How ‘baby flattops’ helped the US Navy win World War II

Navy sailor on aircraft carrier flight deck
A US Navy flight deck officer gives a thumbs-up as flight crews work on Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers aboard an unidentified training escort carrier in the 1940s.

  • Before the US entered World War II, the Navy knew its fleet carriers wouldn’t be enough to fight Germany and Japan.
  • The solution was the escort carrier, smaller and slower than larger fleet carriers but capable of protecting convoys and amphibious landings.
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While smaller and slower than the “fleet” aircraft carriers employed by the United States Navy during World War II, the escort carrier – also known as “jeep carrier” or “baby flattop” – still proved highly vital to the war effort.

At just half the length and a third the displacement of the larger fleet carriers, the escort carriers were built on commercial ship hulls, making them cheaper and easier to build.

However, the carriers were too slow to keep up with the main force that consisted of fleet carriers, cruisers, or even battleships. And yet, the small escorts served well in protecting convoys while they could provide air support during an amphibious landing.

The escort carriers also served as transports and were able to ferry aircraft to all of the military services.

More carriers needed

Navy aircraft carrier with planes
A Sangamon-class escort carrier transports aircraft for the invasion of North Africa, November 1942.

The origins of this new class of warship date back just prior to America’s entry into World War II.

In a December 1940 letter to the Chief of Naval Operations, Rear Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, Jr., the US Fleet’s commander of the Aircraft, Battle Force, expressed concern the US Navy’s six carriers would be inadequate against both Germany and Japan.

Halsey warned that more ships would be needed, and the result was the small CVE, the Navy’s eventual designation for the Escort Aircraft Carrier.

It was a compromise in design, built using a modified merchant ship hull that was lightly armed and armored, was slow, and had limited carrying capacity – only 24 to 36 planes could be carried compared to the nearly 90 of a fleet carrier.

A lot of small carriers

Navy escort carrier USS Casablanca
Navy escort carrier USS Casablanca, February 4, 1944.

While overshadowed by the larger warships, of the 151 aircraft carriers built during the Second World War, 122 were actually escort carriers.

Fifty of those were of the Casablanca-class, and it ended up being the most numerous class of aircraft carriers ever built. They were also built quickly, and all 50 were laid down, launched and commissioned within the space of less than two years by the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company’s Vancouver Yard on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington.

The 156-meter long Casablanca escorts displaced only 7,800-tons – or nearly 11,000 tons fully loaded with 910 crew, 28 aircraft, ammunition and nearly 120,000 gallons of aviation fuel.

Five Casablanca-class escort carriers were assigned to Atlantic patrols, where escort carriers proved one of several innovations that ultimately defeated the Kriegsmarine’s U-Boats. Initially deployed to protect convoys and ferry land-based aircraft, they eventually led five out of 11 roving “Hunter-Killer groups” that helped chased down U-Boats, sinking 53 by the end of the war.

Of the 13 US aircraft carriers of all types lost during World War II, seven were escort carriers, six of which were of the Kaiser-built Casablanca-class.

Navy escort aircraft carrier USS Card
Navy Bogue-class escort carrier USS Card, December 10, 1943.

An additional 45 Bogue­-class CVEs were built for service with the US Navy as well as the British Royal Navy through the Lend-Lease program.

All of the ships that served with the US Navy and half of the ships for the Royal Navy were built by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation, while a few of the early Royal Navy ships were produced by Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Western Pipe and Steel Company of San Francisco, California.

Following the war, 10 of the baby flattops were kept in service for helicopter and air transport operations.

The final class of CVEs to be built was the Commencement Bay-class, which was based on the T3 Tanker Hull but actually constructed as small carriers from the keel up. Thirty-five were ordered, and just 19 were produced while most of those saw little to no operational service.

However, after the war the potential for use a helicopter and auxiliary transports was seen and a few of the Commencement Bay-class escort carriers were called back into service during the Korean War.

A few CVEs from the various classes were also pressed back into service during the first years of Vietnam War, where these warships were redesignated AKV (air transport auxiliary).

Navy escort carrier carrying flying boats fighter planes and biplane
Navy escort carrier USS Thetis Bay transporting 8 PBY Catalina flying boats, 18 F6F Hellcat fighters, and a J2F amphibious biplane, July 8, 1944.

One of the final – but not the last – Casablanca-class escort carriers to be built was the USS Thetis Bay, which began as CVE-90.

She was converted in the mid-1950s to become the Navy’s first assault helicopter carrier, and her designation was changed to CVHA-1, while a few years later she underwent another refit, which extensively modified the warship including having the aft flight deck cut way.

Her designation was changed again to LPH-6, an amphibious assault ship, in May 1959. She remained in service for another five years and was the final CVE to be scrapped.

Despite the important role that these baby flattops played in World War II, sadly not a single one of the 122 Allied CVEs survives today.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

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What China is learning from the battle that changed the course of World War II in the Pacific

Navy aircraft carrier Yorktown Midway WWII
US Navy cruiser USS Astoria steams by USS Yorktown after the carrier had been hit by Japanese bombs during the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.

  • The Battle of Midway between the US and Japanese navies began on June 4, 1942.
  • The three-day battle was a decisive defeat for the Japanese and turned the tide of the war.
  • Now, 79 years later, the battle still holds lessons, and China in particular has studied it closely.
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On June 4, 1942, the US and Imperial Japanese navies faced off a few hundred miles from Midway Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean.

Over the next three days of fighting, Japan lost four fleet carriers and one heavy cruiser, some 250 aircraft, and over 3,000 sailors and naval aviators.

US casualties were light in comparison: one carrier and one destroyer sunk, 144 aircraft shot down or destroyed, and about 362 sailors and aviators killed.

It was one of the most decisive battles in history and one of the most important of World War II. The Japanese would never recover from the loss of so many of their best carriers and pilots. The US Navy had effectively turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.

The US Navy learned many lessons from the battle that helped win the war. Even now, 79 years later, the battle is still studied extensively – including by China.

