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Wojtek the bear with a Polish soldier

22 little known facts about WWII 

Everyone has likely learned a lot about WWII during their school days. However, there are plenty of unbelievable facts and stories that don't get taught in classrooms.

Image: Wojtek the bear | Public Domain

Many people study World War II in school as part of their history lessons, but it’s not uncommon for them to forget everything they learned once those classes end.

Instead, a lot of the knowledge and understanding we have of the war comes from different kinds of media. Whether it’s the iconic movie Saving Private Ryan or the infamous video game series Call of Duty, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen something about World War II outside of your history classes.

However, there are quite a few weird facts and stories that people just don’t talk about. Here are 22 of the most interesting, little-known facts about World War II.

1. The last Japanese soldier finally surrendered in 1974

It’s not unusual for soldiers to continue fighting for a cause once their nation has surrendered. This is just the reality of what it’s like to fight a conflict across multiple continents and countries. But when the last fighting soldier surrenders almost thirty years after the conflict ends, there’s something awfully strange about the whole situation.

This is what happened to Teruo Nakamura, an indigenous Taiwanese soldier that joined the Japanese military at the beginning of the war. He assumed the war was still raging on while his unit fled into a jungle in Indonesia. He survived on his own, foraging for whatever food he could until he was finally found in December 1974.

2. An astonishing number of soldiers died during pilot training

WWII was one of the first major conflicts to make use of aviation. There was a massive rush to train new pilots so many of the aviation programs weren’t thought out correctly or had enough safety measures in place.

As a result, over 15,000 deaths occurred during pilot training. These were mostly due to pilot error or mechanical failure. It was such a problem that the B-24 bomber was known as the most dangerous plane in the war, receiving the nickname ‘the flying coffin’.

To put this into perspective, around 52,000 American flight crew members died in WWII, meaning almost 30% of pilot deaths occurred outside of conflict.

3. WWII had bizarre weapons, such as the German cannon that could shoot across the sea

WWII is known as a conflict with some very unique weaponry. However, one of the most ambitious projects was the V-3 cannon, a gigantic machine that could hurl projectiles from Germany across the sea into England.

Instead of using rockets like the V-2, the V-3 would be a stationary cannon that could shoot projectiles at distances of up to 100 miles across the sea from mainland Europe into the United Kingdom. Luckily, the cannon was never completed due to bombing runs destroying it before completion.

4. Poland had a bear that served in the military

In 1942, a company of Polish troops was evacuated from the Soviet Union and found their way to Iran. Along the way, they befriended a Syrian brown bear that they named Wojtek. They officially enlisted him as a private in the unit. The men ended up in Italy from 1943-4, bringing the bear along with them. It helped to carry heavy ammunition and quickly became a celebrity among the troops.

Wojtek was eventually discharged after the war and lived peacefully in Edinburgh Zoo until he passed away in 1963.

5. Gandhi tried to send a message of peace to Hitler

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest peacemakers in the world, but most people are unaware that he was still alive during WWII. Gandhi was so committed to peace that he tried to write a letter to Hitler, referring to him as a ‘dear friend’ and pleading for him to stop the war. However, it’s unclear whether or not the messages reached Hitler.

6. A German commander was so stressed he abandoned his post and went to a spa

Heinrich Himmler was one of Hitler’s first supporters, becoming the head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and eventually being put in charge of Army Group Vistula, a group of 500,000 soldiers that were assigned to protect Berlin.

Unfortunately, this task was far too much for Himmler who required daily naps and massages, and only worked a few hours a day. Eventually, Army Group Vistula was overrun and Himmler abandoned his post. He fled to the Hohenlychen Sanatorium spa to deal with his stress and even tried to negotiate a peace treaty with the advancing Allied forces.

7. Germany was attacked by ‘Night Witches’

The Soviet Union had a regiment of female pilots who flew nighttime bombing raids against German targets. To avoid detection, the women would cut their engines before reaching their targets and the sound of their planes gliding in for attack made the Germans think of the sound broomsticks made. As a result, they were nicknamed the ‘Night Witches’.

8. The United States experimented with the idea of bat bombs

Each bomb contained over a thousand compartments which housed hibernating bats attached to timed incendiary devices. The idea was to drop the bombs on Japanese cities, where the bats would be released and fly off to roost in paper and wood structures. The bombs would then go off, setting fire to buildings that bombers might not be able to reach.

