The BEF are encircled, 7th Royal Sussex are decimated

German artillery on the western front, May 1940

With the situation rapidly deteriorating in France the British Expeditionary Force sent forward their main reserves. The intention was to launch a counter-attack in the region of Arras, hopefully in co-ordination with the French.

Private D.J. OSBORNE was a lorry driver with the 7th Battalion Royal Sussex Rifles. On the 18th May he was fortunate enough to remain behind with 200 other men from the HQ and Motor Transport sections of the battalion while the 581 men in the main rifle companies were rushed forward by train. Their ultimate destination was Arras but they never made it.

On the outskirts of Amiens the train was attacked by Stuka dive-bombers. Eighty men died, including eight officers in one carriage. Unable to move any further and cut off from contact with HQ, the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin, himself wounded, decided that they would be best employed maintaining a defensive position on rising ground on the outskirts of Amiens. Unfortunately the remaining 501 men now found themselves in the direct path of the Germans:

At 16:00 hrs on 19th May 1940 the enemy appeared and gave battle until 18:00 hrs when they disengaged, and overnight regrouped and made good his losses.

At 03:00 hrs on 20th May 1940, the enemy re-appeared, coming from the east. A column of motorized infantry accompanied by tanks approached the positions of the 7th Battalion RSR. Their positions had previously been detected and noted by German spotter planes. The Germans had decided that it was essential to eliminate this possible threat to their advance. The enemy troops were [from 1st Panzer Division, the spearhead for] German Army Group “A” commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt. It consisted of 44 Infantry Divisions, 7 Armoured Divisions and 3 Motorized Divisions.

It should be remembered that the 7th Battalion RSR, in common with all Battalions of 12th Division, had very few arms. Each man carried a Rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition and their experience of handling these was very limited. The Battalion’s supply of ammunition was minimal as no effort had been made by their Divisional Staff to ensure that they were properly equipped before they were sent into battle. Nevertheless the men of the 7th Battalion RSR engaged the enemy as if they were a well founded Battalion. The enemy was quite unaware of the weakness of the force against them. From behind every bit of cover these gallant but doomed men fought their one-sided battle.

A lucky shot from one of the few anti tank rifles put a tank out of action. This caused the enemy to become wary. The German Infantry deployed both heavy mortars and a battery of field artillery was bought into action to add to the deluge of shells being poured out by the encircling tanks. Against the might of the enemy, the 7th Battalion RSR had 6 Boyes anti-tank rifles with 32 rounds in total and 10 Bren guns.

The ammunition was soon expended; there was no reserve, they had no mortars and no artillery support or signals platoon to help them. When the fire from the 7th Battalion RSR slackened, the enemy was reluctant to advance for the kill, so they called up the Stuka U.U.87 Dive Bombers to help them. However the outcome was never in doubt. As the afternoon wore on the casualties increased, and finally at 20:00 hrs with every round fired, the survivors reluctantly surrendered.

Of the 581 men of all the Companies that had left Buchy on 18th May 1940, only 70 men survived to be taken into captivity. Not even during the murderous engagements on the Somme or at Paschendaele in World War I had any unit suffered such casualties. But their sacrifice had not been in vain: it so discouraged the enemy from penetrating southwards that it had saved their sister Battalion the 6th Battalion RSR from a similar fate and that of a Moroccan Regiment that was not far off.

Of those men taken into captivity, the Adjutant of the Battalion, a Major Cassels, had refused to raise his arms in surrender and was promptly shot.

During the action Sergeant Glover (Carriers) shot down two Stuka Dive Bombers with a Bren gun. He would have had three, but in the confusion of battle he forgot to remove the safety catch and the target had passed by the time he had realized. The 7th Battalion RSR had delayed the advance of the German Army Group ‘A’ for a total of 21 hours.

Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin was taken prisoner by Oberleutnant Gerhard Richter who in due course delivered him to his commanding officer Major General Erwin Rommel. Rommel was commanding the 7th Panzer Division, a section of which had been detailed to eliminate the threat posed by the 7th Battalion RSR.

All the men captured at St Roche (70) served a total of 5 years at the German P.O.W. camp, Stalag XX “A”, at a place called Torun in Poland, and when the war was over they had to walk a distance of 1300 miles back into Germany to get repatriated. All the 430 men killed at St Roche (Amiens) now lay buried in the Military Cemetery at Abbeville, row upon row of them.

Read the whole of Private D.J. OSBORNE’ account on BBC People’s War . There is another account at 7th Royal Sussex which suggests that more than 70 men were taken prisoner. Nevertheless there is an incomplete picture of this action because of the very heavy casualties and because the Battalion’s War Diary was lost during the course of it.

Late on the 20th May 1940 the advance German units reached the French coast at Noyelles. The French Army was cut in two, with the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force cut off in Belgium and north west France with their backs to the English Channel. In London there was a growing realisation that a full scale evacuation of the BEF was needed.

