Frank Blaichman led a Jewish Partisan resistance group in the forests of eastern Poland. It had started as an unarmed refuge for groups of Jews who were hiding from the Nazi persecution. As time went on they gathered the arms and expertise from other Partisan groups, including the Polish AL, first to defend themselves and then to mount their own attacks on the Germans.
By the end of 1943 they were in contact with Russian army specialists who were sent to help the Partisan forces. As the Soviet army approached the Polish border, control of the region was gradually passing to the ever more confident Partisans. When they learnt that around seventy German troops were occupying the village of Huhnin in the Parczew Forest, it was decided to attack them on the 31st December 1943:
After we had identified the houses, Kolka and the various high commanders of the AL drew up plans to organize a group of around fifty men under the command of Russian and AL officers, myself and Sever included. We were to disarm but not kill the German soldiers if possible, to avoid Nazi reprisals against the villagers.
We were divided into four groups; each group was assigned to one of the four houses. The firing of a white flare was to be the signal for the attack. We hoped to take them all by surprise to avoid casualties. However, as we approached the village, a guard saw us and opened fire with a machine gun. At the same moment that we returned fire, the signal flare was sent up, and seeing the signal, each group set off toward its designated house. The German guard dropped his machine gun and ran off.
Sever and I were in the group led by Kolka. As soon as we had taken up defensive positions around “our” house, he ordered the Germans to come out with their hands up. There was no reply. So Kolka told them that, if they didn’t come out, we would burn them out, and we started to collect bundles of straw from the barn to place around the house. Kolka then tossed a hand grenade over the roof to scare them.
The sound of the explosion, together with the sight of the straw being brought up, did the trick. The soldiers opened the windows and jumped out of the house and raised their hands. They had left their weapons behind. Other units employed the same tactics at the other houses. The whole operation took about fifteen minutes and yielded a large arsenal of weapons: machine guns, submachine guns, pistols, hand grenades — all Russian—made. Only one of us was injured, but the soldier who shot him was killed instantly by one of our men.
We were in for a surprise: these German soldiers weren’t German. They had Asian features and black, silky hair. They were Russian—speaking Muslims, former Red Army soldiers who, after being captured on the Russian front, had volunteered to fight with the Germans rather than remain in POW camps. When we searched them, we found maps of our area and evidence that, the day before, they had carried out a raid on partisans not far from where we were.
Our Russian commanders, coming face to face with men who had switched sides and joined up with the Nazis, demanded that they be killed on the spot. So the Russians and the AL fighters marched them out of the village and into, a wooded area and executed all the soldiers except their officers. The Russians wanted to interrogate them before killing them.
Shortly after midnight, we headed for the area where the Muslim soldiers and their German officers had carried out their raid the day before, thinking that it would be a safe place to make camp. Around 9:00 a.m., we felt the ground trembling and, looking through binoculars, saw German tanks surrounding and attacking the village of Huhnin. There wasn’t anyone to shoot at. We had warned the villagers to leave.
The Russians marched the six Muslim officers off into the woods and executed them, using silencers.
When the Allies had landed in Italy in September it had been hoped, even expected, that they would be in Rome by Christmas. The natural defensive territory that they encountered, and a German determination to make them pay for every advance, had long since caused a major revision in thinking. But now Rome was a good deal closer and it seemed that perhaps just one more big push might give them a breakthrough.
A closer acquaintance with the terrain as seen from the ground was cause for yet further revisions in expectations. Rising up high above the line of advance, and dominating the surrounding countryside for dozens of miles around, was Monte Cassino, on top of which lay the Monastery. It was to loom large in the thoughts of Generals through to Privates for the next six months.
Sergeant V.G. Brailey was amongst the first to see the new obstacle as he went forward to survey a new observation post for the Royal Artillery during late December:
Thanks to the enemy’s thoroughness in blowing up every bridge, large and small, we had to walk back six miles to Campo, where we had arranged to rendezvous with our trucks. The village was absolutely packed with infantry and carriers, some reliefs and some resting for a day or two. But there was a large stable waiting for us and something to counteract that gnawing pain I’d begun to get in my stomach; fortunately for me, too, someone had made my bed.
That night we were introduced to our mules, one per post. What staunch friends these gallant hybrids have turned out to be, never flinching come what may, and never hesitating in any weather. ‘Heads, he bites you; tails, he kicks you!’ was a libel invented by field artillery drivers. In the same class of faithfulness we must put the muleteers, too. They all came from North Italy and were of the best type. If they were afraid of anything on this earth, they never mentioned it to anybody.
Early next morning the mule, his master, three surveyors and myself journeyed forth into a far country (so it seemed), but unlike the Children of Israel, not into a land flowing with milk and honey. We covered the first five miles together, and then one surveyor and I went on farther to see what was what.
Along the track we had already passed the bodies of seven mules which hadn’t been able to ‘make it’ and had either died or been shot by the more humane drivers. Ours, fortunately, was still going strong. A further half-mile brought us ‘over the top’, the ridge at this point being only about four hundred and fifty metres high and some half-mile from Cocuruzzo.
Despite the unfortunate conditions under which we viewed the scenery, we had to admit that from a purely aesthetic viewpoint it was wonderful. To the left, the great Majo massif rose three thousand five hundred feet above the Garigliano meandering round its foot to the sea. To the right, Monte Cassino, backed by the gigantic Monte Cairo, hid the central mountains. Straight in front lay the main valley – Ambrogio, Pontecorvo and on to Frosinone. We could see some forty miles before a ridge, dimmed by the distant mist, blocked the view to Rome.
