First World War wills: Last words from a lost army
The First World War soldiers’ wills released online this week are brief and all the more moving because they weren’t received by loved ones
This poignant historical repository of some 230,000 wills, maybe five per cent of which are accompanied by final farewells to mothers, wives and sweethearts, has been made available on the internet by the Courts and Tribunals Service. Photo: PA
Young life: Walter Kleinfeldt, pictured carrying ammunition in a Somme trench, joined a German gun crew in 1915 and fought at the Somme aged just 16, taking pictures of life on the frontline with his Contessa camera
Final moments: Walter was just 16 when he fought at the Somme but his photos soon took on dark tone. Here he captures a German army medic kneeling beside a dying colleague – but he can do no more than offer comfort
‘After the storm’: Walter Kleinfeldt captions one of his images showing bodies strewn across the battlefield
Historic: A nurse from the Army Nurse Corps preparing dressings in a tent at the 13th Field Hospital Saint Laurent sur Mer near Omaha Beach near Omaha Beach on June 15, 1944. Nurses arrived in the combat zone after the 12th of June
Poverty: The picture on the shows a group of French people in Normandy in July 1944
Destruction: Some of the pictures, such as this incredible view of the bombed-out town of Agneaux, show the extreme damage wreaked on the French countryside. The two boys are watching an American Jeep drive past the rubble-strewn landscape
Poignant: A soldier from the 1st U.S. Infantry Division stares at the camera as he is surrounded by injured comrades near Omaha Beach. He has been identified as Nicholas Fina, who lived in Brooklyn, New York
A surreal image of a doll posed against the concrete post as an enormous American M5A1 tank from the 3rd Armored Division drives past
Party: A gathering of GIs in a building, watching actor Edward G. Robinson brandish a rocket pistol taken from defeated German troops. He has given his trademark cigar to a soldier directly behind him
Grim: Under the baking sun, German prisoners dig tombs for the casualties of battle at a temporary cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer
Socialising: This picture from August 1, 1944, shows a sergeant with members of the U.S. Women’s Army Corps. The woman in the centre is Lt Col Anna ‘Tony’ Wilson, the WAC staff director for the Europe. She was 34 and commanded 6,500 female troops
Embarkation: D-day, or Operation Overlord, saw troops setting off from Weymouth for the invasion of Normandy
Wish us luck: Sailors prepare to set off from Weymouth carrying thousands of troops over the Channel to Normandy
Contemplation: Colonel William D. Bridges of the 5th Engineer Special Brigade pauses in front of a temporary cemetery
Festival spirit: American GIs are mobbed by locals in the main street of the town of Granville
Hard at work: Private Alfonton Ortega, from Los Angeles, sets up wooden crosses which will be used as grave markers
Helping hand: Four civilians carry baskets full of flowers around a temporary cemetery, placing one on each grave
Surrender: A Canadian soldier helps a German officer out of his half-track vehicle from the 2nd Panzer Division outside a U.S. aid station near Chambois
Examination: Soldiers from the 2nd Armored Division handle a submachine gun they have taken from a captured German soldier at Notre-Dame de Cenilly
Bombed out: The church in Roncey, which was largely destroyed as a result of conflict between the Allies and the Nazis
Supervision: African-American soldiers watch German prisoners unloading casualties’ corpses from a wagon near Colleville-sur-Mer
Engineering: Three GIs inspect a launch ramp north of Brix on June 20, 1944 – two weeks after the D-day landing
Braver than any man: Revealed for the first time, the awe-inspiring courage of two British sisters who waged a one-family war on the Nazis – and were left with emotional scars that never healed
By ANNABEL VENNING
PUBLISHED: 16:41 EST, 2 May 2013 | UPDATED: 16:41 EST, 2 May 2013
Hunched over a wireless set, alone in a safe house in a Parisian suburb on a rainy morning in July 1944, Didi Nearne tapped out a Morse Code message. It contained urgent information from the leader of her Resistance network to intelligence chiefs back in London.
A month earlier, Allied armies had landed in Normandy and the battle for France was raging fiercely. Agents of SOE — the Special Operations Executive — played a vital role sabotaging German communications and relaying information about troop movements and weapons back to Britain.
Furious, the Germans redoubled their efforts to catch SOE agents. Their radio-detecting vans combed the streets, seeking out signals that would lead them to the wireless operators laboriously tapping out their messages.
The average SOE wireless operator in Occupied France lasted for just six weeks before being arrested. Didi, 21, had survived for five months, making an astonishing 105 transmissions.
If caught, she faced imprisonment, perhaps torture and execution. Four female SOE agents had been put to death in a concentration camp by lethal injection that month. They were cremated, but evidence emerged later that some of them were still alive when they went into the ovens.
Brave: Eileen ‘Didi Nearne operated as an undercover agent called ‘Rose’ in Occupied France and was caught and tortured by the Nazis
Didi knew the risks. ‘There were Gestapo in plain clothes everywhere. I always looked at my reflection in the shop windows to see if I was being followed,’ she recalled later.
But she had to send this latest message. It was only as she finished tapping it out that she became aware of shouting outside.
