The Waffen-SS retreat back over the Oder

A German Volkssturm unit awaits the Red Army on the banks of the Oder, February 1945.
A German Volkssturm unit awaits the Red Army on the banks of the Oder, February 1945.
A dead German following a Soviet artillery barrage on his position near the Oder.
A dead German following a Soviet artillery barrage on his position near the Oder.

In Europe the western Allies were on the banks of the Rhine, preparing for the last major push into Germany. In the east the Red Army was at the Oder, the last natural barrier on the eastern borders of Germany. The German situation was untenable, yet somehow the Nazis found the means and the motivation to carry on fighting.

Erik Wallin was a Swedish volunteer in the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division ‘Nordland’ which was mainly composed of men from Denmark Sweden and Norway. They had been involved in a fighting retreat westwards since the beginning of the year, until they held the Stettin bridgehead on the east side of the River Oder, :

The retreat and occupation of the new positions was not followed by the combat pause we so badly needed. In an unchangeable, implacable onslaught the Russian artillery hammered on with its shells. Explosive bullets whistled uninterruptedly with devastating results. The struggle had changed character. Previously it had raged over fields and groves and through separate small villages. But now it rolled from house to house, from street to street.

The circle around the defenders of Altdamm was increasingly tightened. Everywhere Red Army soldiers swarmed forward and were shot to pieces. But they were followed by new waves. This yellow-brown throng was like a lemming migration. They fell in drifts.

But over the corpses came new masses that raged without interruption, and without any sign of weakening. They waited around corners while the artillery, or the tanks, shot a defence ‘nest’ in a house to pieces. Then they rushed forth over the street, down into cellars, upstairs, and took the whole house, then on to the next. Was there no limit to their numbers?

Against this avalanche stood a fragile wall of completely exhausted men who were in mortal danger. They were SS men whose numbers shrank alarmingly day by day, even minute by minute. With the bitterness that characterised house-to-house fighting every man held out to the uttermost.

The lightly wounded only gave themselves time to get a bandage at the nearest first-aid station, before returning to their combat positions. Every single man who still had the strength to keep himself up and handle a weapon fought with a fury that I had never seen before.

But our fighting strength grew weaker and weaker. More and more men were brought back bloody and torn, never to return, and no reserves came to fill the ranks. Only a thin line of hardened, determined veterans remained. They were hungry, deathly tired, bloody, many with bandaged arms or heads, unshaven, black from soot and smoke, mud and lime-dust, with uniforms torn to pieces.

They felt their strength weaken but still determinedly clung to their weapons and aimed them with dev- astating effect against the seemingly endless assaulting forces. After three days of furious fighting from house to house, orders finally came, on 20 March, to retreat over the Oder bridge. The situation had become very dangerous.

The Red Army brought their main forces from the south, up along the banks of the Oder, to reach the bridge and with that, catch us in the bridgehead, as in a sack. In the afternoon, as the order reached us, we had managed to advance to a distance of only 300 metres, from the street that continued out on the bridge, our only way back.

With superhuman effort the rest of our Division managed to stop their advance for some hours, and as darkness fell, the retreat started. By then the Bolsheviks had had time to correct the fire of their anti-tank guns against this most important street.

It became a case of ‘running the gauntlet,’ because their observers could see the flames from the exhaust pipes of our vehicles, as We clat- tered and rumbled at full speed towards the bridge. They aimed their guns at the flashes. For the crews in our vehicles it was many minutes of unbearable stress, driving through the danger area and over the bridge, until they reached the slightly safer Stettin side. But everything went comparatively well and the bridge was not blown up until the last men of the rearguard had crossed over.

The bridgehead at Stettin was a piece of German land drenched with blood, where some of the German fighting forces’ best divisions desper- ately defended themselves against a wild assault by whole armies. But they had completed the task. The bridgehead had disappeared.

Where the fighting had raged, fallen Russians were lying by the thousands. Complete divisions of Stalin’s élite had been brought there. But then they were annihilated in the furious defensive fire from exhausted, shredded, dirty but steadfast, ‘field grey’ men.

Thousands of these brave farmers’ sons, factory workers and young students, youth from all classes of society, had been left over there in the roaring, burning inferno, but it had cost the enemy a high price. Was this fight against the cruel, savage giant of the east the last battle, the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ of which the folks of our old Nordic faith had spoken? The Russian power of attack had petered out, the assault divisions were no more, and it took time to bring forward new forces.

See Erik Wallin Twilight of the Gods: A Swedish Waffen-SS Volunteer’s Experiences with the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, Eastern Front 1944-45

Soviet engineers prepare a pontoon crossing of the river Oder. April 1945.
Soviet engineers prepare a pontoon crossing of the river Oder. April 1945.
A column of German prisoners sent to the rear of the 1st Ukrainian Front, on a bridge over the Oder.
A column of German prisoners sent to the rear of the 1st Ukrainian Front, on a bridge over the Oder.

Hundreds killed as USS Franklin hit by sneak bomber

Aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) attacked during World War II, March 19, 1945.
Aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) attacked during World War II, March 19, 1945. Photographed by PHC Albert Bullock from the cruiser USS Santa Fe (CL-60), which was alongside assisting with firefighting and rescue work. Photo #: 80-G-273880, Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. The carrier is afire and listing after she was hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the coast of Japan – the crew is clearly seen on flight deck. After the attack the vessel lay dead in the water, took a 13° starboard list, lost all radio communications, and broiled under the heat from enveloping fires. Many of the crewmen were blown overboard, driven off by fire, killed or wounded, but the hundreds of officers and enlisted who voluntarily remained saved their ship through sheer tenacity. The casualties totaled 724 killed and 265 wounded, and would have far exceeded this number if it were not for the exemplary work of many survivors.

On the 19th March 1945 the carrier USS Franklin was 50 miles off the coast of Japan, participating in air strikes against the main island of Honshu by Task Force 58. On deck were 31 armed and fueled aircraft about to be launched, with more armed and fuelled aircraft were in the hangar deck below. Suddenly a Japanese bomber emerged from the clouds and dropped two 250kg bombs.

The first bomb penetrated into the hangar deck, setting off a devastating series of aviation fuel and ammunition explosions. The force of these explosions erupted onto the flight deck setting off further fires and explosions amongst the waiting aircraft. The ship soon began to list and for a time it seemed that the Franklin was doomed.