The encirclement was very large and the British forces were not yet in any danger of being attacked from the rear. Nevertheless the German forces pursuing them in Belgium maintained their pressure. Captain Leah describes the confusion they encountered while seeking to withdraw under shell fire: Continue reading “The BEF are encircled, 7th Royal Sussex are decimated”

British withdrawal accelerates as Churchill speaks

German tanks, 1940
German armour advancing into Belgium

The situation in France was unravelling fast. The Germans had now secured their breakthrough in the gap they had forced north of the Maginot Line. The great bulk of the French Army was still confined to these great fortresses and there was neither the means, nor seemingly the will, to bring them into the battle. A plan was drawn up to cut off the German Panzer thrust by the French driving north and the British driving south at the base of the German advance. It was the logical thing to do but it never materialised.

The British Cabinet was now informed that the British Army might have to be evacuated from the north French coast in order to save them – it was just over a week since they had gone forward into Belgium so confidently.

At home Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation, his address made the seriousness of the situation abundantly clear. He acknowledged that the Germans Panzers “have penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their track” but he still held out the hope that the front could be stabilised:

We may look with confidence to the stabilization of the Front in France, and to the general engagement of the masses, which will enable the qualities of the French and British soldiers to be matched squarely against those of their adversaries. For myself, I have invincible confidence in the French Army and its leaders.

Only a very small part of that splendid Army has yet been heavily engaged; and only a very small part of France has yet been invaded. There is a good evidence to show that practically the whole of the specialized and mechanized forces of the enemy have been already thrown into the battle; and we know that very heavy losses have been inflicted upon them.

No officer or man, no brigade or division, which grapples at close quarters with the enemy, wherever encountered, can fail to make a worthy contribution to the general result. The Armies must cast away the idea of resisting behind concrete lines or natural obstacles, and must realize that mastery can only be regained by furious and unrelenting assault. And this spirit must not only animate the High Command, but must inspire every fighting man.

He knew that his main task was to unite and inspire the British people for the long fight ahead:

We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all – to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be. This is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain.

It is also beyond doubt the most sublime. Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide empires which rest beneath their shield – side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.

Behind them – behind us- behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France – gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians – upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.

Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

For the full speech see The Churchill Centre.

Captain R. Leah describes the practical difficulties faced by the British Expeditionary Force units as they seek to withdraw:

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

Sunday 19th May.

Anxious to get away before light, but no sign of A.F.V’s till about 3 a.m. and were just moving out of Lessines as dawn was breaking. “B” Coy were rear guard and last away. Heavy mortar shelling this morning. Apparently insufficient transport for everybody. Transport took some on, part of the way, then came back and lifted others, and so on. We marched until about 10 a.m. Everybody extraordinarily tired. Road crowded – at least 2 waits moving back on our road. Our Tpt not too well organized, drivers did not know their destination nor did I. Saw Michael Kemp when entering Tournai. R.A.S.C. finally dumped us in Tournai. Eventually got hold of Rutterford, P.S.M., who took me to Bn area, borrowed some tpt and went back and fetched company. Continue reading “British withdrawal accelerates as Churchill speaks”

Red Army begins its assault on the outskirts of Berlin

Red Army soldiers in trenches during the approach to Berlin.
Red Army soldiers in trenches during the approach to Berlin.
Soviet tank T-34-85 in a pine forest south of Berlin.
Soviet tank T-34-85 in a pine forest south of Berlin.

Erwin Bartmann had been wounded on the Eastern Front serving with the 1st SS Panzer Division. After recovering he was sent to a training school for young recruits. Now he returned with them to the Eastern Front, only this time that front was within Germany.

The Red Army had begun their assault on the Seelow Heights, the defensive line in the hills east of Berlin, on the 16th April. The following day Bartmann and his young recruits were transported to very outskirts of Berlin to face action for the first time. That evening he realised that they were too young to be able to cope with the small quantity of schnapps that he had obtained:

On the night of 17th-18th April 1945 they started to come under Soviet artillery fire:

Throughout that night, a heavy artillery bombardment shook the earth. Every young face bore the furrow-lines of fear. ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured them, ‘the detonations are too far away to do us any mischief. Ivan doesn’t know we’re here yet.’ ‘They’re too close for comfort.’ exclaimed one of the recruits whose shoulders yanked up tight at every whizz or bang. ‘How do you know?’ piped up the recruit who had complained on the overnight march. ‘He’s on old hare, he can tell.’

I felt my lips pull an involuntary smile. It was strange, but nevertheless gratifying, to hear myself referred to as an ‘old hare’ though I was not yet twenty- two years old. Yet it was easy to understand the recruit’s anxiety — I had felt the same tension when crossing the Dniepr under the protection of Unterscharfuhrer Nowotnik.

‘Settle down and get some sleep,’ I said, feeling almost fatherly. …

A depressingly grey dawn crept over the horizon, the signal for the start of a barrage of 15 centimetre Russian mortar shells that fell with frightening accuracy along our front line. No one could hear the screams of the wounded above the thud of continually exploding rounds; the land itself seemed to shake with fear.

I popped my head above the line of the trench to make sure the Russian infantry had not crept up on us under the protection of the barrage. At that instant, a shell detonated close by, sending a gust of tiny slivers of steel blasting against my face.

