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December 2011 Edition

Inside a Nazi Christmas Party, 1941
Swastikas and Tannenbaum
The image is chilling, bordering on surreal: On December 18, 1941, as World War II rages and countless innocents endure the horrors of the Third Reich's "final solution" -- killing operations at the Chelmno death camp, for instance, began less than two weeks before -- Adolf Hitler presides over a Christmas party in Munich. 

Stark, jarring swastika armbands offset the glint of ornaments and tinsel dangling from a giant Tannenbaum; festive candles illuminate the scene. Confronted with the image, the question naturally arises: How could Nazi leaders reconcile an ideology of hatred and conquest with the peaceful, joyous spirit of the Christian holiday -- much less its celebration of the Jewish-born Christ? 

Here, presents astonishing photos from this unsettling affair, and the equally remarkable story behind them.

Nazi Beer Hall Bash
In a shot captured by Hugo Jaeger, one of Hitler's personal photographers, huge streamers of tinsel hang from the rafters of the Löwenbräukeller beer hall, where SS officers and cadets sit down for a feast. 

The Nazi Christmas photos published here were part of an enormous stash of color transparencies Jaeger buried in glass jars on the outskirts of Munich in 1945, near the war's end. Advancing Allied forces had almost discovered the pictures during an earlier search of a a house where Jaeger was staying (a bottle of cognac on top of the transparencies distracted the troops), and Jaeger -- justifiably terrified that the photos would serve as evidence of his own ardent Nazism -- cached them in the ground. A decade later, he exhumed the pictures; 10 years after that, he sold them to LIFE, which published a handful in 1970. 

The Reason for the Season?
"We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem. It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion." These were words of Nazi propagandist Friedrich Rehm in 1937, in pre-war attempts to take religion out of the holiday by harking back to the pagan Julfest, a Germanic festival of the winter solstice that was later absorbed into Christmas. (An eye-opening 2009 exhibit at Cologne's National Socialism Documentation Centre displayed early Nazi propaganda employed to make over the holidays: swastika-shaped cookie-cutters; sunburst tree-toppers, to replace the traditional ornament Nazis feared looked too much like the Star of David; and rewritten lyrics to carols that excised all references to Christ.) But by the time of the 1941 Christmas party featured here, with World War II at its height -- America had officially entered the fray just weeks earlier -- the focus shifted to more practical matters. Rather than trying to dissuade millions of Germans from celebrating Christmas the way they always had, the Reich instead encouraged them to send cards and care packages to the troops.
Bad Tidings We Bring
As for the religious views of Hitler himself, the evidence is conflicting: In public statements he sometimes praised Christianity (once calling it "the foundation of our national morality"), but in private conversations -- including one recalled by the Third Reich's official architect, Albert Speer -- the Führer is said to have abhorred the faith for what he deemed its "meekness and flabbiness." 

Hitler did, however, fervently worship one thing above all else: the Aryan race. And by the time Hugo Jaeger took the photos seen here, Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, commanding general of the SS, had articulated and launched their plan for creating a "master" race -- via, in large part, the extermination of Europe's Jews.

Loyal to the SS
With beer steins, candles, and traditional holiday garlands set on the table before them, German officers and cadets peer into Hugo Jaeger's camera at the 1941 Waffen-SS Christmas dinner. 

Among the more disturbing items on display at the 2009 Cologne exhibition of Nazi Christmas memorabilia: a "Yule lantern," a Germanic candlestick that had been mass-produced, on Heinrich Himmler's orders, by the prisoners of the Dachau concentration camp. 

They were handed out as gifts to to the SS troops -- in other words, to men like those seen here.

Here, the one frame from the Christmas party that was published by LIFE magazine in its April 24, 1970, issue. 

And here, in the caption that ran underneath it, a possible explanation for Hitler's glum expression: "In 1941, Hitler gave this Christmas party for his generals. 

Though he dominated his officers and came to despise them, Hitler never felt socially at ease with them -- they had better backgrounds and education. 

He never invited them to dinner, aware that they looked down on the old comrades he liked to have around."

Christmas, One Year Later ...
In 1942, Russian soldiers aim their rifles from behind snow-covered rubble as they defend the Red October metallurgical factory from German troops during the savage, seven-month Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans intended to win the factory as a Christmas present for Hitler; instead, Russian troops held it for the duration of the conflict. The crushing defeat marked the first time the Nazi government acknowledged failure to the German people. As losses mounted and the tide of the entire war began to clearly and inexorably turn against Germany, the Nazis again tried to tweak the meaning of Christmas, celebrating it not as an uneasy melding of resurrected paganism and diluted Christianity, but as a remembrance of the Reich's fallen. But by the time the long, hard winter of 1942 was half-over, such propaganda had begun to ring hollow.

