Falling back in Greece

One morning three bombs landed not twenty yards from the hole we were crouching in, covering us with filth, my tent was torn in three places by jagged pieces of bomb splinters. Forty yards from my tent a huge bomb tore a hole in the ground twenty feet deep and seventy feet wide. After dropping their bombs they fly low and machine-gun us because we have no planes to chase them-off – the sky is THEIRS.

German artillery during the invasion of Greece, 1941

British forces in Libya had been weakened because so many troops had been diverted to support the Greeks. The German invasion of Greece, also to support their Italian allies, was progressing quickly. The simultaneous invasion of Yugoslavia enabled them to outflank the Greek and British forces. Captain K.M. Oliphant was with the 2/3 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery high in the Greek mountains, which he described as ‘making the highlands of Scotland look like a plain’. His personal diary did not manage to keep track of individual days during this period:

News comes that the position on our flanks is not good – we are to withdraw to a stronger line – we are still confident. The withdrawal takes place under cover of the darkness, and we take up our new positions.

It is still snowing. The Germans move down and attack again – here they employ the full weight of their Air Force against us – we suffer their dive bombing and machine gunning and await the arrival of the R.A.F. – we are still confident. Day after day the German Air force bomb and machine gun us – a terrible experience – where is the R.A.F? surely there has been no mismanagement – our confidence is shaken – as we suffer every morning and every evening these terrifying raids – we reach the stage where we long for night and quietness – all day is a nightmare, and the hours of daylight are so long.

No British are in the sky – what has gone wrong?. Men begin to ask ‘Are we to be sacrificed to the German Air Force?’

On land we hurl their attacks back in spite of their overwhelming numbers – but we can’t hold on against their Air Force. One morning three bombs landed not twenty yards from the hole we were crouching in, covering us with filth, my tent was torn in three places by jagged pieces of bomb splinters. Forty yards from my tent a huge bomb tore a hole in the ground twenty feet deep and seventy feet wide. After dropping their bombs they fly low and machine-gun us because we have no planes to chase them-off – the sky is THEIRS.

News comes of a further withdrawal – we ask what has happened – surely not another Dunkirk; – our Unit is allotted the rearguard role – we stand and fight to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the force.

See TNA WO 217/33

Germans and British clash in the desert

The Fusiliers had a most fearsome reputation. The unit was made up of hard, uncompromising men of little polish; they obeyed their own officers but treated anyone else in authority with contempt, particularly base depot personnel. They were the dourest fighters we were to meet in a long day’s march and we were always glad to have them about.

German panzers in the Libyan desert as they prepared to strike against British positions.

Erwin Rommel had arrived in Libya in mid February to take command of German forces that were supposed to work in co-ordination with the Italians. The German High Command expected Rommel to spend some time building up his forces. But with the British diverting many of their best equipped and most experienced troops to Greece Rommel sensed, from his first probing attacks, that the time was ripe for an immediate assault on the British lines.

The first major clashes between the British and the Germans in Libya began at the end of March 1941. L. E. Tutt was with a gun battery near Mersa Brega on the 1st April 1941:

Our battery position was shielded by some low hills. We saw [German] tanks coming over them, wireless aerials with pennants atop like a field full of lancers. They assumed hull-down positions and blasted the thin screen of recovered tanks which were deployed to face them.

The men of the Tower Hamlets went forward to face them in Bren carriers and were virtually destroyed in a matter of minutes; their bravery was unquestioned but they should never have been asked to face such odds.

Both our batteries fired a heavy concentration on the German Mark Ills and some Mark IVs and they were forced to withdraw slightly, but it was only a temporary respite as their infantry moved against the flank exposed by the withdrawal of the Free French.

Fortunately the Northumberland Fusiliers turned up with their heavy machine-guns and plugged the gap, allowing us to withdraw and regroup – otherwise we might have ended our contribution to the war there and then.

The Fusiliers had a most fearsome reputation. The unit was made up of hard, uncompromising men of little polish; they obeyed their own officers but treated anyone else in authority with contempt, particularly base depot personnel. They were the dourest fighters we were to meet in a long day’s march and we were always glad to have them about.

