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.
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.
On the 6th of February 1942, a Carley float containing a body was seen drifting off Flying Fish Cove, an inlet on Christmas Island, an Australian dependency located 1,550 kms northwest of the Australian mainland. The island has a population of approximately 2,000, and phosphate mining has been the main industry since the turn of the 20th century.
An inquest was held to determine the possible injuries of the body, as well as how the body could have ended up in the Carley float. The harbour master, medical officer and radio station manager each contributed to the report. It is unknown if the doctor performed an autopsy; if he did, that report has never been found. The body was interred in the Old European Cemetery with full military honours in an unmarked grave.
The body was partly decomposed, and the eyes, nose and flesh from the right arm was missing, probably eaten by birds. It was clothed in a faded boilersuit, and had no dog-tags or other personal effects. A couple of shoes were found in the life raft. The float had been damaged by shellfire, with shrapnel in the outer covering. The underside was covered in barnacles, suggesting that it had been in the water for a long time.
When WW2 broke out, the island was a possible Japanese target due to the phosphate deposits, so a naval gun was installed on the island. Japanese submarines started patrols around the island, followed by bombing raids. The Japanese landed unopposed on the 31st of March 1942, partly due to a mutiny by Indian troops, who shot their British NCOs. The Japanese stayed for a few days, loaded some phosphate and then returned to the Dutch East Indies, except for a 20 man garrison, who stayed until the Japanese surrender in 1945. Many records, including the inquest on the body, appear to have been lost during the occupation.
So the obvious question was where did the body come from?
The Carley float was named after its inventor Horace Carley, and was standard issue on RN and RAN ships during the Second World War. So it is logical to believe that the float came from an Allied ship that had been sunk, and that the body was a survivor of that sinking. The officials on Christmas Island believed that the body on the float was from the HMAS Sydney, which had sunk off the Western Australian coast on the 18th of November 1941 after a battle with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran. The crew of the Sydney numbered 645 – there were no survivors, except for the possibility that the body was a member of the Sydney who had managed to get off the ship before it sank. Giving creedence to this possibility was the wording on the float – “LYSAGHT DUA-ANNEAL ZINC. MADE IN AUSTRALIA”. Boilersuits were available to ships officers, commissioned warrant officers and warrant officers in the RAN, and were a popular working dress at the time. The Sydney was the only RAN ship to be involved in an engagement which would result in a Carley float being damaged.
The 1998 Joint Standing Committee inquiry into the loss of the Sydney stated that on the balance of probabilities, the float and the body came from the Sydney. The Committee made recommendations that the grave should be found, the body exhumed and DNA testing done with living relatives of the Sydney’s crew, to determine if the body was the lone survivor of the Sydney. The body was located in October 2006. Following an autopsy and taking of body samples, the body was reburied with full military honours in the Geraldton Cemetery in November 2008.
The Cole Inquiry in 2009 officially confirmed that the body was in fact a survivor of the Sydney. Interestingly enough, the RAN from the time of when the float was located until the Cole Enquiry steadfastly stated that the float was not from the Sydney, and that the body was not a Sydney crew member. The recovered body had the legs doubled up under the knee, which matches the recollections of witnesses who saw the body when it was discovered back in 1942.
The Cole Inquiry determined that the cause of death of the body was brain trauma, with shrapnel found embedded in the skull. The unknown sailor was believed to be aged somewhere between 22 and 31, had size 11 feet, was right-handed and was unusually tall for his generation – between 168 and 187 centimetres in height. The ankle joints had squatting facets, which suggested that the body has spent a lot of time squatting than sitting. This suggests a person who was involved in physical work, possibly in the country. DNA testing suggested that the body had red hair, blue eyes and pale skin. The body also had unique dental work – two missing teeth, wisdom teeth intact and nine gold fillings. Using contemporary enlistment and medical records, 330 members of the Sydney’s crew were eliminated as a possible match. By January 2014 the number of possible matches had been narrowed down to 50. The major stumbling block is to identify and track down a female descendant of the maternal line, so that their DNA and the DNA of the body can be compared. The sailors direct descendants do not share the same DNA. When the RAN has located a suitable relative they have no idea that they were related to a sailor from the Sydney. Hopefully the mystery of the lone surviving sailor will be solved in the near future.
Apart from the identity of the sailor, there are still some other unanswered questions:
1. Was the sailor the only crew member of the Sydney who managed to get onto a Carley float before the ship sank?
2.If there were other survivors who managed to get on the same Carley float, what happened to them? Could they have died and been thrown overboard by the remaining survivors, until only one was left?
3. Was the sailor injured before getting on the float, or did the explosions that occurred when the Sydney sank gave the fatal injuries to the sailor, as well as damaging the float?
4. Could the body have been machine-gunned by either a Japanese aircraft or a submarine while it drifted north from the Western Australian coast to Christmas Island?
The Carley float with the lone survivor was not the only Carley float from the HMAS Sydney that has survived. One other float was washed on the Western Australian coast, but it had no bodies or survivors in it when it was found, as seen in the following contemporary newspaper account.
