Tag Archives: World War II

The Ghost Blimp

An L-8 blimp.

An L-8 blimp.

Ghost ships have been a facet of history since humans first began to explore the world’s vast oceans.  Vehicles lost under mysterious circumstances, ghost ships evoke a sense of mystery and loss. One such lonely vessel haunted the Arctic for decades, before being lost to the endlessly churning icebergs. There are hundreds of similar stories, ships and crews lost to the enigmatic waters.

But ships are not the only vehicles that can become ghosts. One of the strangest stories of ghostly vehicles comes out of World War II.  Blimps were used for a variety of purposes during the war, from reconnaissance to anti-submarine patrols to protection from dive bombers.  They were useful because they could hover in place for long time periods and could also fly for long distances without needing to refuel.

In 1942, one such blimp, an L-8, went on a patrol off the California coast, never to return. What happened to the blimp, and her crew, remains an enduring mystery to this day.


A foggy morning

The morning of Sunday, August 16, 1942 was a foggy one. When the Navy blimp was set to take off from Treasure Island, her crew was reduced from three to two, owing to the increased weight caused by the mist that had settled on the skin of the balloon. So, Lt. Ernest DeWitt Cody, the pilot, and Ensign Charles E. Adams took off that day, while Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class James Riley Hill remained on the ground. The decision would save Hill’s life.

When the L-8 took off on its anti-submarine patrol, everything seemed normal. An hour and a half into the flight, Lt. Cody radioed back to base saying that they had seen a possible oil slick that warranted investigation. No further communications were heard from the doomed blimp.

At 11:15, witnesses saw the blimp floating in from the ocean, near San Francisco. The blimp drifted further to Daly City, where it was losing altitude. It hit a bluff, and dropped a depth charge on a golf course. It hit roofs and a car before settling down on Bellevue Avenue. When rescuers rushed to assist the stricken crew, they found the cabin empty.


An enduring mystery

Investigators found that the life raft and parachutes were still in the cabin. The life jackets were missing. For some unknown reason, the pilot had set the motor to idle, and propped open the door. The radio still worked, so there was a mystery as to why, if something went wrong, the pair didn’t call for help. Some believed that they were captured by an enemy submarine. Others believed the crew got into some sort of fight and fell out of blimp. Still another story was that one member of the crew fell and accidentally pulled his would be rescuer down into the ocean.

Whatever the case, neither man was ever found, and they were officially declared dead. The blimp continued to serve in the Navy as a training vessel. After the war, it was returned to Goodyear, where it was put into storage before eventually being rebuilt in 1968 as one of the famous Goodyear Blimps, where it flew over Houston, Texas until it was retired in 1982.



Levy, Joan, “Daly City’s ‘Ghost Blimp’ remains mystery.” Archives.smdailyjournal.com. December 19, 2005. The Daily Journal. January 17, 2016. http://archives.smdailyjournal.com/article_preview.php?id=52401

Price, Mark J. “’Ghost’ blimp mystery lingers.” Chron.com. August 18, 2002. The Chronicle. January 17, 2016. http://www.chron.com/news/nation-world/article/Ghost-blimp-mystery-lingers-2106611.php


Estrogen, Espionage, and The Plot to Turn Hitler Into a Woman

"Adolf Hitler-1933" by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons -

“Adolf Hitler-1933” by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons –

In the struggle against Nazi Germany, the Allies pursued any idea that seemed like it would give them an edge over their enemy, no matter how ludicrous it might have seemed. Of particular interest was any plan that would eliminate Adolf Hitler. Allied planners believed—rightly so—that killing or incapacitating Hitler would be a blow that Nazi Germany could not recover from.

However, killing the dictator of a highly militarized and paranoid society would not be an easy task. So some plans focused more on embarrassing and discrediting the Nazi leader. Most of this took the form of propaganda, but the most bizarre was the plot concocted by the British OSS (the Office of Strategic Services) to feminize Hitler by slipping estrogen into his food.

Research on sex hormones was in its infancy, but estrogen was already in use in London as a part of sex therapy. The thought was that estrogen would curb Hitler’s aggressive tendencies, and make him more like his sister, Paula, who was a mild-mannered secretary. There was also some among the Allies who questioned the dictator’s sexuality, and thought that changing his hormonal profile would swing him more toward homosexuality. This was partially due to the rumor, since debunked, that one of his testicles was blown off during his service in World War I. At the very least, planners hoped that the hormones might cause his voice to increase in pitch, perhaps making him a laughing stock in his own country.

The reason why the estrogen would be introduced into Hitler’s food was because there were spies in British employ who could have access to the dictator’s meals. Hitler employed food testers, so a lethal poison could be easily discovered, but estrogen is tasteless and its effect would be gradual enough to slip under the radar.

Even in its day, this plan was considered a long shot. There is no real evidence that steps were taken to implement it.  This was far from the only strange plot considered during Word War II, but it is perhaps the oddest.






The World’s First Intercontinental Bombers–The Japanese Balloon Bombs

Japanese_fire_balloon_MoffettAfter the terrible suffering inflicted by World War II, America emerged as one of the world’s two superpowers. Much of America’s success after the war lay in the fact that it emerged from the conflagration with its homeland mostly unscathed, However, this was not due to a lack of effort on the part of her adversaries.

