World War II was the greatest conflict ever fought by man. Here are 20 of the first lesser-known facts that you may be unfamiliar with and are seldom, if at all, mentioned in official history books.
- THE FIRST SHOT
The first shot of World War II in Europe was fired 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last shot of World War I was fired. It was fired from the 13,000 ton German gunnery training battleship Schleswig Holstein (Captain Gustav Kleikamp) which was on a visit to Poland to honour the sailors lost on the German cruiser Magdeburg sunk in 1914, some of whom were buried in Danzig. It was anchored in Danzig (now Gdansk) harbour at the mouth of the River Vistula. At 4.30 am on September 1, 1939, the ship moved slowly down the Port Canal and took up position opposite the Westerplatte (an area containing Polish troop barracks, munition storage and workshops) and at 4.47 am, at point blank range, the order to "Fire!" was given. World War II had begun. Seven days later, on September 7, after a heroic defence by Major Henryk Sucharski and his troops, and a devastating attack by Stuka dive bombers, the 209 man strong Westerplatte Garrison surrendered. Losses were 14 men killed and 53 wounded. A Polish soldier, Staff Sergeant Wojciech Nazsarek was killed by machine gun fire, becoming the first Polish victim of the war.
- FIRST ALLIED SHOT
The first Allied shot of the war in the Far East was actually fired over the bows of the Australian coaster Woniora (Captain F. N. Smale) from a twin 6-inch gun emplacement at Point Nepean, guarding the entrance to Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay. The 823 ton coaster had entered the bay at 9.15 pm on September 3, 1939, after a trip from Tasmania. Ordered to heave-to for inspection, the coaster gave her identity but continued on without stopping. A 100 lb shell, fired across her bow, soon changed her captain's mind.
By a remarkable coincidence, this was the actual, same guns that had fired the first shot of World War I when, hours after war was declared, it fired on the German Norddeutscher Lloyd 6,500 ton steamer Pfalz while it attempted to leave Australian waters on August 5, 1914. The Pfalz was then returned to Williamstown where the crew was detained. The captured vessel served out the rest of World War I as the Australian troopship HMT Boorara.
- FIRST CASUALTIES
One hour and fifty minutes after Britain declared war on Germany, a Bristol Blenheim fighter-bomber, piloted by Pilot Officer John Noel Isaac of 600 Squadron, crashed on Heading Street in Hendon near London at 12.50pm. P/O John Isaac became the first British military subject to die in the Second World War. On September 6, 1939, just three days after Britain went to war with Germany, a young Shropshire pilot, John Hulton-Harrop, age 26, became the first operational casualty of Fighter Command when he was shot down in a tragic case of 'Friendly Fire' soon after he took off from North Weald fighter station. The first Prisoner Of War was Sergeant George Booth, an RAF observer with 107 Squadron. He was captured when his Bristol Blenheim was shot down over the German coast on September 4, 1939.
- FIRST RAF RAID: A NEAR-DISASTER
The first RAF raid of the war ended in near disaster. The day after war was declared, RAF Wellington and Blenheim bombers attacked the German naval ports of Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel. Ten bombers returned to base after failing to find the target. Seven were shot down by German anti-aircraft batteries. Three of the planes prepared to attack British warships in the North Sea until they discovered their mistake, then went home. Eight bombers found the target and attacked the battleships Scheer andHipper and the cruiser Emden one of the bombers crashing on the ships' deck. By a strange coincidence the pilot's name was Flying Officer H. L. Emden. Seventeen Royal Air Force men were killed in this raid.
- FIRST PLANE SHOT DOWN IN BRITAIN
The first enemy plane shot down over the British Isles was a Heinkel 111, built at the Heinkel-Werke in Oranienburg in October, 1938. It crash-landed at Humbie, near Dalkeith, in south eastern Scotland on October 28, 1939. Two of the crew survived while two others were killed during the attack, which is credited to Spitfires of 602 and 603 Squadrons.
- FIRST U-BOAT CAPTURE (September 14, 1939)
The first German U-Boat captured was the U-39. The British destroyers HMS Firedrake, Faulkner and the Foxhound forced the U-39 to the surface with depth charges after the U-boat had fired two torpedoes at the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. The U-39 was damaged and sank after the crew was removed. This was Germany's first naval loss of the war.
- FIRST BOMB DROPPED ON GERMAN SOIL
The first bomb of the war to land on German soil was dropped on December 3, 1939. A Wellington bomber of 115 Squadron, attacking German shipping in the North Sea, suffered a 'hang up' when one of its bombs failed to drop. It fell off on the return trip over the island of Heligoland.
