Churchill – on the ‘terror’ bombing of Germany

Berlin, December 1943: victims of a bombing raid are laid out for identification and burial in a gymnasium decorated with Christmas trees
Berlin, December 1943: victims of a bombing raid are laid out for identification and burial in a gymnasium decorated with Christmas trees
An Avro Lancaster of No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron RAF flying over the smoke-covered target area during a daylight attack on the oil refinery and storage depot of Deutsche Vacuum AG at Bremen, Germany, by 133 Lancasters of No. 1 Group and 6 De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 8 Group.
An Avro Lancaster of No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron RAF flying over the smoke-covered target area during a daylight attack on the oil refinery and storage depot of Deutsche Vacuum AG at Bremen, Germany, by 133 Lancasters of No. 1 Group and 6 De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 8 Group.
Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb ('Cookie') and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.
Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.

On the 23rd February Sir Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command had gone to dinner with Winston Churchill at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers. John Colville, Churchill’s Private Secretary had then asked him about the recent raid on Dresden:

Before dinner, while waiting in the Great Hall for the P.M. to come down, I asked Sir Arthur Harris what the effect of the raid on Dresden had been. “Dresden?” he said. ”There is no such place as Dresden.”

Though the obliteration of Dresden later became a topic which aroused widespread indignation, it was not at the time regarded as different from previous “saturation” bombing attacks on Hamburg, Cologne and, above all, Berlin.

A principal reason for the Dresden raid was the intelligence report, received from the Russians, that one or possibly two German armoured divisions had arrived there from Italy on their way to reinforce the defence of the eastern front.

Churchill was on his way back from Yalta when the raid took place and since it was in accord with the general policy of bombing German towns massively, so as to shatter civilian morale, I do not think he was consulted about the raid. He never mentioned it in my presence, and I am reasonably sure he would have done so if it had been regarded as anything at all special.

Dresden had gained some attention in the days since the raid because of the efforts of Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister. His press release for 16th February had argued that:

they desire to obliterate and annihilate the German people and all its remaining possessions

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955

An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.
An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.

Goebbels, master of ‘the big lie’, began spreading rumours that a quarter of a million Germans, or even more, had died in the raid. He had successfully started a controversy that was to continue for decades. In fact the most accurate local figures compiled by the Dresden police put the figure at around 25,000, an official estimate that did not become available in the west for many years.

Whether or not Churchill was responding directly to the German propaganda being reported in the international press, he certainly began to recognise that the policy of bombing Germany needed to be reviewed. On the 28th February he drafted a memorandum:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.

In response to this draft, Sir Arthur Harris, wrote to the Air Ministry, on the 29th:

I … assume that the view under consideration is something like this: no doubt in the past we were justified in attacking German cities. But to do so was always repugnant and now that the Germans are beaten anyway we can properly abstain from proceeding with these attacks. This is a doctrine to which I could never subscribe.

Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.

The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.

As a consequence of this and other comments from senior Allied commanders, Churchill issued a revised memorandum on 1st April:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of the so called ‘area-bombing’ of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests. If we come into control of an entirely ruined land, there will be a great shortage of accommodation for ourselves and our allies. … We must see to it that our attacks do no more harm to ourselves in the long run than they do to the enemy’s war effort.

Berlin, February 1945.
Berlin, February 1945.

Churchill … Polish – German border to be redrawn

Polish farmers killed by German forces in German-occupied Poland, 1943.
Poland had suffered terribly during the war, apart from the Holocaust in which around three million Polish Jews were murdered, nearly the same number of non Jewish Poles are believed to have been killed during the German occupation. Polish farmers killed by German forces in German-occupied Poland, 1943.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943. The original German caption reads: "These bandits resisted by force of arms". Picture taken at Nowolipie street looking East, near intersection with Smocza street. In the back one can see ghetto wall with a gate.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943. The original German caption reads: “These bandits resisted by force of arms”.

In 1939 Britain had gone to war over the independence of Poland. She had then been unable to materially assist the Poles as first the Germans and then the Russians dismembered the country. Now the Soviet army occupied Poland and it began to look like Stalin was intent upon imposing his own, communist, regime.

On 27th February Churchill reported to Parliament about the results of the recent Yalta conference, when the division of Germany had been discussed amongst the ‘Big Three’. The division of Europe was a more contentious issue. In Parliament Churchill was putting a brave face on it.

In private he was having serious doubts about Stalins’s intentions. He conceded to his Private Secretary that Roumania and Bulgaria would be under communist domination, although he thought he had secured Greece’s independence in exchange. He told John Colville ” I have not the slightest intention of being cheated over Poland, not even if we go to the verge of war with Russia.”

The Crimea Conference finds the Allies more closely united than ever before, both in the military and in the political sphere.

Let Germany recognise that it is futile to hope for division among the Allies and that nothing can avert her utter defeat. Further resistance will only be the cause of needless suffering. The Allies are resolved that Germany shall be totally disarmed, that Nazism and militarism in Germany shall be destroyed, that war criminals shall be justly and swiftly punished, that all German industry capable of military production shall be eliminated or controlled, and that Germany shall make compensation in kind to the utmost of her ability for damage done to Allied Nations.

On the other hand, it is not the purpose of the Allies to destroy the people of Germany, or leave them without the necessary means of subsistence. Our policy is not revenge; it is to take such measures as may be necessary to secure the future peace and safety of the world. There will be a place one day for Germans in the comity of nations, but only when all traces of Nazism and militarism have been effectively and finally extirpated.

