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, May 29, 2012


He is reputed to live in Africa, a frightened and hunted man.
Wanted: by Israel
He spends his life in disguise and lives under a false name. Jamal al Gashey is the only surviving member of the Palestinian terrorist gang which massacred nine Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He is still wanted by Israel’s security forces.
The organisers of the Munich games had made security a low profile: Germany wanted to shed forever the negative image of the Berlin Olympics of 1936, which Hitler had used for propaganda purposes. The 1972 games were to showcase the open society of the new Germany.
Olympic organizers had taken the precaution of investigating the possibility of a terrorist attack. One 'worst case' scenario envisaged armed Palestinians raiding the Olympic village and seizing the Israeli athletes. But the committee declined to hire armed guards to deter such an attack. It would spoil the friendly image of the games.
Iconic image of the terrorist attack
At 4.30am on 5 September, 1972, eight terrorists of the Black September group scaled the perimeter fence of the Olympic village. Dressed in tracksuits and carrying sports bags, they were helped over the fence by genuine athletes who were returning late after a night out.
German police on the Olympic apartment
No one imagined that these newcomers were terrorists and nor did they know that their sports bags contained grenades, pistols and assault rifles.
The Isreali team was housed in three apartments. The terrorists broke into the first apartment which housed the Israeli officials and coaches. Wrestling coast Moshe Weinberg fought the intruders, but they shot him through the cheek and then forced him to lead them to the other athletes.
Weinberg took them directly to the third apartment, which housed six weighlifters and wrestlers. He was possibly hoping that they could fight back but it was to prove a vain struggle. When he and one of the weightlifters attacked the terrorists, both were shot dead.
The other Israeli athletes were woken by the gunshots and fled the Olympic village, but not before the terrorists had captured a total of nine athletes. These were now led back to apartment one.
A tense stand-off followed, as German authorities tried to work out a solution to the murderous crisis. Not only were the terrorists utterly ruthless, but the entire world was watching the tragedy unfold. 
The Munich police chief and Bavaria's Interior Minister attempted to negotiate with the terrorists, but they refused all offers of money. Instead, they demanded the release of 234 Palestinians jailed in Israel.
After hours of futile negotiations, the kidnappers demanded to be flown to Cairo, along with their hostages.
A dangerous gang
This was something to which the German authorities could agree. They realised that it presented them with a unique chance of attacking the terrorists and freeing their hostages.
At 10.10pm, the hostages and gunmen were driven to two military helicopters which transported them to the nearby NATO airbase. Their plane was already on the tarmac, waiting to fly them to Cairo.
Devastation at the airport
The Germans were now poised to strike. The crew on the plane were all armed police with orders to kill the terrorists. Snipers had also been posted around the airport.
But the operation was bungled from the very outset. The policemen on the plane unilaterally decided to abandon their mission. Realising that they were outnumbered by the terrorists, they left the aircraft plane unnoticed by the team controlling the rescue mission. 
When the terrorists went to inspect the plane, they found it without any crew on board. Suspecting trickery, the terrorists' leader, Luttif Afif, rejoined his comrades in the military helicopters. As he did so, one of the German snipers opened fire.
He missed his target, causing all hell to break loose. As snipers and terrorists began shooting wildly, a a rain of bullets whizzed through the air. Several of the hostages were killed in the firefight.
Destroyed by grenade
The terrorists were now desperate. One of them pulled the pin on his grenade and tossed it into the nearest helicopter. A massive explosion turned the machine into a fireball, incinerating everyone inside.
Another terrorist machine-gunned the remaining five hostages in the second helicopter. There was carnage.
Once the smoke settled, it was time to count the cost in human lives. All of the hostages were dead. Three terrorists were still alive and were captured by German security forces. A fourth, who had fled, was found in the parking lot and shot dead.
The Sun's report
Several weeks later, a Lufthansa passenger plane was hijacked. The hijackers demanded the release of the three surviving terrorists. To the consternation of many, the German government immediately let them go free. They were flown to Libya where they received a heroes' welcome.
Two were eventually gunned down by Mossad agents as part of Operation Wrath of God. But Jamal al Gashey has so far proved elusive: he is the only one believed to be still alive.
And what of the athletes, murdered in cold blood? The organizers of London’s 2012 Olympics are refusing to stage any memorial on the 40th anniversary of the attack, for fear of offending nations that are hostile to Israel.