Luring out American carriers

Battle of Midway
Douglas Devastator torpedo bombers unfold their wings for takeoff aboard USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.

The Battle of Midway was an attempt by the Japanese Navy to lure out and destroy the remaining American carriers, effectively ensuring Japanese control of the Pacific.

At the time, all of the US Pacific Fleet’s battleships had either been sunk or put out of action by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the British Royal Navy had been dealt a devastating blow when the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sunk a few days later.

The only thing standing between the Allies and the Japanese Navy were the American aircraft carriers, which, by chance, weren’t at Pearl Harbor during the attack.

Those carriers quickly proved their worth.

US Navy Yorktown aircraft carrier Midway Japan world war II
The USS Yorktown lists heavily after being hit by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes at Midway, June 1942.

On April 18, the Doolittle Raid bombers took off from American carriers and struck Tokyo, causing little overall damage but delivering a morale boost and a warning to Japan.

About a month later, two American carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea fended off an invasion of Port Moresby, though at the cost of one carrier sunk and one damaged.

The Japanese sent a massive invasion force to Midway, including six carriers, seven battleships, 10 submarines, 15 cruisers, and 42 destroyers. At its heart were the four fleet carriers and their escorts, which were supposed to destroy the US carriers and clear the way for the invasion.

But the battle proved to be a disaster for the Japanese, and Midway remained in American hands.

Chinese lessons

Battle of Midway
Smoke and waterspouts from falling bombs obscure a US Navy ship, right, during a Japanese aerial attack at Midway, June 1942.

Though China wasn’t involved in the battle, Chinese military analysts today have taken a keen interest in it and have written about a number of lessons from the battle.

The first is the value of intelligence. The US had successfully cracked the Japanese naval code before the battle and, with the help of an intelligence operation, were fully aware that the Japanese were planning an invasion of Midway.

The warning allowed the US to prepare the island with more aircraft and send its three carriers. The Americans were thus able to confront the Japanese on equal footing.

The Japanese also incorrectly assumed that the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, which was damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, would be unable to fight. The US Navy, however, had made Yorktown’s repair a top priority.

During the battle, surveillance and reconnaissance failures led Japanese aircraft to attack the Yorktown a second time after it had already been heavily damaged. After the second attack, the Japanese believed they had knocked two American carriers out of action when they had only attacked one.

Japan navy world war II battle of midway
A Japanese heavy cruiser lies low in the water after being bombed by US naval aircraft at Midway, June 1942.

The Chinese believed that an overemphasis on battleships helped lead to Japan’s defeat. Though the Japanese had seven battleships, only two saw action during the battle, with the other five remaining with the invasion fleet.

The battleships could have played a decisive role as escorts for Japan’s carriers and possibly could have shot down more American aircraft. US battleships almost always sailed with fleet carriers when they were available in the theater, and they proved to be efficient aircraft killers.

The Chinese also believe that the Japanese failed to use their submarines effectively, noting that only one was actually in position near Midway. That Japanese submarine, I-168, managed to sink the wounded Yorktown and one of its escorts, the destroyer USS Hammann.

Chinese analysts also view Japan’s decision to order its carriers to both destroy the American carriers and support the ground invasion with airstrikes as a mistake, as it gave the carriers two separate missions at the same time.

Finally, the Chinese conclude that an attack on Midway was an excessive risk. Without land-based air cover, the Japanese were actually fighting on equal footing with the Americans, who had land-based airpower in addition to three fleet carriers.

Lessons from the war

Battle of Midway
US troops at attention behind flag-draped coffins of their countrymen killed at Midway, June 1942.

Chinese analysts note other failures of the Japanese during the war itself. Infighting and rivalries between the Japanese military branches were a significant problem, for instance.

Additionally, the failure to destroy Pearl Harbor’s oil tanks and ship-repair facilities on December 7 was disastrous for Japan’s overall war effort. Of the eight battleships sunk or damaged, only three – Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah, which was actually a target ship – were permanently lost.

The remaining five battleships were repaired and eventually saw combat. The Navy was also able to salvage valuable weapons and material from ships damaged at Pearl Harbor.

Today, however, a similar fight between the US and Chinese navies would likely play out much differently.

Midway WWII sunken ship Japan kaga
Researchers look at footage of the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga off Midway, October 16, 2019.

Longer-range weapons would increase the distance over which both sides’ could operate. Anti-ship missiles in particular have raised the stakes for surface ships and added to the importance of airpower and submarines. Satellites have also made it harder for navies to hide.

Moreover, China would be in a much different position than Japan.

While Japan never recovered from losing four of its best fleet carriers, China has in recent years proved itself a highly capable shipbuilder, albeit in peacetime. (By the end of World War II, the US had built another 28 fleet carriers and 71 smaller escort carriers.)

With China’s navy now the largest in the world and its relationship with the US tense, it makes sense for the Chinese to study one of history’s greatest naval battles, even if times have changed.

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A soldier who photographed World War II in Europe describes 6 of his photos that reveal the ‘insanity of war’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
A dead GI in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest in 1944.

  • When Tony Vaccaro hit Omaha Beach days after D-Day, he carried a camera along with his rifle.
  • Vaccaro documented the war on his own as he fought across France and into Germany as an infantryman.
  • “I see death,” Vaccaro recalled in an interview at his studio. “Death that should not happen.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Michelantonio “Tony” Vaccaro wanted to serve his country with a camera during World War II, so he tried to join the US Army Signal Corps. But under Uncle Sam’s rules, the 20-year-old draftee was too young for that branch.

So Vaccaro, the orphaned son of Italian immigrants, became a private first class in the 83rd Infantry Division. By June 1944, days after the first wave of 156,000 Allied troops descended on the beaches of Normandy, Vaccaro landed on Omaha Beach, where he saw row after row of dead soldiers in the sand.

Vaccaro was armed with an M1 rifle. He also brought along his personal camera: A relatively compact Argus C3 he’d purchased secondhand for $47.50 and had become fond of using as a high-school student in New York.

