The US Army had initiated the 10th Light Division (Alpine) in 1943, it was redesignated the 10th Mountain Division in 1944. Drawn from a mixture of skiers, climbers and outdoors men from a wide variety of backgrounds they trained in the Rocky Mountains before arriving in Europe in late 1944.
The precipitous mountains of Italy had proved to be natural defensive territory for the Germans, often providing positions impregnable to the average Allied soldier .
On the night of 18th-19th February 700 men of the 86th Regiment made one of the most audacious mountain attacks of the war, climbing five different routes up a 2,000 foot mountainside to attack the Riva Ridge, two of the routes requiring fixed ropes.
The attack proceeded according to plan. Only one contact with the enemy was made and that was B Company on trail #2. As the assault platoon reached the top of M. Cappel Buso the Krauts opened up with machine guns and machine pistols.
Taking advantage of lessons learned previously not to return fire at night, the leading echelon continued to move forward and the Krauts pulled out. Not a shot was fired by our men.
All columns reached their objectives without a casualty. The Krauts had pulled back in their dugouts for the night, not leaving a man in position. The ultimate had been gained, surprise was complete, and an important difficult, rugged terrain feature had been taken without a casualty.
While the major elements of our attacking force were engaged in the darkness and bitter cold below Monte Belvedere, teams of picked rock climbers of the 1st Battalion of the 86th were assembling coils of ropes over their shoulders and clusters of pitons and other rock-climbing gear on their belts.
All the years of alpine training on Mount Rainier and Camp Hale, so publicized in newsreels and Hollywood movies, were now about to be tested. In fact, what developed was to be the only signicant action in which the 10th had to use this most specialized kind of training. Nevertheless, no one in the War Department or in the 10th could later deny that this single exploit on Riva Ridge justied all the demanding training that had gone before.
A dusting of new snow covered the rock face and upper slopes of the mountains. The valley floor was a quagmire of freezing mud. Searchlights behind the combat area scanned the low—hanging wall of clouds and reflected a scattered, shadowy light over the terrain below. But the valley itself and the ridges were dark.
Climbing in the dead of night, members of the teams hammered steel pitons into the cracks in the rock, attached snap links to them, and then fastened ropes to the links which, hanging down, offered lines which those who followed could use to pull themselves up the vertical face of the ridge.
When the advance teams reached the top at approximately midnight, they signaled to the 1st Battalion units below that they could begin the ascent in force. These units advanced in a column of companies toward the foot of Riva Ridge and then split up, each taking a different route up the face of the cliff.
Fortunately, the haze which hung over the lower elevations of the ridge continued to help conceal the attacking mountaineers. With a biting and wet wind whipping them about, the climbers clambered cautiously up the wet rocks with the aid of the preset ropes, fearful that any dislodged rock that clattered down the cliff face would be followed by bursts of enemy machine guns and grenades.
Inevitably some rocks did fall, causing the climbers to halt in dread anticipation of the hail of death to follow. “Perfect fear casteth out love,” joked the Briton Cyril Connolly in his travesty of I John 4:18, and members of the 10th came to fully appreciate that remark in this introduction to combat.
By 4 A.M. on February 19, all three companies of the 1st Battalion, 86th, and Co. F of the 2nd had reached their separate objectives on top of the ridge unseen and had charged the holding units of the German 1044th Infantry Regiment with rifles and grenades. Surprise was complete.
“I don’t see how you did it,” one German defender stated. “We thought it was impossible for anyone to climb that cliff”
With the coming of daylight, the Germans began to launch the expected counterattack after counterattack, accompanied by heavy artillery fire on the ridge.
When accurate counterartillery bursts repulsed one attack, the Germans came back with their hands up, feigning surrender. After nearing the 1st Battalion positions, they dropped and began firing again, but were finally driven off with heavy casualties. One platoon alone, with the help of our supporting artillery, accounted for 26 Germans killed, 7 captured, and countless wounded.
For the men who had been in the line since August the unrelenting business of the infantry was taking its toll. Every day the casualties mounted. The ordinary soldier was only too aware that his number would be up sooner or later. There was only one way out of their situation, other than death.
R.M Wingfield had recently been promoted to Corporal in charge of a section of his infantry platoon.
Ahead, up a slight gradient four hundred yards in front of us, was the anti-tank ditch.
There was someone in there.
We lay down to regroup. All was ready. There was only one thing left to do. No—one wanted to give the order. I gulped and, turning to my section, shouted, “Fix bayonets!” That seemed to bring us all to life. I heard the nasty snick of the bayonets locking home. I pulled out the “Safety” of my Sten and stood up. Men to right and left stood up.
No-one moved. We all stared at the ditch ahead. This was a bayonet charge. We had practised it before, stupid men in training trying to raise an empty scream while prodding a sand- bag. This thing was no practice. It was the dread problem of “Him or Me”; that problem which had never arisen yet and which we assumed would never arise. These men in the ditch were not going to give up easily. Oh God, let it be him!
I fingered my Sten, looked to right and left and set off at a rapid walk. I glanced at my mate “Smoky” on my right. He licked his lips, grinned a dead grin and closed me to bring me under the protection of his bayonet. I should have to spray with my Sten and hope for the best.
