377th Infantry – Street Fighting: Schiller Strasse Style

Impressions of the bitter fighting on first battalion's front in the vicinity of the hotel in a Fraulautern suburb.
Impressions of the bitter fighting on first battalion’s front in the vicinity of the hotel in a Fraulautern suburb.

The Allied front line facing Germany was over 400 miles long. In some places it was very quiet with relatively thin concentrations of troops spread out across a wide front where no threat was deemed imminent – such as in the Ardennes. Elsewhere there was intense and bitter fighting.

On the borders of Germany the Patton’s 3rd Army had run up against the Siegfried Line. Hitler had ordered the building of a string of defences on his western border back in 1938 – when he feared a two front war following his invasion to the east. Now he truly had the two front war that he had manoeuvred for so long to avoid.

The US 377th Infantry Division had arrived in France in September and were veterans of the struggle for fortified Metz, now they faced house to house fighting where the Siegfried line passed through the town of Saarlautern. It was urban street fighting with the added difficulty of prepared strong points and pill boxes. This detailed account comes from the 377th Regimental History, available online.

The following account of G Company’s fighting from December 6-10 is told not because it was the most exceptional action, but rather because it’s a typical example of fighting in fortified towns of the Siegfried Line. In mentioning the names of officers and men in this account we are recording not merely their exploits, but those of all hard-driving, pillbox-wise 377th Infantrymen.

First pillbox encountered by G Company in Fraulautern. Referred to as "Pillbox No. I" on diagram accompanying this story, it is viewed backside from "House B" on Schiller Strasse. Note trenches, along which Heinies pulled out to Pillbox No. 2, a similar forti- fication which was underground, and -o-l)e from which the Germans fired incessantly at George men. Foreground is backyard of House C.
First pillbox encountered by G Company in Fraulautern. Referred to as “Pillbox No. I” on diagram accompanying this story, it is viewed backside from “House B” on Schiller Strasse. Note trenches, along which Heinies pulled out to Pillbox No. 2, a similar forti- fication which was underground, and -o-l)e from which the Germans fired incessantly at George men. Foreground is backyard of House C.

Our eventual objective is the high ground on the other side of the river, about eight miles from here,” a lieutenant was telling his platoon. “We’ve got to take the pillboxes on the hill that commands this valley. There’s no special time limit, but it should take about a week to get there. First we’ve gut to go through Fraulautern, and we’re going over there tonight. So be ready to move out.”

The men mulled over that one. “A week to go eight miles.

It was the night of December 6, 1944. Shortly after midnight came the word to move.

Diagram showing the southwestern edge of Fraulautern, where G Company began its fighting along Schiller Strasse. The arrow indicates the route of march from Saar bridge. Fork in the road at left leads to Saarlouis-Roden. About one-twentieth of the town is represented here.
Diagram showing the southwestern edge of Fraulautern, where G Company began its fighting
along Schiller Strasse. The arrow indicates the route of march from Saar bridge. Fork in the
road at left leads to Saarlouis-Roden. About one-twentieth of the town is represented here.

After crossing into town under shellfire the real fight began after daybreak on the 7th:

These men first dashed across Gorch-Fock Strasse to House B and from here, at 8:30, Sgt. Brauch and his men jumped to C, first of the uncleared houses. As they ran across the street, a German machine gun opened up on them from down Schiller Strasse. No one was struck and the men reached House C.

This house had a hole blown in it at the ground level, leaving an opening from the basement and above the floor where a man could squeeze through. Germans fired from the cellar part of the hole as the men headed toward them to jump through the hole onto the first floor.

Last man in the team, Pfc. Donald M. Smeltzer, was struck and fell at the hole entrance. Inside, las the men went to different rooms of the house, Pfc. Willard C. Cameron went to the head of the cellar stairs, saw Germans at the foot in the basement, promptly tossed a grenade ·down among them.

Hearing the grenade go off, Lt. Hardy, Lt. Mark V. Goodyear and Sgt. James Bowen’s third squad ran over to House C to help. Convinced that it was best to give up, six Heinies filed out of the cellar. Four others had escaped to House D while Sgt. Brauch and his men were making the initial jump, and had been fired on by others of the second platoon who had been waiting in B to follow up the assault.

Houses B and C were in the direct field of fire of Pillbox No. 1, but were receiving no fire from it; apparently it was unmanned. All this time, Pfc. Smeltzer lay wounded near the hole in the wall; everyone running into the building had to clear him. This action had all taken place within a few minutes, and as soon as their chance came, litter bearers got Pfc. Smeltzer back to B. He was dead.

Sgt. Brauch’s original assault team remained in House C as security, and the rest of the platoon filed through them; then the men took off separately like big birds to House D, which likewise had a conveneient shell-hole entrance in its well. D was a duplex, and this half of the building was found clear of Germans.

Lt. Hardy found a large pickaxe in the house, dug a hole through the solid wall separating the apartments, and the men passed through. No resistance was encountered in the other half of the house, and the men got set to dash on to House E.

As second platoon was making this advance, third platoon was clearing houses on the opposite side of the street but having an easy time of it, as all the buildings were unoccupied. Third reached a point cater-cornered from Bunker No. 1, and H Company machine gun section set up to cover the action across the street and the bu·nker area. About 9:00 A.M., three Wehrmacht “soldaten” were standing on the street side of the bunker, smoking and batting the breeze, apparently unaware of GIs being so close. H men opened up and cut them down.

The Heinies in Pillbox No. 2, however, were on the job. Since the box was situated so as to fire into the backsides of all the buildings up to it, they fired continually. With the platoon set to jump again, Sgt. Brauch and his men came up to Building E to provide security.

One of the men was hit by rifle fire from the pillbox. The second and third squads then went into House E, which was gutted, found no trouble there, but were held up as they sought to reach Building F. Building E had a large barn to its rear. Between E and F, was a driveway, and a solid brick wall extended through the backyard of F, so that the barn and this wall cut off the open space of the driveway from the view of the pillbox. House F, however, presented a solid stone wall, with but a single upper story window.

