THE MYTH: France rolled over to Germany in 1940 without resisting because the French are cowards.
THE REALITY: The fact that Germany did in six weeks during World War II what they couldn’t do in four years in World War I is grossly oversimplified. While it’s true that France surrendered quickly to Germany, French troops fought hard in the Battle of France, inflicting over 150,000 casualties and destroying over German 800 tanks. The French army was let down by indecisive leadership, poor tactics, bad logistics, and commanders trying to fight a defensive war and avoid the high casualties of World War I.
Myth #2: Hitler Let the British Escape at Dunkirk
Adolf Hitler allowed 330,000 British troops to escape destruction on the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940 as a sporting gesture, or because they were fellow white people.
THE REALITY: The Dunkirk “halt order” would prove to be one of the most controversial military actions of the war. German tanks were ordered to halt and regroup for two days at the exact same time as British troops were being evacuated from France. Some have alleged Hitler did this on purpose, and Hitler himself, late in his life, said it was a “sporting gesture” to Churchill.
But the historical record doesn’t bear this out. There’s no military reason Hitler would have wanted Britain’s army to escape intact, and German armored units did need a break to rest and rearm. Such a break was actually requested by the German panzer commander in France – an order rubber stamped by Hitler. Hitler was also convinced that his air force could destroy the British troops on the beaches. He was wrong, and those men would later return to France to liberate it.
Myth #3: Returning GIs Abandoned Thousands of Cars in Belgium
Unable to bring them home, US soldiers abandoned thousands of vintage cars that had been plundered from Nazi Germany, leaving them to rot in a Belgian forest.
THE REALITY: The pictures of this Belgian car graveyard, abandoned for 70 years, are indeed haunting. But as to who left the cars there and why – that’s a mystery. Urban legend says the cars were dumped there by US GIs, but locals say it’s just a car boneyard, no different from any dumping ground anywhere else.
It’s obvious from looking at the pictures you’ll find online that the urban legend isn’t true. Most of these cars are clearly from after the war, with some from the ’60s and ’70s. In any case, the car graveyard was a source of stolen spare parts for decades, until being permanently cleared in 2010.
Myth #4: Hitler Won the Leadership of the Nazi Party by One Vote
Adolf Hitler was elected leader of the Nazi Party by a margin of only one vote, showing the importance of every single vote.
THE REALITY: This oft-repeated urban legend isn’t even close to true. Hitler actually won the leadership of the Nazi party by a huge margin (553-1) when elected in 1923. It is true that the Nazi party didn’t win a majority of seats in the 1933 German election, the last one held before Germany became a one-party state – but this had no real impact on the scope of Nazi power.
Myth #5: Yamashita’s Gold
A Japanese General hid thousands of tons of plundered war loot, including a massive gold horde, in a giant underground complex of caves and tunnels in the Philippines.
THE REALITY: While it can’t be proven conclusively that General Yamashita did indeed order the burying of billions of dollars worth of gold, there’s also little compelling evidence that he didn’t. There was a highly publicized court case between a Filipino treasure hunter and deposed Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos over a gold horde purportedly stolen from the Yamashita treasure, but it’s never been proven conclusively where the gold actually came from.
Myth #6: Hitler Danced a Jig When France Surrendered
When France surrendered after six weeks of heavy fighting, Adolf Hitler was overcome with the urge to dance a jig, which he did – and that was captured on camera.
THE REALITY: When accepting France’s surrender, the old World War I soldier that Hitler was stepped back slightly in shock. This slight step was indeed captured on film – and edited by Allied propagandists into Hitler dancing a silly jig – showing the august leader of terrifying Nazi Germany bouncing around like a child when he got what he wanted. The film did its job, stirring up outrage and mockery of Hitler.
Myth #7: A German Submarine Was Sunk When its Toilet Malfunctioned
A German U-Boat, U-1206, sank when the experimental toilet it was carrying overflowed, causing a flood that couldn’t be stopped.
