Unsinkable Sam the Cat

This cat allegedly survived not one or two sinkings but three. I am sure he used up a few of his 9 lives.

Originally named Oscar he saw service in both the Kriegsmarine and Royal Navy during the WWII. He was a black and white patched cat and had been owned by an unknown crewman of the German battleship Bismarck. He was on board the ship on May 18, 1941 when it set sail on Operation Rheinübung. Bismarck was sunk after a fierce sea-battle on May 27 , from which only 118 from its crew of over 2,200 survived. Hours later, Oscar was found floating on a board and picked from the water, the only survivor (alongside 114 others) to be rescued by the homeward-bound British destroyer HMS Cossack. This is were he picked up the name Oscar. He became the crew of Cossack’s new mascot.

The cat served on board Cossack for the next few months as the ship carried out convoy escort duties in the Mediterranean and north Atlantic. On October 24, 1941, Cossack was escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to Great Britain when it was severely damaged by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-563. Crew were transferred to the destroyer HMS Legion, and an attempt was made to tow the the Cossack but this failed. The ship would end up sinking. The initial explosion had blown off one third of the forward section of the ship, killing 159 of the crew, but Oscar survived this too and was brought to the shore establishment in Gibraltar.

Now nicknamed “Unsinkable Sam”, he was soon transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, which coincidentally had been instrumental in the destruction of Bismarck. When returning from Malta on November 14, 1941, this ship too was torpedoed, this time by U-81. The carrier rolled over and sank 30 miles from Gibraltar. The slow rate at which the ship sank meant that all but one of the crew could be saved. The survivors, including Sam, who had been found clinging to a floating plank by a motor launch, was described as “angry but quite unharmed” was transferred to HMS Lightning and the same HMS Legion which had rescued the crew of Cossack. Legion would itself be sunk in 1942, and Lightning in 1943.

Sam’s shipborne career would come to an end when he was transferred first to the offices of the Governor in Gibraltar, and then sent back to the United Kingdom, where he saw out the remainder of the war living in a seaman’s home in Belfast called the “Home for Sailors”.

Sadly, Sam passed in 1955. In tribute a pastel portrait of Sam (titled “Oscar, the Bismarck’s Cat”) by the artist Georgina Shaw-Baker was done and now is in the possession of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Some people question the validity of Sam’s story, classing it as a ‘sea story’. The sinking of the Bismarck, and rescue of a limited number of survivors, took place in desperate conditions; British ships were ordered not to stop as there was believed to be a U-boat in the area and many survivors were left to drown. There is also no mention of this incident in Ludovic Kennedy’s detailed account of the sinking.


Fire at the Cocoanut Grove

The front of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub after the fire

Boston did not technically have nightclubs, but one of the hottest places to be in 1942 was the Cocoanut Grove.  It was a supper club located on near Park Square, which was built in 1927.  It kind of fell out of favor after Prohibition, but with the advent of World War II it began to pick up in popularity again.  Barnett Welansky, became owner of the Cocoanut Grove in February 1933 and he brought in a prominent Boston interior designer to make the club more family oriented.  Palm trees, blue satin ceilings and a dance floor were added.  The first floor had a dining room and a ballroom with a bandstand, with several separate bar areas.  On beautiful clear nights, the retractable roof was pulled back so patrons could dine and dance in the moonlight.

The restaurant was located off the narrow cobblestoned Piedmont Street, and a couple of bars occupied the basement.   The Caricature Bar and the Melody Lounge shared space with the newly opened Broadway Lounge.  There were two entrances- a revolving door from Piedmont and a regular door from Broadway into a vestibule.  It was an old building, originally built in 1917 and because it was not originally meant to be a restaurant was an odd shape with many separate rooms on several floors.  The building covered close to half a block.