Nathaniel's Nutmeg
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Shortly before 11am on 13 June, 1907, two heavily armed carriages pulled into the central square of Tiflis, the state capital of Georgia.
Get rich quick: the young Josef Stalin
The State Bank’s cashier and accountant sat in one of the carriages. The second was packed with police and soldiers. There were also numerous outriders on horseback, their pistols cocked and ready.
There was good reason for the security. The carriages were transporting an enormous sum of money - as much as one million roubles (£7 million) - to the new State Bank.
Unbeknown to anyone in the procession, the transportation of the money through the streets of Tiflis had been brought to the attention of Georgia’s criminal underworld.
Now, one of its most swashbuckling leaders, Josef Djugashvili - better known as Stalin - was about to pull off a dazzling heist. Stalin needed the money to help finance the Bolshevik’s political movement: he had even discussed the robbery with Lenin, who had given his approval.
Central square, Tiflis: scene of the violence
Stalin knew it would require great daring to pull of such a coup. He also knew he’d need a dependable gang of fellow criminals to help. These were easy to find in Tiflis: Stalin had already been involved in previous robberies and had a trusty band of individuals who could be relied upon.
The robbery was meticulously planned. Twenty brigands loitered in the city’s central square, awaiting the arrival of the carriages. Look-outs were posted on all the street corners and rooftops.
A further band of brigands were inside one of the taverns close to the square while two girls - trusted accomplices of Stalin - took up their positions nearby. All were watching and waiting.
Carriages used by gangsters were just like this
Stalin himself remained aloof. In the aftermath of the heist, no one could say whether or not he was actively involved in the violence. One said he threw the first bomb from a nearby rooftop, the signal for the attack to begin. Another said he had been merely the architect of the robbery. A third claimed he was at the railway station, preparing to make a quick getaway if things went wrong.  
The carriages swung into the square exactly as expected. One of the gangsters slowly lowered his rolled newspaper, the signal for the attack to begin. Seconds later, there was a blinding flash and deafening roar as Stalin’s band hurled their hand grenades towards the horses.
The unfortunate animals were torn to pieces. So, too, were the policeman and soldiers. In a matter of seconds, the peaceful square was turned into a scene of carnage. The cobbles were splattered with blood, entrails and human limbs.
Bolshevik bombs found by police
As the gangsters ran towards the carriages, one of the horses  - maimed but not killed - reared up and began dragging the money-bearing cavalcade across the square. He picked up speed and there was a real danger he would get away.
One of Stalin's men chased after the horse and frantically hurled another grenade under its belly. It exploded beneath the animal, with devastating effect. The horse was blown apart and the carriages were brought to a definitive halt.
Before anyone in the square could make sense of what was happening, Stalin’s most faithful accomplice - a bandit named Captain Kamo - rode into the square. The gangsters hurled the banknotes into his carriage and then Kamo rode off at high speed.
The carnage caused by the attack was spectacular. Six people were killed by the grenades and gunfire and a further 40 wounded. Amazingly, none of the gangsters was killed.
The stolen money was taken to a safe house were it was quickly sewn into a mattress and later smuggled out of Georgia.
Stalin's police file
Neither Stalin nor any of the others involved in the heist were ever caught, even though scores of detectives were sent to investigate. It was the perfect robbery.
But if the crime itself had proved a spectacular success for Stalin, the aftermath was not so triumphant. The stolen 250,000 roubles (£1.7million) included a large number of 500-rouble notes whose serial numbers were known to the authorities. It proved impossible to cash them.
Nevertheless, the robbery was the making of Stalin. He had proved himself a brilliant organiser and utterly ruthless in action. 
That ruthlessness would come to the fore when he took the reigns of power in the Soviet Union. 

I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


The were flying into the teeth of an Antarctic blizzard.
Operation Highjump: artst's impression of crash site
The American air crew of George One had experienced bad weather in the past but this storm was altogether more dangerous.
Their naval patrol plane had flown into a ferocious snowstorm and visibility had dropped zero. Lieutenant Commander Ralph LeBlanc made a rapid descent in a desperate attempt to dodge the storm.
And then - without warning - there was a massive explosion. The plane had scraped a ridge on the ground and punctured a fuel tank. Some 1,345 gallons of fuel exploded into a fireball and blew the plane into fragments. The crew found themselves spinning through the air.
Highjump: preparing for a long cold war
It was 29 December, 1946, and America’s first military operation in Antarctica had just gone terribly wrong.
