US forces liberate of Buchenwald – ‘beggars description’

General Dwight Eisenhower and other high ranking U.S. Army officers view the bodies of prisoners who were killed during the evacuation of Ohrdruf, while on a tour of the newly liberated concentration camp. Ohrdruf, [Thuringia] Germany, April 12, 1945.
General Dwight Eisenhower and other high ranking U.S. Army officers view the bodies of prisoners who were killed during the evacuation of Ohrdruf, while on a tour of the newly liberated concentration camp.
Ohrdruf, [Thuringia] Germany, April 12, 1945.

On 12th April General Eisenhower met with his senior US commanders Omar Bradley and George S. Patton, together they would visit some of their divisional commanders, and some of the locations recently overtaken American troops. In the morning they visited a salt mine where hoards of gold, silver and artworks stolen by the Nazis had been discovered. Alongside the conventional treasures were bags of gold teeth that and been taken from the mouths of concentration camp inmates.

In the afternoon they visited one of the first ‘horror’ camps uncovered by the advancing armies in the west. The Allies were already aware of the Holocaust from evidence that had been brought to the west by escaped prisoners, and the issue had been given some publicity in the press. Nevertheless the true scale and horror of what the Nazis had perpetrated had not yet been widely recognised.

Until now there had been very few pictures. Even the stories of camps uncovered by the Red Army, and visited by western journalists, had not been wholly believed. What was described seemed to be just too horrible to to be true. Suddenly the public in the west would be confronted with the stunning reality, as the first pictures and the first authenticated stories reached them.

Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps on German soil, was liberated on the morning of the 12th.

Eisenhower describes Ohrdruf, a sub camp of Buchenwald itself:

… the most interesting — although horrible — sight that I encountered during the trip was a visit to a German internment camp near Gotha. The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick.

In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’

See Dwight D. Eisenhower: Crusade in Europe: A Personal account of World War II

George S. Patton devoted a rather longer description of the events of the day in his memoirs:

… we drove to Ohrdruf and visited the first horror camp any of us had ever seen. It was the most appalling sight imaginable.

A man who said he was one of the former inmates acted as impresario and showed us first the gallows, where men were hanged for attempting to escape. The drop board was about two feet from the ground, and the cord used was piano wire which had an adjustment so that when the man dropped, his toes would just reach the ground and it would take about fifteen minutes for him to choke to death, since the fall was not sufficient to break his neck. The next two men to die had to kick the board out from under him. It was stated by some of the Germans present that the generals who were executed after the Hitler bomb incident were hanged in this manner.

An Austrian-Jewish survivor points out the gallows to General Dwight D. Eisenhower
An Austrian-Jewish survivor points out the gallows to General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Our guide then took us to the whipping table, which was about the height of the average man’s crotch. The feet were placed in stocks on the ground and the man was pulled over the table, which was slightly hollowed, and held by two guards, while he was beaten across the back and loins. The stick which they said had been used, and which had some blood on it, was bigger than the handle of a pick.

Our guide claimed that he himself had received twenty-five blows with this tool. It later developed that he was not a prisoner at all, but one of the executioners. General Eisenhower must have suspected it, because he asked the man very pointedly how he could be so fat. He was found dead next morning, killed by some of the inmates.

Just beyond the whipping table there was a pile of forty bodies, more or less naked. All of these had been shot in the back of the head at short range, and the blood was still cooling on the ground.

In a shed near-by was a pile of forty completely naked bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime – not, apparently, for the purpose of destroying them, but to reduce the smell. As a reducer of smell, lime is a very inefficient medium.

The total capacity of the shed looked to me to be about two hundred bodies. It was stated that bodies were left until the shed was full and then they were taken out and buried. The inmates said some three thousand people had been buried from this shed since January 1, 1945.

When our troops began to draw near, the Germans thought it expedient to remove the evidence of their crimes. They therefore used the inmates to exhume the recently buried bodies and to build a sort of mammoth griddle of 60 cm. railway tracks laid on a brick foundation. The bodies were piled on this and they attempted to burn them. The attempt was a bad failure. Actually, one could not help but think of some gigantic cannibalistic barbecue. In the pit itself were arms and legs and portions of bodies sticking out of the green water which partially filled it.

While on an inspection tour of the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, General Dwight Eisenhower and a party of high ranking U.S. Army officers, including Generals Bradley, Patton, and Eddy, view the charred remains of prisoners that were burned upon a section of railroad track during the evacuation of the camp. Also pictured is Jules Grad (second from the left taking notes), correspondent for the "Stars and Stripes" U.S. Army newspaper and Alois J. Liethen of Appleton, WI, the mustached soldier who served as the interpreter for the tour of Ohrdruf.
While on an inspection tour of the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, General Dwight Eisenhower and a party of high ranking U.S. Army officers, including Generals Bradley, Patton, and Eddy, view the charred remains of prisoners that were burned upon a section of railroad track during the evacuation of the camp. Also pictured is Jules Grad (second from the left taking notes), correspondent for the “Stars and Stripes” U.S. Army newspaper and Alois J. Liethen of Appleton, WI, the mustached soldier who served as the interpreter for the tour of Ohrdruf.

General Walker and General Middleton had wisely decided to have as many soldiers as possible visit the scene. This gave me the idea of having the inhabitants themselves visit the camp. I suggested this to Walker, and found that he had already had the mayor and his wife take a look at it. On going home those two committed suicide. We later used the same system in having the inhabitants of Weimar go through the even larger slave camp (Buchenwald) north of that town.

See George S. Patton: War As I Knew It

Dead German female guard from the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp. She was either killed by the U.S. troops or by the prisoners.
Dead German female guard from the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp. She was either killed by the U.S. troops or by the prisoners.
Bones of anti-Nazi German women still are in the crematoriums in the German concentration camp at Weimar, Germany, taken by the 3rd U.S. Army.  Prisoners of all nationalities were tortured and killed.
Bones of anti-Nazi German women still are in the crematoriums in the German concentration camp at Weimar, Germany, taken by the 3rd U.S. Army. Prisoners of all nationalities were tortured and killed.
These are slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp near Jena; many had died from malnutrition when U.S. troops of the 80th Division entered the camp.  Germany, April 16, 1945.
These are slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp near Jena; many had died from malnutrition when U.S. troops of the 80th Division entered the camp. Germany, April 16, 1945.

The rape and loot of Konigsberg, capital of Prussia

Red Army troops fighting in Konigsberg.
Red Army troops fighting in Konigsberg.
The destruction on the streets of Konigsberg.
The destruction on the streets of Konigsberg.

