On the Eastern Front Operation Bagration continued to roll on, pushing back the German forces along a front hundreds of miles long. The German Army Group Centre, where nearly half a million men had been in the frontline, had been smashed apart with casualties even greater than the disaster at Stalingrad.
The huge salient pushing into the centre of the German front was now forcing those on the edges to pull back. The retreat fell into a rout in places. Disorganised groups of men without transport and without supplies, were forced to march away across the endless open Russian steppe. Desperate to avoid being taken by the Soviets, they were soon desperate from hunger. Guy Sajer, who fought with the Grossdeutschland Division, was now amongst this horde:
We seemed to tramping along a huge carpet on rollers, which unwound beneath our feet, leaving us always in the same place. How many hours, and days, and nights went by? I can no longer remember. Our groups spread out, and separated. Some stayed where they were, and slept. No order or threat was strong enough to move them. Others – small groups of men – who were particularly strong, or who still had enough food to keep going — went on ahead.
There were also many suicides. I remember two villages stripped of every scrap of food, and more than one massacre. Men were ready to commit murder for a quart of goat’s milk, a few potatoes, a pound of millet. Starving wolves on the run don’t have time to stop and talk. There were still a few human beings left in the wolf pack: soldiers who died to save a can of sour milk — the last reserve of a pair of infants.
Others died at the hands of their fellows for protesting against the savagery produced by famine, or were beaten to death because they were suspected of hiding food. Usually, these men were found to have nothing. There were a few exceptions: an Austrian had his head kicked in, and a few handfuls of crumbled vitamin biscuit were found at the bottom of his sack. He had probably collected them by shaking out the provision sacks of some commissariat which had ceased to exist several weeks before.
Men died for very little — for the possibility of a day’s food. When everything had been eaten, down to the last sprout in the meagre gardens, twelve thousand soldiers stared at the village, which had been abandoned by its terriﬁed inhabitants. Living corpses wandered here and there, staring at the tragic shreds of existence which remained to them.
They stared at the scene of pillage, looking for some understanding of the past which might shed some light on the future. They stayed where they were until dusk.
Then three or four armoured cars from the advancing Russian troops arrived, peppered with machine-gun ﬁre the crowd of men, who didn’t even try to escape, made a half-tum, and left. The desperate, ravening men scattered across the steppe.
Everyone ﬂed, running for the west because the west drew them irresistibly, as the north attracts the needle of a compass. The steppe absorbed and obliterated them, leaving only small, scattered groups tramping toward the Rumanian frontier, which was very close, but still out of sight.
Then we experienced Rumania and its population, which seemed stunned by the sequence of events, by the route of their army, and by the painful disintegration of the Wehrmacht.
Civilian life was in a state of panic, with Rumanian and foreign partisans, daily overflights of foreign planes, raids for food and supplies, and Rumanian prostitutes who ﬂocked around the troops in such numbers that it seemed as if most of the women in Rumania must be prostitutes.
We marched twenty, twenty-ﬁve, even thirty miles a day, pouring with sweat and stunned by disillusion. Our tortured feet were alternately bare in the dust of narrow, twisting roads, then back in our boots, and then naked and bleeding once more. Our hollow stomachs rumbled with hunger.
There were raiding parties, re-formation of units, and a lunatic rabble, whose fringes and surface were skimmed by military police intent on discipline, and as always alert for the possibility of exemplary executions.
The landscape was profoundly romantic, but we had been transformed into ravening wolves, and thought of nothing but food.
In March the Japanese had launched their attack north through Burma and into India. It was a daring move that pushed their assault force deep through the jungle on very extended lines of supply. They hoped to make use of captured British supply bases in order to push on further into India.
Instead the Japanese found themselves fighting isolated battles at Imphal and Kohima, where the British stood their ground and defended their bases against wave after wave of attack. Intense fighting over small scraps of land had characterised both both battles, with fierce engagements at close quarters. The Japanese has exhausted themselves in both battles and were incapable of bringing in further supplies or reinforcements. They had already broken off the battle at Kohima and on the 3rd July they were forced to begin their retreat from Imphal.
In total it is estimated that the Japanese had suffered around 55,000 killed or wounded, they would suffer many more losses as they trekked back across the Arakan mountains to their main lines.
Senior Private Manabu Wada from the Transport section of the Japanese 131st Infantry regiment was one of the minority who survived to make the retreat:
At the beginning of the Imphal Operation the regiment was 3,800 strong. When our general gave the order to withdraw to the east we were reduced to just a few hundreds still alive. Without shelter from the rains, with boots that had rotted and had to be bound with grass, we began to trudge along the deep mud paths carrying our rifles without ammunition, leaning on sticks to support our weak bodies.
Our medical corps men slipped and slid as they carried the sick and wounded on stretchers or supported the ‘walking wounded’. Some of the orderlies were themselves so weak that they fell to the ground again and again until their physical and moral endurance was at an end, so that when a sick man cried out in pain they simply said, ‘If you complain we’ll just let you go, and throw you and the stretcher down the cliff side.’