In addition to fighting on the front lines during the Battle of Normandy and the ensuing Allied advance, Vaccaro photographed what he was seeing. At night, he’d develop rolls of film, mixing chemicals in helmets borrowed from fellow soldiers. He’d hang the wet negatives on tree branches to dry and then carry them with him.

When he had enough to fill a package, he’d generally mail them home to his sisters in the US for safekeeping and to ensure the images would survive even if he did not.

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
Then-GI Tony Vaccaro on the wing of a B-17 Bomber in 1944.

From 1944 to 1945, he moved through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.

Along the way, he took photographs that few others – even the press and Signal Corps photographers – were in a position to take: a fellow soldier’s last step before shrapnel tore through him, a jubilant kiss between a GI and a young French girl in a newly liberated town, and many stomach-churning portraits of ransacked corpses that still haunt him.

During 272 days at war, he captured thousands of photos. After the Allied victory, he felt sickened and debilitated by the devastation he saw. He wasn’t ready to return to the US. And he never wanted to photograph armed conflict again.

He bought a Jeep and traveled with his camera, eventually photographing brighter moments, like the reconstruction of Europe and the beauty in the lives of famous artists and everyday people.

Vaccaro went on to make a name as a fashion and culture photographer. He traveled the world shooting for magazines like Look and Life and taking portraits of bigwigs including John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O’Keeffe, and many more.

A half-century would pass before Vaccaro began publishing the bulk of his surviving wartime photos. The surviving images have been shared widely, including in the 2016 HBO documentary “Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC. Tony Vaccaro,” in which Vaccaro revisits the history that he had to break Army rules to chronicle.

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
Tony Vaccaro.

Vaccaro, now 98, survived a bout with COVID-19 last spring that put him in the hospital.

He continues roaming his neighborhood photographing everyday people and selling prints through Monroe Gallery of Photography. From his Queens, New York, studio more than seven decades after World War II, he closes his eyes and thinks of the brutality he documented as an infantryman.

“I see death,” Vaccaro told Insider. “Death that should not happen.”

Below, he describes six of his photos that he says capture “the insanity of war.”

‘White Death’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Near Ottré, Belgium, January 1945.

Vaccaro developed the roll containing this image while on leave in 1945. He remembers calling this photograph “Death In The Snow” at first, later deciding that “White Death” was a more “elegant” and fitting name to honor Pvt. Henry Tannenbaum’s service and sacrifice. Tannenbaum was killed in action on January 11, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge.

“When I first took this photo of a GI dead in the snow, I was not aware of who he was. What I did was to chip the snow away and look for his right arm, because in those days, [on] the right arm we carried our dog tags. He was Pvt. Henry Irving Tannenbaum. He was one of the soldiers who fought there, just like me. We fought in the snow. He died in the snow. He was my friend. I knew he had a son. … Many years later I got a call from his son.”

‘Gott Mit Uns’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Hürtgen Forest, Germany, 1944.

The burned body of a German tank driver, as seen through Vaccaro’s lens.

“He’s burning. This was frontline. You can smell him. We knocked out his German tank. We knocked it out, and he jumped out of there and fell dead in front of us. He was the pilot of this tank. Similar age [to me]. Here he’s gone. … But [before the photograph] I heard him scream, ‘Muter, muter.’ He was calling for his mother.”

“I took cover [by lying down next to him] and read his belt buckle: ‘Gott mit uns.’ … It means ‘God is with us.’ [Before the war] I had seen people that die and go to the church, and from church they go to the cemetery, like my father when I was four. This was a different death.”

‘Final Steps of Jack Rose’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Ottré, Belgium, January 11, 1945.

Vaccaro captured this image of a soldier he identifies as US Army Pvt. 1st Class Jack Rose of the 83rd Infantry Division, still upright, just after shrapnel from a mortar explosion severed his spine. The explosion, visible between Rose and the fence, threw Vaccaro back many feet. Rose, 23, was killed in action.

“That was Jack Rose. The last step. I was photographing him when this shell comes and explodes. He got killed there, in the village. … The shell could have come to me, too. I was lucky.”

‘Rhineland Battle’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Near Walternienburg, Germany, April 1945.

Vaccaro says the streaking on some of his war photos comes from the grueling conditions he was in – he didn’t have time to properly process and store his work in combat – and possibly from water damage due to a flood in the office where the images were stored after the war.

“We were going forward when a shell comes in, in the back, and explodes. This was Rhineland Battle. I was in a hole as the mortar exploded. I raised my arm up with the camera in my hand above the hole to catch this picture. If that shell had come 20 yards over, I was with these two [soldiers seen in the picture], and my hole was here, and if the shell came [where the two soldiers were or where Vaccaro was], I wouldn’t be here talking today.”

‘The Family Back Home’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Hürtgen Forest, Germany, January 1945.

When Vaccaro encountered this dead German soldier, it appeared that other American soldiers had already looted his valuables.

“This is a man who we killed in frontline [fighting]. … That was it. The family back home. A dead German soldier with the pictures he was carrying of his family. … Of course I had photos of my family too. … It reminds me of the tragedy of mankind. He’s not a German. He’s a human being.”

“We just must stop using ‘I’m Italian. I’m French. I’m Spanish. I’m German.’ That’s what makes us enemies of each other. We’re all humans. In Spain. In Germany. It’s a terrible mistake that man has made. We are humans. And nothing else.”

‘Defeated Soldier’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Frankfurt, Germany, March 1947.

Vaccaro captured this image after the war, while photographing the reconstruction of Europe for Stars.

“This man came back [from being a prisoner of war in the US]. He’s crying. … He gave up. You see where his family had been. The war is over. He came back, and his house had been destroyed. That’s why I call this the defeated soldier. He was German. … Later I was told that he lived here.”

“The point is, you see, on this Earth there is only one species, one church. Unfortunately we take this one species and create hundreds and thousands of churches, and each one is different from the next. And that’s why man is not attaining peace yet.”

