Battle of the Bulge – Germans attempt to escape

"Dead German lies in ditch along route of Third Army Division advance near Langlir, Belgium." 13 January 1945.
“Dead German lies in ditch along route of Third Army Division advance near Langlir, Belgium.” 13 January 1945.

In the face of all the evidence Hitler had clung to the hope that something might be achieved by his Ardennes offensive, even after the German attacks had been halted. Only on the 8th had he authorised a withdrawal from the tip of the attack and it would not be until the 15th that he finally accepted that nothing would be achieved. By the end of the month the Germans would be back virtually where they started.

It had always been a gamble, a gamble that depended on Germans breaking through very quickly and seizing Allied supply dumps, particularly for fuel. That had failed, the Allies had been able to stiffen their lines very quickly. Now the Allies were able bring up strong counter-attacks, fully supported by their great material advantage.

For the German soldiers in retreat the Ardennes were now becoming a trap, a killing zone that in places would be worse than the retreat from Normandy.

Gunther Holz:

While our batteries had to cadge for a couple of shells, the enemy supply units drove to their vast supply depots and woe betide the depot commander if he failed to make the required quantities available at once. Where our gunners fired 100 shells, 2,000 shells were fired back from the other side and what we called co-ordinated fire was normal harassing fire in the eyes of our opponents.

From morning till evening American fighter-bombers dominate the sky, firing at anything that moved, no matter whether a vehicle or a single man. Only full cover and not the slightest movement ensured survival. In addition bomb carpets are dropped by small units of 20 to 30 four-engined aircraft on recognized troop concentrations.

'Thousands of cans of gasoline are stacked ready at the side of a Belgian road. It was such fuel dumps that were to prove so vital to the German offensive.'
‘Thousands of cans of gasoline are stacked ready at the side of a Belgian road. It was such fuel dumps that were to prove so vital to the German offensive.’

Obergrenadier Freund:

During the night before 13 January 1945, the Americans shot as much as they can. The shells fell within the German lines. There was a hell of a noise. The soldiers were lying underneath the tanks or have found shelter elsewhere. The Americans want to fire a lane into the German front in order to get east faster.

Someone screams: ‘Enemy tanks.’ Everyone shoots as much as they can The night is as light as day because of the exploding shells. Everybody is nervous. A German tank drives over a poor soldier.

Some soldiers lie in the trench and lower their heads. Though all the rattling and cracking, Paul suddenly hears a scream. He turns around and sees one of our own tanks standing in front of him. It had driven right over the legs of some poor fellow.

Half an hour later the uproar is over. It gets quiet again. Carefully, everybody who is still alive crawls out of the foxholes. The wounded are bandaged and carried off. The other soldiers inspect the whole area.

Behind a hedge eight killed Americans are lying The dead are searched for something to eat. The soldiers are always hungry and the supply does not work at all. Regular meals have been a thing of the past for some time. Whoever finds anything eats it. The Americans had enough on them. Dry bread, tins of all kinds and even toilet paper are in the combatants’ packages.

A direct hit struck the command and reconnaissance vehicle. Three men were killed at once. Private First Class Kessler was alive, but shaken. He stood there white as a sheet. Death can pass you by so fast.

The command and reconnaissance car was at the crossroads. The three dead soldiers were lying next to it. Han said, after he saw his killed comrades: ‘They have had an easy death. Nobody had to suffer.’ Shell splinters had cut offthe head of Master Sergeant Preiss He was a good guy, but that does not count in a war.

Corporal Wachter’s head was smashed and there were lots of holes in his coat. The man had a foreboding about his fate On the night before, he had said: ‘I will not see my family again, nor my Saxon home.’ ‘Why should you not survive the war? We all still have this hope at least,’ Paul interposed. ‘No, I can feel it.’ ‘It will turn out all right,’ said another soldier. ‘No, not for me,’ was his point of view. He survived this discussion by a few hours.

There was no time to mourn. The very next moment shell fire may start and then there would be even more dead and wounded .. In a small village graveyard the three soldiers dig a grave. They put the dead into it and have a short memorial. More ceremonies are not foreseen for front-line soldiers. The soldiers shovel earth back into the grave and the war continues One less day at the front. But how much is one day?

These accounts appear in Nigel Cawthorne (ed): Reaping the Whirlwind: The German and Japanese Experience of World War II

"We were getting our second wind now and started flattening out that bulge. We took 50,000 prisoners in December alone."
“We were getting our second wind now and started flattening out that bulge.
We took 50,000 prisoners in December alone.”

USS Louisville’s second Kamikaze attack in two days

The U.S. Navy battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) leads USS Colorado (BB-45), USS Louisville (CA-28), USS Portland (CA-33), and USS Columbia (CL-56) into Lingayen Gulf before the landing on Luzon, Philippines, in January 1945.
The U.S. Navy battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) leads USS Colorado (BB-45), USS Louisville (CA-28), USS Portland (CA-33), and USS Columbia (CL-56) into Lingayen Gulf before the landing on Luzon, Philippines, in January 1945.

As the US Navy began the bombardment of Luzon, ‘softening up’ the defences prior to amphibious assault, they encountered the Japanese suicide ‘Kamikaze’ planes in ever more persistent attacks. With Japanese airbases within easy reach and the use of Kamikaze pilots now one of their main tactics the US ships had to face an unprecedented onslaught, with many ships being hit more than once.