One must regard these 30 years or more of strife, turmoil and suffering in Europe as part of one story. I have lived through the whole story since 1911 when I was sent to the Admiralty to prepare the Fleet for an impending German war. In its main essentials it seems to me to be one story of a 30 years’ war, or more than a 30 years’ war, in which British, Russians, Americans and French have struggled to their utmost to resist German aggression at a cost most grievous to all of them, but to none more frightful than to the Russian people, whose country has twice been ravaged over vast areas and whose blood has been poured out in tens of millions of lives in a common cause now reaching final accomplishment.

There is a second reason which appeals to me apart from this sense of continuity which I personally feel. But for the prodigious exertions and sacrifices of Russia, Poland was doomed to utter destruction at the hands of the Germans. Not only Poland as a State and as a nation, but the Poles as a race were doomed by Hitler to be destroyed or reduced to a servile station.

Three and a half million Polish Jews are said to have been actually slaughtered. It is certain that enormous numbers have perished in one of the most horrifying acts of cruelty, probably the most horrifying act of cruelty, which has ever darkened the passage of man on the earth.

When the Germans had clearly avowed their intention of making the Poles a subject and lower grade race under the Herrenvolk, suddenly, by a superb effort of military force and skill, the Russian Armies, in little more than three weeks, since in fact we spoke on these matters here, have advanced from the Vistula to the Oder, driving the Germans in ruin before them and freeing the whole of Poland from the awful cruelty and oppression under which the Poles were writhing.

[He then described how the border lines for Poland would be drawn, with Soviet Russia moving to the ‘Curzon line’ in the east and Poland acquiring German territory in the west in compensation]

But even more important than the frontiers of Poland, within the limits now disclosed, is the freedom of Poland. The home of the Poles is settled. Are they to be masters in their own house? Are they to be free, as we in Britain and the United States or France are free? Are their sovereignty and their independence to be untrammelled, or are they to become a mere projection of the Soviet State, forced against their will by an armed minority, to adopt a Communist or totalitarian system?

Well, I am putting the case in all its bluntness. It is a touchstone far more sensitive and vital than the drawing of frontier lines. Where does Poland stand? Where do we all stand on this?

Most solemn declarations have been made by Marshal Stalin and the Soviet Union that the sovereign independence of Poland is to be maintained, and this decision is now joined in both by Great Britain and the United States.

Here also, the world organisation will in due course assume a measure of responsibility. The Poles will have their future in their own hands, with the single limitation that they must honestly follow, in harmony with their Allies, a policy friendly to Russia. That is surely reasonable …

Statement by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, 27 February 1945

See also John Colville: The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955.

Exhausted soldier of the Polish Home Army emerging from a sewer after escaping from German encirclement. One of his fellow soldiers pulls out his submachine gun of the sewer hatch.
A year after the Jewish ghetto uprising the rest of Warsaw had launched their own insurrection. An exhausted soldier of the Polish Home Army emerging from a sewer after escaping from German encirclement. One of his fellow soldiers pulls out his submachine gun from the sewer hatch. Stalin had ordered the nearby Red Army not to go to the aid of the Poles.
The destroyed city of Warsaw, January 1945.
The destroyed city of Warsaw, January 1945.

An infantryman makes his first kill

"Then came the big day when we marched into Germany--right through the Siegfried Line."
“Then came the big day when we marched into Germany–right through the Siegfried Line.”
 A mortar crew of the 20th Division runs for cover between bursts of German shell fire in Julich, Germany. 23 February 1945.
A mortar crew of the 20th Division runs for cover between bursts of German shell fire in Julich, Germany. 23 February 1945.

Raymond Gantter was one of hundreds of thousands of “replacements” – young US infantrymen who only joined their unit when they arrived in France or Germany. They often had a difficult time assimilating into groups of more experienced soldiers. Gantter was one of the lucky ones, a relatively older man who soon found his feet and moved rapidly through the ranks in the remaining few months of the war.

Late February saw Gantter occupying a ruined house on the front line in Germany as his squad awaited a German counter-attack:

It’s hard to write this next part, because this is where I killed a man. The first one. The first one I was sure of.

It ought to be told simply, because it’s important that you should understand what it’s like — how you feel when you have trapped a small, running creature between the cold sights of a deliberate gun and pulled the trigger, and suddenly the creature has stopped running and is lying there, and now it’s a man and his body is naked and soft and crumpled.

It ought to be told without hint of boast, and yet so that you would see there’s something of the bragging boy in the sense of achievement; it ought to be told without sentiment, and yet so you would see what a big thing it is.

I saw a German soldier rise from behind the protective shoulder of the ridge and start to run to the rear, sprinting across the open field toward the hills. Perhaps he was a runner, a messenger – I cannot remember that he carried a weapon.

It occurred to me later that he must have been young and very green, because he ran in a straight line, an easy course to follow with the sights of a rifle. He had unbuttoned his over-coat for greater freedom in running, and the skirts flapped like huge blue wings around his legs.

He was a moving dot of blue, a clumsy blue object to be stalked deliberately… now, impaled within the sights, the blue coat was enormous, presenting itself to my squinted eye like a cloud, like a house, like a target painted solid blue on the firing range at Camp Wheeler.

I squeezed the trigger and he fell. He did not move again, and the skirts of the blue overcoat made a patch of unnaturalcolor in the field where he lay.

For a moment I was triumphant and my eyes lingered on my prize, confirming it. There he was! … He was there, still lying there, and it wasn’t a game any longer. He hadn’t risen to his feet, dusted himself off, and thumbed his nose at me gaily before starting to run again. He lay there, quiet now, and he hadn’t moved, and I laid my rifle on the floor of the attic – carefully, because of the plaster dust – and put my head in my hands. I wanted to be sick, but there wasn’t time to be sick.

And I thought, Poor bastard … he was hungry and cold, too … scared and homesick and missing his people and tired of war. And I was sick and ashamed because I never hated him, never him specifically, and I never wanted to kill him.

