US troops’ suicidal assault across the Rapido


21 January 1944: US troops’ suicidal assault across the Rapido

The bridge was about a foot under water most of the way, and stacked with bodies from upstream. A lot of the men drowned from the flow of the river with all their equipment still on. I looked at some, that is when I noticed most died with that look of surprise on their face, like “what happened?” and “why me to die this way?”

An overview of the Rapido River relative to Mount Cassino.
An overview of the Rapido River relative to Mount Cassino.
Looking toward Cassino, a key mountain stronghold obstructing the Allied drive toward Rome, advance American scouts gaze at the stubbornly defended town on which American and French forces are closing in. Italy. 18 January 1944
Looking toward Cassino, a key mountain stronghold obstructing the Allied drive toward Rome, advance American scouts gaze at the stubbornly defended town on which American and French forces are closing in. Italy. 18 January 1944

In Italy the daunting obstacle of the Gustav Line continued to cause agonies for the Allies. After the British and Canadians it was the turn of the Americans to make a frontal assault on the well prepared positions that the Germans had waiting for them. To add to to the challenge was the Rapido River which would have to be crossed under fire.

General Walker, commanding 36th Division, which had been ordered to undertake the attack, was pessimistic, writing the following entry in his diary on the 20th:

We might succeed but I do not see how we can. The mission assigned is poorly timed. The crossing is dominated by heights on both sides of the valley where German artillery observers are ready to bring down heavy artillery concentrations on our men. The river is the principal obstacle of the German main line of resistance.

I do not know of a single case in military history where an attempt to cross a river that is incorporated into the main line of resistance has succeeded. So I am prepared for defeat. The mission should never have been assigned to any troops with flanks exposed.

Clark sent me his best wishes; said he has worried about our success. I think he is worried over the fact that he made an unwise decision when he gave us the job of crossing the river under such adverse tactical conditions. However, if we get some breaks we may succeed.

For the full background see HyperWar.

The first attack was made on the 20th January and ended in virtually a massacre as the 36th Division sustained heavy losses.

In the overall scheme of things the assault was deemed a necessity by Mark Clark, commanding the 5th Army, because it diverted German attention away from Anzio. Clark was to learn from the Ultra signals intelligence that significant German forces had been diverted to the Cassino area as a result of the attack. However, very few people below him ever learnt of this during the war or for many years after – because of the continuing secrecy attached to Ultra intelligence.

Otherwise the frontal assault on heavily defended positions has been regarded by many as a futile waste.

Bill Hartung of Company E, the 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division was amongst those who were asked to make a second assault on the following day. It was his first time in combat:

The next night we WENT. It was bitterly cold, and the closer we got to the River, the colder it got. We couldn’t move fast. Visibility was about zero, so this made it worse to try to keep warm.

We went down a little horse and wagon road, and on the right side was an embankment about six feet high. We had already picked up our rubber boats, so we scraped against the side as we headed toward the river. A couple of hundred yards from the River (so it seemed), it didn’t seem what we were walking on was dirt and rocks. We soon found out that it was dead GI’s, stacked sometimes six high. They were from the crossing the night before. They never made it across the River. When I returned from across the River the next afternoon, they were gone.

We finally got to the River about 4 p.m. We found a foot bridge, (Two 2’x12’s tied together with a guiding rope on each side to hold onto), and I and the second scout, Company Commander and Platoon Leader crossed. The CO gave us our job to do, and wanted a report back to him. We never saw him or anyone else again. The second scout and I continued forward. (We didn’t know any better then). Rifle fire was cracking around my head from all sides, but I didn’t know I was that close when it sounded like that, ’til later. I was to hear a lot of that later.

Rodgie, the second scout, and I kept going, following the tape laid by the (111th) engineers the night before, until it ran out. I didn’t know how I made it this far, as that German rifle fire was close to us. Finally it started getting a little lighter, and we saw where someone the night before had started a foxhole the night before, but it was only about 10 inches deep. The GI was still lying there, what was left of him. This was my first sight of a guy killed in combat, but wasn’t going to be my last, even for that day.

We took off our equipment and started working on the hole. Thank God for the mist and fog from the River, and our smoke screen, or we would have joined our buddy lying there as it was “lights out” now. We were about three feet deep when the Germans spotted us, then all hell broke loose. “Screaming meemies,” mortars, artillery fire, and machinegun fire about six to eight inches above ground hit us. Our equipment laying outside was blown to hell, the dirt we were piling up was blown back into the hole.

We still didn’t know how bad off we were because when they stopped firing for a few minutes, we would stand up and try to see what was going on. All we could see were GIs being lined up and taken prisoners. The enemy also had tanks dug in up to the barrel, and fortified as bunkers with steel and concrete about two feet thick. Anyone caught above ground was gone. We finally dug to about six feet deep, and water started coming in so we quit. By this time I was bleeding from the nose and one ear. Nothing was left above ground, and the sides of the hole was caving in from almost direct hits.

All at once, when the firing ceased, someone came tumbling in on us. It was Col. Martin (143rd CO). He didn’t know how close he came to be blown away because there were Germans in parts of our rear. He asked our names, what company, and told us to stay and hold out. Help was coming. He was also putting us up for the Silver Star (which we never got). He took off like a big bird. (He made it because the next time I saw him was the day before we entered Rome in June.)

By this time, it was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and visibility was pretty good. I told Rodgie we were getting out of there. I left first, not knowing which way was back. I never saw Rodgie again. I finally found parts of the tape and made it back to the Rapido. There were bodies everywhere, mostly parts, arms, legs, some decapitated, bodies with hardly any clothes left on. I thought I was going to get sick, but I guess I didn’t have time, and there was always that spine chilling cry for “medic.” But there weren’t any left.

The bridge was about a foot under water most of the way, and stacked with bodies from upstream. A lot of the men drowned from the flow of the river with all their equipment still on. I looked at some, that is when I noticed most died with that look of surprise on their face, like “what happened?” and “why me to die this way?”

I made it back to our side, and to the road we came clown on the night before. The piles of bodies were gone. I got back to our bivouac area out of artillery range. I laid down completely exhausted, and felt like I had turned into an old man overnight. I know I was never the same person again. When it hit me, I was angry; I cried and shook all over. A medic gave me something and I really conked out. When I awoke, it was almost dark. Very few men were left, but replacements would put us back to full strength. I think there were 27 left out of more than 200 men from our company, no officers or NCO’s.

The whole account used to be available at http://kwanah.com/36division/ps/ps5.htm
– “36th Infantry Division Association.”It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

Litter bearers bring back wounded during attempt to span the Rapido River near Cassino, Italy.” 23 January 1944
Litter bearers bring back wounded during attempt to span the Rapido River near Cassino, Italy.” 23 January 1944
Dead German soldiers and their equipment at a collection point in San Vittore. U.S. Army medical corps personnel can be seen in background. San Vittore, Italy. 20 January 1944
Dead German soldiers and their equipment at a collection point in San Vittore. U.S. Army medical corps personnel can be seen in background. San Vittore, Italy. 20 January 1944

Exactly two years later the 36th Infantry Division Association passed this resolution, on the 19th January 1946, calling for an investigation:

to investigate the Rapido River fiasco and take the necessary steps to correct a military system that will permit an inefficient and inexperienced officer, such as Gen. Mark W. Clark, in a high command to destroy the young manhood of this country and to prevent future soldiers from being sacrificed wastefully and uselessly.

This was endorsed by the Texas Senate, Texas being the home of the 36th Division.

There followed hearings by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate but Clark was exonerated.

Lieutenant Horwood draws Japanese fire – earns VC


20 January 1944: Lieutenant Horwood draws Japanese fire – earns VC

Throughout that day he lay in an exposed position which had been completely bared of cover by concentrated air bombing and effectively shot his own mortars and those of a half troop of another unit while the company was manoeuvring to locate the exact position of the enemy bunkers and machine-gun nests

The Arakan Campaign January 1943 - May 1945: An Indian soldier using smoke grenades to clear Japanese troops from bunkers in the Maungdaw hills.
The Arakan Campaign January 1943 – May 1945: An Indian soldier using smoke grenades to clear Japanese troops from bunkers in the Maungdaw hills.

As the Japanese prepared for a major assault through north Burma into India, the British were attempting a more aggressive approach into occupied Burma. The fighting was conducted in dense jungle where the Japanese strongpoints were well concealed – and they fought to the death. As Mountbatten had learnt when he arrived – the Japanese had never captured a British strongpoint.

As a Sergeant in the 6th Battalion The Queen’s Royal Regiment Alec Horwood had been captured at Dunkirk but had escaped as they were being escorted through Antwerp, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. After being Commissioned he was attached to the 1st Battalion The Northamptonshire Regiment and he now found himself in the jungle fighting of Burma:

At Kyauchaw on 18th January 1944, Lieutenant Horwood accompanied the forward company of The Northamptonshire Regiment into action against a Japanese defended locality with his forward mortar observation post.

Throughout that day he lay in an exposed position which had been completely bared of cover by concentrated air bombing and effectively shot his own mortars and those of a half troop of another unit while the company was manoeuvring to locate the exact position of the enemy bunkers and machine-gun nests. During the whole of this time Lieutenant Horwood was under intense sniper, machine-gun, and mortar fire, and at night he came back with most valuable information about the enemy.

On 19th January, he moved forward with another company and established an observation post on a precipitous ridge. From here, while under continual fire from the enemy, he directed accurate mortar fire in support of two attacks which were put in during the day. He also carried out a personal reconnaissance along and about the bare ridge, deliberately drawing the enemy fire so that the fresh company which he had led to the position, and which was to carry out an attack, might see the enemy positions.

Lieutenant Horwood remained on the ridge during the night 19th-20th January and on the morning of 20th January shot the mortars again to support a fresh attack by another company put in from the rear of the enemy. He was convinced that the enemy would crack and volunteered to lead the attack planned for that afternoon.

He led this attack with such calm resolute bravery, that the enemy were reached and while standing up in the wire, directing and leading the men with complete disregard to the enemy fire which was then at point blank range, he was mortally wounded.