Pacific War Correspondent Alvin S. McCoy sent this account, which subsequently appeared in War Illustrated in Britain:

I was the only war correspondent aboard, a dazed survivor of the holocaust only because I was below decks at breakfast in the unhit area. The rescue of the crippled carrier, towed flaming and smoking from the very shores of Japan, and the saving of more than 800 men fished from the sea by protecting cruisers and destroyers, will be an epic of naval warfare.

Heads bobbed in the water for miles behind the carrier. Men floated on rafts or swam about in the bitterly cold water to seize lifelines from the rescue ships and be hauled aboard. The official loss of life will be announced by the Navy Department in Washington. Unofficial figures at the time showed 949 dead, more than 221 wounded.

Scenes of indescribable horror swept the ship. Men were blown off the flight deck into the sea. Some were burned to cinders in the searing white-hot flash of flame that swept the hangar deck. Others were trapped in the compartments below and suffocated by smoke. Scores were drowned, and others torn by exploding shells and bombs.

Countless deeds of heroism and superb seamanship saved the carrier and about two-thirds of the ship’s complement if more than 2,500. The tenacity of the Franklin’s skipper, Captain L. E. Gehres, who refused to abandon the ship and accept the aid of protecting ships and planes, virtually snatched the carrier from Japanese waters to be repaired so that she can fight again.

Fire and damage control parties who stuck with the ship performed valiantly. The carrier was all but abandoned, although the “abandon ship” order was never given. An air group and about 1,500 of the crew were sent to the U.S.S. Sante Fé. A skeleton crew of some 690 remained aboard to try to save the ship as it listed nearly twenty degrees. The Franklin’s aircraft which were airborne landed safely on other carriers.

The official casualty figures were 724 killed and 265 wounded but subsequent research, taking into the number of men first shown as missing, has placed the figure at between 807 and 924 killed.

Contemporary newsreel of the incident, without sound but has graphic footage of other Japanese planes, probably kamikazes, being shot down:

Hitler wants apocalyptic destruction of Germany

Millions of German were fleeing from the East. Hitler wanted even more Germans to be evicted and large parts of German industry destroyed.
Millions of German were fleeing from the East. Hitler wanted even more Germans to be evicted and large parts of German industry destroyed.
Fighting in Pomerania, in what was then German soil, March 1945.
Fighting in Pomerania, on what was then German soil, March 1945.

As the war turned against Hitler he began issuing orders for “scorched earth” retreats. Everything that might be of value to the enemy in territory that they recovered was to be destroyed, either blown up or burnt. Large swathes of the Soviet Union had suffered as a result. Warsaw had been reduced to a pile of ashes. Hitler’s orders to blow up and burn Paris had not been carried out.

Now he began to prepare for the destruction of Germany itself in the same way.

The Armaments Minister, Albert Speer approached Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff:

At this time Speer, whose attitude towards the course of events was becoming one of increasing scepticism, came to see me. He brought me the information that Hitler intended to arrange for the destruction of all factories, water and electrical installations, railways and bridges before they should fall into enemy hands. Speer rightly pointed out that such a crazy deed must result in mass misery and death to the population of Germany on a scale never before seen in history. He asked for my help in ensuring that no such order be carried out.

On the 18th March Speer tried to prevent the situation by submitting a memorandum to Hitler:

It must be established that, in the event of the battles moving further into German territory, nobody is entitled to destroy industrial installations, mining installations, electrical and other utility works, communication facilities, or inland waterways.

A destruction of bridges on the scale at present envisaged would do more damage to our communications network than all the air raids of the past years. Their destruction implies the elimination of all chance of survival for the German people…

We have no right, at this stage of the war, to order demolitions which would affect the future existence of the German people. If the enemy has decided to destroy this nation, which has fought with unparalleled bravery, then the enemy must bear the guilt before history for such a deed.

It is our duty to leave the German nation all possible facilities which will enable that nation to re- arise at some time in the distant future.

However, according to General Guderian, Hitler was not even prepared to meet Speer to discuss the matter any further. He became enraged and declared, as he was to repeat to others over the following weeks:

If the war should be lost, then the nation, too, will be lost. That would be the nation’s unalterable fate. There is no need to consider the basic requirements that a people needs in order to continue to live a primitive life.

On the contrary, it is better ourselves to destroy such things, for this nation will have proved itself the weaker and the future will belong exclusively to the stronger Eastern nation. Those who remain alive after the battles are over are in any case only inferior persons, since the best have fallen.

See Heinz Guderian: Panzer Leader

Speer’s memorandum had achieved nothing and may even have made Hitler even more resolute in his attitude. On the following day Hitler issued his infamous ‘Nero Order’

It is a mistake to think that transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, which have not been destroyed, or have only been temporarily put out of action, can be used again for our own ends when the lost territory has been recovered. The enemy will leave us nothing but scorched earth when he withdraws, without paying the slightest regard to the population. I therefore order:

“1) All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.

Ultimately Speer and others were able to frustrate much of Hitler’s intentions by not implementing his instructions and by such measures as not releasing industrial explosives to those who would have followed the orders.

The destruction by bombing  of the Propaganda Ministry in central Berlin, 13 March 1945.
The destruction by bombing of the Propaganda Ministry in central Berlin, 13 March 1945.
Berliners, and many other Germans, would face a bleak existence at the end of the war. Had Hitler had his way it would have been many times worse.
Berliners, and many other Germans, would face a bleak existence at the end of the war. Had Hitler had his way it would have been many times worse.

Kuribayashi prepares to meet his end on Iwo Jima

Several M4A3 Sherman tanks equipped with flamethrowers were used to clear Japanese bunkers.
Several M4A3 Sherman tanks equipped with flamethrowers were used to clear Japanese bunkers.

On the 16th March the US Forces on the island of Iwo Jima had declared the island “occupied”. The statement, signalling at least the beginning of the end, was partly in response to the concern at home over the very heavy casualties.

The fighting was still far from over even if it might be described as “contained”, hundreds of Japanese were still hiding in their bunkers and doing everything possible to continue to cause casualties to the Americans.

At the same time General Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander, was considering his position. He had masterminded the tenacious defence of the island and inspired his men to fight to the end. His aim to cause maximum casualties, rather than die gloriously in the traditional suicidal Banzai charge, had been achieved. But, with his men weak from starvation and parched from lack of water, he realised there was little time left for them to carry on in this manner.

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.

He was still managing to communicate with Tokyo via an increasingly intermittent radio connection with the Japanese occupied island of Chichi Jima:

I have 400 men under my command. The enemy besieged us by firing and flame from their tanks. In particular, they are trying to approach the entrance of our cave with explosives. My men and officers are still fighting.

The enemy’s front lines are 300 meters from us, and they are attacking by tank firing. They advised us to surrender by loudspeaker, but we only laughed at this childish trick, and we did not set ourselves against them.

On the 17th Kuribayashi radioed his final message to Tokyo:

The battle is entering its final chapter. Since the enemy’s landing, the gallant fighting of the men under my command has been such that even the gods would weep.

In particular, I humbly rejoice in the fact that they have continued to fight bravely though utterly empty-handed and ill-equipped against a land, sea, and air attack of a material superiority such as surpasses the imagination.

One after another they are falling in the ceaseless and ferocious attacks of the enemy. For this reason, the situation has arisen whereby I must disappoint your expectations and yield this important place to the hands of the enemy. With humility and sincerity, I offer my repeated apologies.

Our ammunition is gone and our water dried up. Now is the time for us to make the final counterattack and fight gallantly, conscious of the Emperor’s favor, not begrudging our efforts though they turn our bones to powder and pulverize our bodies.

I believe that until the island is recaptured, the Emperor’s domain will be eternally insecure. I therefore swear that even when I have become a ghost I shall look forward to turning the defeat of the Imperial Army to victory.

I stand now at the beginning of the end. At the same time as revealing my inmost feelings, I pray earnestly for the unfailing victory and security of the Empire. Farewell for all eternity

It was with this message that he sent the traditional ‘death poem’ of Japanese soldiers to his commanders, setting out his sentiments as he faced death:

Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be the Imperial Land.

It would not be until 23rd March that Kuribayashi sent his final message to Chichi Jima:

All officers and men of Chichi Jima – goodbye from Iwo.

Nothing more is known about how Kuribashi met his end but it is likely that he died in the final attack from his position in ‘The Gorge’ on the 26th March. It was not a suicidal Banzai charge but a silent, co-ordinated attempt to inflict one last blow against the Americans. They crept into US positions and bayoneted soldiers as they slept before the alarm was raised – and then they were overcome during hand to hand fighting. It is believed that Kuribayashi removed his officers insignia so that his body would not be identified.

Later his son Taro Kuribayashi was to claim:

My father had believed it shameful to have his body discovered by the enemy even after death, so he had previously asked his two soldiers to come along with him, one in front and the other behind, with a shovel in hand. In case of his death, he had wanted them to bury his body there and then.

It seems that my father and the soldiers were killed by shells, and he was buried at the foot of a tree in Chidori village, along the beach near Osaka mountain. Afterwards, General Smith spent a whole day looking for his body to pay respect accordingly and to perform a burial, but in vain.

For the Japanese perspective on the fighting on Iwo Jima see Fighting Spirit: The Memoirs of Major Yoshitaka Horie and the Battle of Iwo Jima and Kumiko Kakehashi: Letters From Iwo Jima.

Out of the gaping mouths of Coast Guard and Navy Landing Craft, rose the great flow of invasion supplies to the blackened sands of Iwo Jima, a few hours after the Marines had wrested their foothold on the vital island.
Out of the gaping mouths of Coast Guard and Navy Landing Craft, rose the great flow of invasion supplies to the blackened sands of Iwo Jima, a few hours after the Marines had wrested their foothold on the vital island.

Shot down – the fate of one mid upper gunner

A No 57 Squadron mid-upper gunner, Sergeant 'Dusty' Miller, 'scans the sky for enemy aircraft' from a Lancaster's Fraser Nash FN50 turret. This image was part of a sequence taken for an Air Ministry picture story entitled 'T for Tommy Makes a Sortie', which portrayed the events surrounding a single Lancaster bomber and its crew during a typical operation.
A No 57 Squadron mid-upper gunner, Sergeant ‘Dusty’ Miller, ‘scans the sky for enemy aircraft’ from a Lancaster’s Fraser Nash FN50 turret. This image was part of a sequence taken for an Air Ministry picture story entitled ‘T for Tommy Makes a Sortie’, which portrayed the events surrounding a single Lancaster bomber and its crew during a typical operation.
Vertical aerial photograph showing an Avro Lancaster over the target area during the daylight raid on Adolf Hitler's chalet complex and the SS guard barracks at Obersalzburg near Berchtesgaden, Germany, by 359 Avro Lancasters and 16 De Havilland Mosquitos of Nos. 1, 5 and 8 Groups. Clouds of smoke from exploding bombs obscure most of the target, but the roofs of the Platterhof Pension can be seen at lower right.
Vertical aerial photograph showing an Avro Lancaster over the target area during the daylight raid on Adolf Hitler’s chalet complex and the SS guard barracks at Obersalzburg near Berchtesgaden, Germany, by 359 Avro Lancasters and 16 De Havilland Mosquitos of Nos. 1, 5 and 8 Groups. Clouds of smoke from exploding bombs obscure most of the target, but the roofs of the Platterhof Pension can be seen at lower right.

On Friday 16th March 1945 RAF Bomber Command sent 277 Lancasters to bomb Nuremburg, the last major raid on the city. The Luftwaffe demonstrated that their night fighters were still a potent force, shooting down 24 Lancasters, after they found their way into the bomber stream as it approached the target.

For each of the seven men on those 24 aircraft there would be terrifying experiences that night, many ending in oblivion. For the all the families of those crews there would be a long period of uncertainty before they learned whether their ‘missing’ sons were dead or not. Even when a death was confirmed there was rarely very much information available on how a loved one met his end.

Michael Goldstein was only five years old at the time. He would rely on the efforts of his uncle Ron to discover the fate of his father, Jacob ‘Jack’ Goldstein, who was a mid upper gunner on Lancaster RF154 (AS-B), nicknamed TARFU (‘Things Are Really ****** Up’):

They were due on the target, the central marshalling yards of Nuremberg, at 9.34pm. By 9.30pm, they were at 20,000 feet and on their approach to the target, which they could see in flames ahead of them. There had been some trouble with the rear guns en route, firing short bursts spontaneously, and again at this time.

