island and flee. They didn’t make it. Eyewitness reports state that screams of terror and gunshots were heard throughout the night. When the last of the survivors made it out of the swamp, reports say there were less than 5o men left. The crocodiles had gotten the rest…
1. Stavelot Atrocity
Remember the terrible events near Malmedy in Belgium, where American prisoners of war were gunned down by German SS troops? Well, in even more shocking news, that same group of Germans managed to outdo themselves one day later when they entered the Belgian town of Stavelot and immediately accused the whole town of hiding American soldiers. In a manner that should be familiar by now, the German soldiers then systematically murdered everyone in the village. That would be 67 men, 47 women and 23 children. The leader of this group from Hell, Standartenfuhrer Joachim Peiper, was later accused of war crimes (you think???). He was convicted and served 12 years in prison, which seems a less-than-fitting consequence for his actions. Some years after his release he was killed when the house he was living in was set on fire by unknown assailants and burned to the ground with him in it. A slightly more fitting end, if you ask me.