And it was an evil and an ugly thing that this man, this particular Hans or Ludwig or Emil, should lie dead on a field because I had willed it; it was an evil and an ugly thing that this particular man should never again hear music or feel the hands of his children upon his face.

Then I picked up my rifle and went back to my job. The fight lasted throughout the day, and other men in blue-gray went down, not to move again, but their falling did not hit me as a personal thing. They were moving targets, that was all. But again and again my eyes turned back to the figure lying quiet in the stubble, the blue overcoat like wings beside him.

See Raymond Gantter: Roll Me Over: An Infantryman’s World War II

American soldiers hold up a sign reading "This is Julich Germany, sorry it is so messed up, but we were in a hurry! 29th (Blue & Grey) Div." 24 February 1945.
American soldiers hold up a sign reading “This is Julich Germany, sorry it is so messed up, but we were in a hurry! 29th (Blue & Grey) Div.” 24 February 1945.
A young German officer captured by troops of the 102nd Infantry Division , Ninth US Army near Gevenich, Germany, February 1945.
A young German officer captured by troops of the 102nd Infantry Division , Ninth US Army near Gevenich, Germany, February 1945.

Sgt Aubrey Cosens shatters the Germans at Moosdorf

The devastated town of Kleve, Germany, photographed from an Auster AOP aircraft, after capture. The wrecked railway station and yards lie in the foreground. The fortified town was heavily bombed by 285 Avro Lancasters of No. 1 Group, led by 10 De Havilland Mosquitos of No.8 Group on the night of 7/8 February 1945, and captured the following day by troops of the Canadian 1st Army.
The devastated town of Kleve, Germany, photographed from an Auster AOP aircraft, after capture. The wrecked railway station and yards lie in the foreground. The fortified town was heavily bombed by 285 Avro Lancasters of No. 1 Group, led by 10 De Havilland Mosquitos of No.8 Group on the night of 7/8 February 1945, and captured the following day by troops of the Canadian 1st Army.
A Canadian soldier escorts captured German parachute troops during fighting near Uedem, 28 February 1945.
A Canadian soldier escorts captured German parachute troops during fighting near Uedem, 28 February 1945.

In north west Germany the attack that had begun with Operation Veritable shifted focus to the Canadians with Operation Blockbuster.

On the 25th February 1945 the Queens Own Rifles of Canada prepared to assault the hamlet of Moosdorf, Germany. They faced German parachute troops who had spent time preparing the isolated villages and hamlets into substantial defensive positions. By this time the Queens Own Rifles were battle hardened veterans, after landing on D-Day in June 1944 they had suffered 76% casualties in Normandy alone. On this day the 115 men of D Company would be reduced to 36 men by the end of the action.

Aubrey Cosens VC
Aubrey Cosens VC

With the officer commanding his platoon wounded, Sergeant Aubrey Cosens took over the attack. The original recommendation for the Victoria Cross tells the story better than the shortened version that was adopted for the citation:

On the night of February 25/26, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada launched an attack to secure ground, the possession of which was essential for the large-scale operations in the immediate future. The first phase of the attack was made by “D” Company with two platoons up. Sergeant Aubrey Cosens was sergeant of Number 16 Platoon which had, under command, two tanks of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment, with orders to capture the hamlet of Mooshof.

The platoon was to cross its start line, which was about half a mile from the objective, at 0430 hours. Before reaching the start line, it came under heavy enemy shell fire, but the attack went in on time and was pressed home through the darkness in the face of intense artillery, mortar and small arms fire.

On reaching Mooshof the enemy was found to have prepared positions throughout the area and to have strongpoints in three farm buildings. The platoon attacked these building twice but, on each occasion, was beaten back by fanatical enemy resistance.

The enemy then counter-attacked in strength. In the darkness, and aided by their knowledge of the ground, the Germans succeeded in infiltrating into the positions which Number 16 platoon had hastily taken up. In bitter and confused fighting, this counter-attack was beaten off but not until the platoon had suffered heavy casualties, including the platoon commander.

Sergeant Cosens at once assumed command of the platoon. To a lesser spirit, the situation would have seemed hopeless as the enemy was obviously present in force, and he was able to find only four survivors of his platoon. In addition, one of his two tanks had been separated from the infantry during the fighting, and the area was being swept from all sides by intense enemy fire.

Not daunted, and determined to carry on with the attack notwithstanding the odds, Sergeant Cosens organized his four men in a covering fire position and himself ran across twenty-five yards of open, flat, bullet-swept ground to his one available tank. Here, with magnificent contempt for the very great danger, he took up an exposed position on the tank, sitting in front of the turret and, with great daring, calmly directed the fire of the tank against enemy positions which had been pinpointed in the previous fighting or which disclosed themselves by their fire.

Once again, the enemy counter-attacked savagely in force. Remaining on the tank and completely disregarding the enemy’s superiority in numbers and the withering fire Sergeant Aubrey Cosens led and inspired the defence. He plunged the tank, in the blackness, into the middle of the attackers. His bold tactics resulted in the complete disorganisation of the enemy force, which broke and fled after sustaining many casualties.

Turning promptly and with great courage to the offensive, and notwithstanding the sustained enemy fire from all direction and the obvious risks in the darkness from concealed enemy posts and from snipers, Sergeant Cosens determined to clear the three buildings. To do so, he ordered his four men to follow the tank on which he was riding. He ordered the tank to ram the first building, a one-storey farmhouse and, when it had done so, aided by thee covering fire of his men, he entered the building entirely alone, killed several of the defenders, and took the rest prisoner.