Across this valley stretched small hillocks with farms and scattered houses breaking the level of the intervening plain. I sat for many minutes admiring it all, the war far from my mind, until suddenly that all-too-familiar whistle presaged the arrival of a shell, twenty yards above me on the hill.
Egotistically I thought that shell had been meant particularly for me, but I learned later there were three gun O.P.s on the top of the ridge. This hill, the only decent place for a flash-spotting O.P., was an obvious target for Jerry’s artillery, as we came to know only too well.
There was one other minor difficulty about this post. Ever since We had left Calabritto, some miles back, we had been ‘hit in the face’ by innumerable red notices, one every hundred yards or so: ‘Keep to the Track’, ‘Verges not Cleared’, ‘Danger S Mines’, etc.
What of the weather? It was fairly temperate to begin with, until the wind veered to the north and made life a real hell. The sun went and the rains came. Despite wearing all the clothes available, two, perhaps three, pairs of socks, long pants, short pants, shirt (or shirts), overcoat over battle-dress, a blanket around our feet, it was still impossible on some of the colder nights to sit at the instrument for more than half an hour without walking round to revive a few odd fingers and toes and the general blood circulation.
But what a contrast to get back into the tent after a spell of duty and have a tot of rum!
Sergeant V.G. Brailey was later killed in action. This account was first published in the Royal Artillery Commemoration Book 1939-1945, London, 1950.
On the otherwise idyllic island of Bougainville the US Marines had now secured their beachhead in the centre of the island and were able to consolidate. The last assault had been just before Christmas when they took ‘Hellzapoppin Ridge’ and the immediate Japanese threat in their vicinity had been overcome.
The campaign on Bougainville was destined to become a long drawn out affair which would be taken over by other troops. For the moment it was the US Marines that held the Allied positions and they had to accustom themselves to some uncomfortable living conditions. Amongst their number was Chester Nez, a Navajo code talker who, along with his colleagues talking in their native language, was providing secure radio communications for the Marines:
As long as we had good cover, Francis and I felt fairly secure. Now that we had taken Hellzapoppin Ridge, the fighting on Bougainville: had pretty much stopped – temporarily. Everyone worried about air attacks, but even those had abated.
Star shells occasionally floated down at night on small parachutes. The light attached to them lit the landscape in eerie white and cast shadows that moved with the movement of the parachutes. Our riflemen would try to shoot them, causing them to burst above us and preventing them from hitting the ground near the troops and exploding.
The island – like most ofthe tropical islands we fought on – was covered with beautiful flowers, with red and white blossoms as big as the tops of barrels. These bloomed at sunrise, and they smelled wonderful. We occasionally used petals plucked from them for underarm deodorant! The way we smelled after a prolonged battle was in sharp contrast to those fabulous flowers.
We could smell ourselves and everyone else. I remember dirty sweat rolling down my back, arms, and legs, collecting wherever my uniform made contact with my body. During heavy fighting, when we had no access to showers, I looked forward to rain so I could rinse off a bit.
Still, our smell couldn’t begin to compete with the stench of dead bodies. In the heat, bodies began to decompose within a couple of hours, and despite liberal sprayings of DDT, the flies and maggots had a field day. Of course, the flies and maggots didn’t limit themselves to dead bodies. They’d attack the dead skin around a wound, too.
The tropical birds were noisy and brilliantly colored, with dazzling yellow and red feathers. The palm trees were lovely, like a travel poster, and the whole tree—trunk and fronds swayed in the breezes. Unfortunately, many trees were bomb—blasted, and we had to slash our way into the jungles with machetes, cutting vines and flowers.
I always hated the feeling that we were destroying something really beautiful. Sometimes, when I was resting, I’d see monkeys come down from the trees. We men would feed them. During quiet periods, I often thought about those wonderful animals and flowers and wondered how they were going to survive the war. As a Navajo, I’d been taught to respect the earth, and the devastation made me feel sick.
We found we couldn’t really trust this period of relative quiet. That was one of the toughest things about war; you could never really relax, not even for a few moments. Even after an island was secured, there was always the possibility of the Japanese trying to win it back. And Bougainville wasn’t yet secured.
The 376th Bombardment Group was based at Enfidaville, Tunisia. Their bombing targets were now mostly in Italy and some targets were known to be much less heavily defended than others. So it was for the Vicenza rail yards. It was a ‘milk run’ with relatively little risk compared to other targets, yet contributed to the overall score of combat missions that they needed to complete.
This is the dramatic account of Cliff Wendell who was piloting #65 ‘RED WING’. Their group of 17 bombers was late getting to the rendezvous point and so they didn’t join up with the main force to make the attack. As there was strength in numbers, and mutual support from other aircraft, standing orders were that they should abort the mission and return to base in these circumstances. But they decided to press on, it was a decision that led to a terrifying experience for all and a fatal mistake for some:
The decision was up to Capt. Thompson and Col. Graff in the lead ship, and they decided to attempt to complete the mission unescorted. It is easy enough now to second guess their judgment in this case, but I believe they were influenced by the fact that this was Capt. Thompson’s last mission, and he was naturally anxious to finish up so he could so home, if we had turned back then, we would not have been credited with a mission so he would have had to fly another one some other day, · Also the fact that Vicenza had been an easy target before probably affected the decision. At any rate, we turned north and started flying up the Adriatic.
