German infantry advancing on a Panzer IV during fighting for the Kerch Peninsula, May 1942.

The Russians had launched an offensive near Kharkov in mid May 1942. Unfortunately their new confidence in their military power, after winning back territory during the winter, was misplaced. Their intelligence had also failed to identify that the Germans were preparing to attack in the very same region. The Germans succumbed to the initial shock of being attacked but quickly consolidated themselves and began to counter-attack. Very soon the Soviet forces fell victim to yet another defeat with many thousands of their troops encircled and taken prisoner.

Benno Zieser had been wounded fighting with the German Army during the winter. He was still recovering at a field hospital in the rear area when he found himself ordered back to the front, one of the 50 fittest men in the hospital whose convalescence was prematurely curtailed. In late May all of them were ordered to urgently return to their units.

We were told our division was somewhere near Kharkov. That did not buck us up particularly, seeing that Kharkov’s name always seemed to be in the news as in the thick of the fighting.

Behind our truck hung a long cloud of dust in great whorls, and in no time there was a thin grey coating on uniform, hair and face. The dust clogged your nostrils, got into your mouth, parched your throat. Rushing through the air made our eyes water and the tears which trickled cut furrows into that dust down our cheeks. Everything was shimmering with the heat.

There was a dead man beside the road. A Russian, in his earth-brown uniform. Since we were still a long way from the front, this made us wonder how he had got there. Then a few minutes later the Sheikh [ the nickname of one of his colleagues] pointed to the other side of the road – ‘But there’s another one ’.

After that the corpses were more frequent. For many miles the dead bodies lay at most regular intervals, often enough a little bunch of them, all together, like piles of so much rubbish swept aside. With stark staring eyes they gaped at us and their petrifed hands stretched out to clutch at us.

And over all that half-naked blood-encrusted human flesh the sun poured down and filled the air with the sweetish stench of putrefaction. Without a word we looked left and right at those figures by the roadside which never budged and never would again.

Later we met one of our chaps, who explained it all. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘there was a long column of prisoners came this way the other day.’

See Benno Zieser: In their shallow graves

A group of Soviet infantry men surrender to a German armoured unit, May 1942.

Soviet prisoners of war are marched through Kharkov in May 1942.





Rommel attacks the Gazala Line

26th May 1942: Rommel attacks the Gazala Line

Half an hour later, the first of the enemy tanks rolled into view – eighty of them all advancing together, firing indiscriminately as they came, the squeaking of their tracks adding to the fearful cacophony now surrounding Bir Hakeim. They were immediately followed by an impressive number of trucks carrying infantry and artillery.




Convoy PQ16 comes under air attack

25th May 1942: Convoy PQ16 comes under air attack

The tracer-bullets from our Oerlikons were rushing at the yellow belly of the Junker 88 as he swooped over us. A loud squeal, growing louder and louder, and then the explosion, as a stick of bombs landed between us and the destroyer, on the port side. Three pillars of water went high up in the air, and the ship shook.




Public wants a Second Front to help Russia

24th May 1942: Public wants a Second Front to help Russia

It’s apparently useless for them to point out that the R.A.F. is regularly battering Germany’s production bases, that the steady stream of British war material to Russia continues at considerable sacrifice to this country, and that Britain is already fighting on three fronts – the Pacific, the Middle East, and the Atlantic.




Blind-flying duel over southern England

23rd May 1942: A blind-flying duel over southern England

The Heinkel banked steeply over to the left and came running back at us, the gunners firing broadsides as they flashed past only a hundred yards away on the beam. John had the Beaufighter already staggering around after them, the force of the turn pressing me down outrageously into my seat.




British and Soviets argue over ‘Second Front’

22 May 1942: British and Soviet governments argue over ‘Second Front’

if any further effort could be made or plan devised, provided it was sound and sensible, for drawing the weight off Russia this year, we should not hesitate to put it into effect. Clearly, it would not further either the Russian cause or that of the Allies as a whole if, for the sake of action at any price, we embarked on some operation which ended in disaster and gave the enemy an opportunity for glorification at our discomfiture.




Spitfire vs Messerschmitt 109 over Malta

21st May 1942: Spitfire vs Messerschmitt 109 over Malta

The 109’s scatter like spray. Twisting in my seat; my companions can’t have heard my order – I’m alone. Enemy fighters every-where. Two race low overliead; four more on my right. As three more 109s dive head-on under my nose I watch the fourth turning towards me; in a few seconds he will pass below to my left. There’s plenty of time to shoot him down.




Evading enemy aircraft in the desert

20th May 1942: Evading enemy aircraft in the desert

I had gone about fifty miles inland before I was spotted by an enemy fighter. The method of foiling aircraft attack in the open desert is quite simple. The plane, or planes, would generally attack from behind. What you had to do then was a complete 180-degree turn to face the oncoming attacker. This put the plane at a distinct disadvantage: he couldn’t dive towards you as he would finish up diving into the ground.




The final stages of the Burma retreat

19th May 1942: The final stages of the Burma retreat

Ploughing their way up slopes, over a track inches deep in slippery mud, soaked to the skin, rotten with fever, ill-fed and shivering as the air grew cooler, the troops went on, hour after hour, day after day. Their only rest at night was to lie on the sodden ground under the dripping trees, without even a blanket to cover them.




The last flight of ‘MacRoberts Reply’

18th May 1942: The last flight of ‘MacRoberts Reply’

At the crash site, a big part of the forrest was cut, it almost looked like a huge razor had cut through the trees. It look like there had been a huge explosion, since there were only small parts left from the bomber and there was a big hole in the ground. Since there were only small parts left, I could not recognise the bomber.