Discovering the end of German occupation in the East

Soviet soldiers attack in the battle of Poltava. In the background a burning German self-propelled gun. September 1943.
Soviet soldiers attack in the battle of Poltava. In the background a burning German self-propelled gun. September 1943.

Whatever the claims of Manstein of an orderly German withdrawal on the Eastern Front, the Russian, and Ukrainian perspective was rather different. The Red Army was now reoccupying territory that had been under the Nazis for just over two years.

When the Germans had arrived there were some who had welcomed them in place of the communists. The welcome did not last long – they quickly learnt that the Nazi view of the ‘subhuman’ slavs was that they were little more than slaves who could be exploited at will.

The Red Army was rolling back over towns and cities that had been shattered by the war. They soon discovered that they were also liberating a people who had been equally shattered by the occupation. Journalist Vassily Grossman, travelling with the Soviet Army, put a human face on what they now discovered:

Old men, when they hear Russian words, run to meet the troops and weep silently, unable to utter a word. Old peasant women say with a quiet surprise: ‘We thought we would sing and laugh when we saw our army, but there’s so much grief in our hearts, that tears are falling.’

When our troops enter a village, and the cannonade shakes the air, geese take off and, flapping their wings, fly heavily over the roofs. People emerge from the forest, from tall weeds, from marshes overgrown with tall bullrushes.

Every soldier, every officer and every general of the Red Army who had seen the Ukraine in blood and fire, who had heard the true story of what had been happening in the Ukraine during the two years of German rule, understands to the bottom of their souls that there are only two sacred words left to us. One of them is ‘love’ the other one is ‘revenge’.

In these villages, the Germans used to relieve themselves in the halls and on the doorsteps, in the front gardens, in front of the windows of houses. They were not ashamed of girls and old women.

While eating, they disturbed the peace, laughing loudly. They put their hands into dishes they were sharing with their comrades, and tore boiled meat with their fingers. They walked naked around the houses, unashamed in front of the peasants, and they quarrelled and fought about petty things. Their gluttony, their ability to eat twenty eggs in one go, or a kilo of honey, a huge bowl of smetana, provoked contempt in the peasants …

Germans who had been withdrawn to the rear villages were searching for food from morning till night. They ate, drank alcohol and played cards. According to what prisoners said and [what was written in] letters found on dead German soldiers, the Germans considered themselves the representatives of a higher race forced to live in savage villages. They thought that in the wild eastern steppes one could throw culture aside.

‘Oh, that’s real culture,’ I heard dozens of people say. ‘And they used to say that Germans were cultivated people.’

On a windy and overcast morning, we met a boy on the edge of the village of Tarasevichi, by the Dnepr. He looked about thirteen to fourteen years old. The boy was extremely thin, his sallow skin was tight on his cheekbones, large bumps protruded on his skull. His lips were dirty, pale, like a dead man’s who had fallen face flat on the ground.

His eyes were looking in a tired way, there was neither joy nor sadness in them. They are so frightening, these old, tired, lifeless eyes of children. ‘Where is your father?’ ‘Killed,’ he answered. ‘And mother?’ ‘She died.’ ‘Have you got brothers or sisters?’ ‘A sister. They took her to Germany.’ ‘Have you got any relatives?’ ‘No, they were all burned in a partisan village.’

And he walked into a potato field, his feet bare and black from the mud, straightening the rags of his torn shirt.

But as the re-occupation of the Ukraine and the rest of Soviet Russia continued even worse stories would emerge.

See A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945

An elderly resident of a village burned down by Germans sitting by the ruins of his house. Ukraine, Region Tschernigow
An elderly resident of a village burned down by Germans sitting by the ruins of his house. Ukraine, Region Tschernigow

Germans turn against former Allies and Italian civilians

A Sherman tank loaded with infantry is cheered by local people as it passes through Salerno, 10 September 1943.
A Sherman tank loaded with infantry is cheered by local people as it passes through Salerno, 10 September 1943.
Operation Avalanche): On 10 September, British troops entered the town of Salerno. Infantry are seen moving through the streets.
Operation Avalanche): On 10 September, British troops entered the town of Salerno. Infantry are seen moving through the streets.

The Italian surrender had not come as a complete surprise to the Germans and they moved swiftly to neutralise the Italian armed forces wherever possible. These were awkward and uncertain days for the Italians and particularly for their armed forces. At best they were disarmed and humiliated, at worst some units were massacred at the hands of the Germans.

For the Italian population in general the Germans were now revealed as an army of occupation with a complete disregard for their former hosts, capable of the most brutal action against those who did not co-operate with them. It was to be a long and bitter episode in Italian history. The signs were there right from the start.