Icy rain fell mercilessly on us and we lived day and night drenched to the skin and pierced with cold. I remember how we longed for a place, any place at all, where we could take shelter and rest. Once we found a tent in the jungle; inside it were the bodies of six nurses. We had never imagined there would be female victims, especially so far over the Arakan Mountains. Why, we asked one another, had the army not taken the nurses to a place of safety?
In another tent we found the bodies of three soldiers who had killed themselves. How could one ever forget such terrible, distressing sights as the dead nurses, and the soldiers who had taken their own lives? All I could do was to swear to myself that, somehow, I would survive.
Our path to safety lay beyond these Arakan Mountains covered in dense jungle. In the rain, with no place to sit, we took short spells of sleep standing on our feet. The bodies of our comrades who had struggled along the track before us lay all around, rain-sodden and giving off the stench of decomposition. The bones of some bodies were exposed.
Even with the support of our sticks we fell amongst the corpses again and again as we stumbled on rocks and tree roots made bare by the rain and attempted one more step, then one more step in our exhaustion.
Thousands upon thousands of maggots crept out of the bodies lying in streams and were carried away by the fast—flowing waters. Many of the dead soldiers’ bodies were no more than bleached bones. I cannot forget the sight of one corpse lying in a pool of knee-high water; all its flesh and blood had been dissolved by the maggots and the water so that now it was no more than a bleached uniform.
In my thirst I looked for clean water as I struggled to catch up with the division’s remnants. Once I found what I thought to be a spring whose water rippled out of a fissure in the rock. Filling my cupped hands, I was about to drink when I saw maggots oating in them and in disgust I threw it down. It was then that I found it was a stream where ten or more soldiers had come for water and were now no more than bones. Upstream beyond the skeletons I at last found water that I could drink. It was where the water buffalo drank.
We walked and walked endlessly along a road littered with corpses. With almost nothing to eat and our feet aching and legs weary, we used sticks to support ourselves until at last, several days later, I don’t know how many, we reached Tonhe. Although there were three or four houses there we found no villagers and assumed they must be hiding somewhere.
The British were readily able to mobilise a large number of commercial ships, including ferries and paddle steamers, to convey men back to England. These were used in addition to their own destroyers. However a major difficulty was getting the men off the beaches on to these ships. There were very limited facilities for such ships in the harbour of Dunkirk itself – so the call went out for ‘little ships’ – motor launches and the like, which could take the men directly from the beaches to the larger ships offshore. The use of such craft became a central in the propaganda that was later to surround the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’. Nicholas Drew was on one of these craft:
An hour later we were nearing the French coast. Subtly the feeling in the boat changed. There was a nervous tension amongst us; we no longer talked, but stared ahead as if looking [out] for a reef. We were moving up the coast with a stranger miscellany of craft than was ever seen in the most hybrid amateur regatta: destroyers, sloops, trawlers, motorboats, fishing boats, tugs and Dutch schuits. Under the splendid sun they looked like craft of peace journeying upon a gay occasion, but suddenly we knew we were there. Someone said, ‘There they are, the bastards!’ My eyes followed the line of the pointing arm, but I could see nothing; but not for long this blindness.
There were over fifty German planes, I counted them swiftly, surprised to find how easy it was to count them… I imagined that they were bombers with fighter escorts… They were like slow flying gnats in the vast sky, seeming to move deliberately and with a simple purpose towards us, flying very high.
I got a heavy sick feeling right down in the stomach. The bombs dropped out of the cloudless sky. We watched them fall as the planes directed their principal attack upon two destroyers. The destroyers seemed to sit back on their buttocks and spit flames; the harsh cracks of their ack-ack guns were heartening. Then we got the kick from the bombs as their ricochet came up through the sea. Our little boat rocked and lifted high out of the water. One, two, three, four… We waited, counting them and held tight to the gunwale.
The bombers seemed to be dispersing. Our own fighters suddenly appeared. It was quite true, I thought, all that I had read in the newspapers: our pilots really did put the other chaps to flight. Far above us the German formation broke. Some came down in steep dives. From 15,000 or 20,000 feet we computed they were down to 2,000 or 3,000.
One came low, machine-gunning a tug and its towed lifeboats. Then came another. We knew it was coming our way… The rat-a-tat of the bullets sprayed around the stern boats of our little fleet.
The beaches of Dunkirk were still crowded with men trying to find a way out to the ships. Yet the evacuation had already lifted many more men than had been expected and it appeared that the perimeter would hold for a few days yet.