Konigsberg, the capital of Prussia in eastern Germany had been under siege since January 1945, surrounded by Soviet forces. Only the route out by sea had allowed some civilians to escape west. For thousands of concentration camp inmates there had been no route out, they had been forced into the sea and machine gunned.

Large parts of the city had been reduced to rubble, first by RAF bombing and then by the pounding of Soviet artillery. Thousands of civilians had died – but in many respects this was just the beginning of the horrors that would be visited on the German population.

Just before midnight on the 9th April the commander of ‘Fortress Koenigsberg’ Otto Lasch decided that, with ammunition short and the Soviet forces overwhelming, there was no point in continuing. On hearing that the ‘Fortress’ city had surrendered, Hitler ordered that Lasch’s family in Germany be arrested.

Pockets of resistance continued through the 10th April. Groups of German soldiers made desperate attempts to break out through the Soviet lines, most attempts ended in bloody annihilation.

As Lasch and the German officers eventually were marched off they discovered the reality of the Soviet occupation, where Red Army soldiers had been given official permission for two days of looting:

The houses burned and smoked. Soft furnishings, musical instruments, cooking utensils, paintings, china — all were thrown out of the houses. Smashed vehicles stood between burning tanks, clothing, equipment lay everywhere.

Amongst this danced drunken Russians, shooting wildly, searching for bicycles to ride, falling over and lying by the kerbstones with bloody injuries. Weeping girls and women were dragged into the houses despite their resistance. Children cried out for their parents. It was unbearable.

We marched on. We saw scenes that cannot be described. The ditches by the sides of the streets were full of corpses, many of them clearly showing signs of unbelievable maltreatment and rape. Dead children lay around in great numbers, bodies hung from the trees, their watches cut off.

Staring—eyed German women were led in all directions, drunken Russians flogged a German nun, an elderly woman sat by the side of the road, both of her legs having been crushed by vehicles. Farmsteads burned, the household belongings lying in the roads, cows ran across the countryside, and were indiscriminately shot and left lying.

Cries for help from German people came to us constantly. We could not help. Women came out of the houses, hands raised beseechingly — the Russians chased them back and shot them if they didn’t hurry. It was dreadful. We had never imagined such things.

Nobody had boots any more, many were barefoot. The untended wounded groaned with pain. Hunger and thirst were the greatest torments. Russian soldiers assailed the platoon from all sides. They took away coats from some, caps from others, the odd briefcase with its meagre contents. Everyone wanted something. ‘Watches, watches,’ they called, and we were left defenceless against this banditry.

Otto Lasch would not be released from Soviet captivity until 1955. He wrote his memoirs So fiel Königsberg. Kampf und Untergang von Ostpreußens Hauptstadt, in 1958.

German officers are marched out of Konigsberg.
German officers are marched out of Konigsberg.

Meanwhile another German officer, von Lehndorff, saw what happened in one of the improvised field hospitals:

In the ambulance, the young nurses defended themselves against a few particularly intrusive individuals. I didn’t dare imagine what would happen when they grew more confident. Now, they were still clearly in haste and concerned with loot.

Particularly striking were our storage buildings. I stood speechless before the heaps of foodstuffs there, which had been withheld from us during the months of siege, and thought back in anger at my naivety, at how we and our patients had gone hungry the whole time. Now there was a wild, howling mess, as the finest tinned produce and supplies, which could have kept hundreds alive for a whole year, were destroyed in a few hours.

Doktora was in the operating theatre, bandaging patients. A swarm of nurses had fled here and eagerly pretended to help. In the background, the Russians moved through the wounded soldiers, searching for watches and usable boots.

One of them, a young chap, suddenly burst into tears, because he had still not found a watch. He held up three fingers: he would shoot three men unless he was given a watch immediately finally a watch appeared from somewhere, with which he disappeared, beaming with joy.

The appearance of the first officers destroyed my last hopes of a bearable outcome. All attempts to speak to them were completely in vain. For them, too, we were no more than dressed clothes dummies with pockets.They only saw me from the shoulders down.

A couple of nurses who were in their path were seized and dragged along behind them, and before they could comprehend what was going on, they were released, completely dishevelled. They wandered around the passageways aimlessly. There was nowhere to hide. And new trouble came upon them constantly.

These account appears in Prit Buttar: Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany’s Eastern Front 1944-45, which makes use of many German sources not published in English.

The surviving German occupants of Konigberg, perhaps as many as 100,000 people, would eventually be forced out of the city. Their place would be taken by Russian settlers. Today ‘Konigsberg’ is Kaliningrad, a wholly Russian enclave squeezed between Poland and Lithuania.

German prisoners are marched away from Konigsberg.
German prisoners are marched away from Konigsberg.

British confront looting and fraternisation in Germany

Comet tanks of the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, 11th Armoured Division, crossing the Weser at Petershagen, Germany, 7 April 1945.
Comet tanks of the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, 11th Armoured Division, crossing the Weser at Petershagen, Germany, 7 April 1945.
Stuart VI  light tanks pass half-tracks and other vehicles of 15th (Scottish) Division during the advance to the River Elbe, Germany, 13 April 1945.
Stuart VI light tanks pass half-tracks and other vehicles of 15th (Scottish) Division during the advance to the River Elbe, Germany, 13 April 1945.
Churchill tanks of the Scots Guards, 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying men of the 10th Highland Light Infantry, 15th (Scottish) Division, negotiate a crater during the advance to the River Elbe, 13 April 1945.
Churchill tanks of the Scots Guards, 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying men of the 10th Highland Light Infantry, 15th (Scottish) Division, negotiate a crater during the advance to the River Elbe, 13 April 1945.

As several units were paused to rest in Germany following the Rhine crossing, there was uncertainty as to whether they would be called upon for further assaults or not. In places the Germans were surrendering, elsewhere the fight was as fanatical as ever. There was time for reflection, no man now wanted to be killed or maimed in a war that would surely end very soon.

Colonel Martin Lindsay, commanding 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, had been recalled to front line duty in his forties in July 1944, due to the casualties suffered in Normandy. He now calculated that, up until the Rhine crossing, 102 different officers had served under him since Normandy, filling the 30 officer positions in the Battalion. 55 officers had served in the 12 rifle platoons, with an average service of just 38 days – 53% had been wounded, 24% killed, 15% invalided and 5% survived.

On the 10th April the Battalion was resting in Emsburen, where, looking at the memorial in the local church, he realised that the losses in the Wehrmacht, especially on the Eastern front had been very much heavier than the British Army had suffered:

It was an odd situation, for we did not know whether we had fought our last battle and only a little gentle mopping-up remained, or whether there was still a lot of stiff fighting ahead of us.