There was some flak, and then fighter flares to both port and starboard. They were within seconds of releasing their bombs. And then it happened. My father was heard to shout “Corkscrew p…” — it was thought he was going to say “…port” but he didn’t get that far. By the time the rear gunner (Bob Green) yelled “Corkscrew Skipper for Christ’s sake!” it was too late.

There were shells ripping through the fuselage and starboard wing root which caught fire. The port wing was also on fire, and the bomb bay had also been hit, letting off the incendiaries and setting light to the aircraft floor. The extinguishers were emptied but to no avail. There was no option but to abandon the aircraft.

The bomb aimer (Chuck Goddard) got out first through the front escape hatch, then the flight engineer (Ted Hull). The navigator (Lefty Ethrington) first became stuck in that hatch by his parachute, but after a struggle managed to escape. In the rear turret, the guns had elevated and jammed the foot of the rear gunner (Bob Green); he manually cranked his turret round to ‘beam’, opened the turret doors, leaned out and pulled the ripcord; the opening parachute pulled him out, with his boots left behind.

The way out for the wireless operator (Alf White) was through the normal rear entrance towards the tail; as he made his way there, he passed my father still slung in his harness in the mid-upper gun turret, and slapped his legs in case he had not heard the pilot’s order to bale out.

Throughout this time the pilot (Bud Churchward) struggled to keep the ‘plane on an even keel. He saw the three get out through the front hatch, but would not be able to see the others exit via the rear. When he thought they were all gone, he gave a roll call to check, receiving a response only from the rear gunner (Bob Green). After Bob told him he was going, Bud asked if there was anyone still there. Not hearing any more, he assumed all had jumped. So he himself baled out.

It now seems fairly certain that my father did not bale out of the aircraft, and was likely already dead while still airborne. No-one heard him after his cry: “Corkscrew p…”, and no-one saw him leave; he was still in his harness when Alf White left. An Investigation Report, dated 6 December 1946, from the No 3 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit, British Armed Forces of Occupation, to the Air Ministry London, relating to Lancaster RF154 (my father’s aircraft on that fateful night) contains information about my father’s original burial (described below), and includes the following statement:

“…The other six crew members were taken prisoner, but the deceased [my father] had crashed with the burning aircraft…”

There is, however one anomaly. The aircraft was seriously on fire as it fell from the sky, as the six 1000lb incendiaries had been set off by the shells of the fighter which brought the aircraft down. The 4000lb bomb had not been released when the aircraft was hit, so would have been in the bomb bay when falling to the ground; if it was still in the aircraft when it crashed, which would have caused huge damage on impact. There are some suggestions (for example, from other crew on the raid that night) that the aircraft exploded before hitting the ground. Yet my father did not suffer major burning.

The exhumation report dated 24 June 1947, on my father’s reburial in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Durnbach, Bavaria, describes his clothing and equipment as: “Remains of RAF BD, Sgt’s chevrons, airman issue shirt, long woollen underwear, blue aircrew sweater, blue aircrew socks, airman issue braces. Issue flying boots, escape type. Remains of mae west, and electrically heated flying suit”. The fact that he was buried and re-buried in full flying gear is consistent with the body being very damaged.

German records show that at 9.31pm on 16 March 1995, a Lancaster bomber was shot down by Feldwebel (Sergeant) Schuster from Luftwaffe unit I./NJG5, north of Nuremberg. By all accounts, his aircraft was a Junkers JU88. The Lancaster crashed near Kammerstein, which is in the administrative region of Roth, Bavaria, south of Nuremberg.

As mentioned above, there is an Investigation Report to the Air Ministry dated 6 December 1946, the full text of which is:

“Herr Koelisch, Pfaffenhofen, near Roth was detailed on 17 March 1945 [the day after the night my father’s aircraft was shot down] by an officer from the Luftwaffe Station at Roth to proceed to the New Cemetery at Schwabach and bury seven English [sic] Flyers — the dead members of two crews who crashed near Schwabach in the evening of 16 March 1945. Six of these flyers were brought to the churchyard from a crash in the Penzendorfer Strasse, Schwabach, and Koellisch said that 3 were Canadian and 3 were English. (The aircraft was Lancaster I, PD275, and the seventh crew member, another Canadian, was captured by the Germans and became a Prisoner of War).

After their burial another English flyer was brought from a crash near Kammerstein. The other six crew members were taken prisoner, but the deceased [my father] had crashed with the burning aircraft. All the papers belonging to these Airmen had been taken by the Luftwaffe authorities in Roth. They were the only aircraft to crash in this area on 16 March 1945, therefore the airman taken from the crash at Kammerstein must be Sgt Goldstein. Sgt Goldstein was buried with the other six airmen in a communal grave in the New Cemetery at Schwabach”.

A ‘Graves Concentration Report Form’ completed 2 July 1948 identifies the six other airmen originally buried with my father in Schwabach — P/O Malyon, F/O Kerr and F/Lt Daymond from RCAF; and Sgt Hathaway, P/O Woffenden and Sht McNicol from RAFVR. My father was described as ‘Body 1’ of seven.

They were all reburied, in individual graves of course, on 18 June 1948 at the Commonwealth War Grave cemetery at Durnbach, near Bad Toltz in Bavaria. This is the most southerly of all the Commonwealth War Graves in Germany, and is about 30 miles south of Munich. My father’s grave identification is plot XI, row K, grave 22.

All six survivors of my father’s aircraft crew were captured by the German forces:

Alf White was captured immediately, as his parachute took him onto the lawn of Nuremberg Prison! Lefty Ethrington landed about 10 miles south-west of Nuremberg (his reckoning is likely to be reliable as he was the flight navigator); he was significantly burned, so by the next morning (Saturday 17 March 1945) he was badly in need of medical attention, so gave himself up to a small village near to Kammerstein. Ted Hull’s experience was also seriously burned about the face, and was captured early the next morning (Saturday 17 March 1945). All three (Alf, Lefty and Ted) were taken to Munich for interrogation and then to Nuremberg POW camp, as were Chuck and Bob.

Bud Churchward was not captured for several days, but ended up in a prison in Stuttgart before being marched east. He was liberated by the US Army and did not meet up with the rest of the surviving crew until his return to England.

But Ted Hull’s story of his capture is the most traumatic and relevant to this story. When he was captured on the morning after the crash, he was taken to a nearby camp where he was interrogated by two SS officers for about an hour. They accused him of being Jewish and coming from ‘a Jewish squadron’.