The place was jumping on the evening of Saturday, November 28, 1942.  The Boston College football team had pulled up an upset that day to get into the Orange Bowl.  People were going crazy with celebration.  Although the club was licenced to hold 500 patrons, about 1,000 people were jammed into the club that night.  Among the notables at The Grove that night were Buck Jones, a Hollywood movie star famous for his cowboy movies, who was in town on a war bonds tour.  Around 10:15, Stanley Tomaszewski, a busboy 16 years of age, was ordered by a bartender to fix a burnt out light bulb in the Melody Lounge.  It was suspected a patron had unscrewed it to provide a more intimate environment for his date.  The light bulb was at the top of an artificial palm tree, and since it was dark he couldn’t see.  He indicated in later testimony, he lit a match to better see what he was doing.  

Moments later, patrons saw what looked like a flicker of flame in the palm tree or in the cloth ceiling decorations.  There was no visible flame, but the decorations changed color.  Quickly after, open flame burst out of the palm tree decorations, which bartenders tried to put out with water and seltzer bottles.  It didn’t work, and a fireball of flame and toxic gas ignited and rolled across the room and up the stairs to the restaurant above.  Within five minutes of the initial spark, the entire basement was engulfed in flames.

The fire traveled along the cloth decorations and the plywood ceiling and soon hit the other bars, accelerated by a ventilation fan in The Caricature Bar.  Panic hit the patrons and athey ran towards the exit screaming “Fire, Fire”.  The flames appeared in the street floor lobby within two to four minutes after they broke out in the Melody Lounge.  It was travelling quickly and described by eyewitnesses as a “ball of fire” that was blue or yellow in color.  Some people made it through the revolving doors on to Piedmont Street before the flames got there, but the doors jammed.  The lucky ones who got out had to watch their fellow patrons get crushed in the rush for the broken doors.

Smoke rises from the Cocoanut Grove

The fireball hit the main dining room, where many of the patrons were crowded together at small tables to watch the 10 pm show.  The flames went quickly up the walls leaving behind a cloud of acrid smoke.  The lights went out leaving patrons to try to find their way out in the dark, thick smoke choked air.  Most of the doors were locked or broken and patrons were trapped in the dining room.  One exit door was installed as an inward-opening door and the weight of the panicked people trying to escape forced it shut, much like in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  (Please this post for more information on this event:  http://www.historynaked.com/triangle-shirtwaist-fire/ )  Those that got out were helped by employees through the dark back corridors.  Others hid in the meat lockers and refrigerators and hoped for the best.

In a stroke of luck, the Boston Fire Department was nearby as they had been putting out a car fire on Stuart Street and saw the smoke.    By the time the fire was done, it was a five alarm fire.  Once the fire department arrived, the narrow streets were clogged with emergency vehicles, and patrons both living and dead.  Often those who escaped were wounded and exhausted and collapsed on the spot.  Stacks of bodies, both living and dead, were piled at the entrances shoulder high.  Ironically, the fire itself was put out rather quickly, but the damage was done.  The firefighters knew they needed more help with the rescue and recovery efforts.  National Guard, the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Army were mobilized the help.  Any and all vehicles were pressed into service to get the wounded to hospitals and a temporary morgue was organized at a nearby garage.  By the time it was over, 490 people had died and 166 were injured.  Among the dead was movie star Buck Jones.

In the inquest that followed, many believed 16 year old Stanley Tomaszewski was responsible for the disaster, however, he was exonerated by the courts.  He was always believed to be to blame by the public.  The official cause is still listed as unknown, but there are several theories.  Some believe it was electoral in nature as there had been renovations by a non licensed electrician two weeks earlier.  There was no permit for this work either.  A report on the fire published in 1943, placed the blame on alcohol fumes from the drinkers.  However, ethyl alcohol in 50% concentration by volume, which is about maximum of any ordinary liquor, does not produce flammable vapors except at temperatures above approximately 85 degrees F.  There were also tests that the flame proofing chemicals used for the new decorations had been lacking.  Theories also state that they had been a source of toxic gasses, such as ammonia, which worsened the fire.  In 1991, Francis L. Brannigan, a noted fire safety expert, wrote a letter to the NFPA Journal blaming the fire on the fixative used to install the new ceiling tiles in the Broadway Lounge.

