Irena Sendler: Rescuing Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto

Irena Sendler

Irena Stanislawa Sendler was a Catholic nurse and a prominent member of a Polish resistance network dedicated to rescuing Jews after German forces occupied Poland in 1939.

Although the punishment for helping Jews was the death penalty this did not deter Irena and members of her network from providing Jewish families with food, new identity papers with Christian names and helping them relocate to areas where they were unknown by the German authorities, but the greatest dangers she faced was during her work inside the notorious Warsaw Ghetto.

Thought to have been taken in the Warsaw Ghetto

After becoming aware the German authorities were concerned typhoid might spread beyond the ghetto Irena used her official papers identifying her as a nurse to frequently enter the ghetto to check for typhoid and other infectious diseases. After obtaining permission from parents she used many innovative methods to rescue children including escaping through sewer pipes and putting young children inside suitcases which were on trollies. It is believed Irena Stanislawa was personally responsible for rescuing around 400 children.   

Once the children reached safety they were given Christian names which were supported by identity papers and were housed with adopted families who agreed to trace their parents after the war, but it was later discovered few parents survived the concentration camps.

On 18 October 1943 Irena was arrested by the Gestapo; over a period of several days she was tortured but refused to provide useful information, Irena was then transferred to Pawiaki Prison where the torture continued. After the Gestapo found they could not break her, and it became clear their prisoner was prepared to die rather than betray the children or members of her network Irena was sentence to death.  

There is scant information regarding her escape, however, it is known before she was due to be executed a member of her network bribed her guards and because the Gestapo later displayed posters in public places announcing her execution as a deterrent against assisting Jews suggests her escape was well planned.  

After hiding for several weeks Irena was provided with new identity papers in the name of Irena Sendlerowa and then continued her escape work under a new cover story.

Irena Sendler 2005

It is believed her underground network rescued around 2,500 children but the number of Jewish families saved by Irena and other members of her network is unknown.  

On 12 May 2008 Irena Sendler died in Warsaw and few were aware of her wartime connection with the Polish Resistance.

Double Agent Victoire: Mathilde Carre and the Interallie Network.

Mathilde Carre

In the autumn of 1940 a French citizen named Mathilde Carre (aka Cat, Victoire and Le Chatte) was recruited by Roman Czerniawski, a Polish air force officer who escaped from Toulouse and formed a resistance network called Interallie which mainly consisted of Poles living near Paris. Due to its members not being trained in clandestine warfare the network was not secure and was easily infiltrated by the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) under Hugo Bleicher who was responsible for crushing resistance and it was not long before Carre and a small number of other members were arrested.    

Hugo Bleicher

In return for her freedom along with financial incentives Carre agreed to work for Bleicher as a double agent and later admitted to pointing out around sixty of her former comrades who were arrested by the Abwehr. As they were political prisoners they were handed to the Gestapo and it is not known how many were tortured and later executed. After proving herself to be a loyal and useful agent Bleicher had another mission for her in the Paris area.

After the Abwehr arrested an SOE wireless operator Bleicher was aware there was a British controlled underground network in or near Paris which needed to maintain wireless contact with London, and Carre was told to find the network and then infiltrate it.

Carre had to convince the leader, who was still to be identified, she was working for a Polish resistance group before many of its members were arrested. She was not present when the Germans swooped on their safehouse and their wireless operator was still in contact with London from a safehouse outside Paris.  

Pierre de Vomecourt head of SOE Circuit AUTOGIRO

How she contacted the leader of AUTOGIRO circuit, SOE agent Pierre de Vomecourt, is complicated and beyond the scope of this article, but after gaining his confidence she offered to pass messages to London through the Polish wireless link and de Vomecourt gave her messages requesting arms, explosives and money. This was an Abwehr deception: after the Polish wireless operator had been captured along with his personal code’s messages being received in London were from a German operator ‘playing back’ his wireless.

