Operation Overlord is put back by a month

A fleet of Landing Craft Assault passing a landing ship during exercises prior to the invasion of Normandy.
A fleet of Landing Craft Assault passing a landing ship during exercises prior to the invasion of Normandy.
United States troops arrive in England: members of the US Signal Corps enjoy coffee and doughnuts served by the Red Cross on a train which is carrying them to their base after their arrival in Britain.
United States troops arrive in England: members of the US Signal Corps enjoy coffee and doughnuts served by the Red Cross on a train which is carrying them to their base after their arrival in Britain. Hundreds of thousands of US troops were now in Britain, and many more would arrive in the following few months.
General Omar N Bradley GOC US 1st Army.
General Omar N Bradley GOC US 1st Army.

January had been a hectic month for the Overlord planners preparing for the invasion of France. Detailed planning had been undertaken by the COSSAC staff under General Frederick Morgan (Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander) since April 1943. However the Supreme Allied Commander had not been appointed until Christmas Eve – and then Dwight D. Eisenhower necessarily travelled back to England via Washington, arriving in mid January.

General Montgomery, who was to command all Allied land forces for the first part of the operation, arrived in Britain from Italy on 3rd January. He immediately decided that the planned assault was too narrow. Two more landing beaches – Omaha and Utah – were quickly added to the plans.

Eisenhower approved these plans almost as soon as he was appraised of them. The troops were available – but the means to get them across the English Channel were not. Suddenly a lot of additional work needed to be done rather urgently. It was a testing time for all involved, including General Omar Bradley who was to command the US land forces:

The decision to defer D day from early May to June was made late in January, 1944. When Eisenhower, shortly after his arrival in England, counted up the deficits in landing craft, he grew increasingly concerned over the nearing assault deadline.

On January 24, while summarizing his arguments for widening the OVERLORD beachhead, he reported to the War Department that “from the Army point of view” the May D day would be preferable. But in the same message he also said, “Rather … than risk failure with reduced forces on the early date, I would accept a postponement of a month if I were assured of then obtaining the strength required.”

Now alarmed over the menacing shortage in craft, the British Chiefs seconded Ike’s proposal for delay and on January 31 the U. S. chiefs joined them. Although I, too, favored delay while we sought additional craft, I found it difficult to understand why this single, most decisive attack of the entire war should have to compete with the Pacic for its minimum means. Naval bombardment support had been rationed to OVERLORD on an equally tightfisted basis.

And while I knew nothing of the navy’s commitments in the Pacic war, I was irritated by this disposition of the navy to look on OVERLORD as a European stepchild.

This promise of a month’s delay came as good news to the airmen, for the additional weeks would enable us to soften the enemy still more by bombing. Even the far-off Russians welcomed the change in plan. By June, spring thaws on the Eastern front would have dried sufficiently to permit resumption of the Red Army offensive.

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

Pfc Edward Shea (of 27 Wentworth Street, Dorchester, Massachusetts) fills up his jeep
Pfc Edward Shea (of 27 Wentworth Street, Dorchester, Massachusetts) fills up his jeep in the sunshine at the petrol station in Burton Bradstock, Dorset. According to the original caption, the gas station has been taken over by the army. Pfc Shea is helped by local boys Freddy and Chris Kerley, Barry Kneale and Billy Hubbard: one boy works the petrol pump, one holds back the seat, one holds the hose and another cleans the windscreen.
Women in the United States Forces in Britain: United States nurses take cover against "air attack" during training in England while training for the opening of the second front.
Women in the United States Forces in Britain: United States nurses take cover against “air attack” during training in England while training for the opening of the second front.

London tense as the bombing starts again

Women of the American Ambulance Great Britain wash an ambulance car of the surgical unit to pass the time between call-outs at their depot, somewhere in London.
Women of the American Ambulance Great Britain wash an ambulance car of the surgical unit to pass the time between call-outs at their depot, somewhere in London.
On a busy corner of London's Tottenham Court Road, a soldier and his companion ask for directions from a policeman. Other pedestrians go about their daily business and there is quite a lot of traffic on the road.
On a busy corner of London’s Tottenham Court Road, a soldier and his companion ask for directions from a policeman. Other pedestrians go about their daily business and there is quite a lot of traffic on the road.
19 year old George Metcalfe, a Corporal in the Air Training Corps, sits in the front row to listen to a lecture on Morse code, given to the cadets by Warrant Officer Martin after Sunday morning parade in Norwood, London.
19 year old George Metcalfe, a Corporal in the Air Training Corps, sits in the front row to listen to a lecture on Morse code, given to the cadets by Warrant Officer Martin after Sunday morning parade in Norwood, London.

Life on the Home Front in Britain still meant blackouts, rationing, shortages and many inconveniences. Nothing had really changed in a long time and it was wearing people down. The war news had at first appeared promising, with the landings at Anzio, but now that was starting to look rather worrying. At the back of everyones mind was the thought that the “Second Front” would start soon, and whatever the outcome it would inevitably mean many more casualties.