This might well have been so, since we were routed on Bremen and the Hun was reported to have two para divisions there (even though without their parachutes) and to have brought up a marine division from Hamburg.

I felt that we should take the last pockets slowly, and not lose a man more than we could help. By this I meant send over every bomber we possessed until there was nothing left, and then turn to the next place.

But I was not sure that this was what the public wanted. They wanted the war to be finished as quickly as possible. Unfortunately they had already been told by the Press that it was virtually over.

It was said that there were 130,000 dozen bottles of bubbly in Bremen, but it was suggested that this was a rumour in order to encourage us to capture the place more quickly.

At this time there was a good deal of chat at all levels about the Army’s two most serious problems, fraternisation and looting. Very strict instructions had been given about fraternisation, which was defined for us as:

(a) Talking (except on duty), laughing and eating with Germans. (b) Playing games with them. (c) Giving them food or chocolate, even to children. (d) Shaking hands with them. (e) Allowing children to climb on a car. (f) Sharing a house with them. All this was quite right and one only hoped it could be enforced as it was completely contrary to the nature of the British soldier.

Looting presented a greater problem since it was so hard to define. Difficulties arose over such articles as cars, food, luxuries like eggs and fruit, prohibited articles such as cameras and shot-guns, and wine. We had more or less come to agreement amongst ourselves that we were going to take only:

(a) What was necessary to make ourselves more comfortable, such as bedding or furniture.

(b) Luxuries that the Huns could well get on without, e.g. eggs and fruit, but not food such as meat or poultry.

(c) Forbidden articles we wanted for our own personal use, such as shot-guns, cartridges, cameras, field-glasses.

(d) Wine (which was mostly looted from France already).

There was an anti-looting strafe at Brigade H.Q., and the Commander ordered that nothing which was not an article of Army rations was to be served in their mess.

The Brigade Major told me that while the Commander was pinned down as it were, on the throne that morning, a Jock of his passed his field of vision with a side of bacon, followed shortly after by another with a wireless set, followed a few minutes later by a third with a goose under his arm. Whereupon he rose in his wrath, sent for his Brigade Major and issued several fresh edicts, the effect of which was that there would probably be no looting at Brigade, for at least a week.

See Martin Lindsay: So Few Got Through

Sherman tanks of the 1st Coldstream Guards, Guards Armoured Division, shooting at enemy positions in a wood during the advance in Germany, 13 April 1945.
Sherman tanks of the 1st Coldstream Guards, Guards Armoured Division, shooting at enemy positions in a wood during the advance in Germany, 13 April 1945.
Men of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders during the advance in Germany, 29 April 1945. Pte Fred Greener pushes a bicycle loaded with mortar bombs.
Men of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders during the advance in Germany, 29 April 1945. Pte Fred Greener pushes a bicycle loaded with mortar bombs.

Allies launch the last big offensive in Italy

A casualty is brought back across the River Reno during operations by 'C' Company, 1st London Irish Rifles to establish a bridgehead across the river, 6 April 1945.
A casualty is brought back across the River Reno during operations by ‘C’ Company, 1st London Irish Rifles to establish a bridgehead across the river, 6 April 1945.

The long hard slog up Italy was nearing the end. The Allies were almost out of the mountains, the natural defensive features that had favoured the Germans and hindered progress since 1943. Now they were ready to push north east into the open country beyond Bologna towards the River Po. The US 5th Army would attack on the left the British 8th Army on the right.

Major Ray Ward commanded A Company of 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. ‘It was a big push, one of of the biggest of the war’, although little remembered now by comparison with the other big attacks in northern europe. A Company had the task of seizing the banks of the River Senio before the other companies moved through their positions:

The morning of Monday 9 April 1945 heralded the noisiest day I have ever lived through.

At 1440 hours, four hours and 40 minutes before H-hour, A and D companies pulled back from the positions at the river bank. At 1505, sections from A Company ran forward and threw and fired cortex mats to blow up mines and booby traps on top of the near floodbank, then withdrew 200 metres under covering fire.

All four companies then lay low in their assembly areas, to be clear of the artillery bombardment. Fifteen minutes later, all hell broke loose.

For four hours, the Germans were bombarded by artillery and mortars and bombed and strafed at intervals by hundreds of Allied aircraft. Thousands of fragmentation bombs hit enemy artillery dugouts and reserve areas. Sunset that day illuminated a hellish pall of smoke and dust across the German lines. The noise was thunderous. For the beleaguered Jerries it must have seemed like the end of the world.

Even for the battle-hardened troops on our side, it was an unnerving experience. For the rookies in our battalion it was a terrifying one. Some, not many, had little stomach for it and took a powder. They didn’t get far. They were soon rounded up by MPs to face court martial. To run away and leave your comrades in these circumstances was shameful and unforgivable and they deserved all they got.

Inspecting our assembly area, I was furious to find two young Jocks cowering in their slit trench, clearly too afraid to move. ‘Get out of there! Noise won’t hurt you,’ I yelled. They wouldn’t budge, even when the sergeant major appeared at my side and threatened to shoot them. ‘Miserable bastards. Fuck!’

I’ve no idea what happened to them, whether they caught up later or deserted. I had enough on my plate to bother. I had some sympathy for the poor devils, having seen the effect of bombing and shelling on better men. The Senio was the most frightening introduction to frontline soldiering they could have had. Fortunately their behaviour wasn’t copied by any of the Jocks in A Company, who went forward to the attack resolutely when the time came.

During that frightful commotion — shells whining and aero engines whirring overhead, the crumps of exploding bombs and sporadic return fire – we were compelled to lie huddled in our slit trenches. I made periodic tours of our position, assuming an air of nonchalance I did not feel, to cheer the men up and show them there was nothing to be afraid of.

They thought I was mad, but on that day I didn’t much care what happened to me. If I was killed, as so many others had been in the long campaign, I would have died in a cause most of us believed in.

Nevertheless I was convinced I would survive the war, despite tempting providence by an occasional show of reckless bravado. Luck was everything. Experience seemed irrelevant. Mortar stonks killed two of our men and wounded seven others as they sat waiting for H-hour. CSM Carruthers, one of the battalion’s most seasoned regulars, a veteran of Sidi Barrani where he had won the Military Medal, was shot and killed by a sniper.

‘No one,’ Mac had observed grimly at Faenza, ‘get’s out of the infantry. Just the cowards, and the dead.’