Sergeant Cosens then pressed relentlessly on and directed the tank, under continuous heavy fire, towards the second building. En route, he saw in the flash of shell fire, the body of one of his comrades who had been killed in one of the first abortive attacks, on this position, lying in the path of the tank. Calmly he halted the tank and removed the body. Continuing, he had the tank fire into this building and then he entered it alone to find that the occupants had fled.

With splendid persistence, he then advanced to the third building, which was a two storey farmhouse and strongly held by the enemy. Under cover from the tank and from his little band of four men. He again made a one-man entry into this building and personally killed or captured its occupants.

The hard core of the German resistance in the immediate area was thus broken. Sergeant Cosens promptly gave his small force orders for the consolidation of the position and started off to report to his company commander. He had not travelled more than twenty feet when he was shot through the head by an enemy sniper. He died almost instantly. The German force in the Moosdorf area had by this time become so compietelv shattered and dispirited, however, that there was no further counter-attack against this position.

The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada was able to pass through to its next objective and the other attacks were able to proceed according to plan.

Throughout this action Sergeant Aubrey Cosens displayed unsurpassed leadership, initiative and devotion to duty. He was faced by an enemy force which was numerically, and in firepower, far superior to his own and was composed of resolute men who had every possible advantage of ground cover. Never for a moment, however, did he hesitate and he fought his tiny force under the most difficult conditions with the utmost skill and determination absolutely refusing to consider the possibility of defeat.

In the actual fighting, his personal gallantry was of the highest order. He was always to the forefront of the battle and in the course of the operation, he personally killed at least twenty of the enemy and took an equal number of prisoners.

Sergeant Aubrey Cosens’ heroism and his brilliant conduct of this successful action have been an inspiration to his regiment and will remain for all time a glorious example to the Canadian Army.

A Churchill tank and a Valentine Mk XI Royal Artillery OP tank (left) in Goch, 21 February 1945.
A Churchill tank and a Valentine Mk XI Royal Artillery OP tank (left) in Goch, 21 February 1945.
An Archer 17-pdr self-propelled gun being ferried on a raft across flooded countryside near Kranenburg in Germany, 23 February 1945.
An Archer 17-pdr self-propelled gun being ferried on a raft across flooded countryside near Kranenburg in Germany, 23 February 1945.

Hitler speaks – the anniversary of 25 years of Nazism

In the flight of refugees from the east, tens of thousands of Germans were dying from cold and fatigue, a high proportion of them children.
In the flight of refugees from the east, tens of thousands of Germans were dying from cold and fatigue, a high proportion of them children.
This woman at least had some possessions left to find in her bombed out Berlin apartment.
This woman at least had some possessions left to find in her bombed out Berlin apartment.
On the 1st February Berlin had itself been declared a 'defence sector', material from bombed out buildings was gathered together for the building of road blocks.
On the 1st February Berlin had itself been declared a ‘defence sector’, material from bombed out buildings was gathered together for the building of road blocks.

Twenty five years earlier Hitler had launched the Nazi movement with a speech in Munich. Now Allied armies were firmly established on German soil in both the east and west, virtually every town and city in Germany lay in ruins, while untrained young boys and old men were being sent to the front lines. There were few defences left against the bombers that came by day and night. On the evening of the 23rd February the RAF had spent just twenty-two minutes destroying 83% of the town of Pforzheim. The only realistic expectation was that hundreds of thousands more Germans would die in the battles ahead.

Now Hitler offered no new strategies, no practical reason to hope that Germany could escape being completely overcome. Instead he returned to the old theme of the “unshakable will” of the German people, which would somehow produce a providential solution. It all amounted to a matter of faith. Alongside this was blame, blame on the “international Jewish criminals” and the “Bolsheviks” :

The consciousness of my duty and my work does not allow me to leave headquarters at the moment when, for the twenty-fifth time, that date is being commemorated on which the fundamental program of our movement was proclaimed and approved in Munich.

All peoples whose statesmen have made a pact with the Bolshevist devil will sooner or later become its victim. But let there be no doubt that National Socialist Germany will carry on this struggle until the end, and that will be the case this year when the historic turning-point comes. No power in the world will weaken our hearts.

Our enemies have destroyed so much that is beautiful and holy that we can now live for only one task – to create a state that will rebuild what they have destroyed. It is, therefore, our duty to maintain the liberty of the German nation for the future; not to permit German labor to be carried off to Siberia but to mobilize it for reconstruction on behalf of our own people.

It is frightful what the homeland has to endure and the tasks of the front are superhuman, but if a whole people is to show itself equal to such suffering, as our nation does, then Providence will not deny us in the end the right of survival.

What makes me very happy and proud, however, is the conviction that the German people in its greatest distress shows its hardest character. In these weeks and months may every individual German remember that it is his duty to sacrifice all for the German nation’s preservation for centuries to come.

Whoever suffers must know that many Germans have lost more than he. The life that is left to us should serve only one task – namely, to make up for all the wrongs done by the international Jewish criminals and their henchmen to our nation. It must be our unshakable will to think of Germany alone until our last breath. Man after man, woman after woman, in towns and in the country, we shall live only for the task of liberating our nation from this distress, of reconstructing Germany’s culture as well as her National Socialist life.

It is our firm will never to cease working for the true people’s community, far from any ideology of classes, firmly believing that the eternal values of a nation are its best sons and daughters, who, regardless of birth and rank, just as God gave them to us, must be educated and employed.

Twenty-five years ago I predicted the victory of our movement. Today, filled as always with belief in our nation, I predict the final victory of the German race.

See the whole speech at Jewish Virtual Library.

An improvised bread store in Berlin in February 1945.
An improvised bread store in Berlin in February 1945.
In February 1945 it was announced that food stores in Berlin had been built up to last for three months.
In February 1945 it was announced that food stores in Berlin had been built up to last for three months.
The scene on Oranienstraße, following the bombing of Berlin on the 3rd February.
The scene on Oranienstraße, following the bombing of Berlin on the 3rd February.