At this point, a number of the pilots in the formation chose to break the rule of radio silence and started a conversation with the lead ship questioning the wisdom of continuing and suggesting that: we ought to turn back. Of course, this was pure folly, because if the Germans were listening, the fact was being advertised that we were unescorted. The mission continued uneventfully, and we crossed the coast line south of Venice at about 11:30. We were then at about 21,000 feet and slowly climbing to our bombing altitude of 22,500.
We flew inland for about 40 miles and then turned North toward our target, the railroad roundhouse and engine repair shops at Vicenza less than 50 miles away. It was then that fighters were first reported, and we saw a whole swarm of them, like little dots in the sky, climbing up to meet us. It was later reported that there were over one hundred of them against our little handful of 17 bombers. They were all FW 190’s and Mg 109’s, single-engined German air craft armed with 20 mm cannon.
The attack started almost immediately and our ship became the primary target because of our vulnerable position. The group was flying in very close formation for maximum protection, and it was comforting to see all the 50 cal. machineguns on the neighboring ships which would help drive off the attack. I was especially thankful for the nose turret on our squadron’s lead ship, the first time we had had such protection as all our other ships were B-24 D’s which didn’t have nose turrets. Four fighters attacked from the rear and the tail gunner “Red” Sansone was just triumphantly announcing the destruction of the first one when six others turned toward us from the front and attacked at one o’clock in a string formation.
As they went flashing by a hail of bullets passed diagonally across in front of me, and I was afraid for the welfare of the boys in the nose. Charlie Borger, our bombardier, was firing the machine gun in the nose, but it wouldn’t work properly and only discharged one bullet at a time and would not fire continuously.
As the fighters went by they raked us from stem to stern and the noise of the bullets striking the ship was the most fearful sound I had heard in combat. Everything was happening very quickly now. The radioman, Arex Mikaitis, in the upper turret and Jack O’Hara at the right waist gun teamed up to shoot down two of the attackers and “Red” Sansone got another one at the tail for a score of four shot down. But the damage had already been done.
I was intent on flying as close to the lead ship as possible and hoping we had weathered the attack with no casualties, when Don Jefferies, the engineer, clapped me on the shoulder. My first thought was that he had been hit, but as I turned to look I saw him pointing toward the bomb bay. His microphone had become disconnected in the excitement so he could not talk to me but the look in his eye told me what had happened. Through the small window in the bomb bay door I saw a blazing inferno. All our gasoline and oxygen was burning around 8000 lbs. of bombs we had there.
As Jefferies pulled the red handle to salvo the bombs, I banked the plane to the right and left the formation, at the same time giving the order on interphone to the crew to bail out, and ringing the alarm bell. There was another fire under the co-pilot and one in the nose wheel cornpartnent and the cock pit was fast filling with smoke. The number three engine was smashed and there was another fire in the rear of the ship forward of the ball turret.
During the attack Jack O’Hara had been hit and knocked down by shell fragments in the arm, but he had gotten back to his gun in time to help shoot down the fourth plane and then had been sprayed by burning hot oil when #3 engine was hit. Barely able to see, he was assisted to the escape hatch by Angleton and Young, the other two gunners who also had been burned about the face and neck. “Red” Sansone stuck by his guns in the tail turret until he had shot down his second ship, and then looking around he saw the others had bailed out so he grabbed his parachute and quickly left the ship.
Bill Lovaas, the navigator, and Charlie Borger, the bombardier up in the nose had survived the attack unscathed. Upon hearing the order to bail out, Bill pulled the two handles to open the nose wheel doors, but nothing happened. Something had gone wrong with the mechanism, probably having been hit by a shell. Bill went back to get his oxygen mask on again and Charlie came out to the nose wheel compartment. When Bill returned he found that Charlie had succeeded in opening one of the doors and had apparently slipped into the opening and was stuck there, effectively locking the other door shut.
He was hanging with his head, arms, and feet out in the slip stream and struggling to free himself. Bill tried to pull him back in, and tried to push him on through, but was unable to budge him. Charlie soon ceased his struggling as he became unconscious through lack of oxygen and Bill followed suit shortly after when the oxygen in his walk around bottle gave out. Later they were both thrown free as the ship broke up. Bill woke up hanging in his parachute, which had miraculously opened, and found himself about 2000 feet above the ground. Charlie never regained consciousness and fell to the ground.
… Cliff Wendell found himself trying to keep the aircraft under control to let the other men escape, then when he went to leave the aircraft himself, was pinned to the windshield as the aircraft went into a spin…
All of a sudden the ship must have broken apart because I was thrown away from the window and was standing between the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats, I was completely disoriented and didn’t know whether I was standing on the ceiling or the floor. There was so much smoke I couldn’t get located and was unable to find the escape hatch which evidently slammed shut when the plane went into the spin.
However, I spotted a small patch of daylight which seemed to revolve in front of me, As soon as it seemed below me I took a dive for it. This hole must have been back of the bomb bay somewhere and seemed about 20 feet away. The force of my dive carried me through all the broken and twisted wires until my arms and head were through the hole when the wires caught on my flying suit and held my legs inside the ship. Once again I thought I must be too close to the ground to escape now and I thought the force of the spin would tear me apart in the middle but after about one revolution my clothes ripped and I was thrown clear.