About 10 minutes before we were to go over the top, Churchill tanks drove through our position to shoot up the enemy on the floodbanks. Immediately afterwards, Wasp and Crocodile flamethrowers trundled up to within 25 metres of the near bank. For five minutes, they blazed away at suspected enemy dugouts.

Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.
Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.

The banks of the Senio sizzled with flame and the air stank with petrol fumes. Oily black smoke billowed towards us. The armoured vehicles withdrew.

Dozens of fighter-bombers came over, streaking above our heads to strike further terror into the hearts of the enemy. They made several low-level attacks with bombs and cannon, hitting enemy artillery and spandau positions, forward HQ areas and any Jerry foolish enough to move. By this time, the mere sound of aero engines kept enemy heads down.

Then came the final run, a dummy one. Under its cover, the assault companies of the 8th Indian and 2nd New Zealand divisions launched their attack.

At 1920 hours, we sprang from our trenches and sprinted forward through the flames, smoke and fading light. We knew we only had seconds to seize the Senio before Jerry, sheltering in his bunkers, recovered from the bombardment and grabbed his weapons.

Charges designed to blow a hole in the floodbank for us failed to explode, as the leads had been cut by shelling. In the event, that didn’t matter. My men scrambled up and captured the near bank, hurled cortex matting down the reverse slope and flung a kapok bridge across the narrow trench of the river. Within minutes, we were across and up and over the far bank, and secured a bridgehead.

I gave some Jerries a burst from my tommy gun to keep their heads down. I saw one of my men have a miraculous escape. He trod on an S-mine which shot up in front of him and hung in the air, chest high. It failed to explode. The Jock collapsed in a dead faint.

See Ray Ward: The Mirror of Monte Cavallara

A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945.
A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945.
A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, Italy, 10 April 1945.
A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, Italy, 10 April 1945.

Death of a Danish hero – Anders Lassen VC

Corporal Aubrey of the SBS (Special Boat Service) sharpens his fighting knife as he prepares for combat.
Corporal Aubrey of the SBS (Special Boat Service) sharpens his fighting knife as he prepares for combat.

On the night of 8th – 9th April 1945 eighteen men from the Special Boat Service set out across Lake Comacchio to attack heavily defended German positions. The assault was led by a Danish national, 24 year old Major Anders Lassen, already a legend within the British Special Forces, three times decorated with the Military Cross for his exploits during raiding parties on enemy occupied ships and positions.

He was originally recruited by the Special Operations Executive after he arrived in Britain as a merchant seaman in 1940. They judged his independent character unsuitable for covert spying but well suited to raiding and patrolling. He began his career for the British with a raid on a Spanish ship in African waters – and then graduated to the Small Scale Raiding Force which made covert cross Channel raids on the Channel Islands and the French coast, before joining the new Special Boat Service in the Mediterranean in 1942.

A recent biography of Lassen has collected a number of recollections by men who served with him:

He had the character of a first rate soldier and reacted in a flash. I never saw Andy hesitate to open fire, and as such he could have been labeled a killing machine; but that was the only way to survive.

one of those people who are quite fearless and also, at times, quite ruthless, a potential berserker. A truly heroic figure in the Iliadic sense, the sheer force of his personality meant that uneducated Greeks could usually understand him, even though he spoke only a few words of their language. This struck me quite strongly during the hours I was with him. He was tall and blonde and intrepid-looking, but the Nazi occupation of Denmark had made him a bit unbalanced in certain respects.

Thus it was that while he and his sergeant were going through the small rooms of the German and Italian barrack-building outside Phira, a couple of nights before, Lassen had orders his companions to wake up the sleeping enemy soldiers before cutting their throats, so that they should know what was happening to them. The sergeant had refused. Nothing was said at the time, but when I met up with the party at the Perissa monastery Lassen was insisting on putting his sergeant on a charge for disobeying orders. The other officers had tried to dissuade him without much success.

He told me about the incident at some length, during our leisurely afternoon together; naturally I too advised him to calm down, that the sergeant had after all been completely right. Eventually he did calm down, or at least not press the charge, but it reminded one that war was a dirty business all right.

A very youthful looking person with a gentle voice; which gave a somewhat false impression of him! I still believe that he was one of the toughest and bravest men I have ever had the honour of knowing. Even in the SBS (the British Special Boat Service), which were handpicked, hardened men who hit the Germans hard with everything they had at each given opportunity, he succeeded in standing out. I can’t imagine any higher praise.

Read more of these accounts in Anders Lassen’s War, there are more stories and excerpts on the website of author Thomas Harder.

The night of 8th/9th April, fifth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Denmark, saw Lassen’s luck run out. He was killed after approaching a German machine gun nest that was apparently surrendering. Nevertheless his raiding force had achieved their objective, simulating a much larger attack and diverting German attention from the main attack that was to follow.

Anders Lassen, VC
Anders Lassen, VC

This is the citation for the Victoria Cross posthumously awarded to Lassen for the action on the 8/9th April 1945:

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to: Major (temporary) Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau LASSEN, M.C. (234907), General List. In Italy, on the night of 8/9 April 1945, Major Lassen was ordered to take out a patrol of one officer and seventeen other ranks to raid the north shore of Lake Comacchio. His tasks were to cause as many casualties and as much confusion as possible, to give the impression of a major landing, and to capture prisoners.

No previous reconnaissance was possible, and the party found itself on a narrow road flanked on both sides by water. Preceded by two scouts, Major Lassen led his men along the road towards the town. They were challenged after approximately 500 yards from a position on the side of the road. An attempt to allay suspicion by answering that they were fishermen returning home failed, for when moving forward again to overpower the sentry, machinegun fire started from the position, and also from two other blockhouses to the rear. Major Lassen himself then attacked with grenades, and annihilated the first position containing four Germans and two machineguns.

Ignoring the hail of bullets sweeping fire road from three enemy positions, an additional one having come into action from 300 yards down the road, he raced forward to engage the second position under covering fire from the remainder of the force. Throwing in- more grenades he silenced this position which was then overrun by his patrol. Two enemy were killed, two captured and two more machine-guns silenced. By this time the force had suffered casualties and its firepower was very considerably reduced.

Still under a heavy cone of fire Major Lassen rallied and reorganised his force and brought his fire to bear on the third position. Moving forward himself he flung in more grenades which produced a cry of ” Kamerad “. He then went forward to within three or four yards of the position to order the enemy outside, and to take their surrender. Whilst shouting to them to come out he was hit by a burst of spandau fire from the left of the position and he fell mortally wounded, but even whilst falling he flung a grenade, wounding some of the occupants, and enabling his patrol to dash in and capture this final position.