According to de Vomecourt he and a resistance contact began to suspect Carre after several requests for arms and sabotage stores never arrived, they also found inconsistencies in her back story and after being confronted she broke down and told them everything.   

Mathilde Carre. Date and location unknown

After de Vomecourt discussed the precarious situation with two other SOE agents it was decided not to kill her because everyone she was known to have contacted would be arrested and a number of ideas were discussed before eventually agreeing to use the Abwehr wireless link to their advantage.  

After Carre agreed to work for the British she was told to tell Bleicher London wanted her to go to England to be trained and also needed her to advise a British General who would be in France for a few hours to brief the heads of all the underground networks. London had already been informed of the plan through another SOE wireless operator in southern France who had a secure link to London and the wireless station in England was already sending messages to the Abwehr supporting the deception. As her reports were supported by wireless traffic from London Bleicher and his superiors could not miss the opportunity to capture a British General, the heads of the underground networks and also have an agent in London.

Unaware London was playing them at their own game the Abwehr supported her extraction from the southern coast of France by ordering their patrol vessels to remain in port and under German surveillance Carre and de Vomecourt were observed boarding a Motor Torpedo Boat bound for England.

When she arrived in England Carre was interrogated by SOE and MI5 and they gained valuable information about Abwehr counter resistance strategies and her intelligence also helped MI5 during their ‘Operation Double Cross’ which consisted of German double-agents in England passing false information to Germany. The German wireless link continued to be used for several weeks to send false information to mask the location of SOE clandestine circuits.

Mathilde Carre during her trial in France.

After France was liberated Carre was deported to France where she was tried for treason and received the death sentence. Three months later the sentence was commuted to 20 years, but she was released in 1954 after serving 12 years.

In 1959 she published her version of accounts which was revised in 1975 and entitled m’appelait La Chatte {My name was La Chatte} in which she protested her innocence although there was sufficient evidence to the contrary. Carre died in Paris on 30 May 2007.

19 January 1915: The first aerial bombardment of civilian targets

The German blitz on cities during the Battle of Britain is well documented but the first aerial bombardment of Britain took place 25 years previously and was the first ‘modern’ military attack which breeched the traditional boundary between soldiers on the battlefield by targeting civilians.

On the morning of 19 January 1915 two Zeppelins, L3 and L4, took off from their base in Hamburg and headed towards Yorkshire in northern England but due to bad weather over Norfolk L3 turned towards Great Yarmouth and L4 headed towards Kings Lynn.

Whilst flying over what newspapers called “the working-class district of St Peters Plain in Great Yarmouth,” L3 dropped its bombs and two civilians were killed:  Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old shoemaker, became the first British civilian to be killed during a German air raid and the subsequent enquiry said he was standing on the street when the bombs were dropped.  Martha Taylor, 72, was the next to be killed after her home was hit and the area was extensively damaged.

Martha Taylor and Samuel Smith

Meanwhile, whilst L3 was bombing St Peters Plain L4 was dropping incendiary bombs over Sheringham, Brancaster, Dersingham, Grimston before arriving over Kings Lynn at 10.50 pm where it released its bombs.

There was no air raid warning before 26-year-old Alice Gazeley whose husband had been killed three months earlier whilst fighting in France, and Percy Goate aged 14 were killed in their homes.

The mother of Percy Goate later told the inquest, “I saw a bomb drop through the skylight and strike the pillow where Percy was lying… I tried to wake him but he was dead… The house fell in. I don’t remember anymore”

St Peters Plain

13 others were also injured during this raid which was the start of a twelve-month bombing campaign mainly against civilian targets consisting of 52 raids across the country.

On 13 June 1917 during a daylight raid a bomb hit Upper North Street School in Poplar London. The school building was full of children when a bomb fell through the roof, crashed through the top floor classroom which was being used by girls, then crashed through the second floor which was a boy’s classroom before exploding on the ground floor which was a classroom full of infants.   

Eighteen children were killed, sixteen of which were aged between 4 and six and 15 children who could not be identified were later buried in a mass grave at the East End Cemetery, the other three had private graves and national newspapers called the German Air Force the baby killers.