He was told: ‘Your mid-upper gunner is a Jew, and so are you”. Evidently, the German authorities had identified my father as Jewish from his name (he didn’t change his name when enlisting as some other Jewish men did) and also from his identity tags which gave the person’s religion. Ted was in a bad way, but was interrogated three times along the same lines.

He cannot recall how long he was in that camp, and was clearly in a state of shock as well as suffering from his untreated injuries. In his mind he thought he saw my father amongst a small group of men being taken by armed guards to some pits, which he took to be mass graves. For many years after his release, he still maintained that he had seen my father at the camp and was convinced that he had been shot there. But this is inconsistent with all the other information available. Ted described my father as being ‘very distinctive … and not easy to miss’. However, my father’s service record gives his height on enlistment as 5’ 2¼”, which would make it difficult to mark him out in a closely guarded group.

For the whole story see BBC People’s War – The night my father was killed in action

A large Nazi eagle and swastika towers above part of a damaged grandstand at the former Nazi Party rally site in Nuremburg.
A large Nazi eagle and swastika towers above part of a damaged grandstand at the former Nazi Party rally site in Nuremburg.
Nuremburg bomb damage
Nuremburg bomb damage

Bitter struggle to end Japanese resistance in Mandalay

Two British soldiers on patrol in the ruins of the Burmese town of Bahe during the advance on Mandalay.
Two British soldiers on patrol in the ruins of the Burmese town of Bahe during the advance on Mandalay.
Troops of the Indian 19th Division in action against Japanese positions on Mandalay Hill overlooking the city.
Troops of the Indian 19th Division in action against Japanese positions on Mandalay Hill overlooking the city.
A Japanese supply dump burning in Mandalay after an Allied air attack.
A Japanese supply dump burning in Mandalay after an Allied air attack.

The British advance south in Burma was making dramatic strides. After taking Meiktila they moved on to Mandalay, arriving on the outskirts of the city on the 9th March.

There followed some very intense, fierce fighting as the Japanese sought to defend their positions from underground bunkers established in old Buddhist temples and catacombs. The terrain was very different but the techniques for overcoming the Japanese would have been very familiar to the US Marines on Iwo Jima.

John Masters was an officer with the 19th Indian ‘Dagger’ Division:

We stood, so to speak, on top of Mandalay. We also stood, at much closer range, on top of a good many Japanese. The temples, cellars and mysterious chambers covering Mandalay Hill were made of reinforced concrete.

The 4th Gurkhas had taken the summit, and no Japanese was alive and visible; but scores of them were alive, invisible, in the subterranean chambers.

A gruesome campaign of extermination began, among the temples of one of the most sacred places of the Buddhist faith. Sikh machine-gunners sat all day on the flat roofs, their guns aimed down the hill on either side of the covered stairway.

Every now and then a Japanese put out his head and fired a quick upward shot. A Sikh got a bullet through his brain five yards from me.

Our engineers brought up beehive charges, blew holes through the concrete, poured in petrol, and fired a Very light down the holes. Sullen explosions rocked the buildings and the japanese rolled out into the open, but firing. Our machine-gurmers pressed their thumb-pieces. The japanese fell, burning.

We blew in huge steel doors with Piats, rolled in kegs of petrol or oil, and set them on fire with tracer bullets.

Our infantry fought into the tunnels behind a hail of grenades, and licking sheets of fire from flame-throwers. Grimly, under the stench of burning bodies and the growing pall of decay, past the equally repellent Buddhist statuary (showing famine, pestilence, men eaten by vultures) the battalions fought their way down the ridge to the southern foot — to face the moat and the thirty-foot-thick walls of Fort Dufferin.

Pete brought up the medium artillery, and the 5-5s hurled their 60-pound shells at the wall, over open sights, from four hundred yards. The shells made no impression. He called in the air force. P-47s tried skip bombing, B-24s dropped some 1,000-pound bombs, some inside the fort and some outside – among our troops.

See John Masters: The Road Past Mandalay

It was not until the 21st that the British found a way into the old redoubt of Fort Dufferin through the sewers – but the remaining Japanese had withdrawn during the preceding night.

Royal Air Force Thunderbolt fighters in formation during operations against Mandalay. In order to clear the Japanese from Mandalay the Allies made full use of their air superiority.
Royal Air Force Thunderbolt fighters in formation during operations against Mandalay. In order to clear the Japanese from Mandalay the Allies made full use of their air superiority.
British artillery bombards Fort Dufferin, the key to the Japanese defences at Mandalay.
British artillery bombards Fort Dufferin, the key to the Japanese defences at Mandalay.
An aerial view of Fort Dufferin at Mandalay under aerial attack.
An aerial view of Fort Dufferin at Mandalay under aerial attack.

‘Ace in a Day’ as P-51 pilot downs five FW-190s

A 26 foot long 22,000-lb MC high explosive deep-penetration bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword 'Grand Slam') is manoeuvred onto a trolley by crane in the bomb dump at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, for an evening raid by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the railway bridge at Nienburg, Germany. 20 aircraft took part in the raid and the target was destroyed.
A 26 foot long 22,000-lb MC high explosive deep-penetration bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword ‘Grand Slam’) is manoeuvred onto a trolley by crane in the bomb dump at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, for an evening raid by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the railway bridge at Nienburg, Germany. 20 aircraft took part in the raid and the target was destroyed.

The 14th March saw the first operational use of the RAF’s latest weapon – the ‘Grand Slam’ deep penetration bomb. Another design by Barnes Wallis of ‘bouncing bomb’ fame, the bomb was designed to penetrate the ground before exploding with enough force to cause shock waves that would knock down nearby structures – targets that did not not necessarily have to be hit directly. The bomb produced a 70 foot deep 130 foot wide crater. It was also used against the thick concrete of the U-boat pens.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, after the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts have collapsed as a result of the detonation of 22,000-lb 'Grand Slam' and 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs in the target area. Craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley. CL 2189 Part of AIR MINISTRY SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION Creator No. 1 106 (PR) Group
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, after the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts have collapsed as a result of the detonation of 22,000-lb ‘Grand Slam’ and 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs in the target area. Craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.
Oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, following the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts collapsed after 22,000-lb 'Grand Slam' and 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs were dropped in the target area. Numerous craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.
Oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, following the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts collapsed after 22,000-lb ‘Grand Slam’ and 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs were dropped in the target area. Numerous craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.

