Plots A-D of the Oise Aisne American Cemetary hold the remains of American soldiers who died fighting in a small portion of Northern France during World War I. However set across the street unmarked and completely surrounded by impassible shrubbery is Plot E, a semi-secret fifth plot that contains the nearly forgotten bodies of a number of American soldiers who were executed for crimes committed during and after World War II.
Over 6,000 soldiers are buried in the first four plots of the Oise Aisne Cemetery, but just 94 bodies are currently buried in the shunned fifth plot. While the small patch of land is technically on the grounds of the greater cemetery, it is not easily distinguished as it sits across the street, hidden behind the tall hedges that surround it. The only way into the secret cemetery is through the superintendent’s office.
The soldiers eventually interred in Plot E were tried for rape, murder, and in one case, desertion (although the remains of the deserter, Eddie Slovik, the only American executed for desertion in WWII, were returned to the states in 1987). After being convicted in U.S. courts martial held in Europe, the men were dishonorably discharged and executed via hanging or firing squad. In many cases, the men who were buried in Plot E were initially buried close to the site of their execution. Those bodies were later exhumed and moved to Oise Aisne in 1949 when the plot of shame was established.
Plot E has been referred to as an anti-memorial. No US flag is permitted to fly over the plot and the graves themselves, small in-ground stones the size of index cards, have no names; they are only differentiated by numbers. Even underground they are set apart with each body buried in Plot E positioned with its back to the main cemetery. The site does not exist on maps of the cemetery, and is not mentioned on the cemetery website.
Plot E has been described by one cemetery employee as a “house of shame” and “the perfect anti-memorial,” especially as the original intent was that none of the individual remains were ever to be identifiable by name.
“The Fifth Field: The Story of the 96 American Soldiers Sentenced to Death and Executed in Europe and North Africa in World War II” by French L.Maclean (Schiffer Publishing, 2013) was the basis for this blog post.
Back in November 2015 I made a blog entry about Frederick Whirlpool, the Victoria Cross winner who ended up leading a hermit-like existence in the Hawkesbury. Here is the story of another Victoria Cross recipient, and the unusual way that he was awarded the highest honour in the British armed forces.
Maurice Buckley was born in Melbourne on the 13th of April 1891, and joined the 13th Light Horse Regiment the week before Christmas 1914, and was sent to Egypt.
Like so many of his comrades, Buckley contracted gonorrhea and syphilis. Venereal disease was a huge problem for Australian troops based in Egypt. With the troops not actually fighting, they spent each day training in camps outside of Cairo, and when off duty they frequented the many brothels in the city as well. By February 1916, almost 6,000 men had been infected, and more than 1,000 of them were shipped back home to Australia.
Buckley ended up at the Langwarrin Venereal Diseases camp, located 40 kilometres outside of Melbourne in November 1915. The facility at Langwarrin had originally been a training camp for Boer War soldiers, and at the start of the Great War was recommissioned as an internment camp for German and Turkish civilians. But with the dramatic emergence of venereal disease amongst enlisted men, the facility became a ‘pox camp’.
The camp was located well away from the township of Langwarrin, and conditions for the patients who went there were terrible – the men were herded behind barbed-wire enclosures, and slept in tents with rubber sheets and blankets for bedding. There was a shortage of water, which impacted on treatment and hygiene. In October 1915 there was a mass break-out involving 50 patients who had been refused leave to visit the township. The patients overpowered the camp guards, and caught the train to Melbourne, where they were subsequently arrested by police.
After five months in Langwarrin, Buckley had had enough, and in March 1916, he escaped from the camp, never to return. His Army papers were stamped ‘deserter’ and he was struck off the army roll. Buckley returned to his family’s house in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Malvern, to explain to his family why he was no longer serving in the Army.
With Military Police looking for her son, Agnes Buckley suggested that Maurice re-enlist, but under another name. So Maurice travelled to Sydney and re-enlisted as Private Gerald Sexton. Sexton was his mother’s maiden name, and Gerald was the name of his brother who had died in an army camp almost a year earlier of meningitis.
Sexton was assigned to the 13th Battalion of the 4th Division, embarking shortly after for Plymouth in England and then France. Sexton was promoted to Sergeant, and on the 8th of August 1918, earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery in the action around Morcourt Valley.