Ghost of the Dambusters dog
Picture 'shows long-dead Labrador' at memorial to WWII heroes
Historians are sceptical about the possibility of a ghost dog 
but are happy for anything to keep alive the memory of the Dambusters' work in their Lancaster bombers
Daily Mail ~ November 2, 2011
He was the loyal companion of the Dambusters hero whose extraordinary bravery enthralled the nation. Now ghost hunters believe the spectre of the Dambusters' canine mascot is still faithfully guarding his master's old quarters. They are convinced that the wraiths of both Wing Commander Guy Gibson and his chocolate–coloured Labrador haunt the remote airfield from which the audacious raid was launched. 

Ghost of a chance? This apparition of a Labrador which appears 
between the two banks of choristers
is one of the photos said to show the Dambusters' mascot

Investigators decided to step in after a mysterious photograph emerged of what looks like Gibson's long-dead dog sitting at his master's memorial. The picture, taken in the 1980s, shows a Labrador among a school group at a memorial to the Dambusters, close to where Gibson's dog was buried. The photographer is said to have claimed the dog appeared from nowhere just as the photo was being taken, refusing to be shooed away. As soon as the photo was taken, the dog disappeared, never to be seen again. After staking out the base at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, now the home of the Red Arrows, ghost hunters are convinced it is haunted by a ghostly Labrador. The lead investigator, Paul Drake, said: There is definitely paranormal activity there. Ghost dog: Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, (right), with his devoted labrador and some fellow officers

Devoted: Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, (right), with his Labrador and fellow officers

'One of our investigators felt a cold spot and when we measured it, it was eighteen inches, which is about the height of a dog. 'The curator of the museum has told us that he has felt for years that he has had a presence following him and he definitely feels that it is that of a dog.' One investigator who stayed overnight at the base last month even claimed she heard a dog growling when she entered Gibson's former office. 'I definitely heard the growl of a dog', said Michelle Clements, 45. 'Three of us heard it and we all agreed it was a dog. It was a really low growl. It wasn't a happy yap at all. It sounded sounded like he was warning us to stay away.'

Remember them: Historians are sceptical about the possibility of a ghost dog 
but are happy for anything to keep alive the memory of 
the Dambusters' work in their Lancaster bombers

After scouring the base with infra-red lights, proximity sensors and video cameras, the team say they picked up activity which suggests the pilot was trying to speak to them. 'I do believe we spoke with Guy Gibson,' Miss Clements, a school dinner lady from Leicester, said. 'We asked him if he was with his girlfriend Margaret and he said yes. We also played some old music from the 40s and there was a response to that as well.'

Gibson's Labrador, Nigger, was the mascot for the squadron that launched an audacious night-time raid on three heavily defended dams deep in Germany's industrial heartland using bouncing bombs. Their success was immortalised in the classic 1954 film The Dambusters, its thrilling theme tune and gung-ho script evoking the best of British derring-do.

Celebrated feats: Actor Richard Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson 
with the dog who played Nigger in the 1955 film The Dam Busters

The Labrador's name was used as a code word whenever one of Germany's Ruhr Dams was breached during the mission. Tragically, he had been run over and killed outside the base just hours before the raid and, fearing it was a bad omen, heartbroken Gibson ordered the death to be kept secret and the dog to be buried quickly outside his office next to the squadron hangar.

Gibson himself returned from the mission and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery, but was later killed in 1944, when his Mosquito crashed in Holland during a raid. The story of the Dambusters is now set to be retold in a new film by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson – although the dog is to be renamed Digger as the original name is now recognised as an offensive term.

Jim Shortland, a historian who specialises in the Dambusters, said he was sceptical about the paranormal but welcomed the investigation. 'What they expect to find I don't know,' he said. 'But I think anything that helps to keep the memory alive of the things those lads did in the Second World War is a good thing.'

Howard Hughes & The Spruce Goose
Ref: | Photos

Howard Hughes: American Enigma
Industrialist, aviator, movie mogul, recluse -- Howard Hughes was one of the most accomplished and mysterious figures America has ever produced ... and, in many ways, one of the most pitiable. Above: Hughes climbs into the cockpit of his Northrop Gamma H-1 plane (refitted with an engine he helped re-design and re-tool) on January 18, 1937, prior to breaking the speed record for transcontinental flight. He took off from Burbank, Calif., and landed in Newark, New Jersey, 7 hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds later, besting his own 1936 record time by almost two full hours.

The 'Spruce Goose'
The "Spruce Goose," a massive sea plane designed and built (largely out of wood) by Hughes, pictured under construction in 1947. Today, the plane is probably the engineering feat for which Hughes is best-remembered -- although, at the time, scandals around the costs and methods of its creation almost destroyed Hughes and his company, Hughes Aircraft.