The alignment was all to hell. I was leading an arrow-head. We broke into a trot, a run, a mad charge, screaming, yelling. One hundred yards away the lip of the ditch was lined with waving bits of white paper.
“So you’re trying to pack up now, you bastards! It’s too bloody latel” we roared and swept on. I sprayed a burst at the paper. It went down. Fifty yards . . . forty yards . . . thirty . . . twenty . . . and, with a wild yell, I was over and in.
The trench was ten feet deep. I hit the bottom with a crash and saw grey-green figures. I squeezed the trigger. Oh, God! A jam! Before I could shake out the cartridge a voice said: “What the fornication do you lot think you’re doing?”
We had charged our own “B” Company with an assortment of Germans varying from very dead to petrified with fright.
The next ten minutes, with the bubble of fear pricked, were spent in mutual recriminations, curses and remarks on the Higher Authority’s ancestry. There might have been serious casualties, casualties which would have been unnecessary.
Some stupid bastard had blundered. It was a bloody miracle we won the war when nobody knew where the hell anybody else was half the time.
In the middle of the curses and attempts to regroup Jerry Defensive Fire came down. We hit the ground, “B”, “D” and the German prisoners in a hopeless jumble.
The gunnery was, fortunately, of a low standard as no shells came in among us. One straggler on the edge of the ditch was hit in the shoulder as he dived into the trench, rolling to the bottom in a shower of earth and stones.
We bandaged him as neatly as we could. He didn’t seem too bad, so we said how much we envied him, wrapped him in his gas-cape to prevent shock and gave him a cigarette. From the smile on his face we gathered that “Jack” was certainly All Right.
The barrage stopped.
That seemed to be the lot for the time being. We consolidated. I helped to booby-trap the trench with trip-flares and the inevitable tin cans.
Two men took the only casualty to the Regimental Aid Post. We watched him go with envious eyes.
Shortly after this Wingfield was himself wounded, in the stomach, and after an unnerving several hours on the battlefield, was eventually retrieved by the stretchers bearers. He recovered to write his memoirs. See R M Wingfield: The Only Way Out
The US forces in the Pacific now moved onto another staging post on the route to the Japanese mainland. Iwo Jima was half-way between the Mariana islands, already in US hands, and Japan itself. Capturing it would prevent it being used by the Japanese to spot or intercept bombers en route to Japan and would halve the distance the US bombers needed to fly. The initial assessment was that it could be captured relatively easily.
On the 16th February 1945 Marine Brigadier General William W. Rogers held a press conference on the command ship USS Eldorado, telling those present that the coming invasion of Iwo Jima would take five days. Strong fighting on the beaches was expected followed by counter-attacks at night – suicidal Banzai charges. But once the initial resistance was over they could take the island quickly.
There were reasons to believe that the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima were seriously weakened, they had been subject to bombing since mid 1944, and they had been bombed every single day for the past 74 days, with a total of 6,800 tons of bombs. In addition there had been periodic, intense, naval bombardments, which started again on the 16th.
It seemed hard to believe that anything could survive on the island after this plastering – but the raids had served to encourage the Japanese in their new strategy of moving underground and waiting for the invasion troops to come to them.
Takahashi Toshiharu was a corporal in the Japanese First Mixed Brigade of Engineers, responsible for building some of the eleven miles of tunnels and underground bunkers on the island:
The guns that were trained on the island all spurted fire at the same time. On the island there was a huge earthquake. There were pillars of fire that looked as if they would touch the sky.
Black smoke covered the island, and shrapnel was flying all over the place with a shrieking sound. Trees with trunks one meter across were blown out of the ground, roots uppermost.
The sound was deafening, as terrible as a couple of hundred thunderclaps coming down at once.
Even in a cave thirty meters underground, my body was jerked up off the ground. It was hell on earth.
Next, large planes—many tens of them—came all together. They made a deep rumbling sound as they came. They were silver. Once over the island they dropped one-ton bombs — terrifying things. The sound they made as they fell, one after another, was terrifying. A timid man would go insane.
They made a whistling sound as they fell. Then the earth shook. There were explosions. Rocks, earth, and sand all flew up into the air. Then they fell back down. They made craters ten meters wide and five meters deep in the earth.
No one could survive in these conditions. Any Japanese soldiers, like the runners who went outside, were all killed. The only option was to take advantage of the night and go out then.
Almost every German town and city was now damaged by bombing, many were completely laid waste, and still there was no end in sight. It was a perilous time for any downed aircrew who happened to fall into German hands. There were several incidents of mob lynching where the German military authorities either failed to intervene or openly provoked a crowd into attacking their prisoners.
As the situation in Germany deteriorated men who had been injured during their escape from their plane faced a very difficult time. James Romine had been a rear gunner in a bomber squadron in the 8th Air Force. He had been shot down on the 10th February, and was shot in the leg by small arms fire from the ground as he descended by parachute. Bleeding heavily, his attempts to evade capture did not last long, and he had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the SS:
I was taken prisoner by SS troopers who forced me at fixed bayonet to walk on my injured leg to a village about two and a half miles away. Had I at any point come across with the information they sought I’m sure they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of taking me prisoner.