Don Whitehead was amongst a group of US journalists who distinguished themselves by operating as close as possible to the front lines:

Salerno , Italy , September 10

German soldiers rode through the streets of Salerno machine gunning civilians and Italian soldiers as well before they were finally driven out of the city this afternoon in the second day of bitter fighting on this northernmost sector of the Allied invasion front.

Against desperate opposition, the Allied troops slowly deepened their invasion bridgehead.

Weeping women, who said the Germans robbed them of all of their food two days ago, gave our troops the same sort of riotous welcome they received when they entered the towns of Sicily. Even while machine guns rattled at the edge of the city and shells burst nearby, people came from their houses to greet the troops.

The mayor, Fascist leaders and wealthier people fled when the Allies began the invasion. Those who greeted us were the poor people who had no means of transport or money with which to get out of the danger zone.

So they stayed in shelters while the Germans stripped their homes of silver, linen, food, wine, and anything else of value they could find. The people cheered the troops as their liberators and they were bitter toward their former Allies. Unarmed Italian soldiers wandered about the streets or gathered to talk with British Tommies and exchange souvenirs.

I entered the city this afternoon from the flagship of the American rear admiral commanding the naval task force …

[Don Whitehead accompanied U.S. members of the Allied Military Government, including Captain Augustine Riolo from New York, who began to establish a civilian administration]

The people lived in terror the last two days as the Germans looted homes and stores, dynamited water mains, stole all the food, and confiscated all ve- hicles and gasoline.

“The Germans machine gunned civilians walking down the streets.” Capt. Riolo said, “and they cleaned out the town. These people haven’t eaten for two days, and they are looking to us to take care of them.”

An Italian colonel said the situation in Naples was desperate with the Germans pillaging the city and threatening destruction of Italian troops whose ammunition is running low. The civil authority has broken down completely, and Naples has become a virtual battlefield.

With the armistice, Italian naval and army officers with a few minor exceptions appeared to be giving full co-operation to the Allies and willingly turning against their one-time ally.

In some cases it was reported the Germans were forcing Italian units to continue the fight, machine gunning them if they resisted. Capt. Riolo said, “They expected us to land in this area because of the heavy bombings and said they were ready to fight with us, but if they were ready to fight they could do nothing after the Germans took their guns and ammunition.” The senior Italian naval officer in charge of Salerno port conferred with the American vice admiral and gave him valuable information on the naval situation including charts of minefields along the coast.

See Don Whitehead: Beachhead Don: Reporting the War from the European Theater: 1942-1945.

(Operation Avalanche): During 10 - 11 September, the strength of German resistance steadily increased. A counter-attack cut the 9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in Battipaglia off from from the main force and required new defences to be created. A gun crew of 267 Battery, 67 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery prepare a 17 pounder Pheasant anti-tank gun for action.
(Operation Avalanche): During 10 – 11 September, the strength of German resistance steadily increased. A counter-attack cut the 9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in Battipaglia off from from the main force and required new defences to be created. A gun crew of 267 Battery, 67 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery prepare a 17 pounder Pheasant anti-tank gun for action.
A PIAT team from 9th Royal Fusiliers in action, 10 September 1943.
A PIAT team from 9th Royal Fusiliers in action, 10 September 1943.

Denmark defies Nazi Martial Law

The German proclamation announcing Martial Law in Denmark as they became increasingly frustrated by lack of co-operation and growing open resistance.
The German proclamation announcing Martial Law in Denmark as they became increasingly frustrated by lack of co-operation and growing open resistance.
German troops on the streets of Denmark, 29th August 1943.
German troops on the streets of Copenhagen, Denmark, 29th August 1943.

The Danish people had attempted to maintain a policy of neutrality and non co-operation since the Nazis had occupied Denmark in April 1940. For a long time they had just managed to evade the worst of the German rule that was felt all around Europe. They were allowed to retain their elected government, even permitted to hold free elections in which the pro Nazi parties won a tiny percentage of the vote.

Yet as the war turned against the Germans and they sought to become increasingly authoritarian, the passive resistance of non cooperation was becoming increasingly open and active. There were strikes and street demonstrations during the summer of 1943.

On the night of 28th August German troopships arrived in Copenhagen. In the early hours of the 29th the German military authorities declared they were taking over the country:

The past events have shown that the Danish government is unable to maintain order in Denmark. Enemy agents have caused unrest directed against the German Wehrmacht. I proclaim therefore an …. Immediate emergency in Denmark.

With immediate effect I have ordered the following ….

Every strike is prohibited. Invitation to strike at the expense of the German Wehrmacht promotes the enemy and will be punished usually by death. Violation of the above rules will be punished by the German state courts.

