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, July 26, 2011


They set off in the half-light before dawn - four English alpinists, a French climber and two Swiss guides.
Their goal: the top
Their goal was the mighty Matterhorn, a mountain that had never been successfully climbed. Now, in the summer of 1865, the seven-strong party had high hopes of success.
What none of them realised was that a deadly and catastrophic surprise was awaiting them. 
Mountaineer Edward Whymper had long dreamed of scaling the Matterhorn. He had made several attempts with his friend Jean-Antoine Carrel, but each time the mountain had defeated them.
Whymper: race to the top
Now, in July, 1865, Whymper was determined to succeed. He was unaware that a second party was also planning to ascend the mountain - and that they were intending to race Whymper to the summit.
Whymper was appalled when he learned that his former climbing partner had joined the Italian expedition. But he was relieved to discover that several other alpinists residing in Zermatt were hoping to scale the mountain that July.
They included three Englishmen - Lord Francis Douglas, Douglas Hadow and Charles Hudson - as well as the French climber Michel Croz.
Croz: experienced
Whymper now persuaded all of them to join his attempt on the summit: he also hired the services of two experienced guides, a father and son team both named Peter Taugwallder.
The climb began well. The group reached the Schwarzsee after three hours; by mid-morning they were at the base of the peak and heading for the east face.
Lord Douglas: the only way is up
They crossed a dangerous ridge and, by lunchtime, found a good position to bivouac. They had reached a height of 3,380 metres and decided to rest and attempt the summit on the following morning, ascending the mountain’s precipitous east face.
They set off at sunrise and climbed without ropes, soon reaching a height of 4,000 metres. They paused on the ridge at the foot of the near-vertical upper peak: it was so steep and challenging that they decided instead to make for the north face.
They seven struggled up the rock-face and finally neared the summit. When they saw that only 200 feet of easy snow remained, Croz and Whymper unhooked themselves and scrambled to the top.
The East Face: 'Hurrah!' wrote Whymper
‘The slope eased off…’ wrote Whymper, ‘At 1.40 p.m. the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered. Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.’ They had beaten the Italian party.
Whymper’s exhausted but elated team celebrated their triumph before starting their descent; Michel Croz led the way, followed by Hadow, Hudson and Douglas, with the two Taugwalders and Whymper bringing up the rear.
Whymper had already been alarmed by Hadow’s lack of experience on the ascent. Now, that lack of experience - coupled with extreme fatigue - was to cause disaster.
Disaster: 'Impossible!' screamed Michel Croz.
As the men clambered down - all roped together - Hadow suddenly slipped. He crashed into Croz, who was knocked clean off his feet. The weight of the two of them dragged down Hudson and Douglas. Within seconds, all four were sliding down a near-vertical slope.
Whymper and the Taugwalders were some distance away, but they were attached to the same rope. Hearing the scream of the men, they clasped at nearby rocks to avoid being pulled down.
The rope tightened, tugged them violently and then suddenly snapped in two. The three men were thereby saved from following their friends over the rocky cliff.
Whymper was horrified. ‘For two or three seconds,’ he wrote, ‘we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading out their hands endeavouring to save themselves; they then disappeared one by one and fell from precipice to precipice onto the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height.’
Not until the following day did Whymper and his guides reach Zermatt - and they were soon to find themselves embroiled in controversy. They were accused of having betrayed their companions: worse, they were said to have cut the rope in order to save themselves.
Whymper defended himself vigorously against accusations of betrayal.
‘A single slip, or a single false step, has been the sole cause of this frightful calamity…’ he wrote. ‘Croz held Hadow for an instant - and still tried to check the fall even after Hudson and Douglas had been pulled out of their steps, but in vain.’
As the four men tumbled over the precipice - and fell spectacularly to their deaths - Croz was heard to scream: ‘Impossible!’
It was a fitting comment on their deathly descent of the Matterhorn.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011