Before we got to the village I sat down and refused to walk further, so they held a confab and sent for transportation to carry me the rest of the way. There was a German first aid station in the village, but they merely took a look at my wounds and replaced the bandages I myself had put on.
Three SS officers proceeded to question me for several hours, then stripped me of all my clothing, wrapped me in a blanket and took me about 16 kilometres by horse and wagon to a point somewhere west of the Rhine. We arrived at a German evacuation hospital, where there were about 300 wounded Germans and where they left me for a day and a night with no medical attention.
Then we started on another trip further into Germany, to the finest hospital one could ask for anywhere — large, modern and shining. Here at last, I thought, was a chance to have my wounds dressed.
Instead, they tossed me into a small room in the attic of the three-storey hospital along with nine other American infantry boys, two of whom were to die during my three days there. There were four legs left among those nine men in that room, their stumps were raw and uncared for.
We lay on filthy straw mats, lice-covered and nauseous from the indescribable stench that hung over the room. The daily diet consisted of coffee and a piece of black bread in the morning and at night a small cereal bowl of potato soup. SS men came in periodically to question me further; how they could endure entering the room is beyond me.
The cruel deaths which those fellows were lefi to face, amid supposedly civilised surroundings where all medical facilities were at hand, is a testimonial to German brutality that will never be forgotten by those of us who lived to relate the facts.
After three days of futile questioning the Germans put me in an ambulance and drove me across the Rhine to a waiting train, the carriages of which were painted white with red crosses and which, I found out later, were loaded with ammunition for the Russian front.
I was laid in a carriage, with a foot—deep layer of horse manure and straw as a mattress. Inside with me they put a Polish pilot who spoke very little English and for six days we lay there with no water to drink and just two or three sandwiches during the whole trip. The train was stopped several times by American planes but they were fooled by the red crosses and it wasn’t strafed.
This account appears in War’s Long Shadow. The account states that Romine was with the 544th Bomb Squadron, flying B-26s. The 544th flew B-17s but the 344th flew B-26s – so one or other must be a misprint.
For Victor Klemperer the bombing of Dresden had actually brought salvation. As one of the few surviving Jews in the city, he had spent the 13th February distributing official letters warning most of the remaining Jews to report for “deportation”. Few had any illusions about what this meant – they were either going to a concentration camp or they were going to be worked to death digging tank ditches somewhere on the outskirts of the city.
He had spent a terrifying night, separated from his ‘Aryan’ wife, the single factor that had prevented him from being sent off to the concentration camps before now. Re-united with Eva in the early morning she had immediately cut off the yellow star on his overcoat. From now on, in the confusion following the bombing, he would assume a ‘purely German’ identity. Like tens of thousands of others he had lost everything, including his identity papers, in the fire. Miraculously his diary, which chronicles life in wartime Germany in great detail, had survived.
Fortunately he was to survive the wave of USAAF bombers that raided the city just after midday and the random attacks of Mustang fighters that were sent to strafe and harass the rescue services during the day:
We walked slowly, for I was now carrying both bags, and my limbs hurt, along the river-bank [. . .]. Above us, building after building was a burnt-out ruin. Down here by the river, where many people were moving along or resting on the ground, masses of the empty, rectangular cases of the stick incendiary bombs stuck out of the churned-up earth. Fires were stilllburning in many of the buildings on the road above.
At times, small and no more than a bundle of clothes, the dead were scattered across our path. The skull of one had been torn away, the top of the head was a dark red bowl. Once an arm lay there with a pale, quite fine hand, like a model made of wax such as one sees in barber’s shop windows.
Metal frames of destroyed vehicles, burnt-out sheds. Further from the centre some people had been able to save a few things, they pushed handcarts with bedding and the like or sat on boxes and bundles. Crowds streamed unceasingly between these islands, past the corpses and smashed vehicles, up and down the Elbe, a silent, agitated procession.
Then we turned right towards the town again – I let Eva lead the way and do not know where. Every house a burnt-out ruin, but often people outside on the street with household goods they had saved. Again and again fires still burning. Nowhere a sign of attempts to extinguish them. [. . .] Not until we came to the hospitals, was I able to orientate myself.
An ambulance stopped on the open space in front of us; people surrounded it, stretchers with wounded lay on the ground nearby. On a little bench by the door of the vehicle an ambulance man was dispensing eye-drops; there were a great many people whose eyes were more or less badly affected. It was very soon my turn. ‘Now, dad, I’m not going to hurt you!’ He removed some dirt from the injured eye with the edge of a small piece of paper, then put stinging drops in both eyes.
Feeling a little relieved, I walked slowly back; after a few steps I heard the ugly hum of an aircraft above me coming rapidly closer and diving. I ran towards the wall, where there were already some other people lying, threw myself to the ground, my head against the wall, my arm over my face. There was already an explosion, and little bits of rubble trickled down on to me. I lay there for a little while longer, I thought: ‘Just don’t get killed now!’ There were a few more distant explosions, then there was silence.
