Treblinka, Poland, Bodies of inmates, shortly after the liberation. The Soviets did not have the facilities available to the British and Americans when they later uncovered the camps in the west - so the photographic record is not as complete.

Treblinka, Poland, Bodies of inmates, shortly after the liberation. The Soviets did not have the facilities available to the British and Americans when they later uncovered the camps in the west – so the photographic record is not as complete.

As the Red Army pushed westwards into Poland they surprised the SS who were stilling running the concentration camps and extermination camps in the area. They were under orders to kill off the remaining inmates, demolish the camps and obliterate all traces of what had happened. Through a mixture of incompetence and surprise this proved to be impossible in the time available. But there was still time to murder almost all of the remaining workers, workers who had been spared until now solely for the purpose running down and dismantling the camps.

Russian journalist Vasily Grossman arrived only days later and discovered what happened at Treblinka on 23 July 1944:

The camp was divided into rectangles. Barracks were built in absolutely straight lines. Birch trees were planted along the sand-covered paths. Asters and dahlias grew in the fertilised soil. Concrete pools were made for the water fowl, there were pools for washing with comfortable steps, outbuildings for the German personnel, a model bakery, a barber’s shop, garage, petrol station, warehouses.

The camp of Lublin—Majdanek and dozens of other labour camps where the Gestapo had planned a long and serious operation were organised according to the same formula, with little gardens, drinking fountains and concrete roads.

Camp No. 1 existed from the spring of 1941 until 23 July 1944. Surviving prisoners were annihilated when they could already hear an indistinct faraway rumble from Soviet artillery. In the early morning on the 23 July, guards and SS soldiers drank some schnapps for courage and began the liquidation of the camp. By the evening, all prisoners at the camp were killed and buried.

A carpenter from Warsaw, Max Levit, survived. He was wounded and lay under the corpses of his comrades until it was dark, and then he crawled into the forest. He told us how, when he was already lying in the trench, he heard the team of thirty boys from the camp sing the song ‘My Motherland is Vast’ just before the execution.

He heard how one of the boys shouted: ‘Stalin will avenge us!’ He heard how the leader of the boys, the camp favourite, red-haired Leib, who fell down into the trench after the salvo, lifted himself a little and asked: ‘Papa guard, you’ve missed. Please could you do it once again, one more time?’

But Grossman was to uncover much more than the last hours at Treblinka. Around 40 survivors and other witnesses from the local area were found and he was able to piece together a whole history of the murderous establishments at Treblinka. Treblinka I had operated ‘only’ as a ‘labour camp’, where forced labourers toiled in a quarry or cut wood in the forest. The murderous regime, which killed over half the prisoners who entered, was a grotesque mix of barbarism and sadism:

Now we know the whole story about German Ordnung at this labour camp…

We know about the work at the sand quarry, about those who did not fulfil the norm and were thrown into the pit from the cliff. We know about the food ration: 170 grams of bread and half a litre of slops which they called soup. We know about death from starvation, about the swollen people who were taken outside the barbed wire on wheelbarrows and shot.

We know about incredible orgies of the Germans, about how they raped girls and shot their forced lovers immediately afterwards, how a drunken German cut off a woman’s breast with a knife, how they threw people down from a top-floor window six metres from the ground, how a drunken company would take ten to fifteen prisoners from the barracks during the night and practise different methods of killing, without haste, shooting the doomed men in the heart, back of the head, eye, mouth, temple…

We know about the chief of the camp, the Dutch German Zan Eilen, a murderer, lover of good horses, a fast rider and lecher. We know about Stumpfe, who was seized by fits of involuntary laughter every time he killed one of the prisoners, or when an execution was carried out in his presence. He had the nickname ‘Laughing Death’…

We know about the one-eyed German from Odessa, Svidersky, whose nickname was ‘Master Hammer’. He was considered the unsurpassed specialist in ‘cold’ death, and it was he who had killed, in the course of several minutes, fifteen children aged from eight to thirteen, who had been declared unt for work.

We know about the thin SS man Preie who looked like a Gypsy, whose nickname was ‘Old Man’. He was gloomy and reticent. He worked off his boredom by sitting by the camp’s rubbish pit and waiting for prisoners who came secretly to eat potato peelings. He made them open their mouths and shot into their open mouths.

We know the name of professional murderers Schwarz and Ledeke. It was they who amused themselves by shooting at prisoners walking back from work at dusk. They killed twenty, thirty or forty people every day.

All these people had nothing human in them. Their distorted brains, hearts and souls, words and deeds, their habits were like a frightening caricature barely reminiscent of the features, thoughts, feelings, habits and deeds of normal Germans.

The order in the camp, and the documentation of murders, and love of monstrous jokes that somehow reminded one of those of drunken German soldiers, and the singing in chorus of sentimental songs among the puddles of blood, and the speeches with which they constantly addressed the doomed men, and their preaching, and religious sayings printed neatly on special pieces of paper — all these were the monstrous dragons and reptiles that developed from the embryo of traditional German chauvinism, arrogance, egoism, self-assurance, pedantic care for one’s own little nest, and the iron-cold indifference to the destiny of all that is living on the Earth, from the ferocious belief that German music, poetry, language, lawns, toilets, sky, buildings are the greatest in the Universe…

Grossman went on to record the the full horrors that later developed when Treblinka II was established as an extermination centre, an efficient killing machine that accounted for between 800,000 and 1,200,000 men women and children.

Grossman’s fully researched article did not appear until November 1944, it is regarded as one of his most eloquent and important works. It was so authoritative that it was part of the evidence accepted at the post war War Crimes Trials. Yet Grossman could barely cope with the enormity of what he had learnt, it would take him months to recover from the experience.