In London little had been done to deal with the numerous bomb sites, apart from tidying them up. Although there had been intermittent raids on London since the end of the Blitz in the spring of 1941, the Luftwaffe now started making regular appearances in forces – hundreds would die from bombs in the next few months.

Capturing the capitals’s mood with her usual insight and economy was Mollie Panter-Downes, writing for New Yorker Magazine:

January 30th

Londoners, normally as good-tempered a crowd of people as you could hope to find anywhere, are beginning to show the strain of these first keyed-up days of a year which by now every statesman must have hailed as one of fateful decision.

Tired bus conductresses, who have one of the most gruelling jobs on the women’s home front, are apt to bawl out passengers on the least provocation. Shop assistants snap at customers who timidly ask for half a pound of something which isn’t there, and the customers go home and snap at their families.

Naturally, a lot of the native good humor and manners is still around, but the surface impression is that everybody’s nerves are frayed. Possibly it’s the inevitable hangover of the winter’s flu epidemic, plus four years of wartime diet, but it seems more likely to be an inevitable result of simply waiting for something to happen.

The recent night in which London underwent two air raids was certainly the noisiest in months. Plenty of citizens, as their beds quaked, must have wondered if this was the answer to everyone’s question whether heavy raiding is to be expected again. The damage turned out to be nothing much, but the racket from the ground defenses was quite up to standard.

Raids or no raids, people keep on moving back into town. More and more Londoners who left during the blitz are opening up their homes again or trying to find new ones – a firm enough reply to those dark German threats of retribution any day now.

The government recently took some notice of the migration back to London by increasing the amount that anyone could spend for essential repairs from one hundred to two hundred pounds, but since it didn’t also increase the number of men with ladders and pots of paint, the process of putting an apartment messed up by the blitz into livable shape is apt to be difficult.

How newly married couples succeed in fixing up a nest for themselves, even if they find one, is something of a mystery. Most things made of linen require precious clothing coupons, and furniture, either new or in auction rooms, is selling at prices which even the dealers admit are fantastic.

The problem of getting homes and furniture has been called one of the reasons for a sudden and surprisingly sharp drop in the number of marriages — a phenomenon more gloomily attributed by the church to the chilling effect of the usual wartime increase in the number of divorces.

See Molly Panter Downes: London War Notes

Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and children are amongst those feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square in London. In the background, the base of Nelson's Column is covered in War Savings posters and one of the Trafalgar Square lions can also be seen.
Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and children are amongst those feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square in London. In the background, the base of Nelson’s Column is covered in War Savings posters and one of the Trafalgar Square lions can also be seen.
The Home Guard: Photograph contrasting a 1940 Local Defence volunteer with a 1944 Home Guard. Both were members of 32 Surrey Battalion.
The Home Guard: Photograph contrasting a 1940 Local Defence volunteer with a 1944 Home Guard. Both were members of 32 Surrey Battalion.

Rommel demands stronger defences on a Normandy beach

Field Marshal Rommel’s responsibilities in France, as commander Army Group B, overlapped with those of Commander-in-Chief West, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (left).
Atlantic Wall
Nazi propaganda made much of some the impressive structures that had been built as part of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ but they only covered a limited part of the coast.

In late 1943 Erwin Rommel had been given a job inspecting the defences of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’, strung all along the coast of Europe from Norway down to France. The greatest likelihood was that the expected Allied invasion would come on the coast of France closest to England across the English Channel. Yet the uncertainty was great. The Allies might not land in the most obvious place – even if it was the shortest route.

By early 1944 Rommel had been given an operational role in command of troops who would resist the invasion. The German lines of command in France were not clear and would cause tension right up to the day of the invasion and beyond. Nevertheless Rommel was responsible for energetically improving the defence structures along the coast. The emphasis was less on massive concrete gun emplacements but the smaller Widerstandsnest – WN – strong points.

On January 29 Rommel visited WN 62 and immediately spotted the parallels with the Allied landing beach at Salerno in Italy. Gazing along the beach between Colleville and Vierville he declared, “this bay must be fortified as quickly as possible against an attempted invasion by the Allies.”

He was testy about the two Czech 76.5mm field guns he saw standing in the open on concrete platforms beneath camouflage net poles. “You have been here for three years,” he asked the uncomfortable local company commander, Hauptmann Ottermeier, “and what have you achieved?”.

Gefreiter Franz Gockel remembered that sixty paid Morrocan laborers turned up with locally pressed labor and built two new emplacements, upper and lower concrete casemates for the two 76.5mm guns in six weeks.

Unteroffizier Henrik Naube at WN73 farther along remembered Rommel as “a very energetic and active man; he walked very briskly and spoke rapidly.” He fired off detailed questions at their officer “about the ammunition we had in the post; how old the weapons were,” and so on. Rommel exuded impatient energy, “he was quite a short man,” Naube recalled, “but with a powerful presence.”

It was not until later that “the beach between Colleville and Vierville” was to become identified by the Allies as “Omaha Beach”. Rommel was making fateful decisions that were to have terrible consequences for many young men when the invasion did come.