The Jerries tossed out concussion grenades as the Gis appeared in the driveway. Lt Hardy and Pfc. Ernest L. Goolsby tried to dig a hole through this wall with the pick. Two grenades tossed at them failed to go off. A third was tossed, did go off, but caused no damaage out in the open, except for Goolsby’s face when he smacked the solid wall as he suddenly struck out for cover. Lt. Hardy called back for a charge to blow a hole in the building. By this time it was late afternoon, and engineers with a beehive charge did not arrive until after dark. The charge was set, and the hole blown, setting the house on fire.

The fire burned all through the night. “The whole thing was like the Fourth of July,” recalled S /Sgt. Archie R. Adams. “There was a hell of a lot of small arms going off all night as the fire burned stocks of ammunition.” The fire was mostly inside, so very little light escaped.

Looking northeast up Schiller Strasse, this is what George men saw, if they dared look at the time. Up this street came screaming meemies and 88's, sniper and machine gun fire. Pile of rubble at the end by the whole house was a junk-pile road block, right be- hind which Heinie tanks pulled up to lob shells.
Looking northeast up Schiller Strasse, this is what George men saw, if they dared look at the time. Up this street came screaming meemies and 88’s, sniper and machine gun fire. Pile of rubble at the end by the whole house was a junk-pile road block, right be- hind which Heinie tanks pulled up to lob shells.

During the night of the 7th/8th most of the men tried to get what rest they could.

The men on guard heard tanks moving around about two blocks to their left front. An 88 whistled in and exploded several yards away from their doorway. Two more came in, in rapid succession, and landed even closer. It was only 15 minutes before the next guards would relieve them, so one of the four guards gladly headed for the cellar stairway to get them.

From away off down the town came a faint wail which grew louder and sounded as though it was coming straight at the house. Just as it seemed it would land, the loud siren sound whirred slowly overhead. It was a “screaming meemie” the men thought. They were sure of it when they heard six bursts one right after the other.

The new guards appeared and took up the watch silently. They were told in guarded whispers about the tanks and that the ration detail was still out. Outside intermittent rain began to fall, and the dampness gave the hallway a wet-down smell instead of plaster dust.

Downstairs, the old guards told of the sound of tanks and the platoon leader phoned the information to the Company CP. The flicker of the candle near the field phone looked good to the men just off guard; the heat from the stove which the squad had rigged up felt even better. One man added another brickette of coal, and a couple of cans of K-ration corned pork loaf were put on to heat. The cellar had junk pushed aside to the walls so the men could lie down. The men lay with all clothing and shoes ·on, two or three huddled under a blanket or separately in sleeping bags, on all kinds, sizes, shapes and colors of mattresses dragged from one-time bedrooms. Nobody noticed the dirt, plaster and coal dust or the paraffin smoke from burning K wrappers or the stale tobacco smell.

Engineers clear up debris from the streets of battle-scarred Saarlautern, while a soldier watches for snipers.
Engineers clear up debris from the streets of battle-scarred Saarlautern, while a soldier watches for snipers.

British troops begin to intervene in Greece

The ELAS communist group of Greek resistance fighters had been the best organised during the occupation - but were now being asked to disarm.
The ELAS communist group of Greek resistance fighters had been the best organised during the occupation – but were now being asked to disarm.

Greece had suffered terribly during the years of German occupation, before the Nazis withdrew in October 1944. An alliance of resistance groups from across the political spectrum had fought a vigorous campaign against the occupiers – but the civilian population had borne the brunt of inevitable reprisals.

Throughout Greece massacres of civilians had been commonplace, even if only the Kondomari, Crete massacre is particularly well remembered because there is a photographic record.

The best organised resistance group had been the communist group ELAS and the left wing EAM – and the British Special Operations Executive had done much to support their operations. Now the British government were wary of the communists and wanted to see them disarmed. Tensions mounted inside Athens as it became apparent that Britain supported the right wing elements of the coalition Greek national government. Regular British troops were now sent to Greece to help maintain order.

At first the British troops found themselves generally welcomed. As individuals many of the troops themselves were sympathetic to the socialist cause:

In my childhood I had always been reading the Classics and the thought of going to Athens was something quite remarkable to me. Something that I thought I should never have been able to take advantage of.

One of the companies that night was placed on the Acropolis itself. Nothing much happened and next morning I said to Signaller Tony Sacco, “How was it, Tony,” and he said, “Nothing else but bloody stones up there and it’s freezing cold” I thought, “Well, that’s the practical view of what the Acropolis was like!

All of the army by that time was pretty well socialist. Everyone was of the view that the Conservatives were to blame for all sorts of ills that we had in the war, the general level of the economy and the way that people felt about the future. So that, by and large, they were all pretty well Labour.

Even though people admired Churchill for his ability to lead the country, his politics were completely suspect – he was a Conservative and was blackened with the rest of the Conservatives.

We felt that what the Government was trying to do in Greece was to restore the monarchy, which we all surmised was really not what the people wanted, but was going to be imposed upon them.

Therefore in the beginning there was a fair amount of favourable feeling towards this insurgency.

Signaller Ronald Elliott, Signal Section, HQ Coy, 16th DLI

‘Maintaining order’ in a civilian population was never going to be an easy task for regular troops who had straight from the battlefields of Italy:

During this early phase the troops were not usually fired on. There had been some sort of shooting incident in the street and there was an angry mob around.

One didn’t know at all what to do, we really had no rules of engagement or anything like that. I determined the only way to deal with it was by a show of strength. So I fell in my platoon, very conspicuously in the street, went into open order and ordered them to fix bayonets. Then we marched briskly down the street to where this mob was and of course everybody just melted into the side lines.

Then there were people there weeping and wailing over a man who’d been shot through the head — it was obviously an assassination of some sort.

