German propaganda seeks to divide the Allies

A variation on the theme of " over-sexed, over-paid, and over-here" that was sometimes used to characterise US troops in Britain.
A variation on the theme of ” over-sexed, over-paid, and over-here” that was sometimes used to characterise US troops in Britain.

The struggle at Anzio began to stabilise as the lines between the opposing armies became more established. Not only were those caught on the beachhead exposed to intermittent shelling, they also faced a determined propaganda campaign. The German ‘Radio Roma’ played popular music intermingled with subversive messages.

BBC War Correspondent Wynford Vaughan Thomas collected the propaganda leaflets that burst over the beachhead from shellfire and littered the area:

In the first days of the German counter-attack the pamphlets were obviously ‘rush jobs’, hurriedly printed to put over the ‘facts’ about the battle, of which the front-line soldier was presumed to be ignorant. One of the earliest ones said:

British soldiers, you are fighting against an opponent you know very well. You are not facing Italians but Germans. As gallant soldiers you have had the occasion to become acquainted with the courage and the grit of your German opponent.

You know how well the Germans stood up in battle, although they were always inferior to you in number. But you know well enough what it means when the Germans are numerically equal to your own forces or even superior.

In the face of insurmountable odds a thousand men of crack British Guards surrendered.

If they were forced to do so, then it is not dishonourable for you to lay down arms in case you are facing nothing but certain death.

The other side of the pamphlet harped away at the theme of inefficient American leadership:

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE PUT UNDER AMERICAN COMMAND YOUR FORCES ARE FINDING OUT AT NETTUNO.

The ‘accomplishments’ of this American leadership are indeed typically American: operations were insufficiently prepared and led to the most dreadful reverses for your troops. Your picked units were carelessly thrown into the battle. CERTAINLY, THE YANKS PLAYED YOU A NASTY TURN.

Another early pamphlet adopted a more threatening tone. It warned the British soldiers that unless they laid down their arms they would be swept into the sea.

What happened to the British 1st Division on February 4th was only a prelude. The same fate may be in store for you.

Americans and British were included in the same warning on a few occasions.

Remember the Hell of Dunkirk? How great were the hopes of the British expeditionary force and how dreadful was the end! Think of the terrible hours when the German broom swept your fellow soldiers, tanks, guns and lorries off the continent. How many ships were sunk then and how many brave Tommies kicked the bucket! AND NOW THE HELL OF NETTUNO

Boy! What a hot reception the American and British forces got this time again! The beaches at Nettuno are covered in the Dunkirk fashion with debris and dead American and British soldiers crushed by the German military machine.

Overleaf was a crude drawing of a dead soldier, clutching a broken flag and floating in the water amongst sinking ships.

See Wynford Vaughan-Thomas: Anzio

Nettuno was one of the two ports in the Anzio area.
Nettuno was one of the two ports in the Anzio area.

The Red Army marches across Ukraine

As the seasonal thaw came both sides found themselves restricted by road that dissolved into mud.
As the seasonal thaw came both sides found themselves restricted by roads that dissolved into mud.
Every year the climate brought the fighting to a virtual standstill.
Every year the climate brought the fighting to a virtual standstill.

Despite Hitler’s exhortations for no retreats the Wehrmacht was now falling back rapidly across the Soviet Union. In many places there was little or no resistance – by the end of the month the Red Army would reach Romania and Poland.

The Soviet Army in pursuit was by no means an overwhelming force. It may have been bolstered by Lend Lease supplies and equipment but for the conditions for the infantryman on the ground were very rudimentary. Platoon commander Evgeni Bessonov paints a rather grim picture of the progress that they made in the first few weeks of March, before they met with German resistance again:

At first our battalion did not encounter any resistance from the enemy The Germans were quickly abandoning their positions. In some places they would leave some outposts, but we would quickly defeat them.

The terrain was open, without trees, cut by ravines and with a large number of settlements.That year spring came early to the Ukraine, and spring rain showers washed away the earth roads, making them hardly passable even for tanks, not to mention the wheeled vehicles.

We had to walk on foot. That was where soldiers and officers suffered hellish pain — heavy mud stuck to our boots and we could barely drag our feet out of the sticky quagmire. Many soldiers carried machine—guns, boxes with ammo, mortars and mines.

It was at least good that the battalion commander had ordered that the gas masks be left behind and appointed an ofcer who was to turn them over to the Brigades warehouse. Seemingly, a gas mask did not weigh much, but if one had to march on foot from dawn till dusk or even till midnight or next dawn, doing some 16 hours of marching, even a needle would seem heavy.

Besides that, we could not always have a normal meal — the battalion kitchen was stuck in the dirt somewhere and could not catch up with us. It was impossible to find a dry spot during breaks, we had to sit down right in the dirt and immediately fell asleep for 10 or 15 minutes. Some soldiers even fell asleep while walking from exhaustion. One should not forget that most of the soldiers were just 18 years old.

We only survived on food provided by the population of the villages that we liberated from the Germans. At night and very rarely during the day we would make one-and-a—half- or two-hour stops in those villages to have a snack with what God had in store for us.

The population welcomed us warmly, regardless of how hard it was for them to provide food to soldiers; they always found some nice treats — some villagers boiled chicken, others boiled potatoes and cut lard (soldiers dubbed this kind of catering ‘a grandmother’s ration’).

However, such attitudes were common only in the Eastern Ukraine. As soon as we entered the Western Ukraine, that had passed to the Soviet Union from Poland in 1940, the attitude of the population was quite different — people hid from us in their houses, as they disliked and feared the Muscovites and Kastaps (a disparaging name for Russians in Ukraine – translators comment).

Besides that, those places were Bandera areas, where the nationalistic movement was quite strong. They were not very eager to give us food and they could hardly ‘find’ food for us: usually it was millet and potatoes. As a rule, they would say in Ukrainian: ‘We do not have anything, the Germans took it all.’

In some cases I had to act severely and took tough measures on the villagers in order to feed five or seven soldiers. I had a German hand-grenade with a long handle without a fuse; if the house owners refused to feed the soldiers, I would say something like this: ‘The Germans (Schwabs) destroyed our field kitchen, if you do not boil potatoes, the grenade explodes in an hour (or half an hour).’ This argument helped a lot!

Of course, now this behaviour does not look very humane, but I did not have any other choice. From my point of view this was the ‘middle way’ — we did not loot the villages, but on the other hand, soldiers did not starve.

However, the main problem was not exhaustion, not hard conditions, not even the absence of regular food (the battalion kitchen never showed up), but the fact that the battalion went into action with almost no ammo and grenades.This was a tragedy for us. Most of the ammo and grenades we spent in heavy fighting for Voitovtsy, Poidvolochinsk and Volochinsk.

A rifle without ammo is just a stick. It was the only time during the war, when I screwed up and my platoon was left without ammo — I never allowed this to happen again.

