Nazis use ‘Ukrainians’ to massacre civilians in Warsaw


5 August 1944: Nazis use ‘Ukrainians’ to massacre civilians in Warsaw

We were led through the second. There were about twenty people in our group, mostly children of ten to twelve. There were children without parents, and also a paralysed old woman whose son-in-law had been carrying her all the time on his back. At her side was her daughter with two children of four and seven. They were all killed. The old woman was literally killed on her son-in-law’s back, and he along with her.

A German picture of members of the Dirlewanger Brigade, criminals enlisted by the Germans and associated with numerous atrocities.
A German picture of members of the ‘Dirlewanger Brigade’, criminals enlisted by the Germans and associated with numerous atrocities.

Andrew Borowiec’s memoir Warsaw Boy describes his life in Poland during the war and his time as a fifteen year old member of the Polish Home Army. But his memoir contains much more than his own observations and describes much of the background and incidents to which he not witness. One of the more notorious groups operating on behalf of the Nazis in Warsaw was the ‘Dirlewanger Brigade’, the 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS led by Oskar Dirlewanger.

This group participated in one of the first counter-attacks against the Polish resisters, during which large numbers of civilians were evicted from their homes or simply burnt out of their apartment blocks so that the SS could gain ground. SS Gruppenfuhrer Reinefarth was to complain “What shall we do with all these civilians? We have less ammunition than prisoners?”. The answer to his own question was to massacre most of them:

While the surviving men were organized into working parties, the women and children were being herded past Reinefarth and Dirlewanger to the places where the overworked firing squads, topping up on vodka were waiting for them. One of them was the main factory yard of the Ursus tractor company. Outside the factory gates their victims were divided into batches of twenty and then, when their turn came, shoved with rifle butts through the yard’s big doors.

Families got split up. Children became hysterical at the sight of freshly killed parents and siblings and were swiftly silenced. Most of the people pulling the trigger were the Red Army renegades we usually referred to as ‘Ukrainians’ or ‘Vlasov’s men’.

The SS obviously intended to organize the killing the way a well-run abattoir tries to avoid letting the livestock scent the blood before it is too late. But it soon became an utter charnel house. A few people did survive to bear witness — mostly because their executioners, some of them singing, were too drunk to shoot straight. Wanda Lurie, the wife of a Home Army man who was away with his platoon, was in the last stages of pregnancy and accompanied by their three children: Wieslaw, a boy of eleven, his younger sister Ludmila, who was six, and three-year-old brother Lech.

The notorious Oskar Dirlewanger in 1944
The notorious Oskar Dirlewanger in 1944

Andrew Borowiec quotes directly from the account of Wanda Lurie:

I came last and kept in the background, continuing to let the others pass, in the hope that they would not kill a pregnant woman, but I was driven in with the last lot. In the yard I saw heaps of corpses three feet high, in several places. The whole right and left side of the first and biggest yard was strewn with bodies.

We were led through the second. There were about twenty people in our group, mostly children of ten to twelve. There were children without parents, and also a paralysed old woman whose son-in-law had been carrying her all the time on his back. At her side was her daughter with two children of four and seven. They were all killed. The old woman was literally killed on her son-in-law’s back, and he along with her.

We were called out in groups of four and led to the end of the second yard, to a pile of bodies. When the four reached this point, the Germans shot them through the back of the head with revolvers. The victims fell on the heap, and others came. Seeing what was to be their fate, some attempted to escape; they cried, begged and prayed for mercy. I was in the last group of four.

I begged Vlasov’s men around me to save me and the children, and they asked if I had anything with which to buy my life. I had a large amount of gold with me and I gave it to them. They took it all and wanted to lead me away, but the German supervising the execution would not allow them to do so, and when I begged him to let me go he pushed me off, shouting, ‘Quicker!’ I fell when he pushed me. He also hit and pushed my elder boy, shouting, ‘Hurry up, you Polish bandit!’

Thus I came to my place of execution, in the last group of four, with my three children. I held my two younger children by one hand, and my elder boy by the other. The children were crying and praying. My elder boy, seeing the mass of bodies, cried out, ‘They’re going to kill us!’ and called for his father.

The first shot hit him, the second me; the next two killed the two younger children. I fell on my right side but the shot wasn’t fatal. The bullet penetrated the back of my head from the right, then exited through my cheek. I spat out several teeth. I felt the left side of my body growing numb, but I was still conscious and saw everything that was going on around me.

Wanda Lurie was to survive for over 36 hours on the pile of bodies, pretending to be dead even when her wristwatch was taken from her. Eventually she was able to crawl away, one of the few survivors from around 10,000 people murdered on this day alone.

See Warsaw Boy: A Memoir of a Wartime Childhood.

The bitter terms upon which the Warsaw Uprising was to be fought had been established.

Massacre at Oradour sur Glane


10 June 1944: Massacre at Oradour sur Glane

Whilst these killings were taking place, the soldiers searched the village for any people who had evaded the initial roundup and killed them where they found them. One old invalid man was burned to death in his bed and a baby was baked to death in the local bakery ovens, other people were killed and their bodies thrown down a well. People who attempted to enter the village to see what was going on were shot dead.

Oradour sur Glane
The villagers of Oradour sur Glane could have had no idea what was about the take place when men from the 2nd SS Panzer Division travelled up this road on 10th June 1944.

Oradour sur Glane may be notorious but it was by no means the only massacre of French civilians by the Nazis in the summer of 1944. It should also be remembered that 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich were veterans of the Eastern Front. The actions committed on the 10th June were not some sudden aberration by the men involved – one of their officers was to comment that it was “nothing” compared with what went on in the East.

