Archaeologists in Poland have discovered a mass grave that the Nazis tried to destroy at the end of World War II, a new study finds.
The mass grave, filled with the remains of about 500 individuals, is linked to the horrific “Pomeranian Crime” that took place in Poland’s pre-war Pomerania province when the Nazis occupied the country in 1939. The Nazis killed up to 35,000 people in Pomerania at the beginning of the war, and they returned in 1945 to kill even more people, as well as to hide evidence of the prior massacres by exhuming and burning the bodies of victims.
Despite this elaborate Nazi cover-up, archaeologists have now found abundant evidence of one of these mass graves after examining archives, interviewing locals and conducting extensive archaeological surveys, the researchers said.
The 1939 Pomeranian Crime was the first large-scale atrocity of World War II in Poland. This includes 12,000 people who were killed in the forests around the village of Piaśnica and 7,000 people who were buried in the forests near the village of Szpęgawsk in 1939. Some historians say the massacres were a prelude to the later Nazi atrocities committed during the Holocaust, the researchers said.
So many people were killed in 1939 and 1945 in one area of Pomerania, near the outskirts of the town of Chojnice, it became known locally as Death Valley. One witness, who testified after the war, recalled seeing that “a column of approximately 600 Polish prisoners from Bydgoszcz, Toruń, Grudziad̨z and neighboring villages, under the escort of the Gestapo, was taken to Death Valley during the second half of January 1945,” the researchers wrote in the study. “They were executed there, and the witness speculated that the bodies of the victims were burned to cover up the evidence.”
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After the war, in 1945, exhumations at that spot in Death Valley unearthed the remains of 168 people. But it was evident from the exhumation reports and the witness’ testimony that there were more burials to be found, the researchers said.
“It was commonly known that not all mass graves from 1939 were found and exhumed, and the grave of those killed in 1945 was not exhumed either,” study lead author Dawid Kobiałka, an archaeologist and cultural anthropologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.
To investigate, Kobiałka and his colleagues used noninvasive techniques to study the area, including with lidar (light detection and ranging), which uses lasers shot from an aircraft flying overhead to map the topography of the ground. The lidar work revealed trenches that the Polish army had dug in 1939 in anticipation of a war with the Third Reich. But just a few months later, the Nazis used these trenches to hide the bodies of their victims, the researchers said.
“Executions took place at the trenches,” they wrote in the study. “The victims fell into the trenches or their bodies were thrown there by the perpetrators. Later, the trenches were backfilled with soil.”
At the trench site, the team performed surveys on the soil underground with ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic field analysis and electrical resistivity, and found many anomalies hidden in the soil underground. Metal-detector surveys also revealed many artifacts, which led the researchers to excavate eight of the trenches. Since then, they have found more than 4,250 artifacts, many from 1939 and 1945, that included bullets, shell casings and charred wood that was likely used to burn the bodies.
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The team also found cremated bones and jewelry, including a gold wedding ring, suggesting the victims were not robbed when they were killed. The researchers identified the ring’s owner as Irena Szydłowska, a courier in the Polish Home Army. “Her family was informed about the finding, and the plan is to return the ring to them,” Kobiałka said.
The case haunted Major Murray Ormsby (1919-2012), who was the military prosecutor at the trial, for he feared that Hockley’s sacrifice would be forgotten. In 1995 he started placing a memorial notice in the Daily Telegraph on 15 August each year, the anniversary of Hockley’s death.
On the morning of Aug 15, Hockley and six other members of 24 Wing were assigned to escort 10 Firefly and Avenger aircraft attacking airfields in the Tokyo Bay area – the last mission to be flown by British aircraft in the war. Weather conditions were bad and the aircraft were forced to pull out of the attack on the first airfield. As they searched for a fresh target, they were attacked by 12 Zero fighters.
The Seafires managed to shoot down seven of the Zeros, scaring the others off. But as they looked around they realised that Hockley was missing.
The pilot, whose wireless was not working, had been shot down but had parachuted to what seemed safety. Nakamura Kiyozo, an air raid warden in the village of Higashimura, saw Hockley walk towards him. The pilot appeared unhurt and was not armed. The two shook hands and smoked two cigarettes that the British airman produced. Nakamura then took Hockley to the local civil defence HQ, where the commander decided to hand him over to the local military unit, the 426th Infantry Regiment.