Sexton received his Victoria Cross for bravery during action near Le Verguier on the 8th of August 1918. Here is the official citation, as reprinted in the “London Gazette” of the 13th of December 1918:
“No. 6594 Sjt. Gerald Sexton, 13th Bn., A.I.F.
For most conspicuous bravery during the attack near Le Verguier, north-west of St. Quentin, on the 18th September, 1918. During the whole period of the advance, which was very seriously opposed, Sjt. Sexton was to the fore dealing with enemy machine guns; rushing enemy posts, and performing great feats of bravery and endurance without faltering or for a moment taking cover. When the advance had passed the ridge at La Verguier, Sjt. Sexton’s attention was ‘ directed to a party of the enemy manning a bank, and to a field gun causing casualties and holding up a company. Without hesitation, calling to his section to follow, he rushed down the bank and killed the gunners of the field gun. Regardless of machine-gun fire, he returned to the bank, and after firing down some dugouts induced about thirty of the enemy to surrender. When the advance was continued from the first to the second objective the company was again held up by machine guns on the flanks. Supported by another platoon, he disposed of the enemy guns, displaying boldness which inspired all. Later, he again showed the most conspicuous initiative in the capture of hostile posts and machine guns, and rendered invaluable support to his company digging in.”
At the end of 1918 the commanding officer at the Langwarrin camp notified the authorities of Sexton’s real identity. When Sexton received his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace in May 1919, he did so under his real name of Maurice Buckley. Buckley returned to Australia and was discharged from the Army. Buckley, a strong Catholic, was openly aligned to the controversial Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and marched with Mannix in St Partick’s Day parades. Buckley established a strong friendship with infamous Melbourne identity John Wren, who business empire was built on SP bookmaking, sly grog and prostitution. Wren gave Buckley financial support to help set up a road-contracting business.
Buckley died after a horse-riding accident in January 1921, aged just 29. At his funeral, his casket was carried by ten other Victoria Cross winners. He was buried in the Brighton Cemetery, and fittingly was laid to rest alongside his brother – whose name he had borrowed to restore his reputation.
As far as I know, Buckley is the only soldier to have earned a Victoria Cross while serving under an assumed name/alias.
Russell Robinson’s book “Khaki Crims & Desperadoes” (Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney, 2014) was the main source for this entry, along with various Australian and international military history sites.
The Fort Stikine was one of 26 identical ships, all 441 feet long and 57 feet across the beam, and all bearing names beginning with the prefix Fort. The Fort Stikine was a solid workmanlike merchant ship of 7,142 gross tons, capable of travelling at ten to eleven knots and carrying more than 7,000 tons of cargo in its holds. The Fort Stikine’s first and only captain was Alexander Naismith, who took over the ship in May 1942. It was a utilitarian product of the Lend-Lease system in World War 2, under which the United States essentially allowed Great Britain to borrow war supplies on credit until after the war. Huge numbers of ships were supplied on this basis, the object being to maintain trade and keep war materials moving around the world at a time when German U-boats were destroying unprecedented tonnages of Allied shipping.
The Fort Stikine steamed out of Birkenhead in England in February 1944, bound for Bombay in India, via the Suez Canal. The Fort Stikine was part of a large convoy, and sailed slightly apart from the other ships. The reason for this was the ship’s cargo. Apart from crates containing twelve Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft, the cargo also included 1,395 tons of explosives, of which 238 tons was the highly sensitive category A type, stowed in the wings of the ‘tween-decks. The explosives were essential to the war effort in the Far East, and the Fort Stikine was the only ship that was going to Bombay – all of the other ships would turn away to their destinations before the Fort Stikine reached the Indian Ocean.
As well as the explosives, there was also another curious part of the ship’s cargo. In the upper half of No. 2 hold there was a specially constructed steel tank measuring five foot by four foot by four foot. Inside the tank had been placed thirty-one wooden boxes, each containing four bars of gold. In 1944, this quantity was worth in excess of £1,000,000. The use of such a vulnerable ship as the Fort Stikine for transit of such a valuable cargo is evidence both of the dire shortage of more appropriate shipping and the urgency with which the gold was required. The lid of the tank had been padlocked and then welded on.
