Unknown History: The Colonel Who Went to War

Posted on October 6, 2021

We teamed up with the Unknown History podcast on Quick and Dirty Tips to bring you their latest series based on Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin. Read on for more about Episode 1, which covers the unlikely bond forged between a brash American colonel and a British brigadier that played a vital role in a devious game of cat and mouse against Joseph Stalin during World War II.

There have been many neglected heroes and heroines from history, but few are as colorful, dynamic, and outlandish as Col. Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley. He was the man destined to run the American sector of four-power Berlin after the Second World War; he was also a man destined to launch a ferocious, one-man war against Stalin and the Soviet Union. To the Soviets, it was Howley, and Howley alone, who fired the starting gun for the Cold War…

Col Howley was a living legend to the men serving under him, a blunt-spoken Yankee with a dangerous smile and a disarmingly sharp brain. He commanded an outfit named “A1A1,” splendid shorthand for a group led by such a high-spirited adventurer. The task of this unit was to sweep into newly liberated territories and impose order on chaos, repairing shattered infrastructure and feeding starving civilians.

Colonel Howley had won his spurs in the chaotic aftermath of the D-day landings of June 1944. Appointed to run the wrecked port of Cherbourg, he swung into town like a benevolent dictator, abolishing the kangaroo courts that were dealing out rough justice to collaborators and ruling over his new fiefdom with a rod of iron. His second big job had been to organize the feeding of five million hungry Parisians after the city’s liberation in August 1944. He knew how to get things done: no bureaucracy, no red tape, no rules—unless they were his own. His success earned him plaudits from far and wide, not to mention the Legion of Merit, Croix de Guerre, and Légion d’honneur. Howley may have played the cowboy, but he cared deeply about people’s welfare.

His team was still running food supplies into the French capital in the autumn of 1944 when he was paid a visit by the American commander Brig-Gen. Julius Holmes at his offices at 7 Place Vendôme in Paris. Their conversation was perfunctory but purposeful.

“Frank,” Holmes asked, “how would you like to go to Berlin?” “Fine,” Howley said. “The job is done here[,] and I’d like to stay on the main line east. Berlin sounds good to me.”1 This brief exchange was all it took for him to land one of the biggest jobs in the postwar world. He certainly had the required levels of dynamism. He was a curious mixture of firebrand and intellectual, a man always on the alert like “a very large, trim eagle, ready to swoop if necessary.” In the years before the war, he had excelled as an All-American football player (he was known as “Golden Toe”). His sporting prowess had come to an untimely end when he crashed his motorcycle at reckless speed and broke his back and pelvis. He was fortunate to make a full recovery.

Now he was to lead the American contingent of the joint British-American Military Government for Berlin, whose task was to run the western sectors of the divided German capital. He would also serve on the three-power Kommandatura, which was to deal with issues that concerned the city as a whole. As such, he would be frequently dealing with his Soviet partners. Howley swiftly recruited his team: his chief aide, Lt.-Col. John Maginnis, had been the first of his A1A1 recruits to land in Normandy, while his principal marksman (hired as a precaution) was Capt. Charles Leonetti, a former FBI sharpshooter with a formidable record. Within weeks, Howley had employed scores of experts and specialists with the necessary skills to run a city in ruins.

His Berlin team was not a combat unit; nor was it intended to fight its way into the city: it would be supported by the British and American armies. But Howley was expecting trouble en route and instructed everyone in pistol shooting using his own system of shoot-to-kill.

He also insisted that the men be at the peak of physical fitness. To this end, he established a grueling muscle-training program.

“I had three or four judo experts, and every officer and enlisted man learned all the dirty tricks of close-in fighting.” The older members were spared “the rough tumbling acts,”4 but even they had to learn how to protect themselves in hand-to-hand combat.

To his great delight, Howley “picked up” a young French linguist, Helen-Antoinette Woods, who was both sharp and talented. “I had some misgivings about bringing a girl along,” he confessed, “but decided if she was willing to take the chance, I couldn’t be so ungallant as to refuse a lady.” Besides, it made him feel good. “My prestige was upped by having this chic, capable French girl in my office.”

Listen to Episode 1 below:

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