We have already  covered Hitler’s secret submarine attack on the East Coast, and the Nazi’s plans to construct a suborbital intercontinental bomber. But for all of the German technological know-how, it was the Japanese who were able to reach across the vast ocean and bomb the American homeland from the air. They utilized a surprisingly low tech solution to the problem–they used balloons, thousands of them, mounted with incendiaries and anti-personnel bombs. Pushed along by invisible air currents far above the surface, these dastardly weapons were intended to cause chaos and confusion, disrupting the American war effort and giving Japan much needed breathing room.


Project Fugo

In 1944, the Japanese were desperate to find a way to take the fight to America. Three years after waking the sleeping giant with the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese were on the ropes. Her navy destroyed, her armies routed, and her homeland threatened, Japan needed a way to relieve some of the pressure from the relentless American war machine. For hope, they looked to the skies.

Earlier in the war, Japanese scientists had mapped atmospheric air currents by launching weather balloons laden with measuring instruments from the west side of Japan and recovering them on the east side. These tests revealed a strong current of air blowing across the Pacific at 30,000 feet.

As the war lurched toward its conclusion, they put this meteorological knowledge to good use in a project called Fugo. The plan called for the construction of thousands of light weight paper balloons, which were outfitted with incendiary devices and anti-personnel bombs linked with intricate triggering mechanisms. They would be released into the jet stream and hopefully drift over the United States before dropping their payloads. The designers hoped their weapons would cause huge forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, causing panic and disrupting the war effort.

For the most part, the bombs were ineffective. Of the 9,000 or so of the weapons launched, only about an estimated 1,000 made it the America. Most were lost in the ocean, or fell to the earth without detonating. Tragically, one of these devious devices was all too effective.


May 5, 1945

Near Klamath Falls, in Oregon, a Sunday school teacher named Elyse Mitchell, who was pregnant, and her husband Reverend Archie Mitchell were driving five teenaged students to a Saturday afternoon picnic. When Elyse started to feel sick, the Reverend pulled over the sedan and everyone piled out. The Reverend struck up a conversation with  a construction crew about fishing, while Elyse and the students walked away. They’d wandered about 100 yards when Elyse called out to her husband, “Look what I found, dear,” They would be her last words.

An explosion ripped through the quiet afternoon air. When the Reverend and the construction crew reached the site of the blast, Elyse and the five students were dead or dying, their bodies strewn around a one foot gouge in the ground.

These unfortunate six were the only known casualties caused by Project Fugo. Other bombs caused minor structural damage, and one lucky hit temporarily blacked out a nuclear weapons plant in Hanford, Washington. Most did nothing more than leave a hole in the ground and cause a bit of fright and confusion. Project Fugo ended soon after it began, when American bombing destroyed the hydrogen plants the provided the lighter than air gas necessary to create the balloons. Besides that, the Japanese military was skeptical of the weapon system’s effectiveness, and thought the precious hydrogen resources could be better used elsewhere.

For as simple as these weapons were, their relative effectiveness was impressive. The fact that a fragile paper balloon could make the trek across the Pacific Ocean intact was amazing in and of itself. Some of the weapons penetrated as far as northern Michigan. Now and then, a forester or a road crew will find a device from Project Fugo lodged in the ground, still lethal remnants of a bygone era that are typically detonated in place.







The Night Witches

A Polikarov PO-2, similar to the planes flown by the 588th, better known as the Night Witches. "Po-2" by Douzeff - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

A Polikarov PO-2, similar to the planes flown by the 588th, better known as the Night Witches. “Po-2” by Douzeff – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

World War II was a titanic struggle of ideologies, one of the darkest times in human history. While most Americans are fairly well aware of America’s role in the massive conflict, few are as aware of the nature of the struggle between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. This is perhaps because, soon after the war ended, the iron curtain fell and the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union began.

The fight between the two totalitarian states was not merely a war–it was an existential struggle between ideologies, driven by mutual hatred and the massive egos of their iron-fisted rulers. This fight would eventually encompass soldiers and civilians alike, both men and women. This was especially true of Soviet Russia, who suffered horrifically during the Nazi invasion. The strain was so great that, unlike other combatants, the Soviets called upon women to fight on the front lines of the war. The most feared of these women warriors were the pilots of the 588th Bomber regiment, who became known among Nazi troops by a fearsome moniker–the Night Witches.


Russia’s Darkest Hour

In 1941, Hitler ordered his Wehrmacht to launch Operation Barbarossa, the full scale invasion of the Soviet Union. Technologically inferior and caught by surprise, the Red Army was shoved back on all fronts, suffering horrific losses.

The slaughter continued into 1942, when Radio Moscow made a strange and surprising announcement, calling for young female pilots from all over the Soviet empire to come do their part against the onslaught. Women from the far reaches of the Soviet Union made their way across vast distances, craving revenge against the German aggressor. Most of them were pilots from local flying clubs with no combat experience. These raw troops were as ill-equipped as any other Soviet unit. They given hand-me-down uniforms from male soldiers and expected to fly slow, rickety, wood and canvas biplanes–PO-2s, crop dusters outfitted with light machine guns and racks for bombs–against the most advanced army in the world.


Flight of the Night Witches

While on the surface this seemed a move of utmost desperation, there was a cunning reason to use PO-2 cropdusters as weapons–their top speed was slower than the stall speed of the German Messerschmidts, making them extremely difficult for fighter squadrons to shoot down. The planes could be fitted with noise dampeners to make their approach nearly silent, perfect for the night raids the Night Witches–so named because the sound of their wings resembled the sound of a witch’s broom to Wehrmacht soldiers–were expected to conduct against Nazi positions.