Douglas Chisholm was a despatch rider with the Royal Corps of Signals. He had spent the days leading up to the evacuation reconnoitring routes through the narrow country lanes for convoys of troops:
The sound of gunfire was gradually coming nearer and we seemed to be increasingly inactive, then one day the Major said we had finished our job, we were to destroy the wireless sets and vehicles and make our own way to the beach at Dunkirk. I didn’t fancy walking what seemed quite a way to the smoke cloud, so I rode to the outskirts of the town, then drained the oil out of the engine, set the throttle to high rev’s, kick-started the engine, and set fire to the petrol tank and walked away.
It was evening by the time I got onto the beach, there were groups in trenches dug in the sand, others seemed to be wandering around aimlessly. Some were wading out to sea hoping to get on one of the small boats that came in as close as possible. I took off my boots and hung them round my neck and got to the water’s edge, realised it was low tide and decided to wait until the tide was right in, then I wouldn’t have so far to wade in order to get on a boat.
I walked up and down the beach for a time wondering if I would see anyone I knew, but no luck. There were lorries that had been driven out as far as possible at low tide, so at high tide they formed a jetty which gave easier access to the boats. I made myself a hole and tried to get a few minutes sleep, but air raids on the larger boats waiting well out to sea made it difficult. I watched one raid and was sure I saw one bomb go right down the funnel of a destroyer which seemed to explode in slow motion. When the smoke cleared there was nothing left.
At high tide there were bodies being washed ashore so I gave a hand to drag them above the high tide mark. Two torpedoes suddenly hurtled up the beach, clear of the water, their propellers sending up cascades of sand and water – we backed well away until I suppose the compressed air in their motors ran out, then they just lay there, like a couple of stranded fish.
A rumour went round that we should make our way to the East Mole at dusk, so I thought I’d give it a try. It was dark when I got to the Mole and we were marshalled by a group of sailors into single file and then told to move along, there seemed to be hundreds of French soldiers just standing there watching, it was very eerie.
Once on the mole we realised why we were in single file, great holes had been blown in the concrete and these had been bridged by planks about two feet wide and we could hear the waves about twenty feet below. When we got on a solid piece of mole we were told “wait, make way for wounded”. Some were on foot others on stretchers, when they passed we moved on again. Finally some more sailors helped us on to a slide made from planks and we slid down quite a distance and landed on the deck of a ship, we were told to spread ourselves round the ship.
I got my back against a rail of some sort and sat down. I woke up to the fact that we were moving so dozed off again. I vaguely remember hearing a machine gun on the ship firing, and thought that everything must be under control, so went back to sleep.
At dawn I got up and had a look round and realised that although it was a civvy ship it was manned entirely by the Navy, then I was amazed to find that it was the ship in which I had sailed from Southampton to Le Havre – the “Tynwald”.
I think we docked at Dover and were surprised to see flags and banners waving and women offering us tea and sandwiches. We were hustled quickly on to a train waiting in the docks (we were not a pretty sight!), and off we went. If we went slowly through a station people ran alongside the train offering food and cups of tea, we were puzzled by all the flag waving and cheering, having just been chased out of France.
Extracts from the ‘NAVAL, MILITARY AND AIR SITUATION for the week up to 12 noon May 30th, 1940’ as reported to the War Cabinet:
NAVAL SITUATION. General Review.
THE principal feature of the Naval Situation during the past week has been the evacuation of the B.E.F., which has imposed a heavy strain on our light craft resources and resulted in serious destroyer losses and damage. German M.T.Bs., operating from Dutch ports, have been active.
In the Narvik area naval operations have been considerably impeded by incessant enemy air activity. A reinforcement of four Canadian destroyers is on passage to the United Kingdom. There has been increased enemy minelaying by aircraft.
6. At 4 a .m. on the 28th May, the Belgian Army capitulated on the order of King Leopold. All available small craft, including 27 destroyers, were sent to evacuate our troops from the beaches off Dunkirk, screened by a force of 2 destroyers, 4 corvettes and 7 motor torpedo boats. Fighter aircraft provided further protection. At 6 a.m 5 destroyers succeeded in going alongside the east pier at Dunkirk. By 10 pm. on the 28th 16,500 troops had been landed in England, and 2,500 more were estimated to be on passage.
H.M.S. Windsor was damaged by bombing in the Downs and sustained heavy casualties. H.M.S. Montrose was in collision during the night of the 28th with a vessel towing small boats loaded with troops, and H.M.S. Mackay ran aground but was later refloated. H.M.S. Wakeful was sunk by a torpedo from a motor torpedo boat early in the morning of the 29th. She was returning to England with 630 troops on board. Casualties are not known, but many small craft picked up survivors.
H.M.S. Grafton was torpedoed by an M.T.B. while assisting to pick up survivors from Wakeful, and later sank. There were no troops on board. H.M. Trawler Thomas Bartlett was mined and sank off Calais. H.M. Trawler Thuringia was sunk, probably by a mine, off Nieuport. H.M. Paddle Minesweeper Brighton Belle sank after colliding with a submerged wreck in the Downs. H.M. Drifter Ocean Reward was sunk in collision with S.S. Isle of Thanet while stationed as an examination vessel off Dover. The S.S. Abukir, with the Needham Mission on board, was torpedoed by an M.T.B. and sank 50 miles N.E. of N. Foreland. Thirty-three survivors were picked up by destroyers.
