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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Monday, April 18, 2011

And Then There Were None: An Axe, A Skull and A Murderous Escape

There were eight of them at the outset - eight convicts escaping from a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land, today’s Tasmania.
Macquarie Harbour: escape was impossible
They were led by Alexander Pearce, a violent and pockmarked Irishman. He, like his fellow convicts, had been incarcerated in the dreaded Macquarie Harbour penal settlement on the remote west coast of Tasmania.
On September, 1822, Pearce made his escape by stealing a boat from the harbour where he was working in a labour gang. Seven others jumped into the boat and made their escape with him.
They were a motley crew of thieves and highwaymen: Matthew Travers, William Dalton, Robert Greenhill, John Mather, William Kennedy, Thomas Bodenham and ‘Little’ Brown.
The men rowed across the harbour, sank the boat and made their way into the dense forest. Their goal was Derwent River, where they hoped to steal a ship and sail to England.
Convicts: the only way out was by boat
What they did not know was that they would have to traverse some of the most rugged terrain in Australia. 
The weather soon took a turn for the worse, soaking them to the bone. They were hungry, freezing cold and scared: some of them could no longer keep up.
They soon began to argue about food. One of the men - William Kennedy - made a cruel jest: ‘I am so weak,’ he said, ‘that I could eat a piece of man.’
It soon transpired that he was not joking: he thought they should kill the weakest
Several argued that murder, even in desperate circumstances, was wrong. But Robert Greenhill agreed with Kennedy: he was so deranged with hunger that he decided to kill the hated William Dalton.
He picked up his axe ‘and struck him on the head… Matthew Travers with a knife also came and cut his throat, and held him… [we] tore out his insides and cut off his head.’
The next morning, the remaining seven men divided him into portions and ate him.
Pearce: a taste for human flesh
The meal proved poor sustenance: two of the men soon fell behind the others and were lost. Both were eventually recaptured and died soon after. 
Now, there were just five escapees left. They crossed the Franklin River, dragging each other over with a long pole. But they were now so hungry that another man had to die. This time it was Thomas Bodenham’s turn. Greenhill split his skull with an axe and the remaining four men ate him until there was nothing left.
The four survivors had been on the run for nearly a month when John Mather fell seriously ill with dysentery. Knowing he was next for the axe, he begged to be allowed to pray before they killed him. He then ‘laid down his head and Greenhill took the axe and killed him.’
Shortly after Mather had been eaten, Matthew Travers was bitten by a snake. As he weakened, he, too, was killed with an axe.
Now, there were only Pearce and Greenhill left. Greenhill had the sole axe which he zealously guarded. Neither man slept, for fear that he would be killed by the other.
But after several days without sleep, both men were exhausted. Against his better judgement, Greenhill fell asleep.
Pearce seized the opportunity. ‘I run up [sic], and took the axe from under his head, and struck him with it and killed him.’ He hacked off Greenhill’s arm and thigh and took it with him.
The judge refused to believe Pearce's diary
Pearce was now the only escapee left alive. He continued walking for several days until he was spotted by a shepherd, who took pity on him and gave him shelter.
Soon after, Pearce fell in with a couple of criminal bushrangers and lived with them for two months before all three men were finally captured.
Pearce was sent back to Macquarie Harbour; he escaped execution because the judge did not believe his stories of cannibalism.
Within a few months, Pearce again made his escape, taking with him a young lad named Thomas Cox.
Cox’s freedom was short-lived. Pearce killed him within a few days and was still in the process of eating him when he was once again captured.
Pearce's skull: still on display
This time his stories of cannibalism were found to be true, for poor Cox’s remains were discovered nearby, in a gruesome state. 
Pearce was hanged, dissected and given to a surgeon. His skull was eventually presented to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia where it was given pride of place in a glass showcase.
It remains there to this day.