U.S. Marines raise the flag on Mount Suribachi

First Iwo Jima Flag Raising. Small flag carried ashore by the 2d Battalion, 28th Marines is planted atop Mount Suribachi at 1020, 23 February 1945
First Iwo Jima Flag Raising. Small flag carried ashore by the 2d Battalion, 28th Marines is planted atop Mount Suribachi at 1020, 23 February 1945

On the 23rd February the Marines were making good but bloody progress on the Island of Iwo Jima, where they had landed on the 19th. The capture of Mount Suribachi was an early priority since it gave the Japanese a vantage point from which they could direct their guns.

1Lt. Harold G. Schrier, executive officer of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division volunteered to lead a 40-man combat patrol up the mountain when the platoon leader was injured. They captured the top of the mountain some time after 10am and set about raising the United States flag on a piece of piping that had been used by the Japanese to capture rainwater.

The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal was coming ashore at the moment when this flag went up. It was just a speck in the distance but he immediately recognised its symbolic significance, telling General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who was accompanying him:

Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years

It was then decided that a larger, more visible, flag was needed on the summit. The occasion would be photographed not just by the Marines but by the international media as represented by the Associated Press.

However the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, had not been especially well prepared for the event:

Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.

The photograph that he took has gone on to become probably the most reproduced photographic image in history.

The second raising of the flag over Iwo Jima, this photograph was destined to become one of the iconic images of the war.
The second raising of the flag over Iwo Jima, this photograph was destined to become one of the iconic images of the war. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, by Joe Rosenthal / The Associated Press
Marines at Iwo Jima 3 cent postage stamp issued Washington, D.C. July 11, 1945, 137,321,000 stamps were sold.

Mount Suribachi loomed over the whole island, the dominant feature whose capture in most battles would have signalled the end of the engagement. In fact the battle for the island was very far from over, the Marines might be holding the high ground but the greater part of the Japanese forces remained intact underground. The raising of the flag was a small part of the events on the island, where the battle raged as intensely as ever that day. Of the 40 men in the combat team that first climbed Mount Suribachi, 36 would killed or wounded in the following few weeks.

One weapon was to prove invaluable to the US forces in clearing out the deeply entrenched Japanese, the flame thrower. The operators of these relatively crude devices were to suffer very heavy casualties themselves. They were walking around the battlefield encumbered with a heavy weapon, clearly identifiable as a special threat to the Japanese, when it only took one bullet to send them into a blazing inferno.

Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams, Medal of Honor.
Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, Medal of Honor.

On 23rd February, the actions of one man give us some idea of the nature of the fighting. Hershel W. “Woody” Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Demolition Sergeant serving with the First Battalion, Twenty-First Marines, Third Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Island, 23 February 1945.

Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines and black, volcanic sands, Corporal Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions.

Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flame throwers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another.

On one occasion he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flame thrower through the air vent, kill the occupants and silence the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.

His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided in enabling his company to reach its’ [sic] objective.

Corporal Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

An Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary, this 20 minute Technicolor production unfolds with graphic energy the nearly – portraying the month long battle for Iwo Jima:

TERROR – The terror of the Japanese soldiers in the dugouts and pillboxes on Iwo Jima is the Marine flame-throwing man. Briefly, this one is outlined against the bleak sky as he rushes forward into position to assault a Jap pillbox on Motoyama Airfield Number Two.
TERROR – The terror of the Japanese soldiers in the dugouts and pillboxes on Iwo Jima is the Marine flame-throwing man. Briefly, this one is outlined against the bleak sky as he rushes forward into position to assault a Jap pillbox on Motoyama Airfield Number Two.

Across Germany in the special custody of the SS

Ulrich von Hassell, the German diplomat implicated in the plot against Hitler, at his trial. He was executed in September 1944, his family were sent to concentration camps.
Ulrich von Hassell, the German diplomat implicated in the plot against Hitler, at his trial. He was executed in September 1944, his family were sent to concentration camps.
German civilians in February 1945 in Danzig and the surrounding area; fleeing from the approaching Red Army, they have had to leave their homes.
German civilians in February 1945 from Danzig and the surrounding area; fleeing from the approaching Red Army, they have had to leave their homes.

Following the failed bomb plot against Hitler in July 1944 the SS had gone to great lengths to track down all of those who were suspected of involvement. The hunt extended not just to those directly participating in the plot but to all those who were sympathetic to the cause. The widespread use of torture meant that the Nazis soon had many names to investigate. And the net encompassed not only the suspects but their families as well.

Fey Von Hassel was the daughter of the German ambassador to Italy who had been arrested for his anti Nazi views. She had been arrested and sent first to Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. Her two young sons had been taken taken from her, destined, like many other children of Nazi prisoners, to be given new identities and adopted by ‘good Aryan’ families. Now along with millions of others, they were travelling west to escape the advance of the Red Army.

As a ‘special’ category of German prisoner, the group that von Hassell was travelling with, which included elderly relatives of von Stauffenberg, enjoyed better conditions than most other prisoners. It turned out that they were better treated than many other Germans who were not prisoners, at least they were on a train, sheltered from the winter weather:

This time we had more space, for the Hungarians were put in a separate wagon. We made everything as bearable as we could — thick straw on the floor and the stove in the middle. The train remained stuck at Lauenburg station all that night, but early the following morning it began to trundle forward. It was a fine day, so we rolled along with the doors open. I sat perched on the steps, gazing out at the passing countryside, fighting off unsettling thoughts about my children.