Peering through the rain-misted window, she was horrified to see several cars parked in the street below and Germans pouring from them. They had tracked down the wireless signal.
Didi knew she had only minutes. Hastily, she took the wireless set apart and hid the pieces in a cupboard. She hid her pistol, too. She snatched up her codes and the paper on which she had encrypted the message, shoved them into the kitchen stove and set light to them, poking them until just ashes were left.
Only then did she think of saving herself.
It was too late. There was a loud banging on the door. Taking a deep breath, Didi opened it and found a gun pointing directly at her. The man holding it began shouting at her in German, while other men started searching the house.
Displaying extraordinary nerve, Didi shouted back indignantly, denying any knowledge of a wireless set. But the search team soon uncovered it.
Didi was handcuffed, bundled into a car and driven through the Paris streets to an address that made every SOE agent shudder with fear: 11 Rue des Saussaies — Gestapo headquarters. This was where agents were interrogated, often tortured and then sent to concentration camps. Or executed.
The questioning began. What was she doing with a wireless set? Didi had her answer ready: she was a simple French girl and had been sending coded messages for her boss, a businessman. She had no idea what they were about.
The Gestapo men were puzzled. Could this seemingly stupid girl really be an innocent dupe of a Resistance agent? Or was she a brilliant actress?
Eileen Nearne — known as Didi — was, in fact, one of the bravest secret agents of World War II. When caught, she showed exceptional courage, withstanding torture and incarceration in concentration camps.
But Didi was a modest woman who seldom spoke about her wartime exploits. Her latter years were solitary and reclusive.
When she died, aged 89 in 2010 at home in Torquay, her body lay undiscovered for several days. Among her belongings, police found several medals, including a Croix de Guerre, and other clues to a secret wartime life.
It transpired that the eccentric old lady who fed stray cats had once been one of the most successful agents of SOE, as had her sister, Jacqueline, who had died many years before.
Heroine: Didi’s sister Jacqueline also served as an SOE agent during World War II but returned to Britain exhausted in 1944
Now the story of these two astonishingly courageous women is revealed in a new book by the author Susan Ottaway, who was among the few people in whom Didi confided details of her incredible, inspiring story.
Didi was born in London in 1923 to Jack Nearne, a doctor-turned-chemist, and Mariquita, a French-Spanish aristocrat, who already had three children, Francis, Jacqueline and Frederick.
When Didi was two, the family moved to France, eventually settling in Nice where the girls attended a convent school. In 1940, the German army marched into France and the family’s well-to-do life was turned upside down.
The pro-German Vichy authorities forced the family to leave Nice — as British citizens, they were not allowed to live near the coast — they moved to a village near Grenoble. Frederick, keen to fight the Nazis, soon left for Britain to join the RAF.
Two years later, Jacqueline decided to follow her brother and join the war effort. Didi insisted on going, too, and the two girls made the perilous journey via Spain and Portugal, arriving in London in May 1942.
At first they were rejected for war work. But their applications, mentioning their fluent French, reached the desk of Captain Selwyn Jepson, the recruiting officer for F section — the French section — of SOE.
Jepson believed women were suited to undercover work because they had ‘a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men’.
But did these two unworldly convent girls have the nerve and ability to become SOE operatives in enemy territory, carrying out Churchill’s command to ‘set Europe ablaze’?
It seemed unlikely at first. Jepson judged that, at 21, Didi was too young to be an agent. He put her to work as a wireless operator in England.
Jacqueline was sent for SOE training, but her instructors were unimpressed. ‘Mentally slow and not very intelligent,’ they sneered. ‘She could not be recommended.’
However, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of SOE’s French section, overruled them. ‘One of the best,’ he wrote on her file. She was also, he noted, a beauty, with her dark hair and eyes, slim figure and air of Parisian chic.
In January 1943, Jacqueline — codename Designer — and her network chief, Maurice Southgate, parachuted into Occupied France. Before leaving, she had made Buckmaster promise that Didi would never be sent on a mission to France.
Jacqueline became the courier for a large network of resistance groups, delivering messages and weapons across France and organising sabotage operations, including blowing up a Luftwaffe aircraft engine factory, setting fire to 27 new trucks bound for Germany, damaging railway lines and stealing 30,000 litres of German petrol.
Whenever Southgate was away, Jacqueline took charge of the network, with 600 men under her command.
It was risky work. Often she had to stay in hotels, and once a plainclothes policeman banged on her door, searching for members of her network. Jacqueline appeared to be so drowsy and confused that the man apologised and left.
He returned a few hours later, but by then Jacqueline had fled.
She was one of SOE’s most successful agents, but after nearly a year-and-a-half of constant operations she was exhausted. In April 1944, despite her protests, Southgate sent her back to Britain.
Arriving in London, she learned that Didi had pestered Buckmaster into sending her to France as a wireless operator two months earlier.
Jacqueline was horrified. Surely her naive little sister could not survive in such a solitary, dangerous role?
Didi’s SOE selectors would have agreed. ‘Not very intelligent or practical, lacking in shrewdness and cunning . . . inaccurate and scatterbrained . . . immature,’ they concluded.
