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.

Okinawan civilians try to leave the battlefield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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