Against any violence, the gathering of crowds etc. ruthless use will be made of weapons ….

However their actions were to some extent anticipated, the Danish Navy ordered the scuttling of their ships to prevent them falling into the hands of the Germans. It was not as dramatic the damage to the French Fleet at Toulon, but a symbolic demonstration of which side the Danes stood.

The passive resistance was to have important consequences. As the Germans attempted to enforce their laws they sought to round up the small Jewish population in Denmark. A lack of co-operation from the remaining Danish authorities and, significantly, from the general population meant that only a few hundred were detained out of a population of around 7,800. The remainder were spirited away across the water to neutral Sweden. The Jewish population of Denmark was to survive better than in any other country under Nazi domination.

Danish officers are detained by the Germans on 29 August 1943
Danish officers are detained by the Germans on 29 August 1943
The Danish ship Peder Skram, scuttled by the Danish Navy to prevent her falling into the hands of the Germans.
The Danish ship Peder Skram, scuttled by the Danish Navy to prevent her falling into the hands of the Germans.
Danish ships scuttled in Holmen harbour, Copenhagen.
Danish ships scuttled in Holmen harbour, Copenhagen.

For many more images of the scuttling of the Danish fleet see Danish Naval History.

For more images see Museum of Danish Resistance, many photographs have been posted on Flickr.

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A miraculous release from the Gestapo in Warsaw

Polish farmers killed by German forces in German-occupied Poland, 1943.
Polish farmers killed by German forces in German-occupied Poland, 1943.

The German oppression of the Polish people was all pervasive, dictated as a matter of Nazi policy that wanted Poland wiped from the map. There was no opportunity for Poles to sit on the sidelines even if they had wanted to, they were under direct assault. As the war situation worsened ‘anti-partisan measures’ were intensified, resulting in more and more people taking up arms against the occupying forces. It involved people of all ages.

Julian Eugeniusz Kulski was only thirteen when he was arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw. They had strong suspicions that he was working for the Polish resistance. Kulski denied any knowledge of any such organisation during two weeks of detention and interrogation. The German had continuing suspicions but because of his youth decided to release him. It was almost unprecedented for anyone to be released in these circumstances.

Tuesday (July 13, 1943) morning, I was sitting in my cell in total despair, thinking about my parents whom I was now sure I would never see again. But the ‘Kapo,’ the criminal trustee, suddenly called to me, ‘You are being set free.’
He gave me my release card. I just could not believe it!

But I was the only one who was silent. From the gloomy corners of the cell, sad jealous eyes looked at me and I heard everyone saying that I was lucky. The rule of the Pawiak prison is that the innocent go to Auschwitz, the guilty before a firing squad. Being released is almost unheard of.

Half an hour later I was sitting in the prison van on the way to Szucha Avenue.

Three pretty girls, their heads erect, were sitting by me in the van. Their quiet dignity caught my attention. I started to share my joy with them, but they told me that they were to be executed. The Germans had found out that they belonged to the Underground Army. They were Krystyna (16), Barbara (17) and Irena (20).

They told me about their fate so simply and openly that I did not know how to reply. Finally, I shook hands with each of them, and in this way paid tribute to their bravery. As a good-bye, they asked me to say a prayer for them in church.

Back at Szucha Avenue, I was put into the ‘sanitorium’ waiting room again. A man sitting near me had a face which one could call neither human nor animal. His jaw and cheekbones were all out of place and covered with coagulated blood. In place of his right eye was a raw wound. I could only wonder how he was still alive.

A lady of about thirty years of age was sitting on the next chair, quietly discussing with a companion the tortures she had gone through. She was talking about them in a strangely matter-of-fact way, her arms crossed over bandages where her breasts used to be. She said she had been told that she would be put on the rack sometime the next day, and implied that she hoped everything would end at last.

These people who, for their country or their faith, were suffering torture and death so bravely made a deep impression on me, and I could not help wondering if I would be so brave if it happened to me.

Julian Kulski left Warsaw for a period to lie low but he remained active in the underground resistance and was back in Warsaw by the time of the uprising the following summer.

See Julian Engeniusz Kulski: Dying, we live: The personal chronicle of a young freedom fighter in Warsaw (1939-1945). For more on Julian Kulski see Warsaw Uprising.

Action Saybusch (Polish: Akcja Żywiec), the mass expulsion of 20,000 Poles from the territory of Żywiec County, performed by the Wehrmacht and German police during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II.
Action Saybusch (Polish: Akcja Żywiec), the mass expulsion of 20,000 Poles from the territory of Żywiec County, performed by the Wehrmacht and German police during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II.