As I ducked back under cover, the recruits looked at me as if they had seen the devil himself. Only then did I notice the warm rivulets of blood trickling down my cheeks. Once again my guardian angel was at my side; none of the little steel needles had found my eyes and those that were imbedded in my skin were easily plucked out. As the bombardment waned, German steel helmets appeared above the lines of our trenches. Someone close by was shouting, swearing, as he pointed in the direction of the Frankfurt—Mullrose road.

A squadron of Russian T-34 tanks was heading south. I raised my binoculars. The image that loomed into focus sickened me to the pit of my stomach. Women and children were bound to the tanks’ guns. Though they were too distant for me to hear their wails above the sound of the tank engines, the body language of the mothers told its own pitiful tale. Cold, silent, helpless rage filled my heart. ‘What should we do?’ yelled one my machine-gun crew, his boyish face contorted by an expression of confused agony.

One accidental pull on a trigger could have startled every one of our machine guns into unleashing a hail of bullets at the tanks, which were easily within range. ‘Hold fire,’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘Let the officers decide.’ After a short but heated discussion, the officers let the tanks pass without firing a single shot but I dared not speculate the fate that might await the terrified hostages. We all knew of, and believed, the reports of Russian tanks deliberately squashing columns of refuges under their tracks as they fled East Prussia.

Russian fighter planes swooped on our trenches, raking the area with machine-gun fire. I made sure my recruits kept their heads down and we escaped the onslaught without a single casualty. By early afternoon, an enemy infantry battalion was gathering without hindrance just a kilometre away. ‘Don’t worry about the bayonets,’ I told the youngsters of the machine-gun crew whose trench I shared, ‘they won’t get close enough to use them.’

Mutterings of anxiety continued to pass between the recruits as we waited for the inevitable onslaught. At last, the enemy infantry charged. Our machine guns unleashed a storm of bullets into their killing zone, scything through wave after wave of brown uniforms. The two crews directly under my command performed well and we managed to hold back the attack on our sector of the defence line.

My experience on the Ostfront enabled me to keep our losses to just two men. Qne of these we buried in the Friedhof in Lichtenberg, the other, a handsome young chap, I buried with the help of two Kameraden, close to where he fell.

The next Russian attack was more determined. They had found a gap in our lines and Untersturmfuhrer Gessner’s infantry platoon left the cover of the woods to set off down the hill, ahead of our machine-gun positions, with the aim of throwing back the enemy attack. Unfortunately, he took his unit too close to the enemy for us to give effective machine-gun support. With the intention of fending off any assault on Gessner’s squad, I led one of the crews down the hill to get a better firing position.

Having covered about 500 metres, we came under intense small-arms fire and threw ourselves to the ground. When the firing stopped, I was horrified to see a Russian infantry platoon close on Untersturmfuhrer Gessner. He was on his knees with a pistol at his temple. There was a puff of smoke and he slumped to the side. His courage had not failed him.

I pulled my machine—gun crew back to our lines at the edge of the woods only to find the other recruits exactly where I had left them. ‘If you had followed us we could have saved Untersturmfuhrer Gessner,’ I roared angrily only to be confronted with an avalanche of excuses intended to justify their inaction.

The night passed without further event.

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

Volkssturm with anti-tank rocket ("Panzerschreck" / "stovepipe") in a foxhole in the open field outside Berlin, end of April 1945.
Volkssturm with anti-tank rocket (“Panzerschreck” / “stovepipe”) in a foxhole in the open field outside Berlin, end of April 1945.
Berlin, Elderly members of the Volkssturm who are building tank barriers on the streets of Berlin are brought food by their families, April 1945.
Berlin, Elderly members of the Volkssturm who are building tank barriers on the streets of Berlin are brought food by their families, April 1945.

Allies launch the last big offensive in Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Ray Ward: The Mirror of Monte Cavallara

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

A war artist in the mountains of Italy

"Through Castel del Rio, a little mountain village packed with army transport, then on over some spectacular Bailey bridges and into the quiet of the forward area ..." Ardizzone describes his journey on 10th January 1945.
“Through Castel del Rio, a little mountain village packed with army transport, then on over some spectacular Bailey bridges and into the quiet of the forward area …” Ardizzone describes his journey on 10th January 1945.

The Italian Front had become rather neglected after D-Day in Normandy. If the Allies did not have the strength to break through, after the diversion of troops to France, they were still holding down significant German forces.

One man had a particular affection for Italy, official War Artist Edward Ardizzone. In January he returned for another visit. There was much that he could have covered and there was no requirement for him to visit the front lines, yet he seems to have been under some personal obligation to do so:

11th January Thursday

Idle morning by the Mess fire trying to warm up after another cold and sleepless night. To the Guards Brigade in the afternoon. Heavier firing as we passed. Pack mules slipping and sliding on the icy road. Arrive about tea, find them very comfortably established in a big farmhouse.

Shells drop nearby in the evening and an officer is wounded. Luckily not too seriously, but when he was brought into the Mess and laid on the sofa he was grey, speechless and sweating with shock. Touching concern of his batman.

