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

The cold wet misery of the Greek front line

Dr Electris, centre, with his Greek Army nurses and his Albanian hosts in January 1941. At the end of January they moved into a tented camp high in the mountains.
Dr Electris, centre, with his Greek Army nurses and his Albanian hosts in January 1941. At the end of January they moved into a tented camp high in the mountains.

The war was turning into a disaster for Mussolini. His attempted invasion of Egypt had never got very far and the British were now reversing the offensive and pushing his forces back into Italian Libya, capturing huge numbers of prisoners as they did so.

His other major adventure, the invasion of Greece had seen a similar a reverse. The Greek Army had proved to be far tougher than he had anticipated. The front line now lay in Italian occupied Albania. High in the mountains the Greeks were still on the offensive despite the difficult terrain.

Dr Theodore Electris, a military reservist, had suddenly found himself mobilised into the Army. He had had to adjust very rapidly to the rigours of the campaign – and then rise to the challenge of dealing with many wounded that were brought to him just behind the front line:

February 4, 1941

It’s been four days since I’ve come to this camp and it has not stopped raining. The rain, especially today, is something I’ve never experienced before. It feels like buckets of water have been falling non-stop for hours on top of my tent.

As far as the mud is concerned, I can find no words to describe it: mud, mire, mortar—hell. The ground has been churned into a doughy muck by the soldiers’ boots and the horses’ hoofs and the machinery and artillery wheels; there isn’t a single untracked spot in sight. At some places you could sink in mud up to your knees.

On this dramatically miserable muddy stage the work and struggle of our poor soldiers is taking place. What effort, what agony and pathos — and how many victims! It will be such a pity if all is wasted.

I have to describe a couple of incidents that took place an hour ago.

Our 13th Infantry Regiment, with the support of our battery unit, had attacked and seized a hill near Bosketto (height near the village of Dodovece). There were many wounded who were being brought to us through the field just across from my tent, where the ground was as I’ve described it.

The stretchers with the wounded were carried by three, and sometimes by two, soldiers instead of the proper four — one for each corner of the stretcher. They struggled to walk through the mud in the pouring rain—slipping, sliding and falling and pushing, with their heads drooping like those in the pictures I have seen of the workers on the Volga River.

Sometimes as they walked they would slip and fall and would try to get up. The wounded would be screaming and grabbing onto the stretcher, if they could, with those parts of their body that were not wounded, so they would not fall into the mud. Sometimes all would fall and try to rise again, lifting the stretcher that was stuck and sucked by the mud.

At one point, I saw two guys trying to carry a stretcher with a wounded man who was screaming loudly. The carrier in the back of the stretcher was crying and his face was sheet white. He could not carry the stretcher because his hands were slipping; he would set the stretcher down and try to pick it up again. The carrier in the front would scream and swear at him and the wounded man would cry, beg and try to hold onto the stretcher to keep from slid- ing backwards into the muddy hell below.

Suddenly the carrier in the front dropped the stretcher, and both the wounded man and the stretcher splashed into the mud. This particular carrier then staggered towards the carrier in the back, who was crying as he was trying to get up. With his fist, he hit him very hard in the face. In fact he hit him so hard that the poor guy fell backwards in the mud, was knocked out and was not moving.

For a second the guy that did the hitting was scared, thinking that he had killed the other carrier; he bent over and grabbed him by the neck and started shaking him. When he saw that he was moving, he started swearing and cursing him again. The fallen carrier crept up out of the mud, continuously crying and ignoring the other one who was screaming. He started walking away from the whole scene as if in a daze.

Meanwhile the wounded man was lying in the mud and rain, crying. What could the poor carrier have done under all these conditions? It was hard for the horses to walk through the field; how could an overloaded man, with wet slippery hands, be expected to walk through it? These conditions are so undignified, humiliating, inhumane! Perhaps he was the one who sent six other carriers, who soon arrived and lifted the wounded man out of the mud.