… [They found an organised refuge …]
It was difficult to find a seat on the benches. The seriously wounded lay on the ground on stretchers, blankets or mattresses, some rooms were entirely organised as a hospital, filled only with people lying there. Soldiers and ambulancemen came and went, more stretchers were brought in. Where I found a place, it was perhaps in the middle room, there was a soldier on the ground groaning terribly, a strapping fellow with big legs and feet. Everyone who passed stumbled over his boots, the man, completely unconscious, was no longer aware of anything.
Much later, it was already late in the evening, a senior medical orderly called out that everyone would now get something to eat. Then a basin appeared with white packets of bread, two double sandwiches in each packet. But after a few minutes we were told: Each packet must be shared between two people. I shared with Eva. But what most people – though not, curiously enough, ourselves – missed more than food was something to drink.
At the beginning people had got hold of a little tea somewhere and distributed it by the mouthful. Soon there was nothing at all, not a drop of water, not even for the wounded and dying. The medical orderlies complained that they could not help anyone. The vigorous Waldmann felt tormented by thirst to such a degree that he literally began to fade away. He fell asleep, started up in a wretched state, he had been dreaming of drinking. New medical orderlies came. One put a bottle to Waldmann’s mouth.
Another, evidently a doctor, stood in front of the (wounded) man groaning on the floor. ‘The lungs?’ I asked. – Oedema, came the indifferent reply. After a while the groaning stopped, a little foam came from his mouth. But the man’s face went on moving for a long time, before he lay still. Later the corpse was taken out.
‘Operation Thunderclap’ had been under discussion within the Allied Command for some time, the proposal was to bomb the eastern-most cities of Germany to disrupt the transport infrastructure behind what was becoming the Eastern front. Also to demonstrate to the German population, in even more devastating fashion, that the air defences of Germany were now of little substance and that the Nazi regime had failed them. At Yalta Churchill had promised to do more to support the Soviet forces moving west into Germany, and the priority for Thunderclap moved up the timetable of bombing.
Dresden, lying so far in the east of Germany that it had been out of range from RAF attention for much of the war, had received very little bombing so far. There were rumours circulating in the city that it had been deliberately spared from the bombing for some reason, perhaps because the Allies wanted to keep one undamaged city as a new administrative centre when they occupied Germany. Compared to most other German cities the air raid precautions and the range of air raid shelters available were relatively poor.
This was the part of the briefing given to the RAF crews taking part in the attack:
Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester, is also far the largest un-bombed built-up area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westwards and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees and troops alike but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas.
At one time well known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance and like any large city with its multiplicity of telephone and rail facilities, is of major value for controlling the defence of that part of the front now threatened by Marshal Koniev’s breakthrough.
The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.
A similar briefing had been given to USAAF 8th Air Forces crews who had ben intended to attack Dresden during the day, but bad weather forced cancellation of this raid.
There were many factors influencing a ‘successful’ bombing raid, the weather, the fighters, the air defences, the target marking, whether the fires ‘took’, how quickly the fire services got into action on the ground. On this occasion almost all of these factors went in the RAF’s favour, the Luftwaffe only put up 27 fighters and most of them were in the wrong part of Germany. Dresden’s unpracticed anti-aircraft defences were negligible compared with those for Berlin. And by this stage in the war the RAF had really mastered the art of managing a bombing raid, getting the bombers quickly in over the target in a way that would overwhelm the ground defences.
R. W. Olsen was a Mosquito pilot with 627 Squadron, on his second Pathfinder Operation:
On the night of 13/14 February 1945 we were briefed to mark for 5 Group Lancasters as the opening salvo in the attack, other Groups in Bomber Command following in later waves. I was Marker 8, flying Mosquito MkXXV KB409 “Y” Yankee with Chipps as my Navigator. At the time there was nothing special about the raid except that it was a long way to go and the navigation needed to be spot on so as to arrive in the target area at the right time, neither late nor early. Dresden, we were told, had not been bombed before and the aiming point was the corner of a sports stadium. There were six such stadiums in the area so particular care had to be exercised.
I was last to mark, being in my bombing dive when the Master Bomber called “Markers to clear the target area”, followed by “Main Force come in and bomb”. Having released my markers and pulling out of my dive, two things caused consternation – first there, right in front of me were the spires and turrets of Dresden Cathedral, secondly, some of the Lancasters were a bit quick to drop their Cookies, much to my discomfort. The aircraft was rocked and buffeted just like a row boat in a heavy sea. It was on this occasion that I learned why the safety height to fly when 4000lb bombs were exploding was a minimum of 4000 feet. This was the only occasion when I pushed the throttles through the gate to get extra power from the engines to get out of the area as quickly as possible.
The return joumey was uneventful after we had been given “Markers go home” by the Marker Leader. On landing Chipps and I were tired. De-briefing, followed by a meal and back to the billet to get some much needed sleep. Later we realised that this operation was the longest time we had been airborne in a Mosquito – five hours forty minutes, close to the maximum fuel endurance.
The first wave of 244 Lancasters bombed between 22.13 and 22.31. The target had been very accurately marked for them by the Mosquito Pathfinders who came down to 2,500 feet to get below the cloud base for a clear view. The Master Bomber, code name ‘King Cole’, circled the skies at 3,000-4,000 feet monitoring the bombing and giving directions to ensure the bombing stayed close to the target marking flares.