Major Lassen refused to be evacuated as he said it would impede the withdrawal and endanger further lives, and as ammunition was nearly exhausted the force had to withdraw. By his magnificent leadership and complete disregard for his personal safety, Major Lassen had, in the face of overwhelming superiority, achieved his objects.

Three positions were wiped out, accounting for six machine guns, killing eight and wounding others of the enemy, and two prisoners were taken. The high sense of devotion to duty and the esteem in which he was held by the men he led, added to his own magnificent courage, enabled Major Lassen to carry out all the tasks he had been given with complete success.

'Fantails' or Buffalo amphibians transport German prisoners through a flooded landscape south of Lake Comacchio, 11 April 1945.
‘Fantails’ or Buffalo amphibians transport German prisoners through a flooded landscape south of Lake Comacchio, 11 April 1945.

US planes sink Yamato – world’s largest battleship

Dramatic picture of Yamato during sea trials.
Dramatic picture of Yamato during sea trials in 1941.

The Japanese defenders of Okinawa were not quite alone. On the 6th April the Japanese decided to make one more attempt to support them. Intended to be a knockout blow they assembled over 300 planes for an assault on the US Fleet of over 1000 ships assembled off Okinawa. Their targets were the aircraft carriers and battleships – but the main casualties were amongst the destroyers forming a protective picket on the edge of the fleet.

U.S. aircraft, such as this Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldiver, begin their attacks on Yamato (center left). A Japanese destroyer is in the center right of the picture.
U.S. aircraft, such as this Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldiver, begin their attacks on Yamato (center left). A Japanese destroyer is in the center right of the picture.
Yamato steering to avoid bombs and aerial torpedoes during Operation Ten-Go.
Yamato steering to avoid bombs and aerial torpedoes during Operation Ten-Go.

At the same time another suicide mission was launched, Operation Ten Go. The battleship Yamato, at 72,800 tonnes with nine 46 cm (18.1 inch) main guns, was (with her sister ship Musashi, sunk in October 1944) the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleship ever constructed. She was now given sufficient fuel to reach Okinawa with orders to cause as much havoc as possible.

It had been the Japanese who had demonstrated the vulnerability of capital ships in the age of naval air power with the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in 1941. Now Yamato was despatched without any air cover at all. It was inevitable that she would face assault from the massed planes of the US Fifth Fleet. Despite the fact she had 150 anti-aircraft guns the odds were not in her favour.

Yamato had been spotted by US submarines leaving port on the 6th and planes had begun shadowing her at 1000 on the 7th. At 1200 squadrons of Hellcat and Corsair fighters arrived overhead to deal with any Japanese plans escorting her – there were none. Shortly afterwards the first wave of over 280 Helldiver dive bombers, and Avenger torpedo bombers began their attack.

On board was junior officer Yoshida Mitsuru:

1220 hours: our air search radar picks up three blips, each apparently a large formation.

In his usual guttural voice Petty Officer Hasegawa, chief of the antiaircraft radar room, gives a running commentary on their range and bearing. “Contacts. Three large formations. Approaching.”

On the instant we send out emergency signals to every ship in the task force.

Each ship increases its speed to twenty-five knots. As one, they turn. “100 degrees exact.” (Without changing its shape, the formation turns simultaneously onto a course of 100 degrees.)

Once the P.A. passes on word of the approaching planes, the ship, quiet already, becomes quieter still. As the radar tracks the blips, the data is transmitted to us moment by moment over the voice tube: … range 30,000 meters, bearing 160 degrees … second raid, range 25,000 meters, bearing 85 degrees…

How many times, in target practice, have we conducted such tracking? I am possessed by the illusion that we have already experienced searches under the same conditions, with the same battle positions, even with the same mood.

What is going on before my very eyes, indisputably, is actual combat — but how can I possibly convince myself of that fact?

The blips are not an imagined enemy but an enemy poised for the kill. The location: not our training waters, but hostile waters.

Nevertheless, as I pass the reports along mechanically, I am nonchalant, proceed too much by routine. A battle against aircraft – it is at hand! All the lookouts focus on the bearings of the approaching raids. At this moment a light rain shrouds the ocean like a mist; visibility is now at its worst.

The moment we spot the American planes will probably be the moment they attack. 1232 hours: the gruff voice of the second watch – “Two Grummans, port 25 degrees, elevation 8 degrees, range 4,000 meters. Moving right.”

Quickly I spot them with naked eye. The ceiling is between 1,000 and 1,500 meters.

We have spotted them, but conditions are the worst possible: they are already too close; aiming is very difficult. “First raid: five planes … more than ten planes … more than thirty …

A large squadron appears out of a gap in the clouds. Every ten or twelve planes peel off in formation and make a sweeping turn to starboard.

Dead ahead, another large flight. Already entering attack formation.

“More than one hundred enemy planes attacking!” Is it the navigation officer who calls this out?

Inevitable that both torpedoes and bombs will focus on Yamato. The captain orders: “Commence firing.”

Twenty-four antiaircraft guns and 120 machine guns open fire at the same moment. The main guns of the escort destroyers, too, flash in unison. The battle begins.

Here and now we fire the first shots of this desperate, death-inviting battle. My baptism by fire. I feel like puffing out my chest, and my legs want to dance; restraining myself, I measure the weight pressing down on my knees.

As my whole body tingles with excitement, I observe my own exhilaration; as I grit my teeth, I break into a grin. A sailor near me is felled by shrapnel. In the midst of the overwhelming noise, I distinguish the sound of his skull striking the bulkhead; amid the smell of gunpowder all around, I smell blood.

A shrill voice: “The enemy is using both torpedoes and bombs!”

On the left outer edge of the formation, Hdmakaze all of a sudden seems to expose her crimson belly, then lifts her stern up into the air.

In almost no time thereafter bombs landed one after another on the disabled ship. She was enveloped in columns of water, pillars of fire.

The tracks of the torpedoes are a beautiful white against the water, as if someone were drawing a needle through the water; they come pressing in, aimed at Yamato from a dozen different directions and intersecting silently. Estimating by sight their distance and angle on the plotting board, we shift course to run parallel to the torpedoes and barely succeed in dodging them.

We deal first with the closest, most urgent one; when we get to a point far enough away from it that we can be sure we have dodged it, we turn to the next. Dealing with them calls for vigilance, calculation, and decision.

The captain is out in the open in the antiaircraft command post overlooking the whole ship. Two ensigns attend him and plot on the maneuver board the torpedoes coming from all directions, indicating them to him with pointers. The navigation officer sits in the captain’s seat on the bridge; acting as one, the two men operate the ship. Coming over the voice tube, the captain’s orders deafen me. His is a terrible and angry voice, biting off the ends of words. Bombs, bullets focus on the bridge.