The origins of the massacre lay in the frustration that the SS felt at their slow progress up from the south of France to join the battlefield in Normandy, partly caused by delays as the result of French Resistance sabotage. Michael Williams has put together a detailed study of why Oradour took place

On the 10th of June 1944, a group of soldiers from the Der Führer regiment of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich entered and then surrounded the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane, near to the city of Limoges.

At first, they told the Mayor, Jean Desourteaux, that there was to be an identity check and that everyone must go to the Champ de Foire (fairground) whilst this took place. After rounding up all the inhabitants that they could find, the SS then changed their story from that of an identity check, to one of searching for hidden arms and explosives. The soldiers then said that whilst they searched for the arms, the women and children must wait in the church and the men in nearby barns.

The women and children were marched off to the church, the children being encouraged by the soldiers to sing as they went. After they had left, the men were divided into six groups and led off to different barns in the village under armed guard. When the people were all safely shut away the SS began to kill them all.”

A large gas bomb, seemingly made out of smoke-screen grenades and intended to asphyxiate the occupants, was placed in the church, but it did not work properly when it went off and so the SS had to use machine guns and hand grenades to disable and kill the women and children. After they had subdued all the occupants of the church, the soldiers piled wood on the bodies, many of whom were still alive and set it on fire.

This account comes from Michael William’s summary of In a Ruined State a comprehensive online study of the events that day and the reasons for them.

Only one person managed to escape alive from the church and that was Madame Rouffanche, suffering from five separate bullet wounds. This was her account events presented at the trial held in 1953:

Shoved together in the holy place, we became more and more worried as we awaited the end of the preparations being made for us. At about 4 p.m. some soldiers, about 20 years old placed a sort of bulky box in the nave, near the choir, from which strings were lit and the flames passed to the apparatus which suddenly produced a strong explosion with dense, black, suffocating smoke billowing out.

The women and children, half choked and screaming with fright rushed towards the parts of the church where the air was still breathable. The door of the sacristy was then broken in by the violent thrust of one horrified group. I followed in after but gave up and sat on a stair. My daughter came and sat down with me. When the Germans noticed that this room had been broken into they savagely shot down those who had tried to find shelter there. My daughter was killed near me by a bullet fired from outside. I owe my life to the idea I had to shut my eyes and pretend to be dead.

Firing burst out in the church then straw, faggots and chairs were thrown pele-mele onto bodies lying on the stone slabs. I had escaped from the killing and was without injury so I made use of a smoke cloud to slip behind the altar. In this part of the church there are three windows.

I made for the widest one in the middle and with the help of a stool used to light the candles, I tried to reach it. I don’t know how but my strength was multiplied. I heaved myself up to it as best I could and threw myself out of the opening that was offered to me through the already shattered window. I jumped about nine feet down.

When I looked up I saw I had been followed in my climb by a woman holding out her baby to me. She fell down next to me but the Germans, alerted by the cries of the baby, machine-gunned us. The woman and the mite were killed and I too was injured as I made it to a neighboring garden and hid among some rows of peas and waited anxiously for someone to come to help me. That wasn’t until the following day at 5 p.m.

The burnt out shell of the village where 642 men women and children were murdered has been preserved as a memorial.
The burnt out shell of the village where 642 men women and children were murdered has been preserved as a memorial.

Tension in Britain during wait for ‘Second Front’


21 May 1944: Tension in Britain during wait for ‘Second Front’

There is a curious new something in their expressions which recalls the way people looked when the blitz was on. It’s an air of responsibility, as though they had shouldered the job of being back in the civilian front line once again. It’s evident in the faces of women looking up thoughtfully from their gardens at the gliders passing overhead, in the unguarded faces of businessmen wearily catnapping on trains on their way home to all-night Home Guard duty, in the faces of everybody except the young fighting men themselves.

Churchill Mk IV tanks in storage on the Winchester by-pass in Hampshire, in readiness for the invasion of Europe, 16 May 1944.
Churchill Mk IV tanks in storage on the Winchester by-pass in Hampshire, in readiness for the invasion of Europe, 16 May 1944.
Three young children who are playing in a layer of sand on top of their air raid shelter, pause in their games to watch aircraft pass overhead during 1944.
Three young children who are playing in a layer of sand on top of their air raid shelter, pause in their games to watch aircraft pass overhead during 1944.

Almost everyone in Europe knew that the ‘Second Front’ was coming. Across occupied Europe the Nazis were extolling the strength of their ‘Atlantic Wall”. In Britain the signs had been mounting over the past few months, as the numbers of U.S troops in Britain doubled and the frequency and extent of military exercises increased.

Over 600,000 people living close to the coast had had their movements curtailed under wartime regulations. Near to the embarkation ports on the south coast there were piles of military equipment and munitions beside the roads. Everyone knew it was coming, the only questions that remained were ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’.

Once again New Yorker columnist Mollie Panter Downes had captured the mood:

Living on this little island just now uncomfortably resembles living on a vast combination of an aircraft carrier, a floating dock jammed with men, and a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with material labelled “Europe.”

It’s not at all difficult for one to imagine that England’s coastline can actually be seen bulging and trembling like the walls of a Silly Symphony house in which a terrific fight is going on. The fight everybody is waiting for hasn’t started yet, but all over England, from the big cities to the tiniest hamlet, the people, at least in spirit, seem already to have begun it.

