Okinawa – grim reality in Japanese underground hospital

Tank-borne infantry moving up to take the town of Ghuta before the Japanese can occupy it. The men are members of Colonel Victor Bleasdale’s 29th Marines.
Tank-borne infantry moving up to take the town of Ghuta before the Japanese can occupy it. The men are members of Colonel Victor Bleasdale’s 29th Marines.

On Okinawa it did not take long before the fighting erupted following the suspiciously quiet landings. The Japanese had already started to suffer casualties from the intense US naval and aerial bombardment.

Miyagi Kikuko was a 16 year old schoolgirl in the High School on Okinawa. Three days before the US invaded they held their graduation ceremony and all the 15 to 19 year old girls formally joined the Lily Student Corps. The boys joined the Blood and Iron Student Corps.

The following day the building was blasted apart by the US bombardment, but by then they were underground, preparing to assist in the military hospital, located, like most of the Japanese positions, in caves. Very soon after the invasion the casualties began to come in, and within days there were too many to cope with:

In no time at all, wounded soldiers were being carried into the caves in large numbers. They petrified us all. Some didn’t have faces, some didn’t have limbs. Young men in their twenties and thirties screaming like babies. Thousands of them.

At first, one of my friends saw a man with his toes missing and swooned. She actually sank to her knees, but soldiers and medics began screaming at her, “You idiot! You think you can act like that on the battlefield?”

Every day, we were yelled at: “Fools! Idiots! Dummies!” We were so naive and unrealistic. We had expected that somewhere far in the rear, we’d raise the red cross and then wrap men with bandages, rub on medicine, and give them shots as we had been trained. In a tender voice we’d tell the wounded, “Don’t give up, please.”

Now, they were being carried in one after another until the dugouts and caves were filled to overflowing, and still they came pouring in. Soon we were laying them out in empty fields, then on cultivated land. Some hemorrhaged to death and others were hit again out there by showers of bombs. So many died so quickly.

Those who had gotten into the caves weren’t so lucky either. Their turn to have their dressings changed came only once every week or two. So pus would squirt in our faces, and they’d be infested with maggots. Removing those was our job. We didn’t even have enough time to remove them one by one. Gas gangrene, tetanus, and brain fever were common.

Those with brain fever were no longer human beings. They’d tear their clothes off because of their pain, tear off their dressings. They were tied to the pillars, their hands behind their backs, and treatment stopped. At first, we were so scared watching them suffering and writhing that we wept. Soon we stopped. We were kept running from morning to night.

“Do this! Do that!” Yet, as underclassmen we had fewer wounded soldiers to take care of. The senior girls slept standing up. “Miss Student, I have to piss,” they’d cry. Taking care of their excrement was our work. Senior students were assigned to the operating rooms. There, hands and legs were chopped off without anesthesia. They used a saw. Holding down their limbs was a student job.

Outside was a rain of bullets from morning to night. In the evening, it quieted down a little. It was then that we carried out limbs and corpses. There were so many shell craters — it sounds funny to say it, but we considered that fortunate: holes already dug for us. “One, two, three!” we’d chant, and all together we’d heave the dead body into a hole, before crawling back to the cave. There was no time for sobbing or lamentation.

In that hail of bullets, we also went outside to get food rations and water. Two of us carried a wooden half-bushel barrel to the well. When a shell fell, we’d throw ourselves into the mud, but always supporting the barrel because the water was everybody’s water of life. Our rice balls shrank until they were the size of Ping-Pong balls. The only way to endure was to guzzle water. There was no extra water, not even to wash our faces, which were caked in mud.

We were ordered to engage in “nursing,” but in reality, we did odd jobs. We were in the cave for sixty days, until we withdrew to Ihara. Twelve people in our group – two teachers and ten students – perished. Some were buried alive, some had their legs blown off, five died from gas .

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

MOVING UP – Marine riflemen moving up behind flame-throwing tank on Okinawa.
MOVING UP – Marine riflemen moving up behind flame-throwing tank on Okinawa.
Marines assault a ridge supported by bazookas.  The action took place two miles north of Naha.
Marines assault a ridge supported by bazookas. The action took place two miles north of Naha.

