How a teenage Audrey Hepburn escaped a Nazi brothel… and other intriguing stories of how those who went on to become famous survived the last dreadful days of the war
21:04 GMT, 6 April 2012
On a road near Lake Como, a black Fiat saloon pulled up by the roadside.
A man with a gun jumped out and forced out the other occupants, who included a thickset, bald man of 61, his famous hypnotic eyes now clouded with fear, and his lover, a beautiful young woman who was weeping and clinging to him.
The couple were ordered to stand against a wall. The gunman spoke few words about death and justice for the Italian people, then raised his weapon.
Starlets: Audrey Hepburn (left) and Sophia Loren (right) were both thrust into the limelight after struggling to survive during the Second World War
‘You can’t do that!’ shouted the woman, you can’t shoot Mussolini!’ The gunman, an Italian partisan, ordered her to get away from him, but she refused. He pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. The gun had jammed. The man hurriedly took another gun. Benito Mussolini was a bully and a coward who had been caught trying to flee Italy in disguise as the Allies advanced through the country. But now he managed to summon a faade of bravery.
Throwing open his coat, he faced the partisan squarely: ‘Shoot me in the chest,’ he ordered.
This time the gun did not jam. The first bullet hit his mistress. Clara Petacci fell to the ground, dead.
Mussolini, meanwhile, slid to the ground. Walking over, the partisan shot him again at close range. Mussolini jerked convulsively. Then he was still.
Siren: Known as 'the toothpick' during the war, Sophia Loren never
expected she would go on to be a Hollywood star. Pictured here in The
The news travelled swiftly. In England, Winston Churchill was delighted at the demise of the dictator. In Germany, Hitler made no comment when handed the news on a slip of paper. He had already announced that he had no intention of being taken alive by the Russians who were encircling Germany.
None of them could have suspected that
years later she would become a movie star after catching the eye of
film producer Carlo Ponti when she entered a beauty contest in Naples at
the age of 14.
her mentor and, eventually, her husband. But at the end of the war, she
was just a hungry child, another innocent victim of the war that had
starved, dehumanised and killed millions across Europe.
death on April 28, 1945, heralded the start of five days that saw the
death of two fascist dictators, and the fall of Berlin — which
effectively brought World War II to an end.
Mussolini’s battered body swung in Milan, the Allies and Soviets raced
to liberate Europe as the German Reich crumbled. But while generals and
politicians were deciding Europe’s future, most people were concerned
merely with survival.
a riveting new book tells the story of those tumultuous five days at
the end of the war, including the experiences of ordinary people, some
of whom would later lead extraordinary and famous lives.
Sophia Loren and her family were anxiously wondering what would happen
to them after Mussolini’s death, in Arnhem in Holland, another young
girl was on the point of starvation.
The Allies had tried to take the town in September 1944. But Operation Market Garden had failed, and by April 1945, the Dutch were so starving that they were reduced to frying tulip bulbs, their ragged clothing hanging loose on their gaunt frames. That spring so many died of starvation that they ran out of coffins to bury them
Fifteen-year-old Audrey Hepburn-Ruston had been hovering close to death for months, sick with jaundice, her legs and feet swollen from oedema caused by malnutrition, so weak with hunger that she could barely climb the stairs in her grandfather’s home, just outside Arnhem.
Beautiful: During the Second World War Audrey Hepburn-Ruston had been hovering close to death for months and was so weak with hunger she could barely climb the stairs
Audrey’s mother was a Dutch aristocrat, but her father was English and they had been living in Britain before the war.
Following her parents’ divorce, when war began Audrey’s mother took her back to Holland, believing they would be safer as it was neutral. But the Germans invaded in 1940 and the young Audrey watched her Jewish neighbours being herded into trucks, men into one truck, women into another, babies into another.
‘We did not yet know that they were going to their death,’ she would remember years later.
She lived in fear of being kidnapped and taken to a military brothel as so many other girls had been. She was once picked up by the Germans to work on their kitchens but managed to escape.
She began working for the Resistance, carrying messages in her shoes.
But in April 1945 as the fighting came closer, she and her family took refuge in the cellar as the Germans and Allies fought from house to house. ‘Once in a while, you’d go up and see how much of your house was left, and then you’d go back under again,’ she recalled.
Icon: Audrey Hepburn lived in fear of being kidnapped and taken to a military brothel as so many other girls had been
Then on the morning of April 29, the shelling and shooting stopped. Audrey heard voices and singing, and smelt English cigarettes. They crept upstairs and opened the front door to find the house surrounded by English soldiers all aiming their guns at them.
‘I screamed with happiness, seeing all these cocky figures with dirty bright faces and shouted something in English … a cheer went up that they’d liberated an English girl.’
At the war’s end, she returned to London and began training as a ballet dancer, but her slight physique meant that she would never reach the top.
She became a chorus girl then had a series of small parts in British films before being picked for the lead role in the play Gigi on Broadway aged 22, which in turn launched her Hollywood career.
In the week she was liberated by British troops in Holland, far away to the east, BBC journalist Richard Dimbleby — father of David and Jonathan — was reporting from the liberated concentration camp Belsen on the living skeletons he encountered there.
He saw corpses with their liver and kidneys cut out by their Nazi captors, evidence of cannibalism, and men and women thrown still alive into the crematorium. His editors didn’t believe him and refused to broadcast it.
Respected: Richard Dimbleby saw corpses with their liver and kidneys cut out by Nazi captors at Camp Belsen
Not until a furious Dimbleby threatened to resign did they agree to transmit a toned down version. As the British began to organise the burial of the stinking corpses — among them that of 15-year-old diarist Anne Frank — soldiers hurried to bring rations to the starving survivors.
One of them was a young Scots Guard, Lieutenant Robert Runcie. The future Archbishop of Canterbury was known as ‘Killer’ because of the lack of hesitation with which he despatched the enemy: he was later awarded the Military Cross for bravery. He was wondering how much longer Hitler would hold out. Not much longer was the answer.
Ruthless: Young Scots Guard, Lieutenant Robert Runcie, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, was known as 'Killer'
On April 30, as Russian artillery pounded the Reich Chancellery, in his underground bunker 30ft below the Fuhrer realised that the end had come. He ate a gloomy last lunch with his staff then retired to his room with Eva.
But while Hitler and Eva prepared to die, upstairs in the Chancellery canteen a party was in full swing. For the last few days, as it became clear that there would be no escape from the Chancellery, the soldiers and secretaries trapped there had sought distraction in drink and sex.
An SS doctor in the Chancellery was astonished to see generals chasing half-naked female office staff around and group sex going on in dark corners.
‘The more discreet retired to Dr Kunz’s dentist chair upstairs. The chair seemed to have a special erotic attraction. The wilder women enjoyed being strapped in and made love to in a variety of novel positions.’
Some time after lunch, a shot rang out. Hitler was dead.
Elsewhere in Germany, a teenage conscript, Joseph Ratzinger, managed to desert without being caught. As he fled from his comrades and contemplated the ruin of his nation, it must surely not have entered his wildest dreams that 60 years later he would be anointed as Pope.
It was on May 2 that the battle for Berlin ended. The Berlin garrison commander ordered his troops to stop fighting, and formally surrendered to the Russians.
Later that day, the German army in Italy surrendered, too.
Far to the south of Berlin, Kurt Vonnegut, an American soldier who had been taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, was in a prisoner of war camp in Dresden.
When the Allies had bombed the city in 1945, killing an estimated 25,000 people, he’d taken shelter during the raid in an abattoir named Slaughterhouse Five. In the aftermath, as he helped the Germans clear the dead, he felt only shame for humanity.
In the days after Hitler died, Vonnegut was still a prisoner in the camp, from which he was eventually released. But his harrowing experiences at Dresden would later inspire his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Some of Vonnegut’s fellow countrymen, who had risked their lives in combat, found safety back across the Atlantic.
In the last week of April 1945, future American president Lieutenant Jack Kennedy — who’d won a medal for valour in the Pacific as a torpedo boat commander and been honourably discharged from the Navy — was sent by his father Joe to a United Nations conference in San Francisco.
Veterans: Author Kurt Vonnegut, an American soldier who had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, was in a prisoner of war camp in Dresden. Joseph Heller, later the celebrated writer of Catch 22, flew 60 missions as a bombadier in Italy with the U.S. Airforce’s 488th squadron
Meanwhile, Joseph Heller, later the celebrated author of Catch 22, had made it home to Texas. Heller, who’d flown 60 missions as a bombadier in Italy with the U.S. Airforce’s 488th squadron, later admitted: ‘The enemy was trying to kill me, and I wanted to go home.’
Back in Europe, it was on May 7, 1945, that Germany’s new leader Admiral Doenitz finally agreed to unconditional surrender, which came into effect at midnight on May 8.
All over Europe people were making their way home, hoping to be reunited with loved ones who had been wrenched from them by war. In Krakow, Poland, 11-year-old Roman Polanski was one of the lucky few who had escaped when the Germans rounded up the Jews from the ghetto.
His parents were less fortunate: first his mother then his father were taken, leaving Polanski to live almost feral, roaming the streets with other boys.
In the days after the end of the war, he made his way to the train station, where he hoped to find his parents among those returning from the camps. Though he watched bitterly as other reunions took place, his parents never came. After the war he was reunited with his father, but Polanski never saw his mother again.
Jewish businessman Otto Frank, meanwhile, was making the long journey back from Auschwitz to Amsterdam.
Though he knew that his wife was dead, he prayed that his daughters Anne and Margot had survived. But when he got to Amsterdam, he learned that they had died, too. All that remained of them was Anne’s diary of their time in hiding.
Like millions of others all over Europe, Runcie, Ratzinger, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and all the others began picking up the pieces of their lives. They had survived, but like everyone else who had endured those horrifying years, they would be forever marked by trauma of war.
Adapted from Five Days That Shocked The World, by Nicholas Best, published by Osprey at 17.99. Copyright 2012 Nicholas Best. To order this book for 15 (p&p free) call 0843 382 000.