The Colonel Who Went to War

An unlikely bond forged between a brash American colonel and a British brigadier played a vital role in a devious game of cat and mouse against Joseph Stalin during World War II.

Giles Milton
6-minute read
Episode #92

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.

Howley may have played the cowboy, but he cared deeply about people’s welfare.

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.

Howley was expecting trouble en route and instructed everyone in pistol shooting using his own system of shoot-to-kill.

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.”

The Western allies would be dependent on Stalin’s continual goodwill if they were to feed the population.

Howley knew that carving up one of the great European capitals into three separate sectors would prove a logistical nightmare, for the city’s gas, water, sewage, and electricity network did not respect the sector boundaries. If supplies were to be restored, it would require the British and Americans to work closely with their Soviet allies. Food was an even greater problem. Berlin was dependent on fresh meat and vegetables on the rich farmland in Brandenburg and Pomerania, provinces that lay to the east of the city. These were already in the hands of the Red Army, meaning that the Western allies would be dependent on Stalin’s continual goodwill if they were to feed the population.

Howley’s greatest concern was the fact that Berlin lay 110 miles inside the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany, turning it into an island surrounded by a sea of red. The only land route into the city was by road or rail, passing through territory controlled by the Red Army. Frank Howley thought it so vital for his team to reach the city in advance of the Soviets that he proposed a mass parachute drop into Berlin, just as the Americans and British had done in Normandy, with his A1A1 adventurers landing alongside the First Airborne Division. But it was such a bold proposition, and so fraught with risk, that Allied commanders dismissed it as unworkable.

Col. Howley had been informed that he would be working in tandem with a British team. Together, they would run the western half of the German capital. No sooner had he been informed that the Brits were en route from Wimbledon—under the leadership of a certain Brigadier Robert Looney Hinde—than he made it his business to find accommodation for both his own men and those of the brigadier.

Howley alighted on the village of Barbizon, about an hour’s drive from Paris. It was a place he knew well, for he had spent his weekends there in the late 1920s while studying at the Sorbonne. A bucolic idyll in the heart of the Fontainebleau forest, it had a scattering of guesthouses and a lot of wild boar.

“In wartime,” Howley told his men, “possession is not nine-tenths of the law; it’s ten-tenths.”

Never one to vacillate, Howley drove his fleet of jeeps down from the French capital, requisitioned all the largest private houses and hotels (along with their cooks, cleaners, and other domestic staff), and then “posted armed guards on all buildings” in order to deter any other branch of the army from trying to oust him. “In wartime,” he told his men, “possession is not nine-tenths of the law, it’s ten-tenths.”

Within hours, his American team was in full command of the place, swaggering down the main street like outlaws in a Western. The Stars and Stripes fluttered from Howley’s headquarters on the Grande Rue, and American jeeps and half-tracks were parked up on the street. By the time Brigadier Hinde’s unit arrived from Wimbledon, Howley ruled the roost. Harold Hays couldn’t help feeling they had been completely outsmarted by the Americans, especially when it came to finding accommodation.

“It was simply a question of retaining the best for themselves and handing the remainder over to the British element.”

The American colonel was aggrieved at having to answer to an old-school brigadier with the cut-glass accent of a British squire.

The first meeting between Hinde and Howley had all the makings of a disaster. The American colonel was aggrieved at having to answer to an old-school brigadier with the cut-glass accent of a British squire. “Serving under anyone has always been irksome to me,” Howley wrote in his diary. “Having been given a choice, I would never have served under a British officer.” He was also infuriated at not having been promoted to a rank similar to Hinde’s. “I was only a colonel, representing the most powerful nation in the world.” It was a humiliation that rankled.

Brigadier Hinde was no more convinced about having an American deputy. Americans had no subtlety, no sense of finesse. They ate jam for breakfast and left their buttons unpolished. Worse still, they had no staying power. Little wonder that it was the British, not the Americans, who had acquired an empire.

If the omens were bad, the meeting itself proved a revelation. When the two men came face-to-face, there was an instant attraction that was to develop into a deep friendship. Hinde had a profound admiration for Howley’s bravado, while Howley was won over by the brigadier’s intense energy. The two commanders were diametrically different yet curiously alike: two impatient warriors who jointly held the fate of Berlin in their hands.

For the next four years, they were to play a vital role in everything that was to happen in Berlin – for better and for worse. And for the next four years, they were to play a devious game of cat and mouse against a formidable enemy – a certain Marshal Joseph Stalin.

Berlin was the backdrop for everything that was to follow.

Image under Public Domain

About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.