Then we were thanked by the people who offered us wine to drink, which turned out to be Retsina which we’d never had before. Retsina’s got a very, very bitter taste of resin – I thought we were being poisoned and I declined to drink it, which was very embarrassing really.

Lieutenant Russell Collins, Carrier Platoon, Support Coy, 16th DLI

See Peter Hart: The Heat of Battle: The 16th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 1943-45

A recent Observer article analyses the British involvement in Greece at some length.

Men of 'L' Squadron SBS (Special Boat Squadron) investigate the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens, 13-14 October 1944
Men of ‘L’ Squadron SBS (Special Boat Squadron) investigate the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens, 13-14 October 1944

Sonderkommando of Auschwitz face up to their deaths

An Allied reconnaissance photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau taken on 29 November 1944, annotated by the CIA in 1978.
An Allied reconnaissance photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau taken on 29 November 1944, annotated by the CIA in 1978.

As the Russians continued their advance in the east the Nazis were finally compelled to consider the future of Auschwitz. The mass murder by gassing of trainloads of men, women and children had continued through to November. Now the Nazis began the process of demolishing some of the killing facilities.

As well as demolishing the crematoria the Nazis had decided to kill off the men who worked in them, the men employed in the Sonderkommando. These were the men with the grisly job of removing bodies from the Gas chambers and sorting out the personal effects. Records show that a demolition team was chosen from among these existing prisoners on 5th December.

A previous attempt to ‘select’ some of the Sonderkommando in October had resulted in a revolt, when the prisoners had attacked the SS with stones, only to be cut down by machine guns. Unlike new arrivals at Auschwitz these men were fully aware of their intended fate and knew thy had nothing to lose. Now as the SS began one of their final selections, they were taking no chances and those awaiting their fate were surrounded by heavily armed SS guards.

Filip Muller was one of those who narrowly escaped one more time, selected to live a little longer in order to keep just one of the crematoria in operation:

For a start, the three pathologists and their assistants were sent to one side and after them the thirty prisoners, including myself, billeted in crematorium 5. Finally the SS chose a third group of some seventy prisoners who were to form the demolition team.

The rest were told they would be transferred to camp Grossrosen. What happened to them we never learned, but we all realized that their time had come.

Suddenly from out of the ranks of doomed prisoners stepped the young Rabbinical student who had worked in the hair-drying team. He turned to Oberscharfuhrer Muhsfeld and with sublime courage told him to be quiet.

Then he began to speak to the crowd:

‘Brothers!’ he cried, ‘it is God’s unfathomable will that we are to lay down our lives. A cruel and accursed fate has compelled us to take part in the extermination of our people, and now we are ourselves to become dust and ashes. No miracle has happened.

Heaven has sent no avenging bolts of lightning. No rain has fallen strong enough to extinguish the funeral pyres built by the hand of man. We must submit to the inevitable with jewish resignation. It will be the last trial sent to us by heaven. It is not for us to question the reasons, for we are as nothing before Almighty God. Be not afraid of death!

Even if we could, by some chance, save our lives, what use would that be to us now? In vain we would search for our murdered relatives. We should be alone, without a family, without relatives, without friends, without a place we might call our own, condemned to roam the world aimlessly. For us there would be neither rest nor peace of mind until one day we would die in some corner, lonely and forsaken. Therefore, brothers, let us now go to meet death bravely and with dignity!’

The SS did not interrupt him while he spoke. When he had finished there was complete silence among the selected men. The sight of muzzles aimed at them from all sides had convinced them very forcibly of the futility of any resistance and the words they had just heard only underlined the hopelessness of their situation.

Among this desperate crowd of men I recognized Dr Pach, most selfless and devoted of doctors, as well as the two dental mechanics whose job had been to melt down the gold taken from the mouths of the dead. As long as they were in the Sonderkommando they had consciously existed like corpses waiting their turn. And now the time they had dreaded, the hour they had hoped and prayed would pass them by, had come at last.

I, too, felt wretched and depressed for, though so far I had managed to slip through the selection net I knew it could not be long before my turn would come.

Once the gassings had finally ceased, only one crematorium was kept working, burning the corpses of prisoners who had died in the main and auxiliary camps. In the same building behind a wooden partition was the dissecting room where Dr Mengele and his assistants continued with their pseudo-medical experiments.

See Filip Muller: Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers

Nightmare in a Mosquito 30,000 feet above Aachen

De Havilland Mosquito PR Mk XVI of No. 544 Squadron RAF based at Benson, Oxfordshire, December 1944.
De Havilland Mosquito PR Mk XVI of No. 544 Squadron RAF based at Benson, Oxfordshire, December 1944.
A De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI of No. 140 Squadron RAF, warms up its engines in a dispersal at B58/Melsbroek, Belgium, before taking off on a night photographic-reconnaissance sortie.
A De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI of No. 140 Squadron RAF, warms up its engines in a dispersal at B58/Melsbroek, Belgium, before taking off on a night photographic-reconnaissance sortie.

Albert Smith was, after just two years, a veteran of 90 operations in RAF bombers. His role as navigator had been tested in Wellington bombers before he was selected for the elite Pathfinder Force which marked the targets for the main bomber force.

Here he flew in the Mosquito. The role was very far from being without risks, but with a very experienced pilot and a very fast aircraft, flying high, there was the reasonable expectation that they were better placed than the heavy bombers to get out of trouble.

The skies over Europe could be very crowded during bombing operations. Hundreds of aircraft were pushed through to the target as quickly as possible, all flying the same route. The aircraft were in close proximity at night. Radar was crude – and only in night fighters was it designed to identify nearby aircraft. Accidents could happen – and they might happen very quickly:

The 4th of December 1944 — 1900 hours — target: Karlsruhe. On the left, slightly higher than my head and facing forward, the pilot peers into the black night. I flick the switch on the nozzle of my oxygen mask, and he turns his head in my direction. A nasal, humid sound: “Alter course to one-six-four degrees. We’ll be over Aachen in two minutes.” The intercom crackles back: “OK.”

Suddenly there is a jolt, and I glance sharply to the left. Out of the window beyond Johnny’s head I see, for an instant, the grotesque black belly of an aircraft sliding by. Nothing happens for a moment, the drone persists — the course holds. Then with a sickening lurch, the plane cartwheels through the sky.

”Johnny!” I scream, as I am flung furiously against the instrument panel, then twisted through the air and thumped to the floor. But the floor itself is twisting. I grab the metal struts at the base of ]ohnny’s seat, pulling my face hard against them as my legs spiral above me. Urine flows uncontrollably, and my chest feels tight and painful.

Sliding my head round, I see Johnny wrestling with the joystick, but we are spinning viciously and out of control. He snatches his arm up and turns the handle of the escape hatch. It rips away, sucking the warm air of the cockpit with it. He reaches down to me, then starts pulling at the buckle of his seat harness.

He twists awkwardly out of his seat — his parachute on his back — and grabs at the joystick. Clutching it, he begins to rotate with the spin of the aircraft. Again he tries to reach down to help me. I stretch my hand up to his. But he seems to lift like a balloon, hover for a second, then shoots out of the black, gaping hole above him.

I pull my head further round, and see, in the dim light, my parachute strapped to the side of the aircraft. It is within reach, but if I let go of the struts then the violent spin of the aircraft will fling me out of the open canopy above. There is nothing I can do.

I pull my face hard against the struts. I tilt my head round a bit, so that the top of my head is facing towards the nose of the aircraft. I grip tighter, because I want to die wrapped in the warmth of the aircraft’s body. A dread of falling through space, formlessly, makes me shudder and I hug the struts closer.

I tilt my head so that it will hit the ground at the same instant as the aircraft, and I will feel nothing. I’m calm. I’m going to die. But I can’t do anything about it. It’ll be quick. And it won’t hurt. I feel so calm. There’s a yellow—red glow in the aircraft. The engines must be on fire! Please God I don’t feel the pain of burning before I die. I begin to hum — just a constant, quiet, surprising hum.

Then my legs slam to the floor, and the aircraft is no longer spinning — diving steeply but no longer spinning. I might live. My body quivers, and I feel the most intense fear.

I’m feeling unsteady, but I’m sitting. I claw at my parachute, still strapped to the side. Tearing off the straps, I fumble with it, and pull it and clip it onto my harness. Surely I’ll hit the ground at any minute, we’ve been falling for so long.

I pull myself towards the blackness but something jerks my head back. I pull again, and my neck is torn violently back. I tug my neck frantically, but still my head won’t move. The ground must be near now — I’m frantic with fear. I nearly made it, for God’s sake, I must make it.

My helmet! It’s still connected to the intercom cable. I wrench it off — my head feels light. I’m shaking as I scramble to the escape hatch. As I get close, a freezing wind stings my face. I feel like I am in water — nothing I push on stays firm. Push, for Christ’s sake, push. My legs are dangling inside the aircraft, my top half is out. I push one more time and thrust myself up, and I’m floating free.

Tumbling, tumbling — floating free. A smooth, unremarkable hissing sound fills me. I pull the rip-cord.

This is from the dramatic opening passage of Smith’s memoir, Albert Smith: Mosquito Pathfinder: Navigating 90 WWII Operations but the whole account of his service is equally well written.

Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb ('Cookie') for loading into a De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IV .
Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) for loading into a De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IV (modified) of No. 692 Squadron RAF at Graveley, Huntingdonshire. No. 692 Squadron was part of the Light Night Striking Force of No. 8 (PFF) Group, which specialised in fast, high-flying night raids on Germany, particularly Berlin. The specially-modified Mosquitos were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’.
Part of a vertical photographic reconnaissance aerial taken over Wilhelmshaven, Germany,
Part of a vertical photographic reconnaissance aerial taken over Wilhelmshaven, Germany, showing the naval ammunition depot at Mariensel, after the night attack by RAF Bomber Command on 11/12 February 1943. This raid was the first on which Pathfinder aircraft used the H2S radar successfully to mark the target accurately. The resulting bombing by the Main Force was very effective, detonating an explosion in the depot which devastated an area of nearly 120 acres and caused widespread damage in the dockyards and town. Blast damage can be seen to have spread as far as the oil storage tanks on the south side of the Tirpitz Hafen (bottom right).

Britain: the Home Guard are stood down

Seated at the dining table with his wife, a Sergeant of the Dorking Home Guard in Surrey, England gives his Tommy gun a final polish before leaving home to go on parade.
Seated at the dining table with his wife, a Sergeant of the Dorking Home Guard in Surrey, England gives his Tommy gun a final polish before leaving home to go on parade.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspects the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard on Horse Guards Parade, London, on 9 January 1941.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspects the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard on Horse Guards Parade, London, on 9 January 1941.

Finally the government decided that they could acknowledge that the risk of Britain being invaded had disappeared. The Home Guard were now ‘stood down’, although they were not completely disbanded until after the war ended.

Personnel of a Home Guard Motor Transport Company in Ulster pictured in an Army lorry. Members of this Company did some of their training with the Royal Army Service Corps in Northern Ireland.
Personnel of a Home Guard Motor Transport Company in Ulster pictured in an Army lorry. Members of this Company did some of their training with the Royal Army Service Corps in Northern Ireland.

First formed as the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’, they were an emergency measure to help organise the civilian population’s response to the apparently imminent threat of invasion in 1940. They were swiftly renamed the ‘Home Guard’ at the insistence of Winston Churchill and gradually received better training, equipment and a recognised role within the military establishment.

Home Guards in the Edinburgh area organised a motor boat patrol for use on the canals and waterways of the district in order to protect local factories and buildings. One of the motor boats with a Lewis gun mounted in the bows.
Home Guards in the Edinburgh area organised a motor boat patrol for use on the canals and waterways of the district in order to protect local factories and buildings. One of the motor boats with a Lewis gun mounted in the bows.