See A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945





Polish partisans watch the German retreat

Military police in 'Partisan territory'.

It took hours for the tank columns to pass our positions. Our men later said that some of the Germans riding on the tanks must have spotted us, but just looked the other way. To this day, I can’t imagine how we managed to keep cool in a situation like this, when we could all have been killed and our only defense was in lying low and waiting it out. We had become a tightly disciplined group. Nobody made a false move. About half an hour after the last tank passed, we heard a huge explosion and saw flames and smoke maybe a thousand feet behind us. We later learned that one of the German tanks had broken down; the Germans blew it up, not wanting to leave it behind for the Russians.




US Marines assault the beaches of Guam

Coast Guard-manned landing barges strike at the beaches near Guam.

Stumbling and sliding through the sand, we ran across the open, a distance of about fifteen yards. It seemed like a hun- dred. We fell scared and out of breath behind a sand dune and lay on our stomachs panting. Why were we still alive?— No time to think about it. The only thing was to stay alive. Save yourself. Don’t raise up. Don’t move. It was like Tarawa. Men crowded on the sand. When would it end? How would We get out of it?




Adolf Hitler survives another assassination attempt

Hitler shows Benito Mussolini the scene of his narrow escape.

Look at my burns! When I reflect on all this I must say that to me it is obvious that nothing is going to happen to me; undoubtedly it is my fate to continue on my way and to bring my task to completion. It is not the first time that I have escaped death miraculously. First there were times in the first war, and then during my political career there were a series of marvellous escapes. What happened here today is the climax! And having now escaped death in such an extraordinary way I am more than ever convinced that the great cause which I serve will be brought through its present perils and that everything can be brought to a good end.




Last stand of the Wehrmacht in St Lo

A young German soldier surrenders as the US Army approaches St Lo.

Question or statement I didn’t know, either way it struck us both. I held him until he died. The whole event only took a few moments. Willi’s last words may have been the trigger for Kalb’s next action. He took off his helmet and placed it over Willi’s face, then broke off the bottom of Willi’s identity disc. He took this, his watch, medals, wedding ring and the pictures of his family and wrapped it all in his handkerchief, which he thrust down the front of his trousers. No one would look here. He placed his battered cap on his head and told us to do the same.




Badly wounded pilot’s determination sinks U-Boat

Oblique photograph taken from Consolidated Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 'Y', of No. 210 Squadron RAF during an attack on German type VIIC submarine U-347 west of the Lofoten Islands. After an initial attack in which the Catalina's depth charges failed to release, the captain, Flying Officer J A Cruickshank, made a second run from astern, through intense fire from the U-boat which killed the navigator and seriously wounded Nicholson and three other members of the crew. The photograph shows the splashes from the first of six DCs dropped on the second attack, landing astern of the U-boat which was making violent 'S' turns in an effort to escape. Machine gun fire from a gun housed in one of the Catalina's 'blisters' can also be seen at top left. The submarine was later confirmed sunk.

During the next five and a half hours of the return flight he several times lapsed into unconsciousness owing to loss of blood. When he came to his first thought on each occasion was for the safety of his aircraft and crew. The damaged aircraft eventually reached base but it was clear that an immediate landing would be a hazardous task for the wounded and less experienced second pilot. Although able to breathe only with the greatest difficulty, Flying Officer Cruickshank insisted on being carried forward and propped up in the second pilot’s seat.




Red Army reaches the Russian border

Some of the 57,000 German  POWs marched through the streets of Moscow to demonstrate the success of the Red Army.

For just a few minutes, people became completely different – unfettered, they straightened their backs and stood taller; pride appeared on their faces, and their eyes sparkled. If only for a short while, the terrible memories of the days of retreat and death slipped away, the years we endured together, the tears over those who passed away — all vanished in this moment of common triumph and joy! How splendid that we had lived to see this hour! That we were among the first of the first to cross this fixed geographical boundary, which was so precious to us all, and toward which we had all been striving so long! It seemed to all of us that the end of the war was now just a stone’s throw away.




The bloody battle for Hill 112

A Sherman tank advances during operations in the Odon valley, west of Caen, 16 July 1944.

If single German infantrymen can pop in and out of ditches within fifty yards of our tank, single German infantrymen may be crawling through the hedges alongside us or through the long grass behind us. And some of those infantrymen carry the notorious Panzerfaust, a simple, throwaway bomb-projector, known to us as a Bazooka and looking something like an outsize bassoon, an innocuous-looking instrument but one which, at fifty yards range, can blow our turret to smithereens.




Rommel’s last report on the battle in France

Panzer VI "Tiger II" (Königstiger) or King Tiger parked under trees in Normandy.

The destruction of the railroad network, and the great danger of enemy air attacks on all the roads and paths for 150 kilometres behind the front has made the supply position so difiicult that only the absolutely essential things could be brought up, and above all artillery and mortar ammunition was at a premium. These conditions are not likely to improve, as convoy vehicles are decreasing as a result of enemy action, and with the enemy capturing airfields in the bridgehead it can be expected that their air activities will increase.




Bradley faces criticisms of ‘slow’ Allied advance

US Soldiers in the 'bocage' hedgerow country , armed with a 'Grease Gun' automatic and a Browning water cooled machine gun.

Those who had awaited Monty’s assault on Caen as the signal for an Allied breakthrough trooped back disheartened to their gloomy press camps when the British went no farther. Weeks of intermittent rain had shrouded the beachhead with a dismal gray cloud cover, pinning the air forces to the ground while the enemy dragged up reinforcements.