Whatever the cause, the locked exits and lack of fire sprinklers added to the death toll.  The only person charged in the Cocoanut Grove fire was Barney Welansky, the owner.  He was indicted by a Grand Jury on manslaughter charges and sentenced to 12 to 15 years in Charlestown State Prison.  He died of cancer in 1947 after being pardoned by Governor Maurice Tobin.

As after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, building codes were revamped and strengthened.  Now a high rise hotel and theatre stands where so many lost their lives on a November evening.

Noor Inayat Khan- The Spy Princess

Noor Inayat Khan was a mass of contradictions.  She was a devout Muslim Sufi who believed in nonviolence and refused to tell a lie and disliked the British because of their involvement in India.  Described as a “dreamy” and “sensitive” person who spent time writing children’s stories, poetry and music, Noor was the last person who anyone would have thought could be a spy against the Nazis.  However, underneath that soft exterior was a spine of steel the Nazis could not break no matter how hard they tried.

Noor Inayat Khan was born in the Kremlin in Moscow on January 2, 1914.  Her father was a musician and a Sufi teacher, who was the descendant of famous 18th century Muslim ruler, Tipu Sultan.  Her mother was an an American from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Noor was raised in an atmosphere of religious tolerance and nonviolence.  In 1914, the family left Russia and moved to London and then Paris.  Noor spent most of her childhood in France and grew to love it.  She studied child psychology a the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory, composing for harp and piano.  When World War II broke out and the Germans invaded France, her family escaped to Britain.  Noor wanted to do something to help free her beloved France.  She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1940 as a trainee wireless operator.

Noor’s fluent French marked her as a valuable asset, and she was selected for special training as a radio operator.  Her first evaluations were not promising.  She would get flustered during mock interrogations and was scared of guns.  Physically petite, one report said she was also”not overly burdened with brains.”  There were also concerns her exotic beauty would draw unwanted attention.  Her instructors reported she was clumsy and scatterbrained, repeatedly leaving her code books out for anyone to see.  She also informed her British handlers she would not lie, and proved this fact by informing them she did not like Britain very much.  She was deeply committed to obtaining India’s independence.  Noor’s father was a personal friend of Mahatma Gandhi and her ancestor, Tipu Sultan, had been killed attempting to stop the British from taking over southern India.  Awkward.  However, she threw herself into training to become an undercover radio operator and overcame her obstacles.  She based her code on a poem she wrote and gave herself the code name “Madeleine”, which was a character from one of her stories.

In June 1943, she was airlifted into France with the cover identify of Jeanne-Marie Regnier as the first secret female radio operator in the Prosper Network.  This was an extremely dangerous job, and most radio operators lasted about six weeks.  In fact, just after Noor landed in Paris, all of the other radio operators in Paris were captured by the Nazis.  The British offered to evacuate her twice, but she refused until there could be a replacement sent.  She spent months evading the Gestapo sending coded messages back to London from Paris.  She used disguises, cunning and straight up running to get away from the agents pursuing her.  She did the work of six people all while outsmarting the Paris Gestapo.  However, she was eventually caught.15551496-_sx540_

As with most things, it was jealousy that brought her down.  Noor was beautiful woman, and drew the attention of her male counterparts.  The sister of her organizer, Renée Garry, was in love with an agent named Antelme.  Apparently, Antelme preferred Noor to Renée so Renée sold Noor out to the Gestapo for revenge.  That’s the official story anyway.   In the book “Flames in the Field,” Rita Kramer wrote that a double agent said the British had deliberately sacrificed women like Noor to distract the Germans from the invasion of Sicily.  However, this has not been confirmed.  The Gestapo agent sent to arrest her probably thought it would be an easy task, but he was in for a surprise.  Petite Noor put up one hell of a fight, biting hard enough to draw blood, kicking and scratching.  He had to call for other agents to assist him in bringing her down.  I bet they gave him hell for that.  A few hours after her imprisonment, Noor made her first escape attempt.  She demanded a bath and insisted the door be shut for her modesty.  Instead of bathing, they found her climbing onto the roof and trying to jump from building to building.  The Nazis must have realized they had a live one.