The risk of invasion had become negligible even by 1942 but the Home Guard had continued to be a very active organisation. The possibility of German parachutists mounting disruptive raids had been contemplated during the D-Day planning, and the Home Guard were recognised as a useful first response and means of alerting the regular Army.

 5th (Doncaster) Battalion of the Home Guard under attack
Men of the 5th (Doncaster) Battalion of the Home Guard under attack from an ‘enemy dive-bomber’ during a training exercise at Punch’s Hotel, Bessacarr, Doncaster, 14 October 1940. The aircraft is an RAF Miles Magister trainer.

It transpired that the Home Guard never saw action against the enemy in the conventional sense. However the men who volunteered were never far from the reality of war on the home front, especially in those areas that suffered bombing.

 A Home Guard mounted patrol parading for inspection at Cowbridge near Cardiff. Their task was to patrol the hills and valleys of the Welsh countryside.
A Home Guard mounted patrol parading for inspection at Cowbridge near Cardiff. Their task was to patrol the hills and valleys of the Welsh countryside.

Richard Brown, living in Ipswich, was just one of tens of thousands of men who spent almost the entire war engaged in a second life, alongside their ordinary work, committed to both the Home Guard and the Air Raid Precaution service. They were justifiably proud of what they did:

3 December 1944

It’s been a rather impressive day I suppose. Wasn’t aware of it at first, merely went along to parade as I’ve done many times but by now I’ve come to the conclusion we must have been appreciated by somebody.

We paraded at 0845 hr and marched to the Regent Cinema, the whole battalion, where the miniature shooting cup was presented to the winning team, B Company, and the shield for the stretcher-bearing competition to the sector winners, our platoon.

Major Howes, our CO addressed us and so did Gen Deeds. I was pleased they spoke plainly and appreciatively but with no fuss and without ladling out absurd compliments. The 9th Battalion went to the Odeon.

Following that we marched to the park and formed up as a Battalion on the grass before the Mansion, eventually marching away following the 9th to the march past at the Cornhill where Gen Deeds took the salute. We went along Crown Street to Hyde Park Corner, along Westgate Street, Carr Street and so up St Helen’s. Five bands played us along at various points.

Can’t say much of what I saw at the saluting base. Like the others, I suppose, I was concentrating on marching, listening to orders and keeping position.

In London representatives from all units in the country, 7,000 of them, marched past the King. We sent Foster, a good bloke.

I suppose we did do a job of work. We were ready if needed for active service and in a negative sort of way we did it when, around invasion time, we did those pickets and guards. They released a great many full-time soldiers who would have had to do the job in our place and enabled the Army to concentrate wholly on their part of the war.

So now it’s all over, although only being stood down we are not disbanded and are liable to recall at any moment.

There are 1,631 on the strength of our battalion, in addition 245 went to the Forces, and I suppose the 9th had similar strength, and I also guess that our platoon wasn’t far off being the keenest and most conscientious of the lot. We turned out at almost full strength today, thirty-five out of under forty.

Now we concentrate wholly on ARP duties. We started the one-night-in- six rota on Thursday. Six nights will seem a helluva gap but I guess we won’t complain. We all turn out at trouble.

See Mr Brown’s War: A Diary from the Home Front

Home Guard soldiers (foreground) battle 'enemy paratroopers' during an exercise in the streets of a mining town in Northern Command, 3 August 1941.
Home Guard soldiers (foreground) battle ‘enemy paratroopers’ during an exercise in the streets of a mining town in Northern Command, 3 August 1941.
The Home Guard: Photograph contrasting a 1940 Local Defence volunteer with a 1944 Home Guard. Both were members of 32 Surrey Battalion.
The Home Guard: Photograph contrasting a 1940 Local Defence volunteer with a 1944 Home Guard. Both were members of 32 Surrey Battalion.
Members of the Kent Home Guard demonstrate a 'Blacker Bombard' spigot mortar during an inspection by Lieutenant General Sir Edward Schreiber, GOC South East Command, 23 July 1944.
Members of the Kent Home Guard demonstrate a ‘Blacker Bombard’ spigot mortar during an inspection by Lieutenant General Sir Edward Schreiber, GOC South East Command, 23 July 1944.

Disaster over Germany for the 392nd Bomb Group

Liberators from the 93rd Bomb Group other way to bomb Nazi installations on the 27th November.
Liberators from the 93rd Bomb Group other way to bomb Nazi installations on the 27th November.
A formation of the 392nd Bomb Group 'somewhere over Germany' on the 24th November.
A formation of the 392nd Bomb Group ‘somewhere over Germany’ on the 24th November.

The 392nd were now veterans of the bomber war over Europe having just completed over 200 Missions. The men were due to celebrate passing this milestone on the evening of the 2nd – and many were hoping that the Mission for the day might be ‘scrubbed’, as they fairly often were, due to bad weather. It was not be, they were briefed at 0515 and took off at 0930, on their way to bomb Bingen in Germany.

Their own fighter escorts were reported to be out in good strength, so the prospects for the mission were good. Yet the Luftwaffe were still capable of throwing out a few surprises. The formation was bounced by as many as 50 German FW190 fighters just after completing their bomb run and rallying for home at 1244. In a little over 10 minutes it was all over for six out of the nine aircraft in the 577th Squadron.

The attack was so intense that was difficult to work out what happened. There were only 19 survivors out of the 54 men in the planes that went down. For the families of those who were lost there would be little information about how they met their end. What information did emerge would be scanty, and a long time coming.

It was not until July 1, 1945, that S/Sgt Jasinski was able, after his release from POW camp, to write to the widow of crewmate T/Sgt Paul W. Haney:

I am Ray Jasinski, the waist gunner on the same crew as Paul. He may have mentioned my name in one of his long letters to you. I say long because he would start writing them in the morning just after breakfast and write at intervals all during the day and sometimes long into the night. We used to kid him about it!