Opening her engines with their 150,000 horsepower to full throttle, straining at her top battle speed of twenty-seven knots, and turning her rudders hard to either side, Yamato continues her desperate evasive maneuvers. This ship boasts of being as stable on open sea as on tetra firma; even so she experiences extreme listing and vibration. The creaking of her hull and the grating of her fittings make a din.

See Yoshida Mitsuru: Requiem for Battleship Yamato .

Yamato under attack. A large fire burns aft of her superstructure and she is low in the water from torpedo damage.
Yamato under attack. A large fire burns aft of her superstructure and she is low in the water from torpedo damage.

By 1402 it was over. Dead in the water and sinking after having been hit by a series of bombs and torpedoes, Admiral Ito ordered the crew to abandon ship. Some men got off but at 1423 she was ripped apart by a massive explosion when fire reached her magazines, the water pumps designed to prevent this having already been put out of action.

Around 3,700–4,250 men from Yamato and her escort ships were dead. The US Navy had lost 12 planes and ten men. The six US Navy battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-one destroyers that were lined up to deal with the Yamato, in case the planes somehow failed, were not needed.

Yamato photographed during the battle by an aircraft from USS Yorktown (CV-10). The battleship is on fire and visibly listing to port.
Yamato photographed during the battle by an aircraft from USS Yorktown (CV-10). The battleship is on fire and visibly listing to port.
Yamato's magazine explodes bringing a sudden violent end to the ship.
Yamato’s magazine explodes bringing a sudden violent end to the ship.

As the Allies move east, the refugees move west

Infantry and carriers in the German town of Lingen, 6 April 1945.
Infantry and carriers in the German town of Lingen, 6 April 1945.
Forced Labour Conscription: A group of liberated slave labourers enjoy cigarettes given to them by British paratroopers. The 'SU' painted on their clothes indicates that they are Russians.
Forced Labour Conscription: A group of liberated slave labourers enjoy cigarettes given to them by British paratroopers. The ‘SU’ painted on their clothes indicates that they are Russians.

One aspect of the Nazi treatment of people from their conquered territories might well have attracted more attention, had it not been overshadowed by more sinister discoveries as the war drew to a close. Suddenly as the Allied armies moved into the heart of Germany they discovered the true meaning and scale of the Nazi enslavement of Europe.

Peter White was an officer with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. On the 6th April 1945 they were ordered to forward in motor transport, making a rapid advance to catch up with the 7th Armoured Division that had driven a wedge deep into Germany. The progress was slowed by the volume of traffic coming the other way:

Here at last were some positive clues for us to add to our deductions and rumours as to the military positions. As soon as we got on to this road we began to meet among traffic coming in the opposite direction, waves of motley, liberated personnel.

They came, drunk from the joy of it… and sometimes just plain drunk… on foot, in looted cars and carts or by pushbike, cheering and saluting, Russian, Polish and French Displaced persons and Russian POWs.

For the next 50 to 100 miles this tide of fugitive humanity grew steadily into a torrent. They became the tenor and in many cases the means of the sudden demise of wayside farmers and members of their families on whom they descended at nightfall for food, plunder and often rape.

The squarely built Russian soldiers, as heavy in their appearance as they seemed in their wits, saluted every Allied object that moved, apparently without fail, on roads nose to tail with army transport.

See Peter White: With the Jocks: A Soldier’s Struggle for Europe 1944-45

Journalist Alan Moorehead was also making his way east, just behind the advancing troops:

As soon as we crossed the Rhine we were confronted by a problem almost as big as Germany herself; the millions upon millions of semi-slave workers.

With every mile we went into Germany they grew more numerous on the roads: little groups of Frenchmen, then Dutch, then Belgians and Czechs and Poles and Italians, and finally, in overwhelming majority, the Russians in their bright green uniforms with ‘SU’— Soviet Union – painted in white on their backs.

Half the nationalities of Europe were on the march, all moving blindly westward along the roads, feeling their way by some common instinct towards the British and American lines in the hope of finding food and shelter and transportation there.

These millions lived a vagabond existence. At every bend of the road you came on another group, bundles on their shoulders, trudging along the ditches in order to avoid the passing military traffic.

The Germans were terrified of the Russians. Again and again women ran out to us to cry: ‘Can’t you leave a guard with us? The Russians have taken everything. The next lot will smash up the place if they find nothing.’ More than that the German women feared for themselves. Cases of rape increased. The looting increased. And still that vast moving human frieze kept pouring down the roads, constantly augmenting its numbers with every new town that was captured.

One began to get a new picture of Nazi Germany. VVhat we were seeing was something from the dark ages, the breaking up of a medieval slave state. All the Nazi flags and parades and con- quests in the end were based on this one thing — slave labour. There was something monstrous about the wired-in worker’s compounds and sentry boxes round each factory, something that was in defiance of all accepted ideas of civilization.

As yet, in early April, we had only begun to glimpse the extent and depth of the Nazi terror system, but already one sensed the utter disregard of the value of human life in Germany. And now the Reich was collapsing at its roots because the slaves were melting away.

One saw mostly women in the country towns and in the farms as we passed on; nearly all the German men were either at the front or prisoners or dead. And the slaves were on the road. There was no longer anyone to sow the crop, no one to reap the harvest later on.

Here and there a foreigner chose to remain with his German master. Indeed, on the whole the country labourers got sufficient food and they looked healthy enough. But nothing on earth would have kept the industrial workers in the factories and the mines once the Germans had gone. First they rushed out into the streets to loot. Then they took the road to the west until they drifted into hastily made British and American camps where some attempt was made to sort them out and send them home.

See Alan Moorehead: Eclipse

Prayers are led by a German priest over the graves of 800 slave labourers massacred by the SS at Passau. The American Third Army authorities ordered that the local people be forced to dig individual graves so that each might have a decent burial.
Prayers are led by a German priest over the graves of 800 slave labourers massacred by the SS at Passau. The American Third Army authorities ordered that the local people be forced to dig individual graves so that each might have a decent burial.
Three Russian girls still wearing their slave labour uniforms photographed soon after their arrival at No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre, Hamburg Zoological Gardens.
Three Russian girls still wearing their slave labour uniforms photographed soon after their arrival at No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre, Hamburg Zoological Gardens.

