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, April 17, 2012


It was three minutes past two in the morning: 28 April, 1944.
Omaha Beach, 1944. Slapton Sands was nearly
as dangerous
A flotilla of American ships was approaching Slapton Sands on the Devon coast, a crucial practice exercise in advance of the D-Day landings.
Exercise Tiger was a 300-vessel, 30,000 men dress rehearsal for the biggest amphibious landing in history. It would enable Allied commanders to fine-tune their Normandy battle plan.
Angelo Crapanzano one of those involved in the operation. He was in the engine room of his vessel, named LST 507, when it was unexpectedly rocked by a tremendous explosion.
LST 289: a wreck, but she didn't sink
‘I got this sensation of flying up, back, and when I came down I must have bumped my head someplace and must have been out for a few seconds, because I felt cold on my legs,’ he later recalled.
As he recovered consciousness, he realised the ship had been hit by a torpedo. A German naval squadron had encountered the fleet by chance and immediately opened fire.
 ‘The ship was burning,’ said Crapanzano. ‘[It] was split in half … fire went from the bow all the way back to the wheelhouse.’
The sea also was on fire, because the fuel tanks had ruptured and poured oil into the water.
Slapton: just like Normandy
LST 507 was not the only ship to be hit. Crapanzano witnessed another landing ship, LST 531, being attacked. She sank in ten minutes, killing almost everyone on board. A third vessel also burst into flames, another victim of the German ambush.
By about 2.20am, the captain of Crapanzano’s ship realised that she was fatally damaged. ‘The tank deck was burning fiercely…’ recalled Crapanzano, ‘It [was] just like a gas jet stove. And all the heat going up to the top deck.’
Crapanzano braced himself for the 40-foot jump into the sea, hitting the water at high speed and plunging beneath the surface. ‘It was frigid. It was like unbelievable, unbelievable cold.’
On the day of the practice, they came under heavy fire
But he didn’t think of the cold for long: he was too busy trying to escape the burning fuel on the water’s surface.
Of the 12 life rafts on the LST, only one had been lowered into the water. It was completely burned, but Crapanzano and 10 others managed to cling to it. They desperately kicked themselves away from the ship so as not to get sucked under when it sank.
Crapanzano witnessed scenes that would haunt him for years. ‘I saw bodies with arms off, heads off, heads split open, you wouldn’t believe what the hell goes on.’
As he flailed around in the water, he was struck by the scale of the catastrophe. Nine German E-boats had struck the Allied fleet as it headed for Slapton Sands. They had attacked hard and fast. Three LSTs were totally crippled and a fourth was badly damaged by friendly fire. The E-boats had got away before the Allies could return fire.
Survivors from LST 507
A staggering 638 servicemen were killed in the sudden attack. Yet the Allied landing operation was not abandoned. Instead, the surviving ships pressed on at full speed towards Slapton Sands, leaving the dead and dying in the water.
The beach landings were to prove the setting for the day’s second tragedy. The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, had ordered that real ammunition be used, so that men would experience actual battlefield conditions. It was a disastrous decision, for the entire exercise was miss-timed. The British cruiser, HMS Hawkins, was shelling the beach as the soldiers stormed ashore, killing a further 308 men.
Some were not so lucky
While the practice landings were taking place amidst scenes of carnage, Crapanzano was still struggling to keep alive in the icy water. He was acutely aware of the dangers of hypothermia and tried to keep up the spirits of the 10 men clinging to the raft. 
‘I kept saying to them, ‘Don’t fall asleep, whatever you do. If you fall asleep you’re dead.’
But one by one they slid into unconsciousness. Soon Crapanzano and one other man were the only two left.
D Day: this time it's for real
They’d been in the water for four-and-a-half hours when Crapanzano noticed a light.
‘I see this light, going up and down, and it seems to be getting bigger. I immediately assume that help is coming.’
Help was indeed at hand. The light came from LST 515, one of the ships that had belatedly  returned to sea to search for survivors. The crew were scanning the water when they spotted Crapanzano’s head. At first they thought it was another corpse, but then one of the men saw it move. Crapanzano was still alive.
At last, a memorial
He was plucked from the sea, wrapped in blankets and eventually transferred to a Dorset hospital where he made a full recovery.
Only now did he learn the full extent of the Slapton Sands disaster: Exercise Tiger had cost the lives of 946 American servicemen.
All who had been involved in the disaster were sworn to secrecy. It was vital that the Germans knew nothing of the practice landing. The massive loss of life was also highly embarrassing for the Allied high command, who wanted to keep it under wraps.
And so it remained a forgotten episode of the war for many years.
Not until four decades later - in 1984 - was a memorial finally erected in memory of the men who lost their lives in the practice landings for D Day.