The discipline of the Wehrmacht and SS remains strong

Propaganda Minister Goebbels in Luban (Lower Silesia) presents 16 year old Willi Hübner with the Iron Cross, 2nd Class, The award was for for his  actions during fighting in the trenches around the town. 9th March 1945.
Propaganda Minister Goebbels in Luban (Lower Silesia) presents 16 year old Willi Hübner with the Iron Cross, 2nd Class, The award was for for his actions during fighting in the trenches around the town. 9th March 1945.

Ever since Normandy the Allies had prepared plans for the eventual collapse of the German armed forces and the prospect that they might have to deal with an unexpected surrender. It never happened. Despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, as the nation faced ever more devastating assaults from east and west, there were still those whose near religous faith in Hitler remained strong. They might realise that they were in a minority but they still expected the so called ‘miracle weapons’ to be used to reverse the situation.

A senior NCO based in Wiesbaden was writing home during mid March. He knew that the situation was grim and that ‘they could no longer rely 100% on all their soldiers’. Yet he still believed:

that we’ll nevertheless win the war. I know that I’m laughed at by many people or thought mad. I know that there are only a few apart from me who have the courage to claim this, but I say it over and again: the Fuhrer is no scoundrel, and not so bad as to lie to an entire people and drive it to death.

Up to now the Fuhrer has always given us his love and promised us freedom and carried out all his plans. And if the Fuhrer prays to God that He may pardon him the last six weeks of this war of the nations then we know that there must and will be an awful and terrible end for our enemies.

We must firmly believe in Germany’s future — believe and ever more believe. A people that has so courageously lost so much blood for its greatness cannot perish. … Only our faith makes us strong, and I rely on the words of the Fuhrer that at the end of all the fighting there will be German victory.

This account appears in Ian Kershaw: The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945

The Nazis continued to have a grip on the youth of the nation, a generation who had spent their entire lives under constant Nazi indoctrination. It was not unknown for members of the Hitler Youth to report their own parents for disloyal remarks. Many of the young men still entering the German armed forces were as zealous as ever – and if they were not, discipline was enforced swiftly and mercilessly:

Erwin Bartmann was an Unterscharfuhrer, junior squad leader or NCO, in the SS. He was a veteran of the Eastern Front but, after having recovered from wounds, he was posted to a training regiment:

A fresh batch of recruits arrived, all members of the Hitlerjugend. Oh, they knew it all — or at least thought they did. For them it was all, ‘Hooray, we’ll win the war for Hitler, Sieg Heil.’ None of them showed the least desire to participate in the training exercises that might soon save their lives.

Well, they came to the right place to have their arses kicked into shape. At two o’clock on a rain-soaked morning, I pulled them out of their beds for marching in full kit.

As we made our way along a forest track, there were the usual complaints but one of the Hitlerjungen lads overstepped the mark. ‘Nobody gets me out of bed for nothing. I tell you, he’ll be the first to get it’, said a boy at the front of the group without realising I was within earshot.

I caught up with the cocky youngster, grabbed him by the shoulder and swung him round to face me. Before he could utter a word, I screwed the cloth of his camouflage jacket with my left hand, at his chest. The fist of my right hand, filled with live rifle ammunition, thrust at his chin. ‘Here – take this’, I growled as the rest of the squad looked on. ‘Try it.’

In a faltering voice he said, ‘I apologise Unterscharfuhrer’.

The execution of Fahnenfluchtigen (deserters) was a weekly routine that took place on Fridays, in front of a sandy hillock. To see at close range the atomised blood and guts blast out of the condemned soldier’s back as bullets shot through his body must have shocked the recruits.

Yet, even after witnessing this dreadful spectacle, a recruit from the platoon under my command went missing one night. In an act of mesmerising stupidity, he sent a postcard, stamped in Frankfurt, to his sister who lived there saying that he had deserted and wanted to meet her at the railway station.

The vigilance of the postman was the young man’s downfall. As he was about to put the card through the sister’s letterbox, he read the message and immediately alerted the police who arrested the sender as he waited on the platform.