THE REALITY: This is actually true – at least up to a point. U-1206 was a new boat carrying a new form of high-pressure toilet that could be used at lower depths than older waste management systems. The boat’s captain had to use the head one day while out on patrol, and accidentally opened a valve to the outside – causing water to flood in. The water contacted the ship’s batteries and a deadly chlorine gas quickly formed.
In order to vent the gas, the captain ordered the boat to surface, which it did, right in front of the Scottish coastline. It was attacked and badly damaged, with the captain ordering its scuttling. Four men died in the shootout, which took place just three weeks before the war ended.
Myth #8: Captain Kangaroo and Lee Marvin Fighting Together
Children’s TV Icon Captain Kangaroo and Badass Actor Lee Marvin Fought Together at Iwo Jima
THE REALITY: This urban legend has proven to be incredibly difficult to kill. For the record, the man behind Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan, did not fight at Iwo Jima with Lee Marvin. Both WERE members of the United States Marine Corps in World War II, but neither fought on Iwo Jima, so it would have been difficult for them to have done so together. Marvin saw action at the Battle of Saipan in 1944, where he was wounded in combat and received a medical discharge from the Marines a year later – right around the time Keeshan was enlisting. The war ended before Keeshan could ship out, and it’s doubtful the two men were even in the Marines together for more than a few months.
The legend of Lee Marvin and Bob Keeshan fighting the Japanese together spawns from an interview Marvin gave on the Tonight Show, where he talked up Keeshan’s exploits and bravery in combat. Except nobody has ever produced footage of this interview, Marvin never claimed to have said it, Keeshan never claimed any such thing and not a single bit of evidence anyone has ever dug up has ever done anything except debunk it. It’s not real, and never was. But still, the rumor lives on, in magazine articles, message board posts and chain emails talking of Captain Kangaroo’s bravery and skill as a trained killer.
Since urban legends tend to mutate over time, sometimes you’ll see this one with children’s TV icon Fred Rogers thrown in the mix, lionizing his exploits as a sniper in the Vietnam War. But this one is even easier to debunk – Rogers never served in the military.
Myth #9: The SS Were the Cream of Aryan Manhood
THE MYTH: Hitler’s feared SS were a uniquely German organization, dedicated to the ideals of Aryan manhood and Germanic pride.
THE REALITY: They were, for a while. But by the end of World War II, the SS would take almost anyone it could get their hands on.
The feared SS began its life in 1923 as Hitler’s personal protective organization, a group of brutal paramilitary thugs beating people up for disrupting their meetings in Munich. A few years later, Nazi higher-up Heinrich Himmler took over the SS, and transformed it into an elite military force steeped in Germanic ideology, racial theory and binding loyalty to the Fuhrer. As such, SS units made for fanatical soldiers and supplicant killers, doing anything they were ordered to do to advance the aims of the Aryan “master race” – including commit genocide.
But even as early as 1940, the SS began using foreign soldiers to bulk out its ranks. First, the special “Wiking Division” was authorized, made up of anti-Communist fanatics from Scandinavia, the Low Countries and Estonia. Then 1942 saw the creation of separate SS divisions made of Croats, Ukrainians, Estonians, and Latvians. There were also Spanish, French, East Indian, Romanian and Russian units in the SS – with an attempt even made at a British Free Corps division of English volunteers, which was a miserable failure.
Ultimately, fully 60% of soldiers wearing the SS runes weren’t German. And French SS soldiers were among the last defenders of Berlin, fighting to the death to avoid capture by the Russians.
Myth #10: Stalin ordered the creation of ape/human hybrid soldiers
THE MYTH: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the creation of ape/human hybrid soldiers to fight the Nazis.
THE REALITY: Urban legends persist that the Supreme Soviet wanted to genetically engineer a race of half-man/half-ape hybrid soldiers that wouldn’t feel pain or fear, would be mindlessly obedient and could be create in infinite numbers in a laboratory. But it’s not actually true.
There was a Russian biologist named Il’ya Ivanovich Ivanov who had achieved great acclaim for his work inseminating horses and creating various animal hybrids. After crossing different animals, birds, rodents and insects, Ivanov pondered tampering in God’s domain – creating a hybrid of a human and an ape. By 1926 he had received a small grant from the Soviet government to set up a lab in Africa and start working. First, he tried to impregnate chimps with human sperm. When this failed, he stooped to truly horrific levels, planning to inseminate human women with chimp sperm (without their consent, no less.) Ivanov’s scheme was stopped by the local government, and Ivanov went back to Russia with twenty apes – most of which died en route.