There was a distinct downside to the light planes, however–tracer rounds from anti-aircraft fire could easily light them on fire, meaning almost certain death to the pilots, who were provided no safety gear whatsoever. Despite these limitations, the pilots were expected to continually harass the Wehrmacht, flying an average of eight missions a night over four years of war. The women of the 588th flew in three groups; two using their light maneuverable planes to draw enemy fire, while the third dropped their bombs. When the raid concluded, the surviving flyers returned to base, refuel and rearm, and then return to battle.

The Night Witches in their work, the Luftwaffe promised an Iron Cross to any fighter pilot who managed to shoot down one of them. They gave no respite to their hated enemies throughout the remainder of the war, earning a place among the greatest warriors in history. It is a shame, then, that their contributions to the war have been largely overlooked outside of Russia.



Fitzgerald, Nora. “Night witches: Russian women pilots the Nazis feared.” telegraph.co.uk. July 1, 2011. The Telegraph. April 26, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/rbth/features/8610709/Russian-women-pilots-the-Nazis-feared.html

Martin, Douglas. “Nadezhda Popova, WWII ‘Night Witch,’ Dies at 91.” nytimes.com. July 14, 2013. The New York Times. April 26, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/15/world/europe/nadezhda-popova-ww-ii-night-witch-dies-at-91.html?_r=0

Noggle, Anne and White, Christine A. “A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II.” Texas A&M University Press, 2001. pgs 18-23


Howard Hughes’ “Flying Lumberyard”–The Spruce Goose

H-4_Hercules_2In 1942, the outlook seemed grim for the Allies. Continental Europe had fallen to the Nazi onslaught, leaving England to stand against the forces of Fascism alone. In the East, Soviet forces buckled under the brutal weight of the largest land invasion in history, Operation Barbarossa. For her part, America was beginning operations against Japan, still reeling from the surprise attack in Pearl Harbor and the less well known Nazi U-boat attacks on the East Coast.

During these desperate times, Allied planners were willing to consider any scheme that might confer an advantage, no matter how ludicrous it might seem in retrospect. One such plan was dubbed Project Habbakuk, which involved a no less ambitious scheme than building a floating island of ice to act as an aircraft carrier impervious to assault from German U-boats.

Habbakuk barely made it off the drawing board, but one audacious plan meant to circumvent German U-boats made it much further than designer blue prints. U-boats were creating havoc among Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Henry J. Kaiser, a steelmaker who conceived of the Liberty ships, the very ships being torn to shreds by Nazi subs, hit on the idea for an utterly massive transport plane. Weighing in at 400,000 pounds and sporting a titanic 320 foot wingspan, the plane would be larger than anything the world had ever seen fly up to that point. It would be a flying boat, capable of transporting 700 troops, constructed entirely of wood. The last point was a stipulation of the US government, who wanted the planes to be built out of materials deemed non-essential for the war effort.

The task of designing the mammoth machine fell to the brilliant but eccentric aviation designer and entrepreneur, Howard Hughes. Working with a small team, Hughes threw himself into designing and building the plane, which was designated the HK-1, even as controversy surrounded the funding of the project. A Senator dubbed the machine a “flying lumberyard,” from which its more common nickname “the Spruce Goose” later arose (it was actually constructed from birch.)

Hughes himself was part of the controversy. He constantly meddled with the design of the craft, obsessed with making it perfect. His perfectionism resulted in delays. By 1944, the monstrous plane was still not finished, and the outcome of the war was almost a foregone conclusion. At the very  least, the original reason for building the HK-1 in the first place was gone, as better tactics and aircraft technology allowed the Allies to beat back the submarine menace. Henry Kaiser backed out of the project at this point, not wanting his name associated with the controversial contraption. Hughes re-dubbed the machine the H-4 and continued work on the project without Kaiser’s backing.  Meanwhile, the myriad delays caused by Hughes’ perfectionism led to a Senate committee to look into the project.

Finally, five years after being commissioned, the Spruce Goose was completed in 1947. The government’s price tag was $22 million, with an additional $18 million coming out of Hughes’ own pockets. On November 2, 1947, Hughes, a small crew of his staff, and journalists from various media outlets climbed aboard the massive plane for a taxi test in Los Angeles Harbor. Hughes took the pilots seat, and fired up the plane’s 8 engines. Whether on purpose or other wise, what was announced as a taxi test became the Spruce Goose’s first and only flight. Hughes gunned the engines and the huge craft lifted off the surface of the harbor, wowing onlookers assembled on the shore. The Spruce Goose lifted some 33 feet off the surface of the water and reached a speed of 80 mph before Hughes set her down a mile from the point of take off. Hughes was coy as to whether the flight was on purpose–some speculated it might have been accidental–but it’s at least possible he did the flight on purpose to see whether all his time, effort, and money had paid off.

The Spruce Goose was returned to its special hangar, where it would remain for decades. Hughes ordered the engines to be fired up every month, indicating that he possibly toyed with the idea of continuing work on the project or perhaps taking the massive plane out for another spin. However, the Spruce Goose never flew again. Hughes died in 1976.

The Spruce Goose itself has long outlived its creator. The massive plane has moved from owner to owner after Hughes’ death. It currently resides at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, where it continues to wow visitors with its massive size and radical design.



Neely, Mike. “Hughes HK-1 (H-4) ‘Spruce Goose’” TheAviationZone.com. The Aviation Zone. January 31, 2015. http://www.theaviationzone.com/factsheets/hk1.asp


Patterson, Thom. “Museum: Iconic Spruce Goose is safe.” CNN.com. January 20, 2014. CNN. January 31, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/20/travel/spruce-goose-museum/


“The Spruce Goose.” Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. January 31, 2015. http://evergreenmuseum.org/the-museum/aircraft-exhibits/the-spruce-goose/




The Mystery of the Amber Room

The modern reconstruction of the Amber Room.