See Evgeni Bessonov: Tank Rider: Into the Reich with the Red Army

The Germans still left a trail of destruction behind them.
The Germans still left a trail of destruction behind them.
This "Schienenwolf" or Rail Wolf was a simple but effective method of destroying the railways, the only viable means of transporting goods at this time of year.
This “Schienenwolf” or Rail Wolf was a simple but effective method of destroying the railways, the only viable means of transporting goods at this time of year.
The hook of the "Schienenwolf".
The hook of the “Schienenwolf”.
Destructive trails were as complete as the time allowed.
Destructive trails were as complete as the time allowed.

Survival in Auschwitz – understand the system

The Nazi concentration camp system ran on a  system of brutality that had been refined ever since they had established camps for their political enemies when they first gained power.
The Nazi concentration camp system ran on a system of brutality that had been refined ever since they had established camps for their political enemies when they first gained power.

With the German takeover of Italy in September of 1943 conditions rapidly worsened for the Jewish population. Although Mussolini had run anti-semitic policies which made life very difficult for Jews, the Italian state had not pursued and persecuted them with the same zeal as the Nazis. Now Jews were being deported to Germany and to the deaths camps in Poland.

Primo Levi managed to avoid detention for a few months but was caught by the Italian militia after a short spell with the Partisans in the hills. Conditions in his Italian run detention camp were basic but the rations were adequate and the regime was not lethal by design, as in the German camps. All that changed on the 21st February when the Germans took over and deported the Jewish inmates by rail car to Auschwitz.

Levi was sent to Monowitz, one of the Auschwitz sub camps. The average survival time for a Jewish inmate was about three months. To survive meant learning fast about the rules of life and death in this inhuman hell.

Levi was to be an exception because he had the inner strength, and the luck, not only to survive but to live to tell the tale afterwards. His capacity to tell that tale established him as one of the great individual chroniclers of Holocaust:

We had soon learned that the guests of the Lager are divided into three categories: the criminals, the politicals and the Jews. All are clothed in stripes, all are Haftlinge [detainees], but the criminals wear a green triangle next to the number sewn on the jacket; the politicals wear a red triangle; and the Jews, who form the large majority, wear the Jewish star, red and yellow.

SS men exist but are few and outside the camp, and are seen relatively infrequently. Our effective masters in practice are the green triangles, who have a free hand over us, as well as those of the other two categories who are ready to help them – and they are not few.

And we have learnt other things, more or less quickly, according to our intelligence: to reply “Jawohl,” never to ask questions, always to pretend to understand.

We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose the crumbs. We, too, know that it is not the same thing to be given a ladleful of soup from the top or from the bottom of the vat, and we are already able to judge, according to the capacity of the various vats, what is the most suitable place to try and reach in the queue when we line up.

We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap around our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad out our jacket against the cold. We have learnt, on the other hand, that everything can be stolen, in fact is automatically stolen as soon as attention is relaxed; and to avoid this, we had to learn the art of sleeping with our head on a bundle made up of our jacket and containing all our belongings, from the bowl to the shoes.

We already know in good part the rules of the camp, which are incredibly complicated. The prohibitions are innumerable: to approach nearer to the barbed wire than two yards; to sleep with one’s jacket, or without one’s pants, or with one’s cap on one’s head; to use certain washrooms or latrines which are “nur fir Kapos” or “nur fir Reichsdeutsche”; not to go for the shower on the prescribed day, or to go there on a day not prescribed; to leave the hut with one’s jacket unbuttoned, or with the collar raised; to carry paper or straw under one’s clothes against the cold; to wash except stripped to the waist.

The rites to be carried out were infinite and senseless: every morning one had to make the “bed” perfectly flat and smooth; smear one’s muddy and repellent wooden shoes with the appropriate machine grease; scrape the mudstains off one’s clothes (paint, grease and rust-stains were, however, permitted); in the evening one had to undergo the control for lice and the control of washing one’s feet; on Saturday, have one’s beard and hair shaved, mend or have mended one’s rags; on Sunday, undergo the general control for skin diseases and the control of buttons on one’s jacket, which had to be five.

See Primo Levi: If This Is a Man / The Truce, published in America as Primo Levi: Survival In Auschwitz.

Red triangle: political prisoners: social democrats, socialists, trade unionists, Freemasons, communists, and anarchists. Green triangle: "professional criminals" (convicts, often working in the camps as Kapos). Blue triangle: foreign forced laborers, emigrants. Purple triangle: Jehovah's Witnesses and other Bible Student groups. Pink triangle: sexual offenders, mostly homosexual men but rarely rapists, zoophiles and paedophiles. Black triangle: people who were deemed "asocial elements" and "work shy" including: Roma (Gypsies), who were later assigned a brown triangle, the mentally ill, Alcoholics, Vagrants and beggars, Pacifists, Conscription resisters, Lesbians, Prostitutes, some anarchists, Drug addicts. Brown triangle: Roma (Gypsies) (previously wore the black triangle). Uninverted red triangle—an enemy POW, spy or a deserter.
Red triangle: political prisoners: social democrats, socialists, trade unionists, Freemasons, communists, and anarchists.
Green triangle: “professional criminals” (convicts, often working in the camps as Kapos).
Blue triangle: foreign forced laborers, emigrants.
Purple triangle: Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Bible Student groups.
Pink triangle: sexual offenders, mostly homosexual men but rarely rapists, zoophiles and paedophiles.
Black triangle: people who were deemed “asocial elements” and “work shy” including: Roma (Gypsies), who were later assigned a brown triangle, the mentally ill, Alcoholics, Vagrants and beggars, Pacifists, Conscription resisters, Lesbians, Prostitutes, some anarchists, Drug addicts.
Brown triangle: Roma (Gypsies) (previously wore the black triangle).
Uninverted red triangle—an enemy POW, spy or a deserter.

Anzio – searching through the pockets of the dead

'Anzio Beach-head, Italy! German dead lying in gulley where they attempted to break through Allied lines at night to cut a vital Allied road junction.' Signal Corps  6 March 1944
‘Anzio Beach-head, Italy! German dead lying in gulley where they attempted to break through Allied lines at night to cut a vital Allied road junction.’ Signal Corps 6 March 1944
Captain W Guest-Gordons, Intelligence Officer with No. 2 Infantry Brigade, examines a German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon, Anzio, 27 February 1944.
Captain W Guest-Gordons, Intelligence Officer with No. 2 Infantry Brigade, examines a German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon, Anzio, 27 February 1944.

On the Anzio beachhead everyone was either on the frontline or just behind it, the depth of ground held by the Allies was only a few miles at its greatest extent, and everyone was under threat from shellfire. There were a number of caves and the basements of buildings which provided relatively good sleeping accommodation, secure against most shells except for a direct hit. But most had to chance it, including the wounded in tented hospitals waiting to be evacuated.