During December the reconnaissance operations for Operation Overlord were stepped up. Although an enormous amount of intelligence had been gathered from aerial photographs and from the French Resistance, it was often necessary to put men ashore to discover the physical characteristics of the intended landing beaches. Sometimes the operations were conducted covertly, in complete secrecy, with the aim of avoiding detection. On other occasions the Commandos were employed in small raiding parties with the aim of taking one or two prisoners as well as discovering the lie of the land.
During December 1943 a series of these raids were conducted as part of Operation Hard Tack. The operation could not be confined to the intended landing beaches alone – that would have been too obvious – but extended along the French coast and included the Channel Islands. On the 26t/27th December Lt. McGonigal, from No 10 Inter-Alled Commando led a raiding part to the island of Sark. This was his report on the patrol:
The force landed at point 599021 and, after climbing a 200-foot sheer rock face met a further very steep slope about 100 feet in height with a shingle, slate, and stone surface. The force followed the eastern edge of this slope and encountered a wire fence consisting of three strands of very thick copper wire and two thinner strands or ordinary wire. This wire was cut and the force proceeded along the top of the Hogs Back, continually searching for mines as it progressed. Plentiful cover was afforded by rock and gorse.
At point 599024, a path approximately six feet wide was encountered, on either side of which the ground, which was thickly covered with gorse, fell away very steeply. We found that it was impossible to walk through this gorse without making considerable noise and we therefore continued along the path.
I was leading the patrol and had gone forward some fifteen yards, feeling for mines as I did so, when two mines went off behind the patrol, wounding Corporal Bellamy and Private Dignac. Corporal Bellamy died about two minutes later and Private Dignac received very severe wounds in the body.
The first mine had exploded about two feet behind Corporal Bellamy, the last member of the patrol, and the second mine about five feet to the left of it. (The empty container was taken from the first hole and brought back with the force.)
The force then started to carry Corporal Bellamy and Private Dignac out of the minefield. I took the lead, still feeling for fresh mines, and had taken only a few steps when two more mines went up in quick succession in front and to the side of me. (Lieutenant McGonigal himself was injured as a result.) After these explosions. Sergeant Boccador was the only member of the force who remained unwounded. Private Dignat was wounded still further by these explosions and Sergeant Boccador told me that he was dead.
In view of the fact that my force had sustained such casualties. I decided to leave the two bodies, retrace my steps and return to the boat. No sooner had we started to move, however than more mines went up all around us. I cannot say how many there were but at the time we had the impression of being under fire from a heavy calibre machine gun. We continued our withdrawal to the dory.
On our way up we had hidden a wireless set No. 536 under a rock but we were unable to find it on our return journey and so were obliged to abandon it. It was also impossible for us to get down the last sheer twenty feet of rock and to bring the rope with us. Repeated attempts were made to pull it down after we had got to the bottom but it had stuck firmly, and so, cutting it as high as we could, we left it and returned to the MGB
Sergeant Boccador and myself were feeling our way very carefully, we felt no contact points nor other signs of mines.
All the injuries caused by the exploding mines were sustained by those members of the force who were either standing or kneeling. A person lying flat seemed to be immune from them.
Despite these explosions, no signs of Germans were seen or heard.
For more on Operation Hard Tack see Commando Veterans. Shortly after this the Commando operations were discontinued in order avoid alerting the Germans to the Allied interest in the area.
Hitler had become disillusioned by his navy. Before the war the Kriegsmarine had had ambitious plans for a surface fleet with impressive capital ships. The building programme had produced the Bismarck, the Tirpitz and a number of smaller ‘pocket’ battleships. The Germans had a powerful ships – yet not so overwhelming a force that they could not be contained by the Royal Navy.
And the only real use Hitler had for his warships was as surface raiders that could sink merchant shipping. The demise of the Bismarck had demonstrated how hopeless they were in this role – the German ships were so big and such a threat that they were closely monitored by the Royal Navy, who would put to sea in force to sink them whenever they ventured out.
And so it happened again. Goaded by Hitlers latest rage about the uselessness of his navy the ‘pocket’ battleship the Scharnhorst had been sent out to do her worst. On Christmas Day 1943, the Scharnhorst and several destroyers sailed out from Norway to attack Russia bound Arctic convoys.
By this time the British were easily reading German radio traffic so no such attack could be a surprise. In fact the Royal Navy were actively awaiting it and had two strong forces ready to attack, one sailing from Murmansk and the other from Scapa Flow in Scotland, including the battleship HMS Duke of York – ‘the Duke’. Ever since the sinking of HMS Glorious in 1940 they had a score to settle. There had also been the embarrassing debacle of the ‘Channel Dash’ in 1942.
It was going to need the combined firepower of several ships to sink the Scharnhorst, a battle that was fought amidst snow storms in the freezing seas north of Norway, played out in the twilight world of a Boxing Day afternoon.
Ernest Reeds was on board the heavy cruiser HMS Belfast:
14:00 a message was received from the Duke which read “We are closing in on the Scharnhorst and our combined speed is 53 knots and are expecting to open fire in an hours time”.