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Why the Allies and the Nazis learned opposite lessons from the first major airborne invasion in history

Nazi Germany paratroopers Fallschirmjagers
German paratroopers landing on Crete during Operation Mercury, May 20, 1941.

  • The German invasion of Crete in May 1941 was the first major invasion led by paratroopers.
  • It was a costly victory for the Germans, which led Hitler to dismiss such operations in the future.
  • But the Allies saw the importance of paratroopers and invested heavily in their use during the war.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Early on May 20, 1941, thousands of German paratroopers, known as Fallschirmjägers, in hundreds of transport planes and gliders were preparing to assault the Greek island of Crete.

It was the first time a large-scale invasion was spearheaded almost entirely by paratroopers. The battle was the final part of the Axis invasion of Greece, and on paper, the numbers favored the Allies.

Germany’s 22,000-man invasion force was up against a combined British Commonwealth/Greek force of about 42,000, the Royal Navy was much stronger than its Axis counterparts in the Mediterranean at the time, and the only way Germany could win was by capturing Crete’s three airfields with Fallschirmjägers.

British intelligence knew this before the battle and told the commander on the island, Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg. When the Fallschirmjägers landed, they encountered intense resistance, but after a brutal 13-day slog, the Germans took the island.

The victory came at a huge price for the Fallschirmjägers – so much so that Hitler soured on large-scale airborne operations, remarking that “the days of the parachute troops are over.”

The Allies, meanwhile, learned the complete opposite lesson.

A costly victory

Nazi Germany paratroopers Fallschirmjagers
German paratroopers on their way to the cargo planes before their jump into Crete, May 20, 1941.

By the time Crete was invaded, the Fallschirmjägers had earned a reputation as elite soldiers, having assaulted air fields and strategic positions in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

At Crete, they would seize the island’s three main airfields, whereupon the rest of the invasion force would be airlifted in. Small amphibious landings were also planned, but the airfields were the prime objective, making the Fallschirmjägers the key to victory.

But the German victory at Crete was due as much to Allied communication and leadership failures as it was to the skill of the German paratroopers.

British soldiers bayonets Crete
British soldiers with fixed bayonets in a trench on Crete, May 1941.

Freyberg was convinced that the real German invasion would come from the sea and positioned most of his forces along the coasts, neglecting to properly defend or sabotage the airfields. Even when the airfields were under attack, Freyberg refused to commit his reserves to their defense.

Capturing the airfields was still difficult and costly for the Fallschirmjägers- only one of the three was taken, and only after high German casualties.

When the battle was over, Germany and Britain had both suffered over 3,000 killed.

About half of the British losses came from the Royal Navy, which lost eight ships to Luftwaffe air attacks. The Germans also lost 146 aircraft (mostly transports) destroyed and had another 165 damaged.

Inferior airborne equipment

Nazi German paratroopers parachutes
German paratrooper volunteers board a plane during military training, June 23, 1938.

A major reason Fallschirmjäger losses were so high was their equipment. German parachutes were based on an old Italian design and didn’t have risers, which meant Fallschirmjägers could not steer or change course in the air and had no control over where they landed.

The design of German parachutes also tended to force Fallschirmjägers into hard landings at dangerous angles, increasing the chances of fracturing or breaking bones far higher than those of Allied paratroopers.

German parachutes also did not have a quick-release system, which meant they could drag German soldiers along the ground if caught in high winds before they were fully detached, or leave them stuck for longer periods of time if they landed in trees.

Nazi Germany paratroopers Crete
German paratroopers take cover behind a wall during an advance on Crete, May 1941.

Finally, because they jumped at lower altitudes than Allied paratroopers and had poor parachute setups, almost all Fallschirmjägers jumped without their primary weapons, carrying only pistols or knives. Instead, their armaments were dropped in canisters that the paratroopers had to retrieve once on the ground.

These defects had disastrous consequences for the Fallschirmjägers at Crete. Many were killed before they even had a chance to fight.

On a number of occasions, Cretan civilians swarmed and killed Fallschirmjägers who were stuck in trees or didn’t have guns. Such widespread civilian resistance was a first for the Germans, and led to many reprisal killings after the battle.

Lessons learned

Nazi German paratroopers Italy
German paratroopers during their rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in Italy, October 2, 1943.

Fallschirmjägers continued fighting after Crete. They conducted a number of smaller jumps around Europe, including as part of the Battle of the Bulge. For the most part, however, they were used as elite ground-based infantry.

Although they had lost the battle and inflicted heavy losses on the Fallschirmjägers, the Allies recognized the importance of paratroopers and invested heavily in perfecting the deployment of airborne infantry.

Allied airborne assaults were conducted on a much larger scale, usually in conjunction with a larger ground or amphibious assaults that paratroopers could link up with. American and British paratroopers also had much better parachutes and jumped fully equipped for battle.

The superiority of Allied paratroopers was demonstrated on D-Day in June 1944, when over 18,000 paratroopers jumped behind enemy lines in Normandy. Despite being scattered and confused after the jump, and without much of their equipment, groups of paratroopers were able to regroup and accomplish many of their objectives.

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The hunt for Germany’s largest warship proved that U-boats were the Nazis’ best weapon

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
The German battleship Bismarck after its completion but before it received its camouflage paint.

  • Early in World War II, Nazi Germany used its navy to isolate Britain from resupply by sea.
  • Germany capital ships, like the battleship Bismarck, were an important part of that strategy.
  • But it was Bismarck’s destruction in May 1941 that solidified U-boats as Hitler’s weapon of choice.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On the night of May 18, 1941, the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen steamed out of its base at Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland), followed five hours later by the Kriegsmarine’s crown jewel, the battleship Bismarck.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were on a mission to wreak havoc on British merchant shipping. German U-boats were already very effective at this, but Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, head of the Kriegsmarine, hoped to demonstrate to Hitler the value of Germany’s surface fleet in order to avoid future budget cuts.

