Surviving History

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

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012


There was a sickening crunch and a violent jerk.
Flight 571: slammed into the mountain
The right wing of the plane was ripped off by the peak of the mountain and flung backwards into the rear of the fuselage. The plane, wildly out of control, smashed into a second peak, which tore off the left wing.
Inside the fuselage, the terrified passengers prepared for the shattered plane to plunge them to their deaths.
But the crash landing was miraculously to spare some of those on board. The fuselage hit a snow-covered mountain slope and slid downwards before coming to a halt in a deep drift.
Beautiful: but not without food or clothing
As a wall of silence descended over the wreckage, the injured and groaning survivors came to their senses. They had crashed in the lonely wilds of the high Andes. But they were alive.
There had been 45 people on board the Uruguayan Air Force flight 571 when it took off on Friday, 13 October, 1972. Among the passengers was the Old Christians Club rugby team from Montevideo, en route to Chile.
Survived the crash: but can they survive the cold?
As the injured survivors clambered from the wreckage they found that 38 of them were still alive, although several were suffering from such injuries that they would clearly not survive for long.
Their pitiful plight soon struck home. They were lost in the snowbound Andes at an altitude of 9,000 metres with neither food nor winter clothing. Worse still, they lacked any medical supplies - a major handicap given that many of them were suffering from serious wounds. 
They gathered together the remaining food on board. It did not amount to much - some snacks, a little chocolate and a few bottles of wine.
There was nothing else to eat on these windswept mountains, nor any animals to hunt.
Parrado and Canessa: survivors
‘At high altitude, the body's caloric needs are astronomical…’ wrote Nando Parrado, one of the survivors. ‘We were starving in earnest, with no hope of finding food, but our hunger soon grew so voracious that we searched anyway ... again and again we scoured the fuselage in search of crumbs and morsels... Again and again I came to the same conclusion: unless we wanted to eat the clothes we were wearing, there was nothing here but aluminium, plastic, ice, and rock.’
It became clear that if they were to survive, they would have no option but to eat their dead loved ones. It was the only hope of keeping themselves alive.
Among the crash survivors was Roberto Canessa, a young medical student. He was convinced that a small party should try to hike over the mountains and seek help. Yet this involved a gruelling trek over some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain.
Canessa and two others - Nando Parrado and Antonio Vizintin - would have to climb peaks of almost 5,000 metres in altitude. They would also face extreme temperatures with no winter clothing equipment. Worse still, they had almost no food.
After two months on the mountain (they waited for the temperatures to rise a little) they set off on 12 December.
The plane that crashed: like this one
The lack of oxygen was their first hazard. The constant climbing left them dizzy and desperately short of breath. The cold, too, was hard to endure. They had made a makeshift sleeping bag, yet the nights were nevertheless bitter.
Parrado was the fittest: he reached the peak of the first high mountain in advance of the other two. From the top, he got the shock of his life. He’d thought they’d crashed just a few miles from the Chilean border and was expecting to see some distant signs of civilisation.
Instead, there was nothing but a wasteland of ice-bound mountains and valleys stretching for as far as the eye could see.
Surviving: cold and hungry
Only now did the men realise that they were stranded at a vast distance from the nearest human habitation.
Realising that the rescue hike would be even more arduous than anticipated, Vizintin was sent back to the crash site. The others meanwhile continued on their long climb.
For day after day they crossed lonely peaks and valleys. They were freezing at night and constantly starved. But they eventually found a stream that was to lead them out of the frozen hell. It was the Rio Azufre and it gave them a passage to below the snow line. After nine days of gruelling marching, they saw cows - a sure sign of human habitation.
As they prepared to make a fire that evening, Canessa looked up and noticed a man on the far side of the river. He shouted and waved, trying to show that they desperately needed help. Over the roar of the water they heard him shout ‘tomorrow.’
The crash site today
The two survivors slept soundly that night, aware that their ordeal was almost at an end. The Chilean horseman returned on the following day; he brought some bread which he hurled across the river, along with a pen and paper. They wrote down what had happened and flung it back.
The man went back to raise the alarm and get help for Canessa and Parrado. Shortly afterwards, a rescue party arrived and the two of them were given much needed shelter, food and water.
That same day, 22 December, two helicopters finally set off for the crash site. Despite atrocious weather they eventually plucked the remaining survivors from the mountain. They were in a desperate plight: cold, starving and suffering from extreme malnutrition.
But they had survived - survived an extraordinary 72 days without food and supplies in one of the bleakest spots on earth. 
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, March 20, 2012