Operation Highjump had been planned on a massive scale Some 4,700 sailors, 23 aircraft and 13 ships were undertaking a military exercise in the world’s most extreme terrain.
The purpose of the mission remains obscure to this day. Officially, it was to train men for combat in a hostile climate. The Cold War was just beginning and any future war was likely to be fought in Soviet Russia.
But numerous rumours surrounded Operation Highjump. It was said Hitler had constructed a secret base in Antarctica  - he had certainly sent a mission to the continent in 1938 - and that senior members of his inner circle had escaped to this base.
The crew of the George One: three are still missing
The crew of the George One knew nothing of such matters. They were attempting to map the terrain of icy Thurston Island when their plane spectacularly exploded.
The first thing Aviation Radar Man James Robbins knew of the crash was when he woke up buried in a snowdrift. Knocked unconscious by the explosion, he had fallen to a soft landing in the snow. Now, he came to and saw Flight Engineer Bill Warr walking towards him.
‘We’re all screwed up!’ were Warr’s first words. 
Warr had thought he was the only survivor. He’d been blown down a hill, far from the others, and rolled hundreds of metres through the snow. Now, he found Robbins slowly regaining consciousness. ‘I think we’re the only ones left,’ he said.
Robbins looked to his right and saw Ensign Lopez kneeling in the snow. He pointed him out to Warr, who shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, ‘the back of his head is gone.’
All that was left of George One
Robbins looked again and saw Wendell Hendersin, another radio operator, buried in the snow to his waist. ‘No,’ said Warr. ‘That’s all there is of him.’
It was snowing hard and the wind was whipping a gale. Both men were in deep shock. They could hear the roar of the flames from the wreckage some 20 metres away.
Map of wreckage drawn by Robbins
They headed towards the fire and saw Lieutenant Bill Kearns alive but in pain. And then they heard someone else yelling: ‘Get me out of here!’
The wounded Kearns dramatically jumped up and dived into the flames, unsnapping the seatbelt of Lieutenant Commander Ralph LeBlanc. (Frenchie). He dropped from the wreckage in a ball of fire; he was still alive, but terribly burned.
The men then heard a weak moaning sound. It was Frederick Williams, the Aviation Machinist’s Mate, lying close to the wreckage. His condition was critical. He had a broken back, had suffered massive internal injuries and had blood streaming from his mouth. Robbins protected him from the blizzard with corrugated aluminium but it was clear he wouldn’t survive. Soon after, Williams slipped into a coma and passed away.
The men hoped that rescue would come soon: after all, the massive American fleet lay not far away. But as the weather turned from bad to worse, they realized they were on their own.
Williams: didn't make it
In a moment’s respite from the blizzard they found three boxes of Pemmican (a mix of fat and protein) in the wreckage. Although disgusting, it was a life-saver.
For 12 days the men endured terrible conditions: wounded and helpless, they awaited a rescue plane. Then, on the 13th day, they finally heard a noise in the sky. It was a plane.
The pilot spotted the men and dropped them a note informing them that there was an unfrozen lake just 10 miles away. He could land in the water and rescue them.
Robbins with the severely burned Frenchie
The wounded survivors staggered across the icy wasteland in a supreme test of endurance. They were limping and in great pain and Frenchie had hideous burns.
Finally, after sliding down the edge of a dangerous glacier, they spotted the plane’s life-raft coming across the water to save them. They were alive. And they were safe.
For many years, that seemed to be the end of the story - a terrible accident that ended with three US servicemen dead.
But the case of the George One was spectacularly reopened in 2009 when President Obama promised that all American prisoners of war, as well as those missing in action, would be repatriated.
The George One crash site has already been located, some 100 feet below the ice. Now, a campaign is underway to bring home the three frozen but well-preserved corpses that currently lie entombed in a glacier in the freezing wastes of Antarctica.

I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Werner Franz was stocking a kitchen cupboard aboard the airship Hindenburg when he heard an ominous thud.
A ball of fire: and Werner Franz is inside
The airship shuddered violently, pitching all the crockery to the floor. This was followed by a deafening roar as a vast quantity of hydrogen exploded into flames.
Franz looked up and was appalled by what he saw. A massive ball of fire was rushing towards him at high speed. Within seconds, he would be engulfed by the flames.
It was Thursday May 6, 1937, and the giant Zeppelin airship was in the process of docking at its mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. The flight from Frankfurt had taken longer than usual due to the strong headwinds in the mid-Atlantic.