There is a curious new something in their expressions which recalls the way people looked when the blitz was on. It’s an air of responsibility, as though they had shouldered the job of being back in the civilian front line once again. It’s evident in the faces of women looking up thoughtfully from their gardens at the gliders passing overhead, in the unguarded faces of businessmen wearily catnapping on trains on their way home to all-night Home Guard duty, in the faces of everybody except the young fighting men themselves.

The troops look unfailingly cheerful and lighthearted, as though they didn’t know that anything unusual was afoot, and it is obvious that they are in wonderful physical shape. Life is reminiscent of the blitz in other ways, too, for now, as then, people are keyed up to withstand something which they have often imagined but never experienced, and there is the same element of uncertainty about what is coming.

The ordinary civilian seems far less worried, however, about possible bombs, long-distance shelling, or gas attacks than about such problems as how the dickens he is going to get to and from work if transport is seriously curtailed. It has already been announced that trains may be suddenly cancelled without warning, but there is a vague promise that motor-buses for essential workers will take their place wherever possible.

Stay-at-home Britons seem resigned to the probability that their second front will consist mainly of humdrum hardships, including more inconvenience, fatigue, and doing without. The idea that London, during the invasion, will come in for heavy air attacks seems to have faded away, oddly, and there is even less worrying over any secret weapon that may be up the German sleeve for D Day.

It is plausible to lots of English that the Germans may stage a token inva- sion or series of parachute raids. This would mean that, since the Army’s attention would be engaged elsewhere, the Home Guard would be expected to take charge of the situa- tion. Already, in the country, the milk and the mail arrive late, delivered by a somewhat bleary-eyed milkman or postman who explains that he has just finished standing his watch with the all-night guard, which once more has been established.

The shadow of the second front falls across day-to-day happenings in even the smallest community. One country-dwelling lady who recently decided that she must have some urgent plumbing repairs done in her home was warned by the contractor that he and his plumber’s mates were all Home Guards. He pointed out that if anything happened (there isn’t a village in England which doesn’t proudly imag- ine that it’s all-important to the Nazis), the boys would just drop her new water tank smack on the lawn and she would be left bathless until the fighting was over.

It is often in just such a ridiculous way that English families begin to realize what it may be like to have the battle of Europe right on their doorsteps, involving not only big and historic issues but also small and homely ones like baths, trains, the morning paper, and the day’s milk.

See Molly Panter Downes: London War Notes

Preparations for Operation Overlord (the Normandy Landings): tanks being inspected, 'somewhere in England'.
Preparations for Operation Overlord (the Normandy Landings): tanks being inspected, ‘somewhere in England’.
Pontoons which will be used for building pontoon bridges in Europe, await issue to engineering units at a supply depot in England.
Pontoons which will be used for building pontoon bridges in Europe, await issue to engineering units at a supply depot in England.
Thunderbolt fighters lined up in storage.
Thunderbolt fighters lined up in storage.

Death of an innocent man in Italy


26 April 1944: Death of an innocent man in Italy

I drive in to Chianciano, to try and make arrangements for the funeral — and find the streets entirely empty, and on the walls a notice stating that, while the German authorities deplore what had occurred, they consider it to be the fault of the local population, owing to their unco-operativeness and general hostility. In consequence, there will be a curfew at eight-thirty p.m., and the population is warned that any further attempt at sabotage will be followed by the arrest of ten hostages.

 Italian civilians taking refuge near air raid shelter wait to be fed and sheltered by Allied military government authorities.” African troops, possibly French colonial, can be seen supervising the crowd. Italy. 15 May 1944
Italian civilians taking refuge near air raid shelter wait to be fed and sheltered by Allied military government authorities.” African troops, possibly French colonial, can be seen supervising the crowd. Italy. 15 May 1944

As the stalemate continued in Italy the plight of the civilian population caught in the middle grew worse. In the areas occupied by the Allies they were heavily dependent on aid to prevent starvation.

In the Germans held areas there was much anxiety as the battle approached. Now the civilians were no longer allies of the Germans they were treated with the contempt by the occupying troops. Aggravating these circumstances was the fact that the puppet Italian government, still dominated by fascists, was much more likely to side with the Germans than the local population. They were in a hopeless position.

Still assiduously recording this state of affairs was Iris Origo, an English writer married to an Italian, who remained in Italy throughout the war, doing her best to provide some refuge for refugee children:

April 26th

A German officer comes up, and inspects the Castelluccio. Antonio points out (1) that it has already been reserved to store the goods of the hotel-keeper of Chianciano. (2) That there is insufficient water. (3) That there is no stabling. To which the German — a Prussian of the worst type —- merely replies that he will require the whole of the castle for his three hundred men, stabling for eight hundred horses in the farms, and quarters for his eight officers in our house. As to the refugee children, we must find lodgings for them ‘elsewhere’.

In the afternoon we hear that the man who was killed at Chianciano this morning was one of our workmen, Mencatelli – a quiet, peaceable, hardworking fellow, totally unconcerned with politics, whose murder seems to us inexplicable. His wife rings me up, and implores me to go down to her. I drive down, and find two German sentries barring the road. They let me pass, and, as my car drives up the empty street, terrified faces appear at the windows.

What new danger, they think, is coming now? In the dead man’s little house, which, after thirty years of hard work and self- denial, he had at last succeeded in owning, the widow is hysterically moaning and sobbing beside the bed of her boy of eleven, who saw his father killed. The child is in a queer state of coma, from which he awakes at intervals to a fit of shivering and sobbing, then sinks back again.

