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, June 26, 2012


The American marines had crawled through the tropical undergrowth in order to gather intelligence on the Japanese positions.
Gabaldon: 'Surrender or I'll kill you!'
But as they reached the cliff-tops on Saipan Island, they found themselves blinking in disbelief.
A lone US soldier, Guy Gabaldon, was sitting on the ground surrounded by hundreds of Japanese troops. He had not been taken captive. Rather, he had talked them all into surrendering. Now, he was preparing to lead them to safety.
Gabaldon was something of a legend amongst his comrades. A tough-nosed 18-year-old from the barrios of East Los Angeles, he had already captured dozens of Japanese soldiers.
Battle of Saipan: but Gabaldon fought alone
Now, he’d made his biggest haul ever. More than 800 prisoners sat before him: diehard troops who normally preferred suicide to surrender. 
It was an extraordinary act from an extraordinary individual. Toughened by his American childhood in a multi-ethnic gang, Gabaldon had picked up Japanese from the family who’d cared for him. His language skills were to serve him well in the battle for Saipan.
The capture of Saipan in the Mariana Islands was deemed vital for any future land invasion of Japan. It was the ideal place to establish airfields for the American B-29 Superfortress bombers.
The attack on the island began on 15 June, 1944, and Guy Gabaldon was one of 128,000 American soldiers taking part.
Gabaldon (right) with prisoners
He was only too aware of the danger posed by the Japanese defenders; they were utterly ruthless and always chose suicide over surrender.
Gabaldon found it hard to work in a team. On his first night on the island, he ventured out alone and approached a cave where he believed Japanese soldiers to be sheltering. He shot the guards at the entrance and then yelled in Japanese: ‘You're surrounded and have no choice but to surrender. Come out and you will not be killed!’
A few minutes later, he had bagged his first two prisoners.
His commanding officer was furious that he had undertaken a solo mission and Gabaldon was almost court-marshalled.
Undeterred, Gabaldon repeated the exercise on the following night. This time, he returned with 50 prisoners.
Bang! Fighting in Saipan
His superiors were so impressed that they allowed him the rare privilege of working as a ‘lone wolf’ - a soldier who planned his own solo missions.
On 7 July, Gabaldon clambered up to the cliff-top caves of Saipan and overheard Japanese soldiers talking about a massive offensive due to take place on the following day. He passed this information back to headquarters, enabling them to successfully block the Japanese advance.
The next day, Gabaldon returned to the cliffs and captured two Japanese guards. He persuaded them to venture into the caves and talk their fellow soldiers into surrendering.
It was a high-risk strategy. Gabaldon was alone and completely defenceless against such a huge number of men.
A rare sight: Japanese prisoners
It was either convincing them that I was a good guy or I would be a dead Marine within a few minutes,’ he later said. ‘If they rushed me I would probably kill two or three before they ate me alive. This was the final showdown.’
There were a tense few moments as Gabaldon awaited the return of the guards. Then, from further down the cliffs, he heard the sound of voices. Hundreds and hundreds of Japanese soldiers could be seen walking towards him.
Gabaldon was both nervous and excited. ‘If I pull this off,’ he said to himself, ‘it will be the first time in World War II that a lone Marine Private captures half a Japanese regiment by himself.’
Hell to Eternity: the movie
The men were extremely jittery but they decided to surrender when Gabaldon assured them they’d receive medical treatment. Gabaldon found himself with 800 prisoners.
It earned him the nickname the Pied Piper of Saipan. It also earned him the Navy Cross, the Marines’ highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor. ‘Working alone in front of the lines,’ reads the citation, ‘he daringly entered enemy caves, pillboxes, buildings and jungle bush, frequently in the face of hostile fire, and succeeded in not only obtaining vital military information, but in capturing well over 1,000 enemy civilians and troops.’
Saipan today. More peaceful
His greatest moment came many years later, in 1960, when his story was turned into a Hollywood movie, Hell to Eternity.
He’d always seen his role as that of a movie star, even when fighting in Saipan. ‘I must have seen too many John Wayne movies,’ he said, ‘because what I was doing was suicidal.”
Suicidal but effective. By the time his combat days came to an end, he had captured more Japanese prisoners than any other soldier.
‘When I began taking prisoners it became an addiction,’ he said, ‘I found that I couldn’t stop. I was hooked.'
UK paperback
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