On his return to Spreenhagen, he received the inevitable, and inescapable, sentence of death from an SS court martial. The following Friday evening at 6 pm, he faced his executioners. ‘God bless Germany,’ he said stoically as awaited his fate. The bullets ripped through his body and he slumped to the ground, his tunic smoking at the exit wounds on his back. But a flicker of life still burned in the young heart.

An officer stepped forward to aim his O8 at the young lad’s head. He pulled the trigger – the tragic end of yet another life. Seventy years later, the horror of this shooting still visits my dreams.

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

German Grenadiers retreat westwards at dusk in in eastern Germany, March 1945.
German Grenadiers retreat westwards at dusk in in eastern Germany, March 1945.

A lucky escape from the burning port of Danzig

German civilians in February 1945 in Danzig and the surrounding area; fleeing from the approaching Red Army, millions of people left there homes and headed west.
German civilians in February 1945 in Danzig and the surrounding area; fleeing from the approaching Red Army, millions of people left there homes and headed west.
Danzig shop window signs 1945: (left sign) Soldiers, report to the nearest army base. Anyone who travels with civilian convoys or loiters in private quarters is considered a deserter. (right sign) People of Danzig, stay disciplined! Panic and rumor-mongering are the best allies of the Bolsheviks!
Danzig shop window signs 1945: (left sign) Soldiers, report to the nearest army base. Anyone who travels with civilian convoys or loiters in private quarters is considered a deserter. (right sign) People of Danzig, stay disciplined! Panic and rumor-mongering are the best allies of the Bolsheviks!

After the First World War the Baltic Sea port of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) had been a Free City, separate from the rest of Germany, under the League of Nations. The situation had been resented by the largely German population. Then, when the Nazis invaded Poland, it had been re-integrated into Germany and most of the Polish and Jewish residents had been evicted to make way for more German ‘settlers’. Now it was the turn of the Germans to move out.

Hans Gliewe was sixteen years old when he, his mother and younger brother had arrived in Danzig on the 9th March. They had struggled to find shelter from Russian bombing raids which destroyed all their luggage. In the house that they eventually sheltered they found other refugees who had terrible tales of the way that the Russian invaders were behaving, the Red Army troops had even told them that the follow up waves of occupying troops would be ‘even worse’. Then they were evicted from their house by the SS. The Russians were estimated to be less than two miles away.

They got a lift in an Army truck to the nearby port of Gdynia:

There was just a few small private cutters that had got out of the Navy confiscation order somehow or other. In front of the port commander’s place people stood in long lines. He looked at us sadly and said, ‘I have no more ships for you. Over there, in the barracks, there are thousands already, waiting.’ Then he smiled grimly and said, ‘A few cutters are still sailing. But I’m afraid you can’t afford them. They charge a thousand marks a head.’

Mother still had eight hundred marks for the three of us. ‘All I can tell you,’ said the port commander, ‘is to wait here in camp. Perhaps you’ll be lucky … perhaps…’

So we went into the camp. We opened the door of one of the wooden barracks. A cloud of stench came to meet us. Hundreds of people sat in there, crowded together on filthy straw piles. The washing hung from strings across the room. Women were changing their children. Others were rubbing their bare legs with some smelly frost ointment.

My brother pulled Mother’s coat and said, ‘Please, Mummy, let’s go away from here.’ But we were grateful to find room on a pile of straw next to an old, one-armed East Prussian who had come down along the Frische Nehrung.

Near me lay a very young woman whose head was shorn almost to the skin and whose face was all covered with ugly sores. She looked terrible. Once when she got up I saw that she walked with a cane. The East Prussian told us that she had been a woman auxiliary; the Russians had caught her in Roumania in the autumn of 1944 and had taken her to a labour camp. She had escaped somehow and trekked up here. He said she was only eighteen or nineteen. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help looking at her.

A few hours later we couldn’t stand the barracks any more and ran away. We preferred the cold. We went to the port. Mother tried to make a deal with one of the skippers. But he would not take anyone aboard for less than eight hundred marks a head. He’d rather go back empty. Mother was ready to kill him with her bare hands.