Charles F. Marshall ran the daily gauntlet to the Intelligence Corps field base, on one occasion seeing the truck in front of him blown up by a direct hit. He had arrived in early February and had been shocked by the bodies piled up near to the beach. As a fluent German speaker (his parents were German speaking Hungarians who emigrated to America) he was a natural for Intelligence duties. He headed a section devoted to examining captured German documents:

The greater the butchery, the larger was the capture of documents. I was always a bit repulsed when handed a batch of bloody papers with a buck slip reading, “From good Germans — dead ones.” This was our Third Infantry Division’s trademark. The study of documents was engrossing work, because one never knew what one would find. There was also a tantalizing element: In which batch would we hit the jackpot? Meticulous examination leavened by serendipity and voila! There it could be!

Most of the document perusal was done by the sergeants, three of whom were native-born Germans and one an American of German ancestry. They sorted the wheat from the chaff. Any papers or maps they thought might have value were culled out for my evaluation. When the fighting was particularly heavy and there were many dead and wounded and large batches of prisoners, the document haul was so large it was brought in mailbags.

Even at such times, when we felt like miners panning a ton of silt to find an ounce of gold, our searches were never haphazard, but as thorough as time would permit. Consequently, a significant amount of shelling and bombing was not willy-nilly, as it may have appeared to the frontline soldier, but directed at targets ferreted out by behind-the-line intelligence.

For us laborers in the vineyards of intelligence, some aspects of our work were unpleasant. Bloody documents were no joy to inspect. And when they were both bloody and wet, which was often, because so much of the weather during the fighting was rainy, they were particularly revolting. Sometimes they were not removed from the fallen soldier’s pockets until he had lain dead for days in a rain-drenched field or ditch.

Yet, onerous though our task was, we intelligence personnel could not get rid of these papers without examining them, lest there be a clue in them as to how to kill more of the enemy and, conversely, cut American and British losses. As recompense for our slightly sheltered lives at field headquarters,we felt a moral obligation to the frontline soldier to do a conscientious job so as to shorten his travail and possibly save his life. That was our motivation. No matter how bloody and wet the document, no matter how repulsive, it was scrutinized. It just might be that nugget of gold.

Before eating, and at times at considerable inconvenience, I scrubbed my hands thoroughly, not only for sanitary reasons, but to get rid of that odor of death that, no matter how much I scrubbed, seemed to linger with an irritating pervasiveness.

We thought then, and I still think now, that we were making a signicant contribution to the battle to undo Hitler. Our work revealed that Germany was running so short of manpower that sixteen and seventeen-year-old kids were being drafted and given only two months of basic training before being thrown into the front lines. This policy was criminal.

Sometimes I felt like weeping as I went through their papers and pictures. To my parents I wrote: “They’re not soldiers. They’re just children in uniform. They are now pulling their kids directly from the Hitler Jugend. I can’t help wondering how long before they take them from the kindergarten. I don’t see how Germany can go on much longer. We have overwhelming air power, manpower, and production.”

The Hitler Jugend was more or less similar to our Boy Scouts, although rigidly organized, supercially trained militarily, and politically oriented. Most German boys carried enough documentation to write their biographies. Among the items they surrendered were their wallets, birth certicates, baptismal certicates, family pictures, pictures of their girl-friends or wives, diaries, driving licenses, and any of a hundred more or less standard items — including as a rule a batch of personal letters.

Some carried nude pictures of their wives or sweethearts, stimulating reminders of the joys awaiting their return. One PW had half a dozen seductively posed shots that, according to the letter found with them, had been taken by the woman’s father. Such photos, triggering salivating appraisals, lightened the day’s chores and were gleefully passed around, getting as much critical inspection as a captured map.

See Charles F. Marshall: A Ramble Through My War: Anzio and Other Joys

German POWs captured north of Anzio, 31 January 1944.
German POWs captured north of Anzio, 31 January 1944.
Two captured German paratroopers carrying a wounded British soldier who had lost a foot on a mine.
Two captured German paratroopers carrying a wounded British soldier who had lost a foot on a mine.

Beaten to death for teaching children

For a brief period the Japanese managed to gain control of their Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere - in which they were the dominant partner.
For a brief period the Japanese managed to gain control of their ‘Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ – in which they were the dominant partner.

While the dreadful experiences of troops captured by the Japanese are relatively well known from a variety of memoirs from the Burma-Thailand ‘death’ railway and elsewhere, the experiences of civilians interned by the Japanese are less well chronicled.

The suffering of ordinary civilians – men, women and children, at the hands of the Japanese was widespread. Sometimes it is argued that the Japanese contempt for POWs stemmed from the fact that that they had surrendered. Yet there was an equal brutality towards civilians who had simply been caught up in the war, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There were many European families spread through the Dutch East Indies, now largely Indonesia. The Kristensen family were from Norway and had settled in Java. In the middle of 1942 they were rounded up, along will all the other Europeans. Routine brutality, meagre rations and squalid living conditions were to be the circumstances of their prison camp existence.

Lise Kristensen was 10 years old in 1944. The Japanese had forbidden any form of lessons for the children, learning Japanese was all that was needed for the “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. The Japanese guards were usually absent from the compound in the early part of the morning, so three young Dutch women had volunteered to hold informal lessons for them in the Church within the compound, discreetly away from Japanese eyes. It would be risky if the Japanese found out. They did not know how risky:

One day we were having a lesson on England when the Japanese guards burst through the doors on the opposite side of the church. We had drawn the shape of the map of the British Isles, and had separated the outline into the countries of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. I was beginning to colour in Wales with a deep-red crayon when I heard a commotion behind me.

The guards were running along the back of the church towards us. Miss Helena was desperately trying to gather up the pencils and paper and instinctively I dived under the benches to get out of the way. I lay cowering on the floor, watching those horrible black boots kicking out at the children who had not managed to get out of the way, stamping on the crayons and pencils. I screwed my eyes tight shut and covered my ears.

When I opened my eyes, I could see the shape of Miss Helena being dragged along the floor towards the door to the garden. She was crying and her face was covered in blood, I lay under the benches until the guards had gone. Almost immediately the cry of tenko [summoning the prisoners to parade] came from outside.

I caught up with Mama in the garden as we rushed towards the line that was beginning to form. Mama checked that we all had our numbers attached and we took our place on parade. Miss Helena was not in the line; she was standing between two Japs who were facing us. After a short delay a Japanese ofncer turned up. I watched my dear teacher’s face as he approached us. She looked very, very frightened as the blood mixed with her tears.

‘Prisoner not follow orders,’ he boomed in a voice that almost shook the foundations of the church. ‘No school,’ he continued. ‘Only school in Japanese. Prisoner must be punished’

He nodded at one of the guards. The man took a step forward and raised his rifle high into the air. With all his strength he hammered it into the side of Miss Helena’s head. The side of her face split open and she immediately fell to the floor.