A loud thud and then a fireball
Fourteen-year old Franz, a cabin boy aboard the Hindenburg, knew that they had been meant to land in the morning. He was hoping he’d have time to make a quick visit New York before the return flight to Germany. But poor weather and thunderstorms had delayed the landing by many hours and it was early evening by the time Captain Max Pruss was able to steer the craft towards its docking station.
It was to be a ‘flying moor landing’ - so called because the airship would drop its landing ropes at high altitude and then be winched down to its mooring.
A ball of fire: and passengers and crew inside
Franz was busily tidying the kitchens as they came into land. At 7.10pm, he heard the signal for landing stations being sounded. Ten minutes later, radio operator Franz Eichelmann relayed an order from the control car: six men were to go to the ship’s bow immediately. The captain was having difficulty landing and the weight of the crew would help bring the ship into trim.
Young Franz would have liked to join them because the windows in the Hindenburg’s bow offered a magnificent panorama of the ground. But he still had dishes to put away and was forced to remain in the kitchens. 
At 7.17pm the wind suddenly shifted direction, forcing Captain Pruss to make a sweeping sharp turn. A minute later, he dropped hundreds of tons of water ballast because the airship was stern heavy. At 7.21pm, the first of the mooring lines were dropped and all seemed well.
It was further four minutes before there was the first sign that something was wrong. Several of the crew noticed that the fabric above the upper fin was fluttering in a strange way. There was also a strange blue discharge, like static electricity. And then - suddenly - all hell broke loose.
A massive sheet of yellow flames burst from the top fin, ripping through the fabric of the airship at a devastating speed.
All over in less than 40 seconds
Franz was jolted by the thud and glanced up, only to see a huge ball of flame advancing towards him. Before he had a chance to react, he was drenched in cold water. One of the water ballast tanks above him had ruptured and sent gallons of water crashing down on him. Although he did not yet know it, this was to save his life.
Franz's escape hatch: note the water pouring out
On the ground, a crowd of spectators had gathered to watch the Hindenburg docking. There were also a number of journalists at the airbase, for this was the first transatlantic passenger flight of the year (the airship had previously made a return flight from Germany to Brazil.)
Among the journalists was Herbert Morrison, a radio broadcaster for WLS Station based in Chicago. He was in mid-broadcast when he saw the Hindenburg erupt into a ball of fire.
‘It's burst into flames,’ he screamed down the microphone, ‘and it's falling it's crashing! Watch it; watch it! Get out of the way; Get out of the way!’
His live broadcast would later become famous for the sheer drama of his reporting.
‘It's burning and bursting into flames … and it's falling on the mooring mast... this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world,’ he said. ‘Crashing… it's a terrific crash… it's smoke and it's in flames now and the frame is crashing to the ground… Oh, the humanity!’
Franz escapes: the arrow points at him jumping
It was a terrible spectacle for the onlookers, but it was more terrible by far for Werner Franz and his fellow crew and passengers. The water had soaked Franz’s clothes and protected him from the flames, but the fireball was rapidly advancing towards him.
He, like the other 96 passengers and crew, was trapped: there seemed to be no way out of the burning Zeppelin.
But then Franz noticed that there was a hatch just in front of him; it was used to load the airship with food.
He could not reach it while the ship was hanging at such an angle in the sky, but as the bow slowly began to sink Franz managed to pull himself towards it.
The fire was burning like a furnace but Franz had the presence of mind to kick open the hatch. As it fell away, he saw the ground rising up before him. He leaped from the burning airship, at great risk of having the fiery Zeppelin land on top of him.
The survivor returns home
Just as he hit the ground, the airship rose up as it rebounded off the landing wheel. Franz ran - ran for his life - and escaped from underneath the wreck just as it crashed to the ground. Less than 40 seconds after the Hindenburg burst into flames, there was virtually nothing left.
Franz’s was very lucky to escape. Many of his fellow crew were not so fortunate. When the rescue teams were finally able to approach the smouldering rubble - and count the cost of the disaster - it was discovered that 22 crew members and 13 passengers had lost their lives. One of the ground crew was also killed.
It was nevertheless a miracle that 62 people escaped from the burning inferno.
The Hindenburg disaster was never satisfactorily explained, despite numerous investigations. It marked the end of travel by airship: the famous German Zeppelin was consigned to history.
Franz eventually got passage by ship back to Germany, arriving on his 15th birthday. And there he lives to this day, now aged 89 and the only living survivor of arguably the most spectacular air disaster of the 20th century. 

I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit