The Worst Roles You Could Be Assigned In World War 2
Let's charge forth into the worst roles you could be assigned in WW2!History
There are some pretty bad jobs out there; like being underpaid to unblock porta-potties, or being an over-worked pot wash! But as bad as these jobs look, they don’t even come close to the horrifying, stomach-churning tasks that soldiers were assigned back in World War 2.
From being loaded into human torpedoes to detecting landmines using nothing more than their own bodies, some of these jobs were about as bad as they get. They say, “war is hell”, and you’re about to find out why, as we take a look at some of the worst roles you could be assigned during World War 2!
During the war, with planes battling it out across skies all over the world, few positions were more dangerous than that of a Ball Turret Gunner. These brave soldiers were tasked with manually operating the guns affixed to the underside of American aircraft, and were often given mere milliseconds to react to any enemies flying nearby.
Most of the Plexiglas and metal domes housing the guns were built small, some just 3 ft across, to reduce the amount of drag on the aircraft. This meant gunners had to cram themselves in and hunch in the fetal position for hours on end while in the air, with the massive .50 caliber machine guns they were firing on either side of their head.
The space was so small that the smallest member of the crew was often chosen for this duty and, even then, there wasn’t usually room for any kind of parachute! This meant that if the plane went down, the gunner had to climb back into the fuselage to equip his chute before evacuating.
There are old rumors that, to save space, there was no door attached to the ceiling of the pod, and so gunners had to climb outside the aircraft to get to the fuselage.
Thankfully, this is just a myth! But if they couldn’t get out and equip a chute in time, then the turret turned into a crashing coffin!
Being on the outside of the plane also meant they were exposed to extremely low temperatures, so low that the turret’s oxygen tanks would freeze solid! If they didn’t suffocate, icicles would form on their brows, and they’d even suffer frostbite around their mouths!
And just to make this entire endeavor even more terrifying, the ball turrets were a favored target of enemy fighters! After all, a fighter plane without its weapons is just a moving target.
Estimates vary as to how long the average Ball Turret Gunner survived, but with no official statistics, it’s thought many lasted just 2 weeks, or roughly 5 operations. Although, one previous ball turret gunner claimed the average life expectancy after taking off into enemy fire was a mere 37 seconds.
Germany’s U-boats were the most feared and respected naval submarines used during World War 2. The name “U-Boat” is an abbreviated version of the German word “Unterseeboat”, quite literally meaning “Under-sea-boat”.
They were greatly feared by the Allied forces, with the fleet of just over 1,100 U-boats alone sinking almost 3,000 allied ships by the end of the war!
But being stationed on a U-Boat was even more frightening. Most of the vessels were little over 200 ft long and 15 ft wide, meaning alongside all the tech and torpedoes, space wasn’t something afforded to the crew.
Even though 40 to 50 of them could be on board for up to 6 months at a time! The whole arrangement was so tight there was nowhere for the crew to bathe, shave, or even change clothes!
They worked in 8-hour shifts: 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for regular duty, and 8 hours to complete miscellaneous tasks. The gruelling schedule kept soldiers ready for battle twenty-four hours a day, limiting the already minimal privacy they had from each other on board.
They didn’t even have privacy on the john! With one cubicle used for storage, the entire crew had access to only one toilet. That’s one toilet for up to 50 people, so you can imagine things got very messy after a few weeks.
To make matters worse, the flush system involved hand-pumping your discharge into the ocean! They didn’t see trees, land or loved ones for months on end. Just constant contact with an overflowing toilet; talk about taking the plunge.
I can’t think of anything scarier than fighting in a war. You’d have no idea whether you’d make it back or not! But can you imagine if you were instructed not to make it back? That was the case for the Kamikaze pilots of Japan.
During the Second World War, “Kamikaze” referred to the Japanese pilots under instruction to load their plane with explosives, and then deliberately crash into their targets. Yes, to make sure they’d taken out their targets, Kamikaze pilots were obliged to take themselves out too!
What was worse, to ensure the pilots didn’t chicken out of their task, one Kamikaze plane from the war, the Ki-115, was designed to drop its landing gear upon take-off! This meant there was no safe way to land once in the air, and even if the pilot got cold feet, they’d have no choice but to carry out their final mission!
Other aircraft, like the MXY-7 Ohka had no landing gear at all and were flown into battle by other aircraft before the pilots selflessly guided them into their targets. They were basically manned bombs!
But it wasn’t always a grand sacrifice. Despite the pilot’s guidance, it’s estimated less than 20% of Kamikaze attempts actually succeeded. Essentially, allied forces were quick to adapt to this self-sacrificing tactic and lit up the sky with tracing lights so they could see the Kamikaze coming.
The low success rate and near-certain demise a Kamikaze mission presented to pilots certainly makes it one of the least appealing wartime jobs ever! But at least it was a short-term contract.
The Human Torpedo
With a job title like ‘human torpedo’ you are probably imagining that poor soldiers were crammed inside a torpedo shell and shot out into the water to destroy passing enemies! Or they rode it like some sort of insane, underwater cowboy!
As unbelievable as it sounds, neither of these depictions are that far from the truth! Instead of being the torpedoes, some seafaring soldiers were required to sit on top of them or, in some designs, inside them.
But why? Nowadays, torpedoes have the technology to navigate themselves. But back in the age of gramophones and telegrams, they required human guidance. The Italian SLC submarine, for example, was a converted torpedo designed back in World War 1, which accommodated two operators on top while carrying two 280lb detachable warheads on its nose.
The captain of the craft sat at the front and navigated it to their destination. When they reached an enemy ship, they dropped down and detached the warheads, with the vessel’s number 2 swimming under the ship and running the second head to the other side of their target.
After setting their charges on a timer, they drove off to safety, and waited for the underwater fireworks to start!
By World War Two, Germany had designed the Neger Submarine, where the nose of the torpedo was hollowed out and equipped with a control system.
Since the space made for the driver meant the explosives had to be removed, a second torpedo was attached to the underside. So, the driver would propel the torpedo towards its target and then detach before impact!
Clearly, it was an incredibly dangerous operation. Over 80% of human torpedoes used by Germany were lost in accidents and never got anywhere near their targets.
However, the scariest human torpedoes of all were made by Japan. They were called Kaiten, and just like the German torpedo, soldiers were placed inside rather than on top.
But of the 300 units built in the first production run, one hundred Kaiten were given the instruction to sacrifice themselves along with the torpedo. It looks like there really were human torpedoes after all!
While being up in the air sounds like hell, the seafarers of the time would argue it was even worse down on the water.
The U.S. Merchant Marines of World War 2 were tasked with making perilous journeys from the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean, to mainland Europe, Russia, or the United Kingdom to provide essential supplies for the allied war effort.
Were it not for them, the war would have been prolonged for many more months if not years!
But the length of the journey, and the importance of the mission, led to Merchant Mariners becoming a popular target for German U-Boats. Around 8,300 mariners perished at sea, 12,000 were wounded and just over 600 were taken prisoner.
Furthermore, 31 ships and their crews simply vanished without a trace! During the war, US newspapers estimated that the Merchant Marine branch was losing around 2 ships a week, but the total is now believed to be closer to 33.
All up, 1 out of every 26 Merchant Mariners didn’t make it through the war. That’s a loss rate of 3.85%, the highest of any US military branch if you discount the Air Force.
The Arctic is the northernmost part of the Earth, with Canada, Russia, Greenland, and the northern points of Scandinavia within its boundaries. These places can get extremely cold. In Murmansk, Russia, temperatures can be as low as -22° F!
During World War 2, Murmansk was one of just two Soviet ports marked for Arctic Convoys. These were seafaring soldiers sent through the bitter cold on a complicated route around Norway to deliver supplies to the Soviet Union.
As the ice came south, the route became very dangerous among the worst, coldest, and harshest faced by any Allied soldier! There was severe weather, extreme fog, strong currents, and the threat of constant darkness as the winter months closed in.
Crews fought the weather by running fans at a lower speed or blocking up vents with whatever they could find. While these tactics could heat the deck to an extent, they also significantly reduced ventilation and made diseases like tuberculosis endemic on many vessels.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg or ice build-up, to be precise! The decks became treacherously layered with thick ice, which dangerously increased the topweight of the ship. If the ice build-up got too heavy, the entire ship would capsize! So many hours were spent chipping away at the ice to avoid gasping for air in the chilling depths below!
In 1942, Josef Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union during the war, issued Order 227. The decree commanded that no Soviet soldier had the authority to retreat while in battle; “Not a step back” was the slogan.
Of course, there were some soldiers as cowardly as most of us who still took a step back anyway. As punishment, these soldiers were consigned to Shtrafbats, similar to Germany’s Strafbattalions, also known as “penal battalions”.
First used in World War 2 by fascist Germany, penal battalions were made up of criminal troops that were intentionally sent out to perform the most terrifying and dangerous jobs in the entire war.
Chief among them was “mine-clearing”, which involved clearing landmines. Penal battalions did this both by digging for the landmines but also running ahead of advancing troops to trigger them!