The second wave bombed between 1.21 and 1.45am, Bomb Aimer Miles Tripp:
Although we were forty miles from Dresden, fires were reddening the sky ahead. The meteorological forecast had been correct. There was no cloud over the city. Six miles from the target, other Lancasters were clearly visible; their silhouettes black in the rosy glow.
The streets of the city were a fantastic latticework of fire. It was as though one was looking down at the fiery outlines of a crossword puzzle; blazing streets stretched from east to east, from north to south, in a gigantic saturation of flame. I was completely awed by the spectacle.
Soon we noticed a faint glow appearing in the sky ahead of us. We still had twenty minutes to run. Was that glow ahead coming from Dresden?
We switched on the radio and heard the Master Bomber and his deputy. From their discussion we gathered that visibility was excellent. The Master Bomber said that illumination flares were not needed and he ordered the Path Finders carrying them to go home.
We were fifteen miles from the target and the whole area was just one sea of flames. Strangely there was no smoke. The fires were burning with such intensity that they were generating their own winds, which carried the smoke away and kept the target almost clear. Those fires also quickly swallowed up the marker flares. Realizing this, the Master Bomber issued an order to the Main Force — ‘King Cole to Strongman: no markers, bomb visually, bomb visually.’
Ahead of us the first wave of aircraft were dropping their loads and we saw aircraft below us silhouetted against the fires. As the cookies exploded, a shock—wave ring momentarily appeared in the fire, to be swallowed up again in an instant.
We commenced our own bombing run at 01.33 hours, exactly on time. It was very turbulent now, either from the tremendous heat generated below us or from the slipstreams of aircraft ahead. There was a cold draught as our bomb doors opened and the noise level increased. There were odd puffs of ack—ack but few and far between. Bombs away!
One of the last pilots to leave the scene at 2.15am recorded:
There was a sea of fire covering . . . some 40 square miles. The heat striking up from the furnace below could be felt in my cockpit. The sky was vivid in hues of scarlet and white and the light inside the aircraft was that of an eerie autumn sunset. . . . We could still see the glare of the holocaust thirty minutes after leaving.
It must have seemed that nothing could get worse for the PoWs who were prisoners of the Japanese on Borneo. In 1942 about 3,500 men, British and Australian, had been brought to Sandakan camp to build an airfield for the Japanese. At the beginning of 1945 2,434 men survived, the death rate having increased dramatically at the end of 1944 when the meagre food allowance was cut again.
As the area started to suffer from Allied bombing raids, the Japanese decided to march the PoWs 164 miles into the jungle interior to Ranau. It was a decision at first welcomed by the PoWs who had suffered fatalities from the bombing themselves. They could not have been more wrong.
None of the approximately 800 British PoWs would survive the ordeal of the march and accompanying massacres and atrocities. And only six Australians were alive at the end of the war. Two of those survivors:
If blokes just couldn’t go on, we shook hands with them, and said, you know, hope everything’s all right. But they knew what was going to happen. There was nothing you could do. You just had to keep yourself going. More or less survival of the fittest.
It was a oneway trip when we started to hear shots, and you felt there was no hope for anyone who fell out.
The following account summarises what is known of the circumstances of the marches:
On 28 January 1945, the first of 455 PoWs, in nine groups, set off from Sandakan to march to Ranau on the 164-mile trek through the jungle and swamps. The emaciated prisoners, in ragged clothes, many with bare feet and the remainder in disintegrating boots, suffering from malnutrition, disease and tropical sores, started out on the first of three marches that became known as the Death Marches.
The PoWs carried all the food including that for the guards. The route of the Death March, climbing up to 1,000 metres in some places, was along jungle tracks some of which the prisoners had to hack through thick jungle. The route crossed and re-crossed rivers which, as it was the monsoon season, were full in full flow.
Humidity was extreme. There were no medical kits for the PoWs and drinking water was direct from the streams, rivers, swamps or puddles. It was a case of march or die, which developed into march to die. Any prisoner that stopped was shot, bayoneted or clubbed to death; there were also occasional strangulations.
It was reported that there were instances of crucifixion and cases of cannibalism of PoWs – the prisoners being shot, butchered and then eaten by the Japanese.
There were also stories of strips of flesh being cut from living PoWs, the prisoners being regarded as “walking larders”, so that “fresh meat” could flavour the rice for the Formosan and Korean guards. There were local reports of two PoWs who, having been killed by the Kempeitai, had their limbs removed and the torsos taken down stream to a large Japanese camp. The news of this atrocity travelled far and wide without alteration to the account.
The local Sabahans also explained that the Japanese were short of food and were culling PoWs to boost their meagre rations. There were further instances of cannibalism of Kadazan, Dusan and Murut tribesmen by the Japanese.
The first, and subsequent marches, were horrific beyond description, undertaken by undernourished and sick men suffering from dehydration, salt deprivation, and dysentery, bloated by beriberi, meningitis, malaria and other jungle-related illnesses and sores. In many cases, bones could be seen through the suppurating fly-blown open wounds. Their bodies were quite simply rotting.