Meanwhile, under these wretched conditions of mud and rain, the battle is raging. We are very busy taking care of the wounded, who are arriving nonstop with every imaginable trauma caused by artillery shell fragments, machine gun fire, but mostly mortars. Our poor soldiers patiently take their turns, silently, not protesting the fact that we cannot work any faster; some of them are even trying to help others and we, we the medics, try to do the best we can in primitive conditions, lacking both tools and, I dare to admit, expertise in trauma surgery.

I was never trained to do trauma surgery under such great pressure and in such primitive conditions. I have no time to think of alternatives; sometimes I barely have time to disinfect one trauma before I must deal with another more severe one. In the background as I hear the explosions of the guns and the mines, I think of the parents, wives and children of our men, who are agonizing about them without really knowing how great the dangers are — even the natural dangers of this wild and rugged terrain — and tears come to my eyes.

I feel for every soldier whose family is waiting at home for him, like my family, my sweet wife, my beloved relatives and friends, and I wish with all my body and soul for this war to end. It is an unfair, unjust war that we were dragged into, and it is going to fill the whole world with bitterness and pain. Will our poor nation be a nation of widows, orphans and lame men?

I send money and cards to Chrysoula, Mother and Sofia. Be- cause we have been moving we haven’t received mail yet. Oh, how I need the morale boost and the psychological high that a note from a loved one brings!

See Written on the Knee: A Diary from the Greek-Italian Front of WWII

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"The proper way to carry a stretcher"
“The proper way to carry a stretcher”

Welcome back to an impoverished Britain

View of St Paul's Cathedral and the bomb damaged areas surrounding it in London.
View of St Paul’s Cathedral and the bomb damaged areas surrounding it in London.

The war may have been won in Europe but it would take a long time before living conditions improved for many people. In Britain food rationing would continue for many years after the war. Almost every town and city had wide expanses of bomb sites, a daily reminder of the acute housing shortage that would also take years to remedy.

For the great multitude of people who had been damaged, physically and mentally, by the war, resources were scarce. Anthony Faramus had lived on the island of Jersey before falling foul of the German occupiers and being sent off to a concentration camp. Hopelessly emaciated, he was too weak to walk when he was finally liberated. He was to discover that his welcome back to Britain had much to be desired:

My reintroduction into civilization fell somewhat short of my expectations. Incredibly, there were times when I regretted my return. Flown to England courtesy of the American army, who treated me liberally, with compassionate understanding and without counting the cost of a boarder in their hands, I quickly became exasperated by British officialdom; first, when I was abruptly removed from a friendly cottage-type hospital in the peace and quiet of the countryside to a large institution for incurables and the terminally ill.

‘Be grateful,’ I was told, ‘it’s far better than the place you’ve been at, by all accounts’. It was put to me straightforwardly and I understood. Unable to procure the longed-for privacy and medical care for lack of pounds, shillings and pence, I was obliged to accept charity.

I was fed three times a day, bathed and given a book to read. I was not ungrateful, but I was tired of the bedlam and the emotional disturbances of unfortunate people on every side of me. I had some physical discomfort, a loss of power in my legs, but I was neither neurotic nor mentally unbalanced.

I had not informed my mother or any member of my family of my return from the grave. My intention had been first to rehabilitate myself, to put back the five stones I had lost and to see my hair grow to its normal thickness and length.

The institution with its system of rigid rules did not help me to improve. I did not believe the inmates were ever meant to be let loose on the streets, and I resolved to extricate myself from the trap. I made an urgent appeal to my sister, the wartime evacuee from Jersey island to Rochdale in Lancashire.

I was tied down to an invalid carriage, a ridiculous ‘granny’ Bathchair with two large wheels at the back of the basketwork chassis and a small one at the front steered by a long rod with a T-shaped handle. But I was able to move to a warm and loving pied-a-terre with neighbours, run-of-the-mill Rochdale people like the corner grocer and baker, brightening up my days.

‘You need fattening up, lad, those daft buggers at Welfare will give you nowt, not even the skin off a bloody rice pudding, they won’t.’ Young cotton mill girls were an inspiration too, knocking at my sisters street door and bringing me hard-to-come-by eggs and fruit, and pies baked by ‘Mum’. They offered to wheel me out to the park and, after a while, made passes and aroused my passions, breathing fresh life into me with the kind of kisses I hadn’t experienced since leaving Romainville.