Elsewhere the near complete air superiority that was being achieved across Europe by the Allied air forces was dramatically demonstrated by the USAAF 325th Fighter Group based in Rimini, Italy. The Luftwaffe was now struggling not only with a lack of fuel but with a shortage of experienced pilots. Nevertheless the achievements of Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel, who became an “ace in a day” by downing five aircraft in one sortie, were exceptional:

The Mission Report which included the 'Ace in a Day' record for Lt. McDaniel.
The Mission Report for the 325th Fighter Group which included the ‘Ace in a Day’ record for Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel.

A couple of days later Lt. McDaniel was interviewed by ABC News reporter Clete Roberts and gave this account:

There really wasn’t much to it.  There we were cruising aloft at about 20,000 feet.  We’d  just begun to let down.  I happened to look over the side and there … far below me … I spotted several planes.  They were traveling west…

We were headed east.  We were in an area where anything could happen.  Over the radio … I told the rest of the men to hold their fire until we positively identified the planes below us.  You see, I thought they might be Russian planes.  I certainly didn’t want to get in a fight if they were.  

So… we dropped in behind them.  They never knew we were there.  They were flying a pretty sloppy formation.  Sort of strung out in a long uneven line.  I closed up behind the last plane … about 150 feet from him.  There was no doubt about it … they were Jerry planes.  

The guy directly ahead of me had a big white “3” and a black cross on the side of his plane.  Well that-was enough for me.  Over the radio … I told the rest of the men to drop their gas tanks and get ready to hit ’em.  

Then I opened fire on the Jerry nearest me.  He just blew up …almost in my face.  I ducked my head as parts of his plane scattered around my ship.  He never knew what hit him.  

The Jerries ahead still didn’t know we were there.  I opened fire on the next one … one wing and part of his tail fell off and he spun out of sight.  

Then the three remaining German planes started to dive toward the earth.  I still don’t  believe they knew we were in behind them.  

I rode down on their tail … firing at the third German … his canopy popped off and I saw him jump … I don’t think he had a parachute.  

I started firing at the fourth German … he blossomed with flame and started to smoke and burn.  When he went into a spin … I concentrated on the fifth one.

I’m sure he knew I was after him.  He dropped down to about 100 feet above the deck.  He started to skid around a little … trying to evade me.  But it was no use.  I hit him … my wing man saw him spin in and burn.  

It was then I discovered that there was only two of us against the five Germans. You see, two of my planes had to drop out of the fight because of trouble … That’s all there was to it…

For more on the story see Ace 1945.

Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel is presented with an Ace by his commanding officer.
Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel is presented with an Ace by his commanding officer.

Sadistic treatment of POWs by Japanese remains unabated

A wartime photograph of Kinkseki Mine on Taiwan where over 1000 Aliied POWs suffered appalling treatment.
A wartime photograph of Kinkseki Mine on Taiwan where over 1000 Aliied POWs suffered from malnutrition, hard labour and routine brutality.

Across the territory occupied by the Japanese in the Far East, tens of thousands of Allied men continued to toil in the Prisoner of War camps. From China to Malaya, Thailand and Korea, right across to Japan itself, they were now aware of the changing fortunes of war through the increased activity of Allied aircraft. The effects of of the high level B-29 raids were everywhere, as well as the marauding P-38 Lightnings. Such raids put some POWs at risk but they were welcomed as great morale boosters.

John McEwan had endured the years of captivity since been taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942. He was a veteran of several Japanese POW camps including the notorious Kinkaseki mine on Taiwan. Kinkaseki closed in early March and they were transferred to another camp on Taiwan, but their sufferings were far from over:

The punishing labour went on as we tried to avoid Tashi’s beatings by stretching our wills to breaking point, a task made the more difficult by his resentment at the regular appearance in the skies of the twin-fuselage aircraft bearing the white star of the USA. He sank to lower depths of depravity, as the US warplanes bombed at will with never a Japanese Zero in the air to challenge them.

But as they had an effect upon him so too did they affect us. They provided the stimulus to keep going and their daily visits were a tonic to us, setting morale upon an upward spiral again. In contrast, Tashi would fall into a cowardly rage that made him even more bestial than before.

Occasionally, some of us allowed our approval of the actions of our US friends to show and even this mild show of resistance was dealt with severely. The offenders were made to kneel on the ground while a piece of wood was placed at the back of their knees. They were made to sit back causing intense pressure in this area and an effective blockage in the blood supply. After a short time the legs were left bereft of feeling.

Tashi then commanded them to stand and maintain an impossible upright stance, impossible because of the numbness of the already weakened limbs. When they fell he would batter them with his rod across legs and buttocks, shoulders and head. And he would laugh his evil laugh as his poor, painwracked victim cowered before him, trembling, attempting to maintain an erect position on incapacitated legs but usually unable to do so.

His underlings would attempt to ingratiate themselves with him by laughing and jeering. Watching one of these sessions, Dempsey was unable to contain himself. ‘Bloody Japanese bastards’ he swore quietly as a young Englishman was trying to stifle uncontrollable sobbing against a background of the barbarian contempt of the Japanese.

Tashi heard the forbidden words and went raving mad, ranting and swearing in abusive Nipponese and glaring at Dempsey. While the japs converged upon Dempsey, the young Englishman was left alone and began to compose himself. Dempsey, on the other hand, knew he had blundered and knew what was to follow but, though as weakened as the rest of us, he retained a spark of wild and irrational defiance, which did not allow him to do other than stand his ground. Tashi whacked him on the head.

The mad—eyed japanese screamed insanely, ‘Bastardo – no okay. Dammi – dammi. Bastardo dammio — Bagerro, dammi — dammi’ and with each cry he bounced his rod off Dempsey. Dempsey still refused to give ground and Tashi became ever more incensed and enraged as Dempsey refused to fall and as he saw the contempt in Dempsey’s eyes.

Like the rest of the squad, I could do nothing but watch as the mad NCO waded in with stick and fists. I willed Dempsey to swallow his pride and go down. At last one of the henchmen succeeded where Tashi had failed. He kicked furiously at the back of Dempsey’s legs, making him fall to the ground in a crumpled heap but still allowing him to contain the agony of his beating. He refused to show the usual tears of humiliation and this defiance was unbearable to Tashi, who was unable to comprehend the fact that one of the cowed and beaten men, calloused by years of starvation and humiliation, would refuse to beg for mercy under this demeaning abuse.