Leaches, tics, mosquitoes, fire ants, hornets and the cuts, stings and abrasions from the clinging undergrowth only added to their parlous condition. Those too sick to undertake the march were either later massacred at Sandakan or were sent by ship to other PoW camps where most met a similar fate.
Against all the odds, by mid-February 1945, some PoWs (all Australians) were still arriving at Ranau. Many had died en route, whilst others succumbed after they arrived. A mix of both Australian and British prisoners arrived at Paginantan, twenty-six miles short of Ranau, again many dying on the way. Rice carrying details started out from Ranau to Paginantan, a forced march of three days, carrying rice. Unencumbered, the return took two days.
Parties of men each carried 44lb sacks of rice; anyone who failed to keep up was either shot or executed by other means, their loads being redistributed amongst the survivors to carry. The Formosan and Korean guards were allegedly the worst and took great delight in their tasks. The first PoW to die on the rice march had travelled barely half a mile along the route. One PoW committed suicide as he could not face returning to Ranau.
A more detailed report on the whole history of the men who were sent to Sandakan was written by Lt. Col. H. W. S. Jackson after the war:
23. The first P.O.Ws. began to fall out from the march after four days which was near the Tankual Crossing, on the Maunad River, a rest post about 40 miles from Sandakan and in a portion of the track that was knee deep, in mud. The ones who fell out were kept under guard until the main party had disappeared from view and then they were shot and their bodies thrown into the jungle, at the side of the track. The P.O.Ws. could hear the shots and so knew what would happen if they fell out. P.O.W. “Fall Outs” would give away their personal belongings to their mates when they realized they could no longer continue. Those lucky enough to still possess leather boots would enquire of foot sizes before giving them away and would pass on messages of farewell for their mothers, wives and families.
24. N0.1 Party reached Ranau on the 12th. of February 1945 having lost thirteen of their men en route, a further two died on the day they reached Ranau. No. 2 Party reached Ranau on the the 15th. of February, No. 3 on the 16th., No. 4 on the 18th. and No. 5 on the 19th. Nos 6, 7, 8 and 9 parties reached Paginatan (26 miles west of Ranau) around the 20th. of February, where they rested, the original 195 had been reduced to 160. The 260 P.O.Ws. of parties Nos 1-5 had arrived at Ranau with only 150 survivors. Yamamoto realized that they would never survive the trip to Tuaran, over even more mountainous country that they had already traversed.
25. After a month the 160 men who had reached Paginatan had been reduced to 60 only 30 of whom were fit to continue to Ranau. The death rate at Ranau was equally as high, the strain of the march seemed to cause a rapid deterioration to their health.
On the 8th February the British XXX Corps had launched Operation Veritable, a massive combined attack, with the Canadian 1st Army, that was part of a larger Allied plan to push the Germans back to the Rhine. A significant part of the attack went through the the German ‘Imperial Forest’, the Reichswald.
In the British Army the largest single tactical infantry unit was the Battalion, comprising around a 1000 men when at full strength, organised into four Companies, each with subordinate Platoons, and a Headquarters unit. Many British Regiments had several Battalions, which might fight in completely different theatres from each other. The 5th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, recruited from the far north of Scotland, found themselves in the Reichswald, beginning their attack on the 9th February.
The following description of one day’s fighting describes how a battle might unfold for a typical battalion strength infantry attack. Their objective was the Hekkens/Kranenburg crossroads, about 600 yards beyond a known anti-tank ditch through the forest. Somewhere in the forest they knew they would encounter German parachute troops, known to them as “the little para boys”, because of their youth, although respected for their fighting abilities:
At 0100 hours on February 11, “C” Company led off cautiously down the road, with “D” and “A” following, and a heavy barrage sweeping the ground ahead of them; and as far as the bend in the road they met nothing. Heavy rain was falling. Progress was slow and there were many halts, but nevertheless we were advancing and our hopes began to rise.
After half an hour the leading section approached the anti-tank ditch, and as they went forward to investigate it all hell broke. Spandaus opened up all along the front, straight lines of tracer were striking the trees and flying off in all directions, grenades burst.
They went to ground in a ditch by the roadside, with the Germans still firing at point-blank range. There was a hurried consultation, carried on in whispers in case the Germans would hear it, and a section was sent to work round the flank and discover the enemy strength; but before they had gone far, four more spandaus opened up and pinned them.
There were more consultations, more expeditions; and always there were more spandaus. The Germans were in the ditch in strength, and try as we might we could not get to grips with them.
… [They now threw the reserve ‘A’ Company into the battle – but they came under heavy mortar fire as they approached the German flanks. The survivors from ‘B’ Company had been dispersed amongst the other three companies to make up for heavy casualties earlier]…
The Colonel — he had already been wounded in the neck, but refused to do anything about it — made his mind up. He tried our reserve wireless set, but there was heavy interference and he could not make himself understood. He went back to tell Brigadier Cassels that we could not reach Hekkens without tanks.
The Brigadier promised us tanks in the morning, and a scissors bridge to get them over the ditch.
The Colonel returned and found little improvement. It was an abominable place. “C” Company and Battalion H.Q. were so close to the Germans that they could hear the N.C.O.’s giving their fire-orders; and the leading men were inside grenading range. The ditch was deep, but not deep enough to stand in.
