World War II started in 1939 after Adolf Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland. The Nazis went on to seize much of Europe and then attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. A pivotal moment came in December that year when the Japanese launched an attack on Pearl Harbor – dragging the U.S. into the war. By 1945 the Allies had crushed Germany and bludgeoned Japan into surrender with two atomic bombs. But this protracted conflict that convulsed the world for six years has given rise to many bizarre and sometimes amazing myths. Read on to see a selection of them debunked.
20. Death Match
According to the Daily Mail, a famous British soccer manager – Scotsman Bill Shankly of Liverpool F.C. – once said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” We can take that quote with a pinch of salt, but during WWII there was an actual soccer match where the stakes were that high. Or was there?
The story goes that in August 1942 a Ukrainian team had a match with some German troops. The Nazis warned the Ukrainians that if they won, they would execute a number of the team members. The game ended five to three in the Ukrainians’ favor, and so they were killed. But it’s probably a tall tale; it is unlikely that the players were put to death. Most journalists and academics agree that, while the soccer match happened, the idea that the winners were executed is probably the product of Soviet propaganda.
19. Before Pearl Harbor, Americans had nothing to do with WWII
As we mentioned earlier, World War II started in September 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. France and Britain then retaliated by declaring war on the Nazis. But, history tells us, the U.S. played no part in the war until after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While it’s true that American soldiers had no official part to play before then, and the United States was indeed neutral, that’s not to say that there was no involvement whatsoever.
In fact, U.S. citizens were fighting the Nazis before Pearl Harbor. A number of them snuck over the border to Canada and trained with the Royal Canadian Air Force. From there, they volunteered as fighter pilots with Britain’s Royal Air Force – forming three so-called Eagle Squadrons. At least four had died in service before the official U.S entry into the war. And there was U.S. government involvement in the shape of the Lend-Lease program which started six months before Pearl Harbor. This offered a number of Allied nations oil, food and other supplies.
18. Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union: a pre-emptive strike?
There have been claims that when Hitler’s army rolled into Soviet territory in June 1941, the assault came because the Nazis believed that Stalin was about to attack Germany. At the time of the invasion, Germany and the Soviet Union were supposedly allies – bound together by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. This guaranteed that neither side would attack the other.
However, Hitler ignored the agreement when he ordered his forces to attack Soviet territory. A number of experts – such as former military intelligence agent Victor Suvorov – have said that the German attack pre-empted an imminent Soviet invasion westwards. But there is no real credible evidence that Stalin was about to launch an assault on Germany at that time. To be sure, most experts believe that the Soviets would have eventually invaded Germany. But Stalin was not prepared for war when Hitler attacked in the summer of 1941.
17. President Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance
This theory claims that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew ahead of time that the Japanese were about to launch their devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December, 7 1941. If so, you might well ask, why didn’t he tip off the U.S. Navy? Because, the narrative goes, he was so desperate to see the U.S. enter WWII that he allowed the attack go ahead.
So what is the evidence that Roosevelt involved himself in this dastardly plot, one that cost the lives of 2,403 Americans with another 1,178 wounded? The answer is that there is none – not a single shred. There have been no fewer than ten official inquiries about the Pearl Harbor attack. Not one of them found anything to suggest that Roosevelt knew what was coming and, what’s more, decided to keep quiet about it.
16. Britain planned to set the English Channel on fire to stop the Nazis
After the evacuation of the defeated British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940, the threat of a German invasion was all too real. But one thing in Britain’s favor was the very body of water her army had fled across – the 350-mile long English Channel that separates southern England from France. Even at its narrowest the Channel is 21 miles wide, and this provided a formidable obstacle for an amphibious operation.
The story goes that the British Petroleum Warfare Department – which really did exist – was ready to pump oil into the Channel and set it alight. The British secret service did indeed spread rumors that the Channel could be ignited, and captured German pilots had apparently heard the story. It was even said that an invasion attempt had been foiled by burning sea. But the British never seriously planned to set the Channel on fire, and the Nazis didn’t invade.
15. Poles on horseback attacked German tanks
This WWII myth is actually based on a real historic event on September 1, 1939: the Charge at Krojanty. That day was the very date that Germany invaded Poland in an unprovoked attack. The Poles, of course, fought back and the engagement at the village of Krojanty did indeed involve a charge by Polish cavalry of the 18th Pomeranian Uhlan Regiment.
However, theses brave men on horseback were not foolhardy enough to gallop towards German Panzer tanks. Their target was in fact a unit of German infantry which was resting in a forest clearing. The 250 Polish horsemen had the advantage of surprise and succeeded in putting the Nazis to flight. Unfortunately, German armored cars then appeared on the scene – killing or wounding about a third of the Polish cavalry and forcing a retreat.
14. Only Japanese-Americans were interned during WWII
It’s widely known that when the United States joined World War II after Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were singled out for special treatment. Around 120,000 of them were rounded up and sent to live in camps, with around 60 percent of that number actually holding American citizenship. The government deemed some states in particular – including California and Alaska – so important to America’s security that all people of Japanese descent were removed or forced into camps.