The USS Louisville had been hit on the 5th January with one man killed and 52 wounded, including the captain. The following day she was attacked by six successive planes, five were shot down but one got through:

The USS Louisville is struck by a kamikaze Yokosuka D4Y at the Battle of Lingayen Gulf, 6 January 1945
The USS Louisville is struck by a kamikaze Yokosuka D4Y at the Battle of Lingayen Gulf, 6 January 1945

John Duffy was one of the men on board the USS Louisville dealing with the aftermath:

All of a sudden, the ship shuddered and I knew we were hit again. I was in charge of the 1st Division men and I yelled. “We’re hit, let’s go men!” I was the first man out the Turret door followed by Lt. Commander Foster and Lt. Hastin, our Division Officer, then a dozen more men. The starboard side of the ship was on fire from the focsle deck down.

One almost naked body was laying about ten feet from the turret with the top of his head missing. It was the Kamikaze pilot that had hit us. He made a direct hit on the Communications deck.

As the men poured out of the turret behind me they just stood there in shock. Explosions were still coming from the ammunition lockers at the scene of the crash. We could see fire there too. Injured men were screaming for help on the Communications Deck above us. I ordered two men to put out the fire on the starboard side by leaning over the side with a hose. That fire was coming from a ruptured aviation fuel pipe that runs the full length of the forecastle on the outside of the ship’s hull. That fuel pipe was probably hit by machine gun bullets from the Kamikaze just before he slammed into us.

Although there was no easy access to the deck above us, I ordered several men to scale up the side of the bulkhead (wall) and aid the badly burned victims who were standing there like zombies. I also ordered three men to crawl under the rear of Turret 1’s overhang, open the hatch there, and get the additional fire hose from Officers Quarters. These three orders were given only seconds apart and everyone responded immediately, but when they got near the dead Jap’s body, which was lying right in the way, it slowed them down.

I yelled, “Carl Neff, grab his legs.” As I leaned over the body, I noticed that all he had on was the wrap-around white cloth in his groin area. I then grabbed him under the arms and lifted. When I did this, his head rolled back and his brain fell out in one piece onto the deck as though it had never been part of his body. I told Carl, “Right over the side with him.” Then I immediately went back and scooped up his brain in both hands and threw it over the side. To the men who had no assignment, I shouted, “Get scrubbers and clean up this mess.”

John Duffy was awarded an individual commendation for his actions : “displayed outstanding diligence, skill, bravery, and intelligence in combating fires and rendering aid to the wounded.” This account appears at Kamikaze images which explores both American and Japanese attitudes to the Kamikaze pilots.

The strike on the Louisville was also notable for the death of Rear Adm.Theodore E. Chandler, commanding the battleships and cruisers in the Lingayen Gulf. He was badly burnt when his Flag bridge was engulfed in flame – but later waited in line for treatment with the other men. However his lungs had been scorched by the petroleum flash and he died the following day.

USS Columbia is attacked by a kamikaze off Lingayen Gulf, 6 January 1945.
USS Columbia is attacked by a kamikaze off Lingayen Gulf, 6 January 1945.

A list of ships with their casualties resulting from “Kamikaze” hits in the Philippine area during the month of January:

USS Cowanesque (2 killed, 2 wounded);
USS Dyke (sunk with all hands);
USS Ommaney Bay (6 killed, 65 wounded, 85 missing at time of report);
USS Helm (6 wounded); USS Louisville (1 killed, 75 wounded);
USS Orca (4 wounded);
HMAS Australia (first hit: 25 killed, 30 wounded; second hit: 14 killed, 26 wounded);
USS Manila Bay (10 killed, 75 wounded);
USS Walke (15 killed, 32 wounded);
USS R.P. Leary(1 wounded);
USS Newcomb (2 killed, 11 wounded);
USS New Mexico (30 killed, 87 wounded); USS Brooks (3 killed, 10 wounded);
USS Minneapolis (2 wounded);
USS California (41 killed, 155 wounded, 3 missing at time of report);
USS Southard (6 wounded);
USS Columbia (first attack: 20 killed, 35 wounded; second attack: 17 killed, 8 wounded, 7 missing at time of the report);
USS Louisville (28 killed, 6 wounded, 10 missing at time ofreport);
USS Long (7 wounded);
USS LST 918 (4 killed, 4 wounded);
USS LST 912 (4 killed, 3 wounded);
USS Callaway (30 killed, 20 wounded);
USS Kitkun Bay (16 killed, 15 wounded);
USS Mississippi (8 wounded);
USS Leray Wilson (7 killed, 3 wounded, 3 missing at time of report);
USS Dupage (35 killed, 157 wounded);
USS Gilligan (2 killed, 6 wounded);
USS Bellknap (19 killed, 37 wounded);
USS Dickerson (13 wounded);
USS LST 778 (7 killed, 12 wounded);
USS Zeilen (5 killed, 32 wounded, 3 missing at time of report);
USS Salamaua (10 killed, 87 wounded, 5 missing.)

Action Report, COM Luzon Attack Force, Lingayen.

The kamikaze aircraft hits Columbia at 17:29.
The kamikaze aircraft hits Columbia at 17:29.

US Surgeon describes American and German casualties

US Army Surgeons operating under canvas in a Field Hospital.
US Army Surgeons operating under canvas in a Field Hospital.
Surgeon Henry Swan in in the US Army, 1944-45. A graduate of Harvard he later became professor and chair of Medicine at Colorado University.
Surgeon Henry Swan in in the US Army, 1944-45. A graduate of Harvard he later became professor and chair of Medicine at Colorado University.

Henry Swann had arrived in Normandy on 7th June as an Assistant Surgeon in part of the U.S. Army’s 4th Auxiliary Surgical Group. By October he had been promoted and led his own surgical team in the 5th Auxiliary Surgical Group.

During that time they had travelled across north west France, following the Army, never very far from the front lines from which they received a steady stream of patients, both American, German and civilian. Swann was to perform over 1600 surgical procedures during these 11 months of war in Europe.

His letters to his wife Mary contain many reflections on the circumstances he found himself, in as well as a commentary on the current state of medicine as practiced by the US Army:

Dec. 11, 1944

Darling,

Things have continued quiet here. Today was clear and cool in the morning, with clouds and rain in the afternoon. Yesterday, for a short time, there was a flurry of snow, big wet flakes, that dissolved when they hit.

This muddy cold is tough on the boys in the lines! There are few enough comforts in a fox-hole in summer; in winter it is just plain hell. Many of the boys are ingenious in staying dry and warm, but at best it is tough.

We are living in shameful comfort in our school-house! There is no action around us to cause us concern. (No buzz-bomb, thank goodness!) So we have little cause to complain.

Today we had our first patient for some time. A discouraging thing, about a quarter of his brains blown out. For some unaccountable reason he is still alive, but it would be better in the long run for him if he doesn’t make it. At best he could end up half-blind, partially paralyzed, speechless, and subject to fits. Not a pretty picture.

(Later)

Well, he didn’t make it, poor fellow. It is constantly amazing the terrific tenacity to life that these boys manifest. It is impossible to exaggerate what wonderful patients American boys are. They are brave and patient, seldom complaining, always cooperative. They accept pain without moans.

They seldom become demanding of attention, no fussing for little things, nor claiming petty comforts as their due. They have complete trust and faith in their medical corps. They accept unhesitatingly and with confidence whatever their surgeon tells them must be done; and they are grateful.

When they leave your care, they try to tell you in their half-embarrassed, half-humorous way their appreciation of your work in their behalf. It doesn’t take many “Gee, Doc, guess I was plumb lucky to have been brought in here” to drive the fatigue from your bones, and give you new life and hope.

How can one do too much for these boys, who have given everything, and demand so little?

It is a universal experience among my friends, as with myself, that the average German patient is utterly different. He is whining, groaning, demanding. He expects everything, yet is grateful for nothing. He is uncooperative, and often refuses treatment.

Three Jerries are more noisy and more trouble than a ward-full of American boys. Although he is a proud, arrogant winner, when he is hurt, he gets scared and cries. He seems to lack an inner strength of spirit; he whimpers and begs and threatens and demands.

It may be that it is a difference in custom. Our boys are too proud of themselves to “play the baby”; Jerry apparently doesn’t care, and apparently loses no caste in the eyes of the fellows when he does. Be that as it may, the difference is striking. They too, however, have tremendous vitality, and often make miraculous recoveries.

Well, darling, so much for tonight. We plan a little feast later on, with lobster a la Newburg. Merry Christmas.

Lots of love,

H

Just one of many letters available in the The Henry Swan Papers at the National Institute of Health, which describe in some detail the medical treatment of the casualties of war.

Civilians were often equally reliant on Army Medical services, such as this mother and her injured daughter in Normandy.
Civilians were often equally reliant on Army Medical services, such as this mother and her injured daughter in Normandy.

168 dead as Woolworths obliterated in V2 attack

A scene of devastation following a V2 rocket attack, somewhere in the south of England. In the foreground, a casualty is being carried away on a stretcher, whilst in the background, Civil Defence workers continue to search through debris and rubble, checking for any other survivors. The remains of a building can also be seen. According to the original caption, the rocket fell here "about two hours ago".
A scene of devastation following a V2 rocket attack, somewhere in the south of England. In the foreground, a casualty is being carried away on a stretcher, whilst in the background, Civil Defence workers continue to search through debris and rubble, checking for any other survivors. The remains of a building can also be seen. According to the original caption, the rocket fell here “about two hours ago”.

In Britain the government had taken until November the 10th to admit that the “gas main” explosions, that had mysteriously started in September, were the result of enemy rockets. Secrecy still surrounded the time and place of the explosions themselves. There was no defence against the V2 rockets so the only means of mitigating their impact was to try to feed false information to the Germans about where they were falling.

By using their network of double agents British intelligence was telling the Germans that the rockets were falling north of London. It was hoped that the Germans would adjust the aim of the rockets further south. In due course the rockets’ impact was gradually seen to shift southwards, away from central London, where they had actually been accurately targeted. However the advantage was only marginal, some rockets still fell on London and those that fell short of it were still likely to cause casualties in the suburbs.

The worst V2 attack of the war happened on 25th November when the Woolworths department store in New Cross, south London was suddenly blown apart. It had been crowded with Saturday shoppers, perhaps more people than usual because the store had a supply of saucepans to sell, a rare wartime commodity. In an instant 168 people were dead or dying, with many more injured in the vicinity.

Tony Rollins was 13 at the time:

I used to buy Airfix model aeroplane assembly kits and put them together.Since there were few toys around I was able to sell these to a shop in New Cross Gate. The shop was situated next to the railway bridge, which is part of the main road, at New Cross Gate in a row of shops opposite Woolworths.

It was Saturday and I visited the shop to deliver some models and earn some pocket money. I boarded a tram heading down towards Deptford Broadway. I got off at my stop and started to walk the few hundred yards to my home in Friendly St when there was a huge explosion.

The V2s always exploded with two “crumps” one quickly followed by a second. I knew immediately it was a V2 and as I looked back in the direction of the noise I saw a huge tower of smoke with all sorts of pieces turning and twisting and glinting heading skyward.

I turned and ran back to the scene.It took me about 10 minutes.

I shall never forget what I witnessed.The front of the shop I had sold my aeroplanes to was completely blown in,and on the other side of the road was a huge smouldering crater.

Sheets of corrugated steel had been placed along some of the gutters to cover what was left of people and blood was seeping out from beneath. There was debris everywhere.I saw several people dead beneath telegraph poles and there were bodies and wounded and maimed laying randomly all over the place.

Everybody who could was roped in to help clear debris and I did what I was asked to give a hand.

Read the whole account on BBC Peoples’ War

James Tait was another boy who had a narrow escape, he had recently moved back to London after having been evacuated to Wales for much of the war. In July his family’s hairdressing shop had been badly damaged by a V1 rocket, on that occasion there had been a warning siren and the occupants of the shop had taken shelter in the basement. On this occasion there was no warning:

At the end of November 1944 I went by tram to Lewisham to do some shopping.It was a dry,reasonably bright Saturday for the time of month and I was in quite a happy mood with my new clothes as I returned to New Cross. I alighted at the Marquis Of Granby Inn around midday and watched the tram continue into New Cross Road. I had barely taken a few steps towards my new home fifty yards away when I was picked up by a tremendous blast of hot air and flung backwards.

I did not hear the explosion of the V2 rocket that landed on the Woolworths store that lay on the opposite side of the road just a few hundred yards away close to New Cross Gate railway station. For a few moments I could not comprehend what had happened until debris began to fall all around me. I could still hear nothing having been deafened by the blast.

People were lying around me, some bleeding with cuts to their heads from flying glass. I managed to stand up unsteadily and then I saw the huge pall of black smoke rising from the Woolworth site. There was too much for the mind to take in, but bodies lay everywhere, some stripped of clothing. Cars were mangled wrecks,on their sides or upside down. Telephone poles lay crazily across rooftops.

The tram I had been travelling in had stopped in the middle of the road. I learned later that all the passengers were found dead in their seats. My brain reeled and then I thought of the shop we had just moved into. I ran towards it, fearing the worst, but once again fate had been kind to us.

The shop and others in the parade had been partially sheltered by the facade of the Town Hall which jutted further out toward the road. The shop doors and widows had stove in and external brickwork damaged but nothing beyond repair.

Inside the recently equipped hairdressing salon glass lay everywhere from mirrors and shelves and cabinets. One large sliver had pierced a cubicle curtain a few inches above the head of a woman customer under a hairdryer. Once again everyone was more shaken than hurt.

Read the whole of his account on BBC People’s War

German photograph of a V2 rocket in the initial stage of its flight
German photograph of a V2 rocket in the initial stage of its flight

Ordeal of the wounded in the ‘Bloody Forest’

The struggle to bring up ammunition in the Hurtgen Forest, extrication the wounded was even more difficult.
The struggle to bring up ammunition in the Hurtgen Forest, extricating the wounded was even more difficult.

In the Hurtgen Forest the bloody battle that had been launched on the 16th continued. Casualties mounted on both sides, casualties that were extremely difficult to evacuate.

William S. Boice, a Chaplain with the 22nd Infantry Regiment describes the circumstances of just one wounded man, in an incident that happened a few days after the start of the battle. It didn’t matter how well protected your position was, fate decided whether you lived or died. Even with a survivable wound there were many more chances left for things to go wrong, as first aid men struggled over the impossible terrain of the dark and gloomy forest:

At 0200, a railroad gun had fired from Duren, some five miles away, and had hit upon a dugout occupied by three officers. The dugout had a heavy roof of two layers of six-inch logs, but the shell, having landed beyond the dugout, blew back in.

One officer was killed outright. Another, a TD officer, was wounded in the chest

The third, an infantry officer, had his right leg broken in a compound fracture, the shrapnel passing on through his left ankle, leaving a hole the size of an egg. Strangely enough, the pain came from the broken leg, and in the dark the officer put a tourniquet on the broken right leg, not even knowing his left foot was injured. And so he lay through the hours of the night — long, bitter, terrifying hours — while he constantly bled, growing weaker and weaker, and feeling the great grayness approaching closer and closer.

Nothing could be done, for in the hell of the inferno of artillery which continued minute after minute and hour after hour, no creature could move with impunity, and it would have been sheer suicide to attempt evacuation under these conditions. Indeed, the evacuation could not be effected until eight o’clock the following morning, when a litter party had to remove the two layers of logs in order to evacuate the two living officers to the aid station.

In the aid station, the battalion surgeons, working under strain, loss of sleep, and the pressure of increasing casualties, still continued to work quickly and effectively. Blood plasma, priceless life-giving fluid, was quickly rigged and administered. The wounded officer was given four bottles, and now for the first time some semblance of life began to appear in his ashen cheeks, but with it, stupefying and heartbreaking pain.

They were placed in the ambulance, these wounded, two litter cases, carefully slung in racks, with the wounded sitting on the floor and on the seat along the side. Then the ambulance started down the makeshift road toward the safety of the collecting station. A man with an arm off at the shoulder tried to sit erect. The ambulance lurched as it headed for the ravine and the bridge, which had been thrice blown out by enemy artillery.

The driver increased his speed, for he knew there was intermittent fire on this bridge and that it was by luck and a prayer that any vehicle got across without being hit. Ambulances, like any other vehicles, were fair prey for artillery. The increased speed over the rough roads, pockmarked by shell and mortar, had the effect of a medieval torture rack on the broken men within.

The collection station, set up in a German farmhouse, was busily working, since the wounded from the entire combat team were collected here. Every wound was quickly examined, and the wounded sorted into categories. The walking wounded sat in one room on the floor or on chairs or simply stood, staring vacantly at one another.

In the next room, the litters lay on the floor so close to one another that the doctors and the aid men frequently had to step on the litter itself. Aid men quickly and efficiently appraised wounds and brought into play their first and most efficient weapon, a pair of scissors, which they carried tied to their wrists or waists by a piece of Carlisle bandage. A sergeant took a quick look at the wounded captain’s feet and, grabbing his scissors, began cutting the clothing from the knee down.

The amount of clothing which the soldier wore was appalling. but he wore everything he could get his hands on in an effort to keep warm, since there were no blankets. The scissors cut through a pair of fatigues; beneath the fatigues, a pair of ODs [olive drabs]; beneath the ODs, long underwear and long socks. Now the sergeant saw the condition of the leg.