Monday, June 18, 2012


It arrived on his desk as a jumbled series of numbers.
 'Dormouse' Nigel de Grey: the only known
There was no pattern to the code and nor was there any obvious logic. Yet it was immediately obvious to cryptologist Nigel de Grey that he was looking at a highly secretive document. Now, his task was to decipher it with all possible speed; the British government urgently needed to know what it said.
The message had been transmitted on 16 January, 1917, by the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann. It contained a message intended for the president of Mexico, but it was intercepted by Room 40, Britain’s celebrated code-breaking service.
The telegram: it's all in the numbers
Room 40 had already achieved great success in cracking German military and naval codes. Now, Nigel de Grey and his colleagues had their toughest assignment to date. The First World War was entering a critical phase and Germany stood in need of new and dependable allies. So, too, did Britain.
Zimmermann: it's all in the numbers
British ministers were desperate to draw America into the war, aware that this would irrevocably change the course of the conflict. But President Wilson had hitherto showed no appetite for war. The explosive telegram handed to Nigel de Grey was to change all that.
The interception of such a message would have been impossible before the war. The German government had always transmitted their trans-Atlantic messages using an underwater cable that lay on the seabed. But this cable had been cut by the British navy. Germany now had no option but to use the American diplomatic cable system if it was to transmit long-distance messages quickly.
The Americans sanctioned this only rarely and always on the condition that the German messages were not coded. But the message that Germany needed to transmit in January, 1917, was one of such secrecy that it could only be sent in code. Foreign Secretary Zimmermann persuaded the American ambassador, James Gerard, to allow him to send his message in encrypted form.
Intercepted here: Porthcurno in Cornwall
Unbeknown to Zimmermann, or to anyone else in the German government, the American diplomatic cables were not sent directly to America. First, they passed through a small transmission station based at Porthcurno in the extreme west of England. When Zimmermann’s message reached this station, it was immediately copied and sent to Room 40, where the code-breakers and linguistic analysts were set to work.
Room 40 (the precursor to Bletchley Park) employed a small group of eccentric men - classical scholars, linguists and crossword addicts - who all displayed an extraordinary talent for cracking codes.
The decrypted telegram
Among them was Nigel de Grey, a publisher who had previously worked for the firm, William Heinemann. Shy, introverted and very small, de Grey was known to his colleagues as ‘the dormouse’. He cooperated closely with the Reverend William Montgomery, another expert at decryption who had been called to work at Room 40.
Both men immediately realised that Zimmermann’s telegram was written in a highly complex form of encryption only ever used for top-level diplomatic communications. The fact that it was sent from Germany to Mexico only increased their suspicions that something untoward was being proposed. Relations between Mexico and America had become extremely strained over the previous few years, not least because of a series of cross-border raids undertaken by the revolutionary activist, Pancho Villa. Grey and Montgomery suspected that Zimmermann was seeing to further inflame the tension.
New Mexico: Zimmermann promised it to
old Mexico
They studied the numbers and began to see a pattern. The numbers had been used to replace letters and the system worked on a twin horizontal and vertical axis. It was an encryption system that involved groupings of numbers and letters: to most people, it was nothing but gibberish.
It didn’t take Gray and Montgomery more than 24 hours to work out the message: Germany was asking for a military alliance with Mexico. In return, Mexico would be allowed to seize control of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
'Some promise': a cartoon from the
This was political dynamite, as the British government knew only too well. After a short delay, the decoded telegram was released to President Wilson. He was appalled by what he read and declared it to be ‘eloquent evidence’ that Germany was planning aggression against America.
The telegram was then leaked to the press, which led to an outburst of American public indignation. Congress and public opinion backed the president when he asked for a declaration of war against Germany on 2 April, 1917.
Nigel de Grey and Reverent William Montgomery received no special commendation for their work. Yet in breaking the code of the Zimmermann Telegram, they had effectively granted the Allies victory in the First World War.

