German Naval intelligence learnt from U Boat U 354 on 30th December that an arctic convoy, which appeared to be lightly escorted, was headed for Russia. They despatched the pocket battleship Lutzow and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper with a force of destroyers to ambush the fourteen merchantmen in the convoy.
It should have been an unequal battle but the Royal Navy escorting destroyers turned towards the larger German ships with a view to torpedoing them. The Germans, being under orders to avoid risk, withdrew. This manoeuvre was repeated several times, allowing the merchantmen to get away.
It was not without cost to the British forces. In the polar twilight the minesweeper HMS Bramble stumbled into the Admiral Hipper and was sunk with all hands. It was not the first time that the Hipper had been attacked by a much smaller Royal Navy ship, famously HMS Glowworm had taken her on in April 1940.
The destroyer HMS Achates was also sunk and the other destroyers hit before the cruisers of Force ‘R’, the long distance escort ships HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica, arrived to see the German ships off.
The commander of the destroyer escorts, Captain Robert Sherbrooke on HMS Onslow, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership during the action:
Captain Sherbrooke, as Senior Officer of four destroyers which comprised the (striking force) protecting a convoy, without hesitation led the ships under his command into action against a superior enemy force consisting of a cruiser and two or three destroyers which endeavouring to attack the Convoy.
He split his force to allow one sub-division to engage the destroyers while he led the other sub-division against the heavier ship. During the ensuing action, on four occasions he forced the superior enemy force to retire under cover of smoke to avoid the threat of his torpedoes.
Each time the enemy gave ground he closed in, forcing him outside gun-range of the convoy and towards our own cruiser covering force. After 40 minutes ONSLOW was hit forward and Captain Sherbrooke was severely wounded in the face by shrapnel, losing the sight of one eye.
Despite this he continued to direct the ships under his command until he was compelled to disengage as a result of further damage from enemy gunfire, but not until he was satisfied that the next Senior Officer had assumed control. It was only then that he left the bridge for medical assistance.
During the time the convoy was endangered, he insisted On being kept fully informed of the situation in his smoke-filled sea-cabin. His bravery, coolness and prompt decisions both before and after being wounded, inspired all in touch with him.
By his leadership and inspiration the ships under his command saved the convoy which was successfully brought to its destination without loss or damage.
Read more of this story on including one of the after action reports at BBC People’s War
Until the last two days of the period no attacks were made upon this country.
On the afternoon of the 29th bombing and cannon-fire occurred at Eastbourne, where residential property was damaged and where there was one fatal and 17 serious casualties.
On the morning of the 30th bombs did some damage in the residential area of Exeter, where 16 people were killed and 17 seriously injured. Several places in the surrounding district were machine-gunned but only slight damage was done.
From the Home Security Situation Report for the week ending 30th December 1942, as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/32/46
There was no military purpose behind these raids, the Blitz had completely failed to bomb the British into submission – so further attacks against civilians now were merely for the purpose of harassment. These minor ‘nuisance’ raids, which could prove devastating to local communities, were a continuation of the larger ‘Baedeker raids‘ which had been targeted at some of Britain’s towns that were noted for their heritage and architecture.
Recent research has uncovered how much the British knew of the attitudes of German airmen at the time. German prisoners were interrogated as a matter of course but more intelligence was uncovered by covertly recording their private conversations. Talking amongst themselves, they revealed their genuine attitudes.
The research shows how much some of the men enjoyed their role. It was not possible to establish which particular attacks they were talking about:
ESCHNER: Our KOMMODORE arranged on various occasions a day-time attack for us as a special treat – on shipping and suchlike. He intended this as a special favour for us … So we started-myself in front, and I found a ship which was outside a small harbour near Lowestoft – there were two ships there with only one guard ship. There was a cloud bank at 5-600m. I could see the ships from a distance of 10 km. I wanted to do a gliding attack and had already got into the gliding angle and attacked; the boat was hit; they opened tire, I opened the throttle and was off. That was great fun.
BUDDE: I’ve taken part in two intruder patrols attacking houses. No, only intruder patrols. Whatever we came across; country houses on a hillside made the best targets You flew up from below, then you aimed – and crash! There was the sound of breaking windowpanes and the roof flew off. But l’ve only done that with the 190, twice in attacks on villages.
At the Market Place, there were crowds of people and speeches were being made. They ran like hares! That’s great fun! It was just before Christmas. We had no losses on that
HARRER: I take my hat off to our mines, when they go off they raze everything to the ground, they knock down 80 houses I have had friends, who in an emergency – that is they should have dropped their mines in the sea – have dropped them on a small town, and they have seen how the houses were lifted up and fell apart in the air. The mines only have quite a thin wall, a light metal shell. And moreover they have a much better explosive than all our bombs.
When such a thing drops on a block of houses it simply vanishes, just falls to pieces. It was the greatest fun.
v. GREIM: We once made a low-level attack near EASTBOURNE. When we got there, we saw a large mansion where they seemed to be having a ball or something; in any case we saw a lot of women in fancy-dress, and an orchestra. There were two of us doing long distance reconnaissance. We turned round and flew towards it. The first time we flew past, and then we approached again and machine-gunned them. It was great fun!
There was growing concern amongst the intelligence communities of all the Allies as to how they were going to change the attitudes of ordinary Germans after the war had finished. The evidence that the Nazis had induced a complete contempt for the life of anyone who was not German was mounting.
Images courtesy Wikipedia and Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).
On Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies, now part of Indonesia, the Japanese had gradually been rounding up the civilian population and interning them. First the men and then in November 1942 the women and children. For ten year old Lise Kristensen, whose family were originally from Norway, it was a time of growing up fast and learning to survive.
They were thrown out of their own house and forced live with other families in an enclave of houses taken over by the Japanese and fenced off as a camp. Lise, her younger sister, their mother and her baby brother, born in October 1942, were allocated the rat infested garage of one of the houses. Their mother had been prepared for the eviction and had packed a bag with essentials and money sewn into the lining. Lise already knew they were better off than many others:
We also traded things for medicine with the local javanese villagers on the other side of the fence, though this was not allowed by the japanese, who would beat anybody they caught. Anything and everything was traded. We would give the javanese blankets and clothes and in return they would supply us with fresh fruit and vegetables.
Some of the women had no money and would sneak out in the hours of darkness to meet with the Javanese men and trade. The fence around the village was not very well secured in some places and at nights the soldiers would spend most of their time inside their huts drinking rice wine and playing cards. They were nearly always drunk. The women would lift the bottom of the fence and crawl underneath.
Every so often the Japanese would catch them retuming and punish them. Sometimes they dragged them away to their huts and other times they beat them there and then. Occasionally I heard a shot in the middle of the night, though Mama would never tell me exactly what had happened.
The Japanese had special holes dug into the sides of the embankments near the fence inside the camps. There was just enough room for one person and they had specially constructed wooden gates held in place by stakes hammered into the soil. The women who had been caught were thrown in these holes for several days without food and water. The other women risked their own lives to give them food and water when the japanese were not around. If they were caught, they ended up in the holes as well.
I remember Mama sneaking out of our garage late one night and, when I asked her where she had been, she explained that one of the girls in the hole was very ill. Mama told me she took her some water and a bar of chocolate, which the girl hardly had the energy to eat. She was released the next morning but died several days later. Mama cried for most of that day; the girl was only sixteen.
Lise Kristensen: The Blue Door.
Back in Holland 3 year old Mieke Jansma and her family were being evicted from their home in Gravenhage on 29th December 1942. Now a resident of New Jersey USA you can see her tell the story of her family under German occupation, with a number of contemporary documents and photographs, at Brookdale Community College.
The gloom that descended upon the troops within Stalingrad, as they realised that there was to be no escape, was echoed at Hitler’s HQ. The Chief of Staff Zeitzler even put himself on the ‘same’ rations as the average soldier within the ‘Kessel’ or cauldron. They were now on two slices of thin bread and a little tinned meat, with watery soup if they were lucky. He did not have to resort to partially decomposed horse meat dug up from below the snow as some men were now doing, as starvation began to get a grip.
Reports were filtering in of incompetence in the delivery of supplies into the besieged city, two planes had apparently arrived with four tons of spices. Perhaps someone thought it would go with the horse meat. The flight in and out was becoming ever more hazardous as the weather worsened and the Soviet Air Force concentrated their efforts on cutting off Stalingrad as completely as possible. The sacrifices made by the Luftwaffe still did not bring in anything like what was needed.
Gerhard Engel, Hitlers Army adjutant, was quietly watching from the sideline:
28 December 1942
Here deepest depression. Nearly everybody had been hoping against hope that P. [Paulus] would take the risk and try to break out against his orders. He could have got out with the bulk of the men, albeit at a high cost in material.
This evening Jodl spoke very seriously and one could see that even he was counting on Paulus acting independently. (Same view) definitely Chief of the General Staff and the Army Group. Nobody knows what should be done next at Stalingrad.
F. [Fuhrer] very quiet and is almost never seen except at daily situation conference and to receive reports. What worries us most is that apparently discord rules within the encirclement and [Paulus] does not know how to proceed. In addition, air supply is getting worse.
Christian reported again that in his opinion air drop not realistic. F. argued that this was only a question of rationalisation: if rubbish was being flown in then that was so. One should get exporters to plan the job instead of lack-lustre administrative or General Staff officers.Concentrates had to be got in, they were available and he would see to it personally.
Some time during December 1942 the War Office photographers were out with their colour film again. Given the difficulty of their subject matter, including gunfire, they made a pretty impressive job of it.
From 1941 all unmarried women between 20 and 30 years old were called up to join one of the auxiliary services. These were the Auxilliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women’s Transport Service. Later this conscription was extended to some married women. They were not intended to serve in the front line of battle – but for much of the war the front line was indistinguishable from the home front, especially with regard to Anti Aircraft gunnery. 731 women died serving in these Auxilliary units during the war.
Mary Latham was just one of hundreds of thousands of young women who suddenly found their lives completely transformed:
The year was 1942. I was a hairdresser in Chorley, Lancashire. As hairdressing was considered to be a luxury trade in wartime and I was 18 years old, I was given the choice of munitions work or joining one of the forces.
My friend May and I travelled to Preston to sign up in the forces and received the King’s Shilling. Two weeks later we were notified to go to Lancaster. We were met at Preston station by a sergeant, taken to Lancaster and fitted out with our uniforms.
How different my life changed in the next 4 years. We moved from Lancaster to Arborfield, where we did 6 weeks of intensive training all at the double. Each one was assessed for:
* Nerves (in Ack-Ack action)
It was necessary to pass all the tests.
Fortunately I passed as a Predictor operator No.3 – which involved looking through a telescope, keeping the target on the horizon line. This demanded steady nerves under gunfire and we needed a lot of practice. At the end of the day, we were mentally and physically exhausted. We lost our voices as all orders were shouted as loudly as possible.
The procedure was as follows:
The predictor (Kerry – called after its inventor) [Major A.V. Kerrison at the Admiralty Research Laboratory, Teddington] passed the information we put in on to the guns (3.7) then the gunners fired the shells. We worked in 2 groups – A and B. I was in B group – 5 on the predictor, 3 on height-finding.
Plotters were on duty for 24 hours underground. The plotting room was always ready for any aircraft flying overhead.
We were well looked after with health inoculations every 3 months, regular dental care, F.F.I. (Free From Infection) each Friday.