But once again Buckmaster overruled them. Didi, he observed, was a highly convincing liar and performed brilliantly under interrogation.
She was given a false identity — Jacqueline du Tertre, a dizzy shop girl — and the codename Rose.
She found a safe house in a suburb of Paris from where to transmit her messages. The first time she set out, carrying the cumbersome 18kg wireless, a German soldier on the train asked what was in her suitcase.
Memories: Eileen ‘Didi’ Nearne (second from right) joins fellow ex-prisoner Odette Hallowes (right) at an unveiling of a plaque at Ravensbruck concentration camp
Torture: The women were worked nearly to death and beaten and whipped by cruel female guards in the camp
‘Just a gramophone,’ she replied, praying that he would not ask to see it. She got off at the next stop and walked the rest of the way. She was kept busy transmitting messages for her network chief about double agents, German communications, the distribution of weapons for the Resistance and the launch sites of V1 rockets aimed at Britain.
After D-Day, Didi noticed more Germans and more sinister detection vans combing the streets near her safe house. She found a new location, but decided to send one more, urgent message from the old one. It proved to be her last.
On the morning of July 22, 1944, she was caught — and so began her horrific ordeal at the hands of the Gestapo.
Didi was terrified but determined that they would not extract the truth from her. At first, one man questioned her gently while the other shouted vile abuse.
‘You are a spy, you lying, dirty b***h,’ he yelled, hitting her face so hard that she nearly fell off her chair. Boldly she yelled back, insisting that she had no idea what they were talking about. Eventually, she was hauled to her feet and marched down a corridor to another room.
Inside was a bath filled with water. Didi knew that she was about to face the dreaded ‘baignoire’ — the Nazi version of waterboarding.
Her interrogators held her arms tightly and questioned her about her wireless broadcasts. She refused to answer. Without warning, they plunged her into the bath, holding her head under the icy water.
She began to choke and struggle for breath as her mouth and nose filled with water. Suddenly she was pulled up, coughing and spluttering. They began shouting at her again. Who was she working for? Where was she sending her messages?
Didi remained defiantly silent.
Again she was thrust into the water, a hand holding her head under. Just at the point she felt her lungs would burst, she was pulled out, gasping.
A third time she was held under so long that she felt sure she would die. She began to feel calm and her body went limp. Abruptly, her torturers pulled her out, thumping her on the back. Didi spewed out water, then took deep, rasping breaths.
She was utterly exhausted, but quietly triumphant. They had got nothing from her.
Buckmaster had been right. She was a brilliant actress. Others had cracked under torture, revealing codes and the names of fellow agents. Not Didi. She withstood it all: she had won.
‘We are going to give you the benefit of the doubt,’ one of the Gestapo men announced. But then he added cruelly: ‘We are sending you to a concentration camp.’
On August 15, just ten days before the Allies liberated Paris, Didi was put on a train crammed with hundreds of other prisoners in cattle trucks, jolting across France and into Germany for day after day.
Once, the prisoners were made to disembark at a station. Seeing some trees in the distance, Didi seized her chance and started running towards them. But a guard raised his gun, threatening to shoot her. Reluctantly she turned back.
Eventually, the train arrived in Ravensbruck concentration camp, where the Nazis followed a policy of ‘extermination through work’.
Those too weak to work were sent to the gas chambers. Others were selected for horrific medical experiments. Sadistic female guards delighted in beating and whipping prisoners to death.
The relentless physical toil and lack of food took its toll, but Didi was sustained by her strong religious faith and unwavering belief that she would survive.
At Ravensbruck, she became friends with three other SOE agents, including Violette Szabo, later immortalised in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.
While Didi stuck to her story that she was a simple French girl, the other agents had admitted to being British. In February 1945, the guards executed the three British girls by shooting them in the back of the neck.
Didi was moved to another camp and put to work making parts for Messerschmitt aircraft. When she refused to work, her head was shaved and she was threatened with execution.
By April 1945, she was in another camp near Leipzig. Emaciated, with dysentery and a hacking cough, it seemed unlikely she could survive much longer.
With the Allies advancing through Germany, the guards decided to move the prisoners to another camp. As the column began to march off in the darkness, Didi and two other women made a break for some nearby trees.
They were free — but deep in enemy territory. For days they stumbled through the countryside, weak and starving. Once, some German soldiers stopped them, but they let them go. After several days they found a church and begged the priest for help. He took them in and they had their first proper meal and wash in many months.
When U.S. troops arrived in Leipzig, Didi and her friends gave themselves up to them. But the Americans suspected Didi of being a Nazi spy and locked her up with female Nazi prisoners.
It was to be another three weeks before British intelligence officers learned of her whereabouts and rescued her.
Lonely end: Didi was dubbed ‘Eleanor Rigby’ after she died alone in 2010, but when her story leaked out, the church in Torquay was packed
When Didi arrived back in Britain, Jacqueline was appalled at her emaciated, confused state. The long months of incarceration, seeing her friends weaken and dying beside her, had left her deeply scarred.
In 1946, suffering acute anxiety and depression, Didi was admitted to a psychological clinic, where she received electroconvulsive therapy.