She was tortured and interrogated, but Noor never revealed any of the messages she transmitted.  She became outwardly compliant to avoid suspicion as she plotted another escape attempt.  This time she was foiled by the timing of a British air raid.  The guards did an unscheduled check of the cells and found her shimming out the window.  Taking no more chances, Noor was classified as extremely dangerous and kept in solitary confinement and constantly shackled.  The torture became worse and she was subjected to terrible violence.  To keep her memory alive, she scratched messages on the bottom of her food bowl to communicate with the inmates of the cells around her in Pforzheim prison.  They only other thing they could report about her was the nightly weeping they heard from her cell.

The Nazis decided they had had enough, and took Noor and three other captured spies to Dachau concentration camp.  The other spies were shot immediately, but Noor was singled out for a prolonged execution.  They beat her brutally for an entire day until she was shot by an SS officer.  She died screaming “Liberté”.  She was only thirty years old.

Hail and farewell to a true hero.  Liberté at last, my friend.


Vidkun Quisling-  The Norwegian Benedict Arnold

Most people know about Benedict Arnold, the general during the American Revolution who sold out to the British because his wife was a gold digger.  (For more on that, please see post
http://www.historynaked.com/benedict-arnold/ )

Well, Norway had one too.  Vidkun Quisling’s name has gone down in the popular vernacular as a byword for collaborator and traitor.  In fairness, he was a Nazi scumbag, so I am fine with this.

Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonssøn Quisling was born on July 18, 1887 in Fyresdal, Telemark, Norway.  He was the son of a minister who was also a famous geologist and the heiress to a wealthy ship owner.  He was sent to school and although teased for his Telemark accent, excelled in his studies especially mathematics. He enrolled in the Norwegian Military Academy and scored the highest entrance examination score of all the applicants for that year.  Then graduated college with the highest score since the college’s founding.  This propelled him into the higher echelon of the military.  Although Norway remained neutral during World War I, he was sent to Russia to study the country and became the Norwegian military’s expert on Russian affairs.  Letters and personal anecdotes show him to have a loving relationship with his parents and siblings and is described as shy but helpful and friendly.  This young Quisling sounds like a nice kid.  What the heck went wrong?

His observations of Russia are rather curious.  He concluded that giving the people “too many rights” brought down the Russian Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky, and by contrast was impressed on the quickness in which Leon Trostsky was able to mobilize the Red Army.  However, he did retain something of a heart as he married a Russian girl he met during his time in Ukraine simply to get her a Norwegian passport so she could leave the poverty in which she lived.  Shortly afterward, he met Maria Vasiljevna Pasetsjnikova, and they fell madly in love.  Supposedly, the two married not long after, although he was still technically married to his first wife.  No legal documentation has been found for this second marriage, and Quisling’s biographers speculate this was not an official marriage.  This did not stop the two from living as a married couple and traveling Western Europe together after his discharge from the army.

Quisling dabbled with the communist movement, a fact that embarrassed him during his later Nazi years, but never really made much headway in the party.   In 1928, while in Armenia he and his boss, Frederik Pytz, were accused of smuggling millions of roubles on to the black market.  Nothing was ever proved, but this charge was repeated often.  He also was a diplomatic liaison for the British at this time as relations between Russia and Britain were being facilitated by Norway.  His work was rewarded by having him made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).  Rather ironic in light of future events.

