Literature Opinion

Unveiling the Secret Heroes of World War II

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A new book chronicling the untold heroes of World War II is a fascinating glimpse into the world of espionage, resistance and escapism. Jim Kable shares his thoughts.

THE AUTHOR OF Secret Heroes of WWII, Eric Chaline, a graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, SOAS of University College London and of London’s South Bank University, is a writer of popular and social history.

This, his latest book, published this year – though I note it is copyrighted to 2017 – is a handsome hardcover book revealing the not-so-secret in some cases, but overall many figures who were hitherto largely unheralded.

The book is divided into four categories. The first is ‘Backroom Heroes’. Of the eight names mentioned, those of Enrico Fermi, Howard Florey (Australian), J Robert Oppenheimer and Alan Turing will be recognisable to many. Though the specifics of their importance may not generally be fully understood, some popular films of recent years shine a light on Turing and Oppenheimer. 

The second category is ‘Espionage Heroes’. Here, of 18 names, I can only claim to recognise four:

  • Leonard Siffleet (Australian, born in Gunnedah in 1916, executed 24 October 1943 by the sword of Yasuno Chikao by order of Vice-Admiral Kamada Michiaki of the Imperial Japanese Navy);
  • Richard Sorge (Russian, about whom Australian writer Brian Castro in 1997 based a novel, Stepper, with the character Victor Stepper, set in the 1930s);
  • Violette Szabo; and
  • Nancy Wake (born in Aotearoa/NZ, raised in Australia, nicknamed the White Mouse by the Gestapo).

The third category is ‘Resistance Heroes’.

Of the 16 names, I recognised:

Though I admit to being hazy on specific details for most of this number.

The fourth category is ‘Escape Heroes’.

Of 13 names, I recognised five, including:

  • the reckless escaper Douglas Bader (not, in my estimation, a fair dinkum hero, noting that author Ben Macintyre reveals his ugly treatment of Private Alex Ross – his batman in Colditz – in his 2022 book, Colditz);
  • Miep Gies (Dutch, the protector of the Frank family in Amsterdam);
  • Oskar Schindler (of course, known via Tom Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark – later Schindler’s List – whose factory I visited in Kraków in 2019);
  • Chiune Sugihara (the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, who handed out transit visas to Jews. permitting them to travel on to Japan and then south-east China, quite a number of whom in the post-war era came on to Australia); and
  • Raoul Wallenberg (a Swedish diplomat in Budapest who saved thousands of Jewish lives by issuing Swedish passports, among other acts of heroism — I believe it was his work that led to the arrival of Hungarian holocaust survivors who were very kind to my mother in Sydney when she was widowed in mid-1951, the couple, Leo and Florence Herszberg).

But I also found some truly fascinating and selfless individuals among the other names I did not recognise. 

One I have to focus briefly on because there is a family kinship connection. His name was Albert Göring, brother to Hermann and both, thereby, first cousins to some of my U.S. first cousins’ grandfather and great-grandfather.

Albert was the antithesis of his older brother and was able to secure the escape of many anti-Nazi and Jewish dissidents from deportation and imprisonment — seemingly protected by his brother. It has led me further to a book by James WyllieHermann and Albert Goering: The Nazi and the Renegade from 2006.

This book is endlessly fascinating for anyone at all intrigued by WWII and by those we call heroes — those who stand up to tyranny and genocide. This is especially important in these times of wars provoked and promulgated by the U.S. and its arm-twisted “allies” (Jewish supporters of Palestine in Germany are even now being arrested by the police).

Kit Klarenberg, in an article just published titled ‘Occupied Nation: How the CIA Created Modern Germany’, lays bare the forces that, in reality, run Germany and which are – at the same time – running Germany’s economy into the ground.

Every one of the 55 names in the book is given a brief postcard CV, then an essay supported by photos and the background biography, along with a featured aspect of his or her life and/or work or engagement.

The author also gives an interesting reading list for follow-up. I note John Dower's Embracing Defeat (Japan in the Wake of World War II) and Peter FitzSimonsNancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine. Also, Nancy Wake’s own book, Autobiography of the Woman the Gestapo Called the White Mouse. All of which I have read in years past. The reading list is followed by an index.

'Secret Heroes of World War II' by Eric Chaline is available at Booktopia from $35.75 (RRP).

This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.

Jim Kable is a retired teacher who has taught in rural and metropolitan NSW, in Europe, and later, long-term in Japan. He is also a member of the steering committee of political party The New Liberals.

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