Some view the treatment of Japanese Americans during the conflict as a shameful episode in U.S. history. Indeed, in 1976 President Gerald Ford issued an apology for the detentions. But what is less well known is that it was not only the Japanese who fell foul of the national authorities. In Hawaii, Americans of Italian and German descent were interned. Around 11,000 German residents were interned in total in the U.S. Furthermore, around 600,000 Italian-Americans were classed as enemy aliens and subjected to restrictions on their liberty.
13. Hitler celebrated the fall of France with a dance
Having crushed Poland in 1939 and split the country in two with Stalin gobbling up the eastern half, Hitler next set his sights of France. He made his move in May 1940 – introducing the French to the highly mobile and aggressive blitzkrieg tactics. It had taken five weeks to subdue Poland, and it took just a week longer than that before France fell to the Nazis.
After his stunning victory, Hitler must have felt that he had every reason to celebrate. But a short clip of the Fuhrer apparently dancing with joy on hearing that France was defeated is in fact fake news. Actually, he was instead rather overwhelmed by his success and simply took a step back. But the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson doctored the film so that Hitler repeated his step, making it look like a childish jig. The Allied screened the clip repeatedly as anti-Hitler propaganda.
12. The Third Reich was highly efficient
Playing somewhat on national stereotypes, Germany under the rule of the Nazis has been portrayed as a single-minded nation of ruthless efficiency. After all, it took the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe just six weeks to defeat the British and the French armies in the invasion of France. However, although the Nazis were undoubtedly ruthless, were they really as methodical as they’ve been painted in popular myth?
Well, it turns out that the Nazis weren’t as efficient as is widely thought. The evidence comes from Albert Speer, a top Nazi who was in charge of German armament and munitions production. According to him, the country labored under an extravagant bureaucracy. For example, five different offices were supposed to be in charge of the wartime economy – leading to duplication and inefficiency. And let’s remember, ultimately the well-organized Nazis actually lost World War II and Germany was largely destroyed.
11. The Gestapo – or the British – killed Glenn Miller
During the war, big-band swing music was the soundtrack for the Americans and the British. And Glenn Miller was revered as a master of this genre with numerous hits such as “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Moonlight Serenade.” Too old for active service, Miller was a highly popular figure who turned his back on mainstream show business to join the war effort in 1942. He now dedicated his time and talent to playing for the armed forces.
In December 1944 Miller boarded a plane in England and then flew on to liberated Paris where he was to perform. But his flight disappeared somewhere over the English Channel and Miller was never heard from again. The presumably crashed plane was not discovered, and the mysterious death gave rise to two conspiracy theories. One had it that he’d been on a secret peace negotiation mission to Hitler but had been assassinated. The other had it that his plane was accidentally shot from the sky by the Royal Air Force. However, no convincing evidence exists to support either theory.
10. Lee Marvin fought beside Captain Kangaroo at Iwo Jima
This myth involves an unlikely duo: much-loved childrens’ T.V. star Captain Kangaroo – real name Bob Keeshan – and hard-bitten Hollywood actor Lee Marvin. The story says that the two men fought together in February and March 1945 at the intensely bitter battle to wrest the Pacific island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese. The tale of the two popular stars fighting together is apparently strengthened by the fact that both served with the U.S. Marine Corp.
But there are two good reasons why we can be completely confident that Keeshan and Marvin did not fight together at Iwo Jima. The first is that Keeshan enlisted with the Marines too late to see any World War II action at Iwo Jima or anywhere else. The second reason is that Marvin was seriously wounded at the Battle of Saipan in June 1944 and spent more than a year in hospital. So, he wasn’t at Iwo Jima either.
9. The German Army fought a clean war
Some have made a distinction between the conduct of the Wehrmacht, the conventional German army, and the likes of the Schutzstaffel (SS) in the former’s conduct during the conflict. The later organization is notorious for its crimes against humanity ranging from the full horror of the Holocaust to the murdering of villagers in reprisal attacks after partisan actions.
But the Wehrmacht, it was claimed, stood apart from the brutality of the SS. It’s a fine theory: the nobility of the ordinary soldier contrasting with the gratuitous cruelty of the dedicated Nazi. But it’s nonsense; in fact, this myth was created after the war by senior Wehrmacht officers. The truth is that, especially in the fighting in the Soviet Union, the German army was utterly merciless. The Soviets were regarded by the army as sub-human and ordinary soldiers certainly took part in countless civilian massacres.
8. The French Resistance liberated France
No one would call into question the raw courage of those French citizens who chose to resist the Nazis after France had fallen in 1940. If they were caught by the Germans, they would likely face torture and execution. And when the Allies landed in France on D-Day in 1944, the Resistance provided considerable help to the invading force. They sabotaged railway lines, harried German forces and provided valuable intelligence.