A pool of blood formed on the ground and the sight of it caused one of the ladies to faint. Women around me were crying and the children who had been at Miss Helena’s school only a few minutes before buried their faces in their mothers’ clothing.

I watched. I looked on in utter disbelief, but I kept watching because I wanted Miss Helena to stand and because I wanted it to be over. Incredibly I noticed a slight movement in my teacher’s eyes. The officer noticed it, too, and signalled once again to the soldiers, who helped her to her feet. She was very wobbly but eventually the soldiers stood back when she was able to stand on her own.

She held the side of her head as the blood seeped from between her fingers. I don’t think I could ever have imagined that much blood coming from such a wound. It covered her blouse and her skirt and fell in drops onto the dry earth. I couldn’t believe the blow to her head had not killed her, but she stood still and, although she was crying, I could see she was getting stronger by the second.

The Japanese officer nodded his head to one of the soldiers, who repeatedly and viciously attacked her with his rifle until she collapsed in a heap once again. I made an attempt to run forward and tell them to stop, but Mama hugged me tight around the shoulders and refused to let me go. Then the other soldier joined in with his boot.

I covered my eyes but could not block out the noise. The sounds of the two soldiers kicking and hitting her went on and on and, although I had nothing in my stomach, I felt sick. They beat her for a full minute; they beat her until she moved no more. I uncovered my eyes… They had beaten her to a pulp; she didn’t stir.

By now the line of women and children were hysterical; the screams and shouts echoed around the compound as the guards dragged Miss Helena away. The officer delivered a lecture about obedience and punishment, then dismissed us.

The incident is undated in the memoirs of Lise Kristensen: The Blue Door: A little girl’s incredible story of survival in the Japanese POW camps of Java, but appears to have taken place in early 1944.

Japanese paratroopers during the invasion of Sumatra in February 1942, before the invasion of Java.
Japanese paratroopers during the invasion of Sumatra in February 1942, before the invasion of Java.

The plans for Overlord come together

On the sunny doorstep of their home in Burton Bradstock, Police Constable Trevett introduces the Welch family to their new lodger. T/5 J B Reilly (of 302 N Burgher Avenue, Staten Island, New York) is being billeted with Mr and Mrs S J Welch and their daughter Margaret. Although there is an American army camp in Burton Bradstock, many of the GIs are billeted with local families.
On the sunny doorstep of their home in Burton Bradstock, Police Constable Trevett introduces the Welch family to their new lodger. T/5 J B Reilly (of 302 N Burgher Avenue, Staten Island, New York) is being billeted with Mr and Mrs S J Welch and their daughter Margaret. Although there is an American army camp in Burton Bradstock, many of the GIs are billeted with local families.
Mary Malcolm (from North Adams, Massachusetts) of the American Red Cross and driver Steve Wilczynski (from Omaha, Nebraska) collect flowers from the American Information Bureau in Winchester to take to the American hospital, also in Winchester. The flowers have been collected from local gardens for this purpose. The various signs on the windows of the Bureau read "The services of this bureau are placed at the disposal of all members of the USA forces. Information and advice on travelling and hospitality will be readily given"; "Canadians we are at your service"; and "Americans welcome to this city". The Bureau is housed in what was once the shop of the J R Wood Coal and Coke Company Ltd.
Mary Malcolm (from North Adams, Massachusetts) of the American Red Cross and driver Steve Wilczynski (from Omaha, Nebraska) collect flowers from the American Information Bureau in Winchester to take to the American hospital, also in Winchester. The flowers have been collected from local gardens for this purpose. The various signs on the windows of the Bureau read “The services of this bureau are placed at the disposal of all members of the USA forces. Information and advice on travelling and hospitality will be readily given”; “Canadians we are at your service”; and “Americans welcome to this city”. The Bureau is housed in what was once the shop of the J R Wood Coal and Coke Company Ltd.

At the beginning of January General Montgomery had arrived back in England and had reviewed the Overlord plans for the invasion of Europe. He immediately insisted that they be expanded – and the Omaha and Utah landing areas were added to the plan. After approval by Eisenhower, SHAEF’s (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) Initial Joint Plan had gone out to the two allied Armies for development at the beginning of February.

Omar Bradley headed the US First Army and during this period he oversaw some intensive staff work. Meanwhile Operation Bolero was accelerating. The build up of US troops in Britain had begun very modestly in 1942. Now there were over a million US service men and women in the UK, and over half a million more would join them before June.

There were still many issues to be resolved, not least a shortage of landing craft to take the invasion force across the Channel. Nevertheless Bradley was confident that the plan was taking shape:

Of all the invasion plans, and there were plans for each echelon in the chain of command, none were more intricate, more detailed, and weightier than those of the assault Armies. When on February 25, 1944, we completed the First Army plan for OVERLORD and called for the corps to come into the picture, we stitched together a huge mimeographed volume with more words than Gone with the Wind. In all, 324 complete copies of this limited edition were published by First Army.

On D day alone, First Army was to put ashore the equivalent of more than 200 trainloads of troops. By D plus 14 the U.S. build-up would more than double the strength of the U. S. Army at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Within two weeks after crashing the wall we would have landed enough vehicles to form a double column from Pittsburgh to Chicago.

The more than 55,000 men who were to assault the American beaches on D day came from approximately 200 individual units – ranging from a division of 14,000 men to a photographic team of two. Every individual, every vehicle, had become part of a monstrous jigsaw puzzle that was to be disassembled for ferrying across the Channel and then reassembled on the far shore.

The equipment we were to carry varied from 120-foot steel span bridges to sulpha pills. It even included fresh drinking water: 300,500 gallons of it for the first three days ashore.

To Thorson, our G-8, and Wilson, G-4, there fell the onerous task of monitoring priorities on this lift. Thorson controlled the allocation of combat vehicles and personnel while Wilson controlled the supply and service units. Within a month they had become harassed men. For rare was the individual who did not believe that unless he were landed on D day, OVERLORD could not succeed.

To make room for troops, services, and weapons supporting the assault units it became necessary to prune from every command all but its most essential transportation. As a result, even the 1st Division was pared down from its normal complement to fewer than half its vehicles. When an officer of the division complained, Tubby simply growled back, “Look, my friend, you’re not going very far on D day. If you find yourself stumped because you’re short on trucks, just call for me and I’ll piggyback you to Paris.”

See Omar N. Bradley: A Soldier’s Story.

