Phyllis Briggs was a nursing sister in Malaya at the outbreak of the war in December 1941. She had attended Arthur Scarf while he lay dying in the Alor Star hospital following his defiant single handed mission to bomb the Japanese. After a difficult journey south to Singapore, she was once again working in a hospital. On the 31st the Japanese reached the end of the Malay peninsula and the final battle for the island of Singapore began:
Now Singapore was coming under ever more frequent bombing attacks and the civilian population was bearing the brunt of them:
I was asked to work in the Kandang Kerban hospital and moved into the Sister’s Quarters with my few belongings. In normal times it was a maternity hospital but now it was used for air raid victims. I began to work in the resuscitation ward. This was filled with Malays, Chinese and Indians all brought in direct from the streets. Many were already dead, others were dying. To these hopeless cases we gave large doses of morphia and wrote the amount given on a strip of plaster which we stuck on their foreheads. Those with a chance of recovery we sent up to the wards when a bed could be found for them.
I was put in charge of the acute surgical ward. We were terribly busy and the doctors operated day and night – Mr. Laurie, Eliot Fisher and Dr. Shields. They were splendid to work with and we all got on well. At first we used to put the patients under their beds during the raids, but it became impossible to do when the raids became frequent.
By this time men, women, children and servicemen were being admitted to the same wards and some were on the floor. During the raids many Chinese jumped into the monsoon drains by the road sides. They put their heads down and bottoms up – with the result that many Chinese were brought into hospital with shrapnel wounds to their buttocks.
Some of the patients had infected wounds crawling with maggots. It was the one thing that made me feel quite sick. One chinese woman had half her face blown away. I have never forgotten her pleading eyes. Large maggots were crawling out of what was left of her nose.
On 31st January the Causeway was blown up because the Japs had reached S. Jahore. It was difficult to get any rest at night as the bombing and explosions made so much noise. Everyone was very depressed and people were being evacuated from Singapore by every available ship – most of them going to Australia. The guns sounded much nearer and some terrible burn cases were brought in from the ship “Empress of Asia”.
In eastern Poland Dr Zygmunt Klukowski was quietly [permalink id=14065 text=”monitoring the Germans'”] situation, he believed he had grounds for optimism.
31st December 1941
Tomorrow we will start a new year. We all believe that this will be the last year of the war. From all fronts we receive news of German retreats. The winter this year is very fierce. There is much snow and freezing conditions are making motorized units practically immobile.
We watch as military ambulances and trains go west, loaded with wounded and frostbitten soldiers. Most frostbite occurs on hands, feet, ears, noses, and genitals. You can judge the desperation of the German military situation by the fact that Hitler has taken direct responsibility for all military action in Russia.
We have noticed disorganization in the German administration. For example, in the county offices you cannot solve any problem at all because the employees think only about their own future and make decisions based on the future.
Here in Szczebrzeszyn there is new action against the Jews. On December 26 it was announced that under penalty of death all Jews must surrender all fur coats, fur hats, fur collars, fur gloves, fur muffs, and any other clothing made of fur. Now most jews are trying to hide all fur articles, but some are giving them away. Dr. Bolotny took to the judenrat about 12,000 zloty worth of his own and also his wife’s furs.
At anytime we expect the same for the Polish population. Some people are boiling mad, but some are happy because this fur business shows that the Germans are suffering. The temperature is very low. We lack fuel and people are freezing, but everyone hopes for an even colder winter, because it will help defeat the Germans.
Winston Churchill’s addressed the Canadian Parliament after traveling from Washington. He was on top rhetorical form and the speech became notable for his account of how the French had claimed that Britain was about to have her ‘neck wrung like a chicken’ in the dark days of 1940.
That grand old minstrel, Harry Lauder – Sir Harry Lauder, I should say, and no honour was better deserved – had a song in the last War which began, “If we all look back on the history of the past, we can just tell where we are.” Let us then look back. We plunged into this war all unprepared because we had pledged our word to stand by the side of Poland, which Hitler had feloniously invaded, and in spite of a gallant resistance had soon struck down.
There followed those astonishing seven months which were called on this side of the Atlantic the “phoney” war. Suddenly the explosion of pent-up German strength and preparation burst upon Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium.
All these absolutely blameless neutrals, to most of whom Germany up to the last moment was giving every kind of guarantee and assurance, were overrun and trampled down. The hideous massacre of Rotterdam, where 30,000 people perished, showed the ferocious barbarism in which the German Air Force revels when, as in Warsaw and later Belgrade, it is able to bomb practically undefended cities.
On top of all this came the great French catastrophe. The French Army collapsed, and the French nation was dashed into utter and, as it has so far proved, irretrievable confusion. The French Government had at their own suggestion solemnly bound themselves with us not to make a separate peace.
It was their duty and it was also their interest to go to North Africa, where they would have been at the head of the French Empire. In Africa, with our aid, they would have had overwhelming sea power. They would have had the recognition of the United States, and the use of all the gold they had lodged beyond the seas.