Wounded captive to conqueror in a day

A B-24 Liberator of the 467th Bomb Group during a mission over Osnabruck. Handwritten caption on reverse: 'Osnabruck 23/3/45 467 BG.'
A B-24 Liberator of the 467th Bomb Group during a mission over Osnabruck. Handwritten caption on reverse: ‘Osnabruck 23/3/45 467 BG.’
A Comet tank of 11th Armoured Division rolls past German civilians during the advance to Osnabruck, 2-3 April 1945.
A Comet tank of 11th Armoured Division rolls past German civilians during the advance to Osnabruck, 2-3 April 1945.

If the situation in Germany was confusing to the senior German commanders it was no less so on the ground, where the front line was continually moving. Simultaneously there were shifting loyalties amongst the German troops, with many trying to find the right opportunity to surrender.

The Reverend Terence Quinlan, Senior Brigade Chaplain and R.C. Chaplain to the 1st Commando Brigade describes the situation around the German town of Osnabruck, which was occupied by the British on 5th April:

At a fork in the road to Osnabruck I took the wrong turning. I was in my jeep with my driver. The first we knew anything was wrong was a sniper’s bullet. It was a rotten shot and missed us by miles. We decided it was just an odd sniper, and pushed on, but 100 yards down the road a fusillade broke out from all sides. The hail of bullets shot the tires to pieces and we had to stop. We baled out pretty promptly and crouched down behind the jeep looking for cover. Then I was hit in the back of the leg and bled profusely.

I made a dash for a house by the road, but the door was locked. I hammered on the door with my stick, and a woman opened it. She looked alarmed, but I limped in and my driver joined me. The Jerries must have been rotten shots, or we should have been cut to pieces. While my wound was being attended to, ten or fifteen Germans walked into the basement. They let my driver finish dressing the wound, then told us to get outside. It was then I noticed a row of the German field grey hats poking up behind a hedge.

We were led across country, through gardens and over railway embankments. They were a most disorderly crowd. There were at least 100 of them, and they just straggled along. I told them they were completely surrounded and they might just as well give up. Some were muttering among themselves and appeared quite willing, but two N.C.O.s ordered them on. They told me their officers had left them the day before.

I had walked about a mile when my leg began to bleed again, so an escort of two Germans was left to guard my driver and me. We entered the south of Osnabruck. We were the first British to enter that part of the town, and I asked the escort if there was a church nearby. He pointed to one, and I sat on the steps to rest my leg. Immediately a large crows of foreign workers gathered, attracted by British soldiers with green berets. I asked one of the workers to fetch a priest, who offered me the hospitality of his house. He gave us lunch – my escort as well – and told me he could be shot for harbouring British soldiers.

I then turned to the two German soldiers and asked them: “Are we with you, or you with us?” and they replied: “With you.” They threw away their ammunition and rifles and became our prisoners. It was then reported that some British troops with guns were in the south of the town, so I asked them to send for a doctor and ambulance. The doctor arrived, patched me up, and drove me and my prisoners to the centre of the town to meet up with my Commandos who were in the north-west of Osnabruck.

We began to walk through Osnabruck, and the populace gazed in wonderment, for we were the first British troops in that part. We met my Commandos and handed over our prisoners. The next day I saw a number of other prisoners brought in and I recognized many of them who had been among my captors the previous day.

This account first appeared in ‘The War Illustrated’ magazine May 25, 1945. The British Army would maintain a large garrison in Osnabruck until 2008.

Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade in Osnabruck, 4 April 1945.
Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade in Osnabruck, 4 April 1945.
Liberated Russian slave workers being rescued from a cellar after it had been set on fire by a German policeman, Osnabruck, 7 April 1945.
Liberated Russian slave workers being rescued from a cellar after it had been set on fire by a German policeman, Osnabruck, 7 April 1945.

The Germans fall back in increasing disarray

A Churchill tank crew and US Airborne troops in Munster, 4 April 1945.
A Churchill tank crew and US Airborne troops in Munster, 4 April 1945.
A Sherman tank of the Royal Scots Greys, 7th Armoured Division, crossing the Dortmund-Ems Canal, 4 April 1945.
A Sherman tank of the Royal Scots Greys, 7th Armoured Division, crossing the Dortmund-Ems Canal, 4 April 1945.

The German forces in western Germany were now falling back in some disorder. The German High Command struggled to comprehend what was going on and Hitler resorted to re-arranging his generals and armies.

General Blumentritt was commander in Holland, ordered to delay the Allied advance in the north. He would soon be given a much larger role in command of “Army Group Blumentritt”, a miscellaneous collection of German units in northern Germany extending all the way up to the Baltic. It was another consequence of Hitler’s continual re-organisation of his forces that increasingly denied the reality of the situation:

The battles now beginning east of the Rhine were often obscure to us. Without an air force and with only a few tanks, without supplies, we could no longer fight as ably as formerly.

The means of communication failed, there was often no communication with the corps and divisions of the Army, and many units had to act independently. Also communications with the higher echelons of command grew worse and worse. For days no orders came, often the sectors of the Army were suddenly altered, divisions were taken away, new units brought up.

Firm tactical leadership was no longer possible, reconnaissance failed to an increasing extent and we frequently did not know where the enemy was.

General Günther Blumentritt

Field-Marshal Kesselring had taken over command in the west on the 10th March, relieving Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, who once again had fallen out of favour because he spoke the truth. At the time Kesselring gave every impression that he still believed in ‘final victory’, demanding the severest measures to shore up discipline. In his post war memoirs he painted a different picture:

The enormously costly battles of the last half-year and constant retreat and defeat had reduced officers and men to a dangerous state of exhaustion. Many officers were nervous wrecks, others affected in health, others simply incompetent, while there was a dangerous shortage of junior officers.

In the ranks strengths were unsatisfactory, replacements arriving at the front insufficiently trained, with no combat experience, in driblets, and, anyway, too late. They were accordingly no asset in action. Only where an intelligent commander had a full complement of experienced subalterns and a fair nucleus of elder men did units hold together.

… The supply situation was bad; in some areas critical. Complicated by uncertainty as to the arrival of supply trains, it made wrong distributions inevitable. The railway network was badly battered, and if further stretches of line were put out of action, could no longer be reckoned with.

Furthermore, symptoms of disintegration were perceptible behind the from which gave cause for uneasiness. The number of ‘missing’ was a disquieting indication that a rot was setting in.

Field-Marshal Kesselring

'No Way Out'. Sgt J D Eilbeck uses a portrait of Adolf Hitler to make a 'no exit' sign at 156th Brigade HQ, 3 - 4 April 1945.
‘No Way Out’. Sgt J D Eilbeck uses a portrait of Adolf Hitler to make a ‘no exit’ sign at 156th Brigade HQ, 3 – 4 April 1945.