By the time it got dark we were so cold that we went back to the barracks in spite of everything. We found just enough room to sit back to back. Next to us sat a woman whose child had just gone down with dysentery. Next morning it lay there, so little and pale.

An Italian prisoner of war who worked on the piers told us that a small ship from Koenigsberg had arrived and was docking a little farther up the coast. The woman next to us went to take the ferry and go over there. She left the child behind with us and promised to come back and fetch us. She kept her word, too.

When she came back she told us that she had met an acquaintance from Koenigsberg who for five hundred marks and her ring had promised to smuggle her and her child on the ship. He could do nothing for us, but she would not forget us. And she did not forget us.

We ran away from the barracks for the second time and paid an Italian to row us over to the dock where the ship was. He looked at us sadly, and said in his poor German he would like to go home, too. On the dock we waited near the ship, and finally our ‘neighbour’ from the barracks— she made out we were her real neighbours — persuaded her acquaintance to smuggle us aboard, too.

Most of those on the ship were from Koenigsberg. Some of them had gone ashore and were now coming back. We walked along with them as if we belonged. Then we hid in the cold, draughty hold of the ship. We huddled close together, but still we were terribly cold. But we did not dare to move, let alone go up, for fear they would recognize us as stowaways.

The night went by. The rumble of artillery over Danzig grew very loud. A man who had been up on deck said the sky was all red with the fires. We were so happy and grateful that we could lie in the draughty hold of the ship. But we were shaking with fear that we would be found out and put ashore.

Then the ship pulled out, and we breathed again.

This account appears in Jürgen Thorwald: Flight in the winter

The 'Fluchtlingstreck' - flight of the refugees  East Prussia.- refugees on horse cart on the way through a village in 1945.
The ‘Fluchtlingstreck’ – flight of the refugees East Prussia.- refugees on horse cart on the way through a village in 1945.
Old men of the Volkssturmm prepare to meet the Red Army.
Old men of the Volkssturmm prepare to meet the Red Army.

Fantasy and reality of the new German forces

Members of the Volkssturm, the Peoples Army, receive instruction in the use of the Panzerfaust, the mass produced German anti tank weapon.
Members of the Volkssturm, the Peoples Army, receive instruction in the use of the Panzerfaust, the mass produced German anti tank weapon.
A German woman with a Panzerfaust, March 1945.
A German woman with a Panzerfaust, March 1945.

It had taken a long time before the Germans had to face the impact of modern warfare. The Nazis had sought to pretend that they could fight the war without the privations that ordinary citizens had suffered in the First World War. It was only after the direction of the war turned, following Stalingrad, and as the Allied bombing campaign gathered pace, in 1943, that the whole economy was organised on a war footing. Then Josef Goebbels had asked “Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?”.

The fortunes of Germany had steadily declined since that point, despite the ever greater demands made on her citizens. The war was now portrayed as a battle for the very existence of Germany, and the Nazis were grasping at every last chance to throw more people into the conflict.

On the 4th March Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels diary recorded his latest meeting with Hitler:

This evening I had a long interview with the Fuhrer. In contrast to last time I found him somewhat depressed — understandable in the light of military developments. Physically too he is somewhat hampered: I noticed with dismay that the nervous twitch on his left hand had greatly increased.

His visit to the front last Saturday went off very well. The general officers put on a good show and the soldiers cheered the Fuhrer. Unfortunately, however, the Fuhrer refuses to issue a press statement about his visit to the front. Today it is as essential as our daily bread…

I tell the Fuhrer in detail about my talk with General Vlasov [leader of the Russian fascist collaborators], especially about the methods used on Stalin’s orders to save Moscow in late autumn 1941. The Soviet Union was then in exactly the same situation we are in today. At that time she took decisive measures which various important people on our side have neither the nerve nor the energy to take today.

I submit to the Fuhrer my plan to intercept soldiers on the move and form them into new regiments. The Fuhrer approves this plan.