The modern reconstruction of the Amber Room.

While the Nazis stormed across Europe, their storm troopers raided museums and art galleries, stealing priceless works of art to be taken back to their fatherland to celebrate the greatness of the German Third Reich. Looting during war is nothing new of course; since time immemorial, the victors have stolen valuables from those they’ve defeated. Point of fact, a good argument can be made that theft of land and resources is the point of most wars in the first place. However, the Nazi’s looting was on a massive scale, and most notable for the priceless artworks that were stolen.

Nothing stolen in Western Europe was as precious as the Amber Room. Constructed in the 18th century in Prussia, part of Germany, for the King of Prussia Friedrich I, the room consisted of panels built of amber, backed with gold leaf, and encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones. The opulent room caught the eye of Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, on a visit to Prussia in 1716. Frederick William I, then King of Prussia, gave the Czar the room as a gift, a symbol of Prussian-Russian friendship.

The panels were packed into 18 large boxes and shipped to Russia. They were initially installed in the Winter House in St. Petersburg. There they remained until 1755, when Czarina Elizabeth ordered them moved to the Catherine Palace in Tsarkoye Selo (the Czar’s Village.) The room was renovated by an Italian designer named Bartolomeo Francesco Rastreilli, who used additional amber from Berlin to expand the room in a larger space. These final renovations expanded the Amber Room to cover 180 square feet. Altogether, the work utilized approximately six tons of amber and semi-precious stones. The beautiful room served alternatively as a meditation chamber, a banquet hall, a trophy space, and a museum.

Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, dubbed Operation Barbarossa, to begin on June 22, 1941. It was an unprecedented military maneuver, both in scale and savagery. Three million Germans streamed into the Soviet Union, shoving back Soviet forces and looting as they went, stealing thousands upon thousands of treasures even as they slaughtered millions and millions of Soviet citizens.

For their part, the Nazis coveted the Amber Room, believing it was made by Germans, for Germans (the work was actually a collaboration between Dutch and German artisans.) Knowing that the Germans would steal the priceless panels, officials at the Catherine Palace on the outskirts of Leningrad (previously known as St. Petersburg) tried to hide them, but found that the amber was beginning to crumble. Instead, the officials put up wallpaper, hoping to disguise the priceless artifact as an ordinary room.

The trick failed. German soldiers tore down the Amber Room within 36 hours. It was packed into 27 crates and shipped to Konigsberg, where it was installed in the Konisberg castle museum, where it remained for the next two years. In late 1943, the room was once again crated up and tucked away. In August 1944, the Allies bombed Konigsberg into the ground, leaving the castle as a heap of ruins. The Amber Room disappeared in the chaos of bombings and the destruction that swept over Germany in the final year of the war. Since then, the priceless work has been lost to history.

Since the chaotic final years of the war, various theories have cropped up seeking to explain what happened to the Amber Room. They range from the obvious to tin-hat level conspiracy. The simplest, most obvious, and therefore most plausible explanation is that the Amber Room was destroyed in during the bombings that leveled Konigsberg in 1944. Given the level of destruction unleashed by the bombings, this explanation certainly makes sense. But others aren’t satisfied to let the mystery end there. Some claim the treasure was hidden somewhere in Konigsberg (now known as Kaliningrad), remaining to be found. Others believe it was loaded on a ship, which was promptly sunk, and now resides somewhere on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Another theory holds that the treasure was shipped to Austria, where it was sunk to the bottom of Toplitz Lake, which is believed to hold other Nazi treasures that were hastily hidden when the war’s endgame became apparent. The most extreme theory veers into the realm of conspiracy. It claims that Stalin had foreseen the German’s desire for the Amber Room and had a dummy version constructed, while the real Amber Room was safely carted away to the Soviet interior.

No one knows for sure. Bits of amber claiming to be from the Amber Room do appear from time to time, but they are difficult to substantiate as legitimate. Cases are still working their way through German courts regarding pieces that owners claim are part of the lost room. It is no wonder though that the mystery of the Amber Room has so intrigued the imagination for the 60+ years since it disappeared. The work is estimated to be worth $142 million in today’s money, an amount that makes any intrepid treasure hunter tempted to take a crack at finding the lost treasure.

For its part, the Soviet Union gave up looking for the lost room in 1979, opting instead to simply rebuild it. This proved to be a tall order, as many of the skills utilized in its construction had to be rediscovered. These included methods for carving and dyeing amber. The project took 25 years and $11 million to complete. Upon completion, the room was dedicated by President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Shroder, becoming once again a symbol of peace between two nations. The replica can be seen at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. As for the original? More likely than not, no one will ever know for sure. The mystery will remain.



“Amber Room hunt makes lake the Tsar Attraction.” Scotsman.com. April 15, 2006. The Scotsman. November 4, 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/news/world/amber-room-hunt-makes-lake-the-tsar-attraction-1-1411018


Blumberg, Jess. “A Brief History of the Amber Room.” Smithsonianmag.com. July 31, 2007. Smithsonian.com. November 4, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-amber-room-160940121/?all&no-ist


Varoli, John. “Amber Room, Lost to War, Is Recreated.” NYTimes.com. January 23, 2000. The New York Times. November 4, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/23/arts/art-architecture-amber-room-lost-to-war-is-recreated.html?src=pm&pagewanted=1



A Mad Man in the Night: The Halifax Slasher

Modern day Halifax "Halifax 310805". Via Wikimedia Commons -

Modern day Halifax
“Halifax 310805”. Via Wikimedia Commons –

The city of Halifax, England was tormented for nine days in November and early December 1939 by a razor wielding maniac. The marauder lurked among the shadows of the factory town, lunging out at unsuspecting passersby to slash them with his blade before disappearing without a trace.