His mother and some other women continue moaning and crying, repeating the miserable story over and over again. It appears that, when the German and Fascist troops began to search the houses nearby, poor Mencatelli, terrified of being taken off to a labour camp, hid in his little attic. The boy, hearing that the attics in other houses were being searched, shouted to him to come down, but he was too panic-stricken to do so, and crouched there, in frozen terror, waiting.

Finally the soldiers, a German and a Fascist, came cramping up the stairs and, throwing aside the weeping woman and child, climbed up the attic ladder. As soon as they saw the defenceless little man crouching there, the Fascist fired, hitting him in the head. He was killed instantaneously, before the eyes of his wife and child. When I saw him, already laid in his bed, his head swathed in white bandages, and a few faded stocks scattered on his pillow, his tired, drawn face still had a look of terror.

Of all the Fascist crimes that I myself have seen this is the ugliest, meanest and most purposeless. But we are all guilty. ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’

I drive in to Chianciano, to try and make arrangements for the funeral — and find the streets entirely empty, and on the walls a notice stating that, while the German authorities deplore what had occurred, they consider it to be the fault of the local population, owing to their unco-operativeness and general hostility. In consequence, there will be a curfew at eight-thirty p.m., and the population is warned that any further attempt at sabotage will be followed by the arrest of ten hostages.

See Iris Origo: War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944

Italian woman, like many other civilians, who are to be evacuated from the Nettuno battle area, is issued rations by Allied personnel while awaiting transportation to Naples.
Italian woman, like many other civilians, who are to be evacuated from the Nettuno battle area, is issued rations by Allied personnel while awaiting transportation to Naples.

Italian civilians suffer as the struggle continues


14 March 1944: Italian civilians suffer as the struggle continues

He was chained up in the usual way, weeping desperately, clearly knowing what was coming. It took the judge minutes to find him guilty and sentence him to ten years. ‘What’s going to happen no my poor family?’ he shrieked. He was led away sobbing loudly. A sickening experience.

Naples, September - October 1943: The twisted metal of a wrecked gantry crane destroyed by Germans, lying in Naples harbour.
Naples, September – October 1943: The twisted metal of a wrecked gantry crane destroyed by Germans, lying in Naples harbour. Apart from the bombing the Germans had done their best to destroy the infrastructure of the city before they left.
Naples, September - October 1943: The first Allied convoy to arrive at Naples harbour. In the foreground some of the wrecked harbour installations are visible. In the background is Mount Vesuvius.
Naples, September – October 1943: The first Allied convoy to arrive at Naples harbour. In the foreground some of the wrecked harbour installations are visible. In the background is Mount Vesuvius.

In Italy the struggle continued. Stuck in the middle of the conflict were the Italian population. In the German occupied area they suffered increasing brutality as reprisals were carried out against any form of ‘resistance’ – the partisan war would grow increasingly bitter.

Even in Allied occupied areas the resources available to help people were limited and conditions for the poorest elements of society were desperate. They had suffered under the Germans and been bombed by the Allies. Now they suffered under the Allies and were bombed by the Germans.

In Naples, the principal city so far captured by the Allies, prostitution was rife as a means of survival. For the Allied authorities it was but one difficulty amongst many when dealing with the civilian population, as Intelligence Officer Norman Lewis noted in his diary:

The war on the black market is being conducted with spurts of ferocity, but the victims who fall are always and only those who have no one to speak out for them, and cannot bribe their way out of their predicament. Whole shiploads of army stores are spirited away, and items from these can be bought by every Italian civilian who has the money to pay.

I am convinced it would be impossible to stop and search a single Neapolitan in the street without finding that he was wearing an overcoat or jacket made from army blankets, or army underclothing, army socks, or at the least had American cigarettes in his pocket.

… [he describes several cases against wealthy people that come to nothing]…

The reverse of the coin is the case of the dock-workers rounded up by the MPs and found in possession of rations. They had broken open a case and helped themselves to about half a dozen tins apiece. One of them was put in the dock to be got rid of while legal arguments were going on over the Rufos.

He was chained up in the usual way, weeping desperately, clearly knowing what was coming. It took the judge minutes to find him guilty and sentence him to ten years. ‘What’s going to happen no my poor family?’ he shrieked. He was led away sobbing loudly. A sickening experience.

March 14

Today another horrible example of what can happen to the poor when the army decides on a counter-offensive on the black market. A boy of about ten was brought into the 92nd General Hospital by his distracted mother. He’d had three fingers chopped off. These she handed over, wrapped up in newspaper, with the request that they be sewn on again. Somebody had told her that only the British were capable of this kind of surgery.

The story was that this little boy was one of a juvenile gang that specialized in jumping into the backs of army lorries when held up in traffic and snatching up anything pilferable.

We heard that they had been dealt with by having a man with a bayonet hidden under a taurpaulin in the back of every supply lorry. As soon as a boy grabbed the tailboard to haul himself in, the waiting soldier chopped down at his hands. God knows how many children have lost their fingers in this way.

See Norman Lewis: Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth

An officer and men of an RAF Regiment light anti-aircraft squadron pick through the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 88 shot down on the foreshore during an early morning raid on the harbour at Naples.
An officer and men of an RAF Regiment light anti-aircraft squadron pick through the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 88 shot down on the foreshore during an early morning raid on the harbour at Naples.

