SS ‘Hitlerjugend’ massacre French civilians at Ascq

The 'Hitler Youth' Division was formed in 1943 from boys who had been indoctrinated in the Nazi youth organisation. Its officers and NCOs were more experienced men from both the SS and the Wehrmacht.
The ‘Hitler Youth’ Division was formed in 1943 from boys who had been indoctrinated in the Nazi youth organisation. Its officers and NCOs were more experienced men from both the SS and the Wehrmacht.
Members of the Division in a demonstration for younger boys in the Hitler Youth, Belgium, Spring of 1944.
Members of the Division in a demonstration for younger boys in the Hitler Youth, Belgium, Spring of 1944.

In Britain the Allies were actively debating the need to destroy railway lines in France, in advance of the invasion. Isolating the Normandy area would hinder the movement of German reinforcements. The move was initially opposed by Churchill – who feared the scale of French casualties that would inevitably result from such raids. Also included in the plans were orders for the French Resistance to conduct sabotage operations against railway lines.

Whether or not they received orders from Britain, some members of the French Resistance were active already. The main line between Lille and Brussels was an obvious target. On the night of the 1st April bombs destroyed the line near the small village of Ascq, close to the Belgian border. Unfortunately they did so just as the 12th SS Panzer ‘Hitlerjugend’ Division was on the route, causing them delays, although there were no casualties on the train.

There were no considerations of ‘innocent civilians’ amongst these troops. Anyone who got in their way or hindered them was a target. Reprisals against local residents, even if they had not been involved in the sabotage, were intended to deter the saboteurs from further acts.

The Mayor of Ascq, Mr. Delebart was caught up in the events:

I left the housee … I was headed for the crossing of rue Marceau. There was great excitement and a lot of soldiers, I tried to find out what was going on. One of the soldiers took me to an officer he called the commander: I wanted to know from the Germans if anything had happened in Ascq. Not knowing the language, I could not understand and asked if one of his soldiers was an interpreter.

A soldier stepped forward and translated for me the words of the officer. I was far from supposing that a tragedy was unfolding. I learned through the interpreter that an attack had been committed on the road and their train was derailed and the engine destroyed. ​

They held the local people responsible for this – as a common act of sabotage and – accordingly fifty people were to be shot, including a group of about thirty who were on the right hand side. They were guarded by German soldiers and were to be executed by firing squad immediately.

That’s when I raised a violent protest at their actions – the population had nothing to do with what had happened and that they were innocent. I was extremely angry at this point. But the interpreter was hitting me on the shoulder and said that the officer had ordered: “You too, Mr. Mayor, you will be shot.” And then I received a tremendous kick in the kidneys and they pushed me into the group of civilians who were awaiting execution.

The little procession set off surrounded by soldiers who spared nothing in the way of rifle butts or kicking: all along the way we came across corpses. After walking along the bottom side of the railway line for about two hundred metres, the command to halt was given to us. The soldiers made us face the train line, arms raised.

I had the impression that the final moment had come, and they would shoot us in the back, we stayed in this position four to five minutes, that’s when whistles sounded …

We we were then told to go home as soon as possible, then it was a race across the fields to return to our homes . […]

See ‘Crimes Hitlériens, Ascq, Le Vercors’, Louis Jacob, collection Libération, Editions Mellottée (Paris), 1946

In total 70 men were shot beside the railway tracks and a further 16 in the village itself. Later the Gestapo apprehended 6 men who were alleged to have carried out the railway sabotage and they were subsequently executed as well. The massacre saw the largest wartime protest by the French population, 60,000 people went on strike in Lille and 20,000 attended the funerals in Ascq.

After the war a number of men from the Hitlerjugend Division were convicted of the crime by a French Military Tribunal and sentenced to death. The sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and the men eventually released. Obersturmführer Walter Hauck, the man regarded as chiefly responsible, was released in 1957. He never faced charges of committing very similar crimes in the Czechoslovak town of Leskovice in 1945, because a German court refused to extradite him. He died in 2006 at the age of 88.

After the boys had been trained it was decided that they could form a Panzer division and they began training with tanks.
After the boys had been trained for the SS it was decided that they could form a SS Panzer division and they began training with tanks.
The HitlerJugend Division being inspected by Field Marshal von Rundstedt in Belgium in early 1944. In March and April they transferred to Normandy, where they were to play a leading role later in the year.
The HitlerJugend Division being inspected by Field Marshal von Rundstedt in Belgium in early 1944. In March and April they transferred to Normandy, where they were to play a leading role later in the year.

The last execution in the Tower of London

The Tower of London was built shortly after William the Conqueror landed in 1066. It was in almost continuous use for the imprisonment of traitors and other important prisoners up until the end of World War II. Routine torture and beheadings had ended in the Middle Ages but it was still used for executions in time of war.