From The Fury of Battle: D-Day as it Happened, Hour by Hour, published in 2018, which examines in detail the events on Omaha and Pointe du Hoc.

These images are amongst hundreds of contemporary pictures in the iPad app ‘Overlord’ – from the Apple iOS iPad app store. Produced by World War II Today, ‘Overlord’ tells the complete story of the Normandy campaign.

Rommel on one of his tours of inspection, January 1944.
normandy beach defences
Rommel was constantly on the move along the coast, inspecting troops and demanding improvements to the physical defences.

Hitler’s plans for a post war breeding programme

German troops on the Eastern front, January 1944. The Nazis expected many more of them would soon make their final sacrifice.
German troops on the Eastern front, January 1944. The Nazis expected many more of them would soon make their final sacrifice.
The SS already had Lebensborn institutions which cared for the children of SS troops including many unmarried mothers, provided that they were 'racially valuable'.
The SS already had Lebensborn institutions which cared for the children of SS troops including many unmarried mothers, provided that they were ‘racially valuable’.
A child's 'baptism' ceremony/ritual; conducted by members of the SS at a "Lebensborn e.V." maternity care home in Rheinhessen somewhere between 1936-1944.
A child’s ‘baptism’ ceremony/ritual; conducted by members of the SS at a “Lebensborn e.V.” maternity care home in Rheinhessen somewhere between 1936-1944.

The superiority of ‘Aryan’ Germanic blood was never in doubt for the Nazis. So many ‘good German men’ were being lost, especially on the Eastern Front, that they had to make plans to replace it. The German home front was now being regularly combed for more men to throw into the maw.

But Hitler had no doubt about the outcome of the war, he was concerned about the lack of German blood in the long term. German women would have to have a lot more children after the war. Logic dictated that there would be a shortage of men. Therefore many more children would have to borne to unmarried women. The Nazis would create the conditions to encourage this.

Martin Borman, Hitlers loyal deputy, pictured in 1939.
Martin Borman, Hitlers loyal deputy, pictured in 1939.

Martin Borman, his Nazi party deputy, took it all very seriously and wrote the following memorandum. There seems very little doubt that, given the opportunity, they would have carried out this plan. For the moment they did not want to say anything in public, for fear of upsetting the German married men who were ‘yet to die’ for their country – whose wives would be expected to have more children with another man after the war:

Führer Headquarters, 29 January 1944

Note
Re: Safeguarding the Future of the German People

After the war our national position will be catastrophic, for our nation is experiencing the second enormous loss of blood within a thirty-year period. We shall undoubtedly win the war militarily but lose it in national terms if we do not decisively transform all our previous views and the attitudes which have resulted from them. For the loss of blood is not a one-off event but rather its effects will go on year after year into the distant future.

3. The Führer pointed out that after this war we shall have 3 to 4 million women who have no husbands or cannot get them. Think how many divisions we would be lacking in twenty to forty-five years time, said the Führer.

4. The greater the number of births in a nation, the more secure will its future be. The calculation made by many parents, namely that they have to limit the number of their children to secure the future of the ones who have been born is thus completely wrong; the opposite is true!

Thus, if they thought about it properly, all women who have one child ought to be particularly concerned to see that not only they themselves but all other women have as many children as possible, because the more children that are born the more secure their children’s future will be. That is a very sober assessment of the situation.

5. Now the women who after this tremendous war are not married to a man or do not get married cannot get their children from the Holy Ghost but only from the German men who are left.

Increased procreation by individual men is of course only desirable from a national point of view in the case of some of these men. The decent, physically and psychologically healthy men of character should increase their procreation but not those who are physically and mentally deformed.

12. [ . . . ] At first many women will accept the general principle but – a lack of logic is after all innate in women – reject it in the personal circumstances of their particular case.

13. For obvious reasons, public, i.e. general education can only begin after the war. Let me just give one reason for this. We cannot now call on the women whose husbands will probably still get killed and we cannot begin the education campaign out of consideration for our soldiers because, beforehand, we would have to get our men who are now soldiers used to these ideas: not every soldier will necessarily want his wife or fiancée to have children by another man after he has been killed.

15. Right now we must remove all undesirable barriers to our goal. In particular, we must involve our poets and writers. New novels, stories, and plays which equate ‘marriage drama’ with ‘adultery’ will no longer be permitted. Nor will poems, writings or films which treat illegitimate children as inferior.

17. The upshot of all this is: we must hope that women who after the war do not have or get a husband will have a relationship with a man similar to marriage which produces as many children as possible.

Read the whole memorandum at Documents from German History

German Pak anti tank gun on the eastern front.
German Pak anti tank gun on the eastern front.
The reality was that in many places the Wehrmacht was on the retreat.
The reality was that in many places the Wehrmacht was on the retreat.