He cut the clothing completely open to the shoe, but the foot lay twisted in an odd and somehow horrible position. The slightest movement of the shoe or the litter caused the soldier to grit his teeth with the pain. The sergeant took a razor blade and began to cut the laces of the shoe and the pain became excruciating. It was necessary to remove the shoe from the broken foot, and the soldier fainted from the pain.

The sergeant had called sharply for plasma, and from a wire run across the center of the room between two windows, a T/ 5 had already hung a bottle and, with another stretch of bandage had twisted the tubing and had tried to insert the needle into the veins of the forearm, but the soldier had been through too much, and from lack of blood, the veins had almost collapsed.

The T/ 5 appraised the situation and called sharply, ‘Captain!’ A tired, hollow-eyed surgeon raised his eyes and, without a word, immediately saw the situation. He came at once and, calling for a scalpel, he slit the skin inside the elbow, exposed a vein and expertly slipped the needle into the vein itself. Then he stood and rested his back as he watched the plasma drop by drop giving life to the almost empty veins of the captain.

History of the Twenty-Second United States Infantry in World War II (Compiled and Edited by Dr. William S. Boice, Chaplain)

A US medic tends Germans on the Italian front

 Wounded Yank. Hit by German machine gun fire in the Fifth Army Advance up the Gaeta Peninsula. An American soldier is receiving help from Army aid-men. Signal Corps Photo 20 May 1944 (Italy)
Wounded Yank. Hit by German machine gun fire in the Fifth Army Advance up the Gaeta Peninsula. An American soldier is receiving help from Army aid-men. Signal Corps Photo 20 May 1944 (Italy)
Saving lives at the Italian front!. An infantryman has fallen and a medic is right there to help him. Working swiftly, under the enemy fire, the medic applies an emergency dressing on the soldier wounded in the head.
Saving lives at the Italian front!. An infantryman has fallen and a medic is right there to help him. Working swiftly, under the enemy fire, the medic applies an emergency dressing on the soldier wounded in the head.

As the weather turned wet and miserable again in Italy, the Allies were still slogging it out against the Gothic line. Progress against the prepared defence line was slow and casualties were heavy.

Klaus H. Huebner was a US Army doctor, this is his diary entry for 6 October 1944:

Several Germans are among our congregation of wounded awaiting us. The most seriously wounded is a German who insists that he is a walking case and not badly hurt. He has a hole in his back big enough for me to see parts of his lung expanding with each breath. He states that his company has had a rough night.

When only four men were left, something hit him in the back and he fell. He shouted all night but no one came to his rescue. By morning he saw our medics using this church, so he decided to walk over, give himself up, and be treated. Since he seems to be breathing better with the hole in his chest wide open rather than closed, I cover it only with a very loose dressing and fill him up with sulfadiazine pills. He says his pain is not severe enough to require morphine…

Frequently the narrow road crosses and recrosses the creek over small wooden bridges. These are usually demolished, and we cross the stream on debris strewn around them. I witness the entire battalion cross over one such obstacle, except for the last man, who is unfortunate enough to have his foot blown off by a shoe mine. How 450 men have crossed over the same path and avoided stepping on that mine is almost unbelievable!

By 8:00pm I am in a barn on a mountain ridge. There is no defilade, but at least I have a roof over my head. I wouldn’t stay here if the weather were clear. Visibility today is only about two hundred yards, and if the Krauts want to shoot us up, they must do so by map. I am directly behind our troops, which are once again having a rough time.

Progress is very slow. Sometimes they advance less than two hundred yards all day. Consequently, I remain here for three days. We treat at least fifty casualties per day. The arriving wounded are mud covered and rain soaked. The majority of wounds are gunshot and mortar shrapnel.

Our station is constantly harassed by mortar fire, shells exploding outside both day and night. There are almost as many German wounded as GIs.

One German non-commissioned officer is brought in with a palm-sized hole in his buttock. He had been lying in the woods for forty-eight hours. His wound is filled with leaves, sticks and dirt. What he desires most is a swig of cognac. I offer him my canteen filled with whiskey, and he empties one-half of it without drawing a breath between gulps. I loosely suture his buttock together without any anesthesia. He never says ‘ouch.’

See Klaus H. Huebner: Long Walk through War: A Combat Doctor’s Diary

Saving lives at the Italian front! A wounded Yank needs emergency treatment! Without losing a moment he is rushed to the operating table at the field hospital.
Saving lives at the Italian front! A wounded Yank needs emergency treatment! Without losing a moment he is rushed to the operating table at the field hospital.

The casualties mount inside Oosterbeek

German reinforcements arrive in the Oosterbeek area.
German reinforcements arrive in the Oosterbeek area.
A paratrooper takes cover as a jeep burns during a German mortar attack on 1st Airborne Division's HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 24 September 1944.
A paratrooper takes cover as a jeep burns during a German mortar attack on 1st Airborne Division’s HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 24 September 1944.

Both British and German casualties were piling up inside the Oosterbeek area. On the 23rd Dr. Egon Skalka of the 9th SS Panzer Division had approached the front line under a white flag and negotiated for a ceasefire to allow for the evacuation of casualties. Over the following two days cease fires were organised at different times – and around 1200 men were evacuated to Dutch hospitals under these arrangements. These were only temporary breaks in the fighting however.

Brigadier John Hackett commanded one half of the British occupied part of Oosterbeek. According to a number of different accounts he had been tirelessly visiting every part of his sector, keeping a close eye on every aspect of their situation. It was probably only luck that had prevented him becoming a casualty earlier:

The blow came before the sound of the burst. I dropped on my knees, sick, bewildered and unhappy. It had not been a tree-burst like so many of them, detonating in the branches over-head. This violent thing had happened there on the ground, a few yards in front of me. Was it a mortar bomb or a shell? Had there been a whine before it? Had there been one of them, or two?