It was the world’s most secret address - known to a handful of initiates as P.O. Box 1142.
A rare outside shot of P O Box 1142
From the outside, it looked like any other military compound. There were a few houses, a couple of huts and the occasional vehicle going in and out.
Yet P.O. Box 1142 was America’s secret weapon that helped the Allies win the Second World War. And the events that took place here also enabled America to put men on the moon.
A spartan bedroom dormitory
This secret address - at Fort Hunt in Virginia - was a top American intelligence base that operated during World War Two.
It was here that many senior Nazi prisoners - including rocket scientists and nuclear engineers - were interrogated. In total, more than 4,000 high-ranking prisoners passed through the camp.
Among them were the rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, and the nuclear technician Heinz Schlicke.
The prisoners held here were grilled about scientific discoveries and developments in weaponry - anything, indeed, that could help the Allied cause
A POW bus: note the blacked-out glass
The base was in violation of the Geneva Convention but this did not bother the US government. Secrecy was paramount.
Surviving transcripts and testimonies suggest that human rights were respected and torture was never employed. Rather, prisoners were rewarded if they revealed sensitive information. Some prisoners were even wined and dined to soften them up.
Schlicke: came here 1945
One of the American interrogators was George Mandel, a 20 -year-old scientist who spoke fluent German.
My job was to interrogate scientifically trained and experienced Germans,’ he explained in a 2008 interview. He said that many of them were such experts that he had trouble understanding them.
‘One of them… worked on enriching uranium, and I didn't know why anybody would want to enrich uranium,’ he recalls. ‘My job was to find out what he was doing and how it was being carried out, and then I reported this to the Pentagon.’
Many of the most senior Nazi scientists were brought to P.O. Box 1142 in the run up to Operation Paperclip. This was a top-secret mission charged with offering employment in America to hundreds of distinguished German scientists at the war’s end.
The aim was to deny the Soviet Union access to the skills of these high-ranking experts.
Among them was the high-ranking German engineer Heinz Schlicke, who developed infrared fuses used to trigger an atomic warhead.
Greatest catch: Wernher von Braun
His interrogator, John Gunther Dean, says Schlicke took time to cooperate. ‘The war had ended in Europe at that point…  he was willing to help us, but his wife was in the Russian zone.’
Dean was eventually sent to Europe to find Schlicke's wife and two small children and to reunite the family in America. Schlicke ended up working in the U.S. for the remainder of his life.
In the spring of 1945, the camp received its most prestigious German prisoner, the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.
He had developed the V1 and V2 rockets that had reduced parts of London to rubble. When he realised the war was lost, he surrendered to American forces in Bavaria.
All the rooms were bugged
The American high command knew the importance of their catch: von Braun was at the top of the Black List - a list of German scientists and engineers targeted for immediate interrogation. He was flown to the United States and questioned by officers of P.O. Box 1142.
Each prisoner had a so-called ‘morale officer’: Von Braun’s was a young official named Arno Mayer whose orders were to keep him happy. To this end, he supplied him with magazines and liquor and even took him and three others on a shopping trip to Washington, D.C.
Prisoners movements were constantly monitored
Mayer recalls that the men wanted to buy lingerie for their wives, who were still in Germany.
‘We told the sales person what size and so on. And the woman held up a pair of panties. The Germans were appalled. They didn't want nylon underwear,’ recalls Mayer.’ They wanted woollen ones that should be long, so as to cover their legs.’
Von Braun with his Saturn V rockets
Wernher von Braun was to prove one of P.O.Box 1142’s most controversial prisoners. It was discovered that he had used forced labour taken from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp when building his deadly V1 and V2 rockets.
He could have been tried and condemned at the Nuremberg Tribunal. But the government deemed that his extraordinary brain was too useful for him to be put on trial. Instead, he was given a false employment history and his Nazi Party membership expunged from the public record. He was then given security clearance to work in the United States.
P.O. Box 1142’s most high profile prisoner was eventually given a leading job at NASA. He would reward his adopted country by designing the Saturn V rocket that launched the crew of Apollo 11 on its successful mission to the moon.
Few people ever knew that he had previously been interred at P.O. Box 1142.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011