It was Friday the thirteenth and there were thirteen prisoners, all of them awaiting execution.
Albert Pierrepoint: a very British hangman
They had been dubbed the ‘Beasts of Belsen’: 10 men and three women who had sent tens of thousands of concentration camp victims to their deaths. Now, it was their turn to die.
There was never any doubt as to who would undertake the executions: Albert Pierrepoint was Britain’s most experienced hangman. He had got the job of executioner in 1932, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle. He'd proved so reliable and efficient that within nine years he was promoted to Chief Executioner. He even perfected the art of double executions, hanging two men at the same time.
Guilty: the beasts of Belsen
Pierrepoint's most celebrated executions came in the wake of the Nazi war crime trial of the 'beasts of Belsen. The convicted prisoners included Irma Grese, a vivacious young blond girl who'd joined the SS at an early age and worked enthusiastically at Belsen, lashing her Jewish prisoners to death with her riding whip before they reached the gas chambers.
Also convicted was Juana Bormann, who had treated her prisoners with horrific violence, setting her vicious Alsatian on the weak and sickly. Many of them were gnawed to death.
‘First she egged the dog on and it pulled at the woman [victim’s] clothes,’ said one of the witnesses at her trial. ‘Then she was not satisfied with that and made the dog go for her throat.’
Irma Grese: mass murderer who smiled
She, like Irma Grese was found guilty and convicted to hang.
Albert Pierrepoint had executed scores of people over the previous decade but he had never hanged 13 in one day and nor had he despatched anyone quite so evil as this bunch. He was particularly keen to meet Irma Grese, whom he regarded as the worst of the lot.
‘She walked out of her cell and came towards us laughing,’ he wrote. ‘She seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet.’
When asked her age, she paused and smiled. Pierrepoint also found himself smiling, ‘as if we realised the conventional embarrassment of a woman revealing her age.’
These ‘Belsen’ executions were to be rather different from Pierrepoint’s previous ones. He was put in total charge from beginning to end - a job that required meticulous planning. ‘I had to supervise the weighings and measuring of the condemned thirteen in order to work out my drops.’
He had never done this before: in Britain it was done by prison officers.
When Pierrepoint had first arrived at Buckeburg prison, where the criminals were held, he was appalled to see 13 graves being dug for the condemned prisoners.
He felt that this was unseemly. ‘I complained about it to a prison official but was told that nothing could be done to stop it.’
Timothy Spall is Pierrepoint the in movie
He then went inside the prison to meet the condemned men and women. ‘I walked down the corridor and the thirteen Belsen faces were pressed close to the bars.’
Pierrepoint was taken aback. ‘Never in my experience have I seen a more pitiable crowd of condemned prisoners.’
The first to be weighed and measured was Josef Kramer, who had killed thousands of victims. He was sullen and gave monosyllabic answers to Pierrepoint’s questions.
Kramer: no regrets
The next prisoner, Dr Fritz Klein, had been convicted of killing up to 300 victims at a time in the gas chambers. Pierrepoint found him full of energy and not a bit contrite. ‘[He] came walking briskly down the corridor and efficiently complied with the formalities.’
Once all the prisoners had been weighed, Pierrepoint had to work out the length of rope. If the drop was too long, it would tear their heads off. Too short and it might not kill them.
Pierrepoint was woken at 6am on Friday 13 December, 1945. He decided to execute the women first, beginning with Irma Grese. She proved a model of calmness, walking slowly to the trap and standing on the white chalk mark. 
‘As I placed the white cap over her head, she said in her languid voice: ‘Schnell.’’ The trapdoor crashed from under her feet and her body twisted as the rope broke her neck. Pierrepoint’s first prisoner was dead.
He hanged the two other women before pausing for a refreshing cup of tea. Then, he set to work on the men, adjusting the scaffold for the double executions.
Always keep a note of your executions
First to go were Josef Kramer and Fritz Klein. They were roped together and also roped by their necks. ‘I adjusted the ropes and flew to the lever,’ recalled Pierrepoint. Twenty five seconds later, both were dead.
The executions took many hours and it was dark by the time all the prisoners had been despatched. Pierrepoint was exhausted but he nevertheless went to a mess party that night. He was proud to have hanged the ‘Beasts of Belsen’.
He would subsequently be appointed to execute a further 190 Nazi war criminals, including Bruno Tesch, inventor of the gas Zyklon B. Pierrepoint was by now so efficient at his job that he could despatch his clients - cell to gallows - in under 60 seconds.
Pierrepoint was eventually retired at the age of 72, due to failing eyesight. Home Office officials cancelled his contract when they learned that he almost noosed his assistant and sent him through the trapdoor by mistake. 