Slowly she recovered, but the once vivacious, exuberant girl was now wary and reserved.
Jacqueline and Didi were recognised by the SOE as outstanding agents whose achievements had helped defeat the Germans. Yet neither was given the George Cross, unlike some other female agents who had spent less time in the field.
Neither sister married or had children, though Didi doted on her niece, Odile, the daughter of her brother Frederick.
Both women had sacrificed their youth, and their chance of motherhood, to fight the Nazis.
After Jacqueline died from cancer in 1982, Didi became more isolated and eccentric. In 1993, she bravely returned to Ravensbruck to unveil a plaque to those who had died there. But she remained reluctant to talk about her war experiences.
After her death, neighbours were astonished to learn of her heroic past. Hundreds of people turned out for Didi’s funeral in Torquay to honour the modest heroine who had lived among them.
It was a fitting tribute to the sisters whose sacrifice and courage remain an inspiration to this day.
Hero who makes Biggles look like a wimp: He’s flown more planes than anyone else in history – and took 2,000 Nazis prisoner single-handed. And now, at 94, he’s telling his breathtaking story
By ROBERT HARDMAN
PUBLISHED: 18:50 EST, 6 May 2013 | UPDATED: 06:29 EST, 7 May 2013
Making history: Eric Brown (pictured at home in Copthorne, Sussex) has flown more aircraft than anyone else in history, and was the first man to fly a jet on and off an aircraft carrier
Eric Brown must rank as the most extraordinary airman alive. Indeed, open his memoirs at any page and you are left asking a single question: how on earth did this modest Scotsman live to tell the tale?
But Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown RN is very much alive and in sparkling form as he pours me a glass of sherry at his West Sussex home and reflects on an astonishing life. This is the man who has flown more aircraft than anyone else in history.
He was the first man to fly a jet on and off an aircraft carrier. He has set aviation records that will almost certainly never be broken and is revered as one of the greatest test pilots of all time.
But even if you take out the aerobatics, his story is remarkable. Here is a man who narrowly cheated death in the wreckage of a torpedoed ship, helped to liberate Belsen and took 2,000 enemy prisoners armed only with a pistol.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Eric had to interrogate a bewildering cross-section of leading Nazis, including Hermann Goering, as well as plane manufacturer Enrst Heinkel and designer Willie Messerchmitt.
What’s more, he then had to test all their aircraft. And all this before turning 30. Little wonder that when he arrived at Buckingham Palace at the grand old age of 28 for the fourth time, to receive the AFC in addition to the DSC, MBE and OBE he had already received, George VI greeted him with the words: ‘Not you again.’
In fact, young Brown would soon be back once more to receive the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
Years later, he would end up as an aide-de-camp to the Queen, who would add a CBE to his collection in 1970.
Pin-sharp at 94, Eric is in constant demand from historians and documentary makers, while his autobiography, Wings On My Sleeve, is a must-read for any self-respecting aviator.
Now he is about to tell all as one of the star speakers at next month’s Daily Mail-sponsored Chalke Valley History Festival.
What’s more, his appearance on the last weekend in June will coincide with the Chalke Valley History Festival Airshow — one of this summer’s most spectacular, featuring replica dogfights from both World Wars. It will certainly bring back memories for Eric, whose flying career was shaped by these conflicts.
Eric’s father had served in the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War and, along with all former RFC pilots, received an invitation from the newly formed German Luftwaffe to visit the 1936 Olympics.
A promising scholar at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, Eric had recently lost his mother, so his father decided to take the boy to Germany to see the Games.
Among those hosting the RFC delegation was the charismatic Great War ace Ernst Udet, who had become a famous stunt pilot. He took up Eric for a spin — ‘Terrifying stuff’ — and the teenager was hooked.
‘When we landed, Udet gave me the old fighter pilot’s greeting — “Hals und Beinbruch!” [Break your neck and leg] — and told me to learn to fly.’
Eric went on to Edinburgh University, where he studied German and joined the university’s air squadron. During a student trip to Germany, he wrote to Udet, by then a senior Luftwaffe general, who invited Eric into his social circle. The wide-eyed student was introduced to some of the leading lights of the Luftwaffe — including their formidable test pilot and world gliding champion Hanna Reitsch — having no inkling that, within a couple of years, they would be his sworn enemy.
‘Udet was like a schoolboy who regarded the whole world as a friend,’ says Eric. ‘He had these riotous evenings at his flat in Berlin. One of his party tricks was a shooting game where you had to fire a pistol at a target behind you, using a mirror. It made a mess of the wall, but he was very good at it.
‘I often wondered what the neighbours thought — but I suppose you didn’t complain if your neighbour was a Nazi general.’
In 1939, having recently arrived in Germany on a teaching exchange, Eric received a knock on the door one morning. ‘Our countries are at war,’ said an SS officer, before taking away Eric for interrogation.
Fearing the worst, he was pleasantly surprised to be dumped at the Swiss border, from where he made his way home as fast as possible to sign up with the RAF.
Like all young pilots, Eric was itching to get airborne and was frustrated by the lack of RAF planes and postings. But there were plenty of vacancies for pilots in the Royal Navy following the loss of the aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous, with more than 500 men, in the opening weeks of the war.