Anyway, whatever it had been there were probably more on the way. I crawled on my hands and knees to a shallow slit trench a few feet from me. I had taken refuge in this before and now tumbled into it once again, flattening myself against its side and thrusting a grateful face into cool sandy earth. The ground rang and shook as the rest of the concentration came down, spasmodic bursts in quick untidy groups. Then it was over.

I felt sick and shaken. I told myself not to worry: that would only be shock. What I had to find out was what was really wrong. There seemed to be a good deal of blood about, apparently coming from somewhere above my left knee. I carefully bent the leg: it was not broken.

This was almost a disappointment, since I felt so confused and sick. I shouted. There was another cry from the next pit. That would be the trooper from the Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron, Fred Gough’s people, the man who had come back with me after my own visit to the Squadron, to guide the newly arrived party of Poles to where I wanted them, which was in that part of the Brigade sector.

‘How is it with you ?’ I shouted. He shouted back ‘My leg is broken.’ I wriggled my own injured leg about. It worked. Something would now have to be done about his. There was a dull, singing little pain in my middle, as perhaps the nose cap of whatever it was that had burst had bounced up and hit me there.

I looked around the safe and friendly little trench, reluctant to leave it for the chill, hostile world outside.

Against one corner stood a branch, roughly trimmed as a stick with a forked top. I took it up.

Outside the trench the concentration, which had seemed to I be directed especially at our two selves, was over. The shells were still falling somewhere, as usual. I knew from the last few days of moving about the remnants of my brigade, which was holding the Eastern half of the Oosterbeek perimeter, how they seemed to follow you around wherever you went.

Divisional Headquarters in the Hotel Hartenstein was less than a hundred yards away. There was some sort of a medical aid post, I knew, in the cellars. I took the stick I had found and crawled wearily out of the trench. ‘All right I shouted to the man. ‘I’ll get help.’

It was queer to be walking again under the sad grey sky, over the well-known turf, with the torn limbs of the trees upon it, the wrecked jeeps and the occasional blood-soaked blanket. Bits of equipment were scattered around and here and there were men, some walking about, some digging, some just lying.

This was only a resumption of my journey, interrupted a few minutes back, but there was now a dreamlike quality upon it, as though I had passed out of one world into another. I felt very odd and was irritated that the feeling was not passing off. Perhaps it would soon. We were all rather tired.

See Sir John Hackett: I Was A Stranger

Infantry ride on Sherman tanks in Holland, 24 September 1944.
Infantry ride on Sherman tanks in Holland, 24 September 1944.

War’s grim reality – in the ‘Divisional Area’, Italy

A Reception Officer at an Advanced Dressing Station examines a casualty wounded in the leg to determine whether a blood transfusion is required. One of a series of photographs showing the procedure when a casualty leaves the Regimental Aid Post. Field Transfusion Units working in conjunction with Advanced Dressing Stations saved many lives.
A Reception Officer at an Advanced Dressing Station examines a casualty wounded in the leg to determine whether a blood transfusion is required. One of a series of photographs showing the procedure when a casualty leaves the Regimental Aid Post. Field Transfusion Units working in conjunction with Advanced Dressing Stations saved many Lives. British Army Medical Services in Italy, 1944
A patient wounded in the leg is given a blood transfusion at a Field Transfusion Unit
A patient wounded in the leg is given a blood transfusion at a Field Transfusion Unit before being taken to the Operating Theatre of an Advanced Dressing Station. A blood pressure reading is being taken to monitor progress during the transfusion.

In Italy the Allied forces had crashed up against the German Gothic Line and were engaged in an intensive battle, as bloody and intense as the earlier struggle at Cassino.

Corporal John Blythe was a signaller with the New Zealand Division. At this time he was working a little back from the front line, providing communications in the Divisional Area. He was not out of range of shellfire himself but his memoirs, of this period during September 1944, recall a particular episode:

The Division was heavily engaged and suffering casualties and the field ambulance unit was the place to see them. They stitched up the bodies of the dead in our grey army blankets and laid them out in rows on stretchers to await burial. Under the tightly stretched blankets their shapes were unmistakable; they were like so many mummies. Down the driveway of the cement works came a gaggle of laughing young teenagers, all girls.

I watched them pass, speculating what would be their reaction when they reached the blanketed forms. They stopped, one girl stepped forward and leaned over the nearest body. Then she screamed. They all screamed and, turning, came running back horror-stricken, uttering keening cries from mouths held open. I thought, next time you’ll think twice before you go roaming through the Divisional area.

We had become involved in a grinding routine of artillery barrages and infantry attacks; pounding guns and the guttural thumps of the tanks, abrupt detonations of incoming stuff, the whoosh of flamethrowers and blackened German corpses.

Under cover of darkness we advanced to occupy a large two-storey building which previously may have been a hospital. We made it one and became an advanced dressing station-cum-operating theatre close up to the battle scene. It was near the town of Forli, Mussolini‘s birthplace, and there was all hell going on around us. The commanding officer and his staff were clearly worried at our proximity to the forward units.

A decision was made to lower the largest tarpaulins bearing the red cross they possessed from the top of the roofs on the side facing the enemy in the hope that at daylight the Germans would respect them. This they did and in all that bedlam not a single shot came our immediate way.

Our radio van was parked outside the front door. For some time we watched two orderlies digging a deep pit between us and the door. Perhaps it was a rubbish hole? In a way it was. As the attack mounted and the night wore on casualties arrived in jeeps and carriers. Some even walked. From time to time there would be a flash of light, a door banged, and an orderly came out and dropped something into the pit. By daylight it continued; the surgeons were obviously engaged in amputations.