By 1930, the entire idea fell out of favor as the political climate shifted and Stalin had embraced another view of selective breeding. Ivanov was exiled in a purge of Soviet scientists, and died just a few years later. Stalin probably didn’t even know about Ivanov’s work, and the idea of Stalin creating super-monkey soldiers to fight Hitler didn’t emerge until some dubious “infotainment” pieces in the mid-2000’s.
Myth #11: The Whole Nine Yards
THE MYTH: The phrase “give ‘em the whole nine yards” is a reference to the end to end length of a belt of machine gun ammunition used in WWII fighter planes.
THE REALITY: While that was the accepted origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards” for quite some time, this explanation has a number of problems. The first is that it actually originates from well before World War II, being used in a newspaper blurb from 1907 that described the length of a baseball game. It’s been used in a variety of contexts for decades, sometimes as “the whole six yards,” and was said to be the length of a long-jump, the size of a NASA report, a length of fishing wire, the amount of concrete a mixer can hold, a bolt of fabric rolled end to end or the outfitting of “goodies” on a car. There’s absolutely no consensus on what “the whole nine yards” was meant to represent, or who first coined it.
Beyond that, machine gun ammunition wasn’t measured in length, but in number of bullets. Moreover, the 50 caliber machine gun that was standard on US planes used 100 round or 500 round belts, with each round about an inch long – neither of which comes out to nine yards. Other explanations are that “nine yards” was the length of belt of ammo for a British Vickers machine gun.
This is just one of those phrases that people started using, and kept using, deciding what it meant as they went along
Myth #12: Koreans Fighting Americans For Germany in France
THE MYTH: Several Korean Conscripts were Captured Fighting for the German Army during D-Day
THE REALITY: This is absolutely true, and shows both the global nature of World War II, and the desperate need for manpower that Germany was already dealing with. At least one, and maybe as many as four ethnic Koreans ended up press-ganged into the Germany army, later taken prisoner by US paratroopers while stationed at Utah Beach to defend it against Allied invasion. By that point in the war, Germany was increasingly relying on manpower from its conquered territories to bulk out its reserves, mostly men captured fighting for various armies that were equally hostile to Communists as they were to Nazis. They were usually sent to conquered territories to act as reserves.
Among these were a large contingent of Soviets from satellite territories of the USSR, including Ukraine. That’s where these Koreans were picked up, having been drafted out of a labor camp by the Soviets to defend the city of Kharkov in 1943. In turn, they’d been taken prisoner by the Soviets while fighting for the Japanese at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol in Siberia in 1939. Before THAT, they’d most likely been conscripted by the Japanese in 1938 in occupied Korea or Manchuria. Three different conscriptions by three countries, thousands of miles away from each other.
One of these men, Yang Kyoungjong, survived and stayed in the United States after the war. The fate of the others is unknown – but it’s entirely possible they were conscripted again to fight for one of the Koreas after the split of that country.
Myth #13: The Vast Bone Fields of Russia
THE MYTH: Vast fields of bones still litter the Soviet countryside, left from the battles of the Eastern Front.
THE REALITY: These stark reminders of the brutality of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union almost certainly exist, though finding any concrete information on how many there are, and how many bodies lie there, is difficult and fraught with controversy.
The cleanup during and after World War II encompassed the better part of a decade, and many Soviet towns didn’t know what to do with the untold number of German corpses and body parts strewn around their land. So they were simply dumped in open fields, swamps or forests.
The biggest of all of these mass open graves is supposedly located in Peschanka, a small village outside of what’s now Volgograd, but was known as Stalingrad during the war. It’s thought that as many as 300,000 Germans were “laid to rest” there, with the endless steppe of bones stretching as far as the eye can see. They were first brought to Western knowledge in the 80’s by Austrian journalist Walter Seledec, written about in the New Yorker in 1993, and filled out in more detail by American author Donovan Webster’s book Aftermath a few years later.
