The unknown Argentine heroes of the second war
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They fought as members of the Allied forces in the greatest conflagration in history against fascism. Many of them died without being recognized, others tell their story now for the first time
Fourth of July, 1944. The beaches of Normandy are the scene of one of the most famous battles in history. Through the sky, they cross two Spitfire aircraft from the RAF, the Royal British Air Force. On the other side, in the same sky, forty German planes. Two against forty, that simple.
RAF pilots don’t cower. On the contrary, they face the German formation in front to disperse them and, given to the persecution, they demolish two planes each one. The German unit Richthofen embarks on the retreat. The sky of Normandy opens free for the victors, and crosses the beaches without knowing that there, that very July 4 1944, a group of journalists visits the theater of war. It is these chroniclers who write the feat that will leave these two pilots, Kenneth Charney and Pierre Clostermann, in the great history of the twentieth century.
But that same big story will forget one detail: none of those two RAF pilots were really British. Clostermann, famous French pilot and remembered by many for his emotional letter to Argentine aviators of the Malvinas, was in fact Brazilian. and Kenneth Charney, baptized as the Black Knight of Malta-one of the best and most fearsome pilots of the second war-was an Argentinean born in Quilmes, enrolled as a volunteer to fight against fascism.
There were about 4500 Argentines who presented their own will to fight alongside the Allies in the second war. While most were men, there were also many women who served. For years, no one rescued their stories. They weren’t even forgotten. Simply, no one knew them, except one man (which we will then present). But the rest of the people don’t. Or did anyone ever hear the story of Stanley Coggan? Do you know the name of Pedro Davreux? Do you know who Irma Weys, Ronnie Scott or Peter Harrison are? Fame is a cheating animal lying on the skirt of false gods. But what does fame matter, they would say, if in the end it fulfilled the task. True? What does fame matter if the prize was to live in a world where there is no Hitler.
Of those 4500 men and women, some live. To 17 of them, those who were located and were in a position to attend (all are over 90 years old), were honored last September at the National Congress. “The Argentine state took a long while to recognize them. They had no doubts, they were not sent by the government, but they were to defend the freedom. They knew very well what to do when the Argentine Government was not clear on what role to take. They have been generous in offering their lives for a free world, said Congresswoman Lucila Lehmann of the Civic Coalition, one of the organizers of the homage together with the deputies Marcela Campagnoli and Elisa Carrió. In addition to giving them a diploma, it was recalled the presentation of a bill, still without resolution, which proposes to appoint May 8 as the day of the Argentine volunteer of the Allied forces in the Second World War.
Let’s continue with our pilot from Normandy. Son of an Englishman installed in Argentina, Kenneth Charney was born in 1929 in the Buenos Aires suburbs, but grew up in Bahía Blanca. I was 19 when World War II broke out. Like so many other Argentines, he appeared as a volunteer to join the Allied forces against Nazism. At the end of 1941 he came into battle for the first time in the legendary defense of Malta. There he knocked down his first plane. Aboard a Spitfire, it is said of him that in total he topped 12 enemy aircraft, a very high number for any pilot. It was undoubtedly the most feared of the Argentine aviators in the great conflagration of the twentieth century.
His tactic of attacking in front of the squadrons of German planes to disperse them and perserguirlos one of them earned him the nickname of Black Knight. Later he met and had to his orders to the aforementioned Clostermann, one of the most famous pilots of the conflict-23 demolitions!-, with whom they attacked together Normandy, with the same strategy.
He had countless missions. In December 1944 he was sent to Sri Lanka to prepare an attack in Southeast Asia. But the mission never happens. The conflict ends and he continues his career in the RAF until 1970, when he retires as a colonel and Avoca to a completely different life. He becomes a hippie wandering in a van for Europe. He died of cirrhosis in Andorra, also affected by a cancer caused by exposure to radioactive material on the Christmas Island, where he was on mission during nuclear experiments.