I have been home for two weeks and would have written sooner but I’ve been hoping you would have by this time received some encouraging news from the War Department.

I would like to tell you about several things that happened before the mission, such as our (the crews’) preparations for the 200 mission party and how we all hoped for a stand down (that there would be no mission scheduled for the next day) but were very disappointed when awakened the next morning for the mission.

It seemed everything went wrong that day. Paul couldn’t get the radio to work right, which was very unusual. When he finally got the radio to work, the oxygen line sprang a leak. So we had to change to another ship in whose bomb bay doors I almost got caught when Joe Scalet was testing them.

We finally took off, caught up with our group, and headed for our target. It was a routine mission, target sighted, and bombs dropped, and three minutes later we were hit by fighters.

As you probably know, the two waist gunners and the tail gunner on a B-24 are pretty well isolated from the rest of the crew. The only contact we have with them is the interphone. We chatter over this interphone all the time calling out flak, fighters, etc. But from the time we sight the target until about 5 minutes after “bombs away,” no one is allowed to chatter over the interphone unless it’s an emergency.

Well! We were hit in two of the engines. I believe it must have been pretty serious because Lt. Comeau gave us the bail-out orders to all the crew. If there was any way possible of getting that ship back he would have, because he was tops.

The three of us (2 waists and tail) leave through the rear hatch near the tail in case of an emergency while the rest of the crew leave from the forward nosewheel hatch or the forward bomb bay doors. These exits, at that time, we in the waist could not see. So we did not know what was going on up forward. I jumped and that was the last I saw of anybody until I met Harold in a German interrogation center. I did not see or meet any other crew member since.

In this letter, Mrs. Haney, I wish I really could have written you some sort of comforting news, but I myself did not know of what happened to any of the other crew members until I arrived home and was told by my sister who has been writing you and the other next of kin of the crew.

If there are any questions you feel I could answer for you, please write and ask.

I will now close, praying and hoping that you, his wife, and the rest of us who are his friends, will hear encouraging news soon.

Ray

It was later confirmed that only Ray Jasinski and Harold Krause had survived to become POWs.

Earlier Ray Jasinski had given a more graphic account of what had happened:

While approaching the target, I was throwing out chaff; a few minutes later “bombs away” was given, and a few seconds later we entered a haze (clouds, etc.,). Approximately (2) minutes later, we came out of the haze and “enemy fighters’ was called out.

I then went to man my gun at which time we had the first enemy fighter attacks. On this attack Sgt. Kearns, the left waist gunner, was hit in the stomach by enemy 20mm (cannon) fire, tearing a hole in his stomach about the size of a man’s fist. All of the crew members wore flak suits but Sgt. Kearns did not button the bottom three (3) buttons of his flak apron. When he stood up to man his gun, the apron fell away as he was hit.

During this first attack, the only other person that I saw was the tail gunner, Sgt. Krause, who had his back to me but was manning his gun. At this time, fire broke out in both bomb bays and the command deck. The radio operator, Sgt. Haney, was talking over the interphone to the pilot and started to say “there is a fire” when he stopped. It is my belief he may have been hit by enemy fire.

About this time the enemy fighters were beginning a second run and the pilot gave the word out “this is it, fellows — bail out”. I waited until the tail gunner got back and held the escape hatch open, and I bailed out first. I did not see anyone else bail out after me and do not recall having seen any parachutes dropping while I was descending.

To the best of my knowledge, when I bailed out, the airplane seemed to be on fire from aft of the bomb bays to as far as I could see forward. I did not see our plane crash or explode in the air…

See B-24 Net for a detailed account of all the accumulated evidence of what happened to each of the six planes.

B-24 Liberators in formation 'somewhere over Europe' on the 24th November 1944.
B-24 Liberators in formation ‘somewhere over Europe’ on the 24th November 1944.
The end of a Mission as a B-24 Liberator is given the signal to turn off engines.
The end of a Mission as a B-24 Liberator is given the signal to turn off engines.

‘Dead tired’ on the front line in Holland

A dejected Lance-Bombardier Davis and Gunner Carey of 319th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, shelter from the rain and sleet in Holland, 10 December 1944.
A dejected Lance-Bombardier Davis and Gunner Carey of 319th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, shelter from the rain and sleet in Holland, 10 December 1944.
A Bren gunner of the 1st Gordon Highlanders in action near Nieuwkuik, Holland, 6 November 1944.
A Bren gunner of the 1st Gordon Highlanders in action near Nieuwkuik, Holland, 6 November 1944.

The British Army had been motorised right from the start of the war, never dependent on horse drawn transport as the German Army was throughout the war. For the motorised infantry of the Queen’s Royal Regiment, attached to the 7th Armoured Division during the advance across north west Europe, this made little practical difference. The life of an infantryman remained arduous in the extreme.

R. M. Wingfield wrote memorably of his experiences in the line towards the end of 1944:

The men were asleep, but they still kept moving. We had marched from the T.C.V.s [Troop Carrying Vehicles], blindly following the man in front. We were fast asleep. The column stopped. Each man bumped into the one in front and groaned awake, like trucks in a goods train jerk and clank all down the line when the engine stops.

It was dark. It was raining. Our enemy was not the Wehrmacht but the heavy rain, the darkness, the weight of our packs and weapons and our sore feet. We were exhausted, past caring. All we wanted was sleep. A cup of tea and a cigarette gave us a feeble spark, soon extinguished, a drug wearing off.

We took over wearily, apathetically, from a unit of another Div., 45rd Wessex, I think. They told us where Jerry was and what to watch for. We didn’t speak.

The positions were by the wall of an orchard, with holes blown in the rugged walls for vision slits. Night, black and drowsy, prevented our seeing much. We didn’t want to see anything. For God’s sake, give us sleep!

Sentries were posted in pairs to punch each other awake. I leaned with my chin on the Bren butt, staring blearily into the darkness. My head nodded. My forehead fell on the back-sight. I jerked awake and punched my mate on the arm, above the elbow.