But it was those ‘buggers’ at Welfare, the ‘gauleiters’ of bumbledom who gave me the hump. The to-ing and fro-ing, the waiting in line, the form-filling, the fatuous questions, all for a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a jar of malt extract and a pittance in a warrant to be cashed at the post ofiice, not enough to cover what my sister was paying out.

Perseverance and strength of will put my wheel-chair up ‘for sale’. I took to a pair of crutches, an event ruled unrealistic three months before, and, before my first Christmas of liberty, I was standing on my two feet unaided.

See Anthony Faramus: Journey into Darkness.

In 1945 there was no ‘Welfare State’ and the National Health Service was just a manifesto promise of the Labour Party in the General Election that was now under way.

Bricklayers repair the front wall of a terrace of houses badly damaged by German bombs.
Bricklayers repair the front wall of a terrace of houses badly damaged by German bombs.

France – the Germans also have losses

German war dead 1940
The Nazi regime claimed that some 27,000 of their troops had died in the invasion of France and the Low countries. Post war research suggests that this may have been a considerable under-estimate.

The German victory over France was stunning, taking just one month and 15 days to achieving what four years of bloody attrition had failed to reach in 1914-18. Total German casualties of 160,000 including around 50,000 dead, just less than half the casualties suffered by the Allies, were not insignificant. Yet they were a mere trifle compared with what would be suffered later in the war.

For the moment nothing could take the shine off the victory for ardent Nazis.

Wilhem Pruller was a German infantry man, posted to the Regimental Headquarters, who had fought in Poland and again in France. Despite the loss of his comrades he remained committed to the cause he believed he was fighting for:

Tuesday, 25th June 1940

The first day of peace in the West. We don’t expect any further advance today. Vehicles, weapons, machines are to be put in order. . . . I’ve still only one wish: to get to England. . . . From the 6th Comp. a parcel for Corporal Vraz [who fell] was returned to me. It’s firmly packed and tied up with several bits of string. Quite heavy.

I gaze at the parcel for a long time before I write on it, in red pencil: ‘Gefallen fur Grossdeutschland’.

Then I send it back to his wife. What can be inside? Perhaps a cake with lots of raisins, he used to like that. Perhaps some apples. Some pictures from his beautiful Styria. Perhaps some good cigarettes. Vraz smoked only on Sundays. Perhaps a letter in which she tells him she’s pregnant. Vraz has been married only a short while. Poor Vraz. Poor Vraz? No, brother. You are rich, immensely rich. You have given the best, the finest, the noblest for your fatherland. You have ‘Fallen for greater Germany’.

See Wilhelm Pruller: Diary of a German soldier

Wehrmacht soldiers pinned down by French troops, Sean, France, 1940.
Wehrmacht soldiers pinned down by French troops, Sean, France, 1940.

The Lancastria bombed and sunk, thousands dead

HMT Lancastria at sea
HMT Lancastria, a cross Atlantic cruise liner requisitioned as a troop transport April 1940
The Sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Lancastria off St Nazaire. One of a series of images taken by an unidentified photographer, obtained by a Press Agency.
The Sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Lancastria off St Nazaire. One of a series of images taken by an unidentified photographer, obtained by a Press Agency.

There were still tens of thousands of British military personnel in France even as it became apparent that the new French leader was likely to seek an Armistice. Once again a rapidly organised evacuation was underway. The circumstances were not as desperate at at Dunkirk but they were still impeded by German bombers ranging far and wide.

The Cunard liner Lancastria had been pressed into service as a troop ship. She now took on board as many men as possible, far exceeding her peacetime capacity. Amongst them were over 800 RAF maintenance crew, packed into the lower hold, as well as thousands of soldiers from a variety of Army support units, and an unknown number of civilian refugees.

Unfortunately they had not long left the port of St Nazaire before the bombers found them.

Walter Hirst was a Sapper with the Royal Engineers:

On the 17th we boarded the Lancastria late in the afternoon. We immediately grabbed a couple of life jackets which I thought would make ideal pillows. We were ordered below and shortly after witnessed, through a porthole, the Oronsay being hit. Both myself and another Sapper decided then, that it would be healthier if we were topside and so decided to climb the stairs, against orders.

