Berliners learn to accommodate the Red Army

View of ruined buildings in Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin, taken from the second floor of the Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium).
View of ruined buildings in Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin, taken from the second floor of the Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium).
An aerial (oblique) photograph taken from a De Havilland Mosquito of the RAF Film and Photographic Unit showing badly damaged buildings in the area between Friedrich Hain and Lichtenberg, Berlin.
An aerial (oblique) photograph taken from a De Havilland Mosquito of the RAF Film and Photographic Unit showing badly damaged buildings in the area between Friedrich Hain and Lichtenberg, Berlin.

The reality of the Soviet occupation of Germany now became all too apparent. In days and weeks of lawlessness following their victory the Red Army was to indulge in an epic of rape and pillage, much of it officially sanctioned. The Soviet authorities moved swiftly to dismantle and remove whole factories to the East.

Any man who had served in the military, and many who were merely suspected of having done so, were marched off to Russia where they would spend many years labouring to rebuild what had been destroyed. Many would not survive the hardships.

Werner Harz had narrowly avoided being marched off to the east on more than one occasion when his Volkssturm unit disbanded. He escaped and made his way back to his home in Berlin. For him and many others the ordeal of the Soviet occupation was only just beginning:

The atmosphere during the next few days was incredibly complicated and perplexing. We could scarcely realise our joy that the war was over because we had perpetually to be on the watch.The Russians were celebrating everywhere: in our house, in the streets, in the gardens, their victory celebrations lasting night and day for weeks. Unluckily a huge store of wine and spirits had been found just down the road, and an unending stream of keen-eyed soldiers flowed up the street, while on the other side a rolling flood of paralytic conquerors staggered back.

They were mostly from Eastern Russia, with Mongolian faces, Chinese-looking beards and earrings.There were little undersized men from Turkestan and sturdy- looking Siberians.

But one thing they all had in common — an absorbing and childish fascination in domestic gadgets and machinery. My electric radiogram really intrigued them. But having no electric current I found it rather difiicult to explain and as the machine obviously wouldn’t work they showed me their displeasure in no uncertain terms – by smashing it.

They were also fascinated by the water-closet which again, in spite of my rather undignified pantomime, they completely failed to understand. They searched steadily through my library looking for pictures.They sought continually after watches although we had already paid off our share of the reparations with every watch and clock in the place.They played with two cameras and broke them immediately. With deathly calm they took a lovely antique grandfather clock to pieces, and no one has since been able to reassemble it.

The street in front of our house looked like a fairground. Dirt, rubbish, pieces of cars and tanks were strewn everywhere and amidst everything dozens of Russians were riding bicycles — obviously trying this new type of transport for the first time in their lives. They fell to left and right but clambered back again like armless little apes. Some, just able to stay on, began immediately to try acrobatics; others stared proudly at their rows of watches, usually extending up both forearms.Then, when they were tired of it, they let the machines lie where they fell and walked away.

We had to watch like lynxes to prevent our inquiring visitors taking too much away that interested them. And my room was full ofinterest. I found it a matter of some delicacy to persuade a chummy Uzbeker not to demonstrate his prowess with the pistol by shooting the Iphigenia of Tauris illustration out of my Goethe first edition.

One national trait puzzled us. This was the habit of nearly every Russian who came to visit us of relieving nature in various, and to us strange and unusual places. We discovered these faecal visiting cards in every corner, on tables, beds, carpets and one, strangest and most ambitious of all, on the top of a particularly high stove. My own theory that this was the remains of an old superstition which implied than an object be possessed if the owner had stooled on it, did not obtain any general currency. But I still think it a possibility in the absence if any more valid theory.

It was all incredibly tiring. One had to be on one’s toes the minute a soldier came near, and dozens of them came near all the time. Each one had to be conducted through the whole house and couldn’t be trusted alone for a moment. As long as one watched them, kept talking, and treated them as guests, they could be dissuaded from taking away what they wanted, and breaking up what they didn’t. But they were always inspired with awe when they saw my row of books and the pictures on the walls.