7. On the 29th a number of merchant seamen at Dover refused to take their ships to sea for the evacuation and were replaced by Naval ratings from Chatham. By midnight on the 30th/31st 134,000 troops had been landed. Evacuation is still proceeding. Up to the present 222 warships and 665 other ships have been employed in this operation. Twelve Naval officers and a number of ratings have been sent as a ” beach party ” to Dunkirk, and about 130 small ships, requisitioned from the French, are being sent to Dover…
9. Narvik was captured by Allied troops on the night of the 28th/29th May. Intensive enemy bombing continued throughout the week. Bjerkvik and Lilleborg piers were bombed on the night of the 22nd while troops and stores were being transferred. On the 24th ELM. Destroyers Fame and Firedrake and the French cruiser Milan* were damaged by bombs, and the supply ships Battealco and Mashrobra and four trawlers were beached after being attacked by aircraft. On the 25th H.M. Ships Cairo and Southampton were slightly damaged, the former had her aerials shot away, and the latter was holed by bomb splinters, the Captain, 1 officer and 27 ratings being wounded.
26. During the period under review the main German thrust, which at first was approaching: the sea, changed direction and two armoured divisions swung northwards to attack Boulogne and Calais, both of which were eventually occupied by the enemy. A larger force headed by three armoured divisions struck north-eastwards, their blow falling upon the line St. Omer -Bethune. Both these forces were supported by motorised divisions, which were relieved on the southern front by infantry divisions.
27. The Allied Forces in north-east France and Belgium being thus hemmed in, the conventional German search for a tactical soft spot ensued. Attacks at St. Omer and further south at Carvin having failed to achieve penetration, the pressure was shifted on the 25th May to the eastern face of the Allied salient, where heavy attacks between Menin and Courtrai resulted in breaching the Belgian right flank. Two days later a further attack to the north near Eecloo produced a break on a 10-kilometre front. The determined exploitation of this gap, combined with heavy attacks all along the front north of Courtrai to the sea and assisted by intensive air bombing of forward troops, battery positions and communications, led to the capitulation of the Belgian Army on the morning of the 29th May. The left flank of the B.E.F. and 1st French Army was thus imperilled.
Royal Air Force Operations.
47. Fighter protection in Northern France and covering the withdrawal of the B.E.F. has been afforded largely by squadrons based on this country. This heavy additional commitment has seriously extended Fighter Command, who have flown 320 patrols, involving over two thousand sorties during the week. The majority of this effort has been directed, from aerodromes in Kent, in maintaining regular standing patrols over the Boulogne-Calais-Dunkirk and Lille- Arras areas. Squadrons are employed in rotation and latterly large composite formations have been used. The main enemy air effort has been in support of his land operations in this area, and very heavy and continuous air fighting has resulted. Our fighters have proved exceedingly successful, and, on the afternoon of the 29th May, a squadron of Defiant turret fighters destroyed 40 enemy aircraft in two patrols, without any casualties to themselves, 16 Me. 109’s being shot down in a single attack.
For the full report see: TNA : cab/66/8/15
British photographic reconnaissance techniques were developed rapidly. This is the first successful operational photograph taken at night, using the latest photoflash. Developed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, the 8 inch flash can be seen exploding in the middle of the picture, creating sufficient illumination over a wide area for much detail to be recorded. The picture was taken rom 4,000 feet. See AIR 14/3696. (NB: web photo-reproduction does not do justice to the quality of the original).
A Brigade of British troops had been hurriedly landed at Calais on 22nd and 23rd May the to seek to halt the Germans encirclement from the West towards Dunkirk. Subjected to fierce assaults from a Panzer Division they were forced into ever smaller defensive area, eventually holding out in the 17th century Citadel designed by Vauban. Colonel R.T Holland describes the last hours in the H.Q. :
At 0500 hrs combined British and French H.Q. moved into the vaulted cellar at the north-west corner of the ramparts. The Old Town and Citadel were subjected to an intense dive-bombing air attack from about 0800 hrs to about 0930 hrs.The bombs made no effect on our H.Q. cellar our appreciation of the engineering skill of the great VAUBAN was thus enhanced.
About 1200 hrs I visited H.Q. 1/R.B. at the Gare Maritime, and went on to the wooden pier beyond, where a naval drifter was embarking the last party of wounded to be evacuated to ENGLAND. I handed the captain of the drifter a message tar the War Office giving our situation, and received from him our last message from the War Office, which contained the words “Every hour you hold out helps to save the B.E.F.”