"an officer is wounded. Luckily not too seriously, but when he was brought into the Mess and laid on the sofa he was grey, speechless and sweating with shock. Touching concern of his batman."
“an officer is wounded. Luckily not too seriously, but when he was brought into the Mess and laid on the sofa he was grey, speechless and sweating with shock. Touching concern of his batman.”

Later the M.O. arrives with ambulance and after a first aid dressing to leg and back he is taken away. Sit next to the Brigadier at dinner, which was really wonderful, the best I have had in Italy, the Brigade H.Q. having discovered a wonderful woman cook. Sleep well and am warm for the first time for four nights.

12th January Friday

The Brigadier and his aide take me with them on their visit to Company and Battalion posts in the mountains — a tremendous walk through deep snow and up icy slopes which nearly kills me. Realise how unfit I am. At one moment thought I would have to give up.

Posts usually in small, grey mountain farmhouses, but the highest, on a great snow’ ridge, consisted of holes dug in the hillside covered with tarpaulins. Another a combination of holes and a burrow in a ruined farmhouse.

We are dressed in snow suits of white linen, as much of the way under observation. Finally We reach an A.D.S. in a small farmhouse where we collect a jeep and travel by an appalling steep and bumpy track, deep with snow and ice, down to the river. We cross by a footbridge and the last short walk home was precipitous and awful. Being tired I fell over at least half a dozen times.

See Edward Ardizzone: Diary of a War Artist.

A Soldier Shaving in the Snow, Tuscany 1945
A Soldier Shaving in the Snow, Tuscany 1945

The Red Army prepares for the final offensive

Soviet T-34 tank with troops cross the highway Zhitomir-Berdichev, past a burning tank Pz.Kpfw. VI "Tiger". 1st Ukrainian Front, 5th January 1945
Soviet T-34 tank with troops cross the highway Zhitomir-Berdichev, past a burning tank Pz.Kpfw. VI “Tiger”. 1st Ukrainian Front, 5th January 1945

Although battles raged in the Ukraine and in Budapest much of the Eastern front was relatively quiet. The rapid Soviet offensive that had pushed into Poland in the Autumn had paused over the winter. Stalin was building up an even more enormous force before his final push into Germany itself.

German intelligence was well aware of the impending threat, although much of the information was discounted by Hitler and the High Command. In fact there was little they could do about it anyway. What little spare resources that could be found had been diverted for the last desperate push in the Ardennes. Now that last hope appeared to be faltering.

The Red Army was nearly ready to strike. Nicolai Litvin was currently the staff driver for the 352nd Rifle Division:

About 5 January 1945, the commander of the 65th Army, Colonel General P. I. Batov, paid a visit to our division. Together with Dzhandzhgava [commander of the 352nd], they went to examine the place that had been designated for the breakthrough of the enemy’s defenses in the coming offensive.

The generals were dressed in sheepskin coats and wearing simple officer’s caps on their heads. There were no shoulder straps on their coats. The adjutants remained at the divisional command post while I drove the officers to the front lines. As I drove, the generals talked about the forthcoming offensive, about the preparations for it, and about possible start dates.

I overheard Batov telling Dzhandzhgava: “You know, some Americans in the Ardennes have turned chicken and buggered of nearly 300 kilometers to the rear. Churchill has asked Stalin, ‘For God’s sake, start your offensive sooner.’ We’ll have to start our offensive a week earlier. We must have everything ready.” In this way, I learned that the Stavka had moved up the start date for our offensive.

I returned to the jeep and waited, while the generals made their observations, then walked around the trenches, bunkers, and gun pits, checking out the soldiers’ readiness and morale. While I waited, I sat down with some fellows and told them, “You know, there’s a commotion back at divisional headquarters. Someone is firing at the Germans, but neither our scouts nor the Germans can figure out where the firing is coming from.”

I looked at them. The guys in the group exchanged glances, grinned, and then took me to show who was firing. When the Germans had retreated, following their early October attack, we took over some of their positions and combined them into our new defensive line.

Some soldiers found a place where a few German “Vaniushi” had been positioned, six-barreled rocket launchers that brayed like donkeys when they hurled their rounds toward us. As soon as we heard the distinct sound of a “Vaniusha” firing, we immediately shouted, “Brothers, a donkey! Take cover!” This meant that rockets were now headed our way, and that soon there would be explosions.

When the Germans had retreated, they had left behind piles of these rockets — it seemed, as many as had been delivered to the position. Our soldiers had found them and thought to give them a try. They would take a rocket, lay it on the breastwork of the trench, and then fire at this percussion cap at the base of the rocket with their avtomat [automatic rifle]. The rocket would explode, and the shell would fly off in the general direction of the German lines. Therefore the Germans could not figure out from where the fire was coming.

German Nebelwerfer missiles in flight
German Nebelwerfer missiles in flight, fired during the Warsaw Uprising

When the generals had returned from their visit to the front line, I told them about the “disturbers of the peace.” General Batov said, “Well, show us.” The guys and their sergeant showed them on the spot how they “fired” the rockets. Batov said, “I don’t have anything in my pocket. I only have this Order of the Red Star. I award it to the sergeant for coming up with this ‘technique’ of harassing the enemy. Award the remaining troops yourself, Vladimir Nikolaevich [Dzhandzhgava], under your own authority”

I returned to the Willys [Jeep], and the generals came back later, at sunset, and we headed back to the 354th’s command post.