14:27 We sighted “Scharnhorst” on the horizon and opened up with Starshell followed by 6” tracer. We fired 203 rounds of 6” and salvos from Scharnhorst fell just astern. Again she altered course and this time she almost got away. She would have done had not the Destroyers gone in and attacked with torpedo’s – 3 of which scored direct hits. In the attack the Destroyers were travelling at 38 knots. That slowed the Scharnhorst down to 24 knots and gave the “Duke” and “Jamaica” a chance to close in on her.
18:15 “Scharnhorst” is now 15 miles ahead and the “Duke” and “Jamaica” are to our Starboard.
18:50 We opened fire again with Starshell and 6” firing to the port side. Our speed is over 32 knots and waves are breaking over continuous still making it hell but no-one takes much notice of it.
19:00 “Scharnhorst” is in sight and the Duke and her have started firing main armament.
19:05 “Scharnhorst” on our starboard beam and we fire again at a very long range.
19:10 Speed is now 34 knots.
19:14 “Scharnhorst” fires at us and her shells fall just ahead. We cant fire back as the range is too great for us.
19:16 “Duke of York” and “Scharnhorst” start firing at each other and Starshell lights them both up in the distance.
19:35 We are steering S.E. with the “Scharnhorst” on our Port bow and the “Duke” 10 miles ahead. The three cruisers are in line ahead astern of the battleships.
19:50 Course 140°. The “Duke” is between the “Scharnhorst” and her base and we are covering her from the North. She hasn’t much hopes. Our speed has been reduced to 31 knots and the “Sheffield” has dropped back owing to trouble with her propeller shaft.
20:00 “Scharnhorst” has decreased speed to 21 knots.
20:05 “Scharnhorst” is going ahead of the “Duke” at a distance of 13 miles and they are still exchanging salvos with occasional Starshell for illumination.
20:25 We have gained the speed of 34 knots on a course 060°.
20:45 Position still the same and the 2 battleships are still firing but it is probably blind as it is now total darkness. “Scharnhorst” has altered course to the East.
20:50 “Scharnhorst” is firing close range as the Destroyers have gone in again to attack. One of the destroyers got hit and received damage and 20 men killed.
20:59 “Duke of York” ceases fire because the Destroyers are in – “Scharnhorst” is on our Starboard beam.
21:05 Our speed has dropped to 31 knots.
21:06 “Duke of York” firing again and gives orders to “Jamaica” to go in and attack with torpedoes
21:10 Duke of York ceases fire.
21:15 “Scharnhorst” is on fire and is almost at a standstill. “Jamaica” fired 3 torpedo’s at her but were all misses.
21:20 The Admiral has volunteered to go in and torpedo the Scharnhorst and the C in C says alright. She is well on fire but still firing hard. Our own speed is 28.5.
21:30 Fired 3 torpedo’s out of Starboard tubes and scored hits with two of them. They are still fighting but they have dropped back to her 6” and 4”.
21:40 Scharnhorst ceases firing and is going down by the stern.
21:43 Scharnhorst at a standstill.
21:48 The C in C signals to say that it was the “Belfast” that fired the fatal torpedo that sent her to the bottom. On the news they said it was the “Norfolk” that did.
21:50 “Scharnhorst” has just gone down. Strong smell of burning oil and a great cloud of smoke.
21:52 We fire Starshell to see if there is any wreckage that wants sinking. We turn our searchlights on so the Destroyers can pick up survivors. There are only 50 survivors out of 1600 crew. The Captain was climbing up a scrambling net and fell back into the sea and drowned. He was injured in the face. The “Scharnhorst” put up a wonderful fight.
Lieutenant A.G.F. Ditcham was on one the destroyers, HMS Scorpion, that disabled Scharnhorst. His memoir reconstructs the whole battle and describes how the Scharnhorst was caught between two intersecting sets of torpedoes fired by the Destroyers. They were then able to watch the end of the battle:
We described a circle and followed Scharnhorst at about 3 miles, going much slower now. We were thus able to watch as Duke of York came up, reducing speed and at 1901 fired a broadside at an easy target. It was an awe-inspiring sight. At five miles, the trajectory was comparatively flat and the 14 inch ‘tracer’ shells leaped across the sea and all of them appeared to smash into her in a colossal explosion. Some of them may have gone over and hit the sea some miles further on, but they were not visible.
She continued to dish out this punishment in a series of broadsides and Scharnhorst became a burning shambles.
One of the 36 survivors (out of 1980) was the messenger to the Gunnery Officer at the top of the superstructure. He told me that when the shells hit, the order was broadcast:
‘Damage control parties to such & such position’.
The men would dutifully appear, more shells would arrive and ‘bits of them’ would go up past him in the gunnery tower.
All around the world the war continued, with few interruptions in the fighting. Nevertheless, wherever it was possible, there were many who did their best to mark the day with some form of celebration.
The Reverent E. N. Downing was with the 4th Parachute Brigade who, only a few days before, had gone forward to the trenches of the front line in Italy:
Christmas came a few days after we had moved up. Troops noticed with some wonder that the Germans celebrated ‘Heiligenacht’ by ringing the Church bells on their side of the valley. For myself I had felt at something of a loss, for we clearly could not assemble any large number of men for a Service when we were under fire.