He also agrees that we should form women’s battalions in Berlin. Innumerable women are volunteering to serve at the front and the Fuhrer is of the opinion that, provided they volunteer, they will undoubtedly fight fanatically. They should be placed in the second line, then the men in the front line will lose all desire to withdraw.

A cheerful young German boy soldier captured by the 11th Armoured Division, Third US Army, near Kulmbach, Germany, 15 April 1945. Although wearing a German Army uniform, he had not been issued arms. He was one of a group being marched to the Czechoslovak border.
A cheerful young German boy soldier captured by the 11th Armoured Division, Third US Army, near Kulmbach, Germany, 15 April 1945. Although wearing a German Army uniform, he had not been issued arms. He was one of a group being marched to the Czechoslovak border.

In early March Guy Sajer, a Wehrmacht veteran who had survived the horrors of the Eastern front, saw the reality that the leading Nazis could not bring themselves to acknowledge:

While we waited, we watched a crowd of men, part of a new Volkssturm battalion, swarm into a factory courtyard. When we looked more closely at these men recently called up by the Fuhrer our eyes opened wide with surprise. They all belonged to the last class of reserves and seemed to be an even more extreme case than the Marie-Louise conscripts at the end of the Napoleonic era.

Some of these troops with Mausers on their shoulders must have been at least sixty or seventy-five, to judge by their curved spines, bowed legs, and abundant wrinkles. But the young boys were even more astonishing. For us, who had saved our eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year-old lives through a thousand perils, the idea of youth meant childhood and not adolescence, which was still our phase of life, despite our disillusion.

But now we were looking literally at children, marching beside these feeble old men. The oldest boys were about sixteen, but there were others who could not have been more than thirteen. They had been hastily dressed in worn uniforms cut for men, and were carrying guns which were often as big as they were.

They looked both comic and horrifying, and their eyes were filled with unease, like the eyes of children at the reopening of school. Not one of them could have imagined the impossible ordeal which lay ahead. Some of them were laughing and roughhousing, forgetting the military discipline which was inassimilable at their age, and to which they had been exposed for barely three weeks.

We noticed some heart-wringing details about these children, who were beginning the first act of their tragedy. Several of them were carrying school satchels their mothers had packed with extra food and clothes, instead of schoolbooks. A few of the boys were trading the saccharine candies which the ration allotted to children under thirteen. The old men marching beside these young sprouts stared at them with incomprehension.

What would be done with these troops? Where were they expected to perform? There was no answer to these questions. Were the authorities going to try to stop the Red Army with them? The comparison seemed tragic and ludicrous.

Would Total War devour these children? Was Germany heroic, or insane? Who would ever be able to judge this absolute sacrifice? We stood in profound silence, watching and listening to the final moments of this first adolescence. There was nothing else we could do.

See Guy Sajer: The Forgotten Soldier

Three 14 year-old German prisoners of war eating rations in front of a group of other POWs, 29 March 1945. The boys were captured by 6th Armoured Division, Third US Army, near Frankfurt-am-Main.
Three 14 year-old German prisoners of war eating rations in front of a group of other POWs, 29 March 1945. The boys were captured by 6th Armoured Division, Third US Army, near Frankfurt-am-Main.

London – V2 rockets add to misery of cold Home Front

A war artists impression of a V2 being launched during the amphibious assault on Walcheren island on the 1 November 1944, with HMS warspite bombarding German positions.
War Artist Stephen Bone’s impression of a V2 being launched during the amphibious assault on Walcheren island on the 1 November 1944, with HMS Warspite bombarding German positions.

It might well appear that the war must surely end soon but in Britain, and in London in particular, there was no sense that the war was ‘winding down’. When the weather was cold the shortages of fuel became very apparent, and the rationing of food and clothing was still very much in force. The constant threat of the V2 rocket – explosions were going off all over London at random times – exacerbated the general war weariness.

The government was doing its best to keep the V2 threat as quiet as possible (to deny the Germans intelligence about where they were landing) and there were minimal reports in the local press. There was no warning of a V2 hit – suddenly houses and people were obliterated. The risk might not appear to be very high – ten V2 rockets had fallen on London on the 27th January – but it was nevertheless an ever present threat.