See Nikolai Litvin: 800 Days on the Eastern Front: A Russian Soldier Remembers World War II. For a review of this memoir see Kansas Press.

The German Nebelwerfer (“Smoke Mortar”) had been developed before the war while German armament developments were restricted by the Versailles Treaty. Although it did fire smoke mortars for use on the battlefield, right from the start it was also capable of firing high explosive and poison gas missiles – matters that were concealed from international observers. The psychological effect of the sound of a battery of Nebelwerfers being fired during the Blitzkrieg was regarded as a particular asset of the weapon.

Contemporary German film of the Nebelwerfer in action:

A German Nebelwerfer unit in half tracks earlier in the war.
A German Nebelwerfer unit in half tracks earlier in the war.

Patton’s Third Army resumes the attack – towards Metz

Eisenhower and Patton confer together in October 1944.
Eisenhower and Patton confer together in October 1944.
The men of US 3rd Army deal with the mud of Lorraine, October 1944.
The men of US 3rd Army deal with the mud of Lorraine, October 1944.

The town of Metz lies on the French German border, and had lain within both countries during the preceding century, and had been heavily fortified by both countries. The Germans had occupied it in 1940 and it had again reverted back to German territory. Now Hitler saw it as a fortress city to be defended to the death, a major obstacle to the Allied advance into Germany.

After the U.S. Third Army had raced across France they had suffered a frustrating time as the Allied supply lines stretched out and they lacked the fuel and the ammunition to push forward. Once they were ready to go again they faced another frustration – the wet climate of north west Europe’s winters. The scene was set for a miserable and bloody confrontation, one that would continue to frustrate the Army commander, George S. Patton:

I woke up at 0300 on the morning of November 8, 1944, and it was raining very hard. I tried to go to sleep, but finding it impossible, got up and started to read Rommel’s book, Infantry Attacks.

By chance I turned to a chapter describing a fight in the rain in September, 1914. This was very reassuring because I felt that if the Germans could do it I could, so went to sleep and was awakened at 0515 by the artillery preparation.

The rain had stopped and the stars were out. The discharge of over seven hundred guns sounded like the slamming of so many heavy doors in an empty house, while the whole eastern sky glowed and trembled with the flashes.

I even had a slight feeling of sympathy for the Germans, who must now have known that the attack they had been fearing had at last arrived. I complacently remembered that I had always “Demanded the impossible,” that I had “Dared extreme occasion,” and that I had “Not taken counsel of my fears.”

At 0745, Bradley called up to see if we were attacking. I had not let him know for fear I might get a stop order. He seemed delighted that we were going ahead. Then General Eisenhower came on the phone and said, “I expect you to carry the ball all the way.”

Codman, Stiller, and I immedi- ately drove to the Observation Post of the XII Corps, but there was so much artificial fog and smoke from the pots covering the bridges that we could see little. At about 1000, fighter-bombers appeared in force and attacked the known enemy command posts. The day was the brightest and best we had had for two months.

I visited the Headquarters of the 80th, 35th, and 26th Divisions and also saw General Wood. By dark that night every unit was on its assigned objective for the day; unfortunately it started to rain.

See George S. Patton: War As I Knew It

Bombing of Metz, Germany  by USAAF - Mission #226, 12 August 1944 Photo taken from: B-17G #42-97781 The '8' Ball MK III 359BS — Altitude: 20,200 feet, Time: 10:46:30 Pilot: 1Lt Lewis M. Walker
Bombing of Metz, Germany by USAAF – Mission #226, 12 August 1944
Photo taken from: B-17G #42-97781 The ‘8’ Ball MK III 359BS — Altitude: 20,200 feet, Time: 10:46:30
Pilot: 1Lt Lewis M. Walker

Holland: Death in a minefield on the front line

American and British troops meet at a mobile bath and laundry unit, 15 October 1944.
American and British troops meet at a mobile bath and laundry unit, 15 October 1944.
A Sherman tank of 13/18th Hussars, 8th Armoured Brigade keeps watch over the River Waal at Nijmegen, 15 October 1944.
A Sherman tank of 13/18th Hussars, 8th Armoured Brigade keeps watch over the River Waal at Nijmegen, 15 October 1944.

The character of the war in north west Europe was now changing rapidly. The swift advances of the Allies had come to an end and both the British and the Americans found themselves engaged in bitter slogging matches against determined German defenders. The shorter, dark days and cold wet weather was to make for a miserable experience for all involved.

Battery Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill describes life on the front line in Holland.

The weather was appalling, the drenching rain was intense and the days were permanently dark. It was bitterly cold. The locality was wooded and gloomy, the enemy were around us in some considerable numbers and the area was extensively mined. South of Oploo was not a comfortable position to be in, but there was no alternative.