General Mark Clark survives ‘friendly fire’

New Allied landings in Italy! Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, C/G Fifth Army, looks toward the shore from the P.T. boat enroute to the new beachhead established by Allied troops on West coast of Italy south of Rome, Italy. 25 January 1944
New Allied landings in Italy! Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, C/G Fifth Army, looks toward the shore from the P.T. boat enroute to the new beachhead established by Allied troops on West coast of Italy south of Rome, Italy. 25 January 1944

General Mark Clark, commanding the Allied 5th Army in Italy, now faced a difficult situation. It had been impossible for the Cassino front to break through to join up with the Anzio beachhead as had been hoped. There was now a developing stalemate at Cassino and the Anzio beachhead looked increasingly like it was going to come under threat itself, rather than threatening the Germans in the rear.

As he set out for Anzio in a fast PT boat for the short trip up the coast, he was not aware that the Allied fleet was becoming rather nervous about the activities of German E boats, their fast motor boat. No message had been broadcast to the ships in the area of his imminent arrival:

The next morning, January 28, I went down to the mouth of the Volturno before dawn to embark by P.T. boat for Anzio.

… the situation at Anzio was becoming critical. The enemy air-raids and shelling had caused heavy damage, and there were rumours that German torpedo-boats were roaming along the coast to attack our shipping.

Everything went all right, however, until we were about seven miles south of Anzio, still travelling in semi-darkness. There the AM 120, a U.S. minesweeper, challenged us. Lieutenant Patterson, commander of our P.T., ordered green and yellow flares to be fired, and we flashed the designated signal on the blinker to identify ourselves as friendly.

Until that moment I had managed to get out of the wind by sitting on a stool beside the skipper, where the bridge of the boat gave me some protection. However, just before the AM I20 challenged us I got up and moved slightly to one side. The captain of the minesweeper apparently misread our signal, or perhaps it was just that everybody along the coast that dark and windy morning was trigger-happy.

Anyhow, the minesweeper fired on us, cutting loose with 40-mm. and five-inch shells. Their marksmanship, unfortunately, was pretty good. A number of shells struck our P.T. boat, and the second one went right through the stool on which I had been sitting.

The skipper was wounded in both legs and fell to the deck. I heard a shell explode below-decks. There was confusion throughout the boat, and several men were knocked from their feet, two of them fatally wounded.

I picked up a Very pistol which some one had dropped, and again fired the correct signal to identify ourselves as friendly, but the firing from the minesweeper continued. I fired it again, with no result. By that time I had had a chance to look round. I saw that all three naval officers on the boat and two naval ratings were casualties. There was no one at the wheel, but Ensign Benson got to his feet, despite leg-wounds, and swung the boat round.

I knelt down by the skipper, who couldn’t get up from the deck, and said, “What do we do?” “I don’t know,” he answered. “Well, let’s run for it,” I said. Then I held him up so that he could see what was happening and direct the movements of the boat. We ran for it, with shells still spattering around. So did the other P.T. boat accompanying us, although it escaped damage.

By the time we were clear our deck seemed to be littered with casualties and running with blood. One of the figures that had been knocked to the deck turned out to be Gervasi [Frank Gervasi, a war correspondent], who was groggy and soaked with blood down the front of his uniform. I began helping him get his jacket unbuttoned; we had to dig clear down to his bare skin before either one of us realized that he wasn’t wounded, but merely covered with somebody else’s blood.

See General Mark W. Clark: Calculated Risk

DUKW amphibious vehicles loaded with troops and equipment come ashore at Anzio.
DUKW amphibious vehicles loaded with troops and equipment come ashore at Anzio.
An "attrezzeria" is a tool shop, which may be the building the plane crashed into. Near Anzio, Italy. 30 January 1944
An “attrezzeria” is a tool shop, which may be the building the plane crashed into. Near Anzio, Italy. 30 January 1944

Luftwaffe night fighter scores four RAF Lancasters

Lancaster I R5729/KM-A of No 44 Squadron at Dunholme Lodge, Lincolnshire, before setting out for Berlin on 2 January 1944.
Lancaster I R5729/KM-A of No 44 Squadron at Dunholme Lodge, Lincolnshire, before setting out for Berlin on 2 January 1944.
Avro Lancaster B Mark I, R5729 'KM-A', of No 44 Squadron, Royal Air Force runs up its engines in a dispersal at Dunholme Lodge, Lincolnshire, before setting out on a night raid to Berlin. This veteran aircraft had taken part in more than 70 operations with the Squadron since joining it in 1942. It was finally shot down with the loss of its entire crew during a raid on Brunswick on the night of 14-15 January 1944.
Avro Lancaster B Mark I, R5729 ‘KM-A’, of No 44 Squadron, Royal Air Force runs up its engines in a dispersal at Dunholme Lodge, Lincolnshire, before setting out on a night raid to Berlin. This veteran aircraft had taken part in more than 70 operations with the Squadron since joining it in 1942. It was finally shot down with the loss of its entire crew during a raid on Brunswick on the night of 14-15 January 1944.

On the night of 27th January RAF Bomber Command were headed in strength for Berlin again, with 515 Lancaster bombers. So many factors decided how many of them would get through to bomb and back home safely. Much depended on the weather and the visibility, whether various feints, radar jamming and diversionary raids would fool the Germans.