The unfortunate Josef Jakobs had parachuted into Britain on the night of 31st January/1st February. He broke his ankle as he exited the plane and then broke his leg as he landed. He landed in the middle of fields and used his revolver to attract attention – whereupon he was discovered with his radio, maps, a large quantity of cash and a torn up code book and promptly arrested.

After a limited recovery he was put on trial at the beginning of August. The charge was quite simple:

“Committing treachery in that you at Ramsey in Huntingdonshire on the night of 31 January 1941/1 February 1941 descended by parachute with intent to help the enemy.”

Although Jakobs argued that he had always intended to give himself up the verdict could hardly have been in doubt. The historic final death warrant was passed to the Constable of the Tower:


To: The Constable of H.M. Tower of London. 13th August 1941.


I have the honour to acquaint you that JOSEF JAKOBS, an enemy alien, has been found guilty of an offence against the Treachery Act 1940 and has been sentenced to suffer death by being shot.

The said enemy alien has been attached to the Holding Battalion, Scots Guards for the purpose of punishment and the execution has been fixed to take place at H.M. Tower of London on Friday the 15th August 1941 at 7.15am.

Sgd. Sir Bertram N. Sergison-Brooke,

Lieutenant-General Commanding London District.

Most spies and traitors were hanged at Wandsworth Prison during the war. Jakobs was executed by Firing Squad at the Tower was made because he was a member of the German military. He was blindfolded and placed in a chair for the execution – the conventional method of execution used at the Tower during the 1914-18 war. The officer in charge gave a silent signal to the Firing Squad and he was shot dead.

For more details see National Archives, Security Service file KV2/27 folio 29a

First British Airborne Raid

Early British parachute training from a converted Whitley bomber.

The 11th Special Air Service Battalion made history on the 10th February with the first British parachute raid on enemy territory, Operation Colossus. Thirty five men were dropped in southern Italy and blew up the Tragino Aqueduct which supplied water to Naples and the surrounding area. The raiders successfully blew up the aqueduct but it was repaired within a matter of days.

Plans for the men to be evacuated by submarine had to be abandoned when the rendezvous site was compromised, and the plan had made no provision for an alternative rendezvous point. In any event the the escaping men, who travelled in four groups, found it extremely difficult to travel covertly across country in a landscape packed with small farms. They were all soon captured. The Italian interpreter, Fortunato Picchi, who accompanied the group posing as a member of Free French forces, was shot as a spy. One officer, Lieutenant Deane-Drummond, managed to make his escape the following year. His account and many more documents can be found at Paradata.

German Spies executed at Pentonville Prison

The authorities display the radios carried by Waldberg and Meier. The German Abwehr had supplied them with radios that could transmit but not receive.

The first executions under the Treachery Act 1940 took place on 10th December 1940. Jose Waldberg, 25, a German national, and Karl Heinrich Meier, 24, a Dutchman of German origin were hanged at Pentonville Prison, following their conviction at the Old Bailey in November.

Waldberg and Meier had landed at by rowing boat at Dungeness on the Kent coast on the 3rd September 1940. They had been escorted across the Channel and only had to row the last distance up to the shore.

It was intended that they would pose as refugees and move around the country reporting on British troop movements and military installations. They had a substantial amount of cash that was supposed to sustain them until the German invasion, which they were told was to be on the 15th September. They would then make themselves known to the Germans with a secret password.

They did not get far. Meier was apprehended when he tried to get into conversation with an ARP warden who promptly asked for his Identity Card. When Waldberg said “we have only just arrived” he not only aroused further suspicion but gave away the fact that he was not alone. The police were called. After a short interrogation he led them to Waldberg.

Two others German spies who arrived further along the coast the same day got no further. Kieboom and Pons were seen landing, and the police were called when they asked locals where they were. Kieboom was executed a week after the other two. Pons was able to successfully argue that he had been coerced into the role, having been threatened with a concentration camp by the Germans, and had always intended to give himself up.

N.B. Further investigation has found at least three different versions of how these spies came to be caught. The authorities gave the case as much publicity as they could but there were limited facts to go on, because the trial had been held in camera at the Old Bailey. The Press filled in the gaps with details of how the men gave themselves away or were discovered, and these different versions have found their way into different published post-war accounts.

The publicity given to the case was probably intended to divert German attention away from other spies who had been caught. These cases were handled secretly because it was hoped to maintain the pretence that they were still at large and use them to feed false information back to the Germans. As the war progressed the British were able to developed a very sophisticated method – ‘the double cross system – for doing just this. The credibility of these individuals was enhanced if the the Germans were led to believe that all captured spies would be put on trial and the information made public.