There is a scene that few know: Charney is greeted at Buckingham Palace in 1944 by King George VI. It is accompanied by Argentine ambassador Miguel Ángel Cano. There, you will be decorated for what is done in Normandy. But the news will not reach our country or the shores of his house in Quilmes. Never, even today.
Peter Harrison is 94 years old and lives in the country, in Ameghino. He was a student at St. George’s School when the conflict erupted. The director entered his class and announced them: England declared war on Germany. As soon as he heard it, he knew that he would not finish his studies, he would have to participate in that war. “I passed a shiver through the body. My father had been a career officer, so there was a certain tradition… That’s why I knew instantly that when I turned 18, I was going to have to go. I knew that and I didn’t think about it until the time came. ”
That was the end of the school as a volunteer and, in April 1942, he left for England. He registered and sent him to Canada to perform his training as an artillery soldier. Already formed he returned to Europe, where he began his training to be an officer. Was 1944. “The Allies were already expected to move forward in Europe, but troops were needed to combat Japan, which was not surrendered. So they asked for volunteers to go to India and I enlisted. I didn’t hesitate. I wasn’t scared. I knew what could happen, but. What will be, will be, right? If you were frightened, life would become impossible. So we went on a boat. I liked to sit on the bow and look at the waves, sometimes there were dolphins that swam beside us. Since I was a gunner, I was in charge for the nights of guarding, in case a fighter or a bomber crossed us. He was sure that if a German plane appeared, he would take it down, he had no doubts, “he says in his family’s house in Martínez, where he comes to visit once in a while.
“What did he think of Hitler? It was disgusting. It had to be liquidated. It was all that one did not want to be a leader. Violent, murderer. A madman. Can you imagine living under the Nazi control regime? No justice, no right, no freedom. Once, a long time later, I was traveling in a group here in Argentina and had a blond boy next door. It turned out that he was German and that he had been part of the SS, one of the most violent factions. I don’t know what I said, and he said, ‘ It’s that I didn’t come in voluntarily. They came to high school when they were 17 years old asking for volunteers for the SS and those who did not want to enter, were to be sent to the Russian front without training. ‘ And he told me that before he fought the Russians, he preferred to enter the SS, what I know. In any case, I am very happy to have offered to face that atrocity. ”
Another unknown hero. Son of Belgian parents, was born in 1912 in Buenos Aires. After completing his studies, the Argentine army summoned him for compulsory military service. The weapons were not in the plans of Peter, who by then was already engaged in dealing with European clients in his father’s company. He claimed he would do military training in the Belgian army and was excused. Shortly after, it was the Belgian army that summoned him to serve. He refused, giving up his second citizenship.
Soon after, however, peace in the world ended. His European clients began to tell Peter the horror that was beginning to be lived, the Nazi occupations, the exiles, the abuses. Then he was born in it a vocation that was dodging: he went to the Embassy of Belgium in Buenos Aires and enlisted as a volunteer. He did not want to provide compulsory service; I wanted to fight Hitler.
He wasn’t the only one in his family. His brother John also enlisted, and his mother and two sisters traveled to their hometown in Belgium to offer assistance and support their own. Years later, the story will end with Peter falling into a parachute while his flaming plane crashed into the firmament. In between the following story happened, rebuilt here thanks to the work of the writer Claudio Meunier, the man mentioned at the beginning, specialist in the subject and author, among others, of flew to live, where he tells stories of some of these heroes. He, with his work and dedication, was one of the first to pay homage to him. It is also who found the tomb of the Black Knight of Malta in Andorra and regained his story, which is writing for his next book. Before, he also managed to repatriate the remains and bury them in Chacarita. It was vital for this note (those who want to contact him or get his book, he offered to communicate his mail: [email protected]).