French resistance leader Jean Moulin captured

The Germans were attempting to understand the structure of the French Resistance. A German document from May 1943.
The Germans were attempting to understand the structure of the French Resistance. A German document from May 1943.
National Hero and Leader of the French Resistance, Jean Moulin.
National Hero and Leader of the French Resistance, Jean Moulin.

The world of undercover life in France during the Nazi occupation was full of threats. Both members of the French Resistance and the agents of the Special Operations Executive who sought to support them faced the most fearsome torture if they fell into the hands of the Gestapo. The Germans were hunting them down and there was treachery within the ranks from some members who had been compromised by the Nazis.

The French Resistance had been formed from many different groups with many different political allegiances and objectives. One man who played a critical role in uniting them into a disciplined force was Jean Moulin. After imprisonment by the Nazis he had fled to Britain where he had met de Gaulle. He then parachuted back into France and spent 1942 meeting the different affiliations and bringing them together. After another visit to Britain he was back in France in the spring of 1943 to redouble his efforts:

The Resistance was gaining in strength; fugitives from the forced labour draft would soon be taking to the maquis. The Gestapo was growing stronger too, and the Milice were everywhere. It was a time when, out in the countryside, we listened tensely to the barking of dogs in the depths of the night; a time when multi-coloured parachutes, laden with weapons and cigarettes, fell from the sky by the light of flares burning in forest clearings or on windswept plateaus; a time of cellars, and the desperate cries of the torture victims, their voices like those of children… The great battle in the darkness had begun.

On 27 May 1943, the first meeting of the National Council of the Resistance was held in Paris, in the rue du Four.

Jean Moulin restated the aims of Free France: “to prosecute the war; to restore freedom of expression to the French people; to re-establish republican freedoms in a state which incorporates social justice and which possesses a sense of greatness; to work with the Allies on establishing real international collaboration, both economic and social, in a world in which France has regained her prestige.”

Then he read out a message from General de Gaulle, assigning the first Council of the Resistance its primary goal: to maintain the unity of the Resistance it represented.

Each of its members went in daily peril of his life. On 9 June, General Delestraint, commander of the secret army, unified at last, was taken prisoner in Paris.

There was no obvious successor, as so often happens in the secret world. Before the arrival of Serreules, Jean Moulin said on many occasions, “Had I been captured, I would not even have had time to brief a deputy…”. He wanted the appointment of a successor to be made with the agreement of the Resistance movements, particularly those in the south. He was to meet their representatives on 21 June, in Caluire.

They were waiting for him.

So, too, was the Gestapo.

Treason played its part – as did destiny, which made the normally punctual Jean Moulin three quarters of an hour late, only to be matched by the tardiness of the German police. Soon enough, they learned that they had captured the head of the Resistance.

Little good it did them. In the Montluc fort in Lyons, on the day that the Gestapo agent handed him writing materials because torture had left him unable to speak, Jean Moulin sketched a caricature of his torturer. As for what followed, let us turn to the stark words of his sister: “His part was played, and his ordeal began. Jeered at, savagely beaten, his head bleeding, his internal organs ruptured, he attained the limits of human suffering without betraying a single secret, he who knew everything.”

Let us be quite clear that, for the days in which he was still able to speak or write, the fate of the whole Resistance hung on the courage of this one man. As Mademoiselle Moulin put it, he knew everything.

From the memorial speech by André Malraux on the occasion of the Transfer of Jean Moulin’s ashes to the Panthéon

French Resistance has a detailed account of the events of 21 June 1943 and the subsequent interrogations. There remains considerable controversy about who betrayed Moulin and the group.

A record of those arrested on 21 June 1943. Moulin was entered under the name that he gave Jacque Martel, at the bottom of the page.
A record of those arrested on 21 June 1943. Moulin was entered under the name that he gave Jacque Martel, at the bottom of the page.

ALSO IN JUNE 1943 – AN SOE AGENT IN PARIS

This excerpt describes the experience of SOE Agent John Goldsmith, who was living undercover in Paris in mid 1943:

As the list of arrests and ‘blown’ circuits grew, I redoubled my precautions.

Sometimes danger threatened from the quarter where it was least expected. One night in the early summer I was travelling by train near Clermont-Ferrand when an air-raid or some trouble on the line forced it to stop. It halted in open country for more than an hour and, as it had been made quite plain that it would be some time before it got moving again, I got out to stretch my legs. All sorts of people, German and French, were climbing down and doing the same.

