30 Astonishing Facts About World War II That Will Change the Way You View It Forever

In the words of the great historian John Keegan, World War II was “the largest single event in human history,” a conflict “fought across six of the world’s seven continents and all its oceans. It killed 50 million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded in mind or body and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilization.”
As such, it’s been analyzed and explored from an incalculable number of angles in history books, films, art, and, well, pretty much every other medium.
But, while the key figures and events are familiar to the average high schooler who is immersed in the history books, such a complex, endlessly fascinating era packs plenty of overlooked or under-appreciated stories, characters, and facts for the rest of us. Here are 30 bits of trivia from the Second World War that may make you rethink what you know about it.  
rocket set against a dramatic sky. four missiles ready for launch. Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear warhead

The Nazis Came Close to Developing Plutonium

As if the Nazis weren’t sinister enough, they came surprisingly close to developing plutonium—the stuff that makes nuclear weapons go kaboom. When the Germans invaded Norway, they took over a factory in the Telemark region that produced heavy water, which was used to create plutonium. But before they were able to produce anything, a band of 11 Norwegian commandos sabotaged the plant, setting off explosives in the base without suffering a single casualty on their side.  
Electricity, lightbulbs, scandalous

Japan Was Working on a “Death Ray”

Japan paid 1 million yen to a team of scientists that promised they could create a “death ray” that would use wave electric power to kill humans standing miles away, drawing on the innovations of Nikola Tesla. The Japanese got as far as a prototype that could kill from as far away half a mile—but the target had to stand still for 10 minutes for it to work.  
close up of a German WWII swastika on a piece of fabric from the war

The Swastika Meant Very Different Things Before Hitler Got Ahold of It

The swastika symbol has become synonymous with Nazis, antisemitism, and hate. But it was not always so. The geometric symbol, which gets its name from the Sanskrit expression for “conducive to well being or auspicious,” appeared in a number of cultures and spiritual practices, from Jainism to Hinduism to Native American iconography. Too bad Hitler had to ruin it.
Historical reenactment of the Battle of Gumbinnen, World War I, German soldier Kaliningrad region, Russia.

More Russian Soldiers Died in One Battle Than All British and U.S. Soldiers in the War

The largest confrontation of World War II—the blood Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from July 1942 to February 1943—began with Germany’s attempt to capture the industrial city, included air attacks and degenerated into house-to-house fights, with reinforcements streaming into the city from both sides as tens of thousands were killed. Though the Axis powers suffered between 650,000 and 868,000 casualties, the Soviet Union lost more than 1.1 million people.
Close up of military medals, ribbons, and neck scarves worn by U.S. Navy personnel at the re-enlistment and promotion ceremony on National September 11 Memorial site

U.S. Navy Command Was Once Known as CINCUS

An acronym for Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, it was pronounced “sink us”—which proved particularly awkward after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. It was quickly changed to COMINCH in December 1941 (and its jurisdiction was expanded, as it was given command of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Asiatic Fleets in the process).  
Band of German WW2 infantery soldiers surrendering. Russia 1941

The Tallest German Soldier Surrendered to One of the Shortest Allied Soldiers

Maybe the Allies were just trying to rub it in, but the rather diminutive British Corporal Bob Roberts was charged with taking the surrender of one of the tallest soldiers in the German Army. Standing at 7′ 6″, Jakob Nacken towered overRoberts (5′ 3″) as he accepted his surrender.
“I didn’t take a lot of notice of this guy at the time. I just passed the prisoners on one after the other after searching them,” Roberts said later. “But my mates who were watching the rest of the men saw this giant of a guy approach me and I was aware they and the Germans were having a good laugh.”
Allied tanker torpedoed in Atlantic Ocean by German submarine during World War 2. The ship crumbled amidships under heat of fire as she settled toward bottom of sea. 1942.