We (14 girls in each hut) were confined to our billets on Friday nights. We had to clean all our equipment, even to the studs on the bottom of our boots.
After 6 weeks practice in Arborfield, we were sent to Bude in Cornwall. This was our first Gun-Site this was not operational, but it gave us a taste of what was to come.
The only description of the gunfire (4 guns firing in a semi-circle with the predictor 20 yards away) was like hell let loose. However, we got used to it.
Our battery was moved to 36 different sites along the East and South coasts of England.
During our time in Hull we shot down one of our own aircraft (a Wellington). The crew gave us the wrong signal. Fortunately they landed safely – just the tail missing. We were commended for our accurate firing but the crew were not impressed. Hull was badly hit at the time.
At Caister, near Yarmouth, 25 A.T.S.s were killed by machine-gun fire. The enemy aircraft flew over in the early morning at sunrise, when it was impossible to see them and peppered the coast with gun-fire. It was a frightening sight to see Focke Wulfs diving down while we tried to pay our respects, standing to attention during the playing of the Last Post, to those who had been killed.
For many men there was little time to mark Christmas or the celebration had to be delayed. Out in the desert of North Africa the pursuit of Rommel’s forces continued.
This is an opportune day to include an undated passage from Keith Douglas from this period. Whilst the US Marines may have had their Navajo Code talkers, the British officers had their own code of communication both on and off the battlefield. Only those within the circle could truly understand what was being said:
From the first appearance of the enemy, a Crusader troop leader, well out in front of the regiment, sees and hears the whole action, almost as if it were a pageant prepared for his entertainment: for hours on end it may continue to be exciting in quite an impersonal way.
He sees a suspicious blob on the horizon; halts his squat turret almost level with a ridge and scrutinizes the blob through his glasses. Pressing the switch of his microphone, releasing it a moment to see if someone else is talking, and pressing it again, he says: ‘King 2. Something that looks like a tank to my front, about three miles, I’m on your right. Over.’
‘King 2. O.K. off to you. King, did you hear King 2’s message? ‘King, yes. Let him keep bumming on. But be cautious. Off,” says Piccadilly Jim to Edward.
‘King 1,’ says Edward, calling the squadron, ‘slow down a bit and have a good look from hull down before you go swarming over ridges. Over.’ ‘2 O.K. off, 3 O.K. off, 4 O.K. off`.’ ‘King 2, 3, 4, O.K. off to you. King 5, did you get my last message? ‘King 5. Yes. Over.’ ‘King 5, well bloody well wake up and acknowledge. Off.’
‘Off” caps the rebuke, like a telephone receiver being hung up.
We have two main sources of allusion, horses and cricket. ‘Uncle Tom, what’s the going like over this next bit? Can we bring the, er, unshod horses over it?’ ‘Uncle Tom, I”m just going over Beecher’s myself, you want to hold ’em in a bit and go carefully, but after that it’s good going for the whole field!’
‘King 2 Ack,’ says someone who has broken a track. ‘I shall need the farrier, I’ve cast a shoe.’ Someone else is ‘having trouble with my horse’s insides. Could I have the Vet?’
Metaphor changes: ‘King 2, someone is throwing stones. I can’t see where from yet. Over,’ and a little later Piccadilly Jim asks: ‘King 2, now that that chap has retired to the pavilion, how many short of a full team are you?’
As the action goes on, metaphors, direct speech, codes, sequences of messages are intermingled, until a good deal of concentration is needed to disentangle them.
‘King 2. There are a couple of 88s on that grey ridge to my right. One is near the brew up, and the other to the left of it, about two degrees. Over.’ ‘King 2. O.K. off to you. Orange Pip, can you see those 88s of King 2’s? Over.’
‘George 4, is that a vehicle moving on your right front? Over.’ ‘Orange Pip, yes. Getting gunfire on now. Over.’ ‘George 4. Yes, I reported it just now. Over.’ ‘George 4, are you bring fire on to it?’
‘King, have you anything to report? Over.’ ‘George, one of your children came up in the middle of my transmission then, when I was trying to talk to King. It’s most difiicult and annoying, and I won’t have it… Tell him to bloody well keep off the air when I’m trying to fight a battle. Off . . . er, to you. King, King, have you anything to report? Over.’
‘King, King, signals. Over.’ ‘King 2, I think one of those guns is being towed away. Over.’ ‘King 2 or whoever that is, GET OFF THE BLOODY AIR when I’m trying to talk to somebody. Off…. King, King, signals over! ‘King, strength NINER. I’m sorry, I was talking to my jockey. Could you say again? Over.’
Major Denis Forman was rather keen to get away from his remote base in Shetland and spend Christmas at home in Scotland. He managed to get a lift on an RAF plane and then made slow progress travelling down to Inverness by an Army lorry that his colleague Michael had ‘arranged’ by dubious means:
By now the night train had gone, but we boarded the fish train and were lucky enough to find an empty van, where Michael sat in one corner, I in another and my Shetland collie Robin disdainfully pacing the space between, sneezing and coughing through the overpowering smell of fish. After an eternity of shunting, crawling up gradients, stopping, starting and shunting again, we reached Perth.
It was daylight on Christmas Day, and as we emerged from our van we saw a passenger train about to depart. It was pointing south and we made a dash for it. Robin, whom I had released so that he might relieve himself before the next leg, still half-crazed by his ordeal by fish, turned and bit a small girl in the leg. She sent up a great squawk, but there was no time for niceties so, grabbing the dog by the neck, we sprinted for the train and jumped aboard.
Again our progress was slow, but comfortable, for, although the train was packed with troops on leave, we smelled so strongly of fish that we were accorded a decent amount of space. It was not possible to discover whether or not our train stopped at Beattock, our home station, but it did, and we jumped off and arrived home in good time for Christmas dinner. The trip would have formed a good initiative exercise for our students, we told each other.
See Denis Forman: To Reason Why.
Out in Egypt Royal Artillery officer Jack Swaab had just learnt that he was being posted to a front line unit and that he had a limited time left to hand in those personal effects that he could not take with him:
And now it is ending, this rather miserable, rather nostalgic Xmas Day It has been a terrible rush. I nearly went mad when the B.Q.M.S of the Unit Kit Store refused to accept my tin box – saved from the rubbish heap – on the grounds that it was ‘govt. property’. Some men love the letter of the law I had to go out and buy a suitcase, which D. is very kindly having painted up for me and will hand in.
In the afternoon all the officers in the mess listened to the King`s speech. We all stood bolt upright for the National anthem, and it was all vaguely impressive. We go out at 0630 tomorrow morning.
See Jack Swaab: Field of Fire.
In Malta harbour, conditions had eased just a little with the arrival of the latest convoy. The Royal Navy could celebrate with watery beer:
There is a Christmas Day tradition in the navy that the most junior sailor be made captain for the day, and be allowed, within reason, to do whatever he pleases. He dons a captain‘s uniform and can order drinks from the officer‘s mess and have a special dinner. He goes around the ship being entertained by all and sundry.
The senior officers always pay visits to the decorated mess- decks, where they swap jokes with the crew. On this occasion, every man onboard had been issued with a bottle of watery beer. I had a hand in getting the Malta brewery temporarily reopened to produce a bottle of beer for every soldier, sailor and airman on the island.
see Frank Wade: A Midshipman’s War.
On the Eastern Front Sergeant Major Rigoni was with one of the Alpini Divisions of the Italian Army. Some of the 130,000 Italians in Russia were already in trouble as the Don Front began to unravel, but his position was still quite secure. He went out to look at the Russian positions opposite in the sunshine and examine the hare tracks in the deep snow:
It was too cold to be standing there and I went up the trench and re-entered my dugout.