During 1917, 163 civilians were killed and 432 injured

According to official statistics this first strategic bombing campaign caused 5,000 civilian casualties of which1, 413 were killed.

On 7 March 1918, 4 houses were destroyed in Warrington Crescent London W9 during which 12 were killed and 33 injured.

RAF Tempsford, Britain’s secret airfield during WW2.

Gibraltar Farm near Sandy Bedfordshire was considered unsuitable for any form of flying because of frequent fog and most of the land being waterlogged but was later considered ideal as a clandestine airfield because German air reconnaissance was liable to reach the same conclusion. To add to the deception lines were painted across the runway which looked like hedgerows from the air, hangers etc looked like rundown farm buildings. The farm became RAF Tempsford and the home of 138 Special Duties squadron which was responsible for transporting and supplying SOE and SIS agents in Europe. Due to the land’s unsuitability crashes were frequent.

Halifax of 138 Squadron cashed on landing due to poor ground conditions.

161 Special Duties Squadron flew single engine Lysander Aircraft and later Hudson’s to transport agents and were responsible for air landings on remote farmland. During the moon period (SD Squadrons needed moonlight to navigate) 161 along with its ground crews were relocated to the fighter station at RAF Tangmere on the south coast. Because this station was almost 200 miles closer to France than Tempsford their aircraft which were also fitted with an extra fuel tank bolted between the undercarriage could fly deeper into France with sufficient fuel to return to Tangmere or divert to another field during an emergency.

Sophie and Hans Scholl: The White Rose Group resisting Hitler

Sophie Scholl

White Rose was a non-violent intellectual resistance group based at the University of Munich. One of its founding members was Hans Scholl and the group was quickly joined by his sister Sophie to support ‘active opposition’ to Hitler and his National Socialist Workers’ Party by widely distributing subversive leaflets throughout Munich, and their resistance activities started on 27 June 1942.

Hans Scholl

Early during her resistance work Sophie Scholl explained her reason for joining was because: “Somebody … had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we do… Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone. An end in terror is preferable to terror without end,” and after being told her actions could lead to her death Sophie simply replied, “I’m aware of that”.

During late 1942 White Rose began mailing leaflets to people throughout Munich and quickly came to the attention of the authorities after around two-hundred leaflets were handed in to the Gestapo.

The opening paragraph of the first leaflet said: “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition to an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain today that every honest German is ashamed of this government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of the shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes infinitely outdistance every human measure reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupt and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principles that which raise him above all God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and they subject it to their own national decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass- then, yes, they deserve their downfall”.

According to the historian Joachim Fest, this was a new development in the struggle against Hitler, “A small group of Munich students were the only protesters who managed to break out of the vicious circle of tactical considerations and other inhibitions. They spoke out vehemently, not only against the regime but also against the moral indolence and numbness of the German people…”

Peter Hoffman, author of the History of German Resistance (1977), said they must have been aware they could not do any significant damage to the regime, but they were prepared to sacrifice themselves in order to register their disapproval of Hitler’s government.

Their second leaflet was published in late June 1942 and attacked the ill-treatment of Jews in Germany and eastern Europe and also stated, “Since the conquest of Poland three-hundred-thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of human history. For Jews too are human beings…”

This leaflet also raised questions about how the German population was responding to the atrocities and said, “Why tell you these things since you are already fully aware of them, or, if not these, then of other equally grave crimes committed by the frightful sub-humanity?… Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race…”

The third leaflet explained the goal of the White Rose was to bring down Hitler and his government and promoted a strategy of passive resistance and, “We want to try and show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of the system”.

The fourth leaflet mentioned the number of German soldiers killed in Russia and Hitler feeding lies and ends by saying, “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

The first draft of the fifth leaflet called for the people to disassociate themselves from National Socialist gangsters and stated a new war of liberation is about to begin. 