After a stop for coal at Suez, the Fort Stikine reached Karachi on the 30th of March. The twelve crated Spitfires were unloaded, and in the vacated space the Fort Stikine took on 8,700 bales of raw cotton, several thousand gallons of lubricating oil, sulphur, rice, resin, scrap iron and fish meal. It was highly combustible and sat uneasily with the thousands of tons of explosives already in the ship. Captain Naismith and his senior officers were unhappy about the new cargo but they had no real choice to accept it.
The Fort Stikine left Karachi on the 9th of April and reached Bombay on the 12th of April, and was put into No 1 berth at the Victoria Dock. According to regulations the ship should have flown a red flag to signify to other ships that it was carrying explosives. Captains were reluctant to fly the red flag, feeling that it made their ships a better target for air attack and possible sabotage. Naismith chose not to fly the flag – possibly a fatal error that sealed the fate of the ship.
As the Fort Stikine had explosives on board, it was given priority for unloading over all other ships berthed in Victoria Dock. The category A explosives could not be directly unloaded onto the dock – they had to be transferred onto lighters and then onto the dock. No lighters were available, which delayed the unloading of the explosives for twenty four hours. In the meantime, dock workers started unloading the oil drums and then to the satisfaction of everyone, the fish meal, which had gone rotten and was putting off a terrible smell.
By midday on the 14th of April very few explosives had been landed. About this time the Chief Officer of the Fort Crevier, berthed opposite the Fort Stikine, first notices smoke issuing from one of the Fort Stikine’s ventilators. Approximately half a dozen other seamen saw the smoke, but also did nothing – it was lunch hour, the docks were at a standstill and an atmosphere of tropical languor hung heavily in the air. Eventually three hoses of water were deployed into the No 2 hold, and it was thought that the fire would be put out in a couple of minutes. The smoke however, continued to build, and the Bombay City fire brigade arrived to also lend their assistance. The officer in charge of explosives at the docks, Captain Oberst arrived at the docks at 2.30 pm and asked to see the Fort Stikine’s manifest. When he read about the explosives, and the burning cotton, he requested that the Fort Stikine should be immediately scuttled, in order to eliminate any chance of a major explosion. Unfortunately for Oberst, the water was not deep enough in the dock for the ship to be scuttled.
Someone noticed that the bulkhead between No 1 and No 2 hold was getting very hot, and two exceptionally brave firefighters descended into No 1 hold and moved all of the detonators that were resting against the bulkhead. It was suggested that the Fort Stikine should immediately head back out to sea, where an explosion would not damage the docks. Once again circumstances conspired against this plan – the ships’ engine was being repaired while in dock, making it impossible for the Fort Stikine to head out into the open seas.
By 3.00 pm it was obvious that the situation was getting worse – millions of gallons of water had been pumped into the hull, but the paint on the outside of the ship began to bubble. The seat of the fire had been identified – the aft port-side corner, and the Bombay fire brigade chief gave the order for a gas cutter to be fetched, so that an opening could be cut in the side of the ship and the fire attacked directly. Incredibly, more problems occurred – the fire brigade’s own cutter did not work, and an order had been placed for a cutter to be sent from the nearby Magazon Docks, but this order had been cancelled by a senior docks official. The order was resent, but to no avail.
The running of water inside the hold was fanning the fire, and not suppressing it, as the water raised the level of the burning cotton which floated on the surface of the water until it was just below the ‘tween-decks where the explosives were stored. By 3.45 pm huge flames began to leap out of the hatchway, and within minutes had reached the height of the Fort Stikine’s mast. Captain Naismith gave the order to abandon ship, and the crown which had gathered to watch the attempts to put the fire out now surged towards the dock gates. At 4.06 pm, Naismith had just completed a final check of the ship to see that all crew members had disembarked, when with cataclysmic force, the Fort Stikine exploded, killing Naismith immediately and many people who were still dockside.