It was during this time, Quisling’s sympathies for the Bolsheviks began to wane.  His proposals for several projects in Armenia had been shut down by the government and he took it as a personal insult.  He served as Norway’s Minister of Defence between 1931 and 1933, but quickly became disillusioned with democracy.  He formed Nasjonal Samling Party, which was strikingly like the Nazi party coming to power to the south in Germany.  Initially, the party had the support of the Norwegian Farmer’s Aid Association and the Norwegian Church.  They gained 27,850 votes in the 1933 election.  However, as the anti-Semitic hardline policy was formed in 1935 and after, most of this support fell away.  The party became more and more extremist, and eventually only commanded less than 2000 votes.  They would have dwindled away except Quisling had an influential friend-  Adolf Hitler.  Yeah.  That guy.quisling-and-hitler


Hitler had his eye on conquering Europe and he and Quisling met in December 1939.  For power, Quisling was happy to sell out his country.  In April 1940, Quisling met with German agents and turned over the secrets of Norway’s defenses.  He had been the Defense Minister, so he probably knew all of them.  Six days later Germany invaded as warships entered major ports and deployed thousands of German troops.  They cruised right past British mines and local garrisons because Quisling had ordered them not to shoot.  Quisling made history by storming into studios of Oslo’s radio station and announcing the coup.  He declared himself prime minister.  The German representatives demanded King Haakon VII recognise Quisling.  The King had an actual backbone and told them no.  I secretly hope he flipped them the double deuce, but that’s not very regal.  However, King Haakon did escape to Britain and formed a government in in exile.  Quisling was set up as prime minister and Norway was on its own.

What they didn’t count on was people were mad.  Resistance sprung up to Quisling and the Nazis both overt and covert.  Quisling could not control the populous so his German masters sent in one of their own.  Josef Terboven was installed as Reichskommissar and reported directly to Hitler.  Quisling was kept on as “Minister President” as a Norwegian figurehead.  Whoops.  How did that coup work out for you?  

Not well actually as even after losing nominal control of Norway, Quisling still found his back up against the wall in 1945 after the Nazis were defeated.  Quisling was arrested on May 9, 1945 in a mansion on Bygdøy in Oslo that he called Gimle after the place in Norse mythology where the survivors of Ragnarok were to live.  The symbolism not lost on anyone.  He and two other Nasjonal samling leaders were convicted and executed by firing squad.  Thus always to traitors.

Nazi Gold Train – Fact or Fiction?

14925413_363037487371673_7064672069941363090_nIt’s well known that during WWII, agents from the Third Reich acting on behalf of the ruling Nazi Party of Germany plundered many cities. Most notably by military units known as the Kunstschutz. In addition to gold, silver and currency, cultural items of great significance were stolen, including paintings, ceramics, books, and religious treasures. Most of these items were recovered by agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA)(Monuments Men), on behalf of the Allies. Thousands of items remain missing. One of the most popular legends where the treasures ended up are The Nazi Gold Trains.

If the legends are true, it would be one of the greatest modern treasure finds of the century. But is there any truth to the legend of the Nazi Gold Train?

The train or trains are believed to be near the Polish city of Wałbrzych, which until 1945 was the German city of Waldenburg. According to local legend, the train or trains left Breslau (now Wrocław) laden with gold and other treasures. They were driven into a system of tunnels under the Owl Mountains that were part of an unfinished Nazi secret Project Riese near Wałbrzych. There they were buried in a series of tunnels and mines created by the Nazis. The trains are rumoured to hold up to 300 tons of gold, jewels, weapons and masterpieces.

The estimated value of the treasure would be priceless. If you had to put a value some historians believe the train could hold up to $30 billion in missing treasures, including gold bars, missing masterpieces, and silverware that was stolen from Jewish people.

Recently, two men came forward claiming to have a deathbed confession from someone who knew the location of the trains. After months of searching their claims came up empty. The legend lives on in the town of Wałbrzych. They have seen a 44% increase in tourism with people hoping to find the treasure. We many never know what happened to the missing treasures or if the trains ever existed.