The Gestapo later estimated that White Rose distributed over 10,000 subversive leaflets. 

Gestapo photographs taken after their arrest

Sophie and Hans Scholl were later denounced by a woman who has never been identified and after their arrests were interrogated by the Gestapo. The entire legal system under the Third Reich had been purged and all members including defence lawyers had been replaced by party members loyal to Hitler and the ‘legal system’ was used as a tool of oppression. Prior to trial by kangaroo court Sophie Scholl told her lawyer, “If my brother is sentenced to die, you mustn’t let them give me a lighter sentence, for I am as guilty as him”.

During the trial Sophia Scholl was not concerned with the inevitable death sentence and frequently argued with the judge.

Four days after their arrest Sophia and Hans Scholl were beheaded by guillotine at Stadelheim Prison in Munich.             

A quick look at the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland during 1973

A short documentary produced by BBC TV

The Pilot Who Survived The RAF’s Deadliest Mission Of WW2

A Forces TV presentation 2018.

Flight Lieutenant ‘Rusty’ Waughman was 21 when he was flying Lancasters with 101 Squadron in 1944. He was one of the lucky ones who returned from the infamous Nuremberg raid on 30 March 1944. That night, the RAF losses surpassed those of the entire Battle of Britain.

Britain’s Political Warfare Executive during WW2 run by Sefton Delmar

This film provides an insight into the work of the Political Warfare Executive run by Sefton Delmer but is more suited for entertainment than serious study but is still informative.

Japanese Propaganda directed at American forces during WW2: Tokyo Rose

Two documentaries on Tokyo Rose. From US National Archives (Creator(s): Department of Defense. Department of the Army. Office of the Chief Signal Officer. (09/18/1947 – 02/28/1964) (Most Recent Tokyo Rose, Tokyo, Japan, 09/20/1945) More detailed information on Tokyo Rose American Unsung Hero. Iva Toguri D’Aquino(A.K.A) TOKYO ROSE

Two documentaries on Tokyo Rose.

From US National Archives (Creator(s): Department of Defense. Department of the Army. Office of the Chief Signal Officer. (09/18/1947 – 02/28/1964) (Most Recent Tokyo Rose, Tokyo, Japan, 09/20/1945)

More detailed information on Tokyo Rose

American Unsung Hero. Iva Toguri D’Aquino(A.K.A) TOKYO ROSE

Denis Rake the gay extrovert who served with SOE (Special Operations Executive)

For many years little was known about Denis Rake because he protected his privacy by making up wild and often humorous stories about his life but after examining new research for my forthcoming book ‘SOE in Occupied France’ more can be told about his wartime service and the following is intended as a brief introduction to a little-known agent who served with distinction but due to his life style he seldom received the public recognition he deserved. 

It has been claimed after the war Rake was employed as the second butler at the London residence of actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr when a letter arrived addressed to Major Denis Rake MC. It was also said Fairbanks was surprised that his small, openly gay and very camp butler had been a major who was awarded the Military Cross, and after Fairbanks handed him the letter Rake said, “Oh dear. I was hoping you would never hear about all this nonsense.”

During the 1940s being openly gay and having what was described as ‘female mannerisms’ brought scorn and prejudice from some male agents but Rake was hugely respected and trusted by Virginia Hall and Nancy Wake who became legends in the French Section of SOE and much continues to be written about them. In fact, when Nancy Wake was concerned about her husband who was still in France Rake was her private confidant who supported her when she was upset.

Nancy Wake was known for her straight talking and honest views and when asked about Denis Rake she said “He was queer, and I loved him…”  and the expression ‘queer’ should not be taken as an insult, and after listening to former agents who knew Rake I am firmly convinced many of the negative comments about him were due to the homophobia he experienced during the 1940s which was also a time when his life-style was illegal in the United Kingdom.

Nancy Wake.
The American Virginia Hall, SOE’s first resident agent in France.