Pieces of flying metal hurtled through the air and landed up to a mile away. The Jalapadma, a 4,000 ton ship berthed next to the Fort Stikine, was lifted right out of the water and deposited on the quay wall. One of the Fort Stikine’s anchors was caught in the rigging of a ship in a neighbouring dock. Eleven ships were now on fire and four were sunk or sinking. This was not the end of it – at 4.40 pm the explosives in what was left of the aft end of the Fort Stikine blew up, throwing debris 3,000 feet into the air. With such devastation, the casualty list was high, although due to wartime censorship and the chaos and confusion after the explosion, figures vary. Approximately 230 dock employees were killed, along with over 500 civilians, although some sources claim that the total death total was closer to 1,500. The Bombay Fire Service took the brunt of the explosion – of the 156 firemen who were present, 65 were killed and 80 wounded. Approximately 2,500 people were injured. It took three days to bring all of the fires under control, and a further seven months before all of the debris were removed and the docks became operational once more. Here is a a contemporary newsreel report, which features the second explosion and the aftermath of the explosions.
Once the fires had been put out, the authorities thoughts turned to what became of the gold that was stored in the steel tank in No 2 hold. It became obvious that all of the gold bars had been scattered far and wide by the explosion. Many civilians returned bars that they had found after the explosion, with other bars found lying on the ground unclaimed. Whenever the dock was dredged, the odd bar was found, with one of the last finds being in February 2011.
Nigel Pickord, “Lost Treasure Ships of the Twentieth Century”, Pavilion Books Limited, London, 1999, pp. 139-146 was used as the major source for this blog post.
In June 1940, Great Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. Her European Allies, France, Poland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Holland had all been crushed by the Blitzkrieg in 1940. The BEF that was sent to reinforce France and Belgium was almost overrun and was only saved by the evacuation from Dunkirk.
At Dunkirk, they had been forced to leave behind a huge store of equipment and munitions. This created an acute shortage of arms for defence not to mention training of new forces. With invasion pending, the government turned to the Swift Training Rifle to help educate the nearly two million British Home Guard troops and the RAF ground defence forces who would repel German paratroopers expected to land at RAF airfields.
Going back before to the 19th century, rifle-sized practice devices were used for target practice. Earlier examples were the American Hollifield “Dotter” and Cummings “Dot Rifle”. The reasons for this were multiple.
When using an active line rifle to train raw recruits, many of whom were city-dwellers who had never held a firearm before, safety issues were tantamount. By using a training rifle, which was incapable of taking and firing any sort of live ammunition, it was nearly impossible for a recruit to have a negligent discharge. Because a training rifle could not and would not fire live ammunition, you could practice basic marksmanship in any room and were not chained to a shooting range. This also allowed training in inclement weather when outdoor ranges would be closed.
Firearms instructors, both civilian and military, attest to the fact that basic marksmanship is decided by the proper use of trigger control, grip, stance and sight alignment to effect rounds impacting down range of the target. A training rifle taught all these fundamentals. The use of one such device with proper reinforcement could teach the basics of these fundamentals to a platoon of recruits in a single afternoon.
With these skills, the recruits could progress to being issued live weapons and proceed to the shooting range to fine-tune their skills. This training formula also would reduce the amount of rounds having to be fired in training as poor shooters could be sent back to the training rifle for more simulated firing before coming back to the range to try again.
Built in Oxfordshire, the Swift Training Rifle had the same dimensions as either the Short Magazine Lee Enfield or the US-made P14/17 Enfield rifles. Some 16,000 of these devices were built in 1941-43 in five variants. The trigger group, magazine, bolt and sight were identical as was the length of pull, weight and overall “feel” of the device to its model.
Where the Swift Training Rifle differed from a real rifle was that instead of a barrel that fired cartridges, the end of the Swift had a series of metal probes. The soldier behind the sights would aim these probes at a scale drawing of enemy troops and when the trigger was pulled, the prong would ‘dot’ the paper target. The whole affair was set up in a folding frame that held the rifle and target, thus making the Swift a simple and self-contained unit to use. Another feature was a spring-loaded butt plate, designed to help the trainee pulled the rifle firmly into his shoulder. If he didn’t do this, an internal safety mechanism prevented the Swift from being “fired”.
The source for this blog post was the www.firearmstalk.com website. The Forgotten Weapons youtube channel has a video on the Smith rifle, which shows the operation of the rifle, and also shows the targets that were placed in front of the rifle.