If enough night fighters found them, the bomber fleet was very vulnerable. An experienced night fighter pilot had little difficulty picking off targets once he found the main bomber stream.

Flying conditions were appalling in northern Germany on the 27th January. Thick freezing fog made any attempt at take off completely reckless. This did not stop Wilhelm Johnen and his comrades in their Me 110s. At the point off take off he saw a friend crash in flames alongside him. Then his own aircraft began to ice up rapidly. Did he press on or attempt the equally dangerous business of landing:

The engines were running at full throttle. Thick ice splinters broke off with loud reports and thumped against the nose.

Mahle reported: “Herr Oberleutnant – it’s pointless. The tail unit’s beginning to ice up. The temperature outside is now 4° below.”

I noticed that my joy-stick was no longer answering. Fortunately the trimming wheel was still working. I set the machine at tail-heavy, and pushed the throttle home to its utmost limit. The engines could rev like this for five minutes at the utmost. But why should I spare the engines when it was a question of the crew’s life.

I remembered the English bomber formation which, in the winter of 1943, iced up over the North Sea and, as a last resort, jettisoned bombs, equipment and petrol in the sea to lighten the machines. And yet they could not reach the safety height, and more than forty four-engined bombers crashed like gigantic lumps of ice into the icy waters. No rescue was possible. Would the same thing happen to me?

Our last chance was to bale out. But it was not very pleasant in this sort of weather to jump into the unknown. So I must go on climbing, climbing, climbing. All eyes were riveted on the wings. The machine was almost on stalling point but at last we were out of danger. The layer of ice gradually broke off. My good old Me. 110 was now climbing faster and the temperature outside sank to 15° below. The danger of icing was past.

But there still remained the darkness and the impenetrable cloud bank around us. The altimeter showed 6,000 feet, but not until 12,000 did we catch a glimpse of the stars. God be praised – we had won through. Now, above us, was a cloudless sky with bright stars such as one only sees on clear winter nights. I skimmed the clouds, heading for the Baltic coast and waited for further orders. I almost felt like patting my Me. 110 as though she had been a human being.

I wondered what could have happened to Hauptmann Bar and his crew. How could he have crashed? I thought of Kamprath and his family. They could not have got away with it for they could not have been at more than 200 feet. This was far too low to bale out.

My thoughts were interrupted by an order from the ground station: “White Argus from Meteor-Achtung, Achtung! Strong bomber formation at 15,000 feet over the Baltic flying on a south-westerly course.”

Above Wismar my radio operator caught the first enemy machine in his SN 2. The magic began.

At 20.36 the first enemy bomber was brought down and spun through the clouds after my first burst. Twenty minutes later, a second crashed just outside the capital. The British drew a square above the clouds with their parachute flares. We could see nothing of the city below. Thousands of flak bursts confirmed our arrival over the target. Wave after wave of bombers flew across the square of light and dropped their loads within this area, through the cloud on to the city.

I approached this square on a southerly course and spotted a couple of four-engined Lancasters directly above the target. After a short attack the first bomber exploded and fell in burning debris through the clouds.

The second banked steeply to starboard, trying to escape. The Tommies fired at me with all their guns framing my aircraft with gleaming tracers. I pressed home the attack; the tail unit grew ever larger in my sights. Now was the time to shoot. The fire power of my guns was terric. My armour-piercing shells riddled the well-protected wing tanks and the pilot’s armoured cockpit; the tracers set fire to the petrol and the shells tore great holes in the wings. It was no wonder that my fourth bomber that night crashed in flames.

See Wilhelm Johnen: Duel Under the Stars: German Night Fighter Pilot in the Second World War

Wilhelm Johnen was officially credited with three victories for this night, on the way to his total of thirty four for the war. He was one of the most successful Luftwaffe night fighter pilots and one of the most highly decorated to survive the war.

An Me 110 'Nachtjagdflugzeugs ' nightfighter prepares for a sortie, 1943.
An Me 110 ‘Nachtjagdflugzeugs ‘ nightfighter prepares for a sortie, 1943.

Surviving a Red Army gun barrage

A burning village somewhere on the Eastern front. The Germans shad adopted a 'scorched earth' policy as they retreated.
A burning village somewhere on the Eastern front. The Germans shad adopted a ‘scorched earth’ policy as they retreated.

The Soviet Army’s advance westwards continued and their growing strength was evident across the front.

There are many accounts of massive artillery barrages where those on the gunners’ side assume that ‘no one could possibly survive that’ – and yet soldiers emerge from the ruins. In practice a basic slit trench or foxhole offered remarkably good protection against artillery fire – apart from a direct hit. The Wehrmacht were especially vigilant in building not just trenches but substantial bunkers whenever they could.

George Grossjohann was able to live to tell the tale after seeking refuge in such a bunker. His account also gives an insight into the flexible command structure of German units, a factor that was to enable them to keep fighting for so long.

At 4:40 AM, on 26 January, a tremendous barrage came down on Votylevka, not only in our area, but on a sector more than thirty kilometers in width.