- FIRST NIGHT BOMBLOAD WAS HARMLESS
The first night of the war (September 3, 1939) a force of ten Whitley bombers from 51 and 58 Squadrons of No. 4 Bomber Group dropped thirteen tons of propaganda leaflets over Hamburg and Bremen. Later, Berlin and the Baltic ports were showered with these leaflets. A week before Christmas, 1939, the 200 ton mark had been reached. Little opposition was met from enemy defence. As no bombs were being dropped, no doubt they were anxious not to give away their gun and searchlight positions. On September 30, leaflet-carrying balloons were launched from France by Britain's No 1 Balloon Unit. These messages to the German people urging them to help overthrow Hitler seemed less appropriate than toilet rolls would have been.
- FIRST AIR STRIKE
The first air strike of the war from carrier-borne aircraft was from the British carrier HMS Furious. On April 11, 1940, 18 Swordfish from 816 and 818 Squadrons took off from the deck of the carrier to bomb enemy ships in Trondheimsfjord, Norway. All returned safely.
- FIRST RAF BOMBING OF GERMANY
The first of the 4,000 lb bombs dropped on German soil was on the city of Emden on March 31, 1940, when two Wellington bombers raided the city. Each bomb carried a parachute to retard its descent. In 1940, 14,369 tons of bombs were dropped on Germany by the RAF. In 1941, 34,954 tons and in 1944, 579,384 tons were dropped. Later, Joseph Goebbels was to say that Germany would carry out a mass extermination of Jews throughout Europe in reprisal for Allied air bombings of German cities.
- FIRST BOMBING RAID ON BERLIN
This air-raid occurred on August 25/26, 1940, just two days after the German Luftwaffe had mistakenly bombed London, a forbidden target at that time. Of the 81 RAF bombers taking part, 27 failed to locate the target and five were shot down. A year later, on August 8, 1941, the Russians bombed the city for the first time. The first bombs to fall on Berlin were a handful of incendiaries dropped from a French civilian transport plane, a converted Farman NC 2234 operated by the French Navy, on June 7, 1940. The crew threw the incendiaries out of the passenger entry door. It is not known what damage, if any, was done. (In all, Berlin suffered 363 air raids during the war. The last RAF raid was on March 24, 1944, when of the 810 aircraft that took part 72 were lost.) In 1945, Berlin experienced its first occupation by foreign troops in nearly 140 years. Napoleon's first occupation lasted two years from 1806 to 1808. His second occupation in 1812 lasted one year. The Allied occupation after World War II lasted 45 years from 1945 to 1990.
- FIRST AMERICAN CASUALTY
The first American military officer killed in the war was Air Corps Captain, Robert M. Losey. While in Norway in 1940, on a meteorological mission, the country was invaded by Germany. Anxious to observe the front line fighting, Losey was caught in an air-raid on the town of Domras. Sheltering in the mouth of a tunnel, he was killed instantly by shrapnel from a German bomb.
- FIRST MAJOR WARSHIP SINKING OF THE WAR
The first major warship sunk by air attack during wartime was the German light cruiser Konigsberg. Skuas from HMS Ark Royal flew 330 miles on April 9, 1940, from the Naval Air Station at Hatston in the Orkney's to dive-bomb the ship anchored in Bergen harbour after it was damaged by Norwegian shore batteries. The Konigsberg, unable to defend herself against the Skuas was sunk by two fatal bomb hits.
- FIRE BRIGADE TRAGEDY
April 20, 1941, was Hitler's birthday and the Luftwaffe celebrated the event by dropping 1,000 tons of bombs on London. Many schools in the city were standing empty, the children already evacuated to the country. The Old Palace School in St. Leonard's Street, Poplar, was now sub-station 24U of the London Auxiliary Fire Service. The playground was ideal for training and the parking of fire appliances.
On the night of April 20, fire service crews were standing by in anticipation of a heavy raid on the Capital. At precisely 1.53am, a land mine, dropped from a Luftwaffe bomber, scored a direct hit on the school. Thirty two firemen and two fire women were killed. The bodies of the two firewomen, mother of three Winifred Peters and twenty one year old Hilda Dupree, on duty in the watch room, were never found. This was the largest loss of Fire Brigade personnel ever suffered in the history of the fire service in Britain.
- THE FIRST AMERICAN MERCHANT SHIP SINKING
The first US merchant ship sunk by the Japanese was the 2,140 ton Army-chartered steam schooner Cynthia Olson on passage from Tacoma to Honolulu. Sunk on December 7, 1941 by shelling from the submarine I-26, 1,827 kilometres north-east of Honolulu. The crew of 33 and two military men were all lost.
