4 Times WWII Got Very, Very Weird

You know about the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk and D-Day – but what about Churchill’s mile-long ice ship, or Himmler’s secret psychic investigators?

Churchill's Ice Ship


In the initial part of the war, Britain was at serious risk of being strangled to death by the German U-boats. These sly vessels stalked the high seas, picking off cargo ships bringing vital supplies of food and war materials to our island. The Allies needed a way to deploy bombers to take out the U-boats, and that meant having some kind of aircraft carrier out in the mid-Atlantic. There was just one snag: steel supplies were sorely lacking, so what could such an aircraft carrier be made from?

Answer: ice. Or, rather, a substance called "pykrete", named after maverick inventor Geoffrey Pyke, which was an unlikely amalgamation of ice and wood pulp. This concoction was tough and wouldn't melt like regular ice - a fact that was demonstrated to Winston Churchill when a top military official visited the PM when he was running a bath, and abruptly dropped a block of pykrete into the steaming water. It stayed intact, and Churchill was impressed.

The plan was to create a vast pykrete aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean, and it was no joke. A prototype was even created in Canada. Yet, as time went on and long-range bombers came into operation, the need for the aircraft carrier diminished, and the battle against the U-boats was won without the need for the flamboyant, ingenious ice ship.

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The Nazi high command was so obsessed with keeping tabs on possible traitors and rebels in their midst that they hatched an audacious plan to eavesdrop on both their own people and visiting VIPs. The setting was Salon Kitty, a high-end brothel in Berlin which had been popular for years before the war. Its owner, the eponymous Kitty, was coerced into letting SS officers take over the establishment and rig up the rooms with microphones, to capture the loose-lipped pillow talk of any visitors of interest.

And that wasn't all. A crack team of suitably ravishing women was assembled to work in the brothel. The SS required these women to be "intelligent, multi-lingual, nationalistically minded, and furthermore man-crazy". They were trained in languages and combat, given a crash course in international politics, trained to use ciphers, and even tutored by veteran journalists in the art of eliciting information through seemingly innocent conversation.

Numerous SS officers and dignitaries were secretly taped during their illicit frolics with these sex spies. And, just to add an extra layer of oddness, a British secret agent called Roger Wilson happened to discover the truth while visiting incognito. From that point on, British intelligence tapped the wires, which meant the Allies were listening in on the Nazis listening in on other Nazis. Salon Kitty was eventually destroyed in an air raid, while thousands of recordings went missing - and are possibly still out there somewhere.

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Despite his flamboyant egomania, Mussolini was knocked out of the war rather early. Hitler's Italian ally was actually deposed and arrested in 1943 by his own people, after suffering embarrassing losses in the war. Hitler was incandescent with rage, insisting that the Fascist leader had to be rescued. Except that nobody actually knew where he was being detained.

Himmler, who'd always had a passion for the occult, decided to use supernatural powers to locate Mussolini. The problem was, Germany's psychics, clairvoyants and mediums had been rounded up and put into concentration camps under "Special Action Hess" - a reaction to the revelation that Rudolf Hess, Hitler's former deputy, had been inspired by astrology to take his notorious solo flight to the UK, where he'd been captured by the Allies.

So, Himmler was forced to release a handpicked group of psychics from the camps. The weakened, half-starved rabble were put up in a luxurious villa, provided with rich wine and food, and given carte blanche to use their magical powers to find Mussolini. Using a map of Italy and a special crystal-tipped pendulum, they did just that - pointing towards a mountainous area where Il Duce was apparently languishing under guard.

Incredibly, their supernatural deduction seemed to correlate with intelligence reports the Nazis had received from Italy. And so, a team of commandos embarked on a daring raid, approaching the mountain fortress on silent gliders, then overpowering the guards and discovering that Mussolini really was there, waiting for rescue. Himmler was so delighted, his released his psychics with huge pay outs, while Mussolini was later installed as the head of a puppet state in northern Italy.

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In the run up to D-Day, Allied forces were on high alert for any signs of German espionage. So they were rather alarmed when, as the big day approached, crosswords in a national newspaper began to feature certain suspicious words as answers. The first was "Utah", which was the codename for one of the D-Day beaches. A coincidence? Perhaps. But the ensuing crosswords featured words like "Omaha" - another of the beaches - and "Overlord", which was the codename for the D-Day landings.

British agents, appalled that secrets were being brazenly leaked through newspaper crosswords, leapt into action. They tracked down the creator of the crosswords, a well-respected headmaster called Leonard Dawe, and subjected him and a fellow crossword compiler to terrifying interrogation. Dawe later recounted how "they turned me inside out" before they "eventually decided not to shoot us after all."

It was only much later that the truth came out. As a school exercise, Dawe had been getting some of his pupils to come up with crossword answers, and then coming up with questions himself afterwards. At least one of these pupils had been hanging out with soldiers stationed in a camp right across from the school, overhearing gossip related to D-Day. The soldiers had evidently felt very relaxed around the innocent kids, letting slip codenames galore, which then wound up in the crosswords. The Nazis had nothing to do with it at all.

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