But the question is, to what extent could the Resistance take credit for liberating France form the Nazis? The French leader Charles de Gaulle was in no doubt – at least in his public utterances – that the Resistance deserved full credit for routing the Germans. However, he was gilding the lily for political purposes. Many historians believe that the resistance could not have freed France alone. That required the combined might of the Allied armies, navies and air forces.
7. The Nazis were close to having a nuclear weapon
There is no doubt that German scientists worked on the development of nuclear weapons. In fact, the research started in April 1939, but that first effort was halted just months later without success. A second attempt to harness nuclear fission into a usable weapon was then mounted from September 1939.
But as the war went on, the effort to develop nuclear weapons rather petered out, and scientists worked on other weapons projects. Notable among those were the V1 and V2 missiles that rained down on England and European targets in the latter stages of the war. But the Allies believed that the threat of Germany building its own atom bomb was very real. Thankfully, in the end this fear turned out not to be groundless.
6. The Soviets only beat the Nazis by force of numbers
After Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union – in the early summer of 1941, the Wehrmacht quickly drove the Red Army back hundreds of miles. By October, the German Army had penetrated to within less than 90 miles of Moscow, and by December some units were just 15 miles from the capital. At that point, the German forces outnumbered the Soviets, and the imminent collapse of the latter looked likely.
The fact that the Germans had greater numbers in the field is important because the myth is that the Nazis were only defeated by the sheer numbers of soldiers at Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s disposal. But that wasn’t the case at the Battle of Moscow. The Germans had some two million men in the field; the Soviets had only 1.4 million. Yet it was the Red Army that prevailed. And it went on to seize Berlin some four years later.
5. Japan attacked only Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941
The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 is so branded into the American psyche that other events of December 7 have been lost to view. But the fact is that the destruction and death at Pearl Harbor was not the only thing that the Asian power got up to on that day of infamy. In truth, Imperial Japan’s military was also heavily involved elsewhere.
Japanese forces assaulted several other targets on December 7, 1941 – notably including the Philippines. By May 1942 the American forces on the Philippines had been killed, captured, or forced to flee. Also on that December day, Japan attacked Thailand, Malaya, Guam and Wake Island. The Pearl Harbor bombing has lived on in American memories, but it was by no means the only place to suffer Japanese aggression on December 7.
4. The Nazi gold train
When the whole Nazi edifice began to collapse as the Allies fought their way across Europe towards the German capital of Berlin, chaos prevailed. While they had held sway over Europe, Hitler’s henchmen had not hesitated in looting whatever they could. Their booty ranged from old masterpieces to priceless religious icons and gold bullion.
This myth involves an armored train which is said to have pulled out of Wrocław in Poland. The railway cars were apparently leaded with treasure: including a massive horde of gold. The train is supposed to have traveled to a complex of tunnels beneath Poland’s Owl Mountains. Unsurprisingly, many people have unsuccessfully searched for this phantom treasure train over the years. And most historians believe the Nazi gold train never really existed except in legend.
3. Huge G.I. auto dump in Belgium
This myth has become something of an internet meme and one you might even have stumbled across. It usually involves a photograph of a huge heap of rusting and derelict vintage automobiles piled up in a forest. The location is generally identified as Belgium and the story that goes with it actually has a surprisingly convincing air of plausibility. The cars were supposedly left there by G.I.s stationed in Europe soon after the end of World War II.
The American soldiers had bought themselves automobiles while serving in Belgium. But when it came time to return home they hadn’t been able to afford the costs involved in shipping these cars home. So, they simply abandoned them in the woods. The vehicles were, in fact, dumped there by a Belgian repair shop owner. And the repair guy did fix cars for foreign troops, but they were Canadian – not American.
2. Nazi war criminals all faced justice
Famously, top Nazis – those who had not been killed or committed suicide – were called to account for their barbaric war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials after WWII had ended. Several senior Nazi leaders were sentenced to death by hanging, while others received lengthy prison terms including life sentences. The number of defendants at Nuremberg was 199 and of those 37 were handed a death sentence.
Including all war crimes trials, 6,945 Nazis faced justice. But many other Nazis got off Scot free and many fled to South America. Speaking to CNN in 2018, historian Mary Fulbrook of University College London pointed out that of the estimated 200,000 Nazi war criminals, only a tiny proportion ever faced justice. She said, “The vast majority of perpetrators got away with it.” Fulbrook also explained that, “… In the interest of the Cold War and fighting communism, there was a move to rehabilitate former Nazis and a general climate of amnesty.”
1. The Japanese were natural-born jungle warriors
The odd idea that Japanese soldiers were somehow superior when it came to jungle warfare can partially be attributed to some of the early success that the Imperial Army enjoyed. The ease with which they seized the British colonial territory of Singapore after tearing through the Malay Peninsula probably played a large part in the creation of this myth.
But that victory came about mainly because the British were convinced the Japanese would attack from the sea and configured their forces with that in mind. Instead, The Japanese took the fortress city from the rear, having pushed their way through the jungle. But the truth is that Japan is host to no more tropical jungle than the U.K. is. The Japanese may have fielded many experienced and well-trained soldiers but they had no gene that made them accomplished jungle fighters.