On the night of 14th – 15th October Powdrill had to go forward with supplies for the Forward Observation tank, referred to as the RDon, which was concealed on the edge of woods, much closer to the enemy. He went forward in a carrier with Driver Smith:

… easing his way slowly in the dark night in first gear, through the wood along this narrow track, past a lone, empty cottage on the left that was probably the forester’s accommodation in normal times, and stopping just short of the edge of the wood where RDon was hidden in the trees and well camouflaged.

We managed a pleasant hour yarning about various incidents and drinking a mug of hot sweet tea, but still very conscious of the proximity of the enemy. We were a little apprehensive, too, as we had to manoeuvre our way back in the dark through the minefield.

We managed it by being extra careful, sometimes stopping for me to have a closer look by getting out and examining the ground in front (it was possible to walk over some German mines because the human body did not have sufficient weight to set them off — a tank or a Bren carrier was a different matter).

We eventually got back to the guns, safe and sound, thankful that it was not our job to spend the spooky night up there, although our gun position was not exactly a safe haven. I had only been back at the guns about an hour when an order came for the journey to be repeated, the reasons for which I forget. I was engaged in some task or other at the Command Post and a newcomer, Second Lieutenant Patrick Delaforce, a very young officer, was ordered to undertake the task.

He took my Bren carrier, with Driver Smith at the wheel, and I briefed Patrick on the route to go so as to avoid the mines. He had been given different orders, however, that required a change from the route I had taken. Naturally those orders took precedence over what I had to say and I was pleased that Driver Smith was going, as he was conversant with some of the risks.

Unfortunately, the changed route apparently had not been reconnoitred and the inevitable happened — the carrier was blown up on a mine. Driver Smith was killed instantly, his left leg torn off at the thigh. Patrick was injured, sustaining a severe head wound (he told me years later that he still has a piece of metal in his head).

RDon’s crew at the sharp end heard the explosion and, fearing the worst, conveyed this sad news to us over the wireless. Lance Bombardier Muscoe and I immediately ran about half a mile along the track, oblivious of the mines, to the scene of the tragedy. The carrier was laid on its side, with Driver Smith’s torn leg still on the clutch pedal, his body some yards away, having been pulled clear by RDon’s crew. He lay lifeless under a blanket.

We looked around in the dark night, out of sight of the Germans nearby, who must also have heard the explosion, amidst the proliferation of mines, for some suitable place to bury him. We were near to the forester’s empty cottage and the only place we could dig a shallow grave without undue disturbance from the enemy was, incongruously, by the front door of the cottage, just where a doormat might have been placed. We buried Driver Smith, said a few words over him and forlornly made our way back.

Patrick, I think, was attended to by RDon’s crew. Back at the guns, everyone anxiously wanted to know what had happened and there was great sorrow as Driver Smith was a popular member of the Troop. He was also one of the two oldest among us, having a wife and a young daughter at home.

Field Marshal Montgomery with King George VI after an investiture at 21 Army Group Headquarters, Holland, 15 October 1944.
Field Marshal Montgomery with King George VI after an investiture at 21 Army Group Headquarters, Holland, 15 October 1944.
A sniper demonstrates the superior 'Hawkins' prone firing position (right) next to another in the standard position, at the 21st Army Group sniping school near Eindhoven, 15 October 1944.
A sniper demonstrates the superior ‘Hawkins’ prone firing position (right) next to another in the standard position, at the 21st Army Group sniping school near Eindhoven, 15 October 1944.
The flak ship Vp1605 MOSEL, escorting the Norwegian freighter INGER JOHANNE off Lillesand, engulfed in a torrent of fire from Beaufighters of No 404 Squadron, one of which can be seen passing overhead at mast height, 15 October 1944. The ships were attacked by 21 Beaufighters and 17 Mosquitos of the Banff and Dallachy Wings. The MOSEL eventually blew up and sank.
The flak ship Vp1605 MOSEL, escorting the Norwegian freighter INGER JOHANNE off Lillesand, engulfed in a torrent of fire from Beaufighters of No 404 Squadron, one of which can be seen passing overhead at mast height, 15 October 1944. The ships were attacked by 21 Beaufighters and 17 Mosquitos of the Banff and Dallachy Wings. The MOSEL eventually blew up and sank.

A miserable day on the Le Havre front line

Still from film shot by the RAF Film Production Unit during a daylight raid by 992 aircraft on eight German strong points around Le Havre, France. Columns of smoke rise as incendiary bombs set fire to the fields around one of the targets bombed by Avro Lancasters.
Still from film shot by the RAF Film Production Unit during a daylight raid by 992 aircraft on eight German strong points around Le Havre, France. Columns of smoke rise as incendiary bombs set fire to the fields around one of the targets bombed by Avro Lancasters.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance taken over Le Havre, France after daylight raids by aircraft of Bomber Command on 5, 6 and 8 September 1944. A large area of devastation can be seen in the city centre west of the Bassin de Commerce, over which smoke from burning buildings is drifting. Further attacks on and around Le Havre were carried out on the three following days in an effort to reduce the German garrison still holding out in the city.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance taken over Le Havre, France after daylight raids by aircraft of Bomber Command on 5, 6 and 8 September 1944. A large area of devastation can be seen in the city centre west of the Bassin de Commerce, over which smoke from burning buildings is drifting. Further attacks on and around Le Havre were carried out on the three following days in an effort to reduce the German garrison still holding out in the city.