Unbelievably I bumped into someone in the gloom and recognized Brian Rafferty, a dare-devil young Irishman whom I had met in England. He was working a sabotage group in the area and operated under the code-name Dominique. Without thinking he laughed and said in English, ‘Fancy meeting you here … ’, and he continued to talk in English. In heated French I told him to shut up and stop playing the bloody fool, walked away and made sure that I was nowhere near him when we set off again.

Not long afterwards Rafferty was picked up in Clermont-Ferrand because, it was reported, he had been too casual about a conversation (this time in French) in a café. One report said he had been heard to say he was looking forward to a moonlight operation. Whatever the reason was, Rafferty paid with his life. He spent two years in concentration camps before being shot a couple of months before the war ended.

Being a secret agent could be terribly boring at times. You might spend six weeks hanging about, trying to be inconspicuous, just for the sake of an hour’s work which, if it went according to plan, was not very exciting in any case. You had to be on the right spot at the right time, available and in contact with your superiors up to the moment of action.

In between times there was the simple question to be faced of making yourself scarce. You had to eat somewhere, sleep somewhere and occasionally you felt a desperate need to talk to someone, even though you were aware that to do so could be dangerous, if not fatal. Boredom was, in fact, a menace that no one was taught to contend with at the training school. Boredom was something individuals had to deal with themselves, and it cost quite a few men and women their lives when they came up with the wrong solution.

The most insidious thing about it was that it induced a sense of security at just the moment when one should have been alert for surprise moves by the enemy. I learned this to my cost during a gloriously sunny spell in Paris in June 1943.

Having contacted Lejeune I was obliged to wait for a courier to pass on a message to Lyons that I would be somewhat later in returning than I had anticipated — there were some minor snags I had to iron out – and that meant kicking my heels for a while.

It was strange and irritating being an outcast in the place of my birth, a Paris that was far from what I was used to, a city almost deserted. For a start there was hardly any traffic. If you saw a petrol-driven car it contained either Germans, or collaborators, or some essential user like a doctor.

The ordinary Frenchmen chugged about the boulevards from time to time in weird contraptions with small furnaces at the rear which supplied wood gas to a balloon-like container on the roof. The top-speed of these gazogénes was claimed to be about 30 m.p.h. going downhill with the wind behind them, but even that was an exaggeration.

Anyway, the appearance of even these monstrosities was rare and it was possible to cross the road to the Arc de Triomphe in complete safety. If you were going to be knocked down by anything it was more likely to be a cyclist or a taxi velo. The latter was a primitive substitute for the ordinary cab and consisted of a hefty two-wheel bicycle towing a wickerwork seat for two people. There was no shortage of fares for them, as long as it wasn’t raining, and it was quite customary for couples to make their way even to night-clubs in the velos.

The velo drivers developed leg-muscles as hard as billiard balls. A man has to be pretty fit to cycle all the way up the Champs Elysees towing, perhaps, twenty stone behind him.

Gone with the peace-time traffic jams were the crowds. The café tables which would have been packed on a normal summer’s day had a forlorn look about them. If they boasted more than a handful of people it was wise to avoid them; almost certainly they were patronized by Germans or their sympathizers.

But rationing was the main cause for the empty tables. The French who could afford to spend their money on black market food took it home to cook. They could see no point in allowing a restaurateur to add his charges to the already exorbitant price of food and vegetables.

I confined myself to eating only once or twice a week in a black-market restaurant even though I had no problem with money. It was just a question of not drawing attention to yourself. Big restaurants were places to be avoided. So were hotels.

The Gestapo, and indeed the French police, had a nasty habit of inspecting registers in the early hours of the morning. To a knock on the door an Englishman dreaming of home might easily reply in his own language ‘Yes?’ or ‘Who is it?’ That was not all. If they didn’t like your writing, or if you had an unusual name, you heard a knock on your bedroom door at 6 a.m. and had to answer a lot of questions about what you were doing in Paris and who your friends were. A visit to the local police station followed if you were unable to answer the questions satisfactorily.

Much safer places to spend an undisturbed night were the maisons de passe. One thing the Germans had not closed down were the brothels and they put the maisons de passe more or less on the same level. These were generally crumbling, rather scruffy hotels where a man could take girl for a couple of hours at any time of the day or night with no questions asked.

It was an old French custom and to have instituted systematic searches would have been very impractical, as there were literally hundreds of these establishments. Furthermore, there was no question of the owners of the maisons de passe asking his visitors to sign in. And so you were safe, or as safe as anything could be for an agent. You could book a room, say you were expecting mademoiselle, and as there was a constant flow of females no one had any reason to disbelieve you, and put up your feet for a few hours.