Betty 'Freckles' Mackay and Chris Kerley stand outside the cookhouse of the American camp at Burton Bradstock, Dorset and drink the cocoa they have just been given by Corporal David Roberts (of RR4 Albia, Iowa), who is leaning out of the window to chat to them. According to the original caption, these two children are big favourites in the camp and call at the cookhouse regularly after school. Betty's nickname was given to her by the GIs.
Betty ‘Freckles’ Mackay and Chris Kerley stand outside the cookhouse of the American camp at Burton Bradstock, Dorset and drink the cocoa they have just been given by Corporal David Roberts (of RR4 Albia, Iowa), who is leaning out of the window to chat to them. According to the original caption, these two children are big favourites in the camp and call at the cookhouse regularly after school. Betty’s nickname was given to her by the GIs.
The Great Panjandrum at Westward Ho!, an abortive attempt at beach clearing. One the British innovations for the invasion that was not adopted, the rocket powered device was intended to blow up mines on enemy beaches.
The Great Panjandrum at Westward Ho!, an abortive attempt at beach clearing. One of the British innovations for the invasion that was not adopted, the rocket powered device was intended to blow up mines on enemy beaches.

“Big week” – daily USAAF raids on German factories

Ford B-24H-25-FO Liberator 42-95051 before being handed over to the 445th BG 702nd BS. This B-24 was shot down May 8, 1944 over Frankfurt Germany, all crew KIA.
Ford B-24H-25-FO Liberator 42-95051 before being handed over to the 445th BG 702nd BS. This B-24 was shot down May 8, 1944 over Frankfurt Germany, all crew KIA.
A photograph taken during the 24th February raid on Gotha.
A photograph taken during the 24th February raid on snow covered Gotha.

While the Luftwaffe bombers attempted to hit London the combined forces of the RAF and the USAAF were making the reverse trip to Germany. In Operation Argument the USAAF made sustained attacks on the German aircraft factories during the day, at the same time luring the Luftwaffe fighters into combat with the long range escort fighters of the USAAF. At night the RAF hit the same or complementary targets.

The attacks began on the 20th February and became known as “Big Week’, and were largely successful, despite losses of around 7% to the Allies. Hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters were claimed as shot down, leading to intelligence claims that this single week had eliminated them from battle and had achieved air superiority for Operation Overlord, one of the objectives of the operation.

Later evaluations put the figure at 355 fighters shot down and 100 Luftwaffe pilots killed, around 17% of the total. The was a very significant dent in their capability, especially as Luftwaffe losses were largely irreplaceable, whereas the Allied bomber fleets continued to grow.

Col. Myron Keilman was flying deputy lead for the 392nd, on the raid that earned them the Distinguished Unit Citation. On the 24th they targeted the Messerschmitt airplane plant at Gotha:

Our briefing for the attack on Gotha was at 0630 hours. It was our group’s fortieth mission; so we took it all in stride. To most of us it meant another mission to be accomplished against a total of twenty-five – then back home to the safety of the ZI (Zone of Interior). Remember? The intelligence officer briefed on the importance of the big plant to German’s ability to carry on the air war; on the fact that it was heavily defended by big 88 and 110 millimeter anti-aircraft artillery like we faced over Bremen. Keil, and Wilhelmshaven, and we were certain to encounter heavy fighter attacks all across enemy territory – 400 miles in and 400 miles out.

After drawing our escape and evasion kits, donning our heated flying suits, gathering up our oxygen masks, flak helmets, maywests, and parachutes we climbed aboard 2 1/2 ton trucks for a cold ride to our airplanes dispersal pad. It was still very dark as we made our airplane inspection, checking all the engine cowling for loose Dzus fasteners; the turbines of the super-chargers; the propeller blades and pushed them through to release any piston hydraulic lock; the fuel cells for being “topped-off’ and their caps for security; the guns and turrets; ammunition quantity of 500 rounds for each of the ten 50 caliber machine guns; the Sperry bombsight; the twelve 500 pound bombs, their shackles, fuses and safety wires; the oxygen supply and regulators; signal flares; camera; and many other things. Remember?

At 0810 we started engines. At 0815 the lead ship taxied to take-off position. At 0830 the green flare from the control tower signaled “Take Off!” It was breaking dawn.

Lead crew pilot Jim McGregor “revved-up” his engines, checked the instruments, released the brakes and rolled. Thirty-one B-24Hs followed at thirty second intervals.

In the clear at 12,000 feet, the lead ship fired red-yellow identification flares. Flying deputy lead, I pulled into position on his left wing, and the group formed over radio beacon “21” into three squadrons. Then it flew the wing triangular assembly pattern to Kings Lynn.

Leading the 14th Combat Wing, we fell into number two position of the 2nd Air Divisions bomber stream over Great Yarmouth. Heading east over the Channel and climbing to 18,000 feet, our gunners test fired their guns. We penetrated enemy territory just north of Amsterdam. At 235 miles an hour true air speed over the Zider Zee, our streaming vapor trails signaled our presence and our intent. It was a thrilling moment. Onward over Dummer Lake, past our future Osnabruck target, southeast past Hanover’s bombed-out airfields our big formations hurried.

Parallelling our course to the right were the B-17 formations of the 1st Air Division heading for their tough old ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. Over the North Sea, the 3rd Air Division “Forts” were enroute to their Baltic coast targets. P-47 fighters covered us to the vicinity of Hanover, then P-38s and P-51s orbited over us to Gotha. Luftwaffe fighters made attempts to penetrate our formations but “our little friends” kept them at a distance and, when opportunity prevailed, dove in for a “kill”. Using our thick vapor trails as a screen, the Germans often struck from below and from behind to shoot up any lagging bomber.

Bending south eastward toward Gotha, the white, snowy earth looked cold and lifeless; only the large communities, rail lines, and an autobahn stood out in relief. Fighter attacks became more persistent. By the time we reached our initial point (IP) to start our bomb run, the sky about our three squadrons was full of busy P-38s and P-51s fending off the Germans. I remember how they dove past the lead ship in pursuit of Messerschmitts and Folke-Wulfe making head on attacks. Our gunners got in a lot of shooting, too. The staccato of the turrets’ twin fifties vibrated throughout the airplane. It was real scary.

The weather was “clear as a bell” as we turned to the target. Red flares from the lead ship signaled “Bombbay Doors Open”. The bombardier removed the heated cover blanket from the bombsight. (Bombsights had heated blankets before people did. Remember?) He checked his gyroscope’s stabilization, and all bombing switches ON. Our high and low squadrons fell in-trail and all seemed great. Then Piotage Navigator Kennedy in the nose turret observed the lead wing formations veering from the target heading. A fast and anxious cross-check with Lead Crew Navigator Swangren and with a recheck of compass heading and reference points, they assured Command Pilot Lorin Johnson that the target was “dead ahead”. Thirty years later, I don’t know where the 2nd Air Division leader wound up, and I’ve forgotten which group and wing it was, but at that moment the 392nd, leading the 14th Combat Wing, was “on course – on target”. Within minutes Lead Bombardier Good called over the interphone, “I’ve got the target!” Lead Pilot McGregor checked his flight instruments for precise 18,000 feet altitude and 160 miles per hour indicated air speed, and carefully levelled the airplane on auto-pilot. Then he called back: “On airspeed, on altitude. You’ve got the airplane.” Making a final level of his bombsight, Good took over control of steering the airplane with the bombsight.