Although Brussels had been liberated, there were still quite a few corners of France where the Germans held out. The port of Le Havre was surrounded but the German defenders were determined to hold out. Now the Highland Division were building up to an attack from the north of the town. It was to be another French town which suffered terribly at the hands of Allied bombers and artillery.

Charles Swaab, a Royal Artillery officer, had recently been appointed to the role of Forward Observation Officer. This meant going forward as far as possible and directing artillery fire in support of infantry attacks – in his case a forthcoming attack by the Black Watch once the R.A.F. had made their contribution. With bad weather arriving he had an uncomfortable time adjusting to his new role:

I want to write up yesterday fully, so that in days to come if I am ever tempted to say of all this ‘It wasn’t so bad’, I have at least one reminder of an occasion when it bloody well was so bad!

The day really started on the evening of the 6th, when after hanging about for hours waiting for instructions, I was told that owing to an R.A.F. programme, I should not man the O.P. at frst light, but no sooner had I returned to the carrier than I was told we had to be ready at 0630. OK. I warned the crew and the guard and went to bed. It was raining and some was dripping in so I turned my bed around.

At 0240 hours there was a sudden awful gush of water and about 3 gallons of it poured into my trench. The cover had collapsed. The trench was quite soon 9 inches deep in water. The next half hour was true nightmare. Somehow I got dressed into wet clothes, got my bedding into the soaking Jeep (it was still raining hard) and huddled into the front of a 15 cwt wrapped into wet blankets till 0600.

At 0630 we set off for the O.P. still in the pelting rain, and eventually after scrounging a little breakfast from the infantry manned it about 0830 with an infantry platoon as local protection. Prior to this I went up with the B.C. before daylight proper. By then I was of course quite drenched. We had to leave the carrier about 1/2 a mile back and carry phones, remote control etc. up to the O.P. ourselves.

The O.P. was in an orchard and gave a good view of the Boche defences round Octerike [Octeville-sur-Mer] which are very numerous and formidable. I need hardly say that to crown everything the local weather and one thing and another made communications almost impossible, as the phones kept breaking down and something was wrong with the wireless.

At 1500 we retired for an R.A.F. bombing which never took place (still raining furiously) and after a cup of tea went out with the relief platoon about 1730. We also had a tin of M & V [Meat and Vegetables] which tasted unusually good. Well, it went on raining till near darkness (Alistair C. came up to the same place to man the 126 O.P.) so we went in. We were mortared twice by our own mortars and shelled once by our own guns but otherwise it was a quiet enough day.

We knocked off 3 chickens and 2 lbs of sugar from a deserted farm.

When I got back Findlay had dried my blankets and sleeping bag, put me out a clean pillow case and made up my bed in a loft (my new safari camp bed arrived from the Hornseld people of Croydon on the 6th) and at 2300 after a wonderful cup of tea, and issue of rum, I took off all my wet things and fell straight asleep — god how good it was — and the last sound I heard was the rain beating on the roof.

See Jack Swaab: Field of Fire

A gun crew of 53 Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery loading a 155mm gun under camouflage netting. The 155mm gun was an American gun, often manned by British troops on the Normandy front.
A gun crew of 53 Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery loading a 155mm gun under camouflage netting. The 155mm gun was an American gun, often manned by British troops on the Normandy front.
A camouflaged 155mm gun of 53 Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery firing during the barrage of Caen.
A camouflaged 155mm gun of 53 Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery firing during the barrage of Caen.

A shattered city – ‘Festung St Malo’ – surrenders

Soldiers of the 83rd Division probe the outskirts of St Malo on the 9th August.
Soldiers of the 83rd Division probe the outskirts of St Malo on the 9th August.

As the German situation in both the East and the West grew more serious Hitler was to make increasingly desperate demands upon his forces. He had always been reluctant to allow retreats. Now he was to insist that certain locations were to be turned into “fortresses”, defensive citadels where his troops were expected to fight to the last man, holding up the general advance of the Allies for as long as possible. There were still plenty of fanatical Nazis prepared to follow such orders.

As the U.S. forces swept through Brittany they were to encounter a series of such fortresses established in the ports which might assist the Allies bring men and munitions straight onto the European continent. Cherbourg had not held out nearly as long as Hitler had hoped, although the port infrastructure had been so badly damaged it was of limited use to the Allies. Elsewhere the Germans held out for rather longer and the U.S. Third Army’s attempts to winkle them out were to cause extensive damage to these ancient towns. However, not all of the defenders proved to be as fanatical as Hitler hoped.

‘Festung St Malo’ surrendered on 17th August after a fortnight of hammering by bombs, artillery and mortars. Everywhere lay destruction – only 182 buildings out 865 still stood. Journalist Montague Lacey was present, covering events for the Daily Express:

A few minutes before four o’clock this afternoon, the German commander of the Citadel, Colonel von Auloch, the mad colonel with a monocle and a swaggering walk, led 605 men from the depths of his fortress and broke his promise to Hitler that he would never give in to the Americans. The colonel goose-stepped up to surrender, with a batman carrying his large black suitcase, and another in attendance round him flicking the dust from his uniform, and as they went by an American soldier called out: “What a corney show!”

