British evacuation of Dunkirk turns savage as Germans commit atrocity
On May 27, 1940, units from Germany’s SS Death’s Head division battle British troops just 50 miles from the port at Dunkirk, in northern France, as Britain’s Expeditionary Force continues to fight to evacuate France.
After holding off an SS company until their ammo was spent, 99 Royal Norfolk Regiment soldiers retreated to a farmhouse in the village of Paradis, just 50 miles from the Dunkirk port. Ships waited there to carry home the British Expeditionary Force, which had been fighting alongside the French in its defensive war against the German invaders. Agreeing to surrender, the trapped regiment started to file out of the farmhouse, waving a white flag tied to a bayonet. They were met by German machine-gun fire.
They tried again and the British regiment was ordered by an English-speaking German officer to an open field where they were searched and divested of everything from gas masks to cigarettes. They were then marched into a pit where machine guns had been placed in fixed positions. The German order came: “Fire!” Those Brits who survived the machine-gun fire were either stabbed to death with bayonets or shot dead with pistols.
Of the 99 members of the regiment, only two survived, both privates: Albert Pooley and William O’Callaghan. They lay among the dead until dark, then, in the middle of a rainstorm, they crawled to a farmhouse, where their wounds were tended. With nowhere else to go, they surrendered again to the Germans, who made them POWs. Pooley’s leg was so badly wounded he was repatriated to England in April 1943 in exchange for some wounded German soldiers. Upon his return to Britain, his story was not believed. Only when O’Callaghan returned home and verified the story was a formal investigation made.
Finally, after the war, a British military tribunal in Hamburg found the German officer who gave the “Fire” order, Captain Fritz Knochlein, guilty of a war crime. He was hanged.
FDR proclaims an unlimited national emergency
On May 27, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announces a state of unlimited national emergency in response to Nazi Germany’s threats of world domination. In a speech on this day, he repeated his famous remark from a speech he made in 1933 during the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
In a radio address delivered from the White House, FDR tried to rally isolationists to his philosophy that aid to Europe was purely in America’s self-interest. In March 1941, he had successfully pushed through the Lend-Lease Bill, which gave military aid to any country vital to the defense of the United States.
Roosevelt recounted for his audience how German submarines were boldly attacking British shipping and threatening American shipping in the Atlantic and how Londoners endured nightly raids of German bombers. He painted an almost apocalyptic vision of a Nazi-controlled Western Hemisphere where American workers would be enslaved by Germany, godless Nazis would outlaw freedom of worship and America’s children would wander off, goose-stepping in search of new gods.
Roosevelt also took pains to define what he meant by America being attacked. He insisted that an attack on the United States can begin with the domination of any base which menaces our security, for instance Canada, Brazil or Trinidad, and not just when bombs actually drop in the streets of New York or San Francisco or New Orleans or Chicago. He appeared to be urging Americans to consider actively engaging in the war in Europe stating it would be suicide to wait until they are in our front yard.
FDR then laid out his administration’s policy with regard to the current war in Europe. Without committing troops, he promised the protection of shipping in the Atlantic, continued humanitarian and military aid to Britain, the establishment of a civilian defense and warned of saboteurs and fifth columnists (communist infiltrators) who threatened democracy in America and abroad. He also condemned war profiteering and urged organized labor to resist disruptive strikes in war-production industries.
Finally, FDR warned Germany that the U.S. was prepared to go to war in case of attack and pledged to strengthen America’s defense to the extreme limit of our national power and authority.
Just over seven months later, the United States entered World War II after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Bismarck sunk by Royal Navy
On May 27, 1941, the British navy sinks the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic near France. The German death toll was more than 2,000.
On February 14, 1939, the 823-foot Bismarck was launched at Hamburg. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler hoped that the state-of-the-art battleship would herald the rebirth of the German surface battle fleet. However, after the outbreak of war, Britain closely guarded ocean routes from Germany to the Atlantic Ocean, and only U-boats moved freely through the war zone.
In May 1941, the order was given for the Bismarck to break out into the Atlantic. Once in the safety of the open ocean, the battleship would be almost impossible to track down, all the while wreaking havoc on Allied convoys to Britain. Learning of its movement, Britain sent almost the entire British Home Fleet in pursuit. On May 24, the British battle cruiser Hood and battleship Prince of Wales intercepted it near Iceland. In a ferocious battle, the Hood exploded and sank, and all but three of the 1,421 crewmen were killed. The Bismarck escaped, but because it was leaking fuel it fled for occupied France. On May 26, it was sighted and crippled by British aircraft, and on May 27 three British warships descended on the Bismarck and finished it off.
U.S. Olympian Louie Zamperini’s plane goes down in the Pacific
On May 27, 1943, a B-24 carrying U.S. airman and former Olympic runner Louis “Louie” Zamperini crashes into the Pacific Ocean. After surviving the crash, Zamperini floated on a raft in shark-infested waters for more than a month before being picked up by the Japanese and spending the next two years in a series of brutal prison camps. His story of survival was featured in the 2010 best-selling book “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.
I can’t say enough about this book. It was one of the most moving stories of survival I ever read. You don’t need to be an avid WWII historian to be totally taken in by Louis Zamperini’s story. Soon his story will come to the movie theaters and I am really looking forward to seeing the film. Here is a synopsis of the book:
by Laura Hillenbrand · Random House · On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War. The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will. In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.