What followed was one of the most intense naval searches in military history, the result of which convinced Hitler that U-boats, not capital ships, were the Kriegsmarine’s best weapons.

Capital ships for commerce raiding

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
Bismarck off of Kiel, Germany, September 1940.

Britain was in a very desperate situation in May 1941. It had fended off the Luftwaffe’s relentless aerial onslaughts in the Battle of Britain but was still isolated and heavily reliant on supplies coming across the Atlantic.

The Kriegsmarine had been trying to block trans-Atlantic shipping routes since the war began, and its capital ships had played an important role in intercepting or sinking Allied shipping.

German surface ships also drew Royal Navy warships away from other duties, such as escorting convoys, and supported U-boats, which were then few in number.

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
Bismarck firing on a merchant ship in the North Atlantic in 1941.

Happy with earlier success in Operation Berlin, Raeder planned another commerce raid.

To maximize damage, the raid was to include Germany’s four best capital ships: battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were sister ships, and Bismarck and its sister ship, Tirpitz.

But Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by constant RAF attacks while being repaired in port in France, keeping them out of action for months. Tirpitz’s crew was also still being trained.

Prinz Eugen, not as well armed or armored as a battleship, was the only available ship capable of accompanying Bismarck. Not wanting to delay the operation any longer, German commanders ordered the ships into the Atlantic.

Battle of the Denmark Strait

Nazi Germany navy Bismarck Prinz Eugen
Bismarck seen from Prinz Eugen in May 1941.

The mission, codenamed Operation Rheinübung, was led by Adm. Günther Lütjens, the commander of Operation Berlin.

Lütjens was ordered to focus primarily on merchant raiding and to avoid fighting British capital ships if possible. But Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were discovered by the Royal Navy, which attempted to intercept the ships as they sailed through Denmark Strait and into the Atlantic on May 24.

The British force consisted of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood, which was widely considered the pride of the Royal Navy.

The British ships were no match for Bismarck, which was newer and better armored. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were able to fire full broadsides at the two British ships.

“When the big guns fired, the entire ship staggered,” Heinrich Kuhnt, a sailor on the Bismarck, recalled after the war. “It felt like it was bending. It was pushed sideways in the water. It was amazing.”

Minutes into the battle, one of Bismarck’s 15-inch shells hit one of Hood’s magazines. An enormous column of fire erupted from the battlecruiser, followed by a massive explosion that tore it in two.

“The ship broke into pieces,” Otto Schlenzka, a sailor on Prinz Eugen, recalled. “We were sure an explosion of that kind must have killed everybody.”

Hood went down with 1,415 sailors, all but three of its crew. Prince of Wales was also heavily damaged and had to withdraw. The Germans suffered no losses.

Bismarck’s end

HMS Ark Royal Swordfish
A flight of Swordfish torpedo bombers over British aircraft carrier Ark Royal in 1939.

Shocked by the violent destruction of the Hood, the Royal Navy committed nearly all of its available capital ships in the area to finding and destroying Bismarck.

Though it suffered no casualties in the battle, Bismarck received a number of hits that ruptured a fuel tank and caused flooding.

Lütjens, aware of the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority and of the danger of sailing a damaged warship, terminated the operation.

Prinz Eugen was ordered to continue commerce raiding on its own while the Bismarck headed for Nazi-occupied France.

Dorsetshire Bismarck survivors
Survivors from the Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire, May 27, 1941.

Bismarck briefly evaded its pursuers, but a British reconnaissance aircraft, flown by a US Navy pilot, found it on May 26.

Subsequent torpedo attacks from Swordfish carrier planes disabled Bismarck’s rudder, forcing it into a continuous turn.

With the Royal Navy closing in, Lütjens sent a final message to Berlin: “Ship unmaneuverable. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”

On May 27, two British battleships and two heavy cruisers attacked Bismarck. They fired over 2,800 shells in a little less than two hours, hitting the German battleship some 400 times. Bismarck was left dead in the water.

The Germans detonated scuttling charges to sink the ship, while British heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedoes to finish it off. Only 115 of Bismarck’s 2,221-man crew survived.

U-boat superiority

Nazi Germany navy U-boat submarine
A German U-boats, its crew on the deck and officers in the conning tower, arrives in Kiel, November 10, 1939.

Operation Rheinübung was a complete failure. Not only had the pride of the Kriegsmarine been sunk with nearly all hands, Prinz Eugen was unable to sink any merchant ships, meaning the primary objective was never achieved.

In the following weeks, the Royal Navy set about destroying the network German ships that refueled, resupplied, and rearmed German capital ships in the Atlantic. The result was the Kriegsmarine’s almost complete reliance on U-boats during the rest of the Battle of the Atlantic.

In the end, the U-boats were the Kriegsmarine’s most effective weapons. From September to December 1939, they sank 110 Allied vessels, while German capital ships only sank about a dozen.

Between July and October 1940, a period known as the “first happy time,” by German submariners, U-boats sank nearly 300 ships carrying over a million tons of cargo.

Between January and August 1942, the “second happy time,” U-boats sank another 600 ships carrying 3 million tons of cargo.

Hitler never ordered his capital ships into the Atlantic again, sending them to Norway or the Baltic instead. The Germans ramped up production of U-boats, which were easier to build than capital ships, and thousands of Allied ships were sunk before the war’s end in 1945.

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The 7 craziest commando missions of World War II

St. Nazaire HMS Campbeltown
The HMS Campbeltown on the lip of the Normandie dock after crashing into it, March 28, 1942.

World War II was an exciting time for special operations and commandos.

The advent of airborne operations gave them a whole new angle of approach, and the sheer scale of the war guaranteed that they’d have plenty of chances to use their skills.

But even accounting for those things, operators on both sides of the war distinguished themselves with daring missions.

Here are seven of the craziest:

1. A costly canoe raid against German ships

The “Cockleshell Heroes” were a group of British Royal Marines assigned the task of launching from a submarine and canoeing miles up the River Gironde to place limpet mines against the hull of German ships. The mission hit problems almost immediately as canoes were lost to tide and river obstacles.