I describe Rake as a most unlikely agent because during his training he refused to go over the assault course, refused to handle firearms and explosives because he did not like the loud ‘noise’ and constantly argued that a wireless operator would not need to use firearms and would not be involved in sabotage. A student refusing to undertake this training would normally be rejected but not only did Rake display a high degree of competence as a wireless operator he was also correct: although wireless operators were advised to carry a firearm for their personal protection it was not compulsory and their job was not to engage enemy forces or be involved in acts of sabotage; instead they had to remain in hiding whilst maintaining wireless contact with London.  It has also been falsely claimed Rake refused to undertake parachute training.

Harry Ree

Harry Ree who was an agent and circuit leader was sitting with Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, the commanding officer of the section, and other officers when Rake was being discussed and humorously remembered, when Rake attended the parachute school he was petrified and screamed to the dispatcher “dear boy, my dear boy I don’t think I can do this without a little push… Three times he went up and three times he was chucked or booted out the aircraft.”

Ree also recalled an officer saying to Buckmaster, “this Rake is an odd character sir. I just don’t understand him. He doesn’t like women. I mean, he really doesn’t like women. He prefers men” and Buckmaster replied “but he’s a fine wireless operator”.

It is also interesting to note a commanding officer from one of the training schools wrote in Rake’s personal file, “Rake told me he is not afraid of death and I believe him”

After HQ received a request for a wireless operator be sent to southern France Buckmaster decided to send Rake by sea because there was no guarantee he would leave the aircraft and after arriving in France several agents who were openly hostile towards Rake and questioned his suitability as an agent were silenced after Rake quickly showed he was brave and resourceful.

Beaulieu Manor

During their tradecraft training at Beaulieu, which was sometimes unofficially called finishing school, students were taught to lie and bluff their way out of difficult situations and this included projecting appropriate body language with the correct nuance in their voice to support the lie. They were also told to use phrases and sentences which might resonate with their interrogator and shortly after arriving in France Rake was forced to use these skills.  

In early 1942 Rake arrived in Gibraltar and was transported by Felucca to a remote stretch of coast in southern France and after distancing himself from the beech he found somewhere to hide until daybreak. The next morning he walked to the nearest town carrying two suitcases, one containing clothing and over 2 million francs in banknotes to finance local resistance and the other containing his wireless set, and  by the time he arrived the town was busy with people going to work but before he could lose himself in the crowd he was stopped by a Milice officer who demanded to know what was in his suitcases.

Rake was aware if the officer saw his wireless that would be the end: he would be handed to the Gestapo and after being tortured he would be executed but he remained calm whilst deliberately looking dejected as he slowly lowered his cases to the pavement whilst politely saying ‘Ok sir. You’ve got me sir.” After a short pause Rake then confessed to stealing antiques from a rich family and attempted to morally justify his crime by saying, “unlike us they are not suffering the hardships of the war” and then passionately explained that whilst people like us are suffering this family was having an easy life. Rake then offered the Milice officer a handful of banknotes as a bribe to let him go and the officer pocketed the money and walked away.

During his first mission Rake was arrested and incarcerated twice and both times was lucky to be released but whilst in prison was fearful that the Milice would discover his documents were forgeries and would find himself being handed to the Gestapo, and unlike two other agents who were also released and immediately joined an escape route into neutral Spain, Rake decided to remain in France to continue his mission. After coming to the attention of the authorities it was not long before he was high on their wanted list and the only person he knew and trusted was the American agent Virginia Hall and Rake turned to her for help.   

One of Hall’s many contacts was the madam of a local brothel who agreed to hide Rake in her loft and for the next few months Rake was protected by local prostitutes until Hall could arrange his escape to Spain.

After returning to England Denis Rake became a conducting officer at Beaulieu and during the build-up to D-day he volunteered to return to France as a wireless operator and worked with his great friend Nancy Wake.

Apart from working as a butler little is known about his life after the war, but it is thought he had no friends and lived alone in a small caravan somewhere in rural Kent where he died in 1976 at the age of 75.