UK paperback
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, June 12, 2012


It was a routine inspection by the prison warders.
Alcatraz: all you need is a boat
On the morning of 12 June, 1962, the guards at Alcatraz high security prison made their morning check on the prisoners in their cells.
When they came to Cell Block B, they quickly realised that something was not quite right. The men were in their beds, as they’d been all night long, but they were showing no signs of life.
The warders unlocked the cells and were stunned by what they found. Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin were missing: in their place were elaborately made papier-maché heads with real hair and painted eyes.
Wanted: Clarence Anglin
Three of Alcatraz’s most dangerous prisoners had escaped.
Neither the prisoners nor warders could believe that they’d managed to get away. Alcatraz, after all, was one of the world’s most closely guarded prisons. Situated on a rocky island in San Francisco Bay, it was washed by the cold and hazardous waters of the bay, making any escape by water almost impossible.
In its 29 years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, no one had ever made it out alive. Forty-one inmates tried. Of those, 26 were recaptured, seven were shot dead and three drowned
Wanted: John Anglin
This proved no deterrent for the three new escapees. In fact, they saw the island’s isolation as a challenge.
All three men were hardened criminals. Frank Morris had first been convicted at the age of 13. Since that time, he’d been instrumental in a number of crimes ranging from armed robbery to dealing in narcotics. He’d been transferred to Alcatraz in 1960.
Wanted: Frank Morris
John Anglin was also an infamous criminal. He’d robbed the Columbia Alabama Bank in 1958, together with his two brothers. It had earned him a 35-year prison sentence.
Clarence Anglin had been involved in a number of other bank robberies and had also been caught escaping from the Atlanta State Penitentiary. It was decided to send him to Alcatraz, in order to prevent him from ever trying to mount another escape attempt.
There was supposed to be a fourth escapee on the night of the break-out - Allan West - but an unexpected hitch meant that he had to be left behind.
The utility corridor
All of the men were highly resourceful and extremely motivated. They discovered that there was an unguarded three-foot wide utility corridor behind their cells. This led to an air vent and thence to the outside world. The prisoners began to chisel away at the moisture-damaged concrete. For tools, they used metal spoons stolen from the canteen and an electric drill that they improvised from the motor of a stolen vacuum cleaner.
They did most of the work during music hour, when the noise of accordions covered the sound of their hacking the concrete. 
They also made dummy heads from soap, toilet paper and real hair in order to fool the wardens; there were constant checks on the prisoners throughout the night.
It took a year to tunnel through the wall to the service tunnel; the men then had to steal a long piece of cord in order to reach the manhole that covered the air vent. When they finally lifted it, they replaced the metal bolts with fake ones made of soap.
Psst: are you asleep?
Finally, on the night of 11 June, all was ready. It was time to make their escape. 
For three of the men, all went exactly to plan. They crawled into the utility corridor, climbed the air vent and reached the prison roof. There was no time to wait for Allan West: unable to crawl through the hole in his cell wall, he had to be left behind.
The three others clambered down to the rocky ground and began pumping air into a raft that they’d previously made from rubber raincoats. They’d even managed to make oars as well.
What happened next is anyone’s guess. The three men disappeared and were never seen again. They were never captured, despite an extraordinary FBI manhunt, and nor were their bodies ever found.
Where they entered the water
Their raft was washed up on the following day on Angel Island, some two miles from Alcatraz, and there were footprints leading away from the raft. But there the trail went cold. Did they drown? Did they get away? These are questions that no one has ever been able to answer.
A recent investigation discovered that a car was stolen on the very night of the escape: the prisoners had always intended to make their get-away by car. But despite an exhaustive investigation, detectives are no closer to solving the mystery.
Wanted: Clint Eastwood
If they survived, the escapees would now be in their eighties. This does not mean that the case has been closed.
According to U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke, ‘there’s an active warrant and the Marshals Service doesn't give up looking for people… There’s no proof they're dead, so we're not going to quit looking.’
And so the search goes on. The FBI website requests anyone with any information regarding the prison greatest escape in history to call (415) 436-7677.   

My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the USA. Available 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