The very first German penal battalion was created in 1940 and was made up of more than 27,000 supposed criminals who were given the option to serve or stay in prison.
Soviet penal battalions were first used in World War 2 during the battle of Stalingrad in 1942 and, of the 929 soldiers in the battalions, just 300 survived.
It wasn’t too difficult to find yourself in a penal battalion either. During the war, more than 50,000 criminals served under a penal battalion, and a staggering 400,000 soviet soldiers convicted of offenses were assigned to one!
When you’re on an airplane, do you ever think about what’s really happening? You’re sitting in a metal tube, hurtling through the sky at 500 mph. It should be terrifying, right?
Well, when World War 2 broke out in 1939, very few Americans had ever set foot on an airplane, and the government only established a centralized air force, the USAAF, in 1941. Unfortunately, this lack of experience proved fatal.
The USA’s attempt to kickstart air force operations resulted in the deaths of at least 15,000 US airmen during training! Indeed, 15,000 Americans joined the USAAF and perished before they could even be deployed! But that’s not the only statistic that’ll make you afraid to ever fly again.
In total, the US lost more than 65,000 planes during the war, however, only around 23,000 were lost in combat. That means 42,000 planes were lost in accidents! A staggering 65% of planes in the USAAF were lost in non-combat accidents during the war! Those are some terrible survival odds!
But what led to all these fatal collisions? Because of wartime pressure, many aircraft designs were put in the air without proper testing and engine failures and fires were horrifically common.
In many cases, even when design flaws were known, there was no time to investigate and take corrective action! USAAF planes like the B-26 Marauders were renowned for engine and propellor failures. In fact, the prevalence of accidents involving them led to its nickname “The Widowmaker.”
With hastily designed aircraft, and many airmen downed before they could step foot into battle, we can only commend the brave men and women who had the chops to serve in the USAAF during the war!
Submarines were a brand-new type of vessel during World War 1, but even by World War 2, the technology was still in relative infancy. This meant crews had to deal with many dangers from their own ship to prevent it from becoming a death trap!
For instance, torpedoes fired from submarines became notorious for “circle runs”. That was when a torpedo would drift, turn on its head and strike the submarine that fired it!
These “circle runs” happened when the system designed to straighten out the torpedoes after they were fired failed to work properly. The torpedo never stopped at its intended angle and kept rotating until it headed back to the vessel that fired it!
If the terror of a “circle run” wasn’t enough to keep the crew awake at night, numerous other horrors on these ships were. Diesel fumes could get out through a mechanical malfunction and suffocate the entire crew, or a battery might explode and send the submarine down to a watery grave!
And then there was the USS Squalus which, to all extents and purposes, was meant to be the cutting edge of submarine technology when it was introduced in 1939.
During a test run, however, the submarine was suddenly floored and sank down to the bottom of the ocean. At the time, no one had been rescued from a submarine that had sunk deeper than twenty feet, but the Squalus sank down 240 ft underwater.
Luckily, all 33 of the crew onboard lived to tell the tale, but the shear peril of the situation goes to show how dangerous these early submarines really were. Best to keep your head above water!
Even though soldiers are the ones fighting on the frontline, an army doesn’t get far without good medics. During World War 2, it’s estimated more than 400,000 soldiers were lost in combat, and a further 671,000 were wounded. For perspective, that’s about the same number of people who live in the city of Nashville, Tennessee.
That’s a huge number, and it feels even bigger when you learn just 50,000 physicians were enlisted by the end of the war. Not only did they have to treat some of the grisliest injuries imaginable, but they also had to combat disease, low supplies, and enemy fire.
Although, compared to the field medics, the physicians were living a life of luxury. Foisted out onto the frontline, field medics were civilian volunteers who chose to endure dangerous conditions to care for the wounded.
In a US battalion of 500 men, just 30 would be medics, meaning each medic was in charge of more than 16 lives at any given time. But because of time pressures, some medics with no actual experience were taught how to save a life for the very first time during combat!
Furthermore, medics were supposed to be protected from enemy fire by the rules laid out in the Geneva Convention. But despite this, the US Medics still suffered 13,174 casualties during the war.
On top of that, Medics served on the front-line, approaching with an offensive line and then crossing enemy-lines to administer healthcare. This was dangerous terrain and, more often than not, it meant the medics would have to treat the wounded while wounded themselves!
What are the weapons you imagine a typical soldier in the trenches fighting with? A rifle? A grenade? Maybe even a knife if it comes down to the wire. What about flamethrowers?