The demand for women continued unabated and the unfortunate girls had to stay hidden under the roof for a whole week.We had nothing but admiration for the physical endurance which made the Russians capable of this exercise at all hours of the day or night. Fortunately I had a pornographic book in my library with which I managed to divert them from their more practical excursions in this sphere.

Since the exercise of hospitality took up the major part of our day it was a continual worry to find things to eat and drink. During the early days it was quite simple. Dozens of dead horses were lying in the streets and all one needed was a bucket and a sharp knife. Or it was merely a question of following the looters and joining in the free-for—all fights that were always in progress in the many grocer’s shops and food depots.

This account appears in Louis Hagen (ed): Ein Volk, Ein Reich: Nine Lives Under the Nazis.

British and Russian troops in the garden of the former Reichs Chancellery. The entrance to Hitler's bunker is immediately behind them.
British and Russian troops in the garden of the former Reichs Chancellery. The entrance to Hitler’s bunker is immediately behind them.

The German advance continues

German built pontoon bridges allowed their advance to continue even where bridges had been blown up – a Panzer crosses the Maas on the 16th May.

The British Expeditionary Force now faced the very difficult task of conducting a fighting retreat across Belgium:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Thursday 16th

Withdrawal generally not quite to plan, and Kerr came in too soon. Forward battalions not even clear at 3.15 a.m. By this time all the company were back on the roads leading in to the village. [?] Section 10 Pl only members of the company who were in contact with the enemy. Saw Michael Kemp tonight going back with his company. We did not quit Ottemburg till 3.45. Had sent C.S.M. , Coy H. Q. and 12 Pl back previously, about 2 a.m. to the 1st Bound. After 1 1/2 hours they gave us up as lost, and started withdrawing. Continue reading “The German advance continues”

The BEF start to withdraw

Bomb craters on aerial picture of Arreux
The village of Arreux, with bomb craters beside the roads following an attack by Blenheims of 82 Squadron, 15th May in an attack on German road transport- illustrating the difficulty conventional bombers faced in dealing with such targets.

Meanwhile the situation was rapidly changing for the British Expeditionary Force. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders came into contact with the enemy for the first time and then found themselves withdrawing:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Wednesday 15th May.

About 9.30 a.m. the C.O. arrived with the message that “B” Company was going forward to Ottenburg to become Brigade Reserve. I went on with C.O., saw the new area, and the company marched up. Whilst visiting had lunch in the W. [?] mess. Ottenburg shelled steadily all day, but quite light stuff. Took Hughes up as runner. His and my first experience of shelling. Did not care much for the position. Kerr, on the right, was isolated, forward up the road, with Fleming behind him about 1/2 a mile and 10 Pl on the left. The previous Company had obviously left in a great hurry, not having time to collect all their kit. Company H.Q. was extremely comfortable and we looked forward to a good night. Did not keep any tpt [transport] forward except for the 8cwt. Continue reading “The BEF start to withdraw”

Rotterdam bombed, RAF suffer major losses

The destruction of Dutch bridges only delayed the German forces – Pioneer troops building a temporary bridge at Maastricht, 14th May 1940.
Dutch soldiers with white flag
Dutch officers moving preparing to negotiate with German forces in Rotterdam

The Dutch garrison in Rotterdam had successfully halted the German advance on the city’s riverbank but now faced much stronger German forces, including the 9th Panzer Division and SS troops. The Dutch were in the process of negotiating with Germans when they were subjected to a massive air raid. The incident continues to attract controversy. The German commander had intended to make a combined assault supported by dive bombers to hit specific targets but Heinkel III general bombers were allotted to the raid, and the German land forces were unable to call them off whilst their negotiations continued. The area bombers eventually dropped around 100 tons on the medieval heart of Rotterdam’s commercial district. A square mile of the city was virtually flattened. Nearly a thousand people were killed, although war time estimates by the Allies put the figure at 25-30,000.

The incident led to the immediate surrender of Rotterdam and very shortly afterwards the Dutch government decided they could not risk other cities being bombed and sought an armistice. The British changed their bombing policy as a consequence, having previously avoided civilian industrial targets – on the 15th May they attacked the German industrial centre of the Ruhr for the first time. Continue reading “Rotterdam bombed, RAF suffer major losses”

Churchill offers "Blood, toil, tears and sweat"

German tanks in forest
German armour was making a surprise advance through the Ardenne Forest that would outflank Allied forces that had moved forward into Belgium.

Events in France were now unfolding very rapidly. The German ‘Blitzkrieg’ was making dramatic progress, unnerving the French government and many in the senior military command. Winston Churchill would make six visits to France during the following weeks, attempting to find a way to help the French keep fighting. There was a danger that those at home would be equally unnerved by the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht.

 

 

Churchill, on his third day as Prime Minister, addressed the House of Commons for the first time as war leader:

To form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations, … have to be made here at home.

In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope at any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, all make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

German troops on road in belgium 1940
German troops continue to march forward into Belgium while disarmed Prisoners of War are sent to the rear

Meanwhile in Belgium some of the British Army had reached their allotted positions and were preparing their defences:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Monday 13th May.

We spent today digging and made very good progress all round. The position was a good one on the forward slopes of a ridge over the River Lasne. The ground on this side of the river was not so good, being thickly wooded and obscuring the obstacle. 12 Pl [Platoon] were on right, P.S.M. Fleming, Peter 10 Pl. , and P.S.M. Kerr 11 Pl on left. A certain amount of enemy bombing and machine-gunning. Enemy bombing of Ottenburg which we could see from our position. Great difficulty in getting some of the Belgians to evacuate: this was finally done. Spent another night in the woods without any discomfort. Coy. nil marching. Self 4 miles.

Entry No.4, for the first entry see 10th May 1940.

See TNA WO 217/15

 

British troops take up positions in Belgium

A low level attack on a German Convoy by British light bombers, Fairey Battles: 12th May 1940 S.W. of Luzenburg
Low level air attack
Another shot from the same sequence:
note the German troops running away from their vehicles across the fields.
Fairey Battles of No. 226 Squadron RAF undergoing servicing on the flight line at Reims-Champagne. The aircraft on the right, K9183 'MQ-R', was shot down by ground aircraft fire while attacking enemy columns south-west of Luxembourg on 10 May 1940. Its pilot died of his wounds, but the other two crew members survived.
Fairey Battles of No. 226 Squadron RAF undergoing servicing on the flight line at Reims-Champagne. The aircraft on the right, K9183 ‘MQ-R’, was shot down by ground aircraft fire while attacking enemy columns south-west of Luxembourg on 10 May 1940. Its pilot died of his wounds, but the other two crew members survived.

As the shooting war finally began it was the RAF who were immediately thrust into battle. Some units would suffer grievous losses as they attempted to go up against the Luftwaffe in outmoded aircraft. The Fairey Battle, a single engined monoplane fighter-bomber with three crew, had only been in service for two years but soon proved to be a hopeless match against single seater German fighters.

More promising was the Hurricane. Although some RAF squadrons had had less than a month to become familiarised with the aircraft after converting from biplane Gladiators in April, they were soon proving their worth. They were hopelessly outnumbered however. RAF Fighter Command was still coming up to strength and would prove very reluctant to release more aircraft to the continent.

Twenty-three year old Paul Richey had already quickly shot down two Me 110 in his Hurricane on the 12th May when he tangled with another three:

I turned, but they were still there; so were the other two from above. In a moment I was in the centre of what seemed a stack of 110s, although there were in fact only five. I knew I had scarcely the speed or height in my wooden-blader to dive away and beat it, so I decided to stay and make the best of it. Although I was more manoeuvrable at this height than the Huns, I found it impossible to get in an astern shot because every time I almost got one lined up tracers came whipping past from another on my tail.

All I could do was to keep twisting and turning, and when a 110 got behind me make as tight a turn as possible, almost spinning with full engine, and fly straight at him, fire a quick burst, then push the stick forward and dive under his nose. I would then pull-up in a steep climbing turn to meet the next gentleman.