There was so little room that at one time men were lying on top of each other three-deep to keep under cover. Outside, the fixed lines of the spandaus were firing tracer at stomach-height; and the only safe way forward was to crawl along the ditch, over all the bodies. In places the piles of humanity were so deep that even this method left the crawler exposed.
The stretcher-bearers, unable to stoop and carry simultaneously, did magnificent work in carrying the wounded back through the hail of bullets in the open, but many of them were hit.
Leslie Forshaw-Wilson, who took over command when Colonel Sym went to Brigade, had been wounded before he could issue any orders. Hector Mackenzie took over and continued to explore the enemy flanks.
The Colonel resumed command, and gradually the congestion in the ditch was sorted out. Bodies were only one deep now. The firing slackened. By dawn only a few snipers were active, and after the alarms of the night there was relative peace.
Then began a long and anxious day. The lull did not last. Shortly after daylight the Germans concentrated every weapon they had, and for hours on end we were shelled and mortared and grenaded. The spandaus were firing almost continuously, now so deadly that it was impossible to move in the forward positions.
Shells were bursting in the trees, not in ones or twos, but by the score, throwing great splinters of steel and wood at the men lying prone in the ditch. We heard the pop-pause-pop-pause-pop of the mortars, flattened ourselves and counted twenty; and down they came all round us, bursting in the treetops, on the road, everywhere. There was a nasty little yellow rifle grenade, too (it was one of these which had wounded the Colonel) which we had not met before and did not want to meet again. Casualties were mounting, and still the stonk of high explosive continued.
The tanks arrived in time to scupper a counter-attack coming in at us from the right; but neither they nor the bulldozer which accompanied them could linger, for an eighty-eight had come to life and was cracking armour-piercing shells straight down the road. They withdrew.
We felt very lonely. Between the bursts of firing we could hear the rain dripping from the branches of the trees. Our ammunition began to run low, and men risked their lives to carry fresh supplies up the ditch. All the time the stretcher-bearers were carrying casualties back. Food arrived, but it could not be issued.
Late in the morning the Colonel, who should have been in hospital hours before, passed out cold (‘I can’t think why,’ he said afterwards) and his place was taken by Major Powell.
At mid-day we were ordered to withdraw. Donnie Munro was killed carrying the message to the forward companies.
The tanks retumed a little later and kept the German heads down while we drew back into the forest. And that was the end. Our job, though we only then realised it, was done. We had not taken the Hekkens crossroads, but we had pinned down every German capable of defending them and another brigade had been able to walk in behind the backs of the defence.
It met hardly any opposition: every reserve the Germans possessed had by this time been drawn up to our ditch. When the Para-boys found they were almost surrounded they melted away, and the Hekkens/Kranenburg road was clear from end to end.
Our two nights in the Reichswald had cost us nineteen killed and sixty-five wounded.
A week earlier Japanese officer Fuzuko Obara had led his platoon on an infiltration patrol to gather intelligence. They had snatched a Filipino guerrilla who had been fighting alongside the invading US forces. He does not record what information they obtained from this man, nor how it was obtained. Then in the afternoon of 9th February he was ordered to make a night attack on the positions he had earlier reconnoitred:
The reaction of my men is simply this: they begin to check and recheck their arms and equipment. Scanning their faces, I find them calm and unruffled, scarcely changed except for a look of anticipation The captured guerrilla has been killed.
Sunset is near. Without conscious will or interest, I find scenes of the distant past flashing through my mind like so many lantern slides. ‘Still attached to worldly desires,’ I scold myself, but the more I try to shake off these memories, the more they crowd in on me, memories of childhood, of my mother, of my wife ‘What is this,’ I say to myself. ‘I am a living, breathing man, who should be directing his thoughts towards a clear view of present realities.’
By 2400 hours we have safely penetrated the enemy’s security perimeter without being detected From here on, each squad is to proceed on its own. The 3rd Squad, which I attach myself to, has proceeded about 50m when we discover an enemy infiltration warning trip-wire and communication line, which we promptly cut.
As we resume our advance, I hear what appear to be four bursts of static from an infiltration warning device speaker, followed by four violent blasts, probably the explosions of landmines buried in the area. Now there can be no delay. I blow the whistle for the assault.
The results achieved are the destruction of 12 or 13 men, three medium field shelters and two 45mm mobile guns with their vehicles. We continue the advance, still seeking the enemy. Recovering from their shock, enemy soldiers oné by one commence firing from the ridge line extending in front of us. Undeterred, we continue to advance.
At this time we begin to receive intense fire from a variety of weapons Before me, about Sm away is a machine-gun, and there is another about 30m to my right. Good I take a hand- grenade and throw it. In the violent explosion that follows, one machine-gun and seven or eight men are destroyed at a blow.
Meanwhile the enemy is receiving fierce fire frontally. However bullets from all directions are beginning to fall like raindrops around us. The concentration of fire produces a surprisingly beautiful effect with its tracers. Ricochets arch into the sky. The danger of encirclement is increasing, so I order a withdrawal to the first assembly point, during which we are subjected to enemy pursuit fire. At the assembly point, I find that three men are missing.
