An airman’s first and last operational flight

During the early morning of the 30th of September 1941 the crew were well into their return leg of the flight and was more or less on course for their home base at Topcliffe. They crossed the Yorkshire coast at around 03.30hrs in the Middlesbrough area and a course was set for base at Topcliffe, at a height of 2000 feet to avoid striking the high ground they would have to cross over. There were no problems up to then in the flight.

Russian POWs arrive in camps in Austria

They were reduced to eating grass and weeds at the side of the line. At the stops the guards had just thrown the bodies of those who had died out on to the side of the railway. When they arrived at Wolfsberg station scores of dead bodies were still in the wagons and these were left there, when the survivors were marched off to the Stalag.

After Stalingrad – seven years as a Soviet POW

After-Stalingard

The battle for Stalingrad has been studied and recalled in exhaustive detail ever since the Red Army trapped the German 6th Army in the ruined city in 1942. But most of these accounts finish at the end of the battle, with columns of tens of thousands of German soldiers disappearing into Soviet captivity. Their fate is rarely described.

That is why Adelbert Holl’s harrowing and vivid memoir of his seven-year ordeal as a prisoner in the Soviet camps is such an important record as well as an absorbing story. As he moves from camp to camp across the Soviet Union, an unsparing inside view of the prison system and its population of ex-soldiers emerges. He describes the daily life in the camps – the crowding, the dirt, the cold, the ever-present threat of disease, the forced marches, the indifference or cruelty of the guards – in authentic detail.

The Soviets treated German prisoners as slave labourers, working them exhaustively, in often appalling conditions. The prisoners could only struggled to survive, to support each other, and hope against hope to return home.

This episode takes place days after their capture:

We are now marching alongside the railway line leading to Gumrak. An empty goods train trundles past through the night. It is going the same way — why does it not take us with it? I have long since given up any ideas of flight. Should I climb on a truck and kill the crew? It is all nonsense.

Under cover of a wall of snow I lie down at a bend in the track and make the attempt to see if getting away unnoticed from the marching column would be possible. The last ones have gone past, and also the guard. No one has noticed anything or taken any action. The cold creeps into my body and brings me back to reality. I stand up and hurry through the darkness after the others. It would be nonsense to flee here! I cannot take a single step from the road without sinking up to my thighs in the snow.

This night too is endless. The previous night we had to stand together in a narrow space in a great frost and now we are marching on without a break. Someone says that the next objective is Gumrak, where we can rest comfortably. I no longer believe it. The Russians have lied so far, but we have kept going anyway.

If there only were none of those damned sledges on which are the Red Army soldiers’ packs and some other things I do not recognise. A staff colonel doctor has with him a large trunk containing the instruments and medicines that he naturally cannot carry himself, and the trunk lies on one of the two sledges. Until now the relief of the sledge teams has gone in an orderly manner.

Franz is conducting himself bravely. One has only to look at him to see that this marching is hard for him, but he carries on. Sometimes I support him, sometimes someone else. How does it actually happen that I have to pull the sledges? Until now I have succeeded in avoiding them. I have had enough to do dragging my comrades along, but now I am stuck with it.

Behind us, my fellow puller and me, comes a guard, his slit-eyed yellow face disfigured by pockmarks. I do not understand what he says. I cannot understand a word. It seems like our ‘further’. I think it also has something to do with ‘forwards’, as to reinforce these words we take blows alternately with a rifle butt in our backs. How can I get out of this? For about half an hour — or is it almost an hour — we keep pulling in this manner. If it had been any longer my strength would have gone with it.

Why does this dog not drive us on with his voice instead of his rifle butt? At last! He has realised that we can do no more and has selected two other victims. Poor devils! I ensure that I get out of this Asian’s sight.

I am in no state to help anyone for the next hour as I stumble along like a dmnkard. Won’t that damned Gumrak ever come? It is already getting dark and there is nothing to be seen. How many men succumbed during the night? When one is already at the end of one’s strength one hardly has an ear for other things.

For every one of us there is only one thing: you have to keep moving forward, staying quite close to the stronger ones, otherwise you are lost! Another man collapses further forward in front of me. Someone says it is Colonel von der Groben. Several young prisoners from his division hold him up and drag him along with them. At last Gumrak comes in sight. We breathe out. There are still 3 or 4 kilometres to go, but at least it is good to see it. Everyone pulls together and gives the last of their strength to reach the goal.