On the ground the eventual outcome seemed ever more inevitable but pockets of German resistance still had to be overcome. This meant that the death and destruction continued as ever, although increasingly the Germans suffered worst:

The Germans, letting go the Rhine, fell back in retreat, leaving road blocks and detachments of men to engage us in delaying actions. Sometimes during the following week, the enemy dug in to make a desperate stand only to have large numbers of its men throw down their arms and stream towards us in surrender. After a disorganized rout, collapse and retreat, more road blocks were thrown up and the wounded German Army fell back still farther.

One of the delaying actions made by the Germans, though of short duration and of obvious uselessness, stands out as one of the more ghastly episodes of the war.

We were advancing down a road in convoy when a German tank drove out of a grove of trees, fired point-blank, killed two of our men, and then retreated from sight again. The convoy halted and two of our rifle companies went forward and surrounded the little grove that contained, they discovered, a platoon of German soldiers in deep foxholes. The German tank kept swivelling and firing, and after a while four of our own tanks came up. Each from a different direction sprayed the tiny stretch of woods with long streams of flaming gasoline.

Within a few seconds the place became an inferno, and the shrieks and screams of the Germans could be heard through the high curtains of fire. A few, in flames, tried to crawl through, but they were mowed down by our machine- guns.

Within a half hour we went on, and all that was left of the little wood was a deep bed of glowing golden coals, hideous to see and to think about in the spring sunlight.

The countryside grew extremely hilly and wooded; small towns, flying surrender flags, lay hidden in hollows. In the swiftness of pursuit, one company by mistake often seized another company’s town and had to double back to take its own objective. The convoy of trucks rushed into the towns; the infantrymen hopped down, cleared out the snipers, rounded up the prisoners, jumped into the trucks again and set out for the next town. Some days, in this fashion, as many as thirty miles were covered.

See Lester Atwell: Private

Universal carriers of the 4th King's Shropshire Light Infantry, 11th Armoured Division, pass through the burning village of Levern, 4 April 1945.
Universal carriers of the 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, 11th Armoured Division, pass through the burning village of Levern, 4 April 1945.
Young German prisoners captured by 11th Armoured Division in the village of Levern, 4 April 1945.
Young German prisoners captured by 11th Armoured Division in the village of Levern, 4 April 1945.

Okinawa – grim reality in Japanese underground hospital

Tank-borne infantry moving up to take the town of Ghuta before the Japanese can occupy it. The men are members of Colonel Victor Bleasdale’s 29th Marines.
Tank-borne infantry moving up to take the town of Ghuta before the Japanese can occupy it. The men are members of Colonel Victor Bleasdale’s 29th Marines.

On Okinawa it did not take long before the fighting erupted following the suspiciously quiet landings. The Japanese had already started to suffer casualties from the intense US naval and aerial bombardment.

Miyagi Kikuko was a 16 year old schoolgirl in the High School on Okinawa. Three days before the US invaded they held their graduation ceremony and all the 15 to 19 year old girls formally joined the Lily Student Corps. The boys joined the Blood and Iron Student Corps.

The following day the building was blasted apart by the US bombardment, but by then they were underground, preparing to assist in the military hospital, located, like most of the Japanese positions, in caves. Very soon after the invasion the casualties began to come in, and within days there were too many to cope with:

In no time at all, wounded soldiers were being carried into the caves in large numbers. They petrified us all. Some didn’t have faces, some didn’t have limbs. Young men in their twenties and thirties screaming like babies. Thousands of them.

At first, one of my friends saw a man with his toes missing and swooned. She actually sank to her knees, but soldiers and medics began screaming at her, “You idiot! You think you can act like that on the battlefield?”

Every day, we were yelled at: “Fools! Idiots! Dummies!” We were so naive and unrealistic. We had expected that somewhere far in the rear, we’d raise the red cross and then wrap men with bandages, rub on medicine, and give them shots as we had been trained. In a tender voice we’d tell the wounded, “Don’t give up, please.”

Now, they were being carried in one after another until the dugouts and caves were filled to overflowing, and still they came pouring in. Soon we were laying them out in empty fields, then on cultivated land. Some hemorrhaged to death and others were hit again out there by showers of bombs. So many died so quickly.

Those who had gotten into the caves weren’t so lucky either. Their turn to have their dressings changed came only once every week or two. So pus would squirt in our faces, and they’d be infested with maggots. Removing those was our job. We didn’t even have enough time to remove them one by one. Gas gangrene, tetanus, and brain fever were common.

Those with brain fever were no longer human beings. They’d tear their clothes off because of their pain, tear off their dressings. They were tied to the pillars, their hands behind their backs, and treatment stopped. At first, we were so scared watching them suffering and writhing that we wept. Soon we stopped. We were kept running from morning to night.

“Do this! Do that!” Yet, as underclassmen we had fewer wounded soldiers to take care of. The senior girls slept standing up. “Miss Student, I have to piss,” they’d cry. Taking care of their excrement was our work. Senior students were assigned to the operating rooms. There, hands and legs were chopped off without anesthesia. They used a saw. Holding down their limbs was a student job.

Outside was a rain of bullets from morning to night. In the evening, it quieted down a little. It was then that we carried out limbs and corpses. There were so many shell craters — it sounds funny to say it, but we considered that fortunate: holes already dug for us. “One, two, three!” we’d chant, and all together we’d heave the dead body into a hole, before crawling back to the cave. There was no time for sobbing or lamentation.

In that hail of bullets, we also went outside to get food rations and water. Two of us carried a wooden half-bushel barrel to the well. When a shell fell, we’d throw ourselves into the mud, but always supporting the barrel because the water was everybody’s water of life. Our rice balls shrank until they were the size of Ping-Pong balls. The only way to endure was to guzzle water. There was no extra water, not even to wash our faces, which were caked in mud.

We were ordered to engage in “nursing,” but in reality, we did odd jobs. We were in the cave for sixty days, until we withdrew to Ihara. Twelve people in our group – two teachers and ten students – perished. Some were buried alive, some had their legs blown off, five died from gas .

This account appears in Haruko Taya Cook(ed): Japan at War: An Oral History.

MOVING UP – Marine riflemen moving up behind flame-throwing tank on Okinawa.
MOVING UP – Marine riflemen moving up behind flame-throwing tank on Okinawa.
Marines assault a ridge supported by bazookas.  The action took place two miles north of Naha.
Marines assault a ridge supported by bazookas. The action took place two miles north of Naha.