Gurkha’s fighting retreat in Burma

Men of the 2/9th Gurkha Rifles training in the Malayan jungle, October 1941.

In Burma British and Chinese forces were falling back in a fighting retreat. They were now [permalink id=18229 text=”without air cover”] and very much on the back foot. Many accounts give the impression of utter confusion, yet one man managed to maintain some semblance of an overview. General William Slim faced the very difficult task of managing the fall back to India, with the Japanese constantly seeking to outflank the retreating troops. Yet he makes clear that this was very far from being a one sided battle:

During the night, 63 Brigade with its tanks came through and moved on to hold the Myitnge crossings. Early on the 29th flank patrols had brushes with armed Burmans and rescued more Indian refugees, but not before some had suffered atrocities.

There was a brisk little action between our own and Japanese tanks, some ten miles down the main road, in which one enemy tank was destroyed and ours were bombed from the air. However, with the arrival of large Japanese reinforcements, our detachments fell slowly back to Kyaukse.

At 2200 hours in bright moonlight, the Japanese launched a fierce attack on our positions astride the road. The Gurkhas held their fire until their yelling assailants were a hundred and fifty yards away and then let them have it. The attack withered away, leaving many dead.

At midnight, a Japanese column of motor transport and bullock carts blundered almost on to our defences, and was heavily shelled and mortared. Half an hour later another attack was met with close-range fire and destroyed.

At 0515 hours next morning in pitch darkness, a third attack was flung back in confusion. At dawn on the 30th April, tanks and Gurkhas sallied out and cleared a burnt-out village in front of our lines. Many Japanese in it were killed and several mortars and light automatics captured. The Gurkhas were particularly pleased at trapping thirty-eight of the enemy who had taken refuge in a culvert under the road.

The enemy belonged to the 18th Division – one we had not previously met. The general opinion in 48 Brigade was that, compared with their old opponents, the 33rd Division, these newcomers were much inferior in both courage and fighting skill. The Japanese throughout the day shelled our positions heavily but not very effectively, except Brigade Headquarters which they appeared to have located exactly.

See Field Marshal William Slim: Defeat Into Victory

Australians take on Japanese in Malaya

Thousands of Australian troops had arrived in Singapore during the second half of 1941, more would arrive during January 1942.

After the shock Japanese breakthrough at the battle of the [permalink id=16034 text=”Slim river”], they were pushing south down the Malaya peninsula towards Singapore. It was decided to attempt to ambush them at the next significant river crossing. This was the moment for the Australians to make their distinctive contribution to the campaign.

What followed was the Sungei Gemenchei Ambush on the 14th. Here the bridge was prepared for demolition and men from ‘B’ COY 2/30 battalion AIF lay hidden in the jungle while they awaited the Japanese to arrive. A significant number of Japanese troops on bicycles were allowed to cross, until the point was reached when a large body of troops were on the bridge. They were then blown up along with the bridge, and the cyclists who had already crossed were attacked. The full post action report by Captain D.J. Duffy OC `B’ Coy can be read at 230 Battalion – Gemencheh.

The following day the remainder of the 2/30 Battalion found themselves confronting the Japanese at close quarters. Leslie Perry of D Company described part of the action in a letter to his mother written just afterwards:

The happenings that afternoon will stay in our minds for all time. For, instead of running away from bullets, we literally ran into them. Our company commander called us all together, and said, “Well, boys, we are going to attack the Japs. Travel as lightly as possible.”

To get to the Japs’ position in the trees we had to move over four hundred yards of open ground. And as soon as we left our position in the trees three Jap planes swooped down on us from apparently nowhere and commenced machine-gunning us. At the same time the Japs opened fire from their concealed position with machine guns, rifles, and mortar bombs.

Under this hell of fire we at once dived flat on the ground, as it didn’t seem possible for any human being to escape the blazing fury. A barbed wire fence near us was ringing backwards and forwards from the bullets. But our skipper sang out, “On you feet men; we must take their position.” I, like all the others, expected a bullet at any period, but I had only one thing in mind – to reach the trees and kill every Jap I saw.