For absolutely everything you might want to know about military radios from the period, including a wide range of spy radios, see the Military Wireless Museum..

Surprise LRDG attack in the desert

A9 Cruiser tanks in the Western Desert, 1 November 1940.
A9 Cruiser tanks in the Western Desert, 1 November 1940.
A British Army 15-cwt truck throws up a cloud of sand and dust while moving at speed along a desert track in North Africa, 1 November 1940.
A British Army 15-cwt truck throws up a cloud of sand and dust while moving at speed along a desert track in North Africa, 1 November 1940.

The legendary Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) had still not been formally christened. At the end of October 1940 it was only just coming out of its formative stage, known as the Long Range Patrol.

The were many in the traditional military who distrusted unconventional formations. Major Ralph Bagnold had proposed deep penetration reconnaissance behind the lines of the enemy, travelling by land across vast expanses of desert, in June 1940. He was met by scepticism when he personally put the scheme to General Archibald Wavell. But Bagnold had credibility as an experienced desert explorer. When he suggested that their role would also encompass “a bit of piracy” he won the General over.

The following extended extract comes from a newly published (October 2015) study. It explores the very earliest days of the LRDG, culminating in a successful attack on the 1st November 1940:

The desert was a unique and harsh environment. Yet many who rode out with LRP/LRDG patrols were intensely moved by its qualities, the harsh, primeval purity. Though now largely denuded of humanity, the raiders were constantly reminded that man had once lived here:

Ten thousand years ago the climate was kinder, there was more rain and men lived in what is now desert, hunting ostrich and antelope and keeping milk cattle. Often we found traces of them – paintings and engravings on the rocks and stone implements at their camping places. There must have heen many places which we passed through on LRDG journeys where no man had been for five thousand years.

On 5th September three LRP patrols set out from Cairo, just ahead of the major Italian offensive in the north which would kick-start the desert war. Marshal Graziani didn’t advance further that Sidi Barrani, more of a Sitzkrieg. There remained the fear he might try and be more adventurous in the south, as Bagnold had originally warned. LRP was tasked to check the lie of the land, ascertain enemy intentions, hopefully netting some prisoners and generally beat up any targets of opportunity that might cross their sights.

Teddy Mitford, with Bill Kennedy Shaw, was to check out a couple of landing strips on the Jalo—Kufra route. They dealt with fuel reserves there before bumping a small Italian convoy a couple of days later. Only two trucks, swiftly cowed by a burst from a Lewis gun, and LRP had its first haul of captives, including a goat! A modest if satisfying encounter, yet this single rattle of fire persuaded the Italians they had to escort their convoys in future, a significant diversion of resources.

LRP activity would never open gaping wounds in the enemy’s flanks but could create persistent ulcers, draining out precious reserves, taking away from offensive capacity further north.

Neither of the other patrols met any enemy but accomplished much useful intelligence gathering. By the end of the month all three were safely back in Cairo. General Wavell was still ready to be impressed.

An important benefit conferred by these early patrols was in myth-busting. Most of the staff in Cairo and most of Middle East Command shunned the deep desert to the same fearful extent as their Axis adversaries. Bagnold was demonstrating that the Allied forces could trump the enemy by learning to operate effectively in all conditions.

To us now this seems an obvious role for Special Forces; however, at the time it was something of an epiphany. Bagnold’s patrols had covered 1,300 miles completely self-contained. They had impressed everyone, and even the most doubtful of their critics hud hegun to see what possibilities there were the exposed southern flank — which was thought to he quite impenetruhle — could he used with impunity hy the LRDG.

Success brought expansion and the unit was increased in size to two full squadrons, each of three patrols, with a HQ section and a lieutenant- colonelcy for Bagnold. General Freyberg was making increasingly loud noises for the return of his Kiwis though Wavell was able to persuade him to grant an extension while new volunteers, primarily from Rhodesian and British units, were being trained up.

Having tested the crust of the Italian defences in the south and detected no appetite for offensive action, LRP could continue to make life uncomfortable for these nervous frontier outposts. The year 1940 had been a very bad one for the Allies but at least, as the autumn drew towards winter, the British were attacking somewhere, if on a very small scale.

The replacement scheme which had received War Office approval on 25th October had provided for six new patrols to be formed, one from each of the Guards, South Rhodesians, Highlanders, Yeomanry, Rifles and Home Counties Regiments. This was rather ambitious at the time as the whole theatre suffered from a chronic lack of both good officers and men. Regiments were understandably loath to part with their bravest and best for what many regarded as a maverick and madcap formation.