Obviously they couldn’t all attack at once without colliding, but several times I was at the apex of a cone formed by the cannon and machine-gun fire of three of them. Their tactics consisted mostly of diving, climbing and taking full deflection shots at me. Their shooting seemed wild. This manoeuvre was easily dealt with by turning towards them and popping over their heads, forcing them to steepen their climb until they stalled and had to fall away.

But I was not enjoying this marathon. Far from it. My mouth was getting drier and drier, and I was feeling more and more desperate and exhausted. Would they run out of ammunition? Would they push off? Would help come? I knew I couldn’t hold out much longer.

After what seemed an age (actually it turned out to be at least fifteen minutes, which is an exceptionally long time for a dogfight) I was flying down head-on at a 110 which was climbing up to me. We both fired – and I thought I had left it too late and we would collide. I pushed the stick forward violently.

There was a stunning explosion right in front of me. For an instant my mind went blank. My (aircraft seemed to be falling, limp on the controls. Then, as black smoke poured out of the nose and enveloped the hood, and a hot blast and a flicker of reflected flame crept into the dark cockpit, I said ‘Come on — out you go!’, pulled the pin out of my harness, wrenched open the hood and hauled myself head-first out to the right.

The wind pressed me tightly against the side of the aircraft, my legs still inside. I caught hold of the trailing edge of the wing and heaved myself out. As I fell free and somersaulted I felt as if a giant had me on the end of a length of wire, whirling me round and round through the air.

I fumbled for and pulled the rip-cord and was pulled the right way up with a violent jerk that winded me. My head was pressed forward by the parachute back-pad that had slipped up behind, and I couldn’t look up to see if the parachute was OK. I had no sensation of movement – just a slight breeze as I swung gently to and fro. For all I knew the thing might be on fire or not properly open.

I heard the whirr of Hun engines and saw three of the 110s circle me. I looked at the ground and saw a shower of flaming sparks as something exploded in an orchard far below: my late aeroplane.

Paul Richey would go on to shoot down another seven aircraft before he was badly wounded on the 16th May – he therefore missed the Battle of Britain. His experiences in these few days in France would later become the best seller Fighter Pilot when it was published in 1941.

Hawker Hurricane Mark I, N2358 'Z', of No. 1 Squadron RAF is refuelled while undergoing an engine check at Vassincourt.
Hawker Hurricane Mark I, N2358 ‘Z’, of No. 1 Squadron RAF is refuelled while undergoing an engine check at Vassincourt.
Once the Blitzkrieg had begun, the Hurricane squadrons in France were plunged into almost constant action, flying interception patrols and providing escort for RAF light bombers. Their airfields were subject to frequent Luftwaffe strafing attacks, with little or no warning. Here, personnel of No 85 Squadron at Lille-Seclin check air activity overhead while in the background two Hurricanes sit at 'stand-by', their pilots strapped in ready for immediate take-off, 10-12 May 1940.
Once the Blitzkrieg had begun, the Hurricane squadrons in France were plunged into almost constant action, flying interception patrols and providing escort for RAF light bombers. Their airfields were subject to frequent Luftwaffe strafing attacks, with little or no warning. Here, personnel of No 85 Squadron at Lille-Seclin check air activity overhead while in the background two Hurricanes sit at ‘stand-by’, their pilots strapped in ready for immediate take-off, 10-12 May 1940.

Meanwhile the British Expeditionary Force were still moving up to the front in Belgium. There was still time to enjoy a good lunch and admire the countryside:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Sunday 12th May

We entrained about 5.15 a.m. in the morning and were given coffee by the family and had breakfast from the Company Cookhouse. The road was crowded with transport and proceeded at snail’s pace most of the way. Self, C.S.M. Maclean and Cpl Cameron in 8 cwt [8 hundred weight truck or lorry] then the rest of “B” Coy – Bde H.Q. – remainder of Battalion. Fortunately no enemy bombing although the effects of yesterday’s efforts could frequently be seen. Continue reading “British troops take up positions in Belgium”

Belgian refugees clog the roads

Germans troops take Belgium troops prisoner at bridge
German troops take 30 prisoners from the bunker under the south side of the Veldwezelt bridge over the Albert Canal :11th May 1940 10am

German Panzers and Belgium refugees near the Albert Canal, 11th May 1940

A Belgian bridge blown up to delay the German advance.
A Belgian bridge blown up to delay the German advance.