Italians suffer as the battles continue


13 February 1944: Italians suffer as the battles continue

It is odd how used one can become to uncertainty for the future, to a complete planlessness, even in one’s most private mind. What we shall do and be, and whether we shall, in a few months’ time, have any home or possessions, or indeed our lives, is so clearly dependent on events outside our own control as to be almost restful. For of course everyone else is in the same boat. Refugees from southern Italy bring tragic tales of the results of the ‘scorched earth’ policy, carried out by the Germans in their leisurely retreat.

"Ragged refugees from Cassino fleeing their blasted town on a road leading to Acquafondata, held by Allied troops.” Italy. Near Acquafondata, Italy. 8 February 1944
“Ragged refugees from Cassino fleeing their blasted town on a road leading to Acquafondata, held by Allied troops.” Italy. Near Acquafondata, Italy. 8 February 1944

The battles at Cassino and Anzio continued as both sides slugged it out. The ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ was now firmly established as a bloody and costly theatre. It was an expensive exercise for the Allies but at the very least it was pinning down large numbers of German troops, many of whom would otherwise be manning the ‘Atlantic Wall’.

For those caught in the middle, the Italian civilians, the suffering went on. Iris Origo, an English writer married to an Italian, was doing her best to help those affected. Her diary entry for today sums up the her thoughts and fears particularly well – but might well have been written by millions of other people across Europe who were in very similar circumstances. When would the actual battle reach them – and could they survive?

February 13th

Mr. Churchill declares that ‘while all battles, as they approach their decisive phase, are anxious’, he feels ‘no especial anxiety’ about the Anzio battle. I wish I could share his feelings.

It is odd how used one can become to uncertainty for the future, to a complete planlessness, even in one’s most private mind. What we shall do and be, and whether we shall, in a few months’ time, have any home or possessions, or indeed our lives, is so clearly dependent on events outside our own control as to be almost restful. For of course everyone else is in the same boat. Refugees from southern Italy bring tragic tales of the results of the ‘scorched earth’ policy, carried out by the Germans in their leisurely retreat.

Not only the small towns, but the farms and the crops have been destroyed —— in addition, of course, to the havoc already brought by bombing. There is no reason to think that central Italy will be spared a similar fate – the only uncertainty left to each of us being whether or not we shall happen to be on the road of the advancing or retreating armies.

Our friends the Caetani, whose home is at Ninfa, in the thick of the present battle, and the Senni family, who live on the road between Grottaferrata and Rome next to a large airport, are at any rate already in the thick of it. Those of us who live farther north are still uncertain of our fate.

The Gh.s, living on the coast thirty-seven miles from Livorno, will be obliged to leave their house (like all the rest of the civilian population) if there should be a landing on the Tuscan coast; meanwhile they already have German officers in the house, cannons in the garden, and troops in the village.

E., whose house is situated just above a tunnel between the main road and the railway from Florence to Bologna, is in an equally precarious position. So is everyone who happens to live near a railway (even in as small a town as Poggibonsi) or on a main road.

Nevertheless, practically all landowners have chosen to remain on their properties until they are actually bombed or turned out, together with their peasants, who have no other choice. Most of us have buried our jewels and papers, walled up some reserves of wheat, potatoes, oil and wine, and hidden some of our best furniture, books and clothes in the more remote‘ farm-houses, and now are sitting tight.

In our particular case, if ever we are forced to move, we shall have with us, in addition to our own two small children, the twenty-three refugee children, including a five-months-old baby —- no simple matter either to transport or feed.

I have spoken of the immediate hazards: the more remote ones are of course even greater. Though each one of us in his inmost heart believes that he and his family will survive (through some privilege which we certainly could not account for) certainly no one can make a guess as to what his future life will be.

Shall we have any money left, or work for a bare living? In what sort of a world will our children be brought up? What should we teach them to prepare them? Can any peace or order be restored again in this unhappy, impoverished and divided land?

And when those who, like myself, have relations and friends in other countries, are able to hear from them again, what news will we receive?

Three weeks ago – after four months of silence and anxiety – I received the news of my mother’s death in Switzerland, eighteen days after the event — in a letter from a stranger which had been smuggled across the frontier.

When letters begin again, how many other such pieces of news shall we all receive? Which of our close friends and relations are already dead, or will die before we meet them again? And, even among those who survive, what barriers of constraint and unfamiliarity will have arisen in these years — not only of physical separation, but of experience unshared, of differing feelings and opinions? What ties will survive that strain?

See Iris Origo: War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944

"Refugees on a mountain road in the Vallerotunda area, near Cassino, fleeing their town enveloped in battle, seeking safety behind the front.” Vallerotonda, Italy. 7 February 1944
“Refugees on a mountain road in the Vallerotunda area, near Cassino, fleeing their town enveloped in battle, seeking safety behind the front.” Vallerotonda, Italy. 7 February 1944

Germans turn against Italian civilians


30th November 1943: Germans turn against Italian civilians

As our jeep bounced over mountain trails, cratered, blown and generally savaged by the demolition experts of First Paratroop Division, we encountered what for me was a new and singularly ugly aspect of war… refugees making their painful way southward. Not before or since have I seen human beings who seemed so pitiable.

The Sangro River November 1943: A mule train carrying ammunition passes a bogged down Sherman tank en route in the forward positions in the Sangro area.
The Sangro River November 1943: A mule train carrying ammunition passes a bogged down Sherman tank en route in the forward positions in the Sangro area.
The Sangro River November 1943: A German Mk III Special tank knocked out near San Salvo during the advance to the Sangro.
The Sangro River November 1943: A German Mk III Special tank knocked out near San Salvo during the advance to the Sangro.
The Sangro River November 1943: An Indian soldier pushing his vehicle which is bogged down in deep mud in the Sangro area.
The Sangro River November 1943: An Indian soldier pushing his vehicle which is bogged down in deep mud in the Sangro area.

