5 extraordinary WWII heroes

Allied soldiers landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. (Wikipedia pic)

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, in what was to become known as D-Day.

The fighting was fierce, with the Allies taking heavy casualties as they stormed the Nazi defences in the face of heavy fire.

But one Allied soldier who landed on the beach was carrying no weapon of any sort, and his story is one of many heroic tales still remembered years after the war.

1. Bill Millin the bagpiper

Bill Millin, a Scottish bagpiper, plays a tune for his comrades during a brief rest. (Wikipedia pic)

Traditionally, the Scottish regiments of the British army went into battle led by bagpipers. By World War II, however, bagpipers were relegated to behind the frontlines since they had no practical use on the modern battlefield.

A Scottish commanding officer disagreed with this, so when his troops were ordered to land in Normandy, he took along a bagpiper named Bill Millin.

Even as soldiers fell and bullets whizzed past him, Millin played his bagpipes, walking calmly at the water’s edge.

He would later join an assault on Nazi fortifications, playing traditional songs to keep his comrades going.

After the battle was over, Millin asked some German prisoners why they had not shot him despite being such an easy target.

It turned out they thought he had gone completely mad.

2. Matvey Kuzmin the hermit

A Soviet WWII-era poster depicting Matzey Kuzmin’s final moments after he led Nazi troops into a trap. (Wikipedia pic)

Matzey Kuzmin, a reclusive man, was in his 80s when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

He had little love for the Soviets, having been left to fend for himself after refusing to join a collective farm. So, when the Nazis offered him food, fuel and weapons in exchange for helping them surround the nearby Soviet defenders, it seemed like a good deal.

However, as much as he disliked the Soviets, he correctly guessed the Nazis were worse and he secretly informed the Soviets to prepare an ambush.

On his part, he tired out the Nazi troops leading them on a long march to the site of the ambush. The exhausted Nazis were easily cut down by the Soviets, but not before an officer shot Kuzmin dead.

The man who had little love for the Soviet Union was buried with full military honours and became a local hero with a statue in Moscow.

3. Krystyna Skarbek the persuader

Krystyna Skarbek was a Polish countess who served the British as a secret agent. (Wikipedia pic)

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Polish countess Krystyna Skarbek fled her country to continue the fight by joining the British Secret Service.

She proved to be a capable spy and, more importantly, a convincing and charismatic speaker.

At one point, she was caught by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, but was released after she convinced them she was ill by biting her tongue until it bled.

Later, she would be deployed to France where she apparently destroyed entire regiments by convincing soldiers to desert.

There is even a story of how she befriended a guard dog that was sent to sniff her out.

Her silver tongue saved three spies who had been captured when she convinced the Gestapo officers that she was the niece of Allied general Bernard Montgomery.

She told them that if they laid a finger on her or the spies, they would pay dearly once the war was over.

Skarbek’s exploits would later be the inspiration for two James Bond characters — Vesper Lynd and Tatiana Romonova.

4. Francis L Sampson the priest

Father Francis Sampson conducts the last rites for Allied troops who had fallen in battle. (US Navy pic)

A Roman Catholic priest serving with an American regiment, Francis L Sampson was among the Allied troops who landed at Normandy.

He tended to the wounded in a field hospital that was soon captured by the Nazis. Sampson refused to abandon his patients despite the threat of execution.

He narrowly escaped thanks to an officer’s intervention but, instead of heading to safety, he remained at the hospital, treating both Allied and German soldiers.

After the Allies recaptured the hospital, Sampson learnt of three brothers who had been killed in action, with only a fourth surviving. He scoured the battlefields for this soldier and sent him back safely to the US.

This story would later serve as the basis of Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Saving Private Ryan”, with a squad of soldiers in place of Sampson.

5. Lachhiman Garung the one-handed

Lachiman Garung (left) was a Gurkha soldier who infamously fought off Japanese insults with only one hand. (AFP pic)

When people speak of soldiers taking on the enemy single-handedly, they rarely mean it literally. But Lachhiman Garung did not allow the loss of one arm to stop him from fighting.

A Gurkha fighting for the British in Burma, his trench was assaulted by the Japanese who lobbed grenades at him.

He managed to throw two back at them, but a third exploded while he was still holding it, destroying his right hand.

Despite his severe injuries, he fought on alone, reloading his rifle with his left hand and screaming, “Come and fight a Gurkha!”

For four hours, he defended his position, killing 31 attackers before the Japanese beat a retreat.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Armed Forces’ highest award for valour, after the war and died in 2010 at the age of 92.