The Japanese soldiers were waiting for the emperor’s noon broadcast to announce that the war was over and there was no anger at Hockley. One soldier even slackened the rope around the pilot’s hands since “the war is over”. At regimental headquarters, Col Tamura Teiichi, commanding officer of 426 Regiment, listened to the emperor announce the end of the war and rang divisional HQ to ask what should be done with the prisoner.
“You are to finish him in the mountains tonight,” said Major Hirano Nobuo, divisional chief of staff. Tamura considered questioning the order with the commander but decided not to risk angering him. He rang Capt Fujino Masazo, the officer commanding the local unit, to tell him that Hockley must be executed. “Do it so that no one can see it,” he added. Fujino was stunned.
“I was very much surprised,” Fujino said. “In the past, the division had never issued such an unkind order. I decided there was no other way but to send the prisoner to Col Tamura.” Fujino told Sgt-Major Hitomi Tadao to move the prisoner to regimental headquarters, where another officer ordered him to take six soldiers equipped with shovels and pickaxes up into the mountains to dig a grave.
Hockley, with his hands tied, was later led up to the mountain grave. It was about 9pm, nine hours after the emperor had officially declared the war over. “Fujino made the prisoner stand with his back to the hole,” Hitomi said. “The prisoner was blindfolded with his hands tied lightly in front.
“I heard a pistol shot. The prisoner seemed to collapse and I heard two more shots. The prisoner fell on his back. There was another shot and he rolled over into the hole. “He seemed to be in pain. Fujino borrowed a sword from Sgt Kusume and thrust the sword into the prisoner’s back. The prisoner did not move any more. The soldiers filled up the hole.”
The details of Hockley’s fate would never have been known had not Col Tamura panicked and, fearing that wild animals might find the body, ordered it to be exhumed and cremated. When American occupation forces heard of it, Tamura attempted to persuade Fujino to lie about what had happened. But he refused. Tamura, Hirano and Fujino were handed over to the British, accused of a war crime.
It was only then that Hockley’s friends on Indefatigable heard what had happened. Mike Brown, another of the ship’s pilots, said: “We were appalled to learn that he had been executed. By rights poor Freddie should have returned home.” The trial was held in Hong Kong in May and June of 1947. The military prosecutor was a young British Army officer, Murray Ormsby.
“We hanged Tamura and Hirano in September 1947,” said Major Ormsby. “But Fujino, who was completely honest about what had happened, was given 15 years’ imprisonment. I doubt he served it all. I just thought it was such a tragic case that it should be brought to people’s attention. So in 1995, I started putting the notice in The Daily Telegraph and I have done so ever since.”
Shot in cold blood – nine hours after war ended
Chris Bishop, Eastern Daily Press, Thursday October 28, 1999
The real story behind the death of an East Anglian wartime pilot has finally come to light more than 50 years after he was murdered in cold blood. Family and friends always knew that Sub-Lt Fred Hockley, from Littleport, near Ely, died after his Seafire plane was shot down in an air raid on Tokyo.
Now it has emerged that the 22-year-old flier was executed on the day Japan surrendered – nine hours after the war ended.
Sub-Lt Hockley’s relatives pieced together his final hours after a cryptic In Memoriam notice appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
The brief announcement said simply that Sub-Lt Hockley was shot down over Tokyo Bay on August 15, 1945, and later executed.
It was placed by Major Murray Ormsby – the British Army officer who prosecuted Fred Hockley’s killers and who decided it was time the case was brought to the public’s attention.
Sub-Lt Hockley was shot down as he took part in the last mission flown by British aircraft in the Second World War. His plane, which took off from the aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable, was hit during a dogfight. Fred Hockley parachuted to safety and was handed over to Japanese soldiers, who were waiting in their barracks for the Emperor’s broadcast to announce that the war was over.
Victor Emmanuel III ruled the Kingdom of Italy from July 29, 1900, to May 9, 1946. A hesitant and indecisive ruler, Victor Emmanuel’s reign was plagued by political violence and instability. His inaction allowed for the rise of Italian Fascism and his support for Benito Mussolini tainted the image of the Italian monarchy to the point that it led to its eventual abolishment.