‘Happy Christmas,’ I said. ‘Happy Christmas!’
Meschini was grinding the coffee in his helmet with the handle of his bayonet. Bodei was boiling up the lice. Giuanin was crouching in his corner near the stove. Moreschi was mending his socks. The ones who’d been on the last guard were asleep.
There was a strong smell inside there; of coffee, dirty vests and pants boiling with the lice, and lots of other things. At midday Moreschi sent for our supplies. But as they weren’t Christmas rations we decided to make polenta. Meschini fanned up the fire, and Bodei went to wash out the pot in which he’d boiled the lice.
See Mario Rigoni Stern: The Sergeant in the Snow.
On New Guinea the native islanders were winning a reputation for their assistance to Allied troops, Australian and American, becoming known as the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’:
Picking their way very carefully with expressions of solemn responsibility, came native carriers with the badly wounded. Some of these forms under their coverings were horribly mutilated and might not survive long … The natives moved softly and silently, handling the stretchers with a surprising deftness in rough places in order to save their human burden from the slightest jolt. Their homely faces were soft with pity and concern. They would carry these poor wounded along such a route as I have described, through mud and slush and morass, along the razor backs …
See Geoffrey Hamlyn-Harris: Through Mud and Blood to Victory, Wild & Woolley, Sydney, 1993.
Also on New Guinea Chaplain Hartley describes extricating 13 wounded, eight of them stretcher cases, along jungle tracks on Christmas day:
We were astir early and cooked our breakfast . We got over the problem of smoke from our fires by using cordite from the captured enemy shells …
It was a slow, tedious and nerve-racking journey. The patients were heavy. Four men were required for each stretcher. These bearers had to carry their arms in their free hands… There were times when, to our strained hearing, the noise along the track sounded like a herd of elephants crashing through the undergrowth…
Whenever there was a stop for rest, armed men would penetrate the jungle off the track and silently watch against a possible ambush… As we came nearer to Huggins’ it became easier going…
We now came into view of the Jap camp that had been shot up on 1st December [30th November]… There were mangled and rottin g corpses scattered everywhere. Blank-eyed skeletons stared with sightless eyes from beneath broken shelters. Bones of horses with their saddles and harness rotting round them shone white as the morning sun peering through the creepers caught them in her beams. We actually welcomed this gory sight. It was to us a sign post. It meant that Huggins’ was but a hundred yards beyond.
Out in the Far East Dr Robert Hardie was trying to do his best for his fellow prisoners who the Japanese were using as forced labour to build the Burma Siam Railway. Conditions were bad and getting worse:
There was some carol singing last night and this morning. One can’t but feel a certain melancholy at spending Christmas in this depressing camp. An almost intolerable sense of oppression and futility overcomes one at times, as month after wasted month passes.
At this time, of course, one thinks much of home, and one realises they must be going through a period of anxiety. And there are many at home who have yet to learn that their relatives out here are already dead. Henry Mills, whom Ian and I knew well and who was wounded badly in Perak and marked for evacuation from Malaya (but wasn’t, because of the incompetence of the medical arrangements in Singapore) has died up-river, we have heard. And there are 20 graves already in this camp alone.
Somehow some Germans were able to reconcile their Christian faith with their Nazi oath of allegiance to Hitler. This simple charcoal sketch, measuring three feet by four feet was drawn by Lieutenant Kurt Reuber, a German staff physician and Protestant pastor, in December 1942 during the Battle of Stalingrad.
I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud.
There is nothing to lean my big picture of the madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table, which I can just manage to squeeze past. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my madonna, and how much it means to me.
It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.
When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love… Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation
The Madonna was flown out of Stalingrad by a battalion commander of the 16th Panzer division on the last transport plane to leave the encircled German 6th Army. Reuber was taken captive after the surrender of the 6th Army, and died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in 1944.