One of the lesser-known facts of the First World War was that 320 men of the British and Imperial Forces were executed between August 1914 and November 1918 – 308 for military offences such as desertion and cowardice, and 12 for murder. No Australians serving with the AIF never met this fate, although two Australians who were serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were executed.
One of the major places where these executions were carried out was in the small Belgian town of Poperinghe, located seven miles due west of Ypres. 70 executions – 50 British and 20 French were executed in the area.
During the First World War Poperinghe was the centre of a large concentration of troops, and there were many camps in the countryside around it. There was generally at least one Division billeted in the town, and it was described in a very early battlefield guide as “a [wartime] centre for recreation, for shopping and for rest”. The population before the War was about 12,000, but in 1917 there were as many as 250,000 soldiers billeted in the area. The imposing Town Hall, built in 1911, can be found on the main square. It was used as a Divisional Headquarters during the War.
Within the town hall are execution cells where some of the British soldiers condemned to execution during the Great War were kept awaiting their fate – to be shot at dawn. There were originally four cells, which were used by the police here before the war. Two of these small rooms have been restored; one with a simple pallisade bed and a lavatory bucket.
Although the exact number of men shot here at the Town Hall is unknown, there is firm evidence for five. There are photographs of some of those executed on the wall, part of an artwork located here. The two small rooms have small barred windows and are very dark, even on a bright sunny day.
The cells have brick floors, and many people have left wreaths here. On the walls are graffiti, scratched into the surface, much of which dates back to the Great War. The cells were used to hold many men who were taken into custody for a number of reasons, such as drunkeness, as well as to hold some of those awaiting execution.
In the courtyard outside stands a very grim reminder of the Great War – the post to which at least one soldier was tied before he was executed. The execution post stands next to a large silvered panel on which a few words from a Kipling poem (The Coward) are inscribed – including the words ‘blindfold and alone’.
The executions of British soldiers during the Great War is a subject on which emotions run high. There are many viewpoints; often today the men are seen as those who simply could not cope with the horrors of warfare and were victims. However amongst those executed were murderers, and also some who had deserted many times and been given many previous chances. It is also true that some of those executed were men who deserved another chance, or who perhaps should not have been at war at all. But it is easy to judge this by the standards of our own times and forget that this was a time when the country was quite literally fighting for its future, and even in peacetime at that period the laws and punishments seem harsh to us today.
The nearby Poperinghe New British Military Cemetery has the graves of 18 executed soldiers – more than any of the many other British military cemeteries that are located along the site of the Western Front.
The book “Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front – 1916-1918” by John Laffin, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 196 was used as the source for this blog post.
After the crushing victory over the French and British armies in France in May/June 1940, the German High Command started working out how to launch a successful land invasion of the English mainland, which was given the codename “Operation Sealion”.
One of the key elements of the plan was the need for the Wehrmacht infantry to have armoured support as they landed on the English coast. The preferred solution was for tanks to be taken close to the British coast on specially adapted ships, and then lowered into the sea. They would then drive along the seabed before emerging on the invasion beaches. The Tauchpanzer (diving tank) would be able to operate underwater for up to twenty minutes, and thus provide the support required to make a landing on the coast a success. 168 Pz IIIs were modified this way, along with 42 PZ IV tanks.
The Tauchpanzer was produced by sealing all openings on the tank using a waterproof compound. The gap between the turret and the hull was closed with an inflatable rubber ring, while rubber sheeting covered the commander’s cupola, the mantlet and the hull machine gun. The engine intakes were blocked with rubber seals, while the exhaust stacks were given non-return valves to prevent water reaching the engine that way. The rubber seals were fitted with explosive charges to allow them to be removed from inside the tank. In case the waterproofing failed the tanks were equipped with pumps.
Air was supplied by an 18m long flexible hose, attacked to a buoy floating on the surface, with a 1.50m air intake stack above the buoy. Maximum operating depth was 15m, and the tank was designed to stay underwater for no more than twenty minutes.
From July 1940, four sections of volunteers from existing Panzer regiments were trained on the island of Sylt, and then for further training at the Panzer training centre at Putlos in early August. Their use in Operation Sealion never occurred, due to the failure of the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority in the Battle of Britain.