George Beardmore was a housing officer in Harrow in north London, responsible for rehousing those who had been bombed out amongst other responsibilities. He also felt a keen responsibility for his wife and two young daughters, which no doubt affected his apprehensiveness:

28 January, Sunday

We are suffering, here at home, the worst period of the war. We are all — all of us, at the office, in the shops, and at home — weary of war and its effects. Intense cold has arrived (my feet at this moment are resting on a hot-water bottle and the panes are frosted over) with snow, ice, hail, and sudden clashes of thunder that go to make the illusion that we are on the Russian front.

The V2 rockets also help the illusion. Four mornings in succession they have woken us up — not bangs so much as prodigious muffled explosions which resound in all quarters at once, reverberating for about ten seconds. The blast is upon us before we know it, blowing out curtains, rattling doors, and doing its usual trick of jolting up the loft trap-door. Well, trap-doors can be put back into place, so I don’t grumble, or try not to.

At 4. a.m. yesterday one landed on the fringe of a spinney on Stanmore Common. I inspected it in the line of duty, the usual crater as big as a room with felled trees pointing outwards from it, like a small-scale meteoric crater in Siberia. The nearest houses (well-to-do) had ceilings down and windows caved in and rows of fluttered tiles. ‘Fluttered’ means that for five seconds or more they are jerked up by blast with the result that when they fall back again they either shatter or are displaced.

No casualties, thank heavens, and not much damage otherwise. The fright that it caused was out of all proportion.

Gas and electricity are cut off at times but so far not in Harrow. Potatoes are scarce. Coal and boiler-fuel also. By this I mean that we do a vast amount of scheming and worrying to obtain these things. I should not like to add up the number of fruitless expeditions I have made in the search for paraffin.

On my rounds, when I see a queue of people with cans outside an ironm0nger’s, I make it my business to hurry home and fetch our cans and join ’em. Owing to these endeavours we have not so far run short of our creature comforts. But Mrs Amos next door looks pinched and half-starved.

The Russian winter offensive has brought their armies to within a hundred miles of Berlin. The German fronts are closing in — Upper Silesia, for example, is in Russian hands, while all East Prussia, hotbed of German militarism since Frederick the Great, and for all I know earlier, is only waiting for the coup de grace before it capitulates.

As I read of Germans working with pistols on their desks, of German refugees being ordered off the roads, of German evacuees riding back to safety on the buffers of railway-carriages, of German towns and villages being razed — I remember the machine-gunning of Canadian prisoners after Dieppe, our own Hampden Road bomb when the air was full of feathers from mattresses and housewives were screaming, the Lublin Castle tortures — yes, and Anthea wrapped in shawls because of the cold waking up to wail when the Stanmore rocket fell.

Snowflakes are falling although the sun has been trying to bore a hole through the snow-clouds. Jean is just hurrying outside to put the stove on in the Shelter before returning Anthea to her nest of shawls in the dining-room, while Victoria, her head full of the Primary School she has begun to attend, sits on the hearth-rug rattling her beads and marbles about on a tray and saying: ‘Now, I Want all Junior Mixed on this side, please.’

And here I sit with a dressing-gown over my clothes writing about them.

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

During the war only ten V2 rockets landed in the London Borough of Harrow, yet the looming threat was all too evident even in this borough, which was way down the list of those most affected. For those living in Croydon (141 V2 explosions), Wandsworth (122) and Lewisham (114), the top three boroughs, the ‘sense of fright’ must have been even harder to deal with.

British newsreel telling the story of the Battle of the Bulge, being shown in cinemas at about this time:

Large swathes of London were still bomb sites from the earlier blitz. The destruction around St Paul's Cathedral caused by air raids on London is softened by a heavy dusting of snow. A mobile crane and truck can be seen at work to clear up some of the debris.
Large swathes of London were still bomb sites from the earlier blitz. The destruction around St Paul’s Cathedral caused by air raids on London is softened by a heavy dusting of snow. A mobile crane and truck can be seen at work to clear up some of the debris.

Nazis use ‘Ukrainians’ to massacre civilians in Warsaw

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

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’

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

 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

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.