For more information about my new book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War, please visit my website:

Further reading about this week’s blog:
+ Alexander Pearce - 'Narrative of the escape of eight convicts from Macquarie Harbour in Sep. 1822, and of their murders and cannibalism committed during their wanderings' (manuscript)
+ Robert Hughes: The Fatal Shore

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Forgotten Massacre: The True and Incredible Story of One Man’s Survival.

The fire-fight was furious and deadly.
Shell upon shell rained down on the men, exploding in mid-air and showering them with shrapnel.
Just a stone's throw away: the advancing Germans
Private Bert Evans - along with 100 fellow soldiers - were fighting against impossible odds. It was May, 1940, and their task was to block the advancing German army so that the encircled British Expeditionary Force could be evacuated from Dunkirk. 
The longer they kept the enemy at bay, the more Allied soldiers would be saved by the Royal Navy.
Evans, 19, had arrived at Wormhoudt, a small village near Dunkirk, on 26 May, 1940. His commander’s orders were clear: ‘The division stands and fights.’
Evans and his comrades from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment – along with the remnants two other regiments - fought with all the weaponry at their disposal. They hid in farmhouses and kept up a hail of fire against the Germans.
Hitler sent in his elite SS forces
But after two days of constant fighting it was clear they could not hold out forever. The SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hilter regiment was drafted in to attack them and by early afternoon on 28 May, Evans and his comrades were overrun. 
‘It was endless,’ recalled Bert in his last interview. ‘I was captured with a group of ‘D’ company soldiers. We knew we were up against Hitler’s elite. But we could never have expected the treatment they would mete out.’
First, the SS soldiers confiscated all their letters and photographs: clearly they did not want the captured men to be identified. Next, they rounded up some of the men and took them to the village square.
Using the English guns, they opened fire on the unarmed prisoners.
Evans (left): the sole survivor
Another group of men were stripped and machine-gunned to death. 
Evans and some 80 others were marched out of the village and taken to a remote cowshed outside the village of Esquelbecq.
The men naively assumed they would be treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. Instead, they were forced inside the cowshed.
‘We were jammed inside,’ said Evans. ‘They pushed more and more in. No one could breath. Our wounded were falling and we were falling over them.
The British prisoners begged their captors for water. Captain Lynn-Allen, the most senior officer, banged on the door and shouted: ‘For the love of God, there’s no more room in here.’
A German officer outside laughed scornfully and said: ‘Where you’re going, there will be a lot of room.’
Those who were killed
Private Evans shared his cigarette with his friend Charlie, who said: ‘This is it, Bert. We’re finished.’ 
Seconds after he spoke, all hell broke loose. One of the SS men pulled a stick grenade from his boot and lobbed it into the barn. It exploded instantly, killing many of the prisoners and maiming the rest with shrapnel and splintered wood.
   A second grenade was followed by a third, turning the interior of the barn into a slaughterhouse. But there were still some men alive so the SS men began pulling them outside in batches of five and shooting them.
Evans’s right arm was all but blown off by the blast and he looked in horror at the scene of carnage. But Captain Lynn-Allen was unharmed and saw that all was not quite lost.
He grabbed Evans and made a run for it. They dashed from the rear of the barn and - under heavy fire - dived into a nearby pond. Pursued by an SS soldier, they were peppered with shots.
I visit the cowshed where death reigned
Captain Allen was shot in the forehead at point blank range and died instantly. Evans was also hit - in the neck - but he was not killed. He feigned death until the soldier departed and he then crawled to a nearby farmhouse.
He was seriously injured from the grenade explosion, with his arm in shreds and hanging limply from its tendons.
But his life was to be saved - ironically - by a caring German soldier who was appalled by the actions of the SS. He nursed Evans and then drove him to a local hospital where his arm was amputated. He spent the rest of the war as a POW.
Now 90, Evans is the sole survivor of the massacre He still has vivid memories of what happened on that grim day in May, 1940.
‘I’ll never forget what happened or what I saw,’ he said in an interview three years ago. ‘I can’t help but think of all my comrades who aren’t here.’