The original is displayed in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin, copies now hang in the cathedrals of Berlin, Coventry and Volgograd (the former Stalingrad) as a sign of the reconciliation between Germany and her former enemies, United Kingdom and Russia.
The Soviet Army was slow to realise the significance of Christmas to the Germans trapped at Stalingrad. If they had appreciated the special place of Heilige Abend, or Holy Eve, in the German calendar the bombardment might well have been greater that day.
As the news gradually sunk in that they were not going to break out, and the relieving forces were not going to be able to reach them, it would have been a hard day anyway. But for this to happen at such a time was very hard to bear. Hans-Erdmann Schonbeck was a 20-year-old officer with the 24th Panzer Division:
The noise of battle from the relief army had been getting closer day by day. We were geared up for the last leap westwards, to meet our liberators. But only in our minds, for we knew that we were almost out of fuel and ammo. With the first day of Christmas came the full, awful certainty. The relief troops were unable to make it, the battle sounds were getting fainter and moving to the west. Our thoughts of escape had been in vain.
On December 24th there were about fifteen men in my bunker. That morning, under fairly heavy fire, I had managed to dig up a little pine tree buried in the snow of the steppe – probably one of the very few Christmas trees in the entire Kessel.
That spring, when I’d been billeted with a priest in Brittany I’d scrounged three church candles that were just the right size to fit into my backpack. I had no idea why at the time, I just liked the look of them.
It got dark very early. The candles were burning as I told the Christmas story and spoke the Lord’s Prayer.
A little later, the crackly loudspeaker transmitted a Christmas message from the Forces’ radio station in Germany. It was being broadcast everywhere from the North Pole to Africa. At that time an enormous part of the world belonged to us.
When Stalingrad was called we began to tremble though we were indoors in the warm that evening. Then when the words ‘Stille Nacht; heilige Nacht …’ were sung, our tears started to flow. We cried for a long time. From that moment, no one said so much as a word – maybe for a whole hour.
This account is one of many that appears in Voices from Stalingrad.
In fact the German Army choir supposedly singing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ from their positions in ‘Fortress Stalingrad’ was a total invention by the Nazi propaganda machine – the choir was actually broadcasting from Berlin. Many of the men inside the besieged pocket were upset by this false presentation of their plight.
Although we can look back and see that the last two months of 1942 proved to be the great turning point in the war – the Red Army turning the tables at Stalingrad, the breakthrough at el Alamein and the US forces joining the war in North Africa, and the Japanese moving onto the retreat after being beaten at Guadalcanal – it was not obvious to everyone at the time.
Alan Moorehead is really noted for his comprehensive reporting of the war in North Africa. Yet his desire to understand what was going on and his eye for detail never left him when he was at home in Britain. He was back in Britain in December 1942 for a short break before leaving again to report the war in North Africa and then on to Italy. It all still seemed rather gloomy to him:
[W]hile I was waiting in London for my sailing orders to go down to North Africa, that I began to see the gaps and the wastage in this new England.
The people were tired. No victory in Stalingrad, no breakthrough by the Eighth Anny and no landing in North Africa could overnight shake them out of the strain of three years’ garrison life in England.
Casualties were very few as yet, but many thousands of families had not seen their menfolk for years.
Food was sufficient, but it was boring, and beyond everything the abiding interest in everyone’s life was food, food, food, how to cook it and how to get it and how to conserve it. Almost every conversation I had was eventually brought round to the subject of food.
(It was strange and refreshing to find that the one cabinet minister who was wholeheartedly approved of was Lord Woolton, the minister of food. Woolton had an engaging way of coming on the air from the B.B.C. as soon as some major mess-up occurred like the fish zoning. ‘I know the trouble you are having,’ he would say. ‘It’s an awful mess. But we are clearing it up and it won’t happen again.’)
More people were getting higher wages than they had ever had before, but there was little of any real value you could buy for it. Everyone had work, but it was high-pressure work that went on in endless drudgery, nine, ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week, with fire-watching and other wartime duties on top of it.