By the morning of 26th Commandant LETELLIER had organised under available officers the hundreds of French Army stragglers, who had gathered in the cellars of the Citadel since 20th. The few British details in the Citadel (A.A.R.A. and Royal Marines) were allotted to the defence of the N.W. corner of the ramparts) the rest of the Citadel perimeter was defended by the French, who put up a stout defence, when the attack on the Citadel came in the afternoon.
The enemy finally forced the south gate. Brig. NICH0LS0N end I and other H.Q. personnel surrendered about 1515 hrs. During the day our troops in the town were gradually driven back to the area of the BOULEVARD DES ALLIES and the GARE MARITIME, not only by the enemy forces advancing through the town, but also by an enemy thrust along the coast from the east. By the evening all units had been forced to surrender.
… I was shortly afterwards marched off with Brig. NICHOLSON to the German Regimental H.Q. in the THEATRE (in the PLACE ALBERT 1ER). On the way a German officer, who passed us, said to Brig. NICHOLSON in French: “Vous avez battu tres courageusement.” The same sentiments were repeated at the German Regimental H.Q. Here, also, a German officer expressed surprise that we had had no artillery.
Royal Marine Bill Balmer had a rather different perspective of the battle. His unit had been sent over from Chatham to man the perimeter line while other troops were evacuated. He was also based in the Citadel:
It had been severely damaged in the fighting which made it ideal for fighting from. It was full of rubbish and the Colour Sergeant Reid accompanying us thought this was ideal, just as long as we didn’t look up or move when the German aircraft flew over our position. The German spotter planes were constantly passing overhead and we used the rubbish to camouflage our position. Colour Sergeant Reid made sure we kept our heads and feet covered at all times and we were warned never to look up at the spotter planes as the white of our faces would have given our positions away.
The other Machine gun team was behind our position to our left. We could hear the machine gun firing but such was the confusion no one told us it was our other team. At one stage No.2 Gun team went forward of our position and were killed.
I myself had a very busy seventy-two hours at Calais before we surrendered to the Germans. No sleep, hardly anything to eat or drink. The pair of us worked a four-hour shift behind the gun but there was little respite for the three days. As soon as I saw any movement I would kick my partner awake and fire the gun. It was his job to reload the gun when necessary. We were sleeping rough because sleeping bags had yet to be issued to fighting troops in those early days.
I saw many horrible sights at Calais. Men were blown to bits by Stuka bombs, artillery fire and mortar fire. The worst scene I saw was No.2 gun team and a rifle section; twelve young men or should I say boys, blown to bits by a Stuka bomb.
Our main task in the Citadel was to cover the railway line crossroads and stop German foot soldiers and vehicles from approaching the harbour. We knew where the Germans were waiting to break through and we were successful in stopping them for the three days.
If the Germans managed to cross the railway lines they would have overwhelmed our troops in the harbour. As soon as we saw any movement on the other side of the railway lines we used five or six round bursts of fire to keep them back.
On Sunday morning at about 8am, Colour Sergeant Reid said to me, ‘I’ve made a cup of tea. And there’s a cup sitting there for you. I will take over the gun’. I stood up and walked over to get the cup of tea. As I stood up I heard a ‘ping’ and thought little of it. The Colour Sergeant said to me later, ‘You were lucky. After you stood up and walked away a bullet hit the gun’. Sure enough the bullet had hit one of the tripod legs. If I had been lying behind the gun the bullet would have caught me between the shoulders.
I never felt anything until we were on the second day of the POW march on Monday evening. A friend asked me, ‘What’s wrong with your putty?’ I looked down and my putty was covered in blood. There was a sliver of shrapnel stuck in the putty and it had worked itself into my leg. I worked out that it must have happened when I stood up from behind the gun to go for a cup of tea on Sunday morning.
The Germans classed that as a wound and without me knowing it word was sent to my mother in Ballymoney that I was wounded in action and captured.
Another account of this fateful day in Calais did not appear until 2016. The memoirs of Lieutenant Philip Pardoe King’s Royal Rifle Corps ‘From Calais to Colditz’ was one of my featured books of the year and I was pleased to add another account of the action that day:
Here and there a Verey light was red into the air such as we had seen on the first morning patrol. The forward troops were signalling to their gunners who usually replied by plastering our positions more heavily than ever with their mortars. The nauseating smell of explosives permeated the air. Despite the noise and discomfort, the sand in my clothing, cracked lips and scraped hands, I found time for a short sleep.
Meanwhile the situation for the British Expeditionary Force was becoming increasingly precarious. The evacuation from Dunkirk was just getting under way but there were still many troops who were a long way inland. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were amongst them:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Sunday May 26th
Still fairly quiet this morning. 10 Pl took up positions in house and factory on main road and canal, just beside “D” Company. Very good French M.G. Platoon. French Infantry on our right but did not see much of them.