My final decision, after consultation, was to have one Service, Holy Communion, at Battalion HQ, and then to go round with the Reserved Sacrament to every position. The only suitable time for the Service was midnight, and I celebrated a real Midnight Mass in a real Stable, with a real Manger for Altar. The whole situation, with the Manger and the danger, stranger than I had ever known, made it the most real and poignant Christmas I ever experienced.
The setting for the dinner was complete, long rows of tables with white tablecloths, and a bottle of beer per man, candies, cigarettes, nuts, oranges and apples and chocolate bars providing the extras. The C.O., Lt.-Col. S. W. Thomson, laid on that the Companies would eat in relays… as each company finished their dinner, they would go forward and relieve the next company…
The menu… soup, pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, Christmas pudding and mince pie… From 1100 hours to 1900 hours, when the last man of the battalion reluctantly left the table to return to the grim realities of the day, there was an atmosphere of cheer and good fellowship in the church. A true Christmas spirit. The impossible had happened.
No one had looked for a celebration this day. December 25th was to be another day of hardship, discomfort, fear and danger, another day of war. The expression on the faces of the dirty bearded men as they entered the building was a reward that those responsible are never likely to forget … During the dinner the Signal Officer… played the church organ and with the aid of the improvised choir, organized by the padre, carols rang out throughout the church.
Seaforth Highlanders Regiment, War Diary, December 25th, 1943, for more on the battle see Juno Beach.
In North Africa Winston Churchill was still recovering from pneumonia, which had made him dangerously ill. His family had been summoned and at one point he had told his daughter that, if he died, he would do so knowing that the war would won by the Allies. Now he was bouncing back and in the early hours of Christmas Day was organising a new offensive in Italy. They would sidestep the German defensive line with a new amphibious landing closer to Rome.
Even if it seemed inevitable to many that the war would eventually be won by the Allies, it wasn’t going to happen until many more had died in many different parts of the world.
This was the British Air Ministry’s take on Christmas celebrations in northern Burma:
Christmas at the Arakan airfields was not the less gay because ofthe hazards of coming encounters. One Spitfire squadron staged a pantomime to which the others came. It was given in a jungle glade on Christmas night, with a clear sky. Between the audience and the airfield men could see in the dusk the paddy ripening into golden shades; behind them lay the forest, in which elephants were trumpeting.
The show was ‘Aladdin’ and the humour ofcourse was local, with Aladdin’s mother a ‘dhobi-wallah’ or washerwoman who made her profits by tearing off shirt buttons and selling them back to the owners. Two navigation lights, red and green, flickered as jewels in the djinn’s turban, while Aladdin’s cave was strewn carelessly with what then were the rarest things in India – Spitfire tyres. Great applause was that night given to the stars in the show, almost every one of whom was destined to be killed in the coming weeks.
For many others there really wasn’t any hint any concession to Christmas:
Ted Johnson was an officer with the Royal Ulster Rifles who had been taken prisoner on the island of Leros during the ill fated British Dodecanese campaign. Late on Christmas Day he finally arrived at a prison camp in Germany where he began a period of solitary confinement:
After the usual “Raus, raus, schnell, schnell” we marched through the snow towards the lights of a camp on the horizon. The welcome we got was no different from any other prison we had so far encountered: wire, grim-looking Wehrmacht soldiers and the predictable rough-looking German Shepherd dog with handler.
The inevitable body search took place again. This time all personal possessions were taken and with Teutonic efficiency were listed in detail. Toilet articles were given back and we were permitted to keep the clothes we wore. We were all issued with a palliasse cover, two wood pulp blankets, one bowl, one knife and one spoon. By now the outlook was worrying!
Next, we were moved into a long low building which contained individual cells. I now saw the truth behind the news about each officer having his own room! No explanation was given as to why or for how long one was being given such personal attention, but by now, since capture, we were becoming used to the devious methods of the “detaining power”. It dawned on me that I was in solitary confinement and that this was a novel way to celebrate Christmas.
There was no meal that evening but a redeeming feature was that my cell was warm. This personal hovel in which I spent the next 10 days measured 15ft x 7ft 6 inches (5 paces by 21⁄2 paces) and contained a bed with straw palliasse, a table and a stool. The metal door had the traditional peep hole, the small window was barred and high out of reach. Twice daily, what passed for food and drink was brought into my cell by a Russian slave labourer under armed escort. It was from one of these unfortunate walking skeletons that I learned why I was incarcerated – interrogation.
For more on the men taken prisoner at Leros see Deddington
Meanwhile on the Eastern Front the fighting went on as usual. What that actually meant for 19th Panzer Division can only be guessed at:
… I shall never forget that extraordinary Christmas Day. A signal came through from 19 Panzer: ‘Am attacked by thirty enemy tanks. No petrol. Help, help, help’— then silence. General Balck absolutely refused to send ‘Leibstandarte’ into action in dribs and drabs, even if this meant the total loss of 19 Panzer Division. Eventually, after nearly six hours of anxious waiting, a signaller handed me a most welcome message from 19 Panzer: ‘We are withdrawing to the west in tolerable order.’
The Irish Guards had now arrived in Italy after rebuilding their strength following their battles in Tunisia. Having recovered from his wounds Sergeant John Keneally knew that they would soon be back in combat and he and his closest comrades were determined to enjoy themselves. After the award of the Victoria Cross, he was now a celebrated figure but it would make no difference to his outlook. Keneally – it was an assumed name, adopted when he rejoined the army after he had earlier deserted – was not going to be deterred by Army rules and regulations.