Portrait of Lieutenant Alec George Horwood VC DCM,  The Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, British Army, attached to 1st Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross: Burma, 18/20 January 1944.
Portrait of Lieutenant Alec George Horwood VC DCM, The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, British Army, attached to 1st Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross: Burma, 18/20 January 1944.

By his fine example of leadership on the 18th, 19th and 20th January when continually under fire, by his personal example to others of reconnoitering, guiding and bringing up ammunition in addition to his duties at the mortar observation post, all of which were carried out under great physical difficulties and in exposed positions, this officer set the highest example of bravery and devotion to duty which all ranks responded to magnificently.

The cool, calculated actions of this officer, coupled with his magnificent bearing and bravery which culminated in his death on the enemy wire, very largely contributed to the ultimate success of the operation which resulted in the capture of the position on the 24th January.

London Gazette
30th March 1944

An infantry section on patrol in Burma, 1944.
An infantry section on patrol in Burma, 1944.

Captured by a German raiding party


19 January 1944: Captured by a German raiding party

The section leaders who had not been wounded were crawling back from the tent towards their trenches; my sergeant and I had a small slit trench outside the tent which was where we were to go in an emergency. My wounded sergeant had slithered to this and was lying at the bottom so that there was no room for me to get under cover except by kneeling on top of him.

 British infantrymen travel fast as they seek cover from a German Spandou position.” Ponte, Italy. 15 January 1944
British infantrymen travel fast as they seek cover from a German Spandou position.” Ponte, Italy. 15 January 1944

Where the lines were static it was common for both sides to send out probing patrols, sometimes with the aim of discovering more about the aim of the enemy’s positions, sometimes with a view to capturing prisoners. There are not many accounts by people who were successfully overcome by such raids.

The author Nicholas Mosley is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the Blackshirt who had been locked up by the British during the war for his Fascist sympathies. In 1944 he was a 20 year old officer with the London Irish Rifles, having just arrived in Italy, where the Regiment had been for some time. They held a position on the snow covered slopes of Montenero, where the ground was so hard it was not possible to dig proper trenches:

On the first morning of our second period, when my sergeant and section commanders were all in the tent getting their orders, an artillery shell or mortar bomb landed next to us or almost on top of us, wounding two or three and leaving us all dazed.

I thought that I was wounded because I was spattered with blood; but this turned out to be from one of my corporals or my sergeant. I shouted the order to ‘Stand to’ — which meant that the people in the trenches would be ready to open fire. I looked out from the torn tent and saw ghostly figures coming down through the trees; they were dressed in white smocks and were making noises like wolves.

I shouted an order as I had been taught — ‘Enemy on the left, a hundred yards, coming through the trees, open fire!’ No one fired. I did not know what to do about this: it was not a situation we had been taught how to deal with during training.

The section leaders who had not been wounded were crawling back from the tent towards their trenches; my sergeant and I had a small slit trench outside the tent which was where we were to go in an emergency. My wounded sergeant had slithered to this and was lying at the bottom so that there was no room for me to get under cover except by kneeling on top of him.

I shouted my order again; Why had no one told us what to do if orders to fire were not obeyed? Such an event was not thought possible. My sergeant said —- ‘Don’t tell them to shoot, sir, or we’ll all be killed!’ I thought this was probably true, but was not that what we were here for? However if we didn’t fire, yes, we might all be taken prisoner. And wasn’t this what at times I had imagined I was here for?

Then I decided – or it was somehow decided for me? — no, that is not what I am here for. And my view of the world seemed abruptly to change at that moment.

As an officer used to obeying regulations, I was armed only with a pistol; officers were supposed to give orders for rifles and Bren guns to be fired, not themselves to be equipped seriously to shoot. The Germans coming down through the trees were now almost upon us: still there was no one firing.

I thought I should clamber out of my useless trench and crawl to one of the forward section positions where I could myself get a Bren gun working. I had got some way when more grenades started landing; I threw myself — or was propelled — into a snowdrift.

I lay there immovable for a few seconds until there was someone jerking at the lanyard of the pistol round my neck; it was a German with a sub-machine gun. I made it possible for him to remove the lanyard and pistol from round my neck; but how in God’s name had I got into such a situation — and one which I had even thought desirable? The experience was unbearable. I had to get away.

Nicholas Mosley, being the son of his father, was especially anxious not to be taken prisoner by the Germans. He managed to escape with a few other men but he faced an awkward time explaining how most of his platoon were taken prisoner. See Nicholas Mosley: Time at War.

The original reports relating to the incident can be read at Irish Brigade.