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012


There was no hope of escape.
An avalanche of toxic gas: Mount Pelee erupts
At exactly 8.02am on 8 May, 1902, there was a cataclysmic explosion on the Caribbean island of Martinique. The island’s volcano - Mount Pelee - had ripped itself open, forcing a gigantic mushroom cloud into the sky. Seconds later, an avalanche of superheated gas and dust began thundering down the slopes of the volcano.
Directly below, and in the path of the boiling flood, lay St-Pierre, a town of some 30,000 inhabitants. As everyone glanced at the torrent of toxic debris heading towards them at great speed, they realised that survival would depend entirely upon luck.
The avalanche had picked up such momentum that it was to reach St-Pierre in less than a minute. The temperature of the flow was in excess of 1,000 degrees centigrade and it was vaporising everything in its path.
First hint of danger: a burst of smoke
Among the terrified inhabitants of the town was Léon Compère Léandre, a local shoemaker. He had heard the massive explosion and immediately turned to look at the mountain.
‘I felt a terrible wind blowing, the earth began to tremble, and the sky suddenly became dark,’ he later wrote. ‘I turned to go into the house, with great difficulty climbed the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body.’
Don't inhale: it's deadly
As he collapsed in agony, four other people burst into the room, ‘crying and writhing with pain.’ It was clear that they’d suffered massive internal injuries from the noxious volcanic gasses.
‘At the end of 10 minutes one of these, the young Delavaud girl, aged about 10 years, fell dead,’ recalled Léon. The others fled the building, hoping to find some avenue of escape.
Léon went into another room, ‘where I found the father Delavaud, still clothed and lying on the bed, dead. He was purple and inflated, but the clothing was intact.’
Léon was by now desperate. According to his account, he was ‘crazed and almost overcome’. Unable to move, he lay on a bed, ‘inert and awaiting death.’
There were a few witnesses to the ensuing disaster: people who were on boats at the time of the eruption. One described how the mountain was ‘blown to pieces, there was no warning.’ Another said simply: ‘the town banished before our eyes.’
Absolute devastation: yet a few survive
There was no hope of outrunning the avalanche. Everyone in the centre of town was killed in seconds - gassed and burned to death by the noxious and fiery fumes.
One hour after the disaster, Léon suddenly work up. He had lost consciousness at the moment the avalanche struck and was only dimly aware of what had happened.
Now, he walked out through the charred remains of St Pierre and eventually reached a nearby village where he amazed the locals with his story.
How he managed to survive the furnace that rolled over the town remains a complete mystery. The only certainty is that the storm of gas and boiling dust had left him unscathed.
Survival in prison: Cyparis
Léon was not the only survivor: one other man escaped the inferno and he was able to recount how he had cheated death on that grim May morning.
Louis Auguste Cyparis had been incarcerated in the city’s prison on the day before the eruption, having been involved in a violent pub brawl. He was locked into an underground cell with windowless stone walls. The only ventilation came from a grating in the metal door that faced away from the volcano.
Cyparis heard the violent explosion of the volcano and realised at once that it had erupted. According to his account, the daylight (which he could see through the grate) vanished: day switched to night in an instant.
Seconds later, scorching air and burning ash entered his cell. He urinated on his clothes and stuffed them into the hole, but this did not prevent him receiving severe burns. But he survived the ensuing avalanche, which buried him alive under the burning ash.
Cyparis's cell: the only volcano-proof building in town
The rescue operation began within hours of the eruption. The warship Suchet reached the burning town at 12.30pm. But the heat was so ferocious that it could not land until 3pm, when the captain managed to get ashore.
Mount Pelee today
He was staggered by what he found. Not a building, nor a tree was still standing. Everything was charred beyond recognition. The entire 30,000 population was dead.
Cyparis was found four days later by a rescue team who heard his lonely cries coming from under the rubble. He eventually recovered from his burns, was pardoned for his crime and joined Barnum and Bailey’s circus.
The only other survivor of that terrible morning in May was a young girl named Haviva da Ifrile. But her escape is even more mysterious than that of Léon Compère Léandre. She was found adrift in a boat, unconscious but alive.
She had no recollection of how she got there.
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