At the height of the incident, police received so many calls from victims of the madman that they believed there could be as many as three slashers at large on the streets of Halifax. But when the panic from Halifax began to spread to other towns and cities, as far away as London, the theory that the mayhem was the work of a single madman began to stretch credibility. Clearly, something else was at work. As we will see, the real truth behind the strange happenings in Halifax are stranger than even the motives of a rogue with a razor who got his jollies slashing women’s clothes.


A reign of terror begins

The evening of November 16 was like any other for Gertie Watts and Mary Gledhill. Mill workers, the pair were walking home, no doubt looking forward to an evening of relaxation. But the night had other plans. The next time anyone laid eyes on them, the pair were frantically knocking on the door of a nearby house, blood running down their faces from cuts on their heads. They told the Good Samaritans inside a strange story about a man who appeared out of the shadows and slashed them before disappearing as quick as he came.

The no doubt shaken residents called the police. A quick investigation revealed no physical evidence, other than the cuts, of any attacker. The local paper, the Halifax Courier, ran the strange story the next day.

Five days later the mysterious attacker reared his head again. Mary Sutcliffe was attacked on her way home from her job at Mackintosh’s Queen’s Road factory. She pushed her attacker away, but after the altercation she found a cut on her wrist, which she thought might have come from a razor. While she was able to describe her attacker, it did little good for the police who rushed to investigate the incident. They could find no trace of the attacker, as if he had disappeared back into the shadows that gave him life.

On the 24th, a man named Clayton Aspinall fell under the madman’s razor. Again, the assailant could not be located by the police. The Halifax Courier reported on the attack the next day. Police offered a $10 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the Halifax Slasher.

The odd series of events took a new dimension on November 25, when Hilda Lodge reported being attacked on her way to buy vinegar from a shop near her home. This time, word of the attack spread quickly and a large crowd gathered, eager to take a pound of flesh out of the mysterious slasher. As the crowd worked itself into a frenzy, it turned on one of their own. A man by the name of Clifford Edwards was denounced as the Halifax Slasher. Although the reasons for the accusation remain unclear, the danger to Mr. Edwards was very real. Surrounded by an angry crowd, the innocent man was in serious danger of being lynched right then and there. Luckily, police were able to rescue him before the worst happened. He was escorted home, and his role in the story ended there.

Two nights later, another attack occurred not far from where Hilda Lodge’s home. The victim this time was a nineteen year old woman named Beatrice Sorrell. She appeared at the fire station on Gibbet’s Street with a cut in her sweater sleeve and two shallow wounds in her arm. Oddly calm for a woman who had just confronted a madman, she reported to the flummoxed firemen that a man had jumped out of a dark yard as she was passing buy and attacked her. Another mob gathered, eager to track down the slasher. But, par for the course by this point, neither they nor the police could find any evidence. Despite the show of force, the slasher struck three more times that night.

The next reported attack was out of character for the Slasher because it happened in the morning. The morning of the 28th, Constance Wood was standing by her front gate when a man in a rain coat ran by. He happened to bump into her, knocking her to the ground. She felt a pain in her left arm, and found two small scratches on her arm and a tear in her sweater. She raised the alarm and another mob descended on the scene, hunting for tall men in rain coats. By this point, the results of their search were predictable: they found nothing.


The Slasher changes address

By November 30th, police in Halifax were swamped. The sheer volume of attacks suggested that there might be as many as three slashers at work in the city. Mobs armed with canes, clubs, and just about anything else that could be used to brain someone roved the streets on the hunt for the elusive madman. Put short, the city was in a panic and it was too much for the local authorities to deal with. So the overwrought police department turned to the famous Scotland Yard for help with the case.

Meanwhile, the slasher changed address. Thirty-five miles from Halifax, eighteen year old Winifred Walshe reported that the madman attacked her in her backyard, leaving her with a five inch gash on her left arm. Not long after the Walshe attack, he struck again in Manchester, slashing a fourteen year old four times on the arms after leaping out at her from a dark corner. Another attack occurred in Lancanshire, fifty miles from Halifax.

The most dramatic of the Slasher’s exploits outside of Halifax came from Brentford, five miles outside of London. Marjory Maple, fourteen, staggered into a candy shop, blood dripping from a dozen cuts on her arms.

Taking the attacks in Halifax and those outside together, the Slasher had been responsible for eighteen attacks in eight days. Police in the towns outside Halifax were on the watch for accomplices or imitators which they believed were responsible for the attacks.

Back in Halifax, police deputized eighty citizens. Private citizens cruised the town looking for any suspicious activity, and local stores sold out of canes, bats, and anything else that could be used as a weapon. Halifax was under siege by the invisible attacker, and on the verge of a complete panic.


Confessions roll out, and the panic ends

However, in the first week of December, reports of Slasher attacks took a nose dive. As quickly as it had began, the panic ended. Mostly, this was brought about by a series of shocking confessions from the victims of the Slasher. Many came forward and said that they were not attacked. Worse, many confessed that they faked their wounds.

Hilda Lodge was among the fakers. Her wounds came not from a madman with a razor but rather nothing more threatening than a broken vinegar bottle.