Lt. Michael J. Ciaglo, artillery observer at his post atop Mt. [Mount] Chiaia, spotting enemy activity on Mt. [Mount] Trocchio. 17 January 1944
Lt. Michael J. Ciaglo, artillery observer at his post atop Mt. [Mount] Chiaia, spotting enemy activity on Mt. [Mount] Trocchio. 17 January 1944

Disaster as shell hits Royal Artillery battery


18 January 1944: Disaster as shell hits Royal Artillery battery

I helped beat the flames out. His face and hands were badly burnt, I helped him up the ladder to the command post and I blurted out to those within, “there’s been a direct hit on the guns.” I realised then I was late with the news, wounded gunners were already being attended to. Everybody looked very tense, behind me flames were leaping twenty feet in the air,

 British 5.5 inch medium artillery in action during the night barrage which opened the assault on the Garigliano River by the British 10th Corp
British 5.5 inch medium artillery in action during the night barrage which opened the assault on the Garigliano River by the British 10th Corp

In Italy the assault on the Cassino lines continues. The days following the 17th January saw some of the deadliest fighting of the campaign as first the French, then the British – a term which encompasses the Canadians, the Indians and the New Zealanders – and then the Americans, tried to break through.

Spike Milligan spent the war as a Gunner with the Royal Artillery. His popular memoirs, based on his wartime diaries, were full of the absurd humour that would later make him so famous. Sometimes reading them you might think he treated the whole experience as one long jest. However, much of it was a reaction against the dangerous circumstances that he found himself in.

On the 17th he had gone forward with Battery Observation Post and had a terrible foreboding of death, writing in his diary ” I died for the England I dreamed of, not the England I know” but had survived unscathed. He only had a brief period of rest that night:

JANUARY 18, 1944

Somewhere in the small hours I heard explosions in that distant sleep-ridden way; I heard Spike Deans say in a sing-song voice like Jiminy Cricket, “Oh Spikeeeee, We’re being shelleeddd.”

I remember my reply, “Fuck ’em”, and dozed off but then … my diary tells the story:

0220 hrs: Awakened by someone screaming coming from the guns, pulled back the black-out and could see the glare of a large fire, at the same time a voice in pain was shouting “Command post, for god’s sake somebody, where’s the Command post?” it was someone with his hair on fire coming up the path, he was beating it out with his hands, I jumped from my bed sans trousers and ran towards him, it was Bombardier Begent.

I helped beat the flames out. His face and hands were badly burnt, I helped him up the ladder to the command post and I blurted out to those within, “there’s been a direct hit on the guns.” I realised then I was late with the news, wounded gunners were already being attended to. Everybody looked very tense, behind me flames were leaping twenty feet in the air, I rushed back to my dug-out and dressed in a flash.

Took my blankets back to the command post to help cover the wounded. I then joined the rest of the battery, who were all pulling red-hot and burning charge-cases away from those not yet affected. They were too hot to pull by hand so we used pickaxes wedged in the handles.

Lieutenant Stewart Pride was heaping earth on them with his hands. Gunner Devine seemed to be enjoying it, he was grinning and shouting, “this is the first time I’ve been warm today.” It never occurred to me that some of the boxes that were hot might still contain unexploded cordite charges, fortunately they didn’t go off and that’s why I’m able to write this diary today.

It was a terrible night, four Gunners died and six were wounded. All suffered burns in varying degrees. The work of subduing the fire and tidying up went on until early dawn. It was terrible to see the burnt corpses. There was little Gunner Musclewhite, he’d been killed sitting up in bed. He was burnt black, and his teeth showed white through his black, fleshless head. Sgt. Jock Wilson too, Gunner White and Ferrier…

A burial party under BSM Griffin were starting to dig as dawn came up. I went on duty at the Command Post.

What had happened need never have been so bad had we all not become careless. The Gunners had dug themselves a dug-out and covered it with a camouage net, but they had surrounded their dug-out with Charge Boxes. The first shells must have hit the charges, which blew up and ignited the camouage net that then fell in flames on top of those trapped underneath…

See Spike Milligan: Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall .

Royal Engineers move up through a smokescreen during training for the crossing of the River Garigliano in Italy, 18 January 1944.
Royal Engineers move up through a smokescreen during training for the crossing of the River Garigliano in Italy, 18 January 1944.

Canadian infantry assault behind artillery barrage


17 January 1944: Canadian infantry assault behind artillery barrage

This time, we were directly under the flight paths of the shells at the point in the trajectory where they were on their downward journey. It was ten minutes of listening with awe and fearful doubts as they whirred over our heads and plunged into the target area with a drumbeat roll. And then we were on our way for what we thought would be the decisive thrust that would end the agony our regiment was going through.

4.5 inch guns of 214 Battery, 69 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery firing during the six hour barrage laid down by the British section of the 5th Army.
4.5 inch guns of 214 Battery, 69 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery firing during the six hour barrage laid down by the British section of the 5th Army.
Another of the 4.5 guns during the barrage.
Another of the 4.5 guns during the barrage.

In Italy the Allies had come up against the formidable defences of the Gustav Line and the obstacle of Mount Cassino. Here the German defences had been well prepared and they dominated the high ground – and so they dominated the battlefield. It was a forbidding place to make an attack especially as the Garigliano and Rapido rivers had also to be crossed. Yet it was essential to pull the Germans into the area – away from the forthcoming Anzio landings.