Born on November 11, 1869, Victor Emmanuel (born Vittorio Emanuele Ferdinando Maria Gennaro di Savoia) was the only legitimate child of Umberto I of Italy. As a child, he spent most of his time out of the public eye, suffering physical disabilities that forced him to wear orthopedic instruments that strengthened his legs. These disabilities may have stunted his growth as Victor Emmanuel stood just over five feet tall in adulthood. Due to his solitary childhood, Victor Emmanuel had a reputation for being shy and reserved. Despite his reserved nature, he still received the traditional military upbringing expected of his family.
On July 29, 1900, an Italian anarchist assassinated his father. Victor Emmanuel assumed the throne as Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. His father left him mostly unprepared for the position and Victor Emmanuel had a well-known disdain for the stresses of politics. However, the kingdom’s constitution, the Statuto Albertino, provided him considerable power for a constitutional monarch. Despite this power, Victor Emmanuel stayed out of Italy’s politics, only interfering on a handful of occasions as the nation suffered from periodic political instability.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Italy initially remained neutral. Most of the government opposed entering the war, but Victor Emmanuel ignored their protests. He hoped to gain territory from Austria-Hungary, but corruption and disorganization led the Italian Army into defeat. Following the war, Italy suffered from an economic depression that led to a rise of more political instability and extremism. During this tumultuous time, the fast-growing Fascist party and its leader Benito Mussolini saw an opportunity to seize power.
On October 24, 1922, Mussolini announced that the Fascists would march on Rome with the intent to “take by the throat our miserable ruling class.” The prime minister and the cabinet feared a Fascist coup was imminent. At the time, Victor Emmanuel was away at his vacation home in Tuscany, hoping that the crisis would resolve itself without his participation. After more news of the fascist mobilization, the Italian government sent a telegram pleading for the king’s return. Eight hours after receiving the telegram, Victor Emmanuel departed from Tuscany and returned to Rome on October 27. The king’s explanation for his delay was that no one expressed to him the urgency of the situation. Victor Emmanuel ordered to defend Rome at all costs and had the prime minister draw up orders to proclaim martial law.
An emergency session of the cabinet took place and with unanimous agreement they prepared the proclamation. The last step needed was Victor Emmanuel’s signature. However, the prime minister never received a summons to meet with the king. In an unprecedented move, the king overruled his cabinet and prevented the enactment of martial law. The king later gave many explanations for his inaction but much of his reasoning was flawed by unfounded or outright false beliefs. To show disapproval of the king’s decision, the prime minister and his government resigned. Claiming he was trying to prevent a civil war, Victor Emmanuel appointed Benito Mussolini as prime minister.
The king met Mussolini during World War I and was also a reader of Mussolini’s newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia. He saw Mussolini as a strong figure who could impose order over Italy and bring an end to the constant political crises. The king disapproved of Mussolini’s violent tactics, but he appreciated the patriotism displayed by the Blackshirts. Despite the king’s appreciation for his new prime minister, Mussolini privately despised the king.
From left to right, Enrico De Nicola, Victor Emmanuel III, and Benito Mussolini taken on July 9, 1923. Enrico De Nicola would go on to become the first President of Italy in 1948, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As Mussolini’s power grew, Victor Emmanuel did nothing to stop it. Even as the fascists assassinated political rivals and made all other political parties illegal in Italy. The king did step in once when Mussolini attempted to add the fasces symbol to the flag. Victor Emmanuel saw the addition as disrespectful to his family and refused to sign the law. During this time, Italy also expanded its territory by occupying Ethiopia and Albania where Victor Emmanuel usurped the titles of Emperor of Ethiopia and King of the Albanians.
In 1939, Mussolini was ready to follow Germany into war, but Victor Emmanuel blocked Mussolini. The king did not believe Italy was ready to fight a war and wanted to wait and see which side was favorable for victory. The king and Mussolini argued over the matter well into 1940. Mussolini was adamant that Germany would win the war and that it was an opportune time for Italy to make gains in Europe and become the dominant power in the Mediterranean. On June 1, 1940, Victor Emmanuel gave Mussolini permission to enter the war. However, 10 days elapsed before Italy’s official declaration of war because Victor Emmanuel refused to give Mussolini supreme command of the military. The two eventually compromised with Mussolini gaining operational command powers, but with supreme command remaining with the king.