John Goldsmith’s wartime exploits are all the more remarkable considering that at first his services were consistently refused due to his being over 30. Not easily deterred he eventually became a tank driving instructor in the ranks. In 1942 accidental circumstances saw his recruitment into Buckmaster’s F Section of the Special Operations Executive. His faultless French and upbringing in Paris were to prove invaluable.

Commissioned overnight and after intensive training he was parachuted into France for the first of his three missions. His adventures included crossing the Pyrenees, sabotage, forming his own circuits, being captured by the Gestapo, a daring escape and black-marketeering. In 1944, now a Major, he was advisor to the Maquis in the Mont Ventoux area where they fought the Germans in pitched battles and won.

Although this refreshingly modest account does not admit to it, Goldsmith’s extraordinary war is best summed up by his DSO, MC, three Croix de Guerre and Legion d’honneur. Accidental Agent is as thrilling an account of war behind enemy lines as has ever been written.The author’s descriptions of his experiences and the many colourful characters he came across are a joy to read.

Germans step up persecution of Polish civilians

‘Let’s do agricultural work in Germany. Report immediately to your Vogt’. A German propaganda poster aimed at the Polish population – very few went voluntarily to Germany.

Quite apart from the Nazi organised mass murder of the Jews in Poland, the ordinary Polish citizen was subjected to widespread casual persecution which often proved fatal. Poland was erased from the map, the western part absorbed in ‘Greater Germany’, the easternmost part forming part of the ‘Eastern territories’. What remained was simply known as the ‘General Government area’. As many as 3 million Poles would die at the hands of the Nazis.

In eastern Poland Zygmunt Klukowski, a doctor at the local hospital, was keeping a diary recording the various measures taken against the local population. He had already seen the Jews hunted down and either shot locally or deported on trains.

Now increasingly restrictive measure were being taken against the local population. The shortage of manpower in Germany meant that thousands of Poles were being rounded up to be sent to work in armaments and construction. To make way for ‘German settlers’ – ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union – whole villages were being ‘evacuated’ so that they could have new homes closer to Germany.

Bands of people were wandering around the countryside trying to avoid the Germans. More and more Poles were moving to the forests to join the Partisans. There was little room for women and children who sooner or later were rounded up and sent off to Germany. Klukowski knew that families who moved into the forests lived in desperate conditions and that many children would not survive the harsh winter.

The more active the partisans became the more brutal the the retaliatory action from the German occupying powers.

December 5

For the last two days the Germans were attempting to catch young people here. Firemen are being used for this dirty work. The firemen go from house to house checking everyone’s ID, looking for people with labor bureau cards. So far about 50 people have been detained, but the quota is 250, so they still have far to go to fulfill it.

Today there was a raid against Pawlowski and Dawid in Brody. At the same time the German teacher was attacked. Increased Gestapo action is a direct result of these incidents.

Today soldiers began evacuating the villages of Ploski and Zawada, and they finished Wielacz.

People here are in a panic. They move from place to place, sleep completely clothed, and wait for the gendarmes to come. In Szczebrzeszyn the only topic of discussion is future evacuation.

A new announcement was posted in town regarding the sabotage of railroads. The railroad lines were divided into sectors. Each sector was given to a nearby village for security. If any sabotage takes place, the villages in charge of guarding that sector will be punished. In other words, several hostages will be executed.

Anyone who comes to our region must report to the police station no longer than twelve hours after arriving.

See Klukowski: Diary from the Years of Occupation

Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of occupied Poland. Poles were seen as a source of labour for the Germans, not needing any more than an elementary education. In 1940 he had claimed: “In Prague, big red posters were put up on which one could read that seven Czechs had been shot today. I said to myself, ‘If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper'”

Berliners learn to accommodate the Red Army

View of ruined buildings in Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin, taken from the second floor of the Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium).
View of ruined buildings in Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin, taken from the second floor of the Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium).
An aerial (oblique) photograph taken from a De Havilland Mosquito of the RAF Film and Photographic Unit showing badly damaged buildings in the area between Friedrich Hain and Lichtenberg, Berlin.
An aerial (oblique) photograph taken from a De Havilland Mosquito of the RAF Film and Photographic Unit showing badly damaged buildings in the area between Friedrich Hain and Lichtenberg, Berlin.

The reality of the Soviet occupation of Germany now became all too apparent. In days and weeks of lawlessness following their victory the Red Army was to indulge in an epic of rape and pillage, much of it officially sanctioned. The Soviet authorities moved swiftly to dismantle and remove whole factories to the East.

Any man who had served in the military, and many who were merely suspected of having done so, were marched off to Russia where they would spend many years labouring to rebuild what had been destroyed. Many would not survive the hardships.