Soon after the Lancastria was hit. It was a massive explosion. There was total panic and chaos. Soldiers, including some from 663, positioned at either end of the ship began to open up with Bren guns at the circling enemy aircraft. I managed to get myself into a lifeboat but as it was being lowered the ropes on one end became jammed in the davit. A panicked sailor suddenly jumped up and started to hack away at the ropes with a knife. Myself and others yelled at him to stop, but immediately we were all thrown into the sea. Continue reading “The Lancastria bombed and sunk, thousands dead”

Okinawa – mounting U.S. casualties on Kunishi Ridge

Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.
Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.

On Okinawa the bloody struggle continued as intensively as ever. On the 11th June a combined attack by US Marines and US Army forces had begun the final assault on the last major Japanese holdout. The struggle for the Kunishi Ridge was to be as costly as any of the Okinawa battles.

Between 11th and 18th June 1945 the 1st Marine Division alone would suffer 1,150 casualties. Amongst the men of K (King) Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (K/3/5) was E.B. Sledge, who would later write one of the classic memoirs of the Pacific war. He describes the perilous situation that they found on the Ridge, and the predicament they encountered when trying to evacuate the wounded:

With daylight I got a good look at our surroundings. Only then could I appreciate fully what a desperate, bitter battle the fight for Kunishi Ridge had been—and was continuing to be. The ridge was coral rock, painfully similar to Peleliu’s ridges. But Kunishi was not so high nor were the coral formations so jagged and angular as those on Peleliu. Our immediate area was littered with the usual debris of battle including about thirty poncho-covered dead Marines on stretchers.

Some of our riflemen moved eastward along the ridge, while others moved up the slopes. We still didn’t set up our mortars: it was strictly a riflemen’s fight. We mortarmen stood by to act as stretcher bearers or riflemen.

Snipers were all over the ridge and almost impossible to locate. Men began getting shot one right after another, and the stretcher teams kept on the run. We brought the casualties down to the base of the ridge, to a point where tanks could back in out of the view of snipers on the ridge crest.

We tied the wounded onto the stretchers and then tied the stretchers onto the rear deck of the tanks. Walking wounded went inside. Then the tanks took off in a cloud of dust along a coral road to the aid station. As many men as possible fired along the ridge to pin down the snipers, so they couldn’t shoot the wounded on the tanks.

Shortly before the company reached the east end of the ridge, we watched a stretcher team make its way up to bring down a casualty.Suddenly four or five mortar shells exploded in quick succession near the team, wounding slightly three of the four bearers. They helped each other back clown the ridge, and another stretcher team, of which I was a member, started up to get the casualty. To avoid the enemy mortar observer, we moved up by a slightly different route.

We got up the ridge and found the casualty lying above a sheer coral ledge about five feet high. The Marine, Leonard E. Vargo, told us he couldn‘t move much because he had been shot in both feet. Thus he couldn’t lower himself down off the ledge. “You guys be careful. The Nip that shot me twice is still hiding right over there in those rocks.” He motioned toward a jumble of boulders not more than twenty yards away.

We reasoned that if the sniper had been able to shoot Vargo in both feet, immobilizing him, he was probably waiting to snipe at anyone who came to the rescue. That meant that anyone who climbed up to help Vargo down would get shot instantly.

We stood against the coral rock with our heads about level with Vargo, but out of the line of fire of the sniper, and looked at each other. I found the silence embarrassing. Vargo lay patiently, confident of our aid. “Somebody’s got to get up there and hand him down,” I said. My three buddies nodded solemnly and made quiet comments in agreement.

I thought to myself that if we fooled around much longer, the sniper might shoot and kill the already painfully wounded and helpless Marine. Then we heard the crash of another 105mm short round farther along the ridge – then another. I was seized with a grim fatalism – it was either be shot by the sniper or have all of us get blown to bits by our own artillery. Feeling ashamed for hesitating so long, I scrambled up beside Vargo.