Sharp-Dressed Man
Hughes, who was one of the wealthiest and most dashing figures of the 1930s, was an engineering prodigy as a young boy growing up in Texas. In 1916, when he was 11, he built the first radio transmitter ever used in Houston. He was forever tinkering with engines and electrical devices, re-designing and make them more efficient, more powerful, more useful, better. But by the time he was in his early 20s, he had discovered another lucrative talent, and was living the high life in Los Angeles, producing Hollywood movies.

Howard Hughes: Fastest 'Round the World
Even in the midst of his Hollywood success, Hughes continued to fly, and shatter distance and speed records. Here, he sits in a car with New York Mayor Fiorello "Little Flower" LaGuardia, who lights a pipe as the car leaves Floyd Bennett Airfield in New York, July 14, 1938. Hughes, exhausted and unkempt, and his crew of three had just landed his plane at the field after setting a new speed record for flying around the world (3 days, 19 hours, and 12 minutes -- more than four days faster than the old record). 

Building Hercules
When Hughes was contracted by the U.S. government in the mid-1940s to build a military troop-transport plane, he responded in his usual modest style and set about creating the H-4 Hercules, a massive wooden plane later famously dubbed the "Spruce Goose" which would, when completed, be by far the largest flying machine ever built. The plane was actually made of birch, not spruce: the contract required that the aircraft be built of "non-strategic materials" during the war. But the nickname -- which Hughes hated -- stuck.

The Spruce Goose: View Toward the Tail

Spruce Goose: View Toward the Cockpit
The Goose was 219 feet long, with an awe-inspiring wingspan of nearly 320 feet. (Boeing 747s, by contrast, have wingspans ranging from 195 feet in the earliest models to 224 feet in today's 747-8 class.) Hughes' plane had a tail height of nearly 80 feet -- roughly that of an eight-story building.

Transport Titan
Despite its enormous size, the Goose was meant to be flown with a crew of only three people. Its planned "cargo," meanwhile, was impressive: up to 750 fully-equipped troops, or one 35-ton M4 Sherman tank. Here Hughes and a colleague check one of the plane's huge instrument panels.

The Aviator
Hughes sits in the Spruce Goose, under construction in 1947. "I want to be remembered for only one thing," the billionaire once said, "and that's my contribution to aviation." 

Senate Hearings: 'The Sweat of My Life'
Hughes testifies before a Senate committee after being accused by Sen. Owen Brewster (R-Maine) of misusing $40 million in government funds during the development of two planes: the F-11 and the HK-1 ("Spruce Goose"), neither of which was ever successfully delivered to the government. During the hearings, which ended inconclusively, Hughes stirringly defended his work on the HK-1: "The Hercules was a monumental undertaking. It is the largest aircraft ever built .... I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it's a failure I'll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it."

Fixing to Fly
Hughes, looking miniscule, stands atop the prototype of the HK-1, directing operations for pulling it away from its dry dock on Terminal Island, Long Beach, for a test flight in Los Angeles Harbor, November 1947.

Pilot Hughes
November 2, 1947: Howard Hughes sits in the cockpit of the Spruce Goose on the day of its celebrated, long-delayed test flight.

Thing of Beauty
A portrait of the HK-1 by LIFE photographers Allan Grant and J.R. Eyerman captures something often overlooked when people discuss the mammoth plane. Namely, its sheer, sleek aesthetic power. Putting aside for a moment the technical complexities and challenges inherent in designing a flying vessel of this size, one can focus on the beauty of the thing: a monumental sculpture that looks like something Brancusi might craft -- if the great Romanian sculptor dabbled in aeronautics.

No Turning Back
Howard Hughes and his co-pilot, David Grant, jockey the Spruce Goose into position for takeoff.

Speeding Toward History
Accompanied by a scattered flotilla, the HK-1 races across Los Angeles Harbor, gathering speed for the moment that Hughes' numerous and vocal detractors were certain would never come: liftoff.

Liftoff: November 2, 1947
Hughes and co-pilot Grant (a hydraulic engineer who did not have a pilot's license) fly the Goose over Los Angeles Harbor. The plane flew only once, at about 70 feet above the water for just about a mile. But it was a triumph for Hughes, who for years had been fighting allegations that the plane was nothing but a boondoggle kept alive by the grandiose dreams of a crazy man. After this vindication of his singular vision, Hughes put his considerable energy and almost limitless money behind defeating (and, in fact, humiliating) the loudest of the plane's opponents, Sen. Brewster of Maine. Brewster lost the 1952 Senate race, and never held office again.

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