Women, after a long day in the factory, had to face up to the difficult journey home in the dark, standing in food queues, and the feeding of their children.
There was enough housing for everyone, but most people were cramped for space and decent household facilities were disappearing. If the spouting began to leak, you could get no one to repair it.
For almost all the little necessities of life there was a day-long struggle that never let up. Since little or no repairs or painting were being done, every city in England began to look shabby, so that the people were constantly surrounded by ugliness and the atmosphere of neglect and decay.
The people themselves were growing shabbier. They were ageing. Young girls leaving school who could normally look forward to the gayest and best time of their lives had never known what it was to put on a party frock and a pair of silk stockings. They felt their youth and attractiveness were fading away in the omnipresent greyness of England and the war.
Nor did things seem quite so bright to me in political England as I had at first thought they were. The Beveridge Report was tabled, but by no means was it adopted. Huge powerful interests like the insurance companies banded against it. [The Beveridge Report had proposed what was to become known as the ‘Welfare State’ in the UK – in which everyone contributed to a state insurance scheme to cover unemployment and ill health. It was still far from certain that the proposal would be adopted.].
Most of the report was supported by the govemment, but in such a confusing way that half the country had no idea of whether or not they were going to get jobs after the war, which was the real thing they wanted to know. And Beveridge wrote in one of the Sunday papers, ‘My principles of security and freedom from want have been abandoned’.
The 1st Marine Division had arrived on Guadalcanal in August. Now the survivors were relieved by the the 23rd Infantry Division and they were leaving. The battle would continue until the final elements of Japanese resistance were mopped up in February 1943.
The 1st Marine Division had lost 650 killed in action, 1,278 wounded in action with a further 8,580 contracting malaria and 31 missing in action. They shipped out sometime in late December arriving in the New Hebrides on Christmas Eve. Amongst them was Robert Leckie, who told it like it was:
[W]e were sleeping alongside a road, waiting to embark the next day. On that day, they brought us our Christmas packages from home. We could not take them aboard ship with us, for we were not allowed to carry more than our packs and weapons.
Chuckler and I had already asked Lieutenant Ivy-League to carry our remaining boxes of cigars in his sea bag; officers would be permitted to carry sea bags. It puzzled us to see the reappearance of sea bags – strictly the issue of enlisted men – and it angered us to see them handed out to officers.
This was the first piece of discrimination which we encountered, the first flip of the Single-Sided Coin, whereby the officers would satisfy their covetousness by forbidding us things rightfully ours, and then take them up themselves, much as politicians use the courts to gain their ends.
So we devoured what we could of these Christmas gifts from home, and threw the rest away.
“Stand by to move out. Forrr-ward, harch!”.
We ambled down to the beach, our gait, our bearded, tattered aspect unable to match the precision of that command. We clambered into the waiting boats. We stood at the gunwales and watched the receding shoreline.
Our boat putt-putted to a wallowing halt beneath a huge ship that listed so markedly to port that it seemed drunk. It was one ofthe old Dollar Line ships; the President Wilson, I believe.
“Climb up them cargo nets!” As we had come, so did we leave.
We were so weak that many of us could not make the climb. Some fell into the water – pack, rifle and all – and had to be fished out. Others clung desperately to the nets, panting, fearful to move lest the last ounce of strength depart them, too, and the sea receive them. These also had to be rescued by nimble sailors swanning down the nets.
I was able to reach the top of the net, but could go no farther. I could not muster the strength to swing over the gunwale, and I hung there, breathing heavily, the ship’s hot side swaying away from me in the swells, very perdition lapping beneath me – until two sailors grabbed me under the armpits, and pulled me over.
I fell with a clatter among the others who had been so brought aboard, and I lay with my cheek pressed against the warm, grimy deck, my heart beating rapidly, not from this exertion, but from happiness.