For unknown reason, even as Sledge looked directly into the sniper’s cave, he was not shot. See E. B. Sledge: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Eugene B. Sledge in 1946. He would later become a University Professor . Years later he would say  "There is no 'mellowing' for me - that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To 'mellow' is to forget."
Eugene B. Sledge in 1946. He would later become a University Professor.
Years later he would say
“There is no ‘mellowing’ for me – that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To ‘mellow’ is to forget.”
Private Warren D. Fuhlrodt (1925- ) of Blair, Nebraska, attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, is lift out of an M4 tank of the 1st Tank Battalion after being wounded during the Battle of Kunishi Ridge.
Private Warren D. Fuhlrodt (1925- ) of Blair, Nebraska, attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, is lift out of an M4 tank of the 1st Tank Battalion after being wounded during the Battle of Kunishi Ridge.

Okinawan civilians try to leave the battlefield

Marines escort an elderly Okinawan civilian from battle, Battle of Okinawa, June 1945,
Marines escort an elderly Okinawan civilian from the battlefield, Battle of Okinawa, June 1945,

On the Okinawa the U.S. forces were blasting their way across the island from one concealed bunker to another as they struggled to contain horrendous casualties. Investigating who occupied each bunker was rarely practicable and never safe – it was assumed that each one needed to be dealt with. The consequences for the native Okinawans, many of whom had been forced to occupy the caves and bunkers alongside the Japanese Army were grim.

Some Okinawans got the chance to escape their confinement – but conditions above ground were almost equally lethal. Miyagi Kikuko had been a schoolgirl until she was forced to join the Lily Student Corps and serve as a nursing auxiliary. After enduring appalling conditions they were ordered out of the bunker to avoid the advancing Americans:

About May 25, we were ordered to withdraw to Ihara.

All the men we had nursed were simply lying there. One of us asked, “Soldier, what are you going to do with these people?” “Don’t worry,” he responded, “I’ll make it easy for them.” Later we heard that the medics offered them condensed milk mixed with water as their last nourishment, and then gave them cyanide and told them, “Achieve your glorious end like a japanese soldier.”

The American forces were nearby. Would it have been so terrible if they had been captured and revealed the japanese army’s situation? Instead they were all murdered to protect military strategy. Only one person crawled out and survived to testify.

The road to Ihara was truly horrible, muddy and full of artillery craters with corpses, swollen two or three times normal size, floating in them. We could only move at night. Sometimes the American forces sent up flares to seek out targets. Ironically, these provided us with enough light to see the way.

This light revealed people pulling themselves along on hands and knees, crawling desperately, wounded people calling to us, “Students! Students!” I had an injured friend using my shoulder as a crutch. Another friend had night blindness from malnutrition. She kept falling over corpses and crying out.

We’d become accustomed to the smell of excrement, pus, and the maggots in the cave, but the smell of death there on that road was unbearable. And it poured rain every day.

Tens of thousands of people moving like ants. Civilians. Grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers with children on their backs, scurrying along, covered in mud. When children were injured, they were left along the roadside. Just thrown away. Those children could tell we were students. They’d call out, “Nei, nei!” and try to cling to us. That’s Okinawan dialect for “Older Sister!” It was so pitiable. I still hear those cries today.

In daylight we were pinned down. In the wild fields, we clung to the grasses and cried out to our teachers, I’m afraid.” My group were all fifteen or sixteen-year-olds and the teachers took special care of us. “Bear up! You can take it!” they’d reassure us.

Finally, on the tenth of June we reached Ihara. Ten days for what takes thirty minutes by car today. There the first, second, and third surgeries were re-established. The second surgery was already completely full. There was only space to sit with your knees pulled up to your chest.

I don’t remember going to the toilet after we moved to Ihara, we were so dehydrated. If you put your hand into your hair it was full of lice. Our bodies were thick with fleas. Before we had been covered in mud, now we were covered with filth. Our nails grew longer and longer. Our faces were black. We were emaciated and itched all the time.

This account appears in Haruko Taya Cook(ed): Japan at War: An Oral History.

Okinawan civilians after the battle, taken by Lieutenant Reinhart T. Kowallis’s - see more from his collection.
Okinawan civilians after the battle, taken by Lieutenant Reinhart T. Kowallis’s – see more from his collection.