Let’s go back to Peter’s story, then. He arrives in Canada in May 1941 to perform his training. It is formed as a private and in August of that year, up to Great Britain. In April 1942 it is recruited for the Belgian section of the RAF. They don’t recognize his training and send him back to Canada. Stoic, performs the same tasks again, the same body to ground, the same rituals of discipline. He’s about 28 and he’s old to be a pilot. They offer you to be a bomb launcher and suggest you change your name if you fall prisoner of the Germans. Then Louis Robert is baptized.
He returns to Europe, now, ready for war, and it is the war who receives it: he is informed that his mother and sisters were captured by the Nazis for assisting Allied pilots shot down, and sent to the extermination camp of Mauthausen.
The first revenge will have it on August 27, 1944, on board of a Halifax, on a mission on the German city of Hamburg. Thereafter, it begins to have missions, one after the other, until September 23. After attacking a railway training center, his plane is hit by a Messerchmitt night fighter and after several maneuvers, his commander orders to leave the aircraft. He parachutes, along with another partner. The ship, with the pilot and another soldier on board, bursts into the ground. The parachute of the one who pulls along with him never opens. Peter’s yes, about the hour, and though he survives he hurts the spine when he falls. They will save it then some Dutch locals, who will keep it hidden until they arrive to rescue him. He will be sent to England. Months later, after being interned and recovering, he rejoins his brother Juan and receives the news that his mother has been killed in the extermination camp, but his sisters were rescued with a young Belgian named Claire. Peter will marry him on August 6th, 1946. She’ll be back in Argentina with her. With it it rests since January 17, 2003, in the vault of the family Davreux in the cemetery of Namur, Belgium.
He remembers the day he had to get his plane down in the water. “The engine stopped working, it was just planted. And I had to entertain. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time, but the Navy teaches you that you’re not dead until you are. Then, Planché to the plane, I put the most appropriate speed to control it, I lowered his nose and when I saw the wave was coming I did the glide. And so I landed it in the water. It came out perfect, but I hit a blow to the head tremendously. I’ve been unconscious for two or three seconds, but if we’re sitting here drinking tea, it’s because it looks as if I survived, right? ” He who speaks is perhaps one of the pilots of his most recognized generation. It is 101 years old, it is called Ronald David Scott-it is known as Ronnie-, and was one of the 270 Argentine pilots of the RAF.
“The British community here was aware of what was going on. He had already fought the Germans in ‘ 14. They knew what they were. You couldn’t forgive what you were doing. It was something concrete and inescapable. In our country many times things happen and nothing is done. There’s a phrase I’ve heard so many times that it says, ‘ and, well. ‘ But at that moment you could not say ‘ and… well ‘. We had to do something and we did, “he says.
Life wanted its relationship to armed conflict not to end there: Almost forty years later it would be his son who was a pilot of the army. With a difference: I would not fly in defense of the British Crown, but against, as part of the Argentine Army.
John Gifford’s Stower was born on September 15, 1916 in the province of Jujuy. He enlisted as a volunteer and was part of the RAF as a pilot for a Wellington bomber. After several missions, his plane was shot down and fell into the water. He survived along with all the crew, but were captured by the German army and sent to Stalag Luft III, a prison camp. From there he managed to escape and let himself be recaptured to start a larger plan: to organize a massive escape.
They did so: 75 British prisoners, many of them from the RAF, escaped from that prison. However, they were recaptured. By direct order of Hitler, who felt that his army had been embarrassed with the escape, 50 of those prisoners were executed, among them, the Argentine John Gifford Stower, one of the brains of that great escape. He was shot somewhere in a German forest.
His story itself was immortalized: he is one of the characters of the film The Great Escape (1963), with Steve McQueen and James Garner. But again a detail is omitted: that free man was also Argentinian.