A few nights later I was conducted through one of the wards, an experience I never wish to repeat. There were twenty or more men in that ward and all were unconscious. Many of the beds were steeply tilted, some bodies suspended on wires in strange positions and connected to tubes. They were all enclosed in white mosquito nets stretching to the ceiling, seemingly caught in ghastly cobweb.

It was weird. I had heard wounded screaming or moaning more than once, but nothing like the scream from this sedated silence. There is a verse in Les Cleveland’s The Iron Hand: New Zealand Soldiers’ Poems from World War Two. It’s from ‘Autumn 1945: Sparamagos: Riccione’:

The wounded strung on surgical wires
In wards like winter-bleached landscapes
Are racked on loving engines of repair
While pus drains daintily from deep wounds
And bone-scraping nightmare meticulously
Mangles them with blunt knives
Some die after months
Cursing Life.

The orderly showing me round was no ghoul, just interested in his job…

‘He won’t last to morning. He’s had it. That one might. This one looks as if he is already gone.‘ Acutely conscious of having all my working parts, I wanted to be out of the place. Almost all were dying, and the greenshaded lighting on the waxen faces already made them look like corpses.

See John Blythe: Soldiering on: A Soldier’s War in North Africa and Italy

A patient wounded in the leg is given a blood transfusion in the Operating Theatre of an Advanced Dressing Station while a plaster bandage is applied to his leg.
A patient wounded in the leg is given a blood transfusion in the Operating Theatre of an Advanced Dressing Station while a plaster bandage is applied to his leg.

‘Tallboy’ bombs hit the Saumur Tunnel

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial, taken from 10,000 feet, showing the southern entrance of the Saumur railway tunnel following the attack on it by 22 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on the night of 8/9 June 1944. This raid was the first occasion on which the 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep-penetration bomb was used operationally. The target was marked by the Squadron Commander, Wing Commander G L Cheshire, who delivered his spotfires from an altitude of 500 feet, and the accuracy of the subsequent bombing, delivered between 8,000 and 11,000 feet, is attested by the 18 craters which can be counted within 220 yards of the tunnel mouth. One ‘Tallboy’ has pierced the roof of the tunnel, and there are two further direct hits on the railway tracks 100 yards from the entrance. The tunnel was blocked for a considerable period and, consequently, the movement of a German tank unit to the Normandy battlefront was badly delayed.
A 12,000-lb MC bomb
A 12,000-lb MC bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword ‘Tallboy’) seen immediately after its release from Avro Lancaster B Mark I, JB139, of No. 617 Squadron RAF over the flying-bomb store at Watten, France, 19 June 1944.
Wounded British troops, evacuated from the Normandy beaches, are helped down the ramp of a landing ship, 7 June 1944.
Wounded British troops, evacuated from the Normandy beaches, are helped down the ramp of a landing ship, 7 June 1944.

Meanwhile back in Britain the first large numbers of casualties had started to arrive. The government had cleared many of the civilian hospitals to accommodate them and the US Army had built several temporary hospitals out of ‘Quonset’ huts. Two American nurses were based at an old Victorian hospital at Southampton, which became one of the main receiving hospitals:

Helen Ramsey

We knew the ships were gathering for the invasion. It seems to me it took at least a week for all the ships to gather just outside our hospital in Southampton Water (the harbor). We could go outside and sit on the waterfront and watch. One day it seemed like the whole area was full of ships and the next morning there was not a single one. We knew the invasion was beginning. We were on alert. We could not leave and were on duty 24 hours a day. We didn’t know what we were waiting for.

And then the casualties came. It took about 3 or 4 days after the invasion before we started receiving casualties. I was an operating room supervisor. We had two operating room theaters, one upstairs and one downstairs. At first, we started out with one and then we required two because we just couldn’t handle all the casualties in one theater. When I say theater, I mean several rooms, each room with its own surgeon and nurse, and corpsman [enlisted Navy medical personnel]. It was one big unit. I was in charge of the one downstairs. The first casualties came into my operating room. I remember how busy we were and how they kept coming and coming and we had no place to put them. We put them out in the halls and everywhere.

We were only there as a receiving hospital. We received the casualties, took care of them, removed the bullets and shrapnel, did the debridement, cleaned them up, poured penicillin and sulfa into the wounds, wrapped them up, and sent them inland to the Army or to British hospitals inland, or by air to the United States, especially if they were bad burn patients. So we didn’t keep them very long. The operating room nurses would pitch in and help the doctors do debridements and remove bullets. Until recently, I had the first bullet I had removed myself and managed to keep it for many years but I have lost it.

Anyway, we were busy and we never thought about food or sleep or anything else. The doctors as well as the nurses and corpsmen were taking care of patients. We did not sleep for the first 24 hours, and then finally sleep had to be rationed because no one would leave their work. The captain issued an order letting certain ones go and get some sleep. And then when they came back others would go. Our food was brought to us in surgery. We lived on sandwiches and coffee for a long time. When we had a minute, we would grab a bite. And that’s the way we handled the first 24 hours. As the casualty load lightened, things got back to a decent pace.

I also got to use penicillin for the first time. We had these little tin cans that looked like salt shakers. They contained a mixture of penicillin and, I’m sure, sulfathiazole, and we would just use them like salt shakers and sprinkle it into the wounds. And I’ve read since, that it was that mixture of sulfa and penicillin used in those early days that saved many a limb and kept infections down to almost zero. They were both miracle drugs. Of course, we also gave penicillin intravenously.

We received casualties fairly steadily but not at the rate we did at the beginning. As soon as the troops landed on the beaches and went farther inland, the Army went right in and set up their field hospitals so they could do a lot of the immediate work that we were having to do at the beginning. And that took a load off of us.