When we did eventually reach the trees we split up in parties, and Athol, George Parfrey, and myself with five or six others rushed through high grass to find several Japs in hiding. Athol turned his Bren machine-gun on them, and, under our supporting fire with rifles, made several get up and run for their lives.

A cobber of ours, Charlie Taylor, from Bourke, looked up in the air in time to shoot a grinning Jap from out of the trees, as he was firing all around us. We then heard the command, “Retreat” yelled out. We could not understand it, as it looked like the Japs being well licked. George Parfrey had his blood properly up, and rushed right forward, and it took a good while to persuade him that everybody was retreating.

We soon found out the answer when we found the other boys. While the boys were attacking on the right flank, huge tanks had rushed out of the trees while we were luckily attacking on the left. Nobody gave a thought that tanks would be used in this country. It was a terrific blow to be stopped by such means, but all the more heartbreaking to us was the fact that throughout the operations we never saw one of our own planes in the air.

On reaching headquarters another painful blow was in store for us. Our trucks had been blown up, and we were forced to walk endless miles through the jungle before taking up another position. Athol and I are now curled up in a trench listening to the bombers flying over. Waves and waves of them flying practically on the tree-tops, and we can’t do anything to stop them.

Just got to lie still an pray that the bombs land a good way off. The one that has landed closest to us has been twenty yards away, and even that made the ground around us tremble, but it is all experience, and we can take it. But we hope that Britain and America do not let us take it in vain, but send every spare plane they get their hands on.

This and other accounts of the day can be read at 230 Battalion – Gemas Road.

Hitler appeals for warm clothing for Eastern Front

German soldiers man an isolated gun position in the in the snow on the Eastern front, December 1941.

Berlin, December 20, 1941

German Volk!

While the German homeland is not directly threatened by the enemy, with the exception of air raids, millions of our soldiers, after a year of the most difficult fighting, confront a numerically and materially far superior enemy at the front. Victories, as never before witnessed in world history, have been secured in battle thanks to the conduct and bravery of officers and men.

The greatest front of all time holds its own and fights from the polar regions to the Black Sea, from the snowfields of Finland to the mountains of the Balkans. And it will do so until the hour of the final destruction of this most dangerous enemy has come again.

If the German Volk wishes to give something to its soldiers at Christmas, then it should give the warmest clothing that it can do without during the war. In peacetime, all this can easily be replaced.

In spite of all the winter equipment prepared by the leadership of the Wehrmacht and its individual branches, every soldier deserves so much more! The homeland can help here! This will show the soldier at the eastern front that the Volksgemeinschaft for which he is fighting is not an empty phrase in National Socialist Germany.

Adolf Hitler

The reality for soldiers on the front line was rather more desperate than this might suggest. The Wehrmacht had hardly prepared at all for a Russian winter, and what material it was sending to the front was held up in overextended supply lines that were now increasingly the subject of Russian counter-attack.

Willy Peter Reese was with the German Army in an isolated railway hut, a forward outpost:

We had our antitank gun, two heavy and three light machine guns, and plenty of ammunition. We slept on hay spread over boxes of bullets and grenades. We had a stove for warmth and a rifle oil lamp for light. But that was pretty much all we had. We burned the fencing and finally the flooring.

For twelve days we lived on potatoes, which we boiled with a little salt. We found some green makhorka to smoke, or we made do with hay. We drank snowmelt. There was no soap, and each of us had just one thin blanket. Tangled hair and beards, black hands, and most of us either festering and frostbitten or eaten alive by lice, scabies, and the inflammations on our legs.

When we went out to do sentry duty, we wrapped ourselves in our threadbare blankets, but our icy feet drove tears of pain and rage to our eyes.

See Willy Peter Reese: A Stranger to Myself.

The Russian winter arrives on the Eastern Front

The German Army Group Centre had been able to resume their advance in winter conditions but much worse was to come.