On 17th January Stanley Scislowski and his comrades in the Perth Regiment were adjusting to their first day in combat. The artillery had opened up at 0530 and Dog Company had moved off at 0700 to back up the Companies who had made their first attack. The day had not gone well and they spent most of it pinned down under machine gun fire – the Germans had been largely unaffected by the first artillery barrage. Most of the day had been spent in watery slit trenches.

As they regrouped and collected their wounded they were ordered to make a second attack, this time moving off while the guns were still firing:

Sharp on the stroke of 1600 hours the heavy orchestra behind us burst loose in a symphony of cannonading that came pretty close to equalling that which had opened the battle early that morning. The twenty—five pounder batteries banged away nonstop till the sky between us and the charcoal-gray low-hanging clouds hummed and throbbed to the heavy surge of shells on their way to the Jerry lines.

This time, we were directly under the flight paths of the shells at the point in the trajectory where they were on their downward journey. It was ten minutes of listening with awe and fearful doubts as they whirred over our heads and plunged into the target area with a drumbeat roll. And then we were on our way for what we thought would be the decisive thrust that would end the agony our regiment was going through.

The sky above us was a crowded highway of shells all going in one direction, some so low on their downward journey that we feared one of them would come down on top of us. For all the infernal racket of guns behind us, the whir and whistle of the shells speeding by overhead, the bass—drum beat of the hundreds of shells crashing in the valley, the machine-guns, both ours and theirs clattering at a furious rate, the rifle fire snapping past our ears and mortars crumping on the open ground just off to our right, Dog company ran resolutely on towards the valley of decision.

Although we were all as “green as grass” when it came to combat and our nerves rubbed raw from prolonged exposure to instant death, not a single man hung back.

We ran along a well-worn path at the edge of a chewed-up olive grove, pockmarked everywhere with craters. We dodged, we hurdled and sidestepped around tree-limbs lying in our way. It was strange how thoughts of the Somme could it across my mind as I hurried by with my eyes focused on the back of the man ahead.

As we plunged on closer to the valley, the din from tons upon tons of high explosive going off grew louder at every step. Sharp pops kept going off close to my ears, the work of individual riflemen or perhaps even a sniper trying to pick us off. I expected the next stride, or the one after that, would be my last.

To my right I caught a glimpse of a small group of our Charlie Company boys stumbling back from the slaughterhouse of the valley, two of them with
wounded draped over their shoulders.

Then suddenly, there before my eyes was the wide sweep of the Riccio
River valley: the far slope was a boiling mass of shell bursts, the valley thick with smoke and reeking of the stink of HE.

I hesitated, my mouth agape as a line of machine-gun bullets kicked up the dirt past my boots, so close I felt the vibrations through the double soles of my boots. I tried to spot where the firing had come from and then started downward, sidestepping in the wake of my section. A second burst ripped into the slope less than three feet from me. I hit the ground head first and rolled all the way to the bottom where I came to a jolting halt against Gord Forbes’ backside.

I thought the whole section had been killed, but then Gord Forbes snapped out at me sharply, to get my goddamned boot out of the crack of his ass and I knew they were still with it.

See Stanley Scislowski: Not All of Us Were Brave, this is just a small part of his description of this battle.

Canadian gunners un-hitch their 6-pdr anti-tank gun from the rear of a Sherman tank of the 12th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers), 17 January 1944.
Canadian gunners un-hitch their 6-pdr anti-tank gun from the rear of a Sherman tank of the 12th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers), 17 January 1944.
Men of 141 Field Ambulance RAMC attend to a wounded soldier on a stretcher, 17 January 1944.
Men of 141 Field Ambulance RAMC attend to a wounded soldier on a stretcher, 17 January 1944.

Arctic cold freezes men on the Eastern front battlefield


16 January 1944: Arctic cold freezes men on the Eastern front battlefield

Some men fainted as the cold struck them, paralysed before they even had a chance to scream. Survival seemed almost impossible. Our hands and faces were coated with engine grease, and when our worn gloves were pulled over this gluey mixture, every gesture became extremely difficult.

A 8cm mortar team from the Grossdeutschland Division.
A 8cm mortar team from the Grossdeutschland Division.

As the Wehrmacht fell back in the east they were trying to improvise defensive positions. The German trench lines were thinly manned and they made increasing use of mines to bolster their defences. Yet the Red Army seemed prepared to sacrifice waves of infantry attack to cross the minefields, sparing their tanks.

The intensity of the Russian winter hindered both sides but did not stop the battle. As the temperature plummeted in mid January they reached extremes that the Germans were not prepared for. Flesh froze when it touched metal. Men could only survive outside for a short time before moving back to their bunkers.

For Guy Sajer, with the Grossdeutschland Division, veterans of the Eastern Front, it was a battle where the cold caused more casualties than the enemy:

On another evening, when the cold had attained a dramatic intensity, the Russians attacked again.

We were manning our positions in a temperature which had dropped to 45° below zero. Some men fainted as the cold struck them, paralysed before they even had a chance to scream. Survival seemed almost impossible. Our hands and faces were coated with engine grease, and when our worn gloves were pulled over this gluey mixture, every gesture became extremely difficult.

Our tanks, whose engines would no longer start, swept the spaces in front of them with their long tubes, like elephants caught in a trap.