Given the murderous approach of the Germans to members of the Italian armed forces, their former allies, it was not perhaps surprising that they should have contempt for Italian civilians. The war was to turn increasingly bitter as it engulfed the civilian population. The treatment of the local population was to drive more and more Italians, both men and women, to fight with the partisans. A separate vicious guerrilla ‘Partisan war’ was to develop alongside the main conflict as the Allies fought their way up Italy.

For the troops on the ground this was a particularly unpleasant aspect of the war. For Canadian officer Farley Mowatt it was a disturbing experience to discover this:

One day late in November a friend invited me to accompany him on a visit to Third Brigade, which was then laboriously scrabbling its way northward through the mountains toward the headwaters of the Sangro River, where the Germans had anchored their so-called Bernhard Line.

As our jeep bounced over mountain trails, cratered, blown and generally savaged by the demolition experts of First Paratroop Division, we encountered what for me was a new and singularly ugly aspect of war… refugees making their painful way southward. Not before or since have I seen human beings who seemed so pitiable.

We came upon them in little clots and clusters trudging along the roadsides through a veil of sleet. They were clad in unidentiable scraps of black, rain-soaked clothing, and many walked barefoot in coagulating mud that was barely above the freezing point. Shapeless bundles slung over their shoulders, they plodded by with downcast eyes, mute and expressionless. We noticed that there were no men of young or middle years among them. We were soon to find out why.

At Third Brigade Headquarters a grim West Nova Scotia Highlander lieutenant undertook to guide us deeper into an increasingly desolate landscape, and it was he who explained about the refugees.

“Before he pulled back, Jerry rounded up all the men and boys fit to work and took them to work on the fortications along the Sangro. We’ve had a few escape into our lines. They tell us they get damn all to eat and are shot out of hand if they don’t work hard enough, or try to escape. They’re kept at it till they drop, then they’re just left lying in the rain and snow to live or die on their own.

‘But that’s not the half of it! Nearly every village on our front has been systematically destroyed. Jerry took everything the people had in the way of food and livestock, then turfed them out, burned what would burn and blew everything else to hell. In one village the bastards blew down the church with women and kids sheltering inside…

‘They herded most of the rest of the people off toward our lines, warning them they’d be machine-gunned if they turned back. As you can see, we can’t get wheeled transport up here except for jeeps, so they have to walk about ten miles to the rear, except for the sick or mothers with real young kids. We get them out on wheels somehow…

‘Keep it under your hats, but our boys are so fucking well brassed off about it, they aren’t taking any prisoners. Not those First Para bastards anyhow!”

Third Brigade had just occupied one of the demolished villages and we went forward to it on foot. The devastation was virtually total. Nothing remained except heaps of rubble but, despite the cold, the sickly stench of death proclaimed that not all the inhabitants had been able – or had been permitted – to escape. It was a revolting spectacle.

At the time, the Allied command appears to have been very little disturbed by this barbarism. It was said that the Germans were simply pursuing the “scorched-earth” policy they had developed in Russia, where everything which might conceivably have been of any use to the Russian Army was destroyed, and the civilian population – rendered homeless and destitute – was deliberately converted into a living obstacle in the path of the advancing Russian troops.

Presumably because our brass hats considered the scorched-earth policy a legitimate military tactic, the atrocities inicted on the Italian peasants in the Sangro mountains rated no more than a few casual and non-condemnatory references even in the official military histories written after the war.

Farley Mowat was an accomplished novelist, published in many countries, before he wrote his memoir of wartime experiences in 1979. See Farley Mowat: And No Birds Sang.

An overturned Sherman tank, 30 November 1943.
An overturned Sherman tank, 30 November 1943.
A Diamond T tank transporter, 30 November 1943.
A Diamond T tank transporter, 30 November 1943.

The Dutch suffer at hands of both Germans and Japanese

29th December 1942: The Dutch suffer at hands of both Germans and Japanese

The Japanese had special holes dug into the sides of the embankments near the fence inside the camps. There was just enough room for one person and they had specially constructed wooden gates held in place by stakes hammered into the soil. The women who had been caught were thrown in these holes for several days without food and water. The other women risked their own lives to give them food and water when the japanese were not around. If they were caught, they ended up in the holes as well.

The Dutch-Indian army destroys naval installations in Surabaya, before the Japanese landed
The Dutch-Indian army destroys naval installations in Surabaya, before the Japanese landed
The Japanese 2d Division celebrates landing at Merak, Java - 1 March 1942
The Japanese 2d Division celebrates landing at Merak, Java – 1 March 1942
Dutch soldiers on Java at the surrender to the Japanese
Dutch soldiers on Java at the surrender to the Japanese

Images courtesy Wikipedia and Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).

On Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies, now part of Indonesia, the Japanese had gradually been rounding up the civilian population and interning them. First the men and then in November 1942 the women and children. For ten year old Lise Kristensen, whose family were originally from Norway, it was a time of growing up fast and learning to survive.

They were thrown out of their own house and forced live with other families in an enclave of houses taken over by the Japanese and fenced off as a camp. Lise, her younger sister, their mother and her baby brother, born in October 1942, were allocated the rat infested garage of one of the houses. Their mother had been prepared for the eviction and had packed a bag with essentials and money sewn into the lining. Lise already knew they were better off than many others:

We also traded things for medicine with the local javanese villagers on the other side of the fence, though this was not allowed by the japanese, who would beat anybody they caught. Anything and everything was traded. We would give the javanese blankets and clothes and in return they would supply us with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Some of the women had no money and would sneak out in the hours of darkness to meet with the Javanese men and trade. The fence around the village was not very well secured in some places and at nights the soldiers would spend most of their time inside their huts drinking rice wine and playing cards. They were nearly always drunk. The women would lift the bottom of the fence and crawl underneath.

