Surviving History


ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Never Go To Sea: The Terrible Voyage of Miss Ann Saunders

On a bright winter day in 1826, a genteel young English woman named Ann Saunders boarded a vessel sailing from New Brunswick to Liverpool.

She was looking forward to the voyage: the outward journey had been a delight and the return looked set to be the same.

‘We set sail,’ she later wrote, ‘with a favourable wind and the prospect and joyful expectations of an expeditious passage.’

On board were 21 souls, including Ann’s close friend Mrs Kendall, wife of the captain.

The Francis Mary had been at sea for almost three weeks when a ferocious storm struck the vessel. ‘About noon,’ wrote Ann, ‘our vessel was struck by a tremendous sea, which swept from her decks almost every moveable object.’ One of the mariners was washed overboard.

Storm at sea: Ann Saunders was petrified
Worse was to come: a few hours later, part of the hull was ripped open by a massive wave and the ship’s provisions flooded. The ship was soon so full of sea water that the crew - along with Miss Saunders and Mrs Kendall - were forced to move to the forecastle, the only part of the ship not yet waterlogged.

Some 50 pounds of bread and biscuit had been rescued from the hold, along with a few pounds of cheese. It was precious little sustenance for the 21 people now clinging to the only part of the ship above water.

By 6 February, the food had almost run out and the rations were reduced to a quarter biscuit per day. It was not long before men began to die.

Sailor James Clarke was the first to succumb: he died on 12 February. Next to expire was John Wilson, ten days later. By now, there was no food left and so the survivors decided not to commit Wilson’s body to the deep.

Instead, ‘it was cut into slices, then washed in salt water, and after being exposed to and dried a little in the sun, was apportioned to each of the miserable survivors.’

At first, Ann Saunders could not bring herself to eat human flesh. But after 24 hours of starvation, ‘I, too, was compelled by hunger to follow their example.’ After this terrible meal, ‘we eyed each other with mournful and melancholy looks.’

Infamous case of cannabalism at sea:
Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa
Men now began to die at an alarming rate. Sailor Moore, Henry David, John Jones, the cabin boys and many more. They died ‘raving mad, crying out lamentably.’

The weakened survivors, now without water, ‘were driven to the melancholy distressful horrid act (to procure of their blood) of cutting the throats of their deceased companions a moment after the breathe of life had left their bodies.’

When Miss Saunders’ companion, Mrs Kendall, ate the brains of one of the seamen, she was so pinched with hunger that declared it: ‘the most delicious thing she ever tasted.’

Next to die was Miss Saunders’ fiancĂ©e, James Frier. His blood, wrote Ann, 'was a bitter cup indeed.' Soon after, several more of the crew expired, leaving only six people left alive. When a rescue vessel finally came in sight - the HMS Blonde - these six, including Miss Saunder, were on the point of death.

The captain of the Blonde was horrified to hear that they’d survived on human flesh and even more appalled to see slices of meat hanging on the ropes.

The rescue vessel finally arrived in Liverpool in April and Ann Saunders made her way home. Her joy in life was gone but her faith remained strong. And she had survived an ordeal that had killed fifteen of her travelling companions.

‘I think,’ she wrote, ‘I can say I had witnessed more of the heavy judgements and afflictions of this world than any other of its female inhabitants.’

Whether or not she became vegetarian is no where recorded.

From: A Narrative of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Miss Ann Saunders, 1827.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Woman Who Gave Birth for Hitler

One of the most disturbing elements of social policy in Nazi Germany was lebensborn - an attempt to breed racially pure Aryan children.

The aim was to encourage Aryan girls from good families to breed with specially selected members of the SS. It was hoped that the resultant children would be - in the words of one lebensborn volunteer - ‘to lay the foundation of a pure racial breed.’


Surviving, first-hand accounts from these volunteers are rare, but I unearthed the shocking story of Hildegard Trutz while researching my book Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War.

Lebensborn room for new born babies, Bavaria, 1938

Hildegard was approached by a loyal Nazi leader in the autumn of 1936, when she was just 18 years old.

‘If you don’t know what to do,’ said this leader, ‘then why not give the Fuhrer a child? What Germany needs more than anything is racially valuable stock.’

The impressionable young Hildegard - already an enthusiastic Nazi - immediately knew that this was her calling in life. After giving proof that she had at least three generations of Aryan ancestors, she was sent to an old castle in Bavaria.

‘The whole place was in the charge of a professor,’ she said. ‘A high up SS doctor who examined each of us very thoroughly.’ He wanted to ensure that there had never been any cases of hereditary diseases in the family.

‘We had to sign an undertaking renouncing all claims to the children we would have there, as they would be needed by the state and would be taken to special houses and settlements for intermarriage.’

A lebensborn birth house, circa 1936

Over the next few days, Hildegard was introduced to the SS men who had been selected to impregnate the women. They were all tall and strong with blond hair and blue eyes. The girls had a week to choose the one they liked, but were never told their names.

‘When we had made our choice, we had to wait until the tenth day after the beginning of our last period, when we were again medically examined.’

They were then ordered to receive the men into their rooms at night.

Hildegard felt no shame or inhibitions about what she was doing. Nor did her chosen partner. ‘He was a sweet boy, although he hurt me a little, and I think he was actually a little stupid, but he had smashing looks.

‘He slept with me for three evenings in one week. The other nights he had to do his duty with another girl.’

Hildegard quickly fell pregnant and eventually gave birth to a healthy baby boy. ‘I suckled him for the first fortnight, and then he was removed.’ That was the last she ever saw of him.

The chief surgeon thanked her and told her to come back in the following year. Hildegard was tempted, but in the intervening time she got a job working within the Nazi party and was no longer available.

She eventually got married and told her husband about her lebensborn child. ‘I was rather surprised to find that he was not as pleased about it as he might have been. Of course, he couldn’t very well say anything against it, seeing that I had been doing my duty to the Fuhrer.’ 

She would eventually have a further three children: it’s not known whether she ever told them about their half-brother, born in that SS-run castle in Bavaria

The child that Hildegard gave birth to was one of some 8,000 lebensborn children born in Nazi Germany. Many of them are still alive today.


Hildegard Trutz’s story is told in Louis Hagen’s 1951 book Follow My Leader (o/p) There is more on the policy of lebensborn in my forthcoming book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War, to be published in February.