In mid November the German offensive on Moscow had resumed when the ground had hardened sufficiently for Army Group Centre to move again. For just over a week they continued to advance against ever worsening conditions.

Most units were seriously under strength, weakened by casualties and disease, especially dysentery. Individually men were at a low ebb, physically exhausted by the long campaign. They were in a poor state to cope with the Russian winter and now the temperature began to plummet:

The Russians had a real advantage over us, because they had warm felt boots and quilted uniforms, and we had only our thin overcoats, which did not offer much protection from the cold. The only reason we were ever given for not receiving winter clothing was that we were moving too fast. The reasons given for failure always sound plausible.

Some of our soldiers took felt boots from dead Russian soldiers, but we did not dare risk wearing their heavier quilted jackets for fear of being shot for a Russian. Fortunately, we could pull the flaps of our field caps down to keep our ears from freezing. The men wrapped their blankets about themselves, over their overcoats and caps, and cursed those responsible for not providing us with winter clothing.

The snow blew almost horizontally in blizzards that sometimes lasted all day long, with the wind piercing our faces with a thousand needles. The cold numbed and deadened the human body from the feet up until the whole body was an aching mass of misery. To keep warm, we had to wear every piece of clothing we owned to achieve a layered effect. Each man fought the cold alone, pitting his determination and will against the bitter winter.

We reduced sentry duty to one hour, then to thirty minutes, and finally to fifteen minutes. The cold was, quite simply, a killer; we were all in danger of freezing to death.

See Siegfried Knappe: Soldat – Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949

The Wehrmacht had to improvise whatever winter kit they could, the severe cold dramatically reduced the survival rate for any casualty.

The Wehrmacht’s endless march East

The soldiers of the Wehrmacht often lived off the land and took shelter in whatever was available.

Willy Reese had arrived in Russia after a long train journey. As an ordinary infantry man he still had a long march ahead of him as they continued to head east. His memoirs describe the days in late September before the rains came:

Slowly but irresistibly we moved across the steppe toward the great adventure.

Sun seared. Dust and sweat begrimed our faces, and the march and the road seemed never-ending. Low white-washed cottages stood among fruit trees and wells, all of it lost in infinitude. Women in brightly colored headscarfs stood barefoot on the broad road, beautiful figures among them. We saw hardly any men. We marched.

Our feet swelled up and hurt; our breaths came quicker and shallower till we were allowed to rest. Every night was a relief. I felt an utter stranger in Russia.

We were given a day’s respite, A white village in the midst of apples and poplars took us in. We could wash and sleep, wash our clothes, and fix something to eat with stolen eggs and flour.

There were occasional beautiful simple houses standing in the bare landscape. But mostly they were squat, ugly huts, in which four or six or ten people lived in a single small, low-ceilinged room. They were beam constructions, with daub walls, the cracks stuffed with moss, the inside roughly painted, the outside generally not.

Their roofs were straw. A stamped earthen floor supported the great stove on which the inhabitants slept. Mice rustled in the straw and dust. There was a bench, a table, and occasionally a bed or pallet by the stove.

Underneath it quivered rabbits, pigs, and the vermin that would attack us. Bedbugs bothered us at night, fleas broke our rest, and lice multiplied in pur uniforms. Spiders, flies, wood lice, and cockroaches scuttled over the tables and over our faces and hands. The illumination was provided by an oil lamp.

Sometimes after our arrival, the women would have lit the candle in front of the icon and pulled Bible out of its hiding place and laid it on a little corner table.

See Willy Peter Reese: A Stranger to Myself

Another suicidal Soviet assault

German troops with the MG 34 heavy machine gun in Russia during September 1941.

In the early hours of the 17th September 1941 SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Kurt Meyers SS reconnaissance troops approached Genitschesk [Henichesk] on the approaches to the Crimea in the far south of the Ukraine. Meyer was beginning to feel the effects of the campaign, with mounting losses amongst his officers and men. However these losses were insignificant compared with the numbers that the Soviets were prepared to throw into the battle:

From the steep bank at Genitschesk we could see far to the south over the spit of land and observe all movements. Consequently, I was not a little surprised when the Soviets suddenly attacked us from the south, presenting themselves like targets on a range.