9. The British Special Operations Executive developed the ‘Rat Bomb’

The idea was that a dead rat full of explosives was to be hidden in German coal bunkers and hopefully disposed of in furnaces when discovered, which would trigger a catastrophic boiler explosion. The first shipment of rat bombs was discovered by the Germans, who then wasted an enormous amount of time searching their coal supplies for more.

10. Soviet-trained ‘anti-tanks dogs’ ran under German tanks and armoured vehicles

These trained dogs would leave timer-detonated bombs underneath the vehicles and run away. Unfortunately, these were later replaced with bombs that detonated on impact, killing the dogs in the process.

11. The Americans and Germans once fought side-by-side

Perhaps the weirdest battle of the whole war, the Battle of Castle Itter, saw American GIs fight side-by-side with Wehrmacht soldiers. They had teamed up against an attacking force of Waffen-SS to defend an Austrian castle which held several prominent prisoners of war. This included two former French prime ministers, a famous tennis player and General de Gaulle’s sister.

12. Japan tried (and failed) to start deadly forest fires

The Japanese launched over 9,000 high-altitude incendiary balloons against the United States with the intention of starting forest fires. None of the balloons that reached the States worked because the forests they landed in were too damp.

13. Native American languages were used to carry top-secret messages

The United States military was aided by Native Americans to translate messages into the Navajo language during the Pacific campaign. Navajo is an incredibly complex and obscure language. It was thought to be impossible to decipher by the Japanese who had no knowledge it even existed.

14. Britain planned to launch an attack on German livestock

The British toyed with the idea of dropping linseed cakes laced with anthrax spores on German farms to kill the country’s sheep, pigs and cattle. The mission was amusingly given the name ‘Operation Vegetarian’, but never got past the drawing board.

15. The Nazis researched the idea of launching a giant mirror into space

This ‘sun gun’ would have directed the sun’s rays onto enemy cities, reducing them to ash. The idea was soon dismissed as impossible with the technology available at the time.

16. There were plans to build an aircraft carrier out of ice

Project Habakkuk was a British plan to build a gigantic aircraft carrier from pykrete - an extremely sturdy mixture of ice and wood pulp. The carrier would have been used against U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, but the plan was scrapped due to rising costs, the development of long-range aircraft and better escorts for the Atlantic convoys.

17. The Soviet Union had its own ‘Lady Death’

‘Lady Death’ was the nickname given to the female Soviet sniper, Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She racked up 309 confirmed kills before being injured by mortar fire and evacuated to Moscow. Her kill count was likely to be far higher than 309, placing her within the top five deadliest snipers of all time.

18. The United States deployed a 'Ghost Army'

The ‘Ghost Army’ was an American unit of 1,100 men whose sole job was misleading the Germans about the location and size of Allied forces. They carried out more than 20 deceptions during the war, including filling fields with inflatable tanks and planes and creating fake radio transmissions.

19. The Royal Navy built a secret operations centre in a cave in Gibraltar

The plan was to seal six men in the cave in the event of the Nazis capturing the colony. The men would then report back on Axis operations in the area. The plan was eventually scrapped and the cave was sealed up. It was not discovered until 1997.

20. There was an operation titled 'Operation Cornflakes'

This was a British operation that dropped mailbags full of fake letters addressed to real people near bombed mail trains. The mail was picked up by the German postal service and delivered to people’s homes. It was full of depressing, downbeat content that was meant to lower civilian morale.

21. Hitler planned to attack neutral Switzerland

Despite assuring the Swiss that Germany would respect their country’s neutrality, Hitler ordered a secret plan to be drawn up for the invasion of Switzerland and Liechtenstein called Operation Tannenbaum. Hitler planned to end Switzerland’s independence after defeating his other enemies, describing the country as a ‘pimple on the face of Europe’.

22. One of Churchill’s plans remained a secret for over 50 years

At the end of the war, Churchill ordered a plan to be drawn up called ‘Operation Unthinkable’. The plan looked at the feasibility of launching a surprise attack on Soviet forces stationed in Germany. It was considered so sensitive that its existence was not revealed until 1998.