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.
Keeping with the World War 2 theme that I mentioned in my previous post, I’d like to mention one of the most bizarre aircraft accidents that occurred anywhere in the world during the conflict.
On the 29th of September 1940, two Avro Ansons on a cross country training flight from No. 2SFTS at Wagga, NSW, collided near Brocklesby in New South Wales at 10:45am. The two aircraft locked together in flight. The crew of the bottom aircraft LAC Jack I. Hewson and LAC Hugh G. Fraser bailed out along with the observer from the top aircraft, LAC Ian M. Sinclair. The pilot of the top plane, LAC Leonard G. Fuller, discovered that he was still able to control both his aircraft and the plane wedged underneath, and managed to fly both aircraft about 8 kms, using the power from his starboard engine. He belly landed the two aircraft safely in a paddock of a farm belonging to Mr T. Murphy, approximately 5 miles south west of Brocklesby.
The only reason that the two aircraft stayed airborne was due to the quick thinking of Hewson, who increased the engines to full power of his Anson immediately after the collision and locked his controls when the two aircraft came together. Without these actions, both Ansons would have spiralled out of control with the weight of the two planes locked together.
Here is a photo of this amazing landing:
Hewson was the only person injured in the accident. He spent four months in hospital after the accident and did not resume flying until the end of January 1941. When the collision occurred, he was not wearing his parachute and Hugh Fraser had to pass it to him through the wreckage of the cockpit. Hewson then had to put the parachute on sitting on the floor. The collision occurred at about 3,000 feet and the aircraft were losing height all the time. By the time Hewson got the parachute on he then had to climb out through the broken perspex onto the starboard wing and slid off at about 900 ft.
When Hewson opened his parachute he had not clipped it on properly and it tangled and he was upside down. It finally opened fully at about 100 feet and he slammed into the ground so hard that his spine was jarred and he was temporally paralysed. He eventually recovered and returned to the RAAF, where he served until the end of the war. Fuller went on to fly with the RAAF in Europe and was awarded the DFM. Unfortunately he was killed at East Sale in 1944 when he was hit by a bus while riding a bike.
The bottom aircraft was written off in the accident, but the top plane was repaired and returned to service.
News of the remarkable landing soon spread, and it was featured in a British Pathe newsreel:
The site of the crash has a commemorative sign and plaque.
This amazing website has the most complete and thorough history of military activities in Australia during the Second World War. You could spend a couple of days looking through all of the information that Paul has collated over many years.
One of the earlier posts in my blog was about some of the lesser-known sports that exist in the world. Along with lesser known sports, there are those sports which are an amalgamation of two or more sports. One current example is “International Rules Football”, which is a hybrid of Gaelic Football and Australian Rules football. This isn’t the first time that Australian Rules football has been merged with another form of football – read on for the interesting game of “AUSTUS”.
The origin of AUSTUS was due to World War 2. American servicemen arrived in Australia shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Looking for some common ground with Australian soldiers and the population in general, the Americans decided to reach out to the locals with a series of football exhibitions to help support local war charities. Australians, though, didn’t like American football very much — too much time in between plays, too many strange rules and formations, etc. The best part of American football according to Australian eyes were the forward passes, but they just didn’t happen enough to keep the locals interested.
The Australian soldiers saw that as an opportunity to introduce their local form of football – Australian Rules football – to the visitors, and the Americans suddenly understood why the Aussies seemed so bored by American football. Australian football had much more freedom of movement and nonstop action than their game. They decided to try competing with their Australian hosts at Australian football. As to be expected, the Americans were beaten badly. What was to be done?
Ern Cowley, a journalist with the Sporting Globe newspaper, came up with an interesting idea – why not amalgamate the two different codes of football?
One of the central tenets of Australian football is the mark. Any player who catches a kick that’s 15 yards or longer can “mark the ball” and take a free kick from behind the spot of the catch. Cowley, who knew that the Americans were much better at passing the ball than kicking it, created a game based on Australian Rules that allowed players to mark the ball after catching a forward pass.
The hybrid game was called AUSTUS, taking the first letters of both Australia and United States. Matches started to be played in 1943. The Australians continued to kick, but the Americans proved highly accurate with the pass, which wowed the spectators and made for very close and very exciting matches. Austus matches allowed both countries’ servicemen raise large sums of money for various war charities and helped bring the two countries a little closer together.
There was hope that Austus matches would continue after the war, but alas, that was not to be. Once American forces returned home, they resumed playing American football, and the Australians went back to playing Aussie Rules. Austus faded into a remote corner of history and was forgotten. Cowley however, was awarded the Helms Athletic Foundation Medal in New York in July 1944 for his work on creating the rules of AUSTUS.
The booklet below gives an overview of the positions and rules of AUSTUS, along with the results of five games played during 1943. The player on the front cover, Private William Jost, established an international record for passing with a throw of 76 yards,1 foot, 6 inches at Geelong on August 25, 1943.
I would like to thank sport historian Charles Davis of Melbourne with providing me with a copy of this booklet.