A RAVINE OF DEATH

At last we are in Gumrak. We are directed to a ravine for accommodation. A few weeks ago this ravine had been a dressing station. Now it is full of snow, otherwise we would not have noticed it. New Red Army soldiers have come out of their holes. They stand up on the edge of the ravine and are our new guards. I have no idea where I should go. There is deep snow everywhere. If I look up, I can see the grey-blue winter sky with the dark silhouettes of the soldiers. Someone tells us that we are to rest here for six hours. How can we?

Some stalwarts dig snow from a hole with a plank they have found, while others use their mess tins. Afterwards, like badgers in their setts, they cover themselves with everything available and try to sleep. If only I had the option of sleeping! For many of the men hunger is all-consuming as a result of the painful stress the march has inflicted, crushing their bodily strength. With the patience of angels they try to light their fires.

Franz is very exhausted. We too have to look for something to cook. While Franz flattens the snow in our part of the slope, I look for something to bum, but this too is difficult. What can one find out here on the steppe?

Finally we are able to go ahead and cook. We start a fire with the steppe grass that I have managed to scrape together. Finally I lay on top the scraps of wood that I had found in the least likely corner of the ravine. With constant blowing — there is no wind in the ravine — I ensure that the fire does not go out, as then all my trouble would have been for nothing, and if we wanted to eat we would have had to start all over again.

Who counts the time necessary when one’s stomach wants to feel something warm again, even though it is only a handful of gruel boiled in thawed snow? I have to keep throwing in snow until the mess tin is full. The snow around the fire begins to thaw, but the ground remains solid. I stand on it.

What is that? An arm appears, a whole body. Can one be so insensitive? So we crouch next to a corpse and cook our meal, as we want to live. We hardly take any notice of the dead man. It does not bother us that he is completely naked.

I look around me. Everywhere is the same picture. We have been driven into a ravine that is full of dead soldiers. Whether they were German, Romanian or Hungarian, no one knows. They lie there completely naked. No one has tried to differentiate between them and they are all the same before the Almighty. The Russians simply let these men perish here. It is a ravine of the dead.

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Aftermath of the Belfast Blitz

It looked like photographs of Spain or China or some town in the last war. Houses roofless, windowless, burnt out or burning, familiar landmarks gone and in their place vast craters and mounds of rubble. The desolation is indescribable. Thousands and thousands must be homeless, and as for the death toll, I shuddered to think horrors and ghastly injuries and death which have occured.

The Café de Paris bomb

This was the worst air raid since early January, but was not on the scale of many last year. London was at alert from 1948 to 0003. All groups and 55 local authorities were affected, but the main weight of attack fell on the centre of London. HE’s were mixed with IB’s from the beginning of the raid, and although many IB’s (some stated to be of a new type – see below)* were dropped, fire raising did not appear to be the first object of the raid. IB’s were put out very quickly and only two fires required more than 10 pumps. All were under control by midnight.

The Sheffield Blitz

An attack lasting nearly nine hours was made on the night of the 12th-13th and was concentrated mainly on the centre, north-west and south-east of the City. Although over 200 incidents were reported, the main Steel Valley largely escaped, and onlv four cases of substantial damage have been reported. The attack on the night of the 15th-16th lasted three hours, and was mainly in the east and east centre; many factories were hit, but only nine of these suffered substantial damage.

Storming the Eagle’s Nest – Hitler’s War in the Alps

Storming-the-Eagle's-Nest

From the Fall of France in June 1940 to Hitler’s suicide in April 1945, the swastika flew from the peaks of the High Savoy in the western Alps to the passes above Ljubljana in the east. The Alps as much as Berlin were the heart of the Third Reich.

‘Yes,’ Hitler declared of his headquarters in the Bavarian Alps, ‘I have a close link to this mountain. Much was done there, came about and ended there; those were the best times of my life . . . My great plans were forged there.’