Now they hitch hiked down to the town of Bari, which was being used exclusively as a rest and recreation centre for U.S. forces. Teaming up with some American soldiers who knew a place where they could have a ‘smashing time’, they set off on their adventures:
Against our better judgment we joined them. As we approached the stucco building in the back streets our misgivings increased; plastered all over were the signs, ‘Out of Bounds to all Military Personnel’, ‘Strictly Forbidden’; there were even German ‘Verboten’ signs which had not been taken down. Al smelt trouble. Monty said, ‘It doesn’t say anything about the British.’ We entered.
It was a brothel, but they had American beer and rye whisky supplied, no doubt, by grateful GI quartermasters, and there was a pianist who thumped out Yankee tunes. The Madame was very interested in us; I think we were the first British troops who had been in there.
The girls admired our height and size, but they were a very lousy lot, and it was obvious that if you wanted a dose of clap this was the place to come. The beer and wine owed, we sang ‘O Sole Mio’ with the piano player and were getting pleasantly drunk when there was a squeal of brakes outside, a hammering on the door and then it was kicked in.
A posse of a dozen baton-wielding ‘Snowdrops’ poured in. With shouts of ‘Stay where you are’ two guarded the door, some thumped upstairs and the rest rushed through to the back entrance to catch the GIs baling out. The Madame was cursing the American Military Police Sergeant, the girls were screaming for their money and the Gls were trying to escape in all directions. There was no sign of our two erstwhile Marine pals.
With a concerted rush the six of us knocked the two Snowdrops who were guarding the front door out of the way and we all baled out. Monty, who had the instincts of a fox, whipped open the door of the armoured car that was parked outside — in their rush the MPs had left the key in it. We piled in and with a scrunch of gears Monty pulled away.
The bastards opened up on us — .45 slugs slammed into the rear doors they even fired at us from the upstairs windows of the brothel. Monty rounded the corner and we were away with no harm done; there were bullet holes in the roof but no one was hit so we proceeded on our merry way back to Canosa. We parked the wagon about half a mile from the granaries and walked back just in time to join midnight mass in the chapel attached to the farm house. It had been a good night out.
Christmas Day opened with no repercussions and the battalion enjoyed itself. The Master Cook, Sgt. Kennedy, had produced a magnicent meal: we had roast pork and turkey and it was as good a Christmas Day as ever we had in England.
Boxing Day was a different matter, though. I spotted an American Military Police vehicle parked outside battalion HQ. By dint of questioning I learned that an American Provost-marshal was closeted with the Adjutant and RSM McLaughlin — they had obviously found their vehicle.
Through Sgt. Kelly from the Orderly Room, who was a friend, I learnt what had happened; it seemed some soldiers identified as guardsmen had taken a vehicle from Bari on Christmas Eve.
RSM McLaughlin, who would defend his battalion to the death, said all his men were God-fearing Catholics who had attended Mass on the Christmas Eve — it must have been those unbelievers in the Scots or Grenadier Guards who were the culprits. After a couple of glasses of Christmas cheer the Provost-marshal left quite happily, and that was the end of the affair.
In Italy Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son in law and former Foreign Minister now knew, after almost a year of imprisonment, that he faced death by firing squad in the following days. He had fallen foul of the rapidly changing circumstances in Italian politics. Italy was a divided country, with the south now fighting alongside the Allies, whilst in the north a re-instated Mussolini (after his rescue from imprisonment at Gran Sasso) was ostensibly head of a new regime, although the only decisions that counted were made by the Germans.
Undoubtedly Ciano would have produced a much more illuminating memoir had he had the opportunity. Now that he faced his end, on the 23rd december he managed to get a substantial postscript to his diary smuggled out of prison, in which he dwelt upon why Italy had got caught up in Hitler’s war:
I should have liked to fix the responsibility both of men and governments with a greater wealth of detail, but unfortunately this was impossible, even though there might come to my mind, in these last hours, so many details that I should like to make known to those who tomorrow will analyze and interpret events.
The Italian tragedy in my opinion, had its beginnings in August 1939, when, having gone to Salzburg on my own initiative, I suddenly found myself face to face with the cynical German determination to provoke the conflict. The alliance had been signed in May. I had always been opposed to it, and for a long time I made sure that the persistent German offers were allowed to drift.
There was no reason whatever, in my opinion, for us to be bound in life and death to the destiny of Nazi Germany. Instead, I favored a policy of collaboration, because given our geographic position we can and must detest the 80 million Germans, brutally set in the heart of Europe, but we cannot ignore them.
The decision to enter the alliance was taken by Mussolini, suddenly, while I was in Milan with von Ribbentrop. Some American newspapers had reported that the Lombard metropolis had received the German Minister with hostility and that this was proof of Mussolini’s diminished personal prestige.
Hence his wrath. I received by telephone the most peremptory orders to accede to German demands for an alliance, which for more than a year I had left unanswered and had thought of keeping that way for a much longer time. That was how “The Pact of Steel” was born. A decision that wrought such a sinister influence upon the entire life and future of the Italian people was due entirely to the spiteful reaction of a dictator to the irresponsible and worthless utterances of foreign journalists.
However, the alliance had a clause; namely that for a period of three or four years neither Italy nor Germany would create controversies capable of upsetting the peace in Europe.