Only a few British army units were on the French-German border. The 1st Battalion, The Black Watch were on the front line facing the Germans when they experienced an early probing attack:

Patrol May 10th / 11th by 2/Lieut A.Orr Ewing.

I left our own wire near F.9 in the GROSSENWALD at 2300 hrs and made my way to the S.E. corner of the LOHWALD. I lay up in the trees on the right hand side. About 0150 hrs I heard someone moveng in the S.E. corner of the wood and about 10 minutes later, more movement. I lay quiet for 10 minutes and then decided to investigate. I left 4 men with 2 automatic guns in the trees to cover me and also to shoot anyone trying to leave the corner of the wood. With the remaining men I moved forward between the stream and the wood. Continue reading “Belgian refugees clog the roads”

10th May 1940: 6pm Churchill becomes Prime Minister

Winston Churchill: invited to become Prime Minister on 10th May 1940

From September 1939 to April 1940 the world had held its breath as the ‘Phoney War’ unfolded. Poland had been subjugated by Hitler and Britain and France, which had both gone to war over the German invasion, had been able to offer negligible assistance. Then, in April, Hitler had invaded Denmark and Norway – and attempts by Britain and France to provide military assistance, when they lacked any significant air power in the region, had proved to be weak and ineffective.

In Britain these developments brought to a head criticism of the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose past track record of appeasing Hitler offered little comfort to many in the country when the war was hotting up. In the British Parliament the ‘Norway Debate’ was as much about Chamberlain’s position as it was about the conduct of the campaign in Norway.

Neville Chamberlain was severely criticised in the debate and only won the vote because many Conservative MPs had abstained.

Churchill had ended his speech in the Norway Debate with the words:

… let pre-war feuds die; let personal quarrels be forgotten, and let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy. Let party interest be ignored, let all our energies be harnessed, let the whole ability and forces of the nation be hurled into the struggle, and let all the strong horses be pulling on the collar.

Chamberlain concluded that he would have to resign, even though he had won the vote. He recognised the need to allow a new Prime Minister to form a National Government, in which all the political Parties would be represented.

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax was a strong contender but he ruled himself out because he sat in the Lords and it would be difficult to lead the Commons from there. He probably recognised that he was himself too closely associated with Chamberlain’s policies. The Labour Party leadership intimated to Chamberlain that they were only prepared to serve under Churchill.

The matter was effectively decided by the afternoon of the 9th May. However it depended upon the Labour Party formally agreeing that they would serve under Churchill in a coalition government of national unity. Despite the events of the early hours of the morning in Europe, on the 10th May the most senior figures in the Labour Party took the 11.34am train from Waterloo station out of London. They travelled to Bournemouth on the south coast, where they were about to begin their Party Conference. They stuck rigidly to their procedural rules.

It was not until 5pm that the Labour Leader telegrammed London to say that they would serve under Churchill. Chamberlain immediately went to too see the King and ‘offered’ his resignation. The King then called for Churchill and ‘invited’ him to become Prime Minister. He did not formally assume the role until 6pm.

It was a popular choice in the country, where Churchill’s brilliant oratory resonated, but opinion was sharply divided amongst the political classes, where many thought him too much of a maverick to be a successful leader.

So it was that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on one of the most fateful days in history.

Hitler attacks in the West

Aerial view of Rotterdam bombed, May 1940
Aerial view of Rotterdam bombed, May 10th 1940

Hitler had launched Fall Gelb, Operation Yellow in the early hours of the 10th. His order to the German armed forces declared:

The hour has come for the decisive battle for the future of the German nation. For three hundred years the rulers of England and France have made it their aim to prevent any real consolidation of Europe and above all to keep Germany weak and helpless. With this your hour has come. The fight which begins today will decide the destiny of the German people for a thousand years. Now do your duty.