He was a shy individual.
Unsung hero: Asa Jennings
Five feet tall and diminutive of build, he wore large glasses and had an uncommonly large mouth. When he smiled he looked like a frog.
But Asa Jennings - an employee of the YMCA in the city of Smyrna in Turkey - was to become one of the greatest unsung heroes of the 20th century.
Jennings was thrust into the limelight in September, 1922, due to events that were entirely outside his control.
Greek army heads for disaster
The Greek army, which had landed in Turkey three years earlier, had suffered a strong of catastrophic defeats. Pushed back towards Smyrna, and evacuated by ship, it left the city’s vast Greek population unprotected and vulnerable.
When the Turkish forces re-entered Smyrna, they instigated a massacre of the Greeks and Armenians.
For days, the city’s European and American inhabitants watched on helpless. There was very little they could do.
But as hundreds of thousands more Greek refugees poured into the city, the situation took a terrible turn for the worse. On 13 September, the Turkish army set fire to Smyrna.
Smyrna on fire: 350,000 refugees trapped
The entire population was now in danger of being burned alive - and Jennings suddenly found himself caught up in a crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Fire spread rapidly, burning everything
His bosses urged him to retreat to one of the US destroyers in the bay. But Jennings vowed instead to save the 350,000 refugees on the quayside.
He learned that a large fleet of Greek naval vessels was at anchor at nearby Mytilene Island. Seized with ‘an uncontrollable urge’ to do something, he took himself to Mytilene. His aim was to persuade the ships’ captains to go to the rescue.
He began by sending a telegram to the government in Athens. Jennings knew that he would need permission from the Greek ministers if he was to have any hope of leading the ships to Smyrna. His telegram was signed: ‘Asa Jennings, American citizen.’
An answer was received from the Greek government just minutes later. Who, asked the Athens government, was Asa Jennings?
Kemal: victor of Smyrna
‘I identified myself as Chairman of the American Relief Committee in Mytilene,’ Jennings later recalled. ‘I didn’t bother to explain that I held the position solely by virtue of the fact that I was the only American there.’
The Greek government vacillated for hours, until Jennings threatened to make public the ministers’ refusal to rescue the 350,000 Greek refugees in Smyrna.   
His strategy worked. ‘All ships in the Aegean placed under your command to remove refugees from Smyrna.’ By virtue of his bluff and bravado, Asa Jennings had been appointed an admiral of the Greek navy.
He could scarcely believe his ears. ‘All I knew about ships,’ he said, ‘was to be sick in them.’
The great rescue begins
By midnight, his little fleet was ready to sail. The newly appointed Admiral Jennings took his position on the bridge of the Propondis and led the other ships towards Smyrna.
‘At the water’s edge, stretching for miles, was what looked like a lifeless black border,’ he wrote on his arrival. ‘As we approached and the shore spread out before us… I thought that the whole shore was moving out to grasp us.’
All day long Jennings took off refugees: by nightfall, he had saved some 15,000 people. After landing them safely in Mytilene, he returned to Smyrna.
This time he had an armada of seventeen ships and many more people willing to help. By that evening, Jennings had managed to spirit away another 43,000 souls - all under the gaze of the Turkish army.
Happier days: Smyrna before the fire
And so it continued for day after day, By 27 September, the number of refugees on the quayside had fallen to below 200,000. Just two days later, less than half that number remained.
By the end of September, Jennings’ job was almost complete: there were fewer than 50,000 refugees still awaiting rescue from the charnel house of Smyrna.
Jennings would continue his work until there was not a single person left on the quayside.
It was an extraordinary achievement. No one had asked him to intervene and he asked for no reward.
But this quiet employee of the YMCA had the silent satisfaction of knowing that he had rescued some 350,000 people from almost certain death.

My book Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 tells the full story of Asa Jennings and the Smyrna catastrophe. Click here for more information. Also available in Greek, Turkish and other languages: more information on my website

My latest book Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War is available here