So Eric transferred to the Fleet Air Arm — where he was nicknamed ‘Winkle’ — and retrained as a naval pilot. Before long he was on HMS Audacity, an aircraft carrier escorting vital convoys between Britain and Gibraltar.
His bravery in his Martlet fighter soon earned him the Distinguished Service Cross.
Then, in December 1941, his ship was torpedoed and sank 450 miles off Cape Finisterre. He was one of the few survivors after floating in the water for several hours.
‘I couldn’t walk for a week, but I was lucky,’ he said. ‘As pilots, we had proper lifejackets.’
Back home, his exceptional flying skills had been spotted and he was transferred to special duties as a test pilot. Among his tasks was working out ways of flying Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitoes on and off ships, vastly improving the clout of the Fleet Air Arm.
And when he wasn’t testing the boffins’ latest theories, he was also charged with training a gung-ho band of Canadian Spitfire pilots with whom he saw regular action over France.
By 1944, Eric had moved to the top secret Aerodynamics Flight based at Farnborough.
By 1944, Eric had moved to the top secret Aerodynamics Flight based at Farnborough
Winston Churchill needed a solution to the Nazis’ unmanned V1 rocket bombs, which were terrifying the civilian population.
One OF the first had reduced Eric’s home, near Aldershot, to rubble. ‘My wife was injured, our cleaning lady lost an eye and the dogs disappeared, so my interest was personal,’ he says.
Eric helped develop a booster system that could get a fighter alongside a V1 for a short spurt and tip it off-course without colliding.
‘You couldn’t blow it up because you’d fly straight into the debris — but there was a way of nudging its wings using air pressure and not actually touching.’
It led to Eric’s first — and last — bail-out. ‘One day, the engine caught fire and my feet were starting to fry, so it was time to go over the side,’ he says, matter-of-factly.
‘I landed in a pond in a field with this very angry bull in it. Every time I tried to get out of the water, it came at me — and the ambulance and the Home Guard wouldn’t go near it. I shouted at them to get the farmer. I remember him leading it away, saying: “Come on, Ferdinand.”’
As the Allies progressed through Italy and France, Eric became commanding officer of a very exotic unit — Farnborough’s Enemy Aircraft Flight. His task was to capture and evaluate as much Nazi hardware as he could find.
One of the most unappealing was a Messerschmitt 163 — a rocket plane that ran on liquid explosive.
Dozens of German pilots had been killed developing the thing, but Eric still chuckles as he recalls his maiden flight: ‘I soon worked out that the only way to land it without exploding was to run out of fuel first, so you had to get your timings right.’
As commanding officer of Farnborough’s Enemy Aircraft Flight, Eric had to capture Nazi hardware. One of the most unappealing was a Messerschmitt 163 – a rocket plane that ran on liquid explosive (pictured)
In 1945, landing at a newly captured airstrip in Germany, he met Allied troops investigating rumours of a concentration camp at Belsen.
Realising that Eric had better German than his interpreter, the brigadier in charge asked him along to assist with translation.
Eric has never forgotten the sights he encountered nor the remorselessness of the female commandant he interrogated, Irma Grese.
‘She was the worst human being I ever encountered,’ he says. She was hanged a few days later.
Soon afterwards, Eric flew in to another air base in Denmark, only to discover the Allies had yet to capture it.
‘I was in this little Avro Anson and there were still 2,000 enemy troops there,’ he says.
‘I thought we were for it as we landed, but the commanding officer came up to me, handed me his sword and surrendered on the spot.’
Given his excellent knowledge of German and aeroplanes, Eric interrogated all the enemy top brass. He did not warm to Willie Messerschmitt. ‘We had a bit of a to-do,’ says Eric, with mischievous understatement.
‘I accused him of compromising the integrity of his planes because the wings on some had started falling off. He bridled at that!’
Dr Ernst Heinkel was a ‘funny little man’. Eric’s erstwhile mentor, Udet, had committed suicide in 1941, but one day Winkle found himself in an interview room with Hanna Reitsch, still an unrepentant Hitler worshipper.
‘She was emotional because she had just heard that her father had shot all the women in the family and then himself to spare them from the Russians. So she told me quite a lot.’
He even interviewed Hermann Goering. ‘His uniform was falling off him, but he perked up when I told him he was going to be interviewed by a pilot. He answered all my questions.
‘The first thing I asked was his opinion on the outcome of the Battle of Britain and he said: “A draw.” He said they had not been defeated, but that Hitler had ordered the withdrawal of fighter units to concentrate on Russia.’
After the war, Eric worked with Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, clocking up numerous life-threatening ‘firsts’ in the field of jet aviation.
Among his unappetising tasks was discovering why certain aircraft would crash at certain speeds, and why planes had a habit of disappearing in storms.
Among his many records is one for the most aircraft carrier landings in history: 2,407. A U.S. naval pilot who tried to beat him got as far as 1,600 before suffering a nervous breakdown.
It is also highly unlikely that anyone will surpass Eric’s world record for flying 487 different types of aeroplane.