Company after company moved slowly but steadily toward our steep embankment and into certain death or captivity. It was a mystery to me why the Soviet commander was carrying out this attack.

We allowed the enemy infantry to get within about two hundred meters of us before our machine guns reaped a bloody harvest. The result was horrific. Within minutes countless brown dots covered the sparsely grassed area whilst others staggered toward our positions with arms raised.

The Russian mortar emplacements were engaged by the superior fire-power of our 88 mm Flak. By 0900 hours the attack had been called off and the 1./SS-Aufklarungs-Abteilung 1 [SS Reconnaissance Battalion] moved out over the footbridge on a reconnaissance to the south.

My intention was to set up a bridgehead and push on across the narrow strip as far as possible. Unfortunately, that reconnaissance came to a halt after only three kilometers. Field fortifications and coastal batteries emplaced in concrete formed an insurmount- able obstacle and the fire which emanated from them, together with a few bomber attacks, caused some casualties during the night.

At about 2100 hours on 17 September the battalion was relieved by the III./SS-Infanterie-Regiment 1 “Leibstandarte”.

See Grenadiers: The Story of Waffen SS General Kurt "Panzer" Meyer

Training in the jungles of Malaya

Vickers machine gun in Malaya
A demonstration of British troops' preparedness for jungle warfare in Malaya. Men of the Manchester Regiment with a Vickers water cooled machine gun.The reliable Vickers gun dated from the First World War but was used until after 1945.

In military circles the probability of the Japanese extending their aggression in the Far East was well understood. In Thailand British officers were posing as tourists to reconnoiter the region – and were staying in the same hotels as Japanese officers doing exactly the same thing. At least some of the British army in Malaya were becoming familiar with the terrain – as Cecil Brown, a CBS journalist, discovered when he went out on patrol with them for a day:

‘We have the advantage,’ Colonel Moorehead said, ‘of knowing all this territory well. That’s a very great advantage. We are sure the Japs don’t know it because it was only mapped three months ago, and none of these maps has fallen into Japanese hands as yet.

Hunched over, I follow behind the corporal along the meager, cluttered, soggy path tunneled through the jungle bordering the frontier between Malaya and Thailand, territory only recently mapped.

It is twilight in here. An inextricable mass and jumble of palms, gum trees, bamboo, teak and intertwined vines and creepers shut out the midday sun and deny the sky itself.

Every now and then the corporal, grunting and muttering softly, swings his sharp-edged parang to slice a creeper vine yearning for a neck to choke. At every step our feet sink above the ankles into rotted branches and the muck of the jungle floor.

Colonel Moorehead is too far ahead. Now we can no longer even hear him thrashing his way over fallen trees or slapping away at the aerial vines blocking his path.

Dank and steaming – those are the cliches to describe the jungle. In this hodge-podge of nature gone slightly mad, where the British and Japanese will one day fight, it is dank and steaming, all right – nearly asphyxiating. Hardly a whisper of air, and there’s the musty smell of wet places and the piercing scents of decaying matter, animal and vegetable. The sweat pours off our faces and streams down the middle of our backs as though we’re in a downpour.

It is the frightening feeling of inability to find the next breath that’s most alarming in here. That, and the hidden things poised to leap and bite, or claw and gore.

Cecil Brown’s account was published in 1942, when he knew that the very jungle he had toured had been the site of the first contact between the British and Japanese armies later in 1941. See Cecil Brown: Suez to Singapore

The Germans arrive in town

The invasion of Russia meant long marches for the majority of German soldiers.

Many of the images to be found in the Bundesarchiv have very sparse background information. Sometimes there are sequences of images which tell us something. Here we see German troops arrive in a small Russian town for the first time. We do not know what town, we do not know the exact date. We can have a pretty good idea of the fate of the Soviet officials who have been arrested, following the [permalink id=11987 text=”Commissar Order”].