Sara Kelley

All types of ships brought the casualties from Normandy. The ships landed in Southampton because our pier could only handle small boats. They brought them by ambulance from Southampton which was 5 miles away.

There was a railroad track right behind the hospital. We kept the patients for 24 to 48 hours and as soon as they could be moved, they were put on this hospital train and sent to the north part of England and we got ready for some more.

We treated mostly Army personnel, but there were also a few Navy men as well. I remember a lot of the casualties were suffering from “shell shock.” Some of them didn’t know who we were. They thought we were Germans and they wouldn’t tell us anything except their names and serial numbers. They were classified as mentally ill. Some of them were just farm boys and the shock of war was just too much for them.

Read the full accounts at Navy Department Oral histories

Wounded British troops, evacuated from the Normandy beaches, now back in Britain, 7 June 1944.
Wounded British troops, evacuated from the Normandy beaches, now back in Britain, 7 June 1944.
Sergeant G A Maynard of Yorkshire lighting a cigarette for Corporal Sidney Polls on arrival at Gosport, Hampshire on their return from the Normandy beaches.
Sergeant G A Maynard of Yorkshire lighting a cigarette for Corporal Sidney Polls on arrival at Gosport, Hampshire on their return from the Normandy beaches.

Chindits: British forced to shoot their wounded

A wounded Chindit is placed in a light aircraft for evacuation back to India.
A wounded Chindit is placed in a light aircraft for evacuation back to India.
An RAF wireless operator attached to a Chindit column with his equipment in a jungle clearing in Burma
An RAF wireless operator attached to a Chindit column with his equipment in a jungle clearing in Burma

In the depths of the Burmese jungle the Chindit’s 111 Brigade still hung on at the Blackpool strongpoint. 2000 men were isolated and under attack by a strong Japanese Force, well equipped with Anti-Aircraft guns that made re-supply from the air dangerous, if not impossible. The acting Brigadier, John Masters, had sent a Most Immediate message requesting permission to withdraw. He had still not received a reply.

Now Masters reached a decision. They would withdraw. The worst that could happen was that he would face a Court Martial for disobeying orders.

Yet this was not the last difficult decision that Masters faced, he had to face up to what to do with men who were too badly wounded to be moved. There must have been other Allied commanders who faced the same problem. Masters was rare in being a man who was subsequently prepared to write about it, in detail:

I went to the mule lines and saw Maggy quietly eating bamboo, a red gash in her belly and her entrails hanging out of it. She seemed to be in no pain and I hugged her neck, then Briggs shot her for me.

Henning reported 90 Column in position astride the water point. I looked through my binoculars at the westward ridge, which the Japanese had occupied during the first battles. If they held it now we would have a bad time, as it dominated the Namkwin for at least a mile. Mortaring from it we would have to grit our teeth and bear as we trudged past. No, I could cover it with machine guns, for a time at least. I sent a man back with a message to Alec Harper, to be sure to put strong protection on that flank of his layback.

The men passed and passed, walking, limping, hopping, supporting others, carrying them. Tim Brennan reported that he thought he could break contact when I ordered. The Japanese were not pressing their advantage, and at the moment seemed to be under shell fire from their own artillery.

A doctor spoke to me – ‘Will you come with me, sir?’ I followed’ him down the path. It was clear of moving men. The whole block was clear, except for a part of 26 Column.

A little way down the path we came to forty or fifty ragged men, many slightly wounded, who had carried stretchers and improvised blanket litters from the Main Dressing Station as far as this. Here they had set down their burdens, and now waited, huddled in the streaming bamboo, above and below the path. I noticed at once that none of them looked at me as I stopped among them with the doctor.

The stretchers lay in the path itself, and in each stretcher lay a soldier of 111 Brigade.

The first man was quite naked and a shell had removed the entire contents of his stomach. Between his chest and pelvis there was a bloody hollow, behind it his spine. Another had no legs and no hips, his trunk ending just below the waist. A third had no left arm, shoulder, or breast, all torn away in one piece. A fourth had no face and whitish liquid was trickling out of his head into the mud. A fifth seemed to have been torn in pieces by a mad giant, and his lips bubbled gently. Nineteen men lay there. A few conscious. At least, their eyes moved, but without light in them.

The doctor said, ‘l’ve got another thirty on ahead, who can be saved, if we can carry them.’ The rain clattered so loud on the bamboo that I could hardly hear what he said. ‘These men have no chance. They’re full of morphia. Most of them have bullet and splinter wounds beside what you can see. Not one chance at all, sir, I give you my word of honour. Look, this man’s died already, and that one. None can last another two hours, at the outside.’

Very well. I have two thousand lives in my hand, besides these. One small mistake, one little moment of hesitation and I will kill five times these nineteen.

I said aloud, ‘Very well. I don’t want them to see any Japanese.’

I was trying to smile down into the flat white face below me, that had no belly, but there was no sign of recognition, or hearing, or feeling. Shells and bombs burst on the slope above and bullets clattered and whined overhead.

‘Do you think I want to do it?’ the doctor cried in helpless anger. ‘We’ve been fighting to save that man for twenty-four hours and then just now, in the M.D.S. [Main Dressing Station], he was hit in the same place.’

His voice changed. ‘We can’t spare any more morphia.’ ‘Give it to those whose eyes are open,’ I said. ‘Get the stretcher bearers on at once. Five minutes.’

He nodded and I went back up to the ridge, for the last time. One by one, carbine shots exploded curtly behind me. I put my hands to my ears but nothing could shut out the sound.

See John Masters: The Road Past Mandalay.

Chindit Operations - General: A railway bridge behind Japanese lines is blown up by Chindits
Chindit Operations – General: A railway bridge behind Japanese lines is blown up by Chindits