At the curves I could see that the train was extraordinarily long and seemed to be carrying everything: prisoners, troops, refugees, and even cattle, which I could hear mooing at the far end. We took advantage of the frequent stops for obvious reasons. But because the train would always start again without warning, I was terrified of being left behind or having to jump into a wagon filled with strange people.

The idea of using these opportunities to escape did not occur to me, nor, I think, to anyone. The thought of being alone in that frozen countryside, without papers, money, or food, was enough to put one off the idea immediately.

When night fell, the doors of the wagon were kept shut. It never took long to fall asleep, since we were always tired due to the lack of food. If any of us needed to relieve ourselves, we would delicately approach an old tar can propped up in one of the corners for that purpose. When the can was used, everyone, as if on order, turned their heads to the wall. Embarrassing moments, but sometimes rather funny!

Time after time on this journey we would leave a town just before it was occupied or a station just before it was blown up. But the train continued on its way, untouched.

At one stop some of the men went with the guard Kupfer to one of the genuine cattle cars at the back of the train. They brought back about twenty liters of fresh milk. The taste was heaven, and the cows were no doubt happy to be relieved of their burden.

Trainloads of refugees passed us, but many more people trudged along the rails on foot, begging desperately for a place in the wagons. The weeping of the old, the wailing of babies, and the whistling of bombs were ever present.

At one point, at a small country station where we halted due to an air raid, a Wehrmacht officer knocked on the door and yelled up impatiently:

“Open up immediately! Some more people must be put in this wagon.”

Papke answered, “Impossible. I have orders to let no one inside!”

“That is idiotic,” shouted back the officer. “There are women and children out here half-frozen to death. They must find shelter!”

“We are traveling with the prisoners of kin under the special protection of the Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler,” barked back Papke.

“Oh, my God, that Heini!” exclaimed the officer angrily. “I’ve had it up to here with that pig!“ Obviously experienced in the ways of the SS, the officer laughed bitterly and gave up arguing. Papke sat silent inside.

Instead, we were tremendously encouraged by the soldier’s disrespect for Himmler and began to laugh and tell jokes about our little Reichsfuhrer. For once Papke did not dare react. It was dark inside, and there were many more of us.

It is astonishing that in the midst of that seeming chaos, with refugees everywhere and constant bombing, soldiers were still being sent to the front, others were taking leave, and rail lines were being repaired. Our SS guards were still following their instructions to the letter. Little though we realized it, another two months would pass before the Nazi war machine would finally break down.

See Fey Von Hassel: Hostage of the Third Reich: The Story of My Imprisonment and Rescue from the SS

East Prussia in Braunsberg.- trek with refugees and Wehrmacht soldiers on a road through a forest, about February-March 1945.
East Prussia in Braunsberg.- trek with refugees and Wehrmacht soldiers on a road through a forest, about February-March 1945.

Fatal error at 18,000 feet over Germany

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the damaged twin acqueducts carrying the Dortmund-Ems canal over the Ems river near Munster, Germany, following the low-level attack by Handley Page Hampdens of No. 5 Group on the night of 12/13 August 1940. For making a particularly determined attack in his badly-damaged Hampden during this raid, Flight Lieutenant R A B Learoyd of No. 49 Squadron RAF was awarded Bomber Command's first Victoria Cross.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the damaged twin acqueducts carrying the Dortmund-Ems canal over the Ems river near Munster, Germany, following the low-level attack by Handley Page Hampdens of No. 5 Group on the night of 12/13 August 1940. For making a particularly determined attack in his badly-damaged Hampden during this raid, Flight Lieutenant R A B Learoyd of No. 49 Squadron RAF was awarded Bomber Command’s first Victoria Cross.

RAF Bomber Command had hardly paused since the attack on Dresden a week earlier. A series of attacks on Wesel were designed to support the advance of the armies approaching the Rhine. A large attack on the town of Bohlen on the night of the 19th had largely failed because the Master Bomber had been shot down early in the raid, demonstrating the narrow range of factors that separated a success from failure.

On the night of the 20th-21st three large raids were made on Dortmund, Dusseldorf and Monheim, while a ‘small diversionary raid’ of 66 Mosquitos went to Berlin simply to keep the capital’s anti-aircraft defences, and the residents, on constant alert. This last raid on Dortmund, which had been repeatedly bombed throughout the war, was so devastating that no German records survived from it. The attacks on Dusseldorf and Monheim were to successfully halt the production of synthetic oil in both locations, further contributing to the fuel crisis being suffered by the Wehrmacht.

Verical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing a damaged section of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen, north of Munster, Germany, following a raid by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, on the night of 23/24 September 1944. Breaches have been made in the banks of two parallel branches of the canal, causing a six-mile stretch to be drained. Most of the damage was caused by two direct hits by 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF.
Verical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing a damaged section of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen, north of Munster, Germany, following a raid by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, on the night of 23/24 September 1944. Breaches have been made in the banks of two parallel branches of the canal, causing a six-mile stretch to be drained. Most of the damage was caused by two direct hits by 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF.

However, the German night fighters were still active, especially well prepared for raids over the Ruhr. Warrant Officer W G Pearce RAAF flying in Q—Queenie, a Lancaster flown by Flight Lieutenant A D Pelly of 156 Squadron, describes how small mistakes caused by lack of oxygen meant the difference between survival or not:

We were detailed to mark the synthetic oil refinery at Reiszholz in the Ruhr Valley. Still some way short of the target we were caught up by an enemy fighter (later identified as a Ju 88 using upward firing cannon) and the starboard inner exploded and caught fire.

The captain soon decided our position was untenable and ordered us to bail out: we didn’t need to be told twice. I discarded my flying helmet and oxygen mask (we were at 18,000 ft), picked up my para- chute pack from the floor and started to make my way to the rear door on the starboard side of the aircraft, just forward of the tail- plane.