UK paperback

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30
And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


The men on board the Lancaster bomber knew they were in trouble.
They were returning to base after a bombing raid in Germany when there was a loud bang from under the plane.
The plane's ill-fated crew
‘Suddenly a shell hit the port landing wheel, ricocheted and exploded,’ recalled pilot John Wynne. ‘There was a bang and then a flash and some of the hot fragments hit the inner port engine.’
The oil pressure plummeted and then fire broke out in the stricken engine. Wireless operator Tom Tate remembers the order to bale out. He obeyed, hurling himself into the rushing darkness. So did his fellow crew.
It was March, 1945, and the crew hoped to land in Allied-held territory west of the Rhine.
Instead, they landed in Nazi Germany, close to the town of Pforzheim. It had been destroyed in an RAF firestorm just a few weeks previously.
The doomed plane

Tom and the six other crew landed safely. But they were swiftly arrested and taken to the village of Huchenfeld where they were held prisoner in the boiler room of the local school.
News of their capture soon reached Hans Knab, the thuggish Nazi leader of Pforzheim. He summoned the local Hitler Youth commander, Max Kochlin, and told him: ‘Now you must get hold of your Hitler Youth people. Tonight we shall stage a demonstration.’
Kochlin gathered a group of Hitler Youth lads, gave them guns and delivered a fiery, anti-British speech. When they arrived at Huchenfeld, they demanded access to the English crew.
‘I remember being hauled up the iron staircase,’ says Tom Tate. ‘I was thinking to myself: what on earth is this all about?’ He soon realised something was seriously wrong. ‘Someone hit me on the head. Blood flowed. God, I thought, this is lynching.’
How the Mail reported the story
The mob jostled their captives towards a barn. The door was ajar and Tate noticed ropes handing from the beams. Convinced that they were going to be hanged, the survival instinct kicked in.
‘I burst away from the people around me and I ran,’ recalls Tate. ‘I was in bare feet. I was dodging people … running up the road.’
Shots rang out, putting an even greater spring in his step. Certain to be killed if captured, he leaped over fences and then plunged into a thicket.
He continued into the darkness until he found himself in a little plantation of oaks, where he decided to hide.
Tate was not alone in getting away. Flight sergeant Norman Bradley had also made his escape.
‘I heard shots from automatic weapons,’ he recalls. ‘Several bursts.’
By the time he was recaptured, he was more than 20 miles from Pforzheim. Tom Tate had also been recaptured. The two men would spend the remainder of the war as prisoners.
A third airman, James Vinall, had also attempted to escape but he was recaptured almost immediately. He was then released into the custody of a local Nazi leader who beat him around the head before shooting him in the back of the head.
The remaining airmen also met with violent ends: Sidney Matthews, Harold Frost, Edward Percival and Gordon Hall were all shot by adolescents from the Hitler Youth.
The graves at Huchenfeld
It would be another year before the details came to light. At the War Crimes Proceedings - at which Tom Tate and Norman Bradley gave evidence - Pforzheim’s Nazi leader, Hans Knab, was found guilty. He was hanged, along with two other Nazi officials.
Two of the members of the Hitler Youth were sentenced to 15 years, as did the killer of James Vinall. Eleven others were imprisoned.
That seemed to be the end of the story, but there was to be a remarkable post-script that would bring victims and perpetrators together almost half a century later.
Tom Tate today

In 1992, a memorial was erected at the scene of the execution. At the dedication service, attended by the widow of one of the murdered men, an elderly man in the congregation suddenly broke down in tears. In whispered tones, he told one of the clergy: ‘I was one of the Hitler Youth who shot that night. I killed them. Forgive me but I don’t have the strength to meet her.’
His act of expiation touched the dead airman’s widow to the core. ‘I want to give my hand and say I have no bitterness any more,’ she said.
Since that memorial service, Tom Tate has also visited Huchenfeld. After years of bitterness, he was finally able to forgive. ‘When someone comes with arms open to embrace you,’ he says, ‘you can’t feel enmity any more. The act of friendship invites forgiveness.’

Do visit my website:
My new book is Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War