The idea of using submersible tanks was not shelved, so in early 1941 the Tauchpaners were modified. The long hose was replaced by a shorter 3.5 metre snorkel, to adapt them for river crossings with a maximum depth of 5 metres.
Tauchpanzer IIIs and IVs were used during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR on the 22nd of June 1941, in service with 6th Panzer Regiment, 3rd Panzer Division, and 18th Panzer Regiment, 18th Panzer Division. It was he 18th Panzer Regiment under Major Manfred Graf von Strachwitz that used the Tauchpanzers to cross the River Bug at Patulin, after which they were used as normal tanks. This was the only occasion when Tauchpanzers were used in combat during the Second World War.
The Tauchpanzer demonstrated a very different approach to the problem of supporting amphibious operations to that adopted by the Allies in 1944 for the D-Day landings in Normandy – rather than produce submersible tanks, the British and Americans concentrated on making their tanks float, by using a removable “skirt” and small propellors for propulsion, as seen in this video clip of an M4 Sherman DD (Donald Duck) Tank.
Frederick Whirlpool was possibly the only Victoria Cross recipent to live in the Haekesbury. He died at McGraths Hill in 1899 and only one mourner attended his funeral. In his later life, he had built a slab hut in the McGraths Hill bush, in which to live, and was rarely seen, becoming a hermit. His only visitor was a local shopkeeper, John Dick Smith, who had befriended him.
It is usual for every Victoria Cross winner to have a memorial noting their bravery on their headstone, but as Whirlpool lies in an umarked grave, he is believed to be the only Victoria Cross recipient to have neither a memorial or headstone. No photos exist of Whirlpool, either in military uniform or in his later life.
Whirlpool was born in Liverpool, England in 1829 to Irish parents. In 1854, aged 25, Whirlpool enlisted in the British Army at Glasgow. It was during his service with the 3rd Bombay European Regiment as part of the Indian Mutiny in 1858 that he received the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry issues to British and Commonwealth troops. Whirlpool received the VC for his bravery and valour during the actions at Jhansi and Lohari, as described in this report from the London Gazette, dated the 21st of October 1859:
“For gallantly volunteering on the 3rd of April, 1858, in the attack of Jhansi, to return and carry away several killed and wounded, which he did twice under a very heavy fire from the wall; also, for devoted bravery at the Assault of Lohari on the 2nd of May, 1858, in rushing to the rescue of Lieutenant Doune, of the Regiment, who was dangerously wounded. In this service, Private Whirlpool received seventeen desperate wounds, one of which nearly severed his head from his body. The gallant example shown by this man is considered to have greatly contributed to the success of the day.”
Invalided out of the army in 1859, and disliking the attention he was receiving as a Victoria Cross winner, he decided to emigrate to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne, Whirlpool was presented with his Victoria Cross by Lady Barkly, the wife of the Victorian Governor, in the presence of some 10,000 spectators.
His was the first Victoria Cross ever presented in Australia, and Whirlpool received an annual pension of £10. By 1865 Whirlpool was earning his living as a schoolmaster, firstly at Wisemans Ferry and later at Pitt Town.
Unfortunately the privacy that he wanted did not occur when he had emigrated, and Whirlpool changed his name several times to avoid being discovered as a Victoria Cross winner. He used Frederick Conker, which was his birth name, changing it again to Frederick Humphrey James, before finally adding Whirlpool.
Around the 24th of June 1899, Whirlpool had a heart attack in his little slab hut and passed away, aged 70 years. He was found by the delivery man from John Dick Smith’s shop, when he called with his usual weekly delivery of groceries. Whirlpool is reputedly buried in an unmarked grave at the Methodist Cemetery at McGraths Hill. The Victoria Cross that was awarded to Whirlpool is held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
For a man whose gallantry earned him the highest award in Britain and the Commonwealth, he ended his life the way he chose, as a quiet man withdrawn from society.
This blog post is based on the article “Frederick Humphrey James Whirlpool: 1829-1899” by Carol Carruthers, from Issue No 3 (2014) of the Journal of the Hawkesbury Historical Society Incorporated.