Tashi changed tack. He watched two of his lackeys kick Dempsey repeatedly. He then announced that another POW had to take part in the humiliation. This was a common depravity among them. They would make two prisoners face each other and swing punches until one of them fell.

I wondered who would be chosen and fervently hoped it would not be me. I could not have punched my friend in these circumstances. Tashi, however, strode to where Taffy Morgan was and jabbed him with the bamboo rod. ‘Yosh — anatowa’ he snarled at Taffy pointing to Dempsey and indicating the odious task in hand.

Taffy had still not recovered fully from his beating at Changi and was in a semi-stupor. His face was expressionless as he followed Tashi to the spot where his friend Dempsey stood, swaying weakly on quivering legs. Taffy took a long lingering look at the vicious Jap Corporal, who urged him on, bellowing the usual gutturals.

Tashi jabbed a finger at Dempsey and, at last, Taffy squared up to his mate. Dempsey raised his head, blood washing down his face, and nodded to Taffy to ‘Get on with it!’ He well understood the situation. Taffy met his friend’s eye and wasted no further time. He raised his calloused right hand and thumped Dempsey with all the strength he could muster in his own weakened state. Dempsey dropped like a stone.

It was obvious to all who watched that Dempsey would not rise for a while after being hit so hard and Tashi and his gloating serfs were convulsed with laughter and clapped their hands crying ‘Joto — Joto’ (Good, Good).

Taffy looked at me. As our eyes met I saw a glimmer there that had been absent for too long. His look clearly said that he had done what had to be done under the circumstances. Dempsey was having enforced rest, Tashi had been deprived of further depraved entertainment and Dempsey had surrendered to a British hand rather than a Japanese.

See John McEwan: Out of the Depths of Hell: A Soldier’s Story of Life and Death in Japanese Hands

The discipline of the Wehrmacht and SS remains strong

Propaganda Minister Goebbels in Luban (Lower Silesia) presents 16 year old Willi Hübner with the Iron Cross, 2nd Class, The award was for for his  actions during fighting in the trenches around the town. 9th March 1945.
Propaganda Minister Goebbels in Luban (Lower Silesia) presents 16 year old Willi Hübner with the Iron Cross, 2nd Class, The award was for for his actions during fighting in the trenches around the town. 9th March 1945.

Ever since Normandy the Allies had prepared plans for the eventual collapse of the German armed forces and the prospect that they might have to deal with an unexpected surrender. It never happened. Despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, as the nation faced ever more devastating assaults from east and west, there were still those whose near religous faith in Hitler remained strong. They might realise that they were in a minority but they still expected the so called ‘miracle weapons’ to be used to reverse the situation.

A senior NCO based in Wiesbaden was writing home during mid March. He knew that the situation was grim and that ‘they could no longer rely 100% on all their soldiers’. Yet he still believed:

that we’ll nevertheless win the war. I know that I’m laughed at by many people or thought mad. I know that there are only a few apart from me who have the courage to claim this, but I say it over and again: the Fuhrer is no scoundrel, and not so bad as to lie to an entire people and drive it to death.

Up to now the Fuhrer has always given us his love and promised us freedom and carried out all his plans. And if the Fuhrer prays to God that He may pardon him the last six weeks of this war of the nations then we know that there must and will be an awful and terrible end for our enemies.

We must firmly believe in Germany’s future — believe and ever more believe. A people that has so courageously lost so much blood for its greatness cannot perish. … Only our faith makes us strong, and I rely on the words of the Fuhrer that at the end of all the fighting there will be German victory.

This account appears in Ian Kershaw: The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945

The Nazis continued to have a grip on the youth of the nation, a generation who had spent their entire lives under constant Nazi indoctrination. It was not unknown for members of the Hitler Youth to report their own parents for disloyal remarks. Many of the young men still entering the German armed forces were as zealous as ever – and if they were not, discipline was enforced swiftly and mercilessly:

Erwin Bartmann was an Unterscharfuhrer, junior squad leader or NCO, in the SS. He was a veteran of the Eastern Front but, after having recovered from wounds, he was posted to a training regiment:

A fresh batch of recruits arrived, all members of the Hitlerjugend. Oh, they knew it all — or at least thought they did. For them it was all, ‘Hooray, we’ll win the war for Hitler, Sieg Heil.’ None of them showed the least desire to participate in the training exercises that might soon save their lives.

Well, they came to the right place to have their arses kicked into shape. At two o’clock on a rain-soaked morning, I pulled them out of their beds for marching in full kit.

As we made our way along a forest track, there were the usual complaints but one of the Hitlerjungen lads overstepped the mark. ‘Nobody gets me out of bed for nothing. I tell you, he’ll be the first to get it’, said a boy at the front of the group without realising I was within earshot.

I caught up with the cocky youngster, grabbed him by the shoulder and swung him round to face me. Before he could utter a word, I screwed the cloth of his camouflage jacket with my left hand, at his chest. The fist of my right hand, filled with live rifle ammunition, thrust at his chin. ‘Here – take this’, I growled as the rest of the squad looked on. ‘Try it.’

In a faltering voice he said, ‘I apologise Unterscharfuhrer’.

The execution of Fahnenfluchtigen (deserters) was a weekly routine that took place on Fridays, in front of a sandy hillock. To see at close range the atomised blood and guts blast out of the condemned soldier’s back as bullets shot through his body must have shocked the recruits.

Yet, even after witnessing this dreadful spectacle, a recruit from the platoon under my command went missing one night. In an act of mesmerising stupidity, he sent a postcard, stamped in Frankfurt, to his sister who lived there saying that he had deserted and wanted to meet her at the railway station.

The vigilance of the postman was the young man’s downfall. As he was about to put the card through the sister’s letterbox, he read the message and immediately alerted the police who arrested the sender as he waited on the platform.

On his return to Spreenhagen, he received the inevitable, and inescapable, sentence of death from an SS court martial. The following Friday evening at 6 pm, he faced his executioners. ‘God bless Germany,’ he said stoically as awaited his fate. The bullets ripped through his body and he slumped to the ground, his tunic smoking at the exit wounds on his back. But a flicker of life still burned in the young heart.

An officer stepped forward to aim his O8 at the young lad’s head. He pulled the trigger – the tragic end of yet another life. Seventy years later, the horror of this shooting still visits my dreams.