Continue reading “Hitler attacks in the West”

In the Far East the battle against Japan goes on

A few yards behind the front lines on Okinawa, fighting men of the US Armys 77th Infantry division listen to radio reports of Germanys surrender on May 8, 1945. Their battle hardened faces indicate the impassiveness with which they received the news of the victory on a far distant front. One minute after this photo was taken, they returned to their combat post, officially however, American forces on Okinawa celebrated the end of the war in Europe by training every ship and shore battery on a Japanese target and firing one shell simultaneously and precisely at midnight.
A few yards behind the front lines on Okinawa, fighting men of the US Armys 77th Infantry division listen to radio reports of Germanys surrender on May 8, 1945. Their battle hardened faces indicate the impassiveness with which they received the news of the victory on a far distant front. One minute after this photo was taken, they returned to their combat post, officially however, American forces on Okinawa celebrated the end of the war in Europe by training every ship and shore battery on a Japanese target and firing one shell simultaneously and precisely at midnight.

The war against Japan now seemed inevitably to have the same outcome as the war against Germany. An equally unrelenting grind towards the end also seemed to be in prospect – which looked very likely to be even more bloody than the end in Germany.

Even as the guns fell silent in Europe the military planners were looking closely at which units could soon be shipped out to the Pacific and prepare for the invasion of mainland Japan. Only a tiny group of very senior figures in Britain and America had any inkling that a new weapon might just provide an alternative route to end the war.

Two main battlegrounds dominated the remaining fighting. For the Americans it was Okinawa:

On 8 May Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. We were told this momentous news, but considering our own peril and misery, no one cared much. “So what” was typical of the remarks I heard around me. We were resigned only to the fact the Japanese would fight to total extinction on Okinawa, as they had elsewhere, and that Japan would have to be invaded with the same gruesome prospects. Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon.

The main thing that impressed us about V-E Day was a terrific, thundering artillery and naval gunfire barrage that went swishing, roaring, and rumbling towards the Japanese. I thought it was in preparation for the next day’s attack. Years later I read that the barrage had been fired on enemy targets at noon for its destructive effect on them but also as a salute to V-E Day.

See E.B. Sledge: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

“VE” PLUS TWO – Two days after the victory in Europe was celebrated the Marines of the First Division, fighting the do-or-die Japs hill by hill in their drive for Naha, capital city of Okinawa, wait on the crest of one slope while a barrage of phosphorous shells explodes among the Japanese positions on the farther incline. After the bombardment, the Leatherneck infantry will commence their push across the intervening valley to attack the enemy.
“VE” PLUS TWO – Two days after the victory in Europe was celebrated the Marines of the First Division, fighting the do-or-die Japs hill by hill in their drive for Naha, capital city of Okinawa, wait on the crest of one slope while a barrage of phosphorous shells explodes among the Japanese positions on the farther incline. After the bombardment, the Leatherneck infantry will commence their push across the intervening valley to attack the enemy.

For the British the campaign in Burma had finally turned the corner. The 14th Army had been racing down south to take the major port of Rangoon before the Monsoon came – and everything seized up. On the 2nd May Gurkha paratroopers had surprised the Japanese with an airborne attack and the city had fallen soon afterwards. With the port in their hands it was very much easier for the Allies to consolidate their position.

Infantry and Sherman tanks under fire near a village during the advance south from Meiktila to Rangoon, 3 May 1945.
Infantry and Sherman tanks under fire near a village during the advance south from Meiktila to Rangoon, 3 May 1945.
The Advance on Rangoon March - May 1945: Priest self-propelled guns in action on the road to Rangoon.
The Advance on Rangoon March – May 1945: Priest self-propelled guns in action on the road to Rangoon.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII of No. 155 Squadron RAF, creates a cloud of dust as the pilot opens up his throttle prior to take of at Tabingaung, Burma.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII of No. 155 Squadron RAF, creates a cloud of dust as the pilot opens up his throttle prior to take of at Tabingaung, Burma.
Burmese villagers help extricate a jeep from a river near Rangoon, 10 May 1945.
Burmese villagers help extricate a jeep from a river near Rangoon, 10 May 1945.