The bombardier’s target folder didn’t contain a snowy, winter view of the Messerschmitt Aircraft Works. He had to use his keen judgment and trained skills in discerning the briefed aiming point. Only his one eye peering through the bombsight optics could determine where to place the cross-hair. He could and did give a commentary to the command pilot and crew of what he saw and what he was doing in steering the lead airplane and formation of bombers to the bomb release point, but only he – the lead bombardier – “knew for sure” what was viewed through that bombsight.

At 18,000 feet, it was forty (40) degrees below zero, but the bombardier never felt the cold as his fingers delicately operated the azimuth and range controls. He cross-checked all the bomb and camera switches to the ON position, especially the radio bomb release (RBR) signal switch that would release all the bombs of the other airplanes in the formation simultaneously. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

When the flak started bursting near the formation, Lieutenant Good had already attained a synchronized bombing run with the wind drift “killed” and the cross-hair holding steady on the aiming point of the great manufacturing complex. The bombsight indicies crossed and “Bombs away!” Beautiful!

While the camera was recording the impact of the bombs, Lieutenant McGregor took over and swung the formation to the outbound heading and the rally point. In spite of the new accurate flak from the 88 and 110 millimeter anti-aircraft artillery, the second and third squadron bombardiers, Lt. Ziccarrilli and Lt. Jackson, steered their squadrons to the precise bomb delivery points, too. Of thirty-two B-24s that took off that morning, twenty-nine delivered 348 500-pound bomb’ precisely on the Gotha factory as briefed. Outstanding!

The bombs were smack “on target”, but the battle wasn’t over. No sooner had the wing left the target’s flak than we were accosted by German fighters again. Strung out in-trail and with some planes slowed down from flak damage, our three squadrons became vulnerable to vicious attacks. For the next hour and more, Messerschmitt, Folke Wulf and Junker fighters worked us over until our fighters could fend them off.

As deputy command pilot, I frequently changed off flying formation with the airplane commander to keep occupied and not have to watch the Jerries press their blazing gun attacks. The interphone was alive with excited calls of enemy action. Head on passes and tail attacks; in singles and in “gaggles”; rockets, 20mm cannon, and even some cables were thrown at us. Seven of our B-24s were shot down. Many of us were shot up, but it was not all one-sided. The gunners of the twenty-two airplanes that returned accounted for sixteen German fighters. At 1530, seven hours after take-off, the battle weary group landed back at Wendling. Eighth Air Force lost 50 bombers and 10 fighters; 155 German fighters were shot down.

Read the whole of this account on B24.Net, as well as details of the aircraft and losses on the mission. The Gotha raid is considered to be one of the longest single air battles of the war, with sustained attacks being made by the Luftwaffe fighters over a two and a half hour period.

Named "War Horse" Ford B-24H-1-FO Liberator s/n 42-7479 579th BS, 392nd BG, 8th AF This aircraft was lost on the January 4,1944 mission to Kiel,Germany. It is believed that she went down over the North Sea and the entire crew was KIA.
Named “War Horse”
Ford B-24H-1-FO Liberator s/n 42-7479 579th BS, 392nd BG, 8th AF
This aircraft was lost on the January 4,1944 mission to Kiel,Germany. It is believed that she went down over the North Sea and the entire crew was KIA.

The Presidential Unit Citation for the 392d Bombardment Group:

The 392d Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in armed conflict with the enemy on 24 February 1944.

The Group dispatched 32 B-24 type aircraft, the maximum number available, to bomb the most valuable single target in the enemy twin engine fighter complex, the aircraft and component parts factory at Gotha, Germany. Of these, one was forced to turn back shortly after take off. Flying as the lead group of the second Combat Wing in the Division formation, they were attacked by the enemy upon entering the Dutch Coast. In the bitter aerial battle that ensued, the Group was viciously attacked for over two and a half hours by approximately 150 enemy fighters, consisting of FW 190’s, ME 110’s, ME 210’s and JU 88’s, who raked them with cannon and rocket fire and even attempted air to air and cable bombing in a vain effort to disrupt the formation.

As the 392d Bombardment Group neared the Initial Point, the units of the lead Combat Wing were observed to be proceeding on divergent courses. The Group was faced with the decision to follow the lead units of the Air Division to a questionable target and maintain the integrity of the Division formation or to pursue a separate course that might later prove to be erroneous and which would expose the Group formation to even greater enemy attacks. The Group chose the latter, and maintaining perfect formation, valiantly fought its way through the flak defenses to bomb the target with pin-point accuracy, virtually destroying it.

Although seven of their aircraft were lost to the relentless enemy in the battle into and from the target, and an additional thirteen aircraft suffered battle damage, they accounted for the confirmed deatruction of sixteen enemy fighters, the probable destruction of one and the damage of five additional fighters.

The destruction of this high priority target was a serious blow to the GAF and was a contributing factor to its impotency in the invasion of Continental Europe.

The aggressive courage, determination to do their task at all costs, and combat efficiency of the air crews together with the professional skill and devotion to duty of the ground personnel of the 392d Bombardment Group (H) have reflected great credit on themselves and on the armed forces of the United States.

"Consolidated Mess" (E3-F) Douglas-Tulsa B-24H-5-DT Liberator s/n 41-28654 732nd BS, 453rd BG, 8th AF Photo taken on February 21,1944 mission to bomb the airfield at Achmer,Germany. Aircraft was reported as scrapped on June 24,1944 but was actually assigned to secret operations over Norway. Was shot down by "friendly" fire over Murmansk,USSR in September 1944.
“Consolidated Mess” (E3-F)
Douglas-Tulsa B-24H-5-DT Liberator
s/n 41-28654
732nd BS, 453rd BG, 8th AF
Photo taken on February 21,1944 mission to bomb the airfield at Achmer,Germany.
Aircraft was reported as scrapped on June 24,1944 but was actually assigned to secret operations over Norway. Was shot down by “friendly” fire over Murmansk,USSR in September 1944.

Londoners adjust to a nightly ‘Blitz’

Members of a family taking afternoon tea in their 'refuge room', using their Morrison shelter as a table, August 1941.
Members of a family taking afternoon tea in their ‘refuge room’, using their Morrison shelter as a table, August 1941.
Mr McGregor stands amidst the debris of his house, following a Baedeker Raid on York. The Morrison shelter which saved his life, and the life of his wife and lodger is visible under rubble to the right of the photograph.
Mr McGregor stands amidst the debris of his house, following a Baedeker Raid on York. The Morrison shelter which saved his life, and the life of his wife and lodger is visible under rubble to the right of the photograph.

The mini-Blitz now established itself as a regular nightly event in London. People had to re-accustom themselves to the business of air raid shelters, both indoors and outdoors. The Morrison shelter had been introduced in 1941, and despite its discomforts had proven itself as a life saver. Considered rather more secure but less comfortable were the public shelters, in some places available on every street.