The muzhiks preparing to attack us were suffering in the same way, freezing where they stood before there was time for even one ‘Ourrah pobieda.’ The men on both sides, suffering a common martyrdom, were longing to call it quits. Metal broke with astonishing ease.

The Soviet tanks were advancing blindly through the pale light of flares, which intensified the bluish glitter of the scene. These tanks were destroyed by the mines which lay parallel to our trenches some thirty yards from our front lines, or by our Tigers, which fired without moving.

The Russian troops, with frozen hands and feet, faltered and withdrew in confusion in the face of the fire we kept steady, despite our tortured hands. Their officers, who had hoped to find us paralysed by cold and incapable of defence, were unconcerned about the condition of their own troops. They were ready to make any sacrifice, so long as Our lines were attacked.

I managed to keep my hands from freezing by thrusting them, in their gloves, into two empty ammunition boxes, when the cartridges had run into the spandau. Our gunners, and everyone forced to use his hands, sooner or later turned up at the medical service with severe cases of freezing. There were a great many amputations.

See Guy Sajer: The Forgotten Soldier

The Grossdeutschland Division somewhere on the Eastern front in late 1943.
The Grossdeutschland Division somewhere on the Eastern front in late 1943.

Germans crack down as Red Army gets closer


15 January 1944: Germans crack down as Red Army gets closer

The overall feeling is that this time the Germans are unable to stop the Russian offensive. In the German administration and also the German military you can see complete chaos. Germany is already finished. Their might is breaking apart and the time for the end is near. This is an all-embracing feeling, but the people who are more realistic are still counting on very difficult days.

German machine gunner in the burning center of Zhitomir, Ukraine. Zhitomir was liberated by Soviet troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front at the end of 1943.
German machine gunner in the burning center of Zhitomir, Ukraine. Zhitomir was liberated by Soviet troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front at the end of 1943.

In eastern Poland people were beginning to anticipate the arrival of the Red Army. Their new offensive had made good progress and news of the Soviet successes was reaching the Polish borderlands.

For many the moment of liberation could not arrive too soon. How that would happen and what fighting it would involve remained great uncertainties.

Many people had reason to be fearful apart from the occupying Germans. Chief amongst these were the Volksdeutsch, people of German ethnic origin who had been brought as settlers from other parts of Poland and from the former Soviet territories. Often Poles had been evicted from their homes to make way for them. Their prospects were bleak if they did not evacuate with the retreating Germans.

Dr Zygmunt Klukowski was a hospital doctor in the Zamosc county hospital in Szczebrzeszyn. Here he did his best to discreetly help partisan resistance fighters when they were wounded. He also kept a diary of the daily events in the town, chronicling the changes as he had done throughout the war:

January 15

Throughout the villages the Germans have begun new mass arrests. Last night they came for teacher Bohun in Czarnystok. He started a fight and wounded a gendarme, but then he was killed. Some people say he killed himself; others, that the gendarme shot him.

More people are fleeing from the east. I talked with a clerk from the county office in Ostrog. He arrived in Szczebrzeszyn this morning. He gave me more details about the situation.

The Russians are only 200 km away from us, in a straight line. For the motorized units this is only a few hours. All cities in the Wolyn region are in a state of evacuation, but so far most of the Polish population has decided to stay. Only employees of city offices, policemen, and particularly Volksdeutsch are moving out quickly. Also doing the same are people who are known as German sympathizers and informers, all the people who are afraid of the future, when the Russians will arrive.

The overall feeling is that this time the Germans are unable to stop the Russian offensive. In the German administration and also the German military you can see complete chaos. Germany is already finished. Their might is breaking apart and the time for the end is near. This is an all-embracing feeling, but the people who are more realistic are still counting on very difficult days.

I myself feel and hope that Germany will capitulate before the Russian armies arrive in our area, and in this way we will be spared street fighting.

In my hospital no one is planning to evacuate and go west with the Germans. From experience I am sure that during the critical time some will escape, but the majority will stay on the job.

In case of bombardment and street fighting, the most difficult task will be keeping everyone in line. This is the time I am most afraid of.

In our commune, all Dorffuhrers drafted a detailed list of all Volksdeutscb, including ages, for city hall. I am sure it was prepared in connection with drafting all Germans into the military service. The gendarmes are working on a list of Polish men.

See Zygmunt Klukowski: Diary from the Years of Occupation.

Images courtesy Russian War Albums

Armoured  of 16th Panzer Division of the Wehrmacht on the march, January -February 1944.
Armoured of 16th Panzer Division of the Wehrmacht on the march, January – February 1944.

Hitler rejects a defensive strategy in the East


14 January 1944: Hitler rejects a defensive strategy in the East

Only his sheepdog bitch, Blondi, was there. Hitler fed her from time to time with pieces of dry bread. Linge, the servant who waited on us, came and went silently. The rare occasion had arisen on which it would be possible to tackle and perhaps to solve thorny problems. After a few opening remarks the conversation turned on the military situation.