One Battle Lasted the Entire War

The Battle of the Atlantic ran as long as WWII itself, from the moment the British declared war against Germany, in September 1939, through the German surrender in May 1945—almost six years. The whole time, German U-boats aimed to disrupt the supplies of goods going to Britain battled the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, and United States Navy, as well as Allied merchant ships. The Germans were devastatingly effective at times, practically starving the British during some periods of the battle—until eventually the tide turned.  
gate with soviet union symbols

Two-Thirds of Soviet Men Born in 1923 Didn’t Survive the War

Though some accounts claim 80 percent of Soviet men born in 1923 died during the war, Mark Harrison, professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick, crunched the numbers and came up with a lower, but still staggering, figure: “Around two thirds (more exactly, 68 percent) of the original 1923 male birth cohort did not survive World War II,” he wrote on his blog.
Statue of a praying angel on the grave

Not All Soviet Mortality Was War-Related

That staggering aforementioned 68 percent statistic hides another important fact: These men didn’t all die in the war. As Harrison explains, the war was not even the most importantreason for the low survival rate of these Soviets. “The babies of 1923 were born at an awful time and faced a dismal future,” he wrote. “The country they were born in was poor and violent. Between 1914 and 1921 their families had endured seven years of war and civil war, immediately followed by a major famine. Their society lacked modern sanitation, immunization programs, and antibiotics. Rates of infant mortality and childhood mortality were shockingly high.”
Those born in 1923 would have had to survive a major famine in 1932 plus Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937. By the time Germany attacked their country in 1941, many had already been decimated.
American B-17 flying fortresses bombs Ludwigshafen chemical and synthetic oil works, Germany. World War2, Sept. 29, 1944

The First American Serviceman Died Out of Sacrifice

Iowa native and West Point graduate Robert M. Losey was directed to Norway as the Germans began to invade the country, to help evacuate American officials across the Swedish border. He reached Sweden with U.S. Minister Florence Jaffray Harriman. but lost contact with the second part of his party—and decided to return to Norway to search for them.
Harriman volunteered to join him, but Losey reportedly told her, “I certainly don’t want to be killed, but your death would be the more serious.” She opted to stay in Sweden and Losey was indeed killed when a bomb fell near a railway tunnel in which he sought cover, making him the first U.S. casualty of the war.
Unidentified Re-enactor Dressed As German Wehrmacht Infantry Soldier In World War II Hidden Sitting With Rifle Weapon In An Ambush In Trench In Autumn Forest. Photo In Black And White Colors.

The Final American Serviceman Killed Was Killed in His Parents’ Native Country

Private First Class Charley Havlat, born in Nebraska to Czech immigrants, returned to his parents’ native home of Czechoslovakia while serving his country. On a dirt road just 12 miles in to the country, on May 7, 1945, Havlat and his platoon were showered with enemy machine gun fire. He took a bullet to the head and was killed instantly.  

A Downed Japanese Pilot Was Welcomed onto U.S. Territory

Japanese pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi, among those who bombed Pearl Harbor, crash-landed onto Hawaii. The locals, unaware that the Japanese had just set off hostilities with their country, welcomed the enemy fighter graciously, offering him breakfast and even throwing him a luau—with Nishikaichi grabbing a guitar and treating the crowd to a traditional Japanese song.
Two B-29 Super-fortresses drop bombs over Malaya as seen from cockpit of third bomber during a run over the important railway yards and repair shops utilized by the Japanese at Kuala Lumpur

That Same Pilot Then “Invaded” Hawaii

The good times of Nishikaichi did not last, as word finally reached Hawaii of the attack. The pilot was then put under guard, but he had an unexpected ally—Yoshio Harada, a natural-born American of Japanese ancestry who was brought in to translate for Nishikaichi. Harada decided that the Japanese were more likely to win the war, so threw his efforts to them, stealing guns and breaking Nishikaichi out.
The two then confronted Howard Kaleohano, who had pulled Nishikaichi from the wreckage (and snatched some sensitive documents in the process), burning his house to the ground. But before things got further out of hand, a local attacked and killed the pilot, bringing an end to what would become known as The Niihau Incident.
Closeup of a german uniform from WW2, selective focus

One U.S. Division Wore a Swastika on Their Uniforms

The 45th Infantry Division wore on their uniform a traditional Native American symbol of good luck: a pair of angled bars intersecting at the middle that we would recognize today as the swastika. For 15 years this adorned the uniforms of the division’s members, which contained members from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona (areas with a rich Native American tradition). But as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the group ditched the symbol and, by 1939, swapped in a Thunderbird design.

