World War 2 was arguably the fiercest battle ever fought in the history of mankind. Millions of people fought and died in the six-year war that lasted from 1939 to 1945, and in the conflicts that began much earlier. Like all other battles, this war too had more than its share of amazing stories. While some stories have earned a legendary status, there are some that are not much known. Here are some incredible World War 2 stories that you may not have heard.
1. Soham railway explosion
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2 June 1944. A freight train commanded by Benjamin Gimbert and his fireman James Nightall, were delivering explosives to an USAF base in White Colne, Essex. As the train approached Soham, Cambridgeshire, Gimbert noticed a fire on the wagon behind the locomotive. With the tons of explosives in the train, the fire was pretty dangerous. The two men stopped the train, uncoupled the carriage, and was about to ditch the blazing wagon in the countryside when it blew up. The explosion flattened the station, threw Gimbert 600 feet away, killed two railway workers and caused a six feet deep crater. Both Gimbert and Nightall were awarded the George Cross and their act of bravery is remembered in two different plaques at Soham.
2. The incredible courage of Desmond Doss
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Desmond Thomas Doss was an US Army corporal and medic during World War 2. His religion forbade him to carry a gun or threat another human being, considered very inconvenient at the time of his drafting into the unit. Doss was considered as a conscientious objector and placed as a non-combatant. He was often the subject of ridicule from his co-soldiers. While serving as a field medic at Okinawa, his unit was attacked by the Japanese. Positioned on the top of a cliff, the unit had no escape route. Doss promptly rigged up a stretcher which could be lowered to the ground below with the help of ropes and pulleys. He then brought down each men of his unit to safety one by one under heavy enemy fire. President Harry Truman, while awarding Doss the Medal of Honor, said that he pulled 75 men to safety. Doss insisted it was much lesser at 50. He was the only conscientious objector in World War 2 to get a Medal of Honor.
3. The woman who saved 2500 children
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There are several World War 2 stories of exemplary courage buried in the scarred memories of the Holocaust. But none probably stands out as much as that of Irena Sendler. When Nazis invaded her native Poland and threw all Jews in a high-walled ghetto, Sendler knew what was about to happen. Being a trained nurse and a social worker, Sendler sneaked in food and medicines inside the ghetto, escaping Nazi eyes. But what she sneaked out was even more phenomenal. Sendler and some members from the Polish Resistance, whisked out around 2500 children from the ghetto, sedated and placed them in burlap sacks and toolboxes, and smuggled them out in her truck. The children were sent to Christian orphanages via a network of likeminded comrades. They were given new identities. Sendler buried their real names in a jar in her backyard. She was eventually nabbed by the Nazis, tortured, and both her legs were broken. After the war she tried to unite the children with their families without much success.
4. The unsung story of an Auschwitz escapee
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Witold Pilecki was a Polish soldier and one of the founders of Tajna Armia Polska, a Resistance group in Nazi occupied Poland, in November 1939. But more importantly, Pilecki was perhaps the only person, who purposefully incarcerated himself in Auschwitz during World War 2. As a Resistance fighter, Pilecki arranged for his own arrest and was dispatched to the labor camp. He spent two years in Auschwitz and gathered evidence of Nazi brutalities to convince the Allies that the Germans were not running conventional prisons. He transmitted information about the huge number of deaths in the camp, with the help of the Resistance, often smuggling out papers in the laundry. The Allies understood the real situation in the camps much because of Pilecki. The Polish soldier, along with two other comrades, escaped Auschwitz in 1943, overpowering a night guard. Notwithstanding his heroics, Pilecki was executed by the Russian Secret Police after the war ended, because of his loyalty to the non-communist exiled Polish government.
5. Snuffing out flames with bare hands
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15 September 1940. Flight sergeant John Hannah of the Royal Air Force (RAF) was carrying out a raid on German invasion barges at Antwerp. He soon came under anti-aircraft gunfire and took a direct hit. A fierce fire engulfed the entire fuselage. As the floor below melted in intense heat, gunner George James bailed out. Hannah, instead of following suit, tried to put out the fire with a couple of extinguishers inside the plane. When those went empty Hannah used his flight log book—and finally—his own hands to stop the fast spreading blaze. Another member of the crew escaped from the now claustrophobic aircraft. Hannah managed to douse the fire but suffered near-severe burns. He crawled through to pilot CA Connor and told him the flames were out. Hannah took over the navigation while Connor flew the damaged bomber back to base. The 18-year old sergeant was later awarded the Victoria Cross.