Colonel von Auloch is the man who wrote to the American commander attacking the Citadel to say that a German officer never surrenders, and for 15 days he sat tight 60 feet below ground in the safety of his underground shelter. By tonight the Americans would have been sitting on top of his fortress, which would have become a mass grave for all the men in it. By holding out, Colonel von Auloch has not affected the course of the war one jot. What he has done is to cause the almost complete destruction of the old town of St. Malo, and sow further seeds of hatred in the hearts of the French.

Even as I write, the townspeople gathered in the Place above are shouting and shaking their fists at the Germans from the Citadel. As the Germans pile into trucks to be taken away, the older men somehow look ashamed and stupid, but the young Germans are still grinning and arrogant. The Citadel fell dramatically just an hour before American infantrymen were ready to assault the fortress for the third time, and just as a squadron of Lightning bombers swept in to shower incendiary bombs on the place.

All last night and throughout this morning heavy guns had pounded the Citadel, a main blockhouse surrounded by about a dozen entrances from the mine-like caverns below. The Americans ate their lunch in the wrecked streets before they formed for the attack. At 2.30 p.m. a big white flag appeared on one of the pillboxes. No one took much notice, for at 3 o’clock a fighter-bomber attack was to be laid on. Soon after 3 o’clock the first Lightning swept in. It came down to 50 feet and planted a couple of incendiaries square on top of the Citadel. More white flags were then run up – there were now five flying in the breeze.

The pilot of the second bomber saw them and dived without dropping his bombs. But he opened up his guns as a sort of warning as he flew round followed by the rest of the squadron. The airmen waited long enough to see a batch of Germans come from the Citadel and a bunch of Americans walk up the hill to the front carrying a coloured identification flag.

Now there was a mad scramble to the Citadel. Word soon went round that the Germans had surrendered. Everyone raced down the hillside to see the sight. First out was Colonel von Auloch still barking orders to his officers and men who were almost tumbling over themselves to obey. Two senior officers were with him, one of them a naval commander. They were all trying to make an impressive display in front of the Americans.

Then a curious thing happened. An elderly German, a naval cook, broke ranks and ran up and embraced a young American soldier. The German was lucky not to be shot and the guards lowered their guns just in time. But no one interfered when the U.S. soldier put his arms round the German. They were father and son. The German spoke good American slang and was allowed to stay out of the ranks and act as interpreter. He had been 14 years in American, he said, and went back to Germany just before the outbreak of war.

Colonel von Auloch counted all his men as they filed out carrying their belongings. There were Poles amoung the party, some Russians and about a dozen Italians. Still shouting orders, Von Auloch was put in a jeep and driven away to Division Headquarters. He refused to talk about his surrender and so did his soldiers.

 Oberst Andreas von Aulock of 79. Infanterie-Division (standing in the jeep) taken prisoner by US soldiers, St. Malo, France.© Lawrence Riordan 1944

Oberst Andreas von Aulock of 79. Infanterie-Division (standing in the jeep) taken prisoner by US soldiers, St. Malo, France.© Lawrence Riordan 1944

Down in the labyrinth of tunnels of the Citadel there was the usual destruction and signs of panic. Clothing and equipment were strewn all over the place. There was still plenty of food, water and ammunition – and the usual heaps of empty bottles.

Colonel von Auloch’s room was in the lowest and safest part of the fort. It was about eight feet by ten feet, and furnished only with two leather armchairs and a bed. It seemed to be the only room with a wash basin and running water.

On the desk stood an electric lamp and a telephone; nearby was a tray containing coffee, and two postcards which the colonel was about to write. I have one of these cards now. It shows a picture of Goering and Hitler smiling as they ride through cheering crowds. On the back is the stamp which the colonel had just stuck on – a beautiful pictorial stamp of a fortress castle.

The big guns of the fort were wrecked, and all the Germans had left were machine-guns and other small arms. With the prisoners who came out of the Citadel was a little party of American soldiers who had been captured last Friday. They had crept up to the fortress at night with explosives in an attempt to wreck the ventilation system.

When all surrendered garrison had been driven away or marched away, several hundred French people gathered round shaking each other by the hand, cheering and singing their national anthem. And one day, soon perhaps, the Citadel where the mad colonel surrendered will be one of the sights the people of St. Malo will point out to visitors coming here again from England for their holidays.

The Institute for Historical Review has a post war analysis of the battle and the reasons for the destruction – but see comments below. French site documenting the reconstruction 1944-1966.

US archive footage of the battle for St Malo, shows the artillery assault, infantry entering the city and dealing with snipers, finally the liberated French ands their attitude to the Germans.

A post war aerial shot of the old port of St Malo -where most of the old granite buildings  had been destroyed.
A post war aerial shot of the old port of St Malo – where most of the old granite buildings had been destroyed.