The last V2, and the end of enemy action on British soil

Ruined flats in Limehouse, East London. Hughes Mansions, Vallance Road, following the explosion of the last German V2 rocket to fall on London, 27 March 1945.
Ruined flats in Limehouse, East London. Hughes Mansions, Vallance Road, following the explosion of the last German V2 rocket to fall on London, 27 March 1945.

The last V2 to cause a fatality had landed in Orpington in Kent on the 27th March, there is an account on BBC People’s War. Ivy Millichamp became the last civilian to become a fatal casualty of enemy action on British soil during the war, the last of 67,100 civilian deaths during the war. She was the only fatality of the Orpington explosion, although earlier in the day 134 people had been killed in the second worst V2 incident of the whole war at Stepney in East London. The disparity in casualty figures merely reflects the randomness of the V2 attacks.

Ivy Millichamp who died aged 34 when a V2 rocket hit her home in Kynaston Road, Orpington.
Ivy Millichamp who died aged 34 when a V2 rocket hit her home in Kynaston Road, Orpington.

Of course nobody knew for certain that this was the last V2 action and there was no public commemoration of the event, then or later. The British government was doing its best to keep the lid on news of the attacks.

The devastation at Kynaston Road, Orpington where housewife Ivy Millington was killed in her kitchen by Hitler's last V2 rocket.
The devastation at Kynaston Road, Orpington where housewife Ivy Millington was killed in her kitchen by Hitler’s last V2 rocket.

The last enemy action of any kind on British soil had occurred on 29 March 1945, when a V-1 struck Datchworth in Hertfordshire. It exploded harmlessly in fields. Since the German V1 launch sites were well out of range of Britain by now, it must be presumed to have been an air launched rocket.

On 23rd March 1945 a V2 rocket had landed on Uppingham Avenue in Stanmore, North London. Civilian defence worker George Beardmore reflected on the aftermath of the incident and the impact it had had on local people, in his diary a week later:

30 March

Another rocket, and worst of the lot, landed at the top of Uppingham Avenue. I remember some time ago cycling down Weston Drive into Uppingham and thinking that if a rocket landed there it would make a right mess. And it had, if only because the damned thing had landed plumb on all three mains — water, gas, electricity. Water and gas had become mixed with the result that far down the hill in Kenton householders were being warned by loud-hailers from police-vans not to make use of any of the services.

I don’t have anything to do with the service engineers but, my word, they had arrived first according to report, and were still busy repairing and making up when I left. The rocket had landed at 3.40 in the morning, killing nine people among whom was a 9-year-old boy who had been flung out of bed, through the rafters, and into a back garden ten houses away – at first, nobody had been able to find him.

As I watched the mass funeral (Union ]ack, Bishop of Willesden, Civil Defence, WVS, and the Controllers’ cars lined up for three hundred yards) tears came to my eyes not with the grief and distress caused to survivors but with the incalculable trouble to which they will be put, months and years of it, before they can resume any sort of normal life and the incident becomes only a tale to tell to the grand-children.

Even obtaining an everyday thing like soap has its problems, let alone the replacement of identity-cards, ration-books, personal papers, with which I can give some help. In fact, I suggested to the WVS that they leave some bars of soap in my office for dispensation; it duly arrived, and within a day it had all gone.

Also here for the first time I had an official from Public Assistance sitting at my side, giving away money — not loaning, giving.

This incident was also made memorable by the office I had set up suddenly catching fire, provisionally put down to a short in the electricity supply creating a spark that set alight a small gas-leak. Luckily only seven or eight of us were inside the house, and we managed to get out in a mad scramble without casualty.

A moment later, in the street and watching the blaze, which had started at the back, I remembered the infinite pains with which the WVS had gathered and collated information about the inhabitants of the affected houses before and after. Without thinking twice about it I threw myself inside, swept the papers up in my left arm and while shielding my face with my right arm bolted outside again.

The only damage resulted from the right side of my head catching fire. At least, there was a strong smell of burning and I found the hair singed off. No medals for rescuing papers. Now if they had been a baby instead…

Last week the famous crossing of the Rhine at Remagen. According to the press one might think that we had had little opposition (Frankfurt taken, General Patton eighty- five miles into Westphalia) but my guess is that such optimism is on a par with the paucity of news about rockets.