Things livened up towards midday. French seem to have gone on right. Am told Worcesters have taken their place but continually failed to get in touch with them. Enemy through on our right, 1 sec of Worcesters back on our rt hand platoon Enemy in view out of wood, but withdrew under French M.G. fire. Very pleasant Fr officer in charge of M.G.s but he is rather worried about the situation, so am I.
Great difficulty in getting into communication with Bn H.Q. but finally learn that “A” Coy are to C/a [Counter Attack] on our right. Hear them going in this morning, but with what results do not now. Lot of shelling.
The Church steeple came down today, several men from 10 Pl wounded and L/c Graham badly so. Got them all away. Buoyed up with very hopeful news of unspecified nature from Tony acting adjutant.
[Entry No.18, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]
Ordinary Germans faced a dilemma. Many could see by now that the war was at an end and wanted to surrender as quickly as possible. Yet dedicated Nazis remained in power and were readily hanging or shooting anyone even suspected of ‘defeatism’.
Journalist Ursula von Kardorff had finally left Berlin at the end February and had eventually reached the ‘picture book’ German village of Jettingen, near Ulm. She was staying at the village Inn close to friends who lived in the village. Now they knew that the US Army was approaching and wanted to avoid the village becoming part of the frontline. It would not be easy:
24 April 1945
I was almost thrown out of my bed at the Eagle by shells bursting outside. A German company has moved into position with heavy mortars on the edge of the wood opposite the Wetzels’ house. The thing which the village feared so much has happened. Perhaps there will be a battle here. Burklin’s driver has dug a slit-trench for us all.
Just now a woman came rushing into the garden. ‘They’ve got to the station and there’s a white ﬂag on the church!’ We went up to the attic with the Wetzels and ourselves hoisted a white sheet. Then I cycled through the village on one of the army bicycles which Burklin brought in his truck for his driver and himself. Everyone was excited and smiling. The village crier was ringing his bell and announcing that anybody who resisted would be shot. This is perfectly right, but depressing, all the same.
A Frenchman shouted, ‘Alors, la grande nation, elle met le drapeau blanc?’ ‘What do you expect?’ I answered. ‘C’est ce qu’il faut.’
[“So, the great nation, it puts up the white flag?”What do you expect? “I answered. ‘That’s what it takes.’]
Distant gunﬁre and dull explosions. We are sitting in the Wetzels’ parlour, Burklin, his rather crusty driver, Barchen, deadly pale, and I. I am spending the night on the sofa here, because I am frightened of being alone at the Eagle. I could almost cry – Barchen is crying. But I am too stunned, I suppose.
Here come our new masters. Shall we never be free?
Frau Wetzel has just come in. ‘We cheered too soon. We have to take the ﬂags down.’
The parson, the mayor, the policeman and the Ortsgruppenleiter have been arrested by the SS and taken away. The SS are now our most dangerous enemies, worse than the Americans who are overrunning us.
I am alone in the Wetzels’ parlour. An aircraft hums somewhere overhead and the guns are ﬁring in the dis- tance. Frau Wetzel came tottering in, saying that she did not want to be shot in her nightdress. Her husband came down too and is making coffee.
I have just been outside. A clear, starry sky. What extra-ordinary people the Germans are, to go on killing one another up to the very last minute and to destroy their country with their own hands.
We were told that the SS man had accused the mayor of cowardice because he had hoisted a white ﬂag. He told him to get up against a wall and was going to shoot him, but then he changed his mind and took him, the Ortsgruppenleiter, the policeman and the parson off to another village. When they got there somebody suddenly shouted, ‘Here come the tanks!’ and they let all four of them go. They came back white as sheets.
In Europe the western Allies were on the banks of the Rhine, preparing for the last major push into Germany. In the east the Red Army was at the Oder, the last natural barrier on the eastern borders of Germany. The German situation was untenable, yet somehow the Nazis found the means and the motivation to carry on fighting.
Erik Wallin was a Swedish volunteer in the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division ‘Nordland’ which was mainly composed of men from Denmark Sweden and Norway. They had been involved in a fighting retreat westwards since the beginning of the year, until they held the Stettin bridgehead on the east side of the River Oder, :
The retreat and occupation of the new positions was not followed by the combat pause we so badly needed. In an unchangeable, implacable onslaught the Russian artillery hammered on with its shells. Explosive bullets whistled uninterruptedly with devastating results. The struggle had changed character. Previously it had raged over fields and groves and through separate small villages. But now it rolled from house to house, from street to street.
The circle around the defenders of Altdamm was increasingly tightened. Everywhere Red Army soldiers swarmed forward and were shot to pieces. But they were followed by new waves. This yellow-brown throng was like a lemming migration. They fell in drifts.
But over the corpses came new masses that raged without interruption, and without any sign of weakening. They waited around corners while the artillery, or the tanks, shot a defence ‘nest’ in a house to pieces. Then they rushed forth over the street, down into cellars, upstairs, and took the whole house, then on to the next. Was there no limit to their numbers?
