This article is an edited transcript of My Mum & Dad – Peter Snow & Ann MacMillan on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 6 October 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The ordinary people who get caught up in war and their experiences, tragedies, successes and happiness are a huge part of the story of dramatic conflicts. Here are eight individuals whose extraordinary wartime stories have often been overlooked but which are nonetheless incredibly compelling and important.
1. Edward Seager
Edward Seager fought in the Crimea as a hussar. He charged in the Charge of the Light Brigade and survived but was badly wounded.
It was a terrible, terrible story, but nothing was ever heard of Seager for a long time afterwards. His story eventually came to light, however, when his great, great-nephew (a friend of Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan) produced the hussar’s diary – which had been in his loft.
2. Krystyna Skarbek
Krystyna Skarbek was Polish and when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, sparking World War Two, she hightailed it to London and volunteered to join the SOE, the Special Operations Executive.
Said to be Winston Churchill’s favourite spy, Skarbek was extremely effective, going into Poland undercover, helping organise the Polish resistance and sending back reports on German troop movements.
She was even actually handed by one of her Polish couriers the very first photographic evidence that the Germans were moving troops up to the Russian border.
Those pictures ended up on Churchill’s desk, along with a few other bits of information, and he actually warned Stalin that the Germans were about to turn on them. And Stalin said, “Nope. I don’t believe you. I think this is an Allied plot to end my pact with Germany”. How wrong he was.
The other interesting thing about Christine Granville, as Skarbek was also known during her spying career, is that she was extremely attractive to men and that she loved men. So she had several affairs while she was a spy.
After the war, however, she sadly found it very difficult to fit back into civilian life. She eventually got a job on a cruise ship where she had an affair with a fellow worker. But when she called it off, he stabbed her to death in the dingy corridor of a London hotel.
3. Helen Thomas
Helen Thomas’ husband, Edward Thomas, was a poet. And he went off to fight in the Battle of Arras in France in World War Two, and was killed there in 1917. Helen wrote an account of her last days with her husband and it’s incredibly moving stuff.
4. Franz von Werra
Franz von Werra was one of the very few Nazi pilots in the Luftwaffe who actually escaped from British prisoner of war camps. He succeeded in escaping twice inside Britain and then he was shipped off to Canada.
During one of his escapes, Werra tried to whip a Hurricane Fighter to go back to Germany and jolly nearly got it until the station officer realised he’d been conned by this chap who had claimed to be a Dutch pilot fighting with the Royal Air Force. And so Werra was nobbled.
He was then sent off to Canada, which the British thought was a clever thing to do with Germans because Canada was such a long way away. But it also happened to be rather close to a country which in 1941 was still neutral: the United States.
So Werra decided, “Hang on, if I can get across the Saint Lawrence River into the USA, I’ll be safe”. And he got across.
It was January. The river was frozen stiff and Werra walked across it and was eventually flown back to Germany. Hitler was thrilled and gave him the Iron Cross.
5. Nicholas Winton
Nicholas Winton organised Kindertransport, a rescue effort that involved trains taking children from Czechoslovakia to London just before World War Two broke out in 1939.
Three Jewish people who were children on his trains – all of whose parents died in concentration camps – have said it took them a very long time to find out who had actually saved their lives because Winton was terribly modest and didn’t really tell anybody what he had done.
It was only 50 years after the fact that diaries and scrapbooks came to light that revealed his story and he became a national hero. Winton’s wife had found these scrapbooks in their attic and asked him what they were, and he said, “Oh, yeah, I saved a few kids”.
Turned out he had saved nearly 1,000 children from Czechoslovakia before the war.
6. Laura Secord
Laura Secord is famous in Canada for walking 20 miles during the War of 1812 to warn the British – who were being helped by Canadian militia – that the Americans were going to attack. She went into obscurity after that happened and it was only 50 years later that her story became known.
When the British Prince Regent Edward, Queen Victoria’s oldest son, visited Canada for a tour of Niagara Falls, he was handed a bunch of testimonials from people, memories of what had happened in the War of 1812, and one of them was by Secord.
He took it home to London, read it and said, “Oh, this is interesting”, and sent her £100.
So dear old 80-year-old Mrs Secord, who was living in obscurity, suddenly received £100 from the Prince of Wales and became famous.
The newspapers got the story and she became a national heroine.
7. Augusta Chiwy
Augusta Chiwy was a black Congolese woman who was living in Belgium during World War Two and who became a nurse.
When the Germans had been pushed out of Belgium in 1944, Chiwy decided to visit her parents one day in a nice little place called Bastogne. During her visit, Hitler decided to do a huge counter-attack, what was called the Battle of the Bulge, and the Germans came bursting back into Belgium, surrounded Bastogne, and started killing Americans in their hundreds and thousands.
And Chiwy, who was essentially on holiday, wonderfully rose to the occasion and nursed these American soldiers.
One American doctor was there too and he worked very closely with Chiwy. They were almost the only two medical people in Bastogne at the time.
Some of the wounded Americans, particularly from the south of America, the southern states, said, “I’m not going to be treated by a black”. And this doctor said, “Well, in that case, you can die”.
8. Ahmad Terkawi
Ahmad Terkarwi owned a pharmacy in Homs in Syria. It was bombed out and he’s not even sure who bombed it – whether it was the Syrian government or the rebels – but it disappeared. And then he helped treat some people who were wounded in Homs and got onto a government blacklist because some of the people he treated were rebels. He also treated government supporters but he was still put on a blacklist.
So, he had to escape from the country, which he did, and then he and his wife and two small children made the terrible journey from Jordan to Greece, via Turkey.
He paid a smuggler £7,000 to take them to a Greek island and they made the trip in the dark of night. When they got to the island, the smuggler said, “Oh, I can’t go any closer in this boat because there are rocks. You’ll have to get out and swim”.
So Terkarwi said, “I’m not getting out to swim with my one-year-old and four-year-old sons. Take me back to Turkey”. And the smuggler said, “No, I’m not taking you back and you will swim”. “No, I won’t,” said Terkawi and the smuggler repeated, “You will swim”, before picking up Terkawi’s four-year-old and throwing him in the water.
Terkarwi jumped in and luckily managed to find his son in the dark.
Then the smuggler picked up the one-year-old and threw him in the water too. And so Terkarwi’s wife leapt out of the boat.
They both managed to find the children and swim to shore, but they left all their belongings behind on the boat.
The smuggler took all their stuff back to Turkey, and the family then had to make their way across Europe, and they had some horrible things happen to them. But they eventually ended up in Sweden.