I sat on the main wing strut, fumbling to attach the parachute pack to the clips on the front of the harness. This is where the lack of oxygen began to take effect and I thought that I had better get moving. When I eventually reached the door the mid-upper gunner was there before me.

He had made the fatal mistake of picking up his parachute pack by the shiny handle, the ripcord, and it had opened in the aircraft. He had, however clipped it to his harness and gathered the canopy in his arms. I watched him jump and saw the canopy which was torn from his grasp by the slipstream pass over the top of the tail-plane and his body beneath. His body was found later on the ground, still attached to his parachute: he had been killed by the impact when dragged back into the tail by his entangled canopy.

Now it was my turn to leave the aircraft, by now somewhat light-headed from the lack of oxygen and not too concerned by my predicament. I looked at the fire in the wing and thought ‘that sure is burning well’. The next moment I fell out of the aeroplane and after tumbling for what seemed an age thought ‘well I had better pull it now’. I was overcome by a feeling of absolute loneliness, but the cold and the lower altitude soon brought me back to my proper senses.

But I could now hear other aircraft swishing past me and was frightened of what would happen if one of them hit me: this did not happen of course. They soon passed and I was left hanging in complete silence.

As I drifted down towards a cloud bank I could see a search- light running around on the underside of this cloud. Again I was frightened of being picked up by this light and becoming target practice for an anti-aircraft battery: again my fears were groundless as the light was switched off before I entered the cloud bank.

Below the cloud the darkness was even more complete and I couldn’t see the ground. I realised I was drifting backwards and remembering my parachute drill I tried to correct; I wasn’t very successful and I hit the ground in an untidy heap.

There was very little wind and my parachute quickly collapsed, I had landed in the middle of a paddock, but had hurt my left shoulder and the arm was virtually useless.

This account appears in Martin Bowman: Reflections of War: Armageddon (27th September 1944-May 1945) (Bomber Command)

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.

Nazi propaganda continues in face of desperate reality

German troops in Breslau in February 1945
German troops in Breslau in February 1945

Breslau, the beleaguered German city in the east, now declared by Hitler to be Festung Breslau, Fortress Breslau, was completely surrounded by Soviet troops, some only two miles from the city centre. Nazi propaganda would make much of a Hitler Youth Battle Group counter-attack carried out the city’s southern park, in which 120 boys beat back the Red Army and supposedly left 170 Soviet soldiers dead.

The most severe penalties were being imposed on any comments that might be interpreted as defeatism or subversion, so there was no mercy for any act of desertion:

These death sentences should serve as a warning to every soldier and at the same time give decent soldiers — and the entire fortress as well — the satisfaction that cowardly traitors face a merciless, shameful end. The summary execution of cowards and shirkers not only eradicates them, it also brings down shame upon their families by wiping out their honour and condemns them to poverty, depriving them of all benefits.

The soldiers were were being encouraged to fight a bloody final battle:

Every house of Fortress Breslau, which has been entrusted to us by the Fuhrer, will cost the enemy rivers of blood. Always remember how the Bolshevik foe has raped our wives, murdered our children and brothers or led them into forced labour.

Simultaneously with these threats there was an appeal to hope. Without any news from the outside world the Nazi propaganda officers were spreading rumours of the mass use of unspecified “new weapons” and of a strong new offensive coming from the west which would soon liberate the city.

These themes were being generated by the Propaganda Ministry. In a radio address this day Josef Goebbels, Propaganda Minister, would also talk of the new, unspecified, ‘V’ weapons that would save Germany and the new offensives which would liberate the east. The language was becoming ever more apocalyptic, to the point where it didn’t really make sense:

Just as our forefathers did so often in our history, so we too will smash the Mongol storm against the heartland. Like them, we will defend ourselves with fanatical fury and dogged hatred, so that one day the legend — that after days of fierce fighting the dead continued to fight on in the heavens in the ominous darkness of night — can be recounted about us too.

And even if in the end we have to cling to our soil, even if we have to sacrifice our last remaining possessions, even if no end to the suffering and terror can be predicted, we will not give up the lawful right of our nation to life, freedom and a future. We prefer to die rather than surrender!

How many continued to believe in these increasingly fanciful Nazi myths is impossible to estimate. Certainly there were some fanatics whose faith in the Nazis was so strong that they believed the Fuhrer would save them right up until the end. Some in Breslau believed that their ‘sacrifice’ was needed to ‘save’ Germany.

For Priest Paul Piker it was just the same old lies that they had heard ever since Stalingrad. On the night of the 20th Breslau received yet another air raid, heavier than usual.

This air raid has left people utterly depressed. Everyone awaits the nights to come with a great deal of concern — the air raids are bound to get heavier. Everyone asks why, what for?

Ja, the war which we waged has become madness, absurd. We cannot change its outcome.

Criminally caused by our regime, it is the worst crime not only against our people, but the entire world. Every day the senseless continuation of this war devours countless human lives, destroys our cities and villages, makes an entire nation homeless and poor.

How terribly has God’s judgment been unleashed against our nation, whose leadership has committed outrages against everything which God stands for these past dozen years.

These accounts appear in Richard Hargreaves: HITLER’S FINAL FORTRESS – BRESLAU 1945.

US Marines invade beaches of Iwo Jima

Mount Suribachi taken on the morning of D-Day, 19 February 1945.
Mount Suribachi taken on the morning of D-Day, 19 February 1945.
The first wave of landing craft at Iwo Jima, 19 Feb 1945
The first wave of landing craft at Iwo Jima, 19 Feb 1945
LCVP’s approach Iwo Jima.
LCVP’s approach Iwo Jima.