Some soldiers provide cover as the main body of the patrol enters a small Russian town.
The initial search of the town is made cautiously.
German troops search houses for hiding places, as they occupy the town.
Some of the residents of the town are apparently welcoming.
Soviet officials are arrested and marched off, watched by the exhausted patrol.
The last image in the sequence shows the Soviet officials as prisoners under armed guard.

Greek Army push Italian invaders back

Greek Army soldiers advancing against the Italians 1940-1941.
Greek Army soldiers advancing against the Italians 1940-1941.

Mussolini, tired of playing second fiddle to Hitler, had launched his surprise invasion of Greece at the end of October. He intended to occupy Greece very quickly, hoping to emulate the German success in Poland. Such a success would give him the military prestige that he craved for his “Italian Empire”.

It had all gone terribly wrong very quickly. The Greek Army had responded with unexpected vigour, halting the Italians in their tracks. They were far better equipped for the rugged mountains in northern Greece and had a much better understanding of the terrain. The Greek reserves were mobilised within days – and soon they were pushing the Italians back.

Dr Theodore Electris, a 32 reserve Medical officer, had spent just days in uniform. He was to find the rigours of the Army life hard to adjust to. Somehow he managed to maintain his daily diary despite the conditions they were enduring. On the 15th they had all got wet making a river crossing, on the 16th it was another hard climb into the mountains:

November 16, 1940

We woke up very early and marched for 11 hours; now we are getting ready to move again. My clothes are still damp. It is an exhausting march again; we are climbing 1,000 m to the village of Fourka.

Along the way, for the first time, I saw a dead Italian soldier and my hair stood on end. I thought of his parents, his brothers and sisters, his wife, who were all waiting for him while he lay flung on a mountainside in Epirus, to complete the part of the unknown soldier.

It is possible that we might meet the same fate.

Just now my colleague Sites has arrived. He is in charge of the officers’ meals. He came from Fourka to our camp site, Tampouri, near the village of Zouzoulia, with pork chops, potatoes, livers, leeks and bread. I have to stop writing now so I can eat.

Since morning the Italians, who are close by, have been bombing us. I am diverting from the description of the march to add just these few things.

From Kerasovo we split into two units; one went ahead and we lost it. We went down to the village of Fourka and wandered around for two hours. Happily we were not discovered by enemy planes.

Later we learned that we should have gone towards Tampouri. Meanwhile Sites and I ate a can of salmon and leouramana in secret, away from the other soldiers. I felt guilty because they had not eaten anything in 12 hours.

Finally we walked towards Tampouri, where we found the rest of our unit. We set up our tents, beds and blankets. The officers had lentil soup while the rest of the soldiers had one-fourth of a leouramana loaf. Tonight, my sleeping arrangements will be better than last night.

See the recently published (2015) Written on the Knee: A Diary from the Greek-Italian Front of WWII.

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Greek army soldiers
Greek army soldiers in the mountains on the Greek Albanian border.

Japanese Army advances in China

Japanese infantrycross river in China
Soldiers of Imperial Japanese Army 6th Infantry Regiment crossing the Bái hé River during the Battle of Zaoyang-Yichang. The regiment, as the main force of the IJA 3rd Division, was approaching Yíchāng from the north: 8 May 1940

While Europe was preoccupied watching anxiously to see what Hitler’s next move was, the Japanese continued their aggression in China. The war had started in July 1937 and the relative weakness of the Chinese forces had led them to adopt a long term strategy where they traded ‘space for time’. The Chinese National Revolutionary Army allowed the Japanese to advance to locations where their lines of communication where extended and they could be ambushed and encircled. Frustrated by these tactics the Japanese ‘Three Alls’ policy – ‘Kill All, Loot All, Burn All’ led to some appalling atrocities against the civilian Chinese population during this period.