Werner Harz had narrowly avoided being marched off to the east on more than one occasion when his Volkssturm unit disbanded. He escaped and made his way back to his home in Berlin. For him and many others the ordeal of the Soviet occupation was only just beginning:

The atmosphere during the next few days was incredibly complicated and perplexing. We could scarcely realise our joy that the war was over because we had perpetually to be on the watch.The Russians were celebrating everywhere: in our house, in the streets, in the gardens, their victory celebrations lasting night and day for weeks. Unluckily a huge store of wine and spirits had been found just down the road, and an unending stream of keen-eyed soldiers flowed up the street, while on the other side a rolling flood of paralytic conquerors staggered back.

They were mostly from Eastern Russia, with Mongolian faces, Chinese-looking beards and earrings.There were little undersized men from Turkestan and sturdy- looking Siberians.

But one thing they all had in common — an absorbing and childish fascination in domestic gadgets and machinery. My electric radiogram really intrigued them. But having no electric current I found it rather difiicult to explain and as the machine obviously wouldn’t work they showed me their displeasure in no uncertain terms – by smashing it.

They were also fascinated by the water-closet which again, in spite of my rather undignified pantomime, they completely failed to understand. They searched steadily through my library looking for pictures.They sought continually after watches although we had already paid off our share of the reparations with every watch and clock in the place.They played with two cameras and broke them immediately. With deathly calm they took a lovely antique grandfather clock to pieces, and no one has since been able to reassemble it.

The street in front of our house looked like a fairground. Dirt, rubbish, pieces of cars and tanks were strewn everywhere and amidst everything dozens of Russians were riding bicycles — obviously trying this new type of transport for the first time in their lives. They fell to left and right but clambered back again like armless little apes. Some, just able to stay on, began immediately to try acrobatics; others stared proudly at their rows of watches, usually extending up both forearms.Then, when they were tired of it, they let the machines lie where they fell and walked away.

We had to watch like lynxes to prevent our inquiring visitors taking too much away that interested them. And my room was full ofinterest. I found it a matter of some delicacy to persuade a chummy Uzbeker not to demonstrate his prowess with the pistol by shooting the Iphigenia of Tauris illustration out of my Goethe first edition.

One national trait puzzled us. This was the habit of nearly every Russian who came to visit us of relieving nature in various, and to us strange and unusual places. We discovered these faecal visiting cards in every corner, on tables, beds, carpets and one, strangest and most ambitious of all, on the top of a particularly high stove. My own theory that this was the remains of an old superstition which implied than an object be possessed if the owner had stooled on it, did not obtain any general currency. But I still think it a possibility in the absence if any more valid theory.

It was all incredibly tiring. One had to be on one’s toes the minute a soldier came near, and dozens of them came near all the time. Each one had to be conducted through the whole house and couldn’t be trusted alone for a moment. As long as one watched them, kept talking, and treated them as guests, they could be dissuaded from taking away what they wanted, and breaking up what they didn’t. But they were always inspired with awe when they saw my row of books and the pictures on the walls.

The demand for women continued unabated and the unfortunate girls had to stay hidden under the roof for a whole week.We had nothing but admiration for the physical endurance which made the Russians capable of this exercise at all hours of the day or night. Fortunately I had a pornographic book in my library with which I managed to divert them from their more practical excursions in this sphere.

Since the exercise of hospitality took up the major part of our day it was a continual worry to find things to eat and drink. During the early days it was quite simple. Dozens of dead horses were lying in the streets and all one needed was a bucket and a sharp knife. Or it was merely a question of following the looters and joining in the free-for—all fights that were always in progress in the many grocer’s shops and food depots.

This account appears in Louis Hagen (ed): Ein Volk, Ein Reich: Nine Lives Under the Nazis.

British and Russian troops in the garden of the former Reichs Chancellery. The entrance to Hitler's bunker is immediately behind them.
British and Russian troops in the garden of the former Reichs Chancellery. The entrance to Hitler’s bunker is immediately behind them.

Allies come to terms with Germans and Germany

In the crematorium courtyard, U.S. soldiers confront the citizens of Weimar with the corpses found there. This was the first photo of Buchenwald to be published; it appeared in the London Times on April 18, 1945.
In the crematorium courtyard, U.S. soldiers confront the citizens of Weimar with the corpses found there. This was the first photo of Buchenwald to be published; it appeared in the London Times on April 18, 1945.
German civilians loot a train carrying food supplies.
German civilians loot a train carrying food supplies.