A proud grandfather and great-grandfather, he is typical of his generation in insisting that he was ‘only doing the job’.
But Eric Brown did not merely witness history: he made it, too. And it is a hell of a story.
The final flight of the Doolittle Raiders: Three of four surviving WWII crew members meet for last reunion to commemorate daring Tokyo mission
Last raid: Doolittle Raider Lt. Col. Dick Cole stands in front of a B-25 at the Destin Airport; the 2013 reunion will be the last public meeting of the surviving pilots
Inquiring minds: Doolittle Raiders (from left) Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Staff Sgt. David Thatcher and Lt. Col. Edward Saylor answer questions from the media and the public about the Doolittle Tokyo Raid on Wednesday
Meet and greet: Doolittle Raider Staff Sgt. David Thatcher (left) shakes hands with Alexis Edwards, 5, and her mother Michelle Edwards and father Brian Edwards (back) during an autograph session on Wednesday
Fearless leader: The raid was led by Lt Col James ‘Jimmy’ Doolittle
Celebrations past: The survivors of the raid gathered in 2010 as well to remember those who had passed, standing in front of a B-25 bomber
Off to battle: A B25 takes off from the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942 to complete the daring attack
Legions: Several bombers wait on the deck of the aircraft carrier, awaiting departure
Last surviving Dambuster reveals how he celebrated the success of his daring raid – with a fry up and a cup of tea, of course!
By JAYMI MCCANN
PUBLISHED: 16:28 EST, 17 March 2013 | UPDATED:18:35 EST, 17 March 2013
The last of the Dambusters has spoken for the first time how he celebrated the squadron’s heroic raid – with a nice cup of tea.
Almost 70 years after the night-time bombing attacks, Squadron Leader George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, 91, told of the daring raid over occupied territory that dealt a decisive blow that crippled the Nazi war effort.
George was festooned with a raft of medals including a Distinguished Flying Medal for his part in 617 Squadron’s daring 1943 blitz on the Nazi-controlled dams along the Ruhr Valley in Germany, destroying their hydro-electric source of power.
The last Dambuster: Squadron Leader Johnny Johnson, 91, at home in Bristol with his many medals
The Dambusters: (L-R) Johnny Johnson, Donald McClean, Navigator, Dave Batson, Front gunner, Joe McCarthy, Skipper, Bill Radcliffe, Flight Engineer and Len Eaton Wireless Operator
Widower George, who lives in Bristol, was a sergeant at the time of the raids, conducted under the name Operation Chastise, which smashed the Mohne, Sorpe and Eder dams.
He said: ‘We were about half an hour late because our plane had a hydraulic leak and we had to swap.
‘We took off at 22.01, and flew in over Sorpe dam in brilliant moonlight. We had to get the aim right – we went in six or seven times and I’d shout ‘Dummy Run’.
‘It was a totally different dam from the other dams. It was impossible to fly low over, so it had to be a drop, not a spinning bomb.’
Piloted by Joe McCarthy, the plane nicknamed ‘T for Tommy’ was one of five planes that made it to the dam, which was the most difficult of the three targets to crack.
It took bombardier George and his crew nine attempts to fly at a perilous 30ft, before the bomb, codenamed Upkeep, was finally loosed, seconds before they had to pull up to avoid smashing into the hillside behind the dam.
He said: ‘I could see where to drop and shouted ‘Bomb Gone’ to cheers of ‘Thank Christ’ from the crew who were yelling for me to get the bomb out.
‘At 00.46 on May 17 we dropped our bomb with 8,500lb of explosives.’
George added: ‘There was a spout of water 1,000ft high. We circled and the dam crumbled about 10 yards wide.
‘But it didn’t seem as if the other five aircraft had been there. We needed six bombs to crack the dam and the water would do the rest.’
After smashing the dam, the heroic airmen flew their Lancaster bomber over the Mohne Dam, which has been blown by another plane in the same daring raid.
The Sorpe dam was badly damaged by the daring night-time raid, orchestrated by wing commander Guy Gibson and bouncing bomb inventor Barnes Wallace.
George said: ‘I will never forget the sight. It was like an inland sea with all that water overflowing.
‘It gave us a lot of satisfaction when we heard over the radio that the Eder had been breached as well.’
The whole crew: All of the Dambuster raid crews, Johnny Johnson is top 2nd from left
It was only when they flew back to RAF Scrapton in Lincolnshire that the brave crew realised they had been hit several times by an armoured train on their way to the dams, and the pilot’s chair was pockmarked with bullet holes.
He said: ‘I was tired and exhausted – I went to the mess and had bacon and powdered scrambled egg and a cup of tea. It tasted good.’
The five-hour raid came at a heavy price – 53 of the 133 brave airmen, hand-picked for the secret mission, did not come home.
George said: ‘The waitresses in the sergeants’ mess were all in tears as so many places were empty.’
The brave airman married sweetheart Gwyn, a phone operator in the Women’s Royal Air Force, days before the sortie, after being given special permission from chiefs despite all leave being cancelled.
After narrowly avoiding death on an eye-watering 50 missions during his 22 years’ service with the RAF, George became a teacher.