One of the Highest-Ranking American Casualties Was Killed by Friendly Fire

American Lieutenant General Lesley McNair was killed by friendly fire while in France, taking part in Operation Quicksilver, which disguised landing sites for the Invasion of Normandy. He was posthumously promoted to general and is currently the highest-ranking military officer buried in the Normandy cemetery.
Actor of General George Smith Patton, Jr. stands up in jeep during reenactment parade of World War II in Reading, Pennsylvania

Four U.S. Lieutenant Generals Were Killed in World War II

While some reports list General Lesley McNair as the highest-ranking American casualty, that’s only if you consider his posthumous promotion to general. In fact, he was one of four lieutenant generals killed in action—the others being Frank Maxwell Andrews, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., and Millard Harmon.
queen elizabeth and david attenborough

Queen Elizabeth Served as a Driver and Mechanic

When she was merely Princess Elizabeth—the eldest daughter of King George VI—the future queen chipped in and did her part for the war effort by serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. As she turned 18 in 1944, the King determined that her training as a princess was more important than her serving alongside her countrymen. But the princess had other plans, and dedicated herself to repairing engines and other efforts to help the cause.
Adolf Hitler, on a 12-hour train trip through Italy, May 1938

Hitler’s Private Train Was Named ‘Amerika’

Adolf Hitler would travel in a Fuhrersonderzug (the Fuhrer’s special train), which he would use as a mobile headquarters. It was equipped with a conference car, escort car, dining car, two sleeping cars, and more. Oh, and it was codenamed “Amerika.” It was an odd name for the official transport of Germany—which, apparently, the Nazis came to realize. They changed its name to “Brandenburg” in 1943.
Auschwitz, Poland, October 212017. Electric fence in Auschwitz-Birkenau I, Nazi concentration camp

A Midwife at Auschwitz Delivered 3,000 Babies

Polish midwife Stanisława Leszczyńska, a Jewish prisoner of Aushwitz, took responsibility for delivering the children born at the concentration camp, eventually delivering more than 3,000 babies during her time there. Of those, 2,500 did not survive past infancy in the camp, and just 30 of those are estimated to have survived to when the camp was liberated. Leszczyńska’s work was celebrated in 1970, as she was reunited with some female former prisoners and their children—whom she had helped deliver.
Hitler speaking in Danzig after the German invasion of Poland. He spoke to the German nation and the World from the main hall of the ancient Artus Court. World War 2. Sept. 19, 1939

Hitler Executed 84 of His Own Generals

With friends like these… Yes, Hitler was also ruthless and cruel in his treatment of his own military leaders, executing no fewer than 84 of his own generals over the duration of the war. Most of the executions were due to the discovery that the men were plotting against him—in particular those found to be part of the now legendary 20 July bomb plot.
GERMANY - CIRCA 1940s: Adolf Hitler stands in a convertible and shaking hands with his fans, Reproduction of antique photo

Hitler Refused to Use Biological Weapons in Battle

Though Nazi scientists worked to develop weaponized versions of diseases such as typhoid and cholera, Hitler discouraged the use of offensive biological weapons in battle, possibly because of his experiences with bioweapons during the First World War.
A many drowned Colorado potato beetles in plastic bowl

Nazis Considered Fighting England With Potato Beetles

One type of biological weapons that the Nazis considered unleashing on their enemies was an army of potato beetles, which they thought could dropped on England to destroy its crops and cause widespread famine. But the scientists realized that almost 40 million insects would be needed for the effort if it were to make an impact—though several million were stockpiled by the time the war ended.
A post-war model of 'Little Boy', the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, in World War 2.