If they had done this Italy might have been driven out of the war before the end of 1940, and France would have held her place as a nation in the counsels of the Allies and at the conference table of the victors. But their generals misled them.
When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, “In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” Some chicken; some neck.
Having fought in Norway, the Balkans and Crete the paratrooper Martin Poppel was already a veteran. Now, in late December, he found himself on a slow train to the front where the great majority of the Germans would fight. It was a dreary journey across eastern Germany, Poland and Russia and the more they saw what was happening to their fellow soldiers the less there was to encourage then. Tens of thousands of German soldiers were falling victim to frostbite, mainly due to [permalink id=15555 text=”inadequate winter clothing”], adding to battle casualties that were now steadily mounting:
You can’t distinguish fields at all, just a monotonous, bleak landscape. No real villages, only little settlements. Houses? No, only shabby huts made of wood, each one like all the rest. The whole thing makes a dreary and wretched impression on us.
We stop for some time near Bialystock and change engines. …
A transport train carrying wounded men stops nearby. It’s a wretched sight which makes it clear to us how bitterly this war is being fought. It consists of ordinary goods wagons with straw in them for the wounded to lie on. Filthy and louse-ridden, with inadequate dressings and hardly any medical orderlies, no heating – that’s how the boys are brought home.
As soldiers, we understand the situation better when a railway official explains that there are around 3000 wounded men passing through here every day. Our excellent ambulance trains simply can’t cope any more. In the ensuing silence, each of us thinks that a decent soldier’s death in action would be better than to be brought home in a train like that, like animals to the slaughter.
Stephen Dawson had endured the siege of Tobruk. He had been [permalink id=13057 text=”evacuated out when he fell ill”] and then returned to the besieged garrison to take part in the [permalink id=14782 text=”final battle”]. Now his unit were given a brief respite – on Christmas Day they had spent 15 hours in a cold smelly goods wagon crossing the desert back to Egypt. Now they enjoyed a ‘rest camp’ for a few days and a night out in Alexandria:
[We] first slipped into the dining room for a cup of tea – ah! sublime luxuries of town! – and chain smoked many excellent cigarettes. Sometimes we’ve thought “Wog” Woodbines a luxury, but now we had lots of Players, Gold Flake and Craven “A”, with no danger of the supply becoming exhausted.
Then – we wallowed in hot, soapy baths! The others were waiting and we all had a hell of an appetite. So we went into the Hotel Baudrot, nearby, and waded through a meal of many courses and varied tastes, which lasted two hours.
“My God, they’re still eating,” we heard an amazed Naval officer at the next table say to his companion, when the fourth course commenced. Lager beer – what a thirst the hors-d-oeuvre (especially the anchovies!) gave us! The price of the dinner – with beer – was 73pts. each. Well worth it, to desert soldiers with large credits.
It was not to last long, they were soon given orders to move again. His diary gives a good summary of the current war situation:
Sunday 28th December 1941
Apparently we shall move, Palestine-wards, tonight, but there is no panic whatever! It’s so simple when there’s no equipment, only our personal kits!
The Japs are doing fine in the Pacific. Hong Kong has fallen, but we still hold Singapore, and USA still have the Philippines. There have been heavy naval losses on our side, although no real battle has taken place. We’ve occupied Portuguese Timor, which was within bombing range of Aussie.
Apparently whilst we’ve been out of touch, several if not all of the South American states have declared war on the Axis powers.
The other news, is quite good. The Jerries in Russia are still falling back (it seems incredible that they should contemplate an attack on Turkey or Spain at this time) and the British order in Libya for Christmas Day was “ATTACK AND PURSUE”. Benghasi has been taken, with 27,000 prisoners, and some of our forces are at Agedabia, whilst the German and Iti rearguard has been cut off around Barce, in the green region.
Even though he was in Alexandria he remained unaware of the [permalink id=15553 text=”disaster that had so recently befallen”] the Royal Navy eastern mediterrannean fleet, based there.
On the 26th Commando’s had returned to the Lofoten Islands after the raid earlier in the year, in [permalink id=10531 text=”March 1941″]. It had been a diversion for the main raid taking place at Vaasgo, Norway. This time it would be a rather bloodier affair.
Lieutenant Colonel Durnford-Slater was leading the raid:
About a hundred yards from our landing-place, I fired ten red Very light signals. This told the ships to stop firing and the aircraft to come in with their smoke bombs. As I leaped from the leading landing craft three Hampden bombers passed over me at zero feet with a roar. As they did so they loosed their bombs, which seemed to flash and then mushroom like miniature atom explosions. Some of the phosphorus came back in a great flaming sheet.
Next thing I knew both my sleeves were on fire. Fortunately I wore leather gloves and beat the flames out before they could eat through my four layers of clothing to the skin. The beaching had been made, dry, against snow-covered rocks which rose thirty or forty feet in an almost sheer wall. For the moment, we were unopposed and hidden from the enemy by smoke.