Great-grandfather George, who became a widower when Gwyn died of cancer in 2005, is helping Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson with his scheduled remake of the classic 1955 Dam Busters film.
He said: ‘I feel honoured and proud to have been lucky enough to take part in that raid.
‘It proved to Hitler and the Germans what they thought was impregnable could be destroyed by the RAF.’
In late 1943: “Harris argued that Germany would surrender after the destruction of ‘between 40 and 50 percent of the principal German towns,’ which he believed could happen by April 1, 1944…Known to subordinates as both “Bomber” and “Butcher,” imbued with what Churchill called a ‘certain coarseness,’ he was described by one admiring journalist as a ‘tiger with no mercy in his heart.’…Harris believed that bombers should be clubs to bash the German Volk.”
‘I would have destroyed Dresden again’: Bomber Harris was unrepentant over German city raids 30 years after the end of World War Two
By SUZANNAH HILLS
PUBLISHED: 09:29 EST, 11 February 2013 | UPDATED: 11:39 EST, 11 February 2013
The RAF commander who ordered the controversial fire-bombing of Dresden which killed an estimated 25,000 civilians during World War II said he would do it again in a long lost interview filmed 30 years after the end of the conflict.
Former marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, gave the green light for the 1945 bombing which reduced the city in Saxony, Germany, to rubble.
The attack was widely criticised because of ‘blanket bombing’ which hit civilian areas as well as military targets – killing thousands of innocents.
But the newly-discovered interview with Sir Arthur, which was filmed in 1977 and will be aired for the first time on the BBC tonight, shows the RAF chief defending his decision.
Commander: Air Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who planned the majority of the RAF’s night raids during World War II, is seen at work in his office
Casualties: Around 25,000 people were killed by Allied bombers over the course of two night raids on the city of Dresden in Saxony, Germany, in February 1945
And the chief commander of the Bomber Command tells his interviewer, Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, that he would do it again if he had to.
He said: ‘If I had to have the same time again I would do the same again, but I hope I wouldn’t have to.’
Sir Arthur then adds: ‘I hope it’s been of some use, for future generations in keeping them out of these riots. It never does anybody any good.’
During the interview, Mason discusses how many felt the Dresden attack was ‘a city too far’.
However Harris stood his ground saying: ‘The bombers kept over a million fit Germans out of the German army… Manning the anti-aircraft defences; making the ammunition, and doing urgent repairs, especially tradesmen.
Reduced to rubble: The ‘blanket bombing’ of Dresden was widely criticised as civilian areas were hit as well as military targets
Harris also countered the myth that area bombing was his idea – claiming it was already Government policy.
He said: ‘I lived in a shower of directives from the day I took over to the last day of war.
‘The directive when I took over was that I wasn’t to specifically aim at anything unless ordered to do so and to blast the German cities as a whole.’
Mason asked Harris why he was ordered to bomb whole cities rather than specific Nazi targets. In response, Harris said: ‘They came to the conclusion that they weren’t hitting very much and they didn’t have very much to hit things with…’
Sir Arthur, who died in 1984 aged 91, refused a peerage because his men were denied a campaign medal.
The Bomber Command, which suffered the highest casualty rate of any British unit, losing 55,573 of its 125,000 men, eventually got a memorial last year.
It was erected despite numerous objections from German politicians.
Bomber Command veteran Doug Radcliffe, 89, who is now secretary of the Bomber Command Association, backed his former commander.
He told the Daily Express: ‘Our raids meant there were 10,000 88mm anti-aircraft guns pointing up to the sky instead of at our troops and the Russians.
‘Dresden was a major centre for the manufacture of opticals, such as gun sights and binoculars.’
He added: ‘After Dresden we lost another 700 bombers, and London was being hit by V2s which nobody could fight against.’
It was initially claimed that up to 250,000 civilians lost their lives in the Dresden bombings but an official report released after the war showed the casualty figure was in fact closer to 25,000.
Over two days and nights in February 1945 British and American bombers turned the city into a sea of flames and rubble.
Air raids: Dresden can be seen in flames following allied bombings in February 1945
The victims – mostly women and children – died in savage firestorms whipped up by the intense heat of 2,400 tons of high explosive and 1,500 tons of incendiary bombs.
The newly-found footage will shed more light on Dresden and the actions of the RAF during World War Two.
Professor Richard Aldrich, University of Warwick, said: ‘It’s interesting because it’s not done immediately after the second world war, it’s done at a time when there have already been several waves of interpretation about Bomber Command, about Harris himself and so one not only gets his memories which are still clearly quite fresh, but also is commentary on those different interpretations.
‘It’s a multi-layered interview and all the more interesting for it.’
Sir Arthur Harris was appointed commander-in-chief of The Bomber Command – the unit responsible for defending Britain from aerial attacks and bombing enemy targets – in 1942.
In the early part of the war, the Bomber Command’s raids had little effect.
The bombers only flew at night to reduce the danger of being shot down, but with primitive navigation equipment, this made it difficult to identify and hit a small target.
In 1941, it was decided that The Bomber Command would target entire industrial cities – known as area or blanket bombing.