Mussolini’s poor command hampered the Italian war effort. The Italian invasion of France failed, and the armies in North Africa and Greece experienced terrible losses. With failures piling up, the popularity of the Fascist regime dwindled. Even with growing doubts about Mussolini’s competence and numerous pleas to dismiss him, the king continued to support Mussolini. Following the Invasion of Sicily and the first allied bombing of Rome, Victor Emmanuel and other fascists leaders knew it was time to get rid of Mussolini.
On July 25, 1943, the Grand Council of Fascism voted to return Victor Emmanuel’s full constitutional powers. Victor Emmanuel met with Mussolini for one last time in which he dismissed Mussolini from his position and had him arrested as he exited the royal residence. The king decided to continue the war as part of the Axis powers but secretly began negotiations with the allies using the Vatican as a go between.
Depiction of Victor Emmanuel III on a 1 lira coin. Victor Emmanuel III was an avid coin collector. He was the honorary president of the Italian Numismatic Society and he wrote a 20-volume catalogue of each coin in his collection titled the Corpus Mummorum Italicorum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
After sending numerous messages, negotiations with the Allies began in Lisbon, Portugal. Many of the king’s demands were unrealistic. He wanted to retain the monarchy, have his colonial empire restored, and have the allies promise not to invade Italy. This last demand contradicted the Allied war plan to draw as many Germans into Italy as possible to move troops from Russia and Normandy. The Allies were willing to let Victor Emmanuel keep his monarchy, but they rejected all his other demands.
On September 8, 1943, Victor Emmanuel announced the armistice with the Allies. The German troops present in Italy quickly turned into an occupying force. Victor Emmanuel fled Rome, fearing a German advance. On September 23, German forces freed Mussolini and created a German puppet state called the Italian Social Republic in now occupied northern Italy. With Italy split in two, the Allies asked for the king to formally declare war on Germany. For some time, Victor Emmanuel refused, citing that the Italian parliament needed to sanction such a declaration, even though he did not ask for parliament to sanction any of his previous war declarations. However, after much pressure, Victor Emmanuel declared war on Germany on October 8, 1943.
The Allied forces were reluctant to work with Victor Emmanuel and his government. Both Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed that Victor Emmanuel was problematic, but neither saw an alternative figure for the Italian people to rally around. They believed that in time Victor Emmanuel may have to go, but it would be best for the Italian people to make that decision. Public opinion for the king continued to fade. His years of support for Mussolini tainted his image. Some monarchists hoped that Victor Emmanuel would abdicate to bring some credibility back to the monarchy, but refused and instead offered a compromise.
On April 10, 1944, Victor Emmanuel transferred most of his powers to his son Crown Prince Umberto. Following the liberation of Rome, Victor Emmanuel transferred the remainder of his powers to Umberto but did not give up his title of king. Instead, Victor Emmanuel named his son Lieutenant General of the Realm. For the remainder of the war, Victor Emmanuel lived at Villa Maria Pia at Posillipo. He stayed out of the public eye and, according to his diary, was visited by his son only three times.
Following the Allied victory and liberation of northern Italy, the Italian government started to put itself back together. However, anti-monarchist sentiment continued to grow. Many blamed the royal family for the years of political instability, allowing the rise of fascism, and the terrors faced by the country. In 1946, the Italian government decided to hold a referendum to determine if Italy would become a republic. On May 9, 1946, three weeks before the referendum, Victor Emmanuel abdicated his throne in hopes of bolstering monarchist support and allowing his dynasty to remain in power. Umberto ascended to the throne as King Umberto II of Italy. The June 2 referendum resulted in 52 percent of the country favoring a republic. Some days later the republic was declared, and Umberto’s 34-day reign came to an end.
As part of the referendum, all male members of the House of Savoy were exiled from Italy. Victor Emmanuel fled to Egypt. He would die of pulmonary congestion a little over a year and a half later on December 28, 1947. He was interred at St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt until his remains were repatriated to the Sanctuary of Vicoforte in Northern Italy on December 17, 2017.
Victor Emmanuel III lived for 78 years. His indecisiveness and unwillingness to act caused political unrest and profound harm to the Italian people. His obsession with maintaining power made him indifferent to whose side he was on so long as he ended up on the winning side. In the end, the years of playing turncoat caught up to him. His kingdom was gone, his family in exile, and his legacy forever stained by the dark mark of fascism.