With great authority and verve, Jim Ring tells the story of how the war was conceived and directed from the Fuhrer’s mountain retreat, how all the Alps bar Switzerland fell to Fascism, and how Switzerland herself became the Nazi’s banker and Europe’s spy centre. How the Alps in France, Italy and Yugoslavia became cradles of resistance, how the range proved both a sanctuary and a death-trap for Europe’s Jews – and how the whole war culminated in the Allies’ descent on what was rumoured to be Hitler’s Alpine Redoubt, a Bavarian mountain fortress.

Meanwhile, for its design centre and head office, Messerschmitt AG had settled on the 2,746-foot Alpine resort of Oberammergau. This was conveniently located in the Oberbayern region of the Bavarian Alps, just sixty miles south of Augsburg, fifty south- west of Munich.

It was a resort of much Alpine charm, a medieval village where the houses were graced with the Luftmalerei frescos that were such a feature of Berchtesgaden. There was also a tradition of woodcarving.

Here, an existing military emplacement could form the nucleus for the HQ. This was a barracks of the signals section of the Ist Mountain Regiment, the Gebirgs-Nachrichten- Abteilung 54. Overlooking a meadow and close to a pine forest, the surrounding peak of the 4,403-foot Kofel and dozens of higher peaks in the locality made it a very difficult target to Allied bombers — even if the RAF and USAAF intelligence staff discovered it was there.

By way of cover, the HQ was given the suitably bland name of the Upper Bavarian Research Institute. As to the symbolism of Oberammergau, this the authorities ignored.

In 1633 the villagers had made a public vow. Should the bubonic plague raging in the region pass them by, they would stage in perpetuity a play of Christ’s life. Oberammergau went sufficiently untouched for the villagers to believe they had been spared, and a great tradition was gradually established. Beginning in 1634, every ten years the villagers staged the Passion Play.

Admission fees were instituted in 1790, package tours using the new railway line from Munich in 1870, and by 1930 the play was attracting something approaching half a million visitors from all over the world. In 1934, Hitler himself had attended the celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of the first performance. He was not enthusiastic. The play revealed, he declared, ‘the muck and mire of Jewry’.

Nine years later it was said that he felt the Passion Play theatre was peculiarly appropriate for armaments production, so — loosely — inverting the principle of turning swords into ploughshares.

The inhabitants of the village were naturally more cautious about their Christian resort cum shrine being turned into an armaments factory. None were more so than the mayor, Alfred Bierling. A local man who had himself performed in the play, he was determined to stand up for the Catholic traditions of the village.

When the dispersal scheme was first mooted, a number of arms manufacturers had expressed interest in the Passion Play theatre. This was a building dating from 1890, originally capable of holding an audience of 4,000, in 1930 enlarged.

BMW was amongst the enthusiastic bidders. The Munich works of the firm supplied engines for a number of the Luftwaffe’s fighters and bombers. These included the rival of the Bf 109, the Focke- Wulf 190, together with prototype versions of the Me 262 itself. Bierling managed to discourage BMW, arguing that ‘the theater is in its way a house of God; similarly, they could seize and desanctify a church’. He failed with Messerschmitt AG, perhaps on account of Hitler’s own influence.

By the autumn of 1943 there were already 1,000 Messerschmitt workers in the village; by the time of Speer’s crisis meeting with Hitler in May 1944, 3,000. Work had by then begun on a twenty- three-mile complex of tunnels that would comprise production facilities that included sub-assemblies for the Me 262.

On the design side Messerschmitt was working on the variants of the Me 262 that Hitler had recently insisted on, turning it from a fighter into a light bomber; on the Me 264, a four-engine bomber with a range to reach New York; on the Me 323, a six-engine heavy transport; on the Me 163 rocket-powered fighter; and on the Me P1101, a variable-sweep-wing ramjet fighter. It was a portfolio of futuristic projects that might well have excited the jealousy of Boeing, creators of that icon of US military power, the B-17 Flying Fortress.

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Stalin deports Poles from Russian occupied Poland

At two o’clock in the morning of 10 February 1940 my mother’s crying in the kitchen woke me up. I got up to see what was happening and, on opening the door, was grabbed by four men with rifles: two in NKVD uniforms, and two civilians with red bands round their sleeves. They searched me to ensure I wasn’t carrying arms, then allowed me to return to the bedroom, as they told us to pack our belongings for departure to the railway station in Klewan.