Britain: everyone prepares for War

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.

Okinawa – US forces face a gruesome clear up

In June 1945, after 82 days of intense fighting, US Army and Marines secured Okinawa. The cost was enormous: 12,000 Americans and 70,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts lost their lives in a battle that would be remembered as one of the most terrible in the history of warfare.
In June 1945, after 82 days of intense fighting, US Army and Marines secured Okinawa. The cost was enormous: 12,000 Americans and 70,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts lost their lives in a battle that would be remembered as one of the most terrible in the history of warfare. More than 100,000 Okinawa civilians, not including those who were conscripted, are also believed to had been killed or forced to commit suicide during the battle and its aftermath.
Marine First Lieutenant Hart H. Spiegal of Topeka, Kansas, uses sign language as he tries to strike up a conversation with two tiny Japanese soldiers captured on Okinawa. The boy on the left claims he is “18” while his companion boasts “20” years.
Marine First Lieutenant Hart H. Spiegal of Topeka, Kansas, uses sign language as he tries to strike up a conversation with two tiny Japanese soldiers captured on Okinawa. The boy on the left claims he is “18” while his companion boasts “20” years.

Although the battle for Okinawa was effectively over by 22 June the formal surrender did not take place until 7th September, after Japan had surrendered as a nation. While organised fighting had collapsed there were many Japanese soldiers still holding out in their caves and dug outs, some would choose suicide but many felt it their duty to take an American with them.

For the American soldiers and marines engaged in the final ‘clearing up’, operations continued to be difficult and dangerous. Even if they did not confront resisters the business of dealing with mass suicides was as gruesome as it is possible to imagine. US Intelligence officer Frank B. Gibney describes some of the final scenes:

Japanese troops who were preparing a last-ditch “defense.” The flower of the island’s youth — teenage girl nurses’ aides as well as boeitai boy soldiers- were sacrificed to the directives of the Japanese army command. In many cases they were forced to hurl themselves from the low southern cliffs into the sea, so they, too, could “die for the Emperor.”

Even after entering the stockade as prisoners, many soldiers still regretted their decision to stay alive. This was a backhanded tribute to the cruelly effective indoctrination of Japan’s militarists.

As sophisticated an observer as the novelist Shohei Ooka, whose book A Prisoner’s Journal (Furyoki) became a Japanese classic, could later write of his capture (in this case in the Philippines): “I did not regard capture by the enemy as the heinous disgrace our drill instructors had pictured… Soldiers in the field had every right to abandon hopeless resistance. Yet once I had fallen captive, how discomforting, how reprehensible it felt to be idly enjoying life among the enemy while my brothers in arms continued to risk their lives in battle. I felt a sudden urge to throw myself into the ocean and kill myself…”.

At 10th Army G-2 interrogation headquarters we mobilized every Japanese speaker in American uniform — officers and noncoms, army, navy, and marines — to extract militarily useful information from our prisoners. Because of the numbers involved, we sometimes interrogated POWs in groups — for the first time in our experience.

Various interrogators were assigned to different Japanese units to elicit information on their tactics during the campaign, all the while screening prisoners for further questioning.

In addition, we were on constant call to accompany intelligence officers from various division headquarters, in efforts to talk out the last survivors of 32nd Army battalions from their cave hideouts. Generally we were unsuccessful. And time and time again the attempts of individual soldiers to turn themselves in were frustrated by the determined resistance of hard-liners in these caves who wished “Death for the Emperor!” to be the fate of all.

At one point we were led by an engineer captain, just taken prisoner, to a cave where General Amamiya and many of the surviving 24th Division troops had blown themselves up. With 7th Division intelligence officers, I went down to one of the cave entrances and crawled in.

After a walk through a long tunnel we came on a huge underground cavern and one of the ghastliest sights I ever saw. Here lay General Amamiya, surrounded by his staff and some two hundred officers and men. They had all killed themselves, most with grenades, although Amamiya had thoughtfully given himself a lethal injection to avoid the rigors of ritual suicide. The cave floor was literally carpeted with corpses.

In the middle of this carnage we found one survivor, a private who had been the general’s orderly. Amamiya had told him to stay alive and report how they died – to the Emperor, presumably. The orderly had faithfully remained, prepared to do so. He found an underground spring that gave him a steady water supply and subsisted for almost a week on bits and pieces of rations which had been left behind by the suicides.

The captain who had taken us to the cave was unhinged by the experience. He suffered, to put it mildly, a mental breakdown; it took him a long time to recover. But the general’s orderly, once released from the cave, seemed to shrug off his ordeal. Late that aftemoon I saw him in one of the prison camp yards playing volleyball with his fellow captives.

This account appears in Hiromichi Yahara: The Battle for Okinawa

Japanese POWs are photographed after capture and internment during the Battle of Okinawa. The 82-day-long battle lasted from 1 April 1945 until 22 June 1945. After a long campaign of island hopping, the Allies were approaching Japan, and planned to use Okinawa, a large island only  550 km (340 mi)  away from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations during the planned invasion of Japanese mainland. Okuku, Okinawa Prefecture, Okinawa Island, Ryukyu Islands, Japan. 27 June 1945.
Japanese POWs are photographed after capture and internment during the Battle of Okinawa. The 82-day-long battle lasted from 1 April 1945 until 22 June 1945. After a long campaign of island hopping, the Allies were approaching Japan, and planned to use Okinawa, a large island only 550 km (340 mi) away from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations during the planned invasion of Japanese mainland. Okuku, Okinawa Prefecture, Okinawa Island, Ryukyu Islands, Japan. 27 June 1945.

Okinawan civilians try to leave the battlefield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.