Only two of the original five made it to the Bordeaux-Bassens docks. The four men who crewed the canoes placed mines on a few ships, which damaged some commercial vessels. While the material damage was limited, it boosted British morale and forced the Germans to devote more resources to defense in a way similar to the US Army Air Force’s Doolittle Raid.

2. The failed attempt to kill Erwin Rommel

Operation Flipper had the lofty goal of crippling an Italian headquarters and intelligence office as well as killing Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

The mission was beset by bad weather and the assault force that hit the German officer’s headquarters was smaller than planned.

Still, the British commandos broke into the headquarters building only to learn that Rommel had been delayed in Rome by his own weather problems.

Only two raiders survived, but even Rommel admitted that it was a “brilliant operation.” He had the senior officer, British Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, killed and buried with full honors and photos sent to the family.

3. Norwegian resistance destroys Germany’s nuclear stockpile, twice

A first attempt on the Norsk Hydro Plant, where radioactive heavy water was processed and stored, failed but the survivors and their reinforcements hit the plant on February 28, 1943, despite suffering from starvation and exhaustion. They were able to blow the storage facilities, setting German nuclear research back by at least months.

Months later, a new stockpile of German heavy water was being transported on a ferry when the Norwegian Resistance attacked once again, sinking the ferry and ending Germany’s last best chance at a nuclear reactor or bomb. One man, Knut Haukelid, participated in both raids.

4. German paratroopers take the world’s strongest fort

In 1940, the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael was arguably the world’s strongest fort.

Constructed from 1932-1935, it was heavily armed and guarded by upward of 800 soldiers. But Germany had to destroy or negate it to get the blitzkrieg into Belgium.

They did it in a single morning with 85 paratroopers. The men landed on the fort in gliders and quickly took hold of large sections of it, destroying or capturing the guns aimed at the countryside.

When the rest of the German army arrived, the remaining defenders surrendered.

5. Benito Mussolini is rescued from a mountaintop retreat by German paratroopers

In July 1943, Italian defeats turned the country against Benito Mussolini and he was exiled to a series of locations.

A German commander was able to track the dictator to Gran Sasso, a mountaintop ski resort accessible only by cable car or glider. At 6,300 feet, it was too high even for an airborne assault.

German Capt. Otto Skorzeny led the glider assault. The paratroopers brought along an Italian general in the hopes that he would prevent a shootout. It worked.

The Italian guards decided not to fight when the gliders crashed into the mountains and the paratroopers stormed out. Skorzeny and Mussolini departed on a small, high-altitude plane.

6. British commandos steal a German radar station

The insane plan for Operation Biting called for five groups of British paras to land in German-occupied France, capture a German radar station, and then make off with key pieces of the technology.

The men landed under cover of darkness and quickly captured the building. They even managed to grab two technicians with intimate knowledge of the advanced German radar.

Paratroopers who missed their drop zone arrived late to destroy a German pillbox, a situation that almost ended with the withdrawing commandos being killed.

Luckily, the men arrived in time to destroy the pillbox as it swept fire on the other commandos. The British escaped with their prize.

7. The British turn an entire ship into a bomb

Dubbed the “Greatest Raid of Them All,” the St. Nazaire Raid targeted the only German-held dry dock for heavy ships on the Atlantic that was accessible without passing German defenses. But the dry dock was heavily armed and far upriver.

The British sent a small flotilla of vessels led by the converted HMS Campbeltown. Sixteen were small motorboats, 12 of which were destroyed without reaching shore. But the Campbeltown managed to ram the gates of the dry dock.

The Germans captured 215 of the 600 attackers and killed 169 more, but explosives hidden in the Campbeltown exploded the next morning, crippling the facilities.

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Huge US amphibious tank craft from World War II discovered buried 30 feet underground in an English field

crowland tank buffalo unearthed
A 26-foot-long Buffalo tank is extracted from the earth in Crowland, Lincolnshire, on April 29, 2021.

  • A number of Buffalo LVT landing craft were swept away by floods in Lincolnshire, England, in 1947.
  • This weekend, one of the US-made craft was dug up by a group of volunteers after a five-day dig.
  • The armed craft were used to ferry supplies and cross water bodies in conflicts in the Pacific and Europe.
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Excavators in England have unearthed a huge World War II-era US landing craft from a field, 74 years after it went missing.

In 1947, more than a dozen Buffalo LVT were transported to Crowland, Lincolnshire, to help the British Army build flood defenses, but five were swept away in high waters.

This weekend, a group of local military enthusiasts succeeded in their mission to unearth one of the 26-foot-long craft after a five-day dig, which they found buried 30 feet below the earth, the BBC reported.

Watch drone footage of the craft – which weights 18 tonnes – being pulled from the excavation pit here:

The Buffalo LVT was a US-made landing craft used to transport supplies and crosses water bodies in Europe and the Pacific region. It saw action inWorld War II’s greatest battles, including the Battle for Iwo Jima and D-Day.

The group behind the excavation believes that this Buffalo LVT was also previously used to cross the River Rhine in Germany in March 1945, The Times of London reported. The BBC said the Buffalo LVT was also key in getting allied troops across the Elbe river, also in Germany, the same year.

The craft appears to be in good condition, the volunteers said, due to the nature of the clay and peat soil that has surrounded it for 74 years .

tank ww2 england crowland
A man seen after uncovering a 26-foot-long Buffalo tank in Crowland, Lincolnshire, on April 29, 2021.

“I’m over the moon with what we’ve achieved – it’s very exciting. We’ve spent five days digging,” Daniel Abbott, chairman of the Crowland Buffalo LVT Association, told The Times.

“We found the gun mount first and it’s in fantastic condition for its age. The tank seems to have been well preserved in the clay.”

The volunteers told the BBC they wanted the craft to stay in the town and become a memorial for the 1947 floods.

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How Dwight D. Eisenhower ‘lost’ a B-17 bomber in a bet with a British general

b-17 b 17 E big ass
A B-17 bomber.