Heinz Guderian pictured on the Eastern Front in 1941.
Heinz Guderian pictured on the Eastern Front in 1941.

It was now becoming increasingly likely that Germany would be fighting on yet another front in 1944, already they faced the Allies in Italy. With the looming prospect of a two front war German Generals, or those that dared, were becoming more outspoken in their criticism of Hitler’s strategies on the Eastern Front.

Heinz Guderian had been one of the principal architects of mobile tank warfare that led to the ‘blitzkrieg’ strategies that had served Germany so well early in the war. He had fallen out with Hitler during the campaign for Moscow, after that he had been sidelines from operational roles.

In 1943 Guderian had been brought back into the High Command as Inspector General of Armoured Troops and promoted to the rank of Generaloberst. He continued to argue with Hitler however:

In January 1944 Hitler invited me to breakfast with the words: ‘Somebody’s sent me a teal. You know I’m vegetarian. Would you like to have breakfast with me and eat the teal?’ We were alone together at a small round table in a rather dark room, since the only light came from one window.

Only his sheepdog bitch, Blondi, was there. Hitler fed her from time to time with pieces of dry bread. Linge, the servant who waited on us, came and went silently. The rare occasion had arisen on which it would be possible to tackle and perhaps to solve thorny problems. After a few opening remarks the conversation turned on the military situation.

I brought up the matter of the Allied landings in the West which were to be expected for the coming spring, and remarked that our reserves at present available to meet them were insufficient. In order to free more forces it was essential that a stronger defence be established on the Eastern Front.

I expressed my astonishment that apparently no thought had been given to providing our front there with a backbone in the form of field fortications and a defensive zone in our rear.

Specifically it seemed to me that the reconstruction of the old German and Russian frontier fortications would offer us better defensive possibilities than did the system of declaring open towns as ‘strong points’- which declarations, incidentally, usually came at the last moment when it was too late to take measures which would justify the phrase. With these remarks I soon saw that I had stirred up a hornet’s nest.

‘Believe me! I am the greatest builder of fortications of all time. I built the West Wall; I built the Atlantic Wall. I have used so and so many tons of concrete. I know what the building of fortications involves.

On the Eastern Front we are short of labour, materials and transport. Even now the railways cannot carry enough supplies to satisfy the demands of the front. Therefore I cannot send trains to the East full of building materials.’

He had the figures at his finger-tips and, as usual, bluffed by reeling off exact statistics which his listener was not for the moment in a position to contradict.

All the same, I disagreed strongly. I knew that the railway bottle-neck only began beyond Brest-Litovsk and I tried to make clear to him that the building I had in mind would not affect transports travelling to the front, but only those going to the line of the Bug and the Niemen: that the railways were quite capable of shouldering this burden: that there could scarcely be a shortage of local building materials and local labour: and finally that it was only possible to wage war on two fronts with success if at least temporary inactivity could be assured on one front while the other was being stabilized. Since he had made such excellent preparations for the West there was no reason why he should not do likewise for the East.

Thus cornered, Hitler proceeded to bring out his much-repeated thesis, namely, that our generals in the East would think of nothing save withdrawal if he permitted the building of defensive positions or fortications in their rear. He had made up his mind on this point, and nothing could bring him to change it.

See Heinz Guderian: Panzer Leader

Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun with his German Shepherd dog Blondi, in 1942.
Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun with his German Shepherd dog Blondi, in 1942.

Morgenthau argues for direct action to help the Jews


13 January 1944: Morgenthau argues for direct action to help the Jews

Despite the fact that time is most precious in this matter, State Department officials have been kicking the matter around for over a year without producing results; giving all sorts of excuses for delays upon delays; advancing no specific proposals designed to rescue Jews, at the same time proposing that the whole refugee problem be “explored” by this Government and Intergovernmental Committees.

Although the Allies had substantial evidence of the Holocaust by 1944, the true scale of what the Nazis were doing was not fully realised until the camps were liberated and pictures emerged.  Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for "scientific" experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division. May 7, 1945. Lt. A. E. Samuelson. (Army)
Although the Allies had substantial evidence of the Holocaust by 1944, the true scale of what the Nazis were doing was not fully realised until the camps were liberated and pictures emerged.
Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for “scientific” experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division. May 7, 1945. Lt. A. E. Samuelson. (Army)

While Roosevelt was setting out his objectives for post war security, not every member of his administration was was confident that they were doing all they could to prevent current Nazi crimes against the Jews.

When US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the only Jewish member of Roosevelt’s cabinet, tried to establish mechanisms to assist Jews to leave Europe he ran into perceived obstruction from the State Department

Treasury officials John Pehle, Randolph Paul, and Josiah DuBois presented Morgenthau with an 18-page memorandum entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews” on January 13, 1944. The report formed the basis for Morgenthau’s discussion with Roosevelt on 16th January:

One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated.

This Government has for a long time maintained that its policy is to work out programs to serve those Jews of Europe who could be saved.

I am convinced on the basis of the information which is available to me that certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and wilful failure to act, but even of wilful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.

I fully recognize the graveness of this statement and I make it only after having most carefully weighed the shocking facts which have come to my attention during the last several months.

Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.

Although only part of the facts relating to the activities of the State Department in this field are available to us, sufficient facts have come to my attention from various sources during the last several months to fully support the conclusions at which I have arrived.

(1) State Department officials have not only failed to use the Governmental machinery at their disposal to rescue the Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews.

The public record, let alone the facts which have not as yet been made pubic, reveals the gross procrastination and wilful failure to act of those officials actively representing this Government in this field.

(a) A long time has passed since it became clear that Hitler was determined to carry out a policy of exterminating the Jews in Europe.

(b) Over a year has elapsed since this Government and other members of the United Nations publicly acknowledged and denounced this policy of extermination; and since the President gave assurances that the United States would make every effort together with the United Nations to save those who could be saved.

(c) Despite the fact that time is most precious in this matter, State Department officials have been kicking the matter around for over a year without producing results; giving all sorts of excuses for delays upon delays; advancing no specific proposals designed to rescue Jews, at the same time proposing that the whole refugee problem be “explored” by this Government and Intergovernmental Committees. While the State Department has been thus “exploring” the whole refugee problem, without distinguishing between those who are in imminent danger of death and those who are not, hundreds of thousands of Jews have been allowed to perish.

The full text of the report can be found at PBS American Experience Primary Reference.

As a consequence of the meeting President Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB) on January 22, 1944.

It is the policy of this government to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.

The War Refugee Board is estimated to have save the lives of around 200,000 Jews from eastern Europe by funding emigration.

The railway entrance to Auschwitz in January1945.
The railway entrance to Auschwitz in January1945.

A German soldier on the Eastern front reflects on life


12 January 1944: A German soldier on the Eastern front reflects on life

There was no end in sight. Yearning plunged into the distance; frost caught in my hair. Rushing passage, as on a sleigh in space. An intoxicating feeling came over me: a burgeoning sense of life, the limitless, exuberant pleasure of being in the world. The freedom of an hour in the Russian winterland. I loved life.

German soldiers in a night attack in the snow, Eastern Front, early 1944.
German soldiers in a night attack in the snow, Eastern Front, early 1944.

One of the central mysteries of the war is how so many educated, civilised, cultured people could be bent to the will of Hitler. Amongst the millions of German men serving on the Eastern there were plenty of reflective, sensitive souls caught up in the maelstrom.

We can only guess at how many of those men felt at the time, how many of them felt they were trapped fighting a losing battle. At the beginning of 1944 they had plenty to reflect upon, as their personal prospects of surviving the year began to look increasingly grim.

We have the account of one man – Willy Peter Reese. This is the last passage in his memoir. The only reason we have it is that he was granted leave, shortly after his sleigh ride on 12th January 1944. He went home and wrote these last thoughts, leaving them with his parents. Then, aged 23, he returned to the front for the last time. He never came home:

We moved out once more. The Russians had broken through. We could hear the sounds of a battle to the rear of us. We marched.

We wandered through the smoke and flames of Momoshino. Fires were reflected in the snow. The night gleamed bloodred. We stopped at daybreak, and in the evening we moved into position in a wood near Malo-Krassnitza. I became a runner and had more sleep and more time.

A light conifer wood. We were near its edge, under continual fire from machine guns and shells. The Russians didn’t attack, and one of our storm troops got no farther than no-man’s-land.

The winter grew severe. Hoarfrost ornamented the trees, like the soul of the twigs, suddenly made visible. I loved the wood; the snow on fir and pine in golden sun, hoarfrost on full-moon nights, and a baffling disquiet often sent me out at night. I loved life, winter, and danger. It was as though I were now bringing in the harvest of a long and productive time.

I had become an adventurer, a wandering mendicant, a vagabond. The war sent me hither and thither like chaff; there seemed no end to my wanderings. But I loved life, winter, and peril. Whatever I lost was really gain. What I saw in loneliness and grief acquired a magical meaning. Whatever I had failed to do was completed, only bigger, and whatever I beheld struck me as being my own work. I stood there calmly, the earth fell into my open hands, and God was near to me. Time and eternity rushed past me. I loved life.

Sleigh rides. I flew through the forest. The wind blew and soughed in the branches, the horses panted, and the night became a dreamy, drunken revel. Frightened travelers jumped aside; a dusting of snow flew up. The runners creaked and crunched. A bold song was on my lips. Like clouds and stars, I chased through the sleeping land, plain, solitude, ravished by youth and speed.

There was no end in sight. Yearning plunged into the distance; frost caught in my hair. Rushing passage, as on a sleigh in space. An intoxicating feeling came over me: a burgeoning sense of life, the limitless, exuberant pleasure of being in the world. The freedom of an hour in the Russian winterland. I loved life.

Years charged by, death wheeled over the earth, God and his stars perished in the West, and there was war on earth. I was a soldier in danger and in pain, a wanderer, a traveler in space. But I loved life.

See Willy Peter Reese: A Stranger to Myself.

German troops march past a Tiger tank, somewhere on the Eastern front, January 1944.
German troops march past a Tiger tank, somewhere on the Eastern front, January 1944.