The Russians must have employed hundreds of batteries in the artillery preparation for their attack. Artillery shells of all calibers crashed into our positions. Waves of 122mm rockets added their howling cacophony, too, before slamming into the earth around us.

The enemy paid particular attention to the coordinating point where our division’s lines joined those of our neighbor to the north, the 88th Infantry Division. It was a major attack!

We had only seconds to grab our weapons and clothes andto dive into a deep, narrow ditch which, as a precaution, we had dug out behind our house and covered with wood beams, dirt, and a thick layer of straw. A few minutes later, our cottage was already broken into pathetic pieces. From now on we could do nothing but crouch in our trench and hope. Just before leaping into the shelter, my Leutnant Armbruster got his hands on a bottle of cognac which, after the first seconds of shock were over, was soon passed around. Its contents helped deaden the terric, pounding shock that went on and on and on…

At 6:00 AM sharp, exactly eighty minutes later, the devastating barrage stopped suddenly… Dead silence prevailed!

Knowing that the soldiers of the Red Army started their attack – with tactical correctness – right after the end of their preparatory barrage, we broke out into the open and saw that everything in Votylevka, with a very few exceptions, was razed to the ground. Even the few trees had become stripped skeletons. Only the remains of a couple of chimneys still stood in the smoking, greyish- black moonscape of huge craters.

As we fortunately found out afterwards, my battalion, as well as our regiment’s 1st Battalion, defending the outer perimeter of the town, did not suffer substantial losses. But my 6th Company, deployed outside of the town, was totally overrun.

According to statements from the few infantrymen who escaped, the young company commander and his messengers were taken prisoner. These surviving Landsers of the 6th Company also reported that the Russian infantry and tanks broke through in great numbers between Votylevka and the 34th Infantry Division to the southeast.

There was only some minor battle noise to hear from the outskirts of the town. Apparently, after all the fireworks they had expended on the village, the Russians thought an attack on them was a waste of time and resources. From the regiment’s command post, which was about five kilometers behind us in Repki, our regimental physician appeared to establish communications.

Dr. Stochdorph seemed relaxed, grinned amiably, and asked nosy questions. He reported that Repki, too, had been hit heavily by the Russian artillery, with about the same results as the barrage on us. After I mformed him that we did not yet have a clear picture of the situation, he had his Kubelwagen turned around and drove back to report to the regimental commander.

Dr. Stochdorph was typical in my experience – during the whole war, I never personally witnessed any physician or clergyman who was not exemplary in the practice of his duties. The Roman Catholic chaplain of our division even took part – naturally unarmed — in dangerous assaults. Our physicians, often enough, were surprisingly good at soldiers’ tactical tasks, and our staff physician was no exception. Without any special preparations, he would have been fully capable of leading a battalion or even a regiment. These qualities not only helped greatly in the command and control of our units, but also naturally earned the even greater respect of us combat infantrymen.

See Georg Grossjohann: Five Years,Four Fronts: A German Officer’s World War II Combat Memoir.

Panzer - Grenadiers somewhere in Russia , January 1944.
Panzer – Grenadiers somewhere in Russia , January 1944.

The Germans begin to contain the Anzio beach head

A British soldier inspects a German Heinkel He 111 bomber shot down during a night raid on the Anzio bridgehead, 25 January 1944.
A British soldier inspects a German Heinkel He 111 bomber shot down during a night raid on the Anzio bridgehead, 25 January 1944.
The crew of a jeep attempt to dig out their vehicle, bogged down in muddy conditions near Anzio, 23 January 1944.
The crew of a jeep attempt to dig out their vehicle, bogged down in muddy conditions near Anzio, 23 January 1944.

The ambitious hopes of the landing at Anzio now began to unravel. Although the landings themselves had been largely unopposed and the road was virtually clear for an advance on Rome, it was necessary to consolidate the bridgehead. The hills surrounding Anzio now began to fill up with German troops and German planes were swiftly moved to airfields within range.

For the men who were now ashore it was intensely frustrating time. Rome was only a short jeep ride away but landing an a force that was of sufficient strength to make the advance was going to take many days.

An officer with the Royal Engineers had landed on the 22nd and watched the build up on the beach, the ships being hit offshore, and the growing threat of the Luftwaffe:

The Guards Brigade, with 23 Field Company under command, were the floating divisional reserve and were brought ashore once the tactical picture could be seen. 23 Field Company passed us on the way to their concentration area and we exchanged cheery waves and the usual soldierly banter.

They had just moved out of sight along the track when we were alarmed by the frightening roar of a German fighter in low level attack. We heard the machine gun fire: the worst happened to our cheery friends of not a moment ago. The column was raked from end to end. It was all over in but a few seconds but 23 Fd. Coy. had a rough reception to the Beachhead. There were some number of dead and wounded.

The next set-back was a storm on D+3 The wind blew up and the waves pounded our beaches destroying the pontoon roadway so no further shipping could be received for the British Sector except through the small port of Anzio itself. This further increased the shipping congestion and made easy pickings for attacking planes despite an array of many barrage balloons and anti-aircraft fire.