  • In late 1942 and early 1943, the Allies were scrambling to defeat the Germans in North Africa.
  • Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted his forces to move faster, leading to an unusual deal with British Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery.
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The liberation of Sfax, Tunisia on April 10, 1943 was a joyous occasion for nearly everyone involved.

The Allies gained an important Mediterranean port, the Tunisians in the city were liberated, and British Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery won a B-17 bomber from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

That last one may need some explanation.

Rommel retreats to the Mareth line

Gen. Bernard "Monty" Montgomery addresses British troops
Gen. Bernard Montgomery addressing British troops.

Montgomery had been fighting German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel for months in North Africa. Though the campaign was slowly succeeding, Rommel and his Italian allies were inflicting heavy casualties on the British.

Britain wanted to increase forces in North Africa to keep Rommel off-balance. Meanwhile, the other Allied nations wanted to capture North Africa so they could begin invading Italy from the south.

So in late October 1942, Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot. British tanks and other forces moved under cover of massive artillery barrages through minefields against dug-in German positions. By November 2, Rommel was in a rapid withdrawal east, sacrificing troops by the hundreds to try and keep his lines of retreat open.

This put the German units in disarray when Operation Torch was launched on Nov. 8. More than 73,000 troops landed along the north coast of Africa in a deliberate attempt to squeeze the Axis east.

It worked, but Germany and Italy still held Tunisia and conducted their own surge, landing nearly 250,000 troops in and around the ports at Mareth and Sfax. They would settle into a defense along the Mareth Line.

The bet is made

Patton hewitt ww2 world war ii north africa
Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, left, aboard USS Augusta off North Africa in 1942.

The battles in North Africa raged back and forth as German reinforcements tried to hold the line.

The Allied forces were slowly gaining ground, with Maj. Gen. George S. Patton and Montgomery both attempting to be the first to capture key cities, but Eisenhower wanted them to move faster.

Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Bedell Smith, was visiting Montgomery at his headquarters in the spring of 1943.

Exact accounts of the conversation vary, but Montgomery asked about getting a B-17 for his personal use. Smith told Montgomery that if Montgomery captured Sfax by April 15, Eisenhower would give him whatever he wanted.

Smith reportedly meant it as a joke wager, but the notorious gambler Montgomery was serious.

Sfax falls and Montgomery gets his B-17

B 17C with RAF colors
A B-17 with RAF colors.

On April 10 – five days ahead of the deadline – Montgomery captured Sfax and immediately asked for payment.

Eisenhower honored the bet and sent Montgomery a B-17 bomber and crew even though the bombers were needed for the war effort.

The event caused a strain between Eisenhower and Montgomery as well as between Eisenhower and Patton.

Patton was incensed that a British general had a personal B-17 while he was struggling for rides or moving in convoys. Eisenhower was angry that Montgomery would actually accept a B-17 when they were needed to actually bomb targets.

Eisenhower mentioned it to Montgomery’s boss, Sir Alan Brooke, who berated Montgomery for crass stupidity. The plane was written off after a crash-landing a month later and never replaced.

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How a 6th-grade history project exonerated the captain who was blamed for one of the Navy’s worst WWII disasters

uss indianapolis
The Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis, sunk month before the end of World War II.

  • The sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the final weeks of World War II was one of the Navy’s worst disasters of the war.
  • For decades, the cruiser’s captain, Charles B. McVay III, was blamed for the loss, until a grade-school project set the record straight.
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In 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed its top secret mission of delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian Island in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk on its way to join a task force near Okinawa.

Of the ship’s 1195 crew members, only 316 survived the sinking and the subsequent time adrift at sea in the middle of nowhere. Among the survivors was the captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III.

McVay would be charged with negligence in the loss of the ship. Even though he was restored to active duty after his court-martial and retired a rear admiral, the guilt of the loss haunted him for the rest of his life. He committed suicide with his Navy revolver on his own front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand.

McVay did everything he could in the wake of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis. He sounded the alarm, giving the order to abandon ship and was one of the last men off. Many of the survivors of the sinking publicly stated he was not to blame for its loss. But this wasn’t enough for the family members of the ship’s crew, who hounded McVay year after year, blaming him for the loss of their sons.

USS Indianapolis
Survivors from the USS Indianapolis en route to a hospital on Peleilu.

The Navy was partly to blame. They didn’t warn Indianapolis that the submarine I-58 was operating along the area of the ship’s course to Okinawa. They also didn’t warn the ship to zigzag in its pattern to evade enemy submarines. When the Indianapolis radioed a distress signal, it was picked up by three Navy stations, who ignored the call because one was drunk, the other had a commander who didn’t want to be disturbed, and the last thought it was a trap.

Three and a half days later, the survivors were rescued from the open water, suffering from salt water poisoning, exposure, hypothermia, and the largest case of shark attacks ever recorded. It was truly a horrifying scene. The horror is what led to McVay’s court martial, one of very few commanders to face such a trial concerning the loss of a ship.

Even though the Japanese commander of I-58, the man who actually destroyed the Indianapolis, told the US Navy that standard Navy evasion techniques would not have worked – Indianapolis was doomed from the get-go. Even that didn’t satisfy McVay’s critics.

It wasn’t until sixth-grader Hunter Scott began a history project in school about the sinking of the Indianapolis.

He poured through official Navy documents until he found the evidence he needed to conclusively prove that McVay wasn’t responsible for the loss of his ship. His project caught the attention of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who helped pass a Congressional resolution exonerating McVay. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Hunter Scott, the onetime sixth-grader and eternal friend to the crew of the Indianapolis, is now a naval aviator. He attended the University of North Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship and joined active duty in 2007. He even spoke at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.