As the Allies moved deep into Germany and began to encounter ordinary Germans many men were wondering about the contrast between ‘ordinary’ Germans and the war crimes that they were uncovering. The German population would soon become subject to a programme of de-nazification as the Allies took control of the administration of the country. In the interim period there was great uneasiness about how they should deal with Germans, how many of them were still dedicated Nazis?

Henry Swann a US Army doctor describes the situation in a letter home to his wife:

Apr. 19th

Germany

Darling,

Yesterday we were on the road all day. The country-side was clothed in a filmy haze which softened the bright sun-light. This part of Germany looks like a fairy-land. Little farms, with the apple and pear blossoms framing the red-tiled roofs, set in neat patterns over the gently-rolling green hills, broken here and there by a grove of delicate birch trees, or green pine. What a setting for the tide of human misery which thronged the road-side!

Liberated workers and freed prisoners of war, mostly men, but also many women streamed past us as we rode, like a movie reel. Russians, Poles, Italians, French, Dutch, and Belgians, dressed in scraps of uniforms, patched work-clothes, rags and tatters; carrying little or big bundles, or pushing little wheel-carts; tired and hungry; apathetic, sprawled out under the tress in little groups; trying to get back and away from the front. Many of them seemed dazed, almost uncomprehending. Others, who, no doubt, have not been imprisoned and beaten long enough to have their spirit broken, laughed and waved us on. Here was freedom at last; now remained only the long and perhaps devious way home. But most of them were thin, and old, and weary. They were as people in pain and yet asleep. What a parade of thwarted lives, of physical and spiritual agony, of human bitterness! A trickling column, two hundred miles long.

And past them in big lorries rolled the convoys of German prisoners, going back to their cages to loaf away the remainder of the war, safe and well fed. The prisoners ride, the liberated allies walk. There are good reasons, of course, but war is strange, isn’t it?

In the little farming towns where the war swept by and left them unscathed, the German people go about their business; fat, rosy-cheeked kids play and wave at us, though we wave not at them; women wash and shop, and chat, and watch the kind-hearted, soft Americans go by with scant concern; and saucy girls smile and wiggle just a little at the G.I.’s — girls who last night warmed the bed of an S.S. trooper. (Non-fraternization is more than a policy: – it is a military safeguard. Not a few G.I.’s have followed these Lorelei into their houses, and have met death and oblivion in the dark.) These apparently happy and unconcerned people view the straggling refugees with little interest and no compassion. It is, perhaps, of no importance, for are they not just slaves?

And from these little towns came the men who are paratroopers and gestapo boys. And these people who smile and wave and fly their white flags by day, by night are smuggling arms, concealing escaping prisoners and sniping at any unwary soldier.

The name of the town where now I am located I cannot tell you, of course. [He is referring to Gardelegen – where he was a witness to the aftermath of the massacre] But it will soon burn in the hearts of men along with Lidice and Lublin. The Germans perpetrated here a human massacre so brutal as to defy belief; the evidence is complete and irrefutable; and it chills the heart to see it. There is no human crime of which they are not capable! Some day, you will read the story in the papers; I hope they publish it far and wide, though I admit that although I have seen terrible things in this last year, I myself could scarce have the heart to tell you of it.

And so Germany lies a beautiful, apparently innocent, whore; outside, appealing and disarming; inside, disease-ridden, deceitful, and vicious. In the success of our armies and the prospect of a termination of hostilities in the near future, we have perhaps lost sight of our enemy. But here he is still, – sly, beguiling, arrogant, ambitious, and inhumanly cruel. Let some think that this war is over. It is just beginning! And if we are weak and sentimental now, armies will march again as sure as fate. We must not be fooled by their smiles, their folk-dances, their pretty country-side. We cannot afford another era of phony peace.

We are now with an Evac. which took over a big Nazi hospital. Very comfortable and quite civilian. For the first time in over a year, I have bathroom facilities with hot and cold running water. You probably never think what a luxury it is to be able to turn a handle and have hot water run into a nice clean white basin. One takes it so for granted, until you don’t have it. In Paris and Brussels there was no coal to heat water. Most English homes never had central water heating because of fuel shortage. And in Belgium and Germany, not many pipes carried water of any kind. So we turn it on and off, and wash our hands twice, just to enjoy the luxury of it!

H

The complete collection of Henry Swann’s letters 1944- 1945 can be read at the National Library of Medicine.

A hangar full of wrecked German aircraft at Schmarbeck airfield, Germany, 20 April 1945. In the foreground are Heinkel He 111 and He 177 bombers.
A hangar full of wrecked German aircraft at Schmarbeck airfield, Germany, 20 April 1945. In the foreground are Heinkel He 111 and He 177 bombers.
A Cromwell tank of 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) on the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945.
A Cromwell tank of 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) on the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945.