George Beardmore’s diaries are particularly useful to historians of the period because he worked as a re-settlement officer for Harrow London Borough. He gives quite detailed descriptions of the process of helping those who were bombed out. Nevertheless he and his family were just as much at risk as anyone else:

23 February

The siren goes about 2 a.m. or at almost any time. It always wakes me. I rouse Jean, we leap into our outdoor things, and while Jean grabs a bagful of valuables and papers, I come down with Victoria in my arms, as often as not fast asleep, and we hurry out to the reinforced Shelter so conveniently placed near the front gate.

This has already been opened by the Fire Guard — normally it’s kept locked against lovers, and small boys taken short — our paraffin stove is lighted, and we settle down with our neighbours in the three-tier bunks. Other Fire Guards drift in — one night while somnolent we were all roused by the most appalling crash which turned out to have been a visiting Fire Guard’s steel helmet dropping onto the concrete floor — while outside the night becomes noisy with bangs, crackles, and rumbles rolling round the heavens.

The clouds light up with gun-flashes, flares, and path-finding cascades of light- globules nicknamed candelabras. Sometimes a green or dusky red ball comes floating through the clouds. Fires are started on the horizon while behind it the clouds glow a dusky red. A plane zooms overhead. Shrapnel cracks on the rooftops. And gradually the noise dies down and the lights go out. Meanwhile I have been praying that the bombs will fall outside the Urban District because we have our hands full. It makes one think of inner suburbs such as St John’s Wood, Islington, or Dalston. How are those local authorities coping?

Last night a spectacular local fire was started on Harrow Hill and — God, what an outrage! — the school tuck-shop was gutted. The noise was tremendous. We woke to learn that a high explosive had destroyed a bungalow in Rayners Lane, while two UXBs (unexploded bombs) have put 106 people out of their homes into the Corbin’s Lane Rest Centre.

The counter this morning is crowded with applicants for Morrison shelters. These are iron-plated cages with lattice sides, about nine feet by five by four, that one erects inside one’s home, preferably in the recess provided by the chimney-breast. But sometimes I see them outside, clear of buildings, why I don’t know, because they are intended to be furnished with mattress and pillows and slept in.

Also the wretched blitzed from the London inner boroughs come to implore us for help in finding a roof for them. We can’t because we have only a small and dwindling stock of requisitioned houses for the use of our own bombed. A fine balance has to be made between immediate requirements and what houses we have to keep in reserve for the future.

Naturally the situation lends itself to abuse and complaint, which our two women welfare workers bear as best they can. Actually, I deceived one of them by telling one customer, who convinced me that she had three children, a husband in the services, and had walked from the Elephant, to come back next day and say she had originally lived in Northolt, part of which comes under our care. Naughty of me. The rule is that one must never allow oneself to become personally involved.

This is written in the Fire Guards’ Room at Harrow Weald Lodge, knowing that tonight the circus will start up again and that I shan’t be at home to lend a hand. (And it did. All the Luftwaffe seemed to be overhead.)

See George Beardmore: Civilians at War: Journals, 1938-46.

Reverend Joseph Stephens sits on a bunk and chats to shelterers in the largest shelter in his parish.
Reverend Joseph Stephens sits on a bunk and chats to shelterers in the largest shelter in his parish. According to the original caption, the shelter holds 300 people and “when raids are bad the vicar holds short services in the shelter on Sunday evenings, arranges entertainment during the week”. The shelter marshall here is Mr Nightingale (aged 76). Mr Nightingales has lived in the parish for 50 years, regularly attends church and voluntarily trims the 100 yards of privet hedge in front of the church.
Women war workers use magnets to salvage nails from amongst the debris of a bomb-damaged factory, somewhere in Britain.
Women war workers use magnets to salvage nails from amongst the debris of a bomb-damaged factory, somewhere in Britain.

George Cross following munitions factory explosion

Mrs D Cheatle from Sheffield operating a capstan lathe at a munitions factory in Yorkshire during 1942.
Mrs D Cheatle from Sheffield operating a capstan lathe at a munitions factory in Yorkshire during 1942.
The War Effort: In an underground munitions factory at Liverpool, the Pressing Bay Forewoman, Mrs M Porter, gives out shell caps for pressing.
The War Effort: In an underground munitions factory at Liverpool, the Pressing Bay Forewoman, Mrs M Porter, gives out shell caps for pressing.

The war produced a seemingly insatiable appetite for ammunition of every type. The Ordnance factories expanded dramatically and became major employers for women, just as they had in the First World War. Although dominated by women a few men remained.

Arthur Bywater had tried to join the RAF at the beginning of the war but had been refused because of his expertise with ordnance. He was to rise to the occasion when an explosion killed one female worker early on the 22nd February 1944.

The citation for his award was remarkably brief, for reasons of wartime security, when little could be said about munitions factories:

The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to: — Richard Arthur Samuel Bywater, Factory Development Officer, Ministry of Supply Factory.

For outstanding heroism and devotion to duty when an explosion occurred in a factory.

London Gazette 26th September 1944

The most complete account of this incident comes from his obituary:

On February 22 1944, in one of the buildings of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Kirby, in Lancashire, 19 operatives, most of them women, were at work on the last stage of filling anti-tank mine fuzes. Each operative was working on a tray of 25 fuzes, and in the building at the time there were some 12,000 stacked on portable tables, each holding 40 trays, or 1,000 fuzes.

At 8.30 am that morning, one fuze exploded, immediately detonating the whole tray. The girl working on that tray was killed outright and her body disintegrated; two girls standing behind her were partly shielded from the blast by her body, but both were seriously injured, one fatally. The factory was badly damaged: the roof was blown off, electric fittings were dangling precariously; and one of the walls was swaying in the breeze.

The superintendent arrived with Bywater, his factory development officer. It seemed quite likely that the damaged fuzes, and others which could be faulty, might cause an even larger explosion. The high wind at the time, or any vibration, could set off further detonations over an area of half a mile.

Bywater cleared the building so that the maintenance crew could shore up the walls. He then volunteered to take on the dangerous task of removing all the fuzes to a place of safety where they could be dealt with.

Having selected some volunteers, he started at once. Bywater and his colleagues worked for three days moving the fuzes to a position close to the exit and then transporting them to a site about a mile away, where they were destroyed. By the end they had removed 12,724 fuzes from the factory.

Bywater gave instructions that he was to be given any fuzes that looked defective, and 23 were passed to him. On each occasion, he made his colleagues take cover while he removed the fuze and put it into a tray well away from the others. He then placed the tray on a rubber-tyred flat trolley and, with one colleague carrying a red flag 50 yards ahead, and another 50 yards behind, he slowly pushed the trolley to the destroying grounds.

There he personally laid out the fuzes in specially prepared pits. He placed sandbags on each of the pits and connected the electrical detonator and gun cotton primer. Not until he was certain that the operation had been made as safe as possible did he delegate to his colleagues the task of destruction, which went on for seven days a week for a month.