- FIRST AMERICAN NAVAL CASUALTY
The first US naval casualty of the war was the US destroyer Kearney, torpedoed and damaged off Iceland while on convoy escort duty. Eleven men were killed. The first US Navy loss was the destroyer Reuben James torpedoed and sunk off Iceland while escorting a British convoy from Halifax (October 31, 1941) 115 men were lost.
- FIRST SURRENDER CAUSED BY BOMBING (June 11, 1943)
Blockaded on May 14, the small 83 square kilometre volcanic island of Pantelleria, in the Mediterranean, was first subjected to heavy bombardment by the Royal Navy (Operation 'Corkscrew') and then bombed by planes of the North-West African Strategic Air Force under the operational control of US General Carl Spaatz. The Italian Admiral Gino Pavesi, in charge of some 12,000 troops and 10,000 civilians on the island, surrendered to troops of the British 1st Infantry Division on June 11, after 6,250 tons of bombs fell on the island in six days. Fifty-six of his troops were killed and 116 wounded, A total of 11,621 Italian and 78 German troops were taken prisoner. This was the first time a surrender had been achieved through bombing. Another island bombed into submission was the island of Lampedusa in the Strait of Sicily where 4,600 troops surrendered on June 13.
- FIRST GERMAN GENERAL EXECUTED March 22/23, 1944
The first German General executed to be executed after the war was General der Infanterie Anton Dostler. On during a small scale operation behind enemy lines in northern Italy, a group of 15 Italian-Americans of the US 2677th Headquarters Company were on a mission to blow up an important railway tunnel but were captured and taken prisoner before the mission (Operation 'Ginny') was completed. They were summarily shot on the instructions of 55 year old General Dostler who had simply passed on the order from higher authority (Hitler's Füfrerbefehl of October 18, 1942) which stated that all enemy encountered in Commando actions were to be executed. The plea of "following superior orders" did not save Dostler from the firing squad. After a five day trial he was found guilty of a War Crime and sentenced to death. On November 27, 1944, the Mediterranean Theatre Commander, Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgeway, confirmed the sentence. At 8 a.m. on the morning of December 1, 1944, General Dostler was tied to a stake on the firing range of the 803rd Military Police Battalion located near Aversa, Italy. A black hood was placed over his head, a white marker pinned to his chest and the order to fire was given to the 12 enlisted men of the US Army who composed the firing squad. (General Anton Dostler lies buried in the German War Cemetery at Pomezia some miles south of Rome.)
- FIRST USE OF NAPALM
First used on July 17, 1944, when 14 P-38 aircraft of the 402nd Fighter Squadron, led by 370th Group commander Col Nichols attacked a fuel depot at Coutances, near St Lo (France).
The next use of napalm was on April 15, 1945, when American bombers attacked the Atlantic coast town of Royan at the mouth of the Gironde. In the Pacific, napalm was used when US forces invaded the island of Tinian in the Marianas. It was also used in the bombing of Tokyo. This jellied fuel became the standard fuel explosive, later used widely - and notoriously - during the Vietnam War.
- FIRST D-DAY CASUALTIES
It has been generally accepted that Lieutenant Den Brotheridge of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment, British 6th Airborne Division, became the first British soldier to be killed in the invasion of Europe (D-Day, June 6, 1944) While he led his platoon of twenty-one men on the attack on the Orne Canal bridge at Benouville, he was hit in the neck by a bullet fired from the guns of the German sentries defending the Pegasus Bridge. Seconds before, a burst of fire from Brotheridge's Sten-gun killed one of the sentries, seventeen year old Private Helmut Romer, who became the first German to die in the defence of Hitler's 'Fortress Europe'.
It has since been discovered that when Lieutenant Brotheridges's glider landed near the bridge, 29 year old Lance Corporal Fred Greehalgh of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, drowned when exiting the glider. This would make him the first D-Day casualty. Just months before the 50th anniversary of the landings, the Pegasus Bridge was demolished and part of it was rebuilt and placed in the nearby Pegasus Bridge Museum where visitors can now walk walk over it.
Meanwhile, over the town of Sainte-Mare-Eglise, the first town liberated on D-Day, twenty eight year old Lt. Robert Mason Mathias of the 508th Parachute Regiment, US 82nd Airborne Division, was preparing to jump from his C-47 Dakota, when he was wounded by a shell burst. In spite of the wounds in his chest he commanded his men to 'Follow me' and hurled himself from the aircraft. Some time later, his men found his dead body, still strapped in his chute. Lt. Mathias was the first American soldier killed on D-day. Also at Sainte Mare-Eglise, Private John Steele found himself hanging from his parachute from the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After some hours he was rescued by one of the German defenders, a Rudolf May.