See Erwin Bartmann: Fur Volk und Fuhrer: The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler

German Grenadiers retreat westwards at dusk in in eastern Germany, March 1945.
German Grenadiers retreat westwards at dusk in in eastern Germany, March 1945.

Kamikaze pilots find the remote US base at Ulithi

 A Life magazine image of the US Naval base at Ulithi atoll in the Caroline islands. The remote Pacific location, with an anchorage larger than Pearl Harbour, was used asa staging base in preparation fro major amphibious operations, including Okinawa.
A Life magazine image of the US Naval base at Ulithi atoll in the Caroline islands. The remote Pacific location, with an anchorage larger than Pearl Harbour, was used as a staging base in preparation for major amphibious operations, including the invasion of Okinawa.
USS Iowa in a floating drydock at Manus Island, Ulithi Atoll, 28 December 1944.
USS Iowa in a floating drydock at Manus Island, Ulithi Atoll, 28 December 1944.

The disparity in resources between the United States and Japan had now become quite incredible. It was hard to believe that the Japanese had calculated, just over three years before, that a single knockout blow at Pearl Harbour could overcome the Americans. While one fleet of hundreds of U.S. Navy ships was still besieging the island of Iwo Jima, another fleet was gathering at the remote base at Ulithi, preparing for the invasion of Okinawa. The U.S. Navy had occupied the islands, unopposed, in September 1944.

The supply situation for many Japanese bases was now imperilled by their lack of shipping, with their transports now constantly threatened by Allied submarines. Many Japanese troops had their food strictly rationed. On Iwo Jima their men had been on a very restricted diet for a long time and they struggled to find enough drinking water. By contrast the Americans were able to provide their men with ice cream.

Within a month of the occupation of Ulithi, a complete floating base was in operation. Six thousand ship fitters, artificers, welders, carpenters, and electricians arrived aboard repair ships, destroyer tenders, and floating dry docks. The USS Ajax had an air-conditioned optical shop and a metal fabrication shop with a supply of base metals from which she could make any alloy to form any part needed. The USS Abatan, which looked like a big tanker, distilled fresh water and baked bread and pies. The ice cream barge made 500 gallons a shift. The dry docks towed to Ulithi were large enough to lift dry a 45,000 ton battleship. The small island of Mog Mog became a rest and recreation site for sailors.

Fleet oilers sortied from Ulithi to meet the task forces at sea, refueling the warships a short distance from their combat operational areas. The result was something never seen before: a vast floating service station enabling the entire Pacific fleet to operate indefinitely at unprecedented distances from its mainland bases. Ulithi was as far away from the US Naval base at San Francisco as San Francisco was from London, England. The Japanese had considered that the vastness of the Pacific Ocean would make it very difficult for the US to sustain operations in the western Pacific. With the Ulithi naval base to refit, repair and resupply, many ships were able to deploy and operate in the western Pacific for a year or more without returning to the Naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Source: Wikipedia

40mm mount in action at Ulithi. At left are twin .50 cal. guns on the tail of a PBM on board.
40mm mount in action at Ulithi. At left are twin .50 cal. guns on the tail of a PBM on board U.S.S. Cumberland Sound (AV-17).

On the island itself was a young Marine Corps pilot, still training with his squadron, in preparation for combat with an enemy they had yet to meet. Samuel Hynes was to go on to write a reflective memoir of his time in the Marines, as befits a man who is now Professor of Literature at Princeton University:

Out in the lagoon the warships gathered and waited, but as we flew over them, coming and going on our solitary patrols, they did not look like menacing machines designed to burn and drown men, but like delicate abstractions – slender, tapered shapes at rest on the smooth bright water, part of the static pattern of our lives.

And so when the air-raid sirens began to howl one evening in the early dark, we took it for a drill. After all, the nearest Japanese planes were away off in the Philippines, and there weren’t many of them left even there.

As the island lights went out, we left the club and gathered curiously at the lagoon-end of the landing strip, and watched the fleet black out – a ship here, a ship there, one or two of the big ones delaying, and then suddenly blinking out, until at last the whole lagoon was dark. Not a very successful drill, I thought; it had been far too slow.

And then, astonishingly, anti-aircraft guns began to fire, and tracers sprayed up into the darkness, as though the lights that had burned across the waters of the lagoon were being hurled into the sky. I began to feel exposed, standing there on the runway while the guns fired; but no one else moved, so I didn’t.

Across the lagoon a plane screamed into a dive, higher and higher pitched, and there was a flash and an explosion, and an instant later another explosion in what seemed the center of the moored ships. Then darkness and silence, until the all- clear sounded, and lights began to come on in the harbor again.

It had been a kamikaze raid. The Japanese planes had flown all the way from the main islands, touching at the Philippines. They had planned to refuel at Yap, and then fly on to attack the fleet at Ulithi; but bad navigation, bad weather, bad luck, whatever it was, had delayed them, and sent some planes back.

Others had crash-landed on the Yap beach. Only three reached Ulithi. One was shot down; one crashed into the deck of the carrier Randolph, where the crew was crowded into the hangar deck watching a movie; and one, taking an island for a large ship, dove on Mogmog and blew up a kitchen.

The whole lasted perhaps fifteen minutes. We were excited by it – perhaps entertained is a more precise word – it was a spectacle, like a son et lumiére, with noise, light, explosions.

We didn’t know what was happening to human lives while we watched, but even if we had, I wonder if it would have mattered. We were a mile or so from the Randolph, and perhaps a mile is too far to project the imagination to another man’s death. We took it as a sign that the war was still with us, that we still had an enemy, and went to bed heartened by the incident.

See Samuel Hynes: Flights of Passage: Recollections of a World War II Aviator

Yokosuka P1Y "Frances" shot down next to USS Ommaney Bay (CVE-79),  0945 on December 15, 1944
Yokosuka P1Y “Frances” shot down next to USS Ommaney Bay (CVE-79), 0945 on December 15, 1944
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CV-15) alongside repair ship USS Jason (ARH-1) at Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands, 13 March 1945, showing damage to her aft flight deck resulting from a kamikaze hit on 11 March. The photograph was taken from a floatplane from the light cruiser USS Miami (CL-89).
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CV-15) alongside repair ship USS Jason (ARH-1) at Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands, 13 March 1945, showing damage to her aft flight deck resulting from a kamikaze hit on 11 March. The photograph was taken from a floatplane from the light cruiser USS Miami (CL-89).