Every so often the Japanese would catch them retuming and punish them. Sometimes they dragged them away to their huts and other times they beat them there and then. Occasionally I heard a shot in the middle of the night, though Mama would never tell me exactly what had happened.

The Japanese had special holes dug into the sides of the embankments near the fence inside the camps. There was just enough room for one person and they had specially constructed wooden gates held in place by stakes hammered into the soil. The women who had been caught were thrown in these holes for several days without food and water. The other women risked their own lives to give them food and water when the japanese were not around. If they were caught, they ended up in the holes as well.

I remember Mama sneaking out of our garage late one night and, when I asked her where she had been, she explained that one of the girls in the hole was very ill. Mama told me she took her some water and a bar of chocolate, which the girl hardly had the energy to eat. She was released the next morning but died several days later. Mama cried for most of that day; the girl was only sixteen.

Lise Kristensen: The Blue Door.

Back in Holland 3 year old Mieke Jansma and her family were being evicted from their home in Gravenhage on 29th December 1942. Now a resident of New Jersey USA you can see her tell the story of her family under German occupation, with a number of contemporary documents and photographs, at Brookdale Community College.

Deaths continue – is the war really over?

At the same time I was old enough to know that this lost Japanese platoon was beyond the point where life and death meant anything at all. They were aware that their own lives would shortly end, and that they were free to do anything they wanted, and inflict any pain.

Peace, I realised, was more threatening because the rules that sustained war, however evil, were suspended. The empty paddy fields and derelict villages confirmed that nothing mattered.

Emaciated British prisoners of war in a Japanese hospital for prisoners of war at Nakom Paton, Thailand.
Emaciated British prisoners of war in a Japanese hospital for prisoners of war at Nakom Paton, Thailand.

The war was over but not everyone knew it or was prepared to acknowledge it. American airmen were killed in the skies over Japan by renegade Japanese fighter pilots. Across the Japanese occupied territories people detained in PoW camps and civilian detention centres guessed that things had changed – but their guards often would not admit it openly. A strange, dangerous, limbo like existence continued for many until Allied troops arrived.

In China James Ballard and his family had been detained along with many other European civilians in 1942. They knew thew war was over and had begun to receive parachute drops of food from American planes. Fortified by Spam and chocolate fourteen year old Ballard felt strong enough to explore further afield:

The camp fell behind me more quickly than I expected. Around me was a silent terrain of abandoned paddy fields and burial mounds, derelict canals and bridges, ghost villages that had been deserted for years.

I skirted the perimeter of the airfield, where I could see Japanese soldiers patrolling the burnt-out planes and hangars, and decided not to test whether they agreed that the war was over.

I passed the wrecks of canal boats and trucks caught in the air attacks, and the bodies of Chinese puppet soldiers. After an hour I reached the Hangchow—Shanghai railway line, which circled the western perimeter of Shanghai. No trains were running, and I decided to walk along the embankment.

Half a mile in front of me was a small wayside station, no more than a concrete platform and a pair of telegraph poles. As I approached I could hear an odd sing- song sound, and saw that a group of Japanese soldiers was waiting on the platform. They were fully armed, and sat on their ammunition boxes, picking their teeth while one of them tormented a young Chinese man in black trousers and a white shirt.

The Japanese soldier had cut down lengths of telephone wire and had tied the Chinese to a telegraph pole, and was now slowly strangling him as the Chinese sang out in a sing-song voice. I thought of leaving the embankment and walking across the nearby field, but then decided it would be best to walk straight up to the soldiers and treat the grim event taking place as if it were a private matter that did not involve me.

I drew level with the platform and was about to walk past it when the soldier with the telephone wire raised a hand and beckoned me towards him. He had seen the transparent celluloid belt that held up my frayed cotton shorts. It had been given to me by one of the American sailors, and was a prized novelty that no Japanese was likely to have seen. I unbuckled the belt and handed it to him, then waited as he flexed the colourless plastic and stared at me through it, laughing admiringly. Behind him the young Chinese was slowly suffocating to death, his urine spreading across the platform.

I waited in the sun, listening to the sing-song voice as it grew weaker. The Chinese was not the first person I had seen the Japanese kill. But a state of war had existed since 1937, and now peace was supposed to have come to the mouth of the Yangtze.

At the same time I was old enough to know that this lost Japanese platoon was beyond the point where life and death meant anything at all. They were aware that their own lives would shortly end, and that they were free to do anything they wanted, and inflict any pain.

Peace, I realised, was more threatening because the rules that sustained war, however evil, were suspended. The empty paddy fields and derelict villages confirmed that nothing mattered.

Ten minutes later, the Chinese was silent and I was able to walk away. The Japanese soldier never told me to go, but I knew when he had lost interest in me. Whistling to himself, the plastic belt around his neck, he stepped over the trussed body of the Chinese and rejoined his companions, waiting for the train that would never come.

I was badly shaken, but managed to steady myself by the time I reached the western suburbs of Shanghai. Perhaps the war had not really ended, or we had entered an in-between world where on one level it would continue for months or even years, merging into the next war and the war beyond that.