Against this avalanche stood a fragile wall of completely exhausted men who were in mortal danger. They were SS men whose numbers shrank alarmingly day by day, even minute by minute. With the bitterness that characterised house-to-house fighting every man held out to the uttermost.
The lightly wounded only gave themselves time to get a bandage at the nearest first-aid station, before returning to their combat positions. Every single man who still had the strength to keep himself up and handle a weapon fought with a fury that I had never seen before.
But our fighting strength grew weaker and weaker. More and more men were brought back bloody and torn, never to return, and no reserves came to fill the ranks. Only a thin line of hardened, determined veterans remained. They were hungry, deathly tired, bloody, many with bandaged arms or heads, unshaven, black from soot and smoke, mud and lime-dust, with uniforms torn to pieces.
They felt their strength weaken but still determinedly clung to their weapons and aimed them with dev- astating effect against the seemingly endless assaulting forces. After three days of furious fighting from house to house, orders finally came, on 20 March, to retreat over the Oder bridge. The situation had become very dangerous.
The Red Army brought their main forces from the south, up along the banks of the Oder, to reach the bridge and with that, catch us in the bridgehead, as in a sack. In the afternoon, as the order reached us, we had managed to advance to a distance of only 300 metres, from the street that continued out on the bridge, our only way back.
With superhuman effort the rest of our Division managed to stop their advance for some hours, and as darkness fell, the retreat started. By then the Bolsheviks had had time to correct the fire of their anti-tank guns against this most important street.
It became a case of ‘running the gauntlet,’ because their observers could see the flames from the exhaust pipes of our vehicles, as We clat- tered and rumbled at full speed towards the bridge. They aimed their guns at the flashes. For the crews in our vehicles it was many minutes of unbearable stress, driving through the danger area and over the bridge, until they reached the slightly safer Stettin side. But everything went comparatively well and the bridge was not blown up until the last men of the rearguard had crossed over.
The bridgehead at Stettin was a piece of German land drenched with blood, where some of the German fighting forces’ best divisions desper- ately defended themselves against a wild assault by whole armies. But they had completed the task. The bridgehead had disappeared.
Where the fighting had raged, fallen Russians were lying by the thousands. Complete divisions of Stalin’s élite had been brought there. But then they were annihilated in the furious defensive fire from exhausted, shredded, dirty but steadfast, ‘field grey’ men.
Thousands of these brave farmers’ sons, factory workers and young students, youth from all classes of society, had been left over there in the roaring, burning inferno, but it had cost the enemy a high price. Was this fight against the cruel, savage giant of the east the last battle, the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ of which the folks of our old Nordic faith had spoken? The Russian power of attack had petered out, the assault divisions were no more, and it took time to bring forward new forces.
As the war turned against Hitler he began issuing orders for “scorched earth” retreats. Everything that might be of value to the enemy in territory that they recovered was to be destroyed, either blown up or burnt. Large swathes of the Soviet Union had suffered as a result. Warsaw had been reduced to a pile of ashes. Hitler’s orders to blow up and burn Paris had not been carried out.
Now he began to prepare for the destruction of Germany itself in the same way.
The Armaments Minister, Albert Speer approached Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff:
At this time Speer, whose attitude towards the course of events was becoming one of increasing scepticism, came to see me. He brought me the information that Hitler intended to arrange for the destruction of all factories, water and electrical installations, railways and bridges before they should fall into enemy hands. Speer rightly pointed out that such a crazy deed must result in mass misery and death to the population of Germany on a scale never before seen in history. He asked for my help in ensuring that no such order be carried out.
On the 18th March Speer tried to prevent the situation by submitting a memorandum to Hitler:
It must be established that, in the event of the battles moving further into German territory, nobody is entitled to destroy industrial installations, mining installations, electrical and other utility works, communication facilities, or inland waterways.
A destruction of bridges on the scale at present envisaged would do more damage to our communications network than all the air raids of the past years. Their destruction implies the elimination of all chance of survival for the German people…
We have no right, at this stage of the war, to order demolitions which would affect the future existence of the German people. If the enemy has decided to destroy this nation, which has fought with unparalleled bravery, then the enemy must bear the guilt before history for such a deed.
It is our duty to leave the German nation all possible facilities which will enable that nation to re- arise at some time in the distant future.
However, according to General Guderian, Hitler was not even prepared to meet Speer to discuss the matter any further. He became enraged and declared, as he was to repeat to others over the following weeks:
If the war should be lost, then the nation, too, will be lost. That would be the nation’s unalterable fate. There is no need to consider the basic requirements that a people needs in order to continue to live a primitive life.
On the contrary, it is better ourselves to destroy such things, for this nation will have proved itself the weaker and the future will belong exclusively to the stronger Eastern nation. Those who remain alive after the battles are over are in any case only inferior persons, since the best have fallen.