This policy was endorsed by Churchill and formally adopted in early 1942 as Sir Arthur took the helm of The Bomber Command.
Harris said at the start of the bombing campaign that he was unleashing a whirlwind on Germany.
Working class housing areas were targeted because they had a higher density and firestorms were more likely. This disrupted the German workforce and the Germans capability of producing more weapons.
The plan was highly controversial even before it started, but the Cabinet thought bombing was the only option available to attack Germany directly as a major invasion of the continent was years away. The Soviets were also demanding that the Western Allies do something to relieve the pressure on the Eastern Front.
Tribute: The memorial to The Bomber that was unveiled in Green Park, London, last year
Destruction: This picture of Cologne around the time of VE Day shows how most of the city was nearly flattened apart from its iconic cathedral
Striking: Many of the Allied troops were particularly moved by the sight of Cologne Cathedral, which was mostly unharmed
Attack: A unique photograph of Cologne taken from the side of a bomber during a ‘trolley mission’ at the end of the War
Craters: The landscape around this factory came under heavy bombardment, leading to pockmarks all across it
Strategic: The railroad bridge running across the centre of Cologne collapsed into the river thanks to Allied bombing attacks
Flattened: The RAF’s bombing raids in German were intended to flatten the country’s infrastructure and demoralise its people
Rural: The scene on the outskirts of Bremen – a hint at the economic damage which would require years of rebuilding in Germany
Wasteland: Parts of Germany were left almost uninhabitable in the wake of frequent RAF raids
Shells: Whole neighbourhoods were devastated and abandoned in the aftermath of the fighting
City: Dortmund shown after the end of the Second World War on another ‘trolley mission’ launched by Allied troops
Surveillance: A photograph of post-War Hamburg taken from an RAF plane surveying the damage
The coffin containing the remains of World War One soldier Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard arrives at the Ecoust-St-Mein cemetery in northern France for his re-interment
A poppy wreath and a sword that belonged to Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard were carried by a soldier during the ceremony at the HAC cemetery yesterday
Relatives of Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard were among those who attended the burial service in northern France, nearly a century after he died
British soldiers were laid to rest in the Ecoust-St Mein war cemetery in northern France, not far from where they fell 96 years ago next month
This Christmas postcard was sent by Private Elphick, of the Honourable Artillery Company, six months before he was killed in action fighting the Germans in 1917
Last Christmas card: Private Elphick, who was 28 when he died, expressed his hope to the card’s recipient that 1917 would ‘bring us all together once more’
French farmer Didier Guerle, who found the soldiers’ remains while clearing his land with a metal detector in 2009, shows off a rusted rifle and pickaxe he found nearby
Mr Guerle also found the shell of a World War One gas bomb near the remains of the British soldiers – his father had always told him not to plough that field
Apocalypse: This was all that remained of the Belgian town of Ypres in March 1919 after fierce fighting during World War One reduced it to mere rubble
In rehab: An aerial view of Ypres under construction in 1930 which gives an idea of how the city looked before it was bombarded during the Great War
Felled: Trees along an avenue in Locre, Belgium, lie torn to shreds. These images are from a series documenting the devastation caused along the Western Front
Destroyed: The Hotel de Ville in Arras, Northern France, looks more like a medieval ruins after it was heavily shelled during World War One
Reflected glory: A peaceful pond is what remains today of the craters made by massive mines on the Messines Ridge near Ypres. Their explosion was heard in London
Sorry sight: The Cloth Hall at Ypres, which was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages when it served as the main market for the city’s cloth industry
Standing proud: How the Cloth Hall looked just before before the 1st bombardment by the Germans during the first battle of Ypres in October 1914
In the line of fire: Two soldiers pose for the camera at a Franco-Belgian frontier post in Northern France during the war
Clear-up effort: The East end of the Nave in the Basilique at Saint-Quentin in Northern France photographed soon after the end of World War One, circa March 1919
Shot to pieces: The wreckage of a tank. Some 7.5million men lost their lives on the Western Front during World War One
Forlorn: A little girl cuts a sorry figure surrounded by the ruined buildings in the Belgian village of Neuve Eglise, also known as Nieuwkerke, which was heavily bombed
Snipers, sickness and close brushes with death: The final interviews with America’s last World War I veterans
Doughboys: The last of the American World War I veterans have described the perils of war, the emotional toll of fighting and the celebration of the armistice in a new book spotlighting their stories
Recollections: Howard Ramsey, who was 105 when he spoke to Mr Rubin in 2003, said that he and his colleagues were at one time so ill-prepared for the cold that they resorted to sleeping in a French cemetery
Finally laid to rest 95 years on, 21 German soldiers found perfectly preserved in trench where they were buried alive by Allied shell
Grave: Timbers lining the tunnel where the soldiers were found. They were buried alive in 1918 when a huge Allied shell exploded above the tunnel causing it to cave in
Pompeii: Many of the remains were found in the same positions the men had been in at the time of the collapse, prompting experts to liken the scene to Pompeii
Unearthed: A number of the soldiers were discovered sitting upright on a bench, one was lying in his bed and another was in the foetal position having been thrown down a flight of stairs
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