The sudden pain woke him. So it went on for two hours. Finally a tap on my shoulder from the relief and I sank to the bottom of the trench. I was asleep before I reached it.

Two hours later it was nearly dawn – stand to! The Sergeant pulled us to the top of our trenches and kicked our backsides till we were awake.

We fought, spinning, to the surface. The light, feeble and grey as it was, smashed into our eyes. We cocked the Bren and leaned on the parapet, dozing. As the light grew stronger, our eyes narrowed to filter it.

We squinted through the holes in the wall, touching its rough stones to remind ourselves that there was something real in the world. No-one spoke. The only sounds were the sighs and groans of exhaustion and a faint thump as someone fell asleep over the edge of the trench.

We dozed on fitfully, half awake, half asleep, vague. Our heads were not parts of our bodies but long, opaque periscopes stretching up from somewhere in the trench. Our shoulders sagged till they seemed to be resting on our thighs.

We didn’t feel our legs. If we moved them, they answered the brain’s message slowly. They weren’t part of us, just heavy things vaguely attached to our weary bodies, deadly useless things which somehow prevented our dropping to the bottom of our trenches, where we wanted to be with all our hearts. We hated them.

We were dead tired. I use that term because the words were synonymous. A tired man was a careless man. A careless man was a dead man. We knew that. We were beyond fear.

See R M Wingfield: The Only Way Out

Troops of the 1st Norfolk Regiment during the advance on Wanssum, Holland, 26 November 1944.
Troops of the 1st Norfolk Regiment during the advance on Wanssum, Holland, 26 November 1944.
Infantry of the 1st Suffolk Regiment rest during a patrol east of the Maas near Geijsteren, 4 December 1944.
Infantry of the 1st Suffolk Regiment rest during a patrol east of the Maas near Geijsteren, 4 December 1944.

Wartime Berlin – an international city, underground

The production of German munitions and armaments, including many of her secret weapons programmes was now heavily dependent on foreign labour.
The production of German munitions and armaments, including many of her secret weapons programmes was now heavily dependent on foreign labour.
Foreign workers in a munitions factory being addressed by Dr Robert Ley, head of the Nazi labour organisation in August 1944.
Foreign workers in a munitions factory being addressed by Dr Robert Ley, head of the Nazi labour organisation in August 1944.

Berlin had been transformed in many ways by the war. The city already lay in ruins and the threat of further bombing was ever present.

As the Nazis tried to find every last German to send to the front, the war economy was sustained by millions of forced labourers, brought from every corner of occupied Europe. Journalist Ursula von Kardorff was still keeping her diary, noting every aspect of life in wartime:

30 November 1944

The Friedrichstrasse station, with its broad stairways, which lead to a kind of underworld, is supposed to be bomb-proof. It is all rather as I imagine Shanghai to be.

Ragged, romantic-looking characters in padded jackets, with high, Slav cheekbones, mixed with fair-haired Danes and Norwegians, smartly turned-out Frenchwomen, Poles casting looks of hatred at everybody, fragile, chilly Italians — a mingling of races such as can never before have been seen in any German city.

The people down there are almost all foreigners and one hardly hears a word of German spoken. Most of them are conscripted workers in armaments factories. All the same they do not strike one as being depressed. Many of them talk loudly and cheerfully, laugh, sing, swap their possessions and do a little trading and live in accordance with their own customs.

As a matter of necessity – and not out of kindness — canteens have been set up for them, they have stage shows and even their own newspapers.

Everybody knows everybody else. Girls go from table to table and young men, wearing bright scarves and their hair long, wander to and fro. Here and there a few people are given the cold shoulder, probably because they are spies or detectives.

They say that the foreign workers are very well organized indeed. It seems that there are agents among them, officers sent in by the various resistance movements, who are well supplied with arms and have wireless transmitters.

Otherwise how could the Soldatensender [ a propaganda radio station broadcast from Britain] be so up to date with its news and how could ‘Gustav Siegfried Eins” be able to interlard its rubbish with so much that is true? They end their news bulletins with the words, ‘That was the Chief speaking.’

These stations are far more eagerly listened to by us here than all the broadcasts from the House of the German Radio. There are twelve million foreign workers in Germany — an army in itself.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

 A Nazi propaganda picture of a creche in a 'Ostarbeiterlager' - camp for easterners - filled with 'zwangsdeportierten' - forced deportees - women brought from the Soviet Union.
A Nazi propaganda picture of a creche in a ‘Ostarbeiterlager’ – camp for easterners – filled with ‘zwangsdeportierten’ – forced deportees – women brought from the Soviet Union.
Most Germans living in towns and cities had had some experience of bombing by now.
Most Germans living in towns and cities had had some experience of bombing by now.

Survival as a POW in Nagasaki, Japan

Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW's suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri. Leslie Cole, 1945
Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW’s suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri.
Leslie Cole, 1945

Aidan McCarthy, a Medical Officer with the RAF, had survived a series of hazardous episodes during the war including the evacuation from Dunkirk, the rescue of men from a burning aircraft that had crashed on a bomb dump – for which he was awarded the George Medal, the surrender of Java to the Japanese and being torpedoed when his POW ship was en route to Japan. He then found himself in a POW camp in Nagasaki.

Here they struggled with malnutrition while being forced to work on building warships for Mitsubishi. There was also the casual cruelty of the guards:

The poor quality and scarcity of our rations were the cause of a big increase in beri beri. Another problem was dropsy (an accumulation of water in the tissues), and in these cases numerous trips to the toilets became a necessity, especially at night.

Those who made the lavatory trip were usually in a great hurry but first the permission of the guards on duty had to be obtained. POWs had to bow and say ‘Banjo-ari-ma-sen’ (Toilet please). On the return trip another bow to the guard was required and an ‘Arigato’ (Thank you).

Some of the guards were bloody-minded and instead of allowing the man straight through they kept him waiting for no apparent reason. This delay was sometimes disastrous. The result caused great amusement for the guard and also earned the unfortunate man a few slaps on the face.