One fuze, Bywater judged, was in such a sensitive condition that it was too dangerous to be carried to the destruction site. He knew of two instances in which men trying to handle such a fuze had been blown to pieces. But to destroy the fuze inside the factory would cause enormous damage.

Selecting a location a short distance from the building, Bywater had an iron safe placed there with plenty of sandbags around it. Then, having sent all his colleagues out of the danger area, he carefully picked up the fuze, tip-toed across the grass and gently placed it in the safe. The sandbags were piled on, everyone withdrew out of range and the fuze was detonated.

In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that the original explosion at the factory had been accidental, caused by a defective striker. A faulty design in the stamping machine which marked the fuze heads with the lot numbers and dates of filling had damaged the striker stems.

Read the full obituary at the Daily Telegraph which includes an account of how Bywater earnt a George Medal for his role in evacuating the factory following another explosion later in the year. Arthur Bryant became the only civilian to earn both the George Cross and the George Medal.

HM Queen Elizabeth is fitted with special shoes by a munitions worker before she can enter the 'danger' area of ROF Thorp Arch. The area of the factory where workers change from their outdoor clothes (the 'dirty' side) into their factory clothes and stepped across a low barrier onto the 'clean', factory, side is known as the 'shifting house'. Strict rules were in operation on the 'clean' side due to the highly dangerous nature of work in filling factories.
HM Queen Elizabeth is fitted with special shoes by a munitions worker before she can enter the ‘danger’ area of ROF Thorp Arch. The area of the factory where workers change from their outdoor clothes (the ‘dirty’ side) into their factory clothes and stepped across a low barrier onto the ‘clean’, factory, side is known as the ‘shifting house’. Strict rules were in operation on the ‘clean’ side due to the highly dangerous nature of work in filling factories.
HM King George VI talks to a munitions worker at her machine during a visit to ROF Thorp Arch.
HM King George VI talks to a munitions worker at her machine during a visit to ROF Thorp Arch.
A Royal visit to the Leyland Factory, England, UK, 1941
A Royal visit to the Leyland Factory, England, UK, 1941
A munitions worker shows off the largest and smallest of shells produced at this British shell factory.
A munitions worker shows off the largest and smallest of shells produced at this British shell factory.

Fate and shellfire on the Anzio bridgehead

Gunners of 78th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery make use of 'liberated' sunshades to keep the rain off while making a brew, Anzio, Italy, 27 February 1944.
Gunners of 78th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery make use of ‘liberated’ sunshades to keep the rain off while making a brew, Anzio, Italy, 27 February 1944.

On the Anzio bridgehead the struggle continued. After the German attempts to breakthrough had failed the situation reverted to a battle of attrition. The Allies had plentiful supplies but struggled to bring them into the narrow bridgehead. Every inch of the territory was vulnerable to shellfire and it soon proved to a potent threat to anyone within the perimeter, not discriminating between front line soldiers or nurses and quartermasters at ‘the rear’. The ‘rear’ was only a few miles back at most.

V.C. Fairfield was with the 64th (7th London) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, he describes events on the 21/22nd February:

The next day, a Sunday was relatively quiet. This is apart from continuous activity by our guns. There was also the usual outburst of our antiaircraft fire when enemy Messerschmitts came in low out of the morning sun and attacked some unfortunate targets, usually road transport for everything else was dug in and well camouflaged. But it was also essential that those of us on the battery gun position were kept supplied with food, the guns fully stocked with ammunition and all the other necessary replacements provided.

This necessitated daily journeys from the “waggon lines” a mile or more behind us to the battery position and the very few roads that could be used were subject to much intermittent shell fire and hit and run air attacks. And when that happens there is nowhere to go, no cover and no warning to the unfortunate occupants of the trucks involved. Furthermore they know they are the particular target for destruction. So each quartermaster became adept at timing his dashes to his respective battery to coincide with lulls in the shelling.

That afternoon we were visited by a party of two officers and a sergeant major from one of the other battery command posts in the regiment. They were not impressed with our dugout particularly as it had only a tarpaulin cover. Their own command post roof had been constructed of chopped down trees on top of which they had placed a further cover of sandbags and earth and was felt by them to be much more suitable.

Late in the evening, just before darkness set in we were again the target for some very heavy shelling and indeed it was a miracle that nobody was hit. I believe it was during this particular onslaught that I counted twenty-seven duds that buried themselves in the soft earth but failed to explode. This could have been caused by the use of old ammunition but a more likely explanation was sabotage by slave labour in the German factories.

The nearness of the previous night’s shelling gave me much food for thought the next morning and later in the day I set about improving the safety of our command post which felt more vulnerable each time the enemy had a go at us. Therefore I organised the collection of steel boxes, each containing a full complement of used cartridge cases made of brass.

These littered the area around the gun pits, being thrown to one side for collection and stacking by the gunners after firing off the appropriate shells but the guns had been so busy that they were beginning to get in the way. I suppose each box was about two feet six inches long, a foot wide and eighteen inches high. These I had placed to form a wall along the side of the command post facing the enemy to provide an obstacle against any shells coming in at an angle of about thirty degrees which was roughly the angle of descent of an 88 or 105 mm shell. This wall of cartridge case boxes was to prove very useful on the day we pulled out and when the command post was crowded with our own personnel and key officers from 5th Division.

That night I was off duty for a few hours and slept in my personal slit trench which was as narrow as I could bear, about two feet deep but warm enough. I managed a fair night’s sleep disturbed only by some shelling and bombing. However the trouble with sleeping alone was that during the shelling I tended to develop an uncontrollable tremble. This never happened at other times and was no doubt a manifestation of fear.

And strange things did happen. One member of the battery had had a “feeling” and had spent the night with the Light anti-aircraft guns. On returning to his bivouac he found it wasn’t there! Instead there was a large crater made by a 210 mm shell! And there was a gunner who, after his duty at the gun returned to his tent only to find under his bed an unexploded 88mm shell.

In the morning and indeed all next day there was spasmodic shelling. We were so far as we could make out, the target for an enemy troop of three guns and we could hear them firing before the shells arrived. The standing joke while we were at Anzio was that it was quite safe to go about our business if we heard “boom, boom” or even “boom, boom, boom, boom” but everybody dived for cover when we heard “boom, boom, boom”.

During the afternoon the strongly built, logged and sandbagged roofed command post of one of the other batteries in our regiment received a direct hit causing the deaths of two officers, a battery sergeant major and a bombadier which brought home the fact that survival in war, as in peace is all a matter of “when your time is up, it’s up!”

This is part of a much longer account on BBC People’s War.

US artillerymen protect their ears as a 155mm 'Long Tom' gun fires from a dugout during fierce fighting resulting from German counter attacks.
US artillerymen protect their ears as a 155mm ‘Long Tom’ gun fires from a dugout during fierce fighting resulting from German counter attacks.