Unfortunately, however, one of the Hampdens was hit by anti-aircraft fire as she came in. Out of control, she dropped a bomb on an incoming landing craft. Bursting, the phosphorus inflicted terrible burns amongst the men. The craft, too, burst into flames. Grenades, explosives, and small arms ammunition were detonated in a mad mixture of battle noises.
We pushed the emptied craft out to sea where it could do us no harm, and Sam Corry, our big, efficiently calm Irish doctor, taking charge of the casualties, sent them back to the Prince Charles. The rest of us turned to the battle.
The siege of Leningrad, begun [permalink id=13528 text=”in September”], continued. Rather than attempt a direct assault Hitler had decided on a [permalink id=13850 text=”deliberate policy”] of cutting off the city and starving three million people to death. Very rapidly it had become impossible to supply sufficient food through the remaining tenuous links with the outside world and [permalink id=14659 text=”people began to die”] at an ever increasing rate. By December 1941 the death toll was between 5000-7000 people a day:
26th December 1941
It is frightening when we leave in the morning by our rear gates. Outside is our mortuary, on the banks of the Karpovka, and this has now become the mortuary for the entire district.
Each day, eight to ten bodies are brought there on sleighs. And they just lie on the snow. Fewer and fewer coffins are available, and less and less material to make them. So the bodies are wrapped in sheets, in blankets, in tablecloths, sometimes even in curtains. Once I saw a small bundle wrapped in paper and tied with string. It was very small, the body of a child.
How macabre they look on the snow! Occasionally, an arm or a leg protrudes from the crude wrappings. In these multi- coloured rags there still lingers a semblance of life, but there is also the stillness of death. This makes me think of a battle-ground and a doss-house at the same time.
The mortuary itself is full. Not only are there too few lorries to go to the cemetery, but, more important, not enough petrol to put in the lorries … and the main thing – there is not enough strength left in the living to bury the dead.
The question has arisen about not registering every individual death any longer. And in order to simplify formalities, a representative of the Registry will be present in the mortuary, just to count the number of bodies. After all, there are so many nameless ones.
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.
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.
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 [permalink id=13050 text=”most trivial acts of resistance”].
It was even colder for Hans Roth, fighting with the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front:
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.
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.
The Nazi’s took their ideology to extremes, devotion to the Fuhrer approached a pseudo-religious level. Goebbels even went so far as to borrow the language of Christianity in his Christmas Eve message to Germans in 1941:
We may never forget that we all have a responsibility, each in his own way, to work and fight for a rapid victory. We keep our eye fixed on it. We do not doubt it for a minute.
In thinking of the Führer, who on this evening too is everywhere where Germans gather, we are reminded of the Fatherland. It will be larger, more beautiful, more prosperous after the war is over. It will be a proud and free homeland for us all. We want to thank the Führer for that. He can depend on his people at the front, at home, and in the wide world.
He leads us, and we follow him. Without a shadow of doubt, we follow him bearing the flag and the Reich. The flag and the Reich shall be pure and unstained when the great hour of victory comes.
By contrast Churchill knew that he had to prepare everyone for a long hard fight and, if their was a respite over Christmas, it would be a brief one:
This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other.
Ill would it be for us this Christmastide if we were not sure that no greed for the land or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambition, no morbid lust for material gain at the expense of others, had led us to the field.
Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart.
Therefore we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.
And so, in God’s mercy, a happy Christmas to you all.
Colonel Claire L.Chennault of the US Army Air Corps had established the American Volunteer Group in southern China, to assist the Nationalist Chinese against the invading Japanese. This band of gifted airmen soon became known as the Flying Tigers.
One Squadron was sent to Rangoon in Burma to assist the RAF. They were to be amongst the first into action when the Japanese invaded Burma, in what was to become the longest campaign fought by the British during the entire war. It began [permalink id=15418 text=”once again”] with a surprise air raid, but this time there was a robust response in the air:
Boy and it all came today! We got a report at 10.00 am that large numbers of bombers were on the way. 14 ships from our and 14 Buffaloes from RAF took off. We intercepted them at 12,000 ft. 15 minutes east of Rangoon.
Two waves of bombers, 27 in each wave, and about 40 fighter escorts. We started making runs on them and shooting like hell. After a bit I couldn’t see any of the fellows up there.
Found a bomber away from the formation, made about three passes, and on the last one went in to about 50 yds., firing all guns and he blew up right in front of me + down in flames. Went after another and McMillan and I together put out his right engine and smoke trailed out. He was losing alt. last time I looked, but about that time I was jumped by three Jap fighters.
Shot at one and drove away. Went back up and fired at more bombers till ammo. out. Greene was shot down by fighters, bailed out, + they strafed him going down. Wasn’t hit. Landed OK. Martin and Gilbert both shot down and killed. My ship had a few holes in it. Several killed at the field here and about a 1,000 in Rangoon. Fires all over and smoke very thick. After the raid refuelled and went on patrol. A busy day Let ’em come. We got about 15 ships to their 3.