‘Consolidating the position’ fell to the infantry. The Border Regiment, from the far north of England, were out in front. George MacDonald Fraser remembered events in his distinctive way:

[Y]ou did feel the isolation, the sense of back of beyond. Perhaps that came, in part, from being called “the Forgotten Army” – a colourful newspaper phrase which we bandied about with derision; we were not forgotten by those who mattered, our families and our county. But we knew only too well that we were a distant side-show, that our war was small in the public mind beside the great events of France and Germany.

Oh, God, I’ll never forget the morning when we were sent out to lay ambushes, which entailed first an attack on a village believed to be Jap-held. We were lined up for a company advance, and were waiting in the sunlight, dumping our small packs and fixing bayonets, and Hutton and Long John were moving among us reminding us quietly to see that our magazines were charged and that everyone was right and ready, and Nixon was no doubt observing that we’d all get killed, and someone, I know, was mut- tering the old nonsense “Sister Anna will carry the banner, Sister Kate will carry the plate, Sister Maria right marker, Salvation Army, by the left — charge!” when a solitary Spitfire came roaring out of nowhere and Victory-rolled above us.

We didn’t get it; on the rare occasions when we had air support the Victory roll came after the fight, not before. While we were wondering, an officer – he must have been a new arrival, and a right clown — ran out in front of the company and shouted, with enthusiasm: “Men! The war in Europe is over!”.

There was a long silence, while we digested this, and looked through the heat haze to the village where Jap might be waiting,and I’m not sure that the officer wasn’t waving his hat and shouting hip, hooray.

The silence continued, and then someone laughed, and it ran down the extended line in a great torrent of mirth, punctuated by cries of “Git the boogers oot ’ere!” and “Ev ye told Tojo, like?” and “Hey, son, is it awreet if we a’ gan yam?” [Cumbrian dialect – “go home”] Well, he must have been new, and yet to get his priorities right, but it was an interesting pointer.

But if we resented, and took perverse pleasure in moaning (as only Cumbrians can) about our relative unimportance, there was a hidden satisfaction in it, too. Set a man apart and he will start to feel special. We did; we knew we were different, and that there were no soldiers quite like us anywhere.

Partly it sprang from the nature of our war. How can I put it? We were freer, and our own masters in a way which is commonly denied to infantry; we were a long way from the world of battle-dress serge and tin hats and the huge mechanised war juggernauts and the waves of bombers and artillery.

When Slim stood under the trees at Meiktila and told us: “Rangoon is where the big boats sail from”, the idea that we might one day get on one of those boats and sail halfway round the world to home might seem unreal, but it was a reminder that we were unique (and I don’t give a dam who knows it). We were Fourteenth Army, the final echo of Kipling’s world, the very last British soldiers in the old imperial tradition.

I don’t say we were happy to be in Burma, because we weren’t, but we knew that Slim was right when he said: “Some day, you’ll be proud to say, ‘I was there’.”

Mind you, as Grandarse remarked, we’d have to get out of the bloody place first.

See George MacDonald Fraser: Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II

A group of sick and emaciated British POWs in Rangoon prison after liberation, 3 May 1945.
A group of sick and emaciated British POWs in Rangoon prison after liberation, 3 May 1945.
Liberated POWs at Rangoon jail, 3 May 1945. Major McLeod, a Canadian doctor who served with the Indian Medical Service, inspects one of his patients, Corporal J Usher, whose leg he had to amputate during their captivity.
Liberated POWs at Rangoon jail, 3 May 1945. Major McLeod, a Canadian doctor who served with the Indian Medical Service, inspects one of his patients, Corporal J Usher, whose leg he had to amputate during their captivity.
Off-duty soldiers enjoying the sights of Rangoon's pagodas, 13 May 1945.
Off-duty soldiers enjoying the sights of Rangoon’s pagodas, 13 May 1945.