The Axis Powers Worked on a Dirty Bomb

After attempts to develop a nuclear weapon were undone, the Axis powers considered using what they had to detonate a “dirty bomb” on the west coast of the U.S., using I-400 class submarines from Japan to deliver the Germany-produced uranium. But the uranium never made it to Japan—and even likely ended up being used in the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Japanese officers inspect Maginot Line, after the German defeat of France in World War 2. They inspect the damaged entrance to the elaborate fortifications at Schoenenbourg. Sept. 26, 1940

One Soldier Fought Off 100 Japanese Soldiers

Talk about gnarly odds: John R. McKinney was on guard duty in the Philippines when he was attacked in May 1945 by a large group of Japanese fighters. Over 36 minutes, he fought off the men using his skills with an M1 rifle, then hand-to-hand combat, ultimately killing 38 of their troops, over two waves of fighting. His courage on that day earned McKinney a Medal of Honor (and a partially severed ear).
Aircraft spotter searches the sky with binoculars during the Battle of Britain. St. Paul's Cathedral is in the background. World War 2

There Was a “Phony War” Before the Real One

No, it’s not like “Fake News.” “Phony War” (or “Phoney War,” if you’re English) was the term given to the early months of the war (between September 1939 and April 1940), after war had begun officially but without any major hostilities. During this time, the British braced for disaster, with blackouts enforced and defenses up, but no real action—until the Germans attacked France in May 1940 and things got very real, very quickly.
Wrecked framework of the Museum of Science and Industry in Hiroshima, Japan. This is how it appeared shortly after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, on August 6, 1945

Thousands of Koreans Died in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The devastation caused by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not limited to Japan. Thousands of South Koreans were also killed as a result of the strikes. More than 20,000 Koreans are estimated to have been killed by the bombings—because they were working in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing. A couple years ago, the Association of Korean Atomic Bomb Victims called on President Obama to “offer an apology” to the Korean people upon his visit to Hiroshima.
Re-enactors Dressed As German Wehrmacht Infantry Soldiers And Russian Soviet Red Army Soldiers World War II Play A Melee Scene About Fighting In Trenches

One Man Was Believed to Fight on Every Side of the War

Many Koreans were forced to fight on behalf of the Japanese cause—but there is one soldier who is reputed to have fought for basically everyone. According to legend, Korean soldier Yang Kyoungjong, who had fought for the Imperial Japanese Army, was then captured and force to fight for the Soviet Red Army, and later the German Wehrmacht. It was during this time that the Allied forces landed in France and Yang was captured by the U.S. Army.
Explosion of a depth charge launched from U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer. German submarine U-175 was sunk and prevented from breaking into center of a large North American convoy. April 17, 1943.

A Pre-Teen Served in the U.S. Navy

Calvin Graham, from Crockett, Texas, was the youngest person to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, at just 12 years old. He forged his mother’s signature and notary stamp, dressed in an older brother’s clothing, and spoke in a deeper voice than natural. He managed to sneak into the Navy and served on the South Dakota battleship until it was damaged and taken back to the U.S. for repairs. Graham’s mother spotted him on newsreel footage and alerted the military of her son’s duplicity. He was dishonorably discharged but hailed as a hero by his hometown.
Black and white retro image of Lancaster bombers from Battle of Britain in World War Two

More Than 20,000 Allied Bombers Were Lost

We burned through a lot of planes over the course of the war, with 11,965 Royal Air Force and 9,949 U.S. army Air Force bomber planes destroyed over the course of the war—with almost as many fighter planes lost on both sides
coca cola factory, ready-to-fill bottles on the line

Coca-Cola Was Treated as a Military Necessity

To help provide the beloved soft drink to the boys at the front lines, the Coca-Cola Company set up bottling plants in North Africa to allow them to produce and deliver millions of bottles to the men stationed in Europe.
30 Astonishing Facts About World War II That Will Change the Way You View It Forever 30 Astonishing Facts About World War II That Will Change the Way You View It Forever Reviewed by STATION GOSSIP on 06:51 Rating: 5

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