Sounds like a weapon you’re more likely to find in a videogame, but surprisingly, flamethrowers were used extensively during World War 2, mainly by the Germans. Man-portable flamethrowers made up a huge part of Germany’s close combat offensive in 1939, proving effective against fixed fortifications like blockades.
The flamethrowers themselves consisted of one large fuel tank filled with oil or petrol with the pressurizer tank, filled with nitrogen, fastened to its back or side. They turned any soldier into a fiery one-man band!
But while they were effective at short range, they had some pretty huge drawbacks for the soldiers wearing them. The Flammenwerfer 35, for example, weighed almost 80 lbs, making it exhausting to lug around and almost impossible to run in. Less than ideal if you’re trying to escape enemy fire!
Not only that, but the huge, nitrogen-pressurized tank full of flammable liquid made them a target that was hard to miss. All it took was one bullet, and the wearer and anyone close by would be burned to a screaming crisp in a huge fireball! And to make matters even worse, the cylinders would sometimes unexpectedly explode by accident!
Flying The Hump
Your History teacher told you that World War 2 lasted from 1939 to 1945. But while 1939 was the start of the war in Europe, Japan had already invaded China all the way back in 1937, marking the beginning of World War 2 in Asia.
Having been at war 2 years longer than everyone else, by 1942 China needed some help. Supplies were running low, and it was imperative that China kept the one million Japanese soldiers there occupied, while the Allied offense continued in the Pacific.
And so “The Hump” was born. Now called “the world’s first strategic airlift”, flying “The Hump” was one of the deadliest logistical operations of the war. The aim was to carry supplies into China from India by crossing over the Himalayan Mountain range.
But the planes used, Douglas DC-3s, couldn’t fly high enough to get over the mountains. Instead, flying “The Hump” involved navigating a treacherous route through the mountain peaks, where pilots could easily crash or get noticed by a Japanese fighter.
No fewer than 700 planes allied planes and pilots, made up mainly of American airmen, were taken out flying “The Hump”, and 1,200 airmen lost their lives.
To put it another way, every 340 tons of supplies delivered cost the life of a pilot. With a 1 in 3 chance of not making it, being asked to fly “The Hump” was one of the worst things a soldier could be asked to do!
June 6th, 1944. D-Day. The day that changed the course of history forever. On D-Day, the Allies invaded Normandy in Northern France and began an offensive push that resulted in the end of the war in Europe. However, fighting on the frontlines of D-Day was one of the most dangerous assignments any soldier could receive during the entire course of the war.
They could have been a Pathfinder, for instance. These American soldiers were tasked with airdropping onto the Normandy beaches in complete darkness to secure drop zones and light the way for the rest of the army.
The Pathfinders had been through months of preparation, but it all came to nothing. Due to thick clouds and heavy groundfire, all but one of the Pathfinder platoons missed their targets: one ended up landing on a German unit, and another in the English Channel!
If they avoided that fate, they might have been part of the Ranger Assault Group. To help defend against the Allies, the German army had set up 155mm artillery guns at Pointe du Hoc, at the top of the beach cliffs. The Rangers had to scale the 100 ft cliffs using only ropes, hooks, and ladders to remove the artillery.
The success of D-Day depended on it, leading to a vicious battle. By the end, the rangers had suffered a staggering 70% casualty rate. The Ranger Assault Group did its job in the face of overwhelming odds, but at a great cost.
If they managed to avoid the fighting at Pointe du Hoc, they could have ended up in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. The battalion, consisting of 621 incredibly brave African American soldiers, launched 125 lb blimps filled with hydrogen as strategic defensive units.
The balloons were then connected to bombs that would detonate if enemy aircraft made contact with the cables. But this was immensely dangerous. Under enemy fire, the balloons could have exploded at any time. Luckily there was no such disaster, but that’s still a lot of stress when one of the most dangerous battles of the entire war was happening around you!
Lastly, they could have been among the many American, British, and Canadian infantry and airborne divisions that were the first soldiers to land on the Normandy beaches! D-Day was supposed to begin with an aerial bombing campaign but, after it had minimal impact, ground troops were left to make amends.
Against an onslaught of gunfire, the soldiers waded through the ocean, and charged up the beach. Within 24 hours, Germany suffered roughly 9,000 casualties. The allies were documented at roughly 10,000. That’s more than one soldier every single minute! It was an essential victory, but to be there would have been remarkably harrowing!
If you were amazed at the worst roles you could be assigned in World War 2, you might want to read this article about the worst roles you could be assigned in a hypothetical Third World War.