Here at Harrow we hear some of the bangs and occasionally get the things ourselves but according to Jean’s aunt at Blackheath (not wholly reliable, I shouldn’t think) they hear and sometimes get four every hour. Group reports come through daily as 48 dead or 19 dead or 22 dead.

Only as far away as Buckinghamshire the peasantry knows nothing of rockets, and in Manchester all they learn is from one line of news in the paper: ‘In south England there was some enemy activity. Casualties and damage are reported.’ As I said before, it’s like trying to conceal news of an earthquake.

See George Beardmore: Civilians at War: Journals, 1938-46

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”.

Hundreds killed as USS Franklin hit by sneak bomber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soviet tank column smashes through civilian refugees

Column of Soviet IS-2 tanks on the road in East Prussia, 1st Belorussian Front.  On the left side of the road - abandoned German Panzerfaust.
Column of Soviet IS-2 tanks on the road in East Prussia, 1st Belorussian Front.
On the left side of the road – abandoned German Panzerfaust.

As the Red Army pushed rapidly into eastern Germany there were many instances of truly appalling atrocities, often featuring the rape and murder of civilians. The desire for revenge burnt strong amongst members of the Red Army, often based upon their personal experiences of the German invasion. There was also a semi-official encouragement of visiting horrors upon the Germans, with articles in the Soviet press.

Quite apart from the Nazi propaganda there were plenty of horror stories and rumours being circulated amongst the millions of Germans fleeing west. They were now caught up in a moving battlefield and often there was no escape.

Men from the 7th Panzer Division who had lost their tanks were being evacuated together, in an attempt by their own Divisional commander to avoid the German High Command’s orders that they be redeployed as infantry. They were headed east towards Gotenhafen in the hope of finding a ship:

It was shortly before midday on 5 March. The fleeing columns slowly but tenaciously continued along the road to the east, towards Gotenhafen and Danzig. There were two columns next to each other, the motorized vehicles and our tanks on the left, the horse-drawn wagons of the Wehrmacht and the civilian population on the right, but both heading in the same direction — eastwards. Occasionally, a horse-drawn wagon tried to make better progress by pulling into the motorized column, resulting in traffic jams which had to be cleared.

There was still snow, but at midday it began to thaw, it was already growing pleasantly warm. March!

About two kilometres to our left, I saw a road running parallel, full of horse—drawn vehicles. They were therefore our own, not Russian, as they would have been motorized.

Then, on the other road, from the east, in the opposite direction to the column, Russian tanks drove up, and smashed through the column. We identified them as T-34/85s. The distance was too great, we heard nothing, only saw how the horses reared up, people ran to the sides, watched how the wagons were pushed and crushed by the tanks, how people fell from the wagons under machine-gun fire. This was how the Red Army did things – it was terrible!

We were really shocked, because we couldn’t fire. We would just have endangered the civilians over there and of course over here by our own column, as the Russians would have fired back.

The tanks smashed through everything, crashing over the refugee wagons and heading west. Everything happened very quickly, and then the tank unit disappeared from view.

After this dreadful show our column doggedly continued. Suddenly I saw three soldiers, wearing earth-brown uniforms and civilian clothes, running amongst our vehicles. They carried Russian submachine—guns with drum magazines attached — a small scouting group! When they saw our tank, they disappeared between the vehicles to the south side, beyond the horse-drawn wagons.

Although I was not sure if these small, inconspicuous people were the enemy, Hans Kalb shouted: ‘There! Look! Russians! How can they run amongst us like that, shoot them all, the damned dogs! Shoot!’

But he saw that the Russians had already taken cover on the other side. Then he said, ‘It’s come to this, that the Russians run around amongst us, and we can’t do anything about it!“

This account appears in Prit Buttar: Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany’s Eastern Front 1944-45.

The corpse of a German woman, who was killed in an explosion at Metgetene (Metgethen) in East Prussia.
The corpse of a German woman, who was killed in an explosion at Metgetene (Metgethen) in East Prussia.