Bagnold, again in October, found he had competition from the brilliant if unorthodox Orde Wingate, later famous for the formation of the Chindits. Wingate wanted an all-arms, mechanized raiding force far larger than the LRP, virtually at divisional strength. This was plainly impractical, and Wingate had no real appreciation of the distances and ground involved. Bagnold, who understood both, countered with a watered-down proposal suggesting a gradual build up of all-arms capability.

The prevailing shortages of men and materiel and the dearth of desert-worthy vehicles doomed Wingate’s scheme. By the time these shortages had been, to a degree at least, overcome, LRP/LRDG had more than proved itself as the ideal solution.

During the last week of October the LRP launched another sortie. The objectives were:

To harass the enemy by mining the Uweinat-Kufra-Jedabia track.
To gain intelligence of enemy strength and movement in this area.
To recover and utilise the two lorries captured earlier (these had been left hidden).

T Patrol, led by Clayton, moved out from Cairo on 23rd October; mine laying its primary function. The raiders passed via Ain Dalla, over the surreal reaches of the Sand Sea to Big Cairn where Clayton levelled an ad hoc airstrip. No. 26 (Bomber Transport) Squadron was detailed to carry out re-supply. Next, they drove towards Jalo, 260 miles northwest, and by 30th October were planting mines along the roadway.

On 1st November, after only token resistance, Clayton easily subdued the fort at Aujila whose garrison fled at the first burst. In all, the patrol covered 2,140 miles in 15 days.

T and R patrols with HQ and N troops were equally active. Italian stores together with a Savoia-Machetti S.79 (a three-engine, medium bomber) were destroyed. Though enemy aircraft did make an appearance, no casualties or damage were sustained.

These raids were textbook examples of what the LRP had been raised for. Results were not overly dramatic, as these were pinpricks rather than body blows, but the cumulative effect was telling: enemy communications were disrupted and his transport damaged or destroyed, but the main value was psychological.

After so many bruising defeats, the Allies were taking the initiative and getting the better of the enemy. The Italians suffered a consequential slump in morale. Nowhere was too remote to escape the raiders’ intention. All movement was fraught. This was not a defeated army, a tottering empire. Britain still had teeth.

See John Sadler: Ghost Patrol: A History of the Long Range Desert Group, 1940 – 1945.

A13 Cruiser Mk IVA tank being checked over shortly after arrival in Egypt, 1 November 1940. Note 'Caunter' camouflage.
A13 Cruiser Mk IVA tank being checked over shortly after arrival in Egypt, 1 November 1940. Note ‘Caunter’ camouflage.
A 4.5 inch Howitzer camouflaged in its emplacement at Palm Grove, Western Desert, 1 November 1940.
A 4.5 inch Howitzer camouflaged in its emplacement at Palm Grove, Western Desert, 1 November 1940.

Ian Fleming proposes 'Operation Ruthless'

A German 'M Boat', a minesweeper of the type that Ian Fleming suggested might be captured.

Ian Fleming, later to win fame and fortune as the the creator of James Bond, was working in Naval intelligence in 1940. The codebreakers at Bletchley Park, working on the highly secret German Enigma traffic, were having difficulty breaking into the German Naval signals. It was suggested that directly obtaining German Naval code tables would be the the fastest method of making progress. In effect this meant capturing a German Naval unit with the code material intact. Fleming proposed a scheme to do just this:

For Your Eyes Only.
12 September 1940.
To: Director Naval Intelligence
From: Ian Fleming

Operation Ruthless

I suggest we obtain the loot by the following means:

1. Obtain from Air Ministry an air-worthy German bomber.
2. Pick a tough crew of five, including a pilot, W/T operator and word-perfect German speaker. Dress them in German Air Force Uniform, add blood and bandages to suit.
3. Crash Plane in the Channel after making SOS to rescue service.
4. Once aboard rescue boat, shoot German crew, dump overboard, bring rescue boat back to English port.

In order to increase the chances of capturing an R or M [Räumboot – a small minesweeper; Minensuchboot – a large minesweeper] with its richer booty, the crash might be staged in mid-Channel. The Germans would presumably employ one of this type for the longer and more hazardous journey.

NB. Since attackers will be wearing enemy uniform, they will be liable to be shot as franc-tireurs if captured, and incident might be fruitful field for propaganda. Attackers’ story will therefore be that it was done for a lark by a group of young hot-heads who thought the war was too tame and wanted to have a go at the Germans. They had stolen the plane and equipment and had expected to get into trouble when they got back. This will prevent suspicions that party was after more valuable booty than a rescue boat.

TNA ADM 223/463

Although Operation Ruthless was approved it was never carried out, a Commando raid captured the required material in early 1941.