Given how remote the location is, though, they’ve not been photographed to any length, and their size might be an exaggeration – and there are some who think the entire “Soviet bone field” legend was cooked up as right wing propaganda. Without extensive photography and reporting, it can’t be known for sure, and this is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons.
What is absolutely true is that millions of men went off to war and never came back, with their bodies never being found – or at least not until recently. Bones and ephemera of the war are found on a daily basis all over Europe – brutal reminders of the war that killed as many as 70 million human beings.
Myth #14: The British Dropped Fake Bombs on Fake German Airfields
THE MYTH: German intelligence constructed a massive fake airfield in Holland. The British responded by dropping a fake bomb on it.
THE REALITY: The story about a fake bomb (or bombs) being dropped on fake airplanes goes all the way back to the war itself, and first appeared in William Shirer’s book Berlin Diary. In an entry for November 1940, the war correspondent writes of a funny story relayed to him by an anonymous intelligence source about British planes “bombing” a fake German airdrome near Amsterdam with fake bombs – letting on that they knew the Germans had been trying to fool him.
The story then did what all urban legends do, which is mutate into another story – with the “bombing” consisting of only one fake bomb, taking place near Berlin, taking place in 1943, or even having the sides reversed – with the Germans dropping a fake bomb on a fake British airfield.
The problem with Shirer’s story, and all of its subsequent retellings, is that there’s no proof it actually happened. Shirer never offered any, and there’s no records of either side carrying out such a mission. It also would have served no military purpose to send one plane to drop one fake bomb – what if the plane had to turn back or crashed, or the enemy simply didn’t see the attack. Why take the risk of losing a plane, or having the pilot be captured? And what’s to be gained by letting the enemy know you know their fake airfield is fake? Why not let it go on being fake, and pretending you’ve been fooled?
The story Shirer relayed was almost certainly propaganda, dished out to help boost the morale of Anglo-American readers worried about the march of Nazism.
Myth #15: Hitler Only Had One Ball
THE MYTH: Hitler only had one testicle.
THE REALITY: He almost certainly had two. A German medic who claimed to have saved Hitler’s life in World War I also claimed that the future leader of Germany had one of his testicles either shot off or damaged by shrapnel at the Battle of the Somme. While military records indicate Hitler was wounded in the left thigh at the Somme, they’re silent on the matter of his reproductive organs. A Soviet autopsy of Hitler’s body that was released in the 70’s also claimed that the left testicle was missing, but this was probably just a propaganda gesture.
In reality, the “Hitler has only one ball” rumor almost certainly comes from a British song of the same name written in 1939 to satirize the leader of the country England had just gone to war with. While the medic’s account of Hitler’s monarchism has been accepted by many media outlets, there’s no compelling evidence to support it, and is mostly the stuff of tabloids
Myth #16: Japan’s Surrender Was Imminent
THE MYTH: Japan was about to surrender before the bombs were dropped
THE REALITY: While the situation in August, 1945 was extremely complicated, it’s clear from the records of meetings in the Japanese cabinet and from diplomatic cables that Japan was not on the verge of surrender, at least not of the unconditional surrender demanded by the Allies. Instead, the Emperor and his cadre of military and civilian leaders were preparing to fight a decisive battle in the Home Islands against the forthcoming American invasion, which was scheduled for November.
Japan’s leaders believed that they would inflict such horrific casualties on the invasion that American morale would break, leading to a negotiated peace. Hundreds of thousands of Americans and potentially millions of Japanese would die in this conflict – which both sides were still preparing for when the bombs were dropped.
It wasn’t until August 15th, after two atomic bombings, the invasion of Manchuria by the Soviet Union, a massive bombing raid on Tokyo, and a coup attempt by junior officers, that the Emperor made his famed announcement of surrender. And still he was opposed by senior officers who believed victory could be achieved through heroic resistance. Additionally, while the Soviet invasion played a role in the Japanese surrender, it was not the only reason – as Soviet amphibious forces were too weak to pose any threat to the Japanese mainland.