The island of Iwo Jima, an isolated collection of rock and sand stuck out in the Pacific 660 miles from Japan, was the objective for Operation Detachment on 19th February. Iwo Jima had been comprehensively blasted by bombs and shells for the previous 74 days. The Marines who landed here today were to discover that all this explosive had had very little effect on reducing the enemy.

The Japanese commander, General Kuribayashi had been preparing for this moment since June 1944. His intention was to inflict maximum casualties on the American forces in a defensive battle fought from 5,000 undergound bunkers and eleven miles of tunnel. He was to urge his troops to fight to the death:

Keep on fighting even if you are wounded in the battle. Do not get taken prisoner. At the end, stab the enemy as he stabs you.

Iwo Jima – Amphibious tractors, jammed with Fourth Division Marines, churn toward Iwo Jima at H-hour. These troops were the initial assault force.
Iwo Jima – Amphibious tractors, jammed with Fourth Division Marines, churn toward Iwo Jima at H-hour. These troops were the initial assault force.

George W. Nations was in a Marine Corps tank:

At 0800 hours the heaviest bombardment in history per square mile was fired upon Iwo, every ship within firing range opened up with all guns firing. It was a fireworks display I’ll never forget. The island was now totally obscured from view by the dust from the bombardment.

Promptly at 0900 hours the firing stopped and the first wave of amphibious tractors went ashore. At this time we are still about three or four miles offshore, our tanks, “B-Company” is landing in reserve. It was very exciting now sitting on top of our tank turret watching through field glasses as the Marines go ashore in wave after wave. First, armored amphibious tractors shell the beach, then amphibious personnel carriers land with men, then Higgins Boats, all putting large numbers of Marines ashore into the hostile environment of Iwos’ volcanic ash beaches. About 1000 hours we saw our first tanks slowly making their way up the beach. It seemed like forever before they moved up from the beach and out of sight.

All this time our landing craft, LSM-141 was moving closer to the line of departure that was about 2,000 yards off the beach. The old battleship New York is only a hundred yards or so from us, firing broadside into the island. The noise was unreal. We are now inside the tank. Lt. Steiner gives us the word to button-up. We know we are now very near the beach. The only thing we can now hear is our tank engine running.

Since I am a crew member in the Platoon Leaders’ tank, we are first in line to disembark. At last we feel the surge as the LSM slams ashore at about 7 to 8 knots putting us high and dry on the beach. Our bow doors opened and the ramp fell. Straight ahead of us is Iwo Jima, Red Beach One, the time is about 1330 hours.

I’ll never forget the first thing I saw as the ramp fell, giving us a clear view. The first terrace was only 30 to 40 feet in front of us. Marines were dug into this terrace or trying to dig in. The foxholes would cave in before the hole was large enough for a man to get his body below the surface. Their faces were covered with black volcanic ash form trying to take cover. They looked much like an ostrich putting his head into the sand, only to find his body still exposed. Their faces were very young and showing unashamed fear.

At first I did not understand why they were so afraid but as our tank turned right on the beach I began to realize why. The beach was littered with Jeeps, trucks, amphibious tractors, Higgins Boats, men and equipment in various degrees of destruction. We were able to go only a short distance before we had to stop because of a Jeep stuck in the narrow stretch of beach between the terrace and the surf. We were contemplating driving over the Jeep when a Marine jumped in, started the engine and because he was unable to drive forward, put it in reverse and backed into the surf, giving our tank clear passage.

To my right was an amphibious tractor. A large shell had blown its armored turret inward. It’s name in bold yellow letters, ‘Lena Horn’. Every time I hear her name or see her picture, my mind sees this amphibious tractor in the surf with its turret twisted in an awkward fashion from the explosion of this shell, the surf splashing over her. The crew must still be inside, all dead.

We continue up the beach for about two-hundred yards dodging the various obstacles and looking for our guide who was supposed to meet us. We finally reach the location where the guide was supposed to be and stop. We know minefields are ahead. Before coming ashore, we had discussed removing the waterproof stacks mounted on our exhaust and intake manifold at the first opportunity.

The exhaust re-circulates through the intake causing the engine to overheat in approximately forty-five minutes. We are getting close to that time, so I told Lt. Steiner this pause was our opportunity for getting rid of these stacks. With his okay, I opened my hatch and quickly leaped out onto the engine compartment just behind the turret. The terrific noise of gunfire and shells landing was a real shocker. Never had I heard so much incoming and outgoing fire in all my life and I’m outside the tank, not inside.

I scratched and clawed with my fingers and finally pealed away the waterproof tape so that the latches could be released enabling me to push the stacks off the tank. I’m now sitting behind the turret for cover thinking about climbing on top of the turret to get back inside. I’m looking out to sea. We are about 30 yards from the surf. A Higgins Boat is just reaching the beach loaded with Marines when a shell lands on the starboard side near the stern. Marines are running from the boat as the ramp falls. They leave about one-third of their men inside.

After forty years I can still see their lifeless forms hanging over the sides of this Higgins Boat. The boat sinks and becomes part of the destructive scene as it washes back and forth in the surf. There was nothing anyone could do for the men inside the boat. Without thinking of my own safety, I slowly climbed inside our tank, almost in shock from this experience. This was to be only one of many such incidents that sometimes keep me awake at night.

Read the whole of George W. Nations account at One Man Remembers

Bloody, inch by inch. In the face of withering enemy fire Fifth Division Marine invaders of Iwo Jima work their way up the slope from Red Beach #1 toward Suribachi Yama, completely hidden in the left background by the smoke of the battle.
Bloody, inch by inch. In the face of withering enemy fire Fifth Division Marine invaders of Iwo Jima work their way up the slope from Red Beach #1 toward Suribachi Yama, completely hidden in the left background by the smoke of the battle.