Russian Roulette is now published in the USA. Available for order at amazonbarnes&noble and all good independent publishers.  

With this marvellous, meticulously researched and truly ground-breaking account of British spies working in Lenin's stripling Soviet Union, Giles Milton - with his best book so far - reminds us of a time when the spying game was dangerous, fun and - dare one say it - even cool.' Simon Winchester, author of The Men who United the States and The Professor and the Madman

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


He stood at the edge of heaven.
It's a long way down
Joe Kittinger's helium balloon had carried him to more than 19 miles above the earth. Now, he prepared to jump. He was about to do what no human had ever done before - free-fall to earth at the speed of sound. It was part of an extreme American experiment on ejecting at high altitude.
Kittinger knew only too well that the experiment carried extraordinary risks. He had undertaken his first free-fall jump nine months earlier, at the end of 1959, and it had almost killed him. He began spinning wildly out of control - more than 120 revolutions a minute - and quickly lost consciousness. His life was saved only when his parachute opened automatically at 10,000 feet.
An artist's impression
Now, he was going to repeat the experiment, only this time from a far greater height. His specially constructed helium capsule would lift him to an altitude of 31,000 metres - 19-and-a-half miles above planet earth. Then he would step out into the void and fall to earth. No one knew if he would survive the experience. 
It was an experiment of extremes. At such an altitude, the temperature would be minus 100 centigrade. Even more alarming was the insufferable pressure and mix of noxious gasses. If his protective suit burst, his blood would instantly boil.
Kittinger was not doing it for kicks. The United States Air Force was growing increasingly concerned about the safety of pilots forced to eject at high altitude. Tests had shown that the body went into a fatal spin when jumping from a plane. Now, scientists had created a stabiliser device designed to hold the body in one position as it fell to earth. Kittinger was to test this device.
There's a hole in the glove.
At 5.29am on 16 August, 1960, his helium balloon lifted off from an abandoned airstrip in New Mexico. It rose rapidly - 1,200 feet a minute - until it was just a tiny blip in the sky. Although it ascended at speed, it took a long time to reach 19 miles above earth.
Kittinger was wearing a specially designed protective suit - a high-tech layer of inflating fabric that was intended to save him from instant death. But it failed him before he even reached 40,000 feet.  The glove on his right hand didn't inflate - a potentially fatal malfunction which could easily kill him. 
Kittinger knew that if he informed the control centre, they would abort the flight. ‘I took a calculated risk,' he later said, 'that I might lose use of my right hand. It quickly swelled up, and I did lose use for the duration of the flight. But the rest of the pressure suit worked.’
After ascending rapidly for one hour and 31 minutes, Kittinger reached his maximum altitude. But the balloon was not quite in the right position so he allowed it to drift for twelve miles until he was over the landing target area.
It's only 19 miles.
This gave him time enough to experience life in this twilight zone.
‘You can see about 400 miles in every direction,' he said. 'The most fascinating thing is that it's just black overhead - the transition from normal blue to black is very stark. You can't see stars because there's a lot of glare from the sun, so your pupils are too small.’
Kittinger was struck by how beautiful planet earth looked from up here. ‘But I was also struck by how hostile it is: more than 100 degrees below zero [and] no air. If my protection suit failed, I would be dead in a few seconds.’
Kittinger went through a pre-planned 46-step checklist. Then he disconnected the balloon’s power supply, cutting all communication with earth. He was on his own, drifting in a hostile world.
‘When everything was done, I stood up, turned around to the door, took one final look out and said a silent prayer: 'Lord, take care of me now.' Then I just jumped over the side.’
The practice run.
He was on his way back to earth, falling through emptiness at unbelievable speed.
‘I rolled over and looked up and there was the balloon just roaring into space. [Then] I realized that the balloon wasn't roaring into space; I was going down at a fantastic rate…'
He had no sense at all that he was falling. 
'You determine speed is visual if you see something go flashing by. But nothing flashes by 20 miles up - there are no signposts there and you are way above any clouds.’
Yet he was by now travelling at an extraordinary velocity - falling to earth at the speed of sound, more than 600 miles an hour (990 km per hour).
The world appeared an alluring and welcoming sight. Joe had a camera strapped to his body which captured every moment: it revealed planet earth growing nearer and larger with every second.
Where am I?
For 4 minutes and 36 seconds, Kittinger fell through the limitless void. When he reached 17,500 feet above sea level, (5,330m), he opened his main parachute which dramatically slowed his breakneck fall. It took a further nine minutes before he landed safely in the New Mexico desert.
As the ground crew rushed over to greet him, he had just a few brief words for them: ‘I’m very glad to be back with you all,’ he said. He had completed the most extraordinary voyage through space: a 19-mile free-fall from heaven to earth. And he had survived.


Wolfram 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