Speer’s memorandum had achieved nothing and may even have made Hitler even more resolute in his attitude. On the following day Hitler issued his infamous ‘Nero Order’
It is a mistake to think that transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, which have not been destroyed, or have only been temporarily put out of action, can be used again for our own ends when the lost territory has been recovered. The enemy will leave us nothing but scorched earth when he withdraws, without paying the slightest regard to the population. I therefore order:
“1) All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.
Ultimately Speer and others were able to frustrate much of Hitler’s intentions by not implementing his instructions and by such measures as not releasing industrial explosives to those who would have followed the orders.
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.
We ran down the middle of the bridge, shouting as we went. I didn’t stop because I knew that if I kept moving they couldn’t hit me. My men were in squad column and not one of them was hit. We took cover in some bomb craters. Then we just sat and waited for others to come. That’s the way it was.
Having broken through the Siegfried line the Allies were now making unexpectedly swift advances into Germany as the defences crumbled. They knew however that a major barrier awaited them. The Rhine river is the natural defensive feature on Germany’s borders. It was here that Hitler was planning to make his last stand – every bridge was to be blown up and the eastern bank defended in depth. And it was to cross the Rhine that the Allies were preparing an amphibious and airborne assault second only to the Normandy invasion.
On the 7th March 1945 a small US Army reconnaissance unit came within sight of the Rhine at Remagen, surprised to find the railway bridge across still intact. An assault was swiftly organised. Everett Holles, an NBC Radio war correspondent spoke to those who made the attack:
On beyond the four towers of the Apollinariskirche that glistened in a light drizzle of rain they saw Remagen’s 400-yard-long, three-span bridge across the Rhine. The bridge ran to the village of Erpel on the east bank and across it lay two railroad tracks. Other American forces had come up against the same sort of thing before, but always, as they came to the Rhine crossings, the bridges went up in great explosions before their eyes, set off by German demolition engineers.
Traffic was still moving across the Ludendorf Bridge. On the other side locomotives puffed, awaiting orders to pull out. Lt. Col. Leonard Engemann of Minneapolis, in command of a reconnaissance party, was determined to save this bridge if it was at all possible. So, at 3:50 o’clock, a platoon led by Lieut. Emmett Burrows of New York City, sped down the slope to the bridge entrance.
There was a flurry of shooting as the Germans, taken completely by surprise, scurried about trying to organize a defense. A German gun was knocked out, some German soldiers killed. Then the Yanks, crouching low against machine gun fire coming from the bridge towers, ran out onto the bridge. Just as they stepped on the span, an explosion occurred three-quarters of the way down the bridge. The Germans were setting off demolition charges, and the men thought surely their chance was gone. But no, only slight damage was done. They raced on.
Sgt. Alexander A. Drabik, a tall, lanky former butcher from Holland, Ohio, was the first American across the Rhine, the first invader to reach its east bank since the time of Napoleon. But he wanted all the honors passed on to a young lieutenant of the engineers, John W. Mitchell of Pittsburgh.
‘While we were running across the bridge – and, man, it may have been only 250 yards but it seemed like 250 miles to us – I spotted this lieutenant, standing out there completely exposed to the machine gun fire that was pretty heavy by this time.’
‘He was cutting wires and kicking the German demolition charges off the bridge with his feet! Boy that took plenty of guts. He’s the one who saved the bridge and made the whole thing possible – the kinda guy I’d like to know.’
Soon the bridge was swarming with Americans, while Mitchell, joined now by other engineers, cut and jerked out wires leading to dynamite charges. Gingerly they detached detonators and lifted boxes of explosives from the piers.
Later, from prisoners, the Americans learned that the Germans planned to blow up the span at precisely four o’clock. But the German officer assigned the demolition job was drunk when the American tanks reached Remagen. This officer, a lieutenant, had gone into the town of Eprel as the Yanks approached and spread the word boastfully that ‘the bridge goes up at four o’clock this afternoon’.
German soldiers and civilians, gathering from miles around, were sitting in ‘grandstand’ seats at every vantage point on the east bank, waiting for the spectacular event to come off, when Burrows’ patrol ran onto the bridge – ten minutes before the hour fixed for its destruction. The German lieutenant signaled the plunger down. Two small explosions occurred, but the bridge only shuddered and remained standing. Several of the fuses had been faulty.
1st Army commander Omar Bradley was soon informed, he responded:
Hot dog . . .this will bust ’em wide open. Shove everything you can across!
Soon the bridge was soon the subject of sustained German attempts to blow it up, with Hitler ordering V2 rockets to be fired at as well as bombing and heavy artillery. The US Army brought up the largest single concentration of Anti-Aircraft batteries to successfully defend the bridge over the next 10 days, before it finally collapsed. By this time five divisions had got across the bridge and the bridgehead they established disrupted the German plans for the whole defence of the Rhine.