I like to think that my teenage self kept his nerve, but I realise now that I was probably aware of nothing other than the brute fact that I was alive and this unknown Chinese was dead. In most respects, sadly, my experiences of the war were no different from those of millions of other teenage boys in enemy-occupied Europe and the Far East. A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

See J. G. Ballard: Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton : an Autobiography

Discovered after the liberation. Prisoners of war and internees at Stanley Civil Internment Camp, Hong Kong, who were tortured and executed by the Japanese, inscribed their names and dates of execution on their cell walls as a record. The photograph shows the inscription made by D W Waterton who was executed, possibly for constructing and using a radio.
Prisoners of war and internees at Stanley Civil Internment Camp, Hong Kong, who were tortured and executed by the Japanese, inscribed their names and dates of execution on their cell walls as a record. The photograph shows the inscription made by D W Waterton who was executed, possibly for constructing and using a radio.

Britain: everyone prepares for War

Mr Duff Cooper broadcasted an appeal last night for recruits for ‘an imaginary regiment, the Silent Column’ composed of men and women resolved to say nothing that can help the enemy. He emphasised the danger of dropping scraps of information, sometimes vital parts of a vast jigsaw puzzle being pieced together by the enemy.

As part of an ‘anti—rumour’ campaign a new poster is published….

Your-Britain-fight-for it-now
One of the famous series of four posters by Frank Newbould, already noted for his travel posters before the war.
The Local Defence Volunteers: Members of the Local Defence Volunteers being taught simple German phrases.
The Local Defence Volunteers: Members of the Local Defence Volunteers being taught simple German phrases.

The nation had already been prepared for the beginning of the ‘Battle of Britain’ by Winston Churchill, a phrase that at this time encompassed every aspect of the threatened invasion not merely the RAF’s defence of Britain. The Local Defence Volunteer’s had been formed in May but the government was struggling to arm and equip them. Although a million ‘LDV’ armbands had been produced, and were in the process of being issued, Churchill was now arguing that the title “Home Guard” would be much more inspiring – his decision would be implemented later in July 1940.

Many diarists were recording how the war was progressing internationally alongside their own observations about how it was affecting people locally. In mid Sussex in southern England, very likely to be in the firing line should any invasion come, Helena Hunt was keeping a journal that reflected many of the issues affecting a typical English village:

July 12th Friday

Mr Duff Cooper broadcasted an appeal last night for recruits for ‘an imaginary regiment, the Silent Column’ composed of men and women resolved to say nothing that can help the enemy. He emphasised the danger of dropping scraps of information, sometimes vital parts of a vast jigsaw puzzle being pieced together by the enemy.

As part of an ‘anti—rumour’ campaign a new poster is published….

I have often wondered how the term Fifth Column came into being and what Fifth Columnists meant originally.. A Fifth Columnist, properly so called, is a man or woman who works against his or her country for the aid and comfort of the enemy, in fact a Fifth Columnist is a traitor…

Many of the most precious art treasures of Paris are to go to Berlin for ‘exhibition’. Herr Otto Greif has arrived in Paris to make the selection. He went on similar missions to Vienna, Warsaw and Amsterdam, and treasures from there are all ‘on exhibition’ in Germany.

Three girls came to the door yesterday saying ‘ARP for animals, have you a dog?’ ‘No’ I said, ‘but there’s a cat next door I’m always shooing off my garden’. They were taking account of all animals.

More details of the central jam making are given in this week’s ‘Mid’. It was begun in the Village Hall here last Wednesday, the 10th. The jam is made on Tuesdays and Thursdays in each week. Fruit must be brought on those mornings when it will be weighed and paid for at Wholesale prices. The jam will be sold at retail prices.

Mid Sussex dairymen have formed a Mutual Aid Assistance Pact. If an air raid causes damage to a dairyman’s business premises, arrangements will be made for his customers to be supplied. On the Emergency Committee formed, Barnett represents Lindfield, and the district comprises of this village, Cuckfield, Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill, Danehill, Hurstpierpoint and Ditchling. Nearly all the dairymen are joining the Pact.

Recruits for the LDVF no.5 Lindfield Platoon are needed. All between 17 and 65 not already serving in Defence may enrol at the Headquarters, Red Lion Yard, any evening between 7.30 and 9.30.

I went to Brighton today and was told that in all the streets near the sea, curfew is enforced at 9.30, the time altering with sunset time. Sentries go along the streets to see that they are clear. No one is allowed on the beach, guns and forts abound.

The London children who were evacuated to seaside places last autumn are to be removed further inland, North Sussex or South Surrey….

Boy Ellis has been called up. He gave me his printed letter of welcome from the War Office signed by the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. I think it an inspiring as well as useful letter.

It was the first time I had been to Brighton since the names of the stations had been removed, no station names are now to be seen.

See A Woman Living in the Shadow of the Second World War: Helena Hall’s Journal from the Home Front

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"But For Heaven's Sake Don't Say I Told You!"
“But For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Say I Told You!”
Mrs Carter enjoys a Sunday lunch with her evacuated children Michael and Angela (seated either side of her at the table) during a day trip to their foster home in Hayward's Heath. The children were evacuated from their home in London and are staying with several other evacuees in the home of Mrs Cluton, seen here serving potatoes to Michael.
Mrs Carter enjoys a Sunday lunch with her evacuated children Michael and Angela (seated either side of her at the table) during a day trip to their foster home in Hayward’s Heath. The children were evacuated from their home in London and are staying with several other evacuees in the home of Mrs Cluton, seen here serving potatoes to Michael.