Beatrice Sorrell used a razor to slash her coat sleeve and then she cut her arm until the blood flowed freely. She did the stunt because she was upset with her boyfriend. She had read the reports of the slasher in the paper, and imitated the attacks for the attention.

As for the fourteen year old in Manchester who suffered the five inch gash in her arm? It was caused by a madman with a razor, but rather she suffered the injury in an accident.

However, not all of the “victims’ were fakers. Constance Wood, who was knocked down outside her gate by a running man in a raincoat, genuinely believed that she had been attacked. Her wounds, two small scratches and a tear in her sweater, probably came from falling to the ground. But she and her neighbors were in such a state of paranoia–fueled by the newspaper reports of the slasher and the general panic in the town–that they believed a Slasher attack was inevitable. So, when Constance Wood had a run in with what, under normal circumstances, would have just been a very rude man, she interpreted it as an attack by the madman and perceived her injuries accordingly.



By the end of the panic, police logged between 200 and 400 reports related to the Halifax Slasher. Eighty men were deputized to help investigate the huge influx of reports, while hundreds more took to the streets on their own to hunt down the elusive attacker.

The vigilante mood among the general public made the police’s work that much harder. On at least two occasions, the police had to save a man denounced as the slasher from mobs intent on lynching them.

Once it became clear that there was no attacker, the police turned their attention to the alleged “victims” themselves. In January, 1939, three young women and a young man were convicted of malicious mischief and sentenced to a month in jail for their fake reports. One of the youths sentenced was none other than Beatrice Sorrell, who made her report in a fit of pique against her boyfriend. Hilda Lodge also received a four week sentence for her false report.

If there was not a real attacker on the loose in Halifax, what happened? The first impulse is to label it mass hysteria and call it a day, but the case doesn’t fit the parameters of a mass hysteria outbreak. Most damning for the case of calling it mass hysteria is the fact that there were no reports of illness. Mass hysteria is an outbreak of usually short-lived symptoms with no biological basis. Victims didn’t reports being ill; they reported being attacked. It might seem like a quibbling distinction since there was no real attacker, but it is an important one.

Hitler and his idol, Mussolini. Hitler's saber rattling and the memories of WWI may have been part of the stressors that caused the Halifax Slasher incident.

Hitler and his idol, Mussolini. Hitler’s saber rattling and the memories of WWI may have been part of the stressors that caused the Halifax Slasher incident.

Rather than mass hysteria, the Halifax Slasher case should be classified as a collective delusion. Although it was not truly an outbreak of a conversion disorder, the panic in Halifax had similar stresses underpinning it. The victims were mostly low class women who lived in poverty, working grueling factory jobs. Adding to the stress was the grim news from Europe of German expansionism under the iron hand of Adolf Hitler. Talk of potential war with the German strongman was on a lot of lips. After the horrors of World War I, another massive war was not a pleasant prospect in the least.

So the backdrop against which the victims lived was ripe for an outbreak of mass hysteria or collective delusion. But why did it take the form of a madman with a razor as opposed to, say, poison gas? While it can be hard to tell for certain, in the immediate aftermath of the panic there was speculation that the initial attack that started the panic was genuine, and that all of the others after that were simply a result of panic at the prospect of being attacked.

It is an intriguing possibility, and it sounds plausible. Oftentimes panics and hysteria radiate out from an index case who suffers genuine symptoms of a disease. Or, in this case, a genuine attack. However, police at the time found no evidence for any attacker. The only witnesses were the victims themselves. In the absence of any corroborating evidence, the first attacker hypothesis remains just that, a hypothesis.

If there was a real-life Halifax Slasher who started the trouble that followed that cold November night, he never showed his face again. After the nine days of panic in 1938, no other reports of a mad phantom with a razor blade came out of Halifax.



Bartholomew, Robert E. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, And Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2001. pgs 15-16

The Associated Press. “British Put Three Girls in Jail for ‘Slasher’ Stories.” St. Petersburg Times. January 24, 1939

The Associated Press. “England’s Phantom Slasher Just a Fake.” St. Petersburg Times. December 15, 1939

The Associated Press. “Scotland Yard Thinks ‘Slasher’ is Phantom; New Tales of Attacks.” The Lewiston Daily Sun. December 1, 1938

The Associated Press. “Shadow Slasher Stalks Women in Another Town.” The Milawukee Journal. November 29, 1938

Glover, David. “Terror Reign of Halifax ‘Slasher.’” Halifax Courier. April 24, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.halifaxcourier.co.uk/news/nostalgia/terror-reign-of-halifax-slasher-1-5607760



Paul Ogorzow–The S-Bahn Murderer

A Type 477 train, used during the war. Ogorzow likely accosted and killed his victims on similar trains. "S-Bahn Berlin Baureihe 477" by Michael Dittrich - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A Type 477 train, used during the war. Ogorzow likely accosted and killed his victims on similar trains.
“S-Bahn Berlin Baureihe 477” by Michael Dittrich – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, the Nazis are seen as the epitome of evil. No other regime in history, save for maybe Stalin’s, are as reviled. It is easy to forget then that normal people continued to live their lives in the iron grip of Nazi power. Average Germans worked, went to school, got married, and traveled. Trains were a popular means of transportation at the time. Quick, safe, and relatively inexpensive, they were favorites especially for city dwellers.

If average Germans lived their lives, so to did the criminal element who preyed on them. Again, this is something that is often forgotten about the Nazi regime; criminals though they were, they had to deal with crime among their own people. One often forgotten case sheds light on daily life under the Nazi regime, and shows just how much their ideology warped their view of the world. Paul Ogorzow was a serial killer who preyed on women riding trains in the eastern districts of Germany. He came to be known to history as the S-Bahn Murderer.