Air activity increased and was growing more intense each day, and continued at night time with high level bombing, the enemy airfields being only a few minutes flying-time away, as compared to our own air forces way back somewhere behind Cassino. Low level attack happens so quickly and there always seemed to be aircraft somewhere in the sky but not that many of ours although I did see two US Lightning aircraft doing their best for us shot down into the sea.

The Luftwaffe main action appeared to be directed against shipping crowded into the small bay at Anzio although they were not averse to amusing themselves with anything which moved on the ground!

Despite the attentions of the Luftwaffe the build up on the beach head was going extremely well and better than expected. I can speak now only of the British Sector but doubtless the US on X-Ray beaches were equally satisfied.

My Colonel returned with the tale that he had stood at the front surveying the terrain; all was quiet and the Alban Hills beckoned and it seemed he could have taken his walking stick and strolled towards them. It seemed that nothing in the world could stop a quick advance to seize the Alban Hills at a small price and that our objective would be achieved and consolidated. Everyone was geared up for the big race.

For reasons, some understandable, some incomprehensible, some political and some plainly self-seeking individualism nothing happened. We were waiting on the leash for two days; days when all the advantages of complete surprise were frittered away and time given for German forces to be improvised with the usual German efficiency.

The whole account can be read at BBC People’s War, the author appears to be named Nutall but no other details are given.

Men of the Middlesex Regiment dig in at Anzio, with Private H Carpocciama in the foreground.
Men of the Middlesex Regiment dig in at Anzio, with Private H Carpocciama in the foreground.
South African troops of 1991 Swaziland Smoke Company wait to board landing craft at Castellammare before sailing for Anzio, January 1944. The unit was responsible for creating smokescreens over the invasion area.
South African troops of 1991 Swaziland Smoke Company wait to board landing craft at Castellammare before sailing for Anzio, January 1944. The unit was responsible for creating smokescreens over the invasion area.

Death march begins as Japanese retreat on New Guinea

B-25D 'Red Wrath' (41-30024) of 498th 'Falcons' Bomb Squadron, 345th 'Air Apaches' Bomb Group flown by Capt R. W. Judd bombing anti-aircraft sites, Wewak & Boram, New Guinea, 16 Oct 1943
B-25D ‘Red Wrath’ (41-30024) of 498th ‘Falcons’ Bomb Squadron, 345th ‘Air Apaches’ Bomb Group flown by Capt R. W. Judd bombing anti-aircraft sites, Wewak & Boram, New Guinea, 16 Oct 1943

In the Far East the slugging battle against the Japanese continued. Even in the most desperate circumstances they could not contemplate surrender, choosing instead suicide or the most recklessly suicidal attempts at escape.

The Japanese 82nd Naval Garrison had been cut off and isolated at their base in Sio, New Guinea, known to them as Gali. As the Allied forces closed in it was almost impossible to resupply them. On the 22nd they received their last shipment of rice, brought by submarine. It was not enough. Most of the men were already starving and many were suffering from tropical diseases, as well as the casualties from Allied bombing and strafing.

Tetsuo Watanabe was the Naval Surgeon attached to the unit. On the 23rd his last duties in the Naval hospital had been to place grenades by the pillows of his patients who could not walk. This last tearful, silent ward round was all he could offer these men, who were to be abandoned.

Then the nearly 7,000 men of the 82nd Naval Garrison set off on a march across the north of New Guinea. Tetsuo Watanabe was in a better position than most, carrying about two days worth of food, for a march that was expected to take a month. The first group had left the day before. Yet even as they set off many men fell by the wayside:

23 January 1944

At 11:00, we left Gali, Good-bye, Gali camp! The enemy might have noticed our retreat. The sound of shelling was closing in. We started the walk on a terribly muddy track.

Soon Paymaster-Seaman Okada collapsed suffering lack of blood caused by malaria. His face turned pale and bloodless. He tried to say something while in the arms of his comrade. Soon red liquid began to flow from his mouth. He bit off his tongue to kill himself. He used to tell me, ‘Surgeon, please come to my sushi bar in Shinjuku when we return to Japan’.

He knew his destiny and did not want to be a burden to his comrades. He was only nineteen years old.

Although we struggled on the horrible track, we managed to find a camp site about two kilometres inland. Upon arrival at camp all superior officers were summoned, and the supreme commander, Captain Ukai, repeated instructions about the march.

The site was fouled by excrement left by the 1st Echelon that had camped here yesterday. Indeed, it was very difficult to find a clean place to put up a tent. However, when I observed the excrement, which consisted of green fibres and yellow viscid liquid, the soldiers appeared to be eating only grass or roots of trees of low food value.

I made a bed of grass and used a stone as a pillow. I was exhausted and had a good sleep.

24 January

We departed early in the morning. I felt refreshed because I slept well. It did not rain last night, and so did not disturb my sleep. We came to the beginning of the mountain trail at last. The jungle was so dense and it was dark inside. I started walking without thinking anything, just looking at the backside of the soldier in front. It was a terribly sheer slope which reminded me of the climb from Nakabusa Onsen to Mt Tsubame in the North Alps.