Not only had Italy got sucked into the war against its true interests, it had been kept deliberately in the dark about the true intentions of Hitler to start a war in the East:
“Dear Ciano,” said von Ribbentrop with studied deliberation. “Dear Ciano, I cannot tell you anything as yet because every decision is locked in the impenetrable bosom of the Fuhrer. However, one thing is certain: if we attack them, the Russia of Stalin will be erased from the map within eight weeks.” Thus, in addition to a notable case of bad faith against Italy, there is also a blatant misconception of reality, sufficient at least to help lose a war ….
In Italy Farley Mowat was with the First Brigade of the Canadian 1st Infantry Division and had survived the brutal fighting for ‘The Gully’ on the approaches to the town of Ortona. On the 19th they had been pulled out of the line and they expected to have a period of rest and recuperation. After the experience that they had been through the freezing rain was now just a minor inconvenience. The rest did not last long:
During the morning of December 22 the sun broke thinly through the driven scud of another bora gale and men reacted like plants beginning to unfold after a too-long night.
Groups gathered around the cook trucks for a mug of tea. As the wan sun fell upon us, there were even jokes about “only three more shooting days to Christmas.” And there was hopeful talk of a possible mail distribution and of parcels from home. It was a time to think about presents. One came to us.
Just before noon a single 8-inch shell from a long-range German gun came snoring overhead to bury itself in the center of the bivouac area.
The explosion seemed of unprecedented violence. I was standing some distance from the burst and as the concussion buffeted me I saw a massive cone of mud spring full blown, like an instant genie, out of the sodden ground. A hot wind filled my nostrils. Childlike I screwed my eyes tight shut against this terror and willed my body not to run.
When I looked out into the world again it was to see a black-rimmed crater where the regimental aid post had stood short seconds earlier. There remained only some meaningless fragments of the equipment which, alone in war’s panoply, is intended to heal rather than to destroy.
There remained only bloodied fragments of Charlie Krakauer, of the medical sergeant and half a dozen orderlies and stretcher-bearers.
And yet this ghastly gift was but a token of Christmas still to come.
Farley Mowat was an accomplished novelist, published in many countries, before he wrote his memoir of wartime experiences in 1979. See Farley Mowat: And No Birds Sang.
Shortly after this Mowat was called to an Orders group where he learnt that their Brigade was going back into the attack on the town of Ortona. The Second Brigade was now in Ortona, stuck in a stalemate with the German Parachute troops. Ortona was to be described by some as the ‘Italian Stalingrad’ where the house to house fighting adopted a particularly murderous quality. After the briefing Mowat learnt the real reason they were being sent back into combat
He did not tell his officers what the brigade intelligence officer had told me: “Monty blew into Div H.Q. last night and he was frothing at the mouth. Passed the word to get on with it at any cost. The General told him the Div is worn down to the nub and ought to be relieved, but there ain’t no reserves, so no reliefs. It’s carry on, boys, and do-or-die, and bring me Pescara on a bleeding silver plate!”.
Everything before Ortona was a nursery tale
Maj Gen Chris Vokes, Divisional Commander, 1st Canadian Infantry Division.
In Ortona the Fallschirmjager were conducting a very skilful fighting withdrawal, making the Canadians pay for every small advance:
From the manner in which they are employed, it is evident that the Germans consider their ‘Fallschirmjager’ as specialist infantry. They have nearly always been used to hold and delay until a suitable defensive position further back can be organised and manned by infantry or Panzer Grenadiers. Often, they are thrown in to help restore a critical situation.
This manner of employment has largely governed the organisation and equipment of the paratroops: they tend to be well supplied with MGs, mortars and anti-tank guns, but generally operate without their own artillery. Armour support must come from elsewhere and they have no mobile recce element.
The fact that these “specialists” have appeared on our front to relieve the exhausted 90 PG Division gives us a clue to the enemy’s intentions and fears.
The most noteworthy characteristics of paratroop defensive tactics are: dogged tenacity, extreme economy in manpower (evidenced by their reluctance to counter-attack), skill in timing a withdrawal, and skill in concealment.
This was the Canadian intelligence report on their opponents dated 22nd December 1943:
Since 16 Dec, some 50 parachutists have been interrogated, among which were representatives from 1, 3 and 4 Para Rgts. These troops were the toughest we have had to face yet and, of course, the most security minded. In spite of that, moreover one could very clearly distinguish between the good type and the better type.
The first were those young men who in their keenness and eagerness for an adventurous military career, volunteered to join this hazardous branch of the GAF but who have not been in the service long enough to be instilled with that fanatic discipline and sense of security. A few months with a Parachute Training Bn, in FRANCE, training which did not even include jumping, and they were rushed to the front. The reality of war and capture must have been a rather sudden revelation to them, and they were quite willing to impart their limited knowledge.
The latter type were the older veterans who were in SICILY, CRETE, and who, at some time or other, had seen service on the RUSSIAN front. Those men knew what the score was and their discipline, morale and security are excellent.
It is no wonder that they are the ’picked troops’ and sent to whichever sector of the front needs strengthening. It is also interesting to note the condescending way in which the parachutists talk about the inf, ’they always mess things up, and we, the parachutists have to straighten them out again.’ This, then, is the better type and the type which does not talk – irrespective of their knowledge. And they too are the troops which have been put into the line to stem the adv of our Div.