Stanley takes my hand. Thank you, he says. Thank you. In his eyes there are two crescents of tears. They don’t fall, they’re contained under their red eyes. Despite his 94 years, he has a strong voice. It takes a while to walk through an injury that drags on the spine since his plane had to land emergency, on April 1, 1945, in German territory. But it has a strong character like an oak. The Coggan Oak , aboard a Halifax, flying flush to stop fascism. Someone could write their legend in the many chronicles of the Great War. It will be written now, in these lines that arrive, in your case, in time. Although not all heroes could wait, he did.
The car noises enter through the balcony of your house, a first floor in Lomas de Zamora. There are badges from different countries hanging on the wall. An original coat of arms, a Viking sign, welcome Danish posters. He collects his son, Danny, who receives US telling family stories. In the room, two honorary diplomas coexist: one to Stanley’s father on behalf of the British Crown, for having fought in the First World War. Another, next to the Congress of the Argentine nation, to him, for having fought in the second.
“In 1942 I turned 18 and told my father I wanted to go volunteer. He told me he couldn’t stop me because he was also a volunteer in ‘ 14. And that’s how Zarpé on December 10th of that year, convinced. I had always been a defender of democracy. And before Hitler came to Argentina, he was going to fight no matter where he went. He really was a man without a heart. He liked to be what he was: a dictator, “he says.
He carried out 14 missions aboard a Halifax Quadbikes and 15 in a Lancaster. “What did he feel while he was piloting?” he repeats after listening to the question. It does not take long to answer: “Nothing. We took two pills: one to not numb, because we had many missions at night, and another for emotional tranquility. So I felt calm. To be a pilot you have to have a heart of marble and forget all the rest. Because there’s so much to do that’s impossible if you don’t. There is a goal and must be fulfilled, and that is how we won the war, “he recalls.
On April 3, 1945, it was all over. He was sent to bomb a railway hub in the Ruhr area, Germany. It was the day that the peace pills stopped working. Stanley had worked more than two years in a central railway station in his native climbing remedies, south of Buenos Aires suburbs. And now he had to destroy some sort of model of his home. He did, though.
“I was bombing and I felt very affected. Can you imagine what it meant to me? It was like bombing my house. And that made me sick. It made Me sick. So, as I returned, I was stunned, and a shrapnel of anti-aircraft cannons came to destroy one of the aircraft’s internal engines and injured my leg. Besides, he left the landing engine broken. I warned the base and they told me to entertain in the channel of La Mancha, ie, to land in the water. I’ve got juice, I responded. I have oil, I have juice! Do your best to get to Dover, they responded to me, South of England. Then, I gave the order to remove heavy material, and among all the things that ruled out threw my parachute, which included my seat cushion. So I had to land forcibly without landing gear and sitting in a metal seat. And I did it, nothing happened to the crew, but I hurt a lot the base of the spine and leg. It was my last assignment. I spent 30 days in the hospital and after five days of leaving, on May 8th, 1945, the nightmare is over. ”
When he found out, he knelt down and looked at the sky. It was a lot of people who then looked to heaven to thank. “I had chosen to be a pilot because, of all the possibilities I had, being in heaven was the one that put you closer to God,” he says.
“Thank you, I thought. My bit of sand worked, I thought. God helped me. Yes, I thought so. And to this day I still think the same: God helps me to be 94 years old and to stand. ”
He was demobilized on 25 July 1946. The 27th got on the boat and 29 left London. A month he was in Buenos Aires, going with other comrades to a grill on Corrientes Avenue.
-What do you feel, Stanley? What does it mean to have been there?
-I think it is part of my story. I’ve been through pretty things, ugly things. But I always proyectándome to something better. I can not complain about what I have lived, and especially at this time, where we need to all pull on the same side. The cinch is all or nothing, and I was very close to nothing. That’s why I pray in the morning and at night for peace and tranquility, and that we can see the pretty things in this world. War, No. I don’t want to know any more about wars. If there was another war, I’d throw myself off the balcony, because wars bring nothing. We have to throw them all together. We must do it in Argentina, Carajo. We must all throw together.