Casual beatings were commonplace for any inaction of the ‘rules’. When they were finally allowed to send postcards home to their relatives, the Japanese discovered that 13 of the men, including MacCarthy, came from Ireland. All were given a beating by the camp Commandant because they came from a neutral country but had volunteered to fight for the British.

Towards the end of 1944 most of the other officers were moved to other camps leaving only the Medical Officers and Padres behind:

Because of a Japanese decision to dispense with general duty officers, I, by virtue of my seniority, found myself the camp’s senior officer. This meant I was beaten each time offences were committed and thus ensured a daily beating. I was given a blow on the head with a bamboo cane or a blow on the face for each offender. Then the offenders themselves received several blows.

This face slapping and head bashing with a cane or sometimes with a leather belt was not too painful when one was tensed and ready for it. True, apart from a local stinging of the scalp, it sometimes produced a slight headache.

Though we found it difficult to obtain radios or receive news, we realised that the Japanese were definitely losing the war. The wholesale demolition of houses to provide fire lanes in the event of incendiary bombing, the increased air raids, the irritability of the officers and warrant oflicers with the guards and of course with us, and a continuous atmosphere of tension gave us all the evidence we needed.

Our main source of war news came from small maps in newspapers that had been discarded by civilian workers after being used for wrapping food. They were small inset maps with Japanese writing and characters. We collected them lovingly and became expert at recognizing the different characters for aeroplanes, tanks, naval ships, the different nationalities and even which parts of the world the maps represented.

By careful analysis of successive maps we were able to piece together a fairly comprehensive picture of the Pacific war in general — or at least as it was presented to the Japanese people.

The European theatre of war was reported without concealment of the real facts. Besides it soon became apparent from the remarks of our guards that they considered Germans ‘not joto’ (no good). In a peculiar and paradoxical fashion, the Japanese seemed to relish the fact that the Germans were beginning to take a hiding in Europe.

POWs returning from the ration runs reported that they had seen young Japanese cadets in full dress uniform wearing white Banzi head scarves instead of caps. Armed with a large sword at their sides, they were strutting about the streets and being treated like gods. We speculated that they must be royal princes — yet they seemed so prolific that this theory was unlikely. One such figure appeared in our camp, where he had VIP treatment from the whole staff, including the Commandant. Later, the interpreter told us that they were Kamakasi (suicide) pilots. For a week prior to their one and only flying mission, they were given this godlike treatment. In my opinion they deserved it.

The repeated knocks to the head were to have long term consequences for MacCarthy. In 1969, while still serving in the RAF he began to suffer blackouts and was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumour. The operation to remove it discovered it to be benign, almost certainly the consequence of numerous small bleeds as a result of being hit on the head. See Aidan MacCarthy: A Doctor’s War.

Hitler Order: carry on fighting even if cut off

Hitler had hardly been seen in public since the 20th July plot.
Hitler had hardly been seen in public since the 20th July bomb plot.
German forces were on the retreat on all fronts, including Yugoslavia.
German forces were on the retreat on all fronts, including Yugoslavia.

It was a central part of the Nazi belief system that the “power of the will” could overcome otherwise impossible circumstances. The ‘supermen’ of the Germans Reich could achieve more than any other race, not just because they were inherently superior but because they had stronger will power.

The situation facing Germany was becoming ever more calamitous, and many Germans could see it. However, to voice anything but confidence in ‘ultimate victory’ was a perilous business, any hint of defeatism could end in a concentration camp. Now Hitler sought to extend the same paranoia to the armed forces, with the following Fuhrer Order.

Even if a unit was surrounded a commander was now expected to see if there were dedicated Nazis within the ranks willing to carry on the fight. The order complemented Hitler’s preference for declaring towns ands citys to be “fortresses”, that were expected to hold out to the last man.

Whether because of this order, or because German commanders were aware of implicit threats to their families in Germany, there would be many examples of German forces fanatically carrying on the fight in hopeless situations:

Fuhrer Order On The Exercise Of Command In Units Which Are Left To Their Own Resources

The Chief Of The High Command Of The Armed Forces.

The Fuhrer’s Headquarters, 28th November, 1944.

(Operations Staff).

Subject: Exercise Of Command In Units Which Have Been Isolated.

The following Fuhrer’s Order on the exercise of command in units which are left to their own resources will be made known to troops forthwith.

It will be ensured forthwith that the contents of this Order become the common property of every individual soldier.

Operation Orders providing a summary of the hitherto published Orders concerning fortifications, fortified areas, local strongpoints, and so on, will follow.

Enclosure

The war will decide whether the German Folk shall continue to exist or perish. It demands selfless exertion from every individual. Situations which have seemed hopeless have been redeemed by the courage of soldiers contemptuous of death, by the steadfast perseverance of all ranks, and by inflexible, exalted leadership.

A Commander is only fit to lead German troops if he daily shares, with all the powers of his mind, body, and soul, the demands which he must make upon his men. Energy, willingness to take decisions, firmness of character, unshakeable faith, and hard, unconditional readiness for service, are the indispensable requirements for the struggle. He who does not possess them, or who no longer possesses them, cannot be a Leader, and he must resign.

Therefore I order:

Should a Commander, left to his own resources, think that he must give up the struggle, he will first ask his Officers, then his Noncommissioned Officers, and finally his troops, if one of them is ready to carry on the task and continue the fight. If one of them will, he will hand over command to that man – regardless of his rank – and himself fall in. The new Leader will then assume the command, with all its rights and duties.

Goebbels review the 'Volkssturm', the volunteer army of old men and boys that would be the last defence line for Germany.
Goebbels review the ‘Volkssturm’, the volunteer army of old men and boys that would be the last defence line for Germany.
Members of the  Volkssturm training with experienced soldiers from the "Grofldeutschland" Division.
Members of the Volkssturm training with experienced soldiers from the “Grofldeutschland” Division.