By the track dead bodies were scattered, reeking a horrible putrid smell. Maggots were wriggling in their eyes, ears and mouths although some soldiers were still breathing. This area literally looked like hell. Those who had perished on this climb must have exhausted their last strength in their already skinny and bony bodies.

See Hiramitsu Iwamoto ed. ‘The Naval Land Unit that Vanished in the Jungle by Tetsuo Watanabe’, Palmerston ACT: Tabletop Press 1995. This was a very small print run. Available from National Library of Australia.
A slightly longer extract is contained in: Richard Aldrich (ed): The Faraway War: Personal Diaries Of The Second World War In Asia And The Pacific

An image from the same sequence released by the USAAF
An image from the same sequence released by the USAAF.

Repeated bayonet attacks earn George Mitchell the VC

A German soldier with an MG 34 machine gun at Nettuno in Italy.
A German soldier with an MG 34 machine gun at Nettuno in Italy.
Sherman tanks move north from the Garigliano river towards Lorenzo, 21 January 1944.
Sherman tanks move north from the Garigliano river towards Lorenzo, 21 January 1944.
As the Allies sought to consolidate their positions at Anzio, the fighting continued at Cassino. The attacks across the river valley had failed and once again there was a push to get on the higher ground closer to the monastery. It was once again literally, an ‘uphill battle’. There are several accounts of men overcoming German machine gun nests. It was apparently possible to get away with evading German machine gun fire because of its relative inaccuracy. While it would “spray” a large area with a much faster rate of fire than a British Bren gun for example, it became more inaccurate the longer it was fired. Stanley Scislowski recounts in his memoirs how he was able to outrun German machine gun fire in a situation where he felt the more accurate Bren would have got him. Whatever the gun it would have taken an enormous amount of courage to attack it directly. Private George Mitchell did that more than once:
George Mitchell VC
George Mitchell VC
Damiano Ridge, Italy, 23 – 24 January 1944, Private George Allan Mitchell, 1st Bn, London Scottish ( Gordon Highlanders ). In Italy on the night of 23rd and 24th January 1944, a Company of the London Scottish was ordered to carry out a local attack to restore the situation on a portion of the main Damiano ridge. The Company attacked with two platoons forward and a composite platoon of London Scottish and Royal Berkshires in reserve. The Company Commander was wounded in the very early stages of the attack. The only other officer with the Company was wounded soon afterwards. A section of this Company was ordered by the Platoon Commander to carry out a right flanking movement against some enemy machine guns which were holding up the advance. Almost as soon as he had issued the order, he was killed. There was no Platoon Sergeant. The section itself consisted of a Lance Corporal and three men, who were shortly joined by Private Mitchell, the 2-inch mortarmen from Platoon Headquarters and another private. During the advance, the enemy opened heavy machine gun fire at point blank range. Without hesitation, Private Mitchell dropped the 2-inch mortar which he was carrying, and seizing a rifle and bayonet, charged, alone, up the hill through intense spandau fire. He reached the enemy machine gun unscathed, jumped into the weapon pit, shot one and bayonetted the other member of the crew, thus silencing the gun. As a result, the advance of the platoon continued, but shortly afterwards the leading section was again held up by the fire of approximately two German sections who were strongly entrenched. Private Mitchell, realising that prompt action was essential, rushed forward into the assault firing his rifle from his hip, completely oblivious of the bullets which were sweeping the area. The remainder of his section followed him and arrived in time to complete the capture of the position in which six Germans were killed and twelve made prisoner. As the section was reorganising, another enemy machine gun opened up on it at close range. Once more Private Mitchell rushed forward alone and with his rifle and bayonet killed the crew. The section now found itself immediately below the crest of the hill from which heavy small arms fire was being directed and grenades were being thrown. Private Mitchell’s ammunition was exhausted, but in spite of this he called on the men for one further effort and again led the assault up the steep and rocky hillside. Dashing to the front, he was again the first man to reach the enemy position and was mainly instrumental in forcing the remainder of the enemy to surrender. A few minutes later, a German who had surrendered, picked up a rifle and shot Private Mitchell through the head. Throughout this operation, carried out on a very dark night, up a steep hillside covered with rocks and scrub Private Mitchell displayed courage and devotion to duty of the very highest order. His complete disregard of the enemy fire, the fearless way in which he continually exposed himself, and his refusal to accept defeat, so inspired his comrades that together they succeeded in overcoming and defeating an enemy superior in numbers, and helped by all the advantages of the ground.
London Gazette, 10 August 1944
Private Ralph Forrester of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada places flowers on the grave of his brother killed in Ortona, s the River Garigliano, 16 January 1944.
Private Ralph Forrester of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada places flowers on the grave of his brother killed in Ortona, near the River Garigliano, 16 January 1944.
A British soldier with a young German prisoner sitting on the bonnet of a jeep, 21 January 1944.
A British soldier with a young German prisoner sitting on the bonnet of a jeep, 21 January 1944.