Christmas Day in a war torn world

An Admiralty official photograph released to show Christmas on board ship 1941
"In the ward room that has been decorated with balloons and streamers, the First Lieutenant carves the joint during Christmas celebrations on board HMS WESTMINSTER at Rosyth."
Note the vacant chair for the officer on watch and the aircraft identification models amidst the decorations.

No matter how good a day you had there was no getting away from the war. In Colchester in England, Alwyne Garling’s diary combined the domestic and the international, even his peace was interrupted by an air raid warning:

Had a wonderful Christmas Day. Had over 30 presents and had to open half in morning and half in afternoon. Morning mild 50 degrees and some rain. Then turned bright and cooler with North wind and temperature fell to 42 degrees by tea time. Went for a little walk. Heard broadcast of Roosevelt and Churchill in America. Also heard the King. The Government of Hong Kong reports that no further useful resistance can be offered. Japs say they ordered cease fire at noon to-day. We occupied Benghazi yesterday. Warning to-night 6.50 – 7.5 p.m.

Alwyne Garling’s diary can be followed on line at WW2 in Colchester.

Wherever they were troops tried to make the best of the day. Gilbert Wilson was with the 10th Royal Hussars in the Desert:

‘Christmas Day 1941’. The day of days — we celebrated it with bacon, sausages and biscuits for breakfast. Toasted the King and loved ones with Rita Lime Juice, for dinner we had sausages, green peas, potatoes and peaches and cream, Homebush shortbreads and tea. The RSM invited SSM Dunk for dinner and again for tea, and we made a very happy quartet. The evening was made merry by a singsong with the Officers; I also listened on my tank wireless set to the ‘Old Mother Riley’ programme and the news. The Royal Dragoons entered Benghazi.

Read more of his story on BBC People’s War.

For a lot of people it was not going to be a good day.

In France Agnes Humbert was shivering in a wing of a men’s prison where the cold was ‘arctic and relentless’. She had been in prison since April awaiting trial for anti Nazi activities – distributing French nationalist pamphlets:

Prison de Fresnes, 25 December 1941

The cold is simply excruciating.

My Warder, an Austrian veteran of the 1914-18 war and a former political prisoner himself, tries to show his sympathy for me. This morning he told me that it was Christmas Day, and that although like him I probably had children, I should try not to be too sad. As he spoke he proffered me two detective stories, which he said I must promise to read in order to take my mind off things.

At midday, the soldiers on guard duty launch into a Christmas carol. The adjutant barks at them to shut up. He’s the perfect little Nazi, piously Heil Hitler-ing at the slightest opportunity. Clearly in his view it is positively obscene for his men to sing in celebration of the birth of a dirty jew.

Agnes Humbert and her fellow prisoners did their best to keep their spirits up under a regime where people were imprisoned for the most trivial acts of resistance.

See Agnes Humbert: Resistance – Memoirs of Occupied France

The German soldiers on the Eastern front were exhausted and run down but still had to face continued Russian counter-attack.

It was even colder for Hans Roth, fighting with the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front:

25 December:

We are huddled outside in the firing hole with our machine guns. We handle our weapons carefully and cautiously; we cannot repeat what happened on December 22. [When they were almost over-run by a Russian attack] Not a drop of oil can touch the steel, for it will freeze immediately.

We look over to where the enemy is lying, he who would love to form an alliance with winter and who tries again and again to break through our positions. We have learned quite a few things from him already: we wear our shirts over our coats now, and as we have no white paint, each morning we quickly piss on the steel door, then spread snow over it, and there is your camouflage.

Soviet fighters approach, howling, in low altitude flights. The whole mess is now starting up again. We grab our ammunition clips. The enemy’s artillery is revving up; we are lucky to have such deep snow, for on the rock-hard frozen ground, the effects of the detonations are so much stronger. We hear the tanks rattling closer, and we know that there will be no rest for many hours.

Over on the other side, the enemy’s snowshoe units are emerging silently from the forest in their white coats. Our machine guns are barking, our hand grenades are ready; our comrades inside the bunkers have been alerted and are firing while standing behind the trees, as the icy and crusty earth offers no cover.

And as so often has been the case within the last few days, the hard fight begins, man against man, with their own weapons becoming a dangerous liability, because their hands freeze to them if they touch the metal with bare fingers.

Hans Roth had had some narrow escapes during the invasion of Russia. The whole of his account of the fighting on Christmas day can be read in Eastern Inferno: The Journals of a German Panzerjager on the Eastern Front, 1941-43.

Japanese troops march onto Hong Kong island, December 1941.

It was now a truly global war and on the other side of the world British forces were facing the Japanese onslaught onto their colonial outposts. It was near the end in Hong Kong. After sixteen days of fighting, British and Canadian troops had taken heavy casualties with many killed and wounded.

The Japanese would commit terrible atrocities when they overcame St Stephen’s Hospital early in the morning, see Alfred Balbin’s account .

After his aircraft had been destroyed in the early days of the campaign, Squadron Leader Donald Hill found himself fighting with Canadian troops, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, as an infantryman:

What an Xmas day empty stomachs, tired out, and heaven knows what is going on. At ten am a message arrives saying there is a truce until midday This news is immediately followed by a terrific bombardment of our position. Not my idea of a truce.

More Canadians melt away leaving our line practically undefended. I gather the few remaining men together and proceed to climb Mt Gough hoping to join up with our main forces. When we reach the top and strike the main road we run into several hundred Canadians retreating from Wan Chai Gap. Wan Chai Gap is the most vital sector of all and this means the end.

We are told that the island surrendered at 3.30 over an hour ago. The troops have no arms and are completely worn out.

A scene I will never forget with ammunition dumps going up everywhere and the Japs pouring hundreds of shells just over our heads into blocks of houses across the road. Finally the barrage stops and white flags appear from all the houses.

Donald Hill’s diary was written in code to prevent it being read by the Japanese. The full story of how it was not decoded until 1996 by P.J Ashton, a mathematician at the University of Surrey, together with further extracts, can be read at Plus Maths.

It wasn’t over for everyone in Hong Kong, Vince Calder was with the Royal Rifles of Canada:

At 5:00 P.M. on the 25th, our boys got together for one last crack at the little brown devils. The morale was very high, being backed up by hatred, contempt and disgust for those wanton, raping, sadistic, cold blooded murderers from Japan. A Hong Kong volunteer defence corps captain, a vet. of WW1, later told me it was the finest bayonet charge he had ever witnessed.

Of course, everyone didn’t have a rifle and bayonet, some had only one or the other, and others had Brens or tommy guns. If you had 25 rounds of ammo, you had a lot more than some. I saw one kid who had been a ball player back home, carrying 10 hand grenades and when he threw them, he didn’t miss a target. He was killed in the attack. We lost more men there than any other 3 battles combined. Pte. Lafferty died in that charge and Rfmn A.J. McKay, another swell guy, and I buried him. McKay was one of the best mortar instructors in the army.

At 8:15 P.M., we were back in Fort Stanley and everything was quiet and I guess everyone was looking at the sky and saying to themselves, ‘thank God it’s over’. Christmas night and everything was just as it should be, quiet, peaceful and a clear sky. Then the dirty Japs threw a barrage into Stanley and it must have been damn near everything they had left. We fell asleep listening to it.

His full account can be found at the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association.

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