Gruesome killings

The citizens of Berlin in 1940 were living with rationing, nightly blackouts, and the first regular Allied bombing raids. To add to their plight, the bodies of women who had suffered horrific abuse began to appear. Gerda Ditter’s body appeared in October, strangled and stabbed to death. In November, another young woman was thrown from a moving train. And on December 4, two more bodies were found, thrown from a moving train. One woman survived, the other didn’t.

On December 22, the body of Elisabeth Bungener was found with a fractured skull close to the railroad tracks. A week later, the body of another woman who suffered a fractured skull was found near the tracks. Another body was found in January 1941. After that, the killer disappeared for five weeks. Then on February 11 Johanna Voigt’s body was discovered, also with a fractured skull. The final victim, Frieda Koziol, was found five months later in July.


The hunt for a killer

While the infamous S-Bahn Murderer was on his rampage, he was being pursued by the Kriminalpolizei (aka ‘Kripo’), Berlin’s serious crime unit. But they had a tough row to hoe. Their biggest antagonist wasn’t the S-Bahn murderer, but the blackout. The killer’s victims weren’t the only bodies that appeared around the railroad tracks; in fact, in December of 1940 alone there were 28 deaths attributed to accidents on the railway. These were direct results of the blackout—people were hit by trains either when crossing tracks or when they accidentally stepped off train platforms. In addition, the blackouts had sparked a crime wave in Berlin, distracting from the investigation and adding to the body count as well.

Besides the blackout, the investigators were hampered by the Nazi regime. The government did not want word of the killings to cause fear among the general populace, and so they tamped down on reporting. This deprived the investigation of any tips from the general public.

Other hindrances to the investigation came from biases that shaped the investigator’s outlook. There was a tendency to trust people in uniform who held an official position. Paul Ogorzow worked for German Railways, and his uniform proved as a kind of shield.

A bigger bias though was the racial prejudices the Nazis became infamous for. Some believed the killer had to be a Jew, because large numbers of Jews worked on German Railways. Others thought it might be a British Agent attempting to sow fear in the capital. Given the Nazi’s tendency toward bizarre espionage, it at least seemed plausible. Another theory was that the killer was one of the thousands of foreign workers who were brought to Berlin to fill the need for labor. Given the large numbers of foreigners in the city, this seemed plausible.

That is, until a serious look at German Railway employees netted one name again and again. Paul Ogorzow was known among his coworkers for his hatred of women and his slacker tendencies—he had a habit of wandering off during his shifts. If it were not for his coworker’s suspicions, the Kripo may not have looked at him at all, because he was a married man with two children. Not to mention, he was a Nazi party member.

Ogorzow was brought in and subjected to intense questioning. He eventually cracked and confessed to eight murders and several assaults. His weapon of choice seemed to be a length of lead cable. In a bizarre attempt to save himself, he claimed that a Jewish doctor’s treatment for gonorrhea had awakened his murderous urges. The Kripo didn’t buy it, nor did the government. It seems that Ogorzow’s Nazi allegiance cloud not save him. He was executed by guillotine (some sources say by firing squad) the same month he committed his final murder.



Moorhouse, Roger, “Paul Ogorzow—The Nazi Serial Killer.” RogerMoorhouse.com. July 31, 2010. Accessed September 8, 2014. http://www.rogermoorhouse.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=69:paul-ogorzow-the-nazi-serial-killer&Itemid=30

“Paul Ogorzov.” Murderpedia.org http://murderpedia.org/male.O/o/ogorzov-paul.htm





The Bat Bombers of World War II

Structure set on fire by a bat bomb.

Structure set on fire by a bat bomb.

Something about war brings out the creative side in people. Combatants constantly try to get the leg up over their enemy, but sometimes that spirit of trying to outdo the other guy takes people down weird bunny trails. World War II hosted some of the perhaps weirdest tech ever tried during combat. While the Nazis cornered the market on weird weaponry, the US had its fair share of strange ideas. One of the oddest was, in true democratic fashion, suggested by a citizen rather than a soldier. He was Dr. Lytle S. Adams, a dental surgeon from Pennsylvania. His suggestion, inspired by a visit to Carlsbad Caverns, was to put America’s vast swarms of bats to work destroying Japan’s cities.


Animal warfare

While the idea of using animals to wreak havoc during a modern war characterized by huge aerial armadas and swarms of tanks, animals have taken part in human warfare for as long as people have tried to kill one another in elaborate and ridiculous ways. Horses of course are the best known war animals, playing a pivotal role in almost every battle since they were domesticated, including important roles in World War II, where they were used to transport supplies along roads impassible to motor vehicles. Dogs were used to hunt down fleeing foes, to guard camps, and occasionally to break up enemy formations.

Bats, however, never really played a role in warfare. Given that they’re small animals who aren’t able to be trained like, say, a dog, rather put them out of the running when it came time for choosing fighting creatures. But Dr. Adams’ idea wouldn’t require the bats to do anything more than act natural. He envisioned thousands of bats being dropped from bomb canisters. With small incendiary bombs attached to them, they would fly to available cracks and crevices to roost. The incendiaries would be fitted with timers, and would eventually detonated and start a fire. Many Japanese buildings were constructed out of wood, and thousands and thousands of fires started within moments of each other would devastate huge swaths of a city.