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How a daring raid by Norwegian commandos kept the Nazis from building a nuclear bomb

Norway Nazi Germany World War II WWII
  • In late February 1943, nine commandos set out of daring raid against the Germans in the Norwegian wilderness.
  • Their mission, to destroy a plant producing heavy water, would fulfill one of the Allies’ most important goals: Prevent the Nazis from building an atomic bomb.
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At 8:00 p.m. on February 27, 1943, nine Norwegian commandos trained by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) left their hideout in the Norwegian wilderness and skied several miles to Norsk Hydro’s Vemork hydroelectric power plant.

All the men knew about their mission was the objective: Destroy Vemork’s “heavy water” production capabilities.

Each man carried a cyanide capsule to take if they were captured and wore a British Army uniform so if they were killed and their bodies found, the Germans might spare the local civilians from reprisal killings.

Their mission would be one of the most successful in special-operations history, and it contributed to one of the Allies’ most important goals in World War II: Preventing Nazi Germany from developing nuclear weapons.

The race for an atomic bomb

Nazi Germany nuclear bomb weapons lab
The German experimental nuclear pile at Haigerloch, southwest of Stuttgart, being dismantled in April 1945.

Within months of the discovery of nuclear fission on December 17, 1938, the military potential of nuclear power became clear, and the race for an atomic weapon was on.

In April 1939, Germany started its nuclear-bomb effort, known informally as the Uranverein, or “uranium club.” It included some of the best scientists in the field, including the men who discovered nuclear fission and Nobel Prize-winner Werner Heisenberg.

During their research for a nuclear reactor, the scientists discovered that deuterium oxide, known commonly as “heavy water” because it has a heavier molecular weight than regular water, performed well as a moderator, enabling control over the fission process.

There was only one place in the world capable of producing heavy water on an industrial scale: Norsk Hydro’s Vemork hydroelectric power plant in southern Norway. The plant’s main purpose was to produce ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer; heavy water was actually a byproduct.

In January 1940, German officials asked to buy all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water stock and if it was possible to increase the plant’s monthly output 10-fold to meet German demand.

This caught the attention of the French, who were experimenting with nuclear physics themselves and pursuing heavy water. Worried about German intentions, agents from the Deuxième Bureau, France’s military-intelligence agency, secured all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water for France on March 9.

It was only a temporary setback for the Nazis. Exactly a month later, Germany invaded Norway and occupied it by early June. Vemork, now under German control, was forced to increase heavy-water production.

Operations Grouse and Freshman

Vemork Tinn Norway nuclear lab
The Vemork hydroelectric power plant, February 24, 2011.

The Allies, unaware of the German nuclear program’s progress, were increasingly worried that Germany may be ahead in the race. Vemork’s heavy-water production was known to be important to the program, and that alone was a good enough reason to take action against it.

Working with the Norwegian Resistance, the SOE created a plan for two teams to be dropped into Norway.

The first, codenamed Operation Grouse, was made up of four SOE-trained Norwegian commandos who would parachute into Norway, conduct reconnaissance, and secure a landing zone for a 34-man team of British commandos, codenamed Operation Freshman, who would land in two gliders and then assault the plant and destroy the 18 electrolysis cells that made heavy water.

On October 18, 1942, Grouse was launched. The team spent the next few weeks trekking to Freshman’s designated landing site, reaching it on November 9. On November 19, Operation Freshman was launched.

But Freshman was a colossal failure. Mechanical difficulties and bad weather caused one of the bombers and the glider it was towing to crash, killing the flight crew and a number of commandos. The second glider’s cable snapped when the bomber towing it aborted the mission, causing it to crash as well.

Survivors from both gliders were found by the Germans and executed as per Hitler’s Commando Order. Forty-one men were lost, security at Vemork was increased, and the Grouse team was stranded and had to fend for itself.

Operation Gunnerside

Norway Nazi Germany Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage
A reconstruction of the Operation Gunnerside team planting explosives to destroy electrolysis chambers in the Vemork heavy-water plant.

Vemork was still a priority target for the Allies, and a new plan, with a stealthier approach, was developed.

A team of six Norwegian commandos would be dropped into Norway to link up with members of the Grouse team. They would infiltrate the plant, destroy the heavy-water production room with explosives, and escape into the night.

Codenamed Operation Gunnerside, the team parachuted into Norway on February 16, 1943, and linked up with the Grouse team on February 22. On the night of February 27, nine members from both teams set out for Vemork, with one member remaining behind to communicate with the British.

Upon arrival on the outskirts of the plant, they saw that the bridge, the only direct way into the complex, was heavily guarded.

The team had to descend a 328-foot cliff, cross a frozen river, then climb an almost 500-foot cliff before arriving at a fenced railway gate that led into the rear of the complex. They got there at 11:45 p.m. but had to wait for the guards to change shift, eventually cutting their way through the fence after midnight.

Once inside, the team split into two groups. Five commandos took covering positions outside the barracks, bridge, and main gate, while the other four entered the plant. Inside, they encountered only a Norwegian employee, who didn’t resist or raise the alarm.

Explosives were set in the target room, which was in the basement. The team evacuated and waited for the explosion. Because the room was so far underground and the walls were so thick, there was hardly any noise when the bombs went off, allowing the whole team to escape before the Germans found out what had happened.


Joachim Ronneberg Norway Gunnerside
Joachim Ronneberg, leader of Operation Gunnerside, at a ceremony in his honor in London, April 25, 2013. Ronneberg died in 2018.

The operation was a resounding success. The commandos destroyed the electrolysis cells and over 500 kg of heavy water. They managed to escape without firing a single shot or taking any casualties.

The Germans repaired the damage by May, but subsequent Allied air raids prevented full-scale production. Eventually, the Germans ceased all production of heavy water and tried to move the remaining supply to Germany.

In a last act of sabotage, a Norwegian team led by one of the Gunnerside commandos sank the ferry transporting the remaining heavy water on February 20, 1944, although at the cost of 14 Norwegian civilians.

The operations helped foil Germany’s nuclear ambitions, and the Nazis never built an atomic bomb or a nuclear reactor. Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies in early May 1945, two months before the US’s bigger and better-resourced Manhattan Project tested the first nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945.

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