They do not return. At the time we were under enemy fire, it seemed to me that no one was hit. Still, were they, after all, killed by those enemy bullets, or wounded, or fallen victim to guerrillas? Such are the unpleasant thoughts that float unbidden through my mind.
Eventually the missing three men managed to return independently to their hidden camp in the jungle. Obara records his emotional reaction. Although by this stage the US forces were engaged in heavy fighting within Manila and were successfully pushing the Japanese back, he apparently has no idea what the wider situation is at all and is pleased with his successful attack:
then there is a warm lump constricting the throat and suddenly hot tears begin to flow.
This was our baptism of fire under American bullets. It has been good experience, and serves to reinforce our determination that they shall be destroyed without loss to ourselves.
Another of Hitler’s wonder weapons, the Me 262 jet fighter, had failed to transform the air war over Germany. Not only were there not enough of them but loitering Allied fighters were having success picking them off as they either took off or landed. They were too fast to engage in a dogfight.
The remains of the Luftwaffe in the west, which had been decimated trying to support the Battle of the Bulge, was fighting a losing battle with its conventional aircraft. Too many of its experienced pilots had been lost. The young pilots now being thrown into the battle to defend had to contend with some talented opponents.
Robin Olds had been credited with eight kills while flying the P-38 Lightning out of England between May and September 1944. After converting to the P-51 Mustang he made a further six kills before returning to the U.S. for a two month break in November. Back in England, again with the 434th Fighter Squadron and its parent, the 479th Fighter Group, Olds resumed flying on 15th January. It did not take him long before he he was celebrating more victories.
February 9 turned into quite a fine day. First thing in the morning, I pinned on shiny new oak-leaf clusters and officially became a major. Better yet, we ran into a flock of Me-109s and enjoyed reasonable success.
By this period in the air war the group had settled into a daily routine of bomber escort. One squadron flew the close-escort effort as prescribed in the ops order, which meant staying close to the stream so the bomber crews knew someone cared about them. The bomber crews liked to see some friendly fighters around them. The second squadron flew area sweeps; their job was to rove within 15 or 20 miles of the bomber stream, hopefully putting themselves between the force and any attacking fighters.
The third squadron flew what we called “outlaw.” That was the preferred mission. Take off any time you wanted, and catch the Luftwaffe force either forming up for their attack or trying to return to their bases afterward. This took experience, planning, and a bit of luck for those of us pulling this duty.
On this particular day, the 434th pulled close-escort duty and I was leading the flight. We took off as scheduled with a minimum package of twelve Mustangs and ground our way along with the big boys toward Stuttgart at 27,000 feet. The weather wasn’t all that good. Broken clouds ranged in various decks right down to the ground, and off to the southeast a formidable front, like a gray wall, stretched away to the southwest.
I had just turned the 434th around the backside of our box of bombers and was heading parallel to their course on the right side of the stream, when I spotted a gaggle of shadowy contrails sneaking along the top of that cirrus bank and headed in the direction of our bombers. I was about to turn to intercept them when the 435th flight sailed past just to my right.
I wondered what in hell they were doing so close to the bombers. By all rights those enemy fighters (and that’s all they could have been) were their responsibility. I held my turn and watched the 435th go scurrying along out of sight. My God, a whole squadron, and it was obvious not one of them had spotted the enemy.
As soon as the 435th cleared, I dropped my externals, turned, and headed my bunch to intercept the rapidly closing bandits. Soon, the German leader saw us coming and, knowing the jig was up, broke off his attack. His formation turned into a gaggle of individual aircraft as we piled into them.
All this time my outfit had uttered not a single word. We prided ourselves on rfio discipline, and We fought that whole fight in silence. It was a weird one. We ended up with the battle swirling along and then into the huge squall line. It was like flying into the proverbial milk bottle.
I had managed to knock one Me-109 down quickly and went after another just as he entered the cloud. I concentrated on my adversary and hoped he was a good instrument pilot. Without a horizon, there was no up, no down, no left or right. There was also no “seat of the pants” to believe in. I closed on the 1O9, trying to get my gun sight on him, when everything went to hell at once.
I could feel my bird staggering and shuddering, but wanted to get off at least one burst before I lost everything. To my amazement, the 109 snapped, and then spun straight up! Hell no, that wasn’t up, it had to be down… and both of us must have been nearly inverted when we stalled.
To hell with the German, Robin! Get your head in the cockpit. Get those gyrating instruments sorted out, and recover from this spin. I knew I had plenty of altitude, so I didn’t rush things. Horror stories of pilots pulling the wings off in their haste to recover from similar situations flashed through my mind. I stayed cool as I sorted the situation, then recovered from the spin and pulled back to level flight.
So then why did I start shaking almost uncontrollably when I got the beast flying straight and level, headed more or less to the west? The whole incident had happened so quickly, was so intense and disorienting, that I’d had no time to be afraid. Adrenaline was pumping, and my reaction after the sudden return to the normalcy of the steady, soothing hum of the Mustang engine in the relative security of my snug cockpit made everything let go at once.
I remember being glad to be alone in my plane, without a witness to my aftershock.