Weird as the plan was, it got approval, not in small part because Dr. Adams was acquainted with Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Dr. Adams demonstrated his unique weapon’s system first in Washington, showing Army officials that they could be outfitted with a dummy bomb. The project was approved in March of 1943. The bat used was the free-tail bat. Not overly large, the mighty mammal could carry three times its tiny weight. Which still was tiny, although small incendiaries were not difficult to design and researchers whipped up two varieties—a seventeen gram bomb that would burn for four minutes, and a twenty-eight gram bomb that would burn for six minutes. In addition, dummy weapons that would release yellow smoke for thirty minutes. These were to be used during testing.

Delivering the biological bombs was an entirely different issue. Bats were stored in refrigerated units or ice boxes to induce them to hibernate. These hibernating bats would be dropped from specially designed canisters that would open up and allow the bats to escape as they warmed up and began to wake. Then the bats would fly away from the canister and fulfill their deadly duty.


Project canceled

Canister used to transport the bats.

Canister used to transport the bats.

However, it was soon apparent that the scheme was more complicated than it appeared. Bats often didn’t wake in time once dropped from the plane. The delivery system didn’t work properly, and the bombs proved hard to attach to the bats. The Army found that the bats could carry the smaller bombs comfortably. The bats who did survive the tests were found with their bombs nestled in houses built on the testing grounds.

The Army concluded that a better delivery system for the bats was needed. Also, a new way to attach the bombs to the bats and a better time-delay fuse was needed. Another recommendation was made to study how bats behave during artificial hibernation.

Still, the test was pretty successful. Surprisingly so. A mock Japanese village was burn to the ground by the hapless bats. In one instance, which possibly had something to do with canceling the project, a careless handler let several bats armed with live bombs escape. They proceeded to burn down a hangar and a general’s car.

The Army passed the project to the navy in August 1943, which dubbed it X-Ray. In October of that year, the Navy leased four caves in Texas and began harvesting bats for testing. They promptly handed the project to the Marines, who began experimentation in December 1943. The Marine tests proved promising—one test started thirty fires, eight of which would have required the efforts of firefighters to put out. The Marines deemed that a more powerful bomb was needed, and plans for full-scale tests were drawn up for August 1944.

But these plans would never be enacted. Fleet Admiral Ernest J King canceled the project when he found out the bats would not be ready until mid-1945. By that time $2 million had been spent on the project. That money could be better spent elsewhere. And so one of the weirdest projects of the war was canceled, ending the free-tail bat’s brief tour of service in the US military.



Madrigal, Alexis C. “Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II.” TheAtlantic.com. April 14, 2011. The Atlantic. August 20, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/04/old-weird-tech-the-bat-bombs-of-world-war-ii/237267/


The Leaky Toilet That Sunk a Nazi U-Boat


An example of a WWII German Uboat, of a different type but similar to U1206.

U-boats were perhaps the most menacing weapon of World War II. Especially in the early years of the war, German U-boats dominated the Atlantic Ocean, destroying millions of tons of Allied shipping. U-boats were responsible for deadly attacks off the East Coast of the US, not long after Pearl Harbor.

For as famed and feared as the Nazi U-boats were, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that they were complex machines operated by imperfect people. Mistakes did happen. The most embarrassing of these flub ups occurred on April 14, 1945, when a leaky toilet downed a formidable war machine.


A complicated contraption

As the war progressed, Nazi U-boats were forced to dive deeper and deeper to escape Allied patrols. Designers discovered that the typical toilets used at shallower depths didn’t work in deep water, so newer model type VIIC submarines were outfitted with a new toilet that could cope with the high pressures. However, it was a complicated contraption that required a trained engineer–dubbed the “shit-man” by crews–to operate.

The U-1206 was underway, sailing in about 200 feet of water, when Captain Karl-Adolf Schlitt had to hit the head. The proud captain didn’t feel the need to call the shit-man, that is until he couldn’t operate the toilet system. He called the engineer to help, but the engineer opened the wrong valve. Seawater (and other less…pleasant substances) flooded the boat. Soon, the water reached batteries located beneath the toilet (seems like a design flaw), and the boat began flooding with chlorine gas.

Schlitt ordered his men to surface. They began forcing air into the cabin to disperse the fumes. Allied aircraft appeared and began to launch an attack on the stricken boat. Schlitt ordered his men to abandon ship, and the U-boat was scuttled. Thirty-seven crewmen were taken prisoner; three were drowned. To make the debacle worse, it was Schlitt’s first command. Weeks later, the war in Europe ended.


The wreck, found

The wreck of U-1206 was discovered on May 27, 2012, nearly 67 years after the unfortunate incident that led to it being sunk. The wreck was spotted 12 miles off the Scottish coast. It was a rare case where historians actually knew the history of a wreck before diving on it. The story of the U-1206 remains as both an amusing incident in an otherwise horrific war, and as a caution to a tech obsessed culture that, no matter how advanced a gizmo might be, it only takes one tiny mistake to break it.



Long, Tony. “April 14, 1945: Tweaky toilet Costs Skipper His Sub.” Wired.com. April 14, 2011. Wired. August 9, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2011/04/0414toilet-malfunction-sinks-u-boat/

Munro, Alistair. “Found After 70 years, the wreck of U-1206.” TheScotsman.com. May 29, 2012. The Scotsman. August 9, 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/news/scotland/top-stories/found-after-70-years-the-wreck-of-u-1206-1-2323750

“The Hunt for U-1206.” mathison.freeserve.co.uk. Buchan Divers. August 9, 2014. http://www.mathison.freeserve.co.uk/id25.htm