See The Imperial War Museum Book of the Desert War 1940 – 1942

Hard to find images of the Northumberland Fusiliers in the Desert 1941 - but here are their fathers' generation after an engagement with the Germans almost exactly 25 years earlier. Actions of St. Eloi Craters. Troops of the Northumberland Fusiliers, 3rd Division, wearing German helmets and gas masks captured at St. Eloi, 27th March 1916.
Hard to find images of the Northumberland Fusiliers in the Desert 1941 – but here are their fathers’ generation after an engagement with the Germans almost exactly 25 years earlier. Actions of St. Eloi Craters. Troops of the Northumberland Fusiliers, 3rd Division, wearing German helmets and gas masks captured at St. Eloi, 27th March 1916.

British forces enter Italian Eritrea

On the 19th January the first of the 4.5 Batteries went into action and did some very accurate shooting, so vindicating or justifying our ‘fudging and improvisation’. On the same day Italian Savoyas strafed us and we managed to bring one down with rifle fire and one LMG. A newly arrived Hurricane, probably the only one in East Africa, brought down another. Although all a little bit “gung ho”, the South Africans were all a very good crowd but so different from the Army types I had been used to. Discipline was there one assumed, but it wasn’t too obvious.

Indian troops cross the Atbara river with their motor transport on a pontoon raft, as they move into Italian occupied Eritrea.

The Indian troops that had so successfully opened Operation Compass now found themselves fighting an entirely different war in a remote corner of Africa. The 4th Indian Division now joined up with the 5th Indian Division who had already engaged the Italians at Gallabat.

On the 19th January British forces moved across the border from southern Sudan and took the border town of Kassala. The British comprised a variety of forces, some with very improvised equipment. Ken Potter joined the campaign from Kenya, then a British colony, from where he brought a collection of artillery:

In the middle of January I took the workshop up through Nanuki and Isiolo and then on a 200 mile trek through a desert of larva boulders and rocks to Marsabit. At that time Marsabit was just an oasis in the middle of a desert. You suddenly came from an inferno of heat, dust and impassable rocky terrain into a few miles of tall green trees flowing streams, birds – and a local vicar! It was here that with my workshop I was officially attached to the 1st South African Division in the joint capacity of ‘gun wallah and diplomat’.

The South African equipment was all old first World War stuff, 4.5 howitzers, 18 and 60 pounders. Nearly all of them needing urgent workshop attention for which neither we nor they had spares. Particularly the 4.5 howitzers whose recuperators are all on the borderline of ‘u/s’. No amount of signalling to Nairobi seem to produce any replacement spares, so we had to fiddle, fudge and improvise as best we could.

On the 19th January the first of the 4.5 Batteries went into action and did some very accurate shooting, so vindicating or justifying our ‘fudging and improvisation’. On the same day Italian Savoyas strafed us and we managed to bring one down with rifle fire and one LMG. A newly arrived Hurricane, probably the only one in East Africa, brought down another. Although all a little bit “gung ho”, the South Africans were all a very good crowd but so different from the Army types I had been used to. Discipline was there one assumed, but it wasn’t too obvious.

By now everyone was getting very impatient to get on with it. If we were to take Abyssinia in 1941 we had to get to and take Addis Ababa by March otherwise the rains would make it impossible until a year later. By today’s (1995) standards of equipment, techniques and communications, this may sound a bit exaggerated. However with our then pretty antiquated equipment and no roads in the rainy season, it was a ‘no go’ situation.

Round about this time we were unfortunate to be in an area swarming with ticks. They were anything in size from pin heads to good sized garden peas. They tend to attach themselves to your person everywhere and can only be removed with the red hot end of a cigarette. Three or four consecutive attacks and you usually got tick fever that would last for several days.

Read his full account on BBC People’s War

Indian troops clearing a village in Eritrea.
Indian troops clearing a village in Eritrea.

British forces maintain pressure on Tobruk

The garrison of Tobruk, believed to comprise one Italian division and certain ancillary troops, including 6,000 frontier guards, is still invested by our forces. There is also reason to believe that it has been reinforced by the two Blackshirt generals who retired from Bardia. If Tobruk falls, it is difficult to forecast where the Italians will make their next stand.

The siege of Tobruk continued. A battery of the famous British ’25 pounder’ artillery guns.

The garrison of Tobruk, believed to comprise one Italian division and certain ancillary troops, including 6,000 frontier guards, is still invested by our forces. There is also reason to believe that it has been reinforced by the two Blackshirt generals who retired from Bardia. If Tobruk falls, it is difficult to forecast where the Italians will make their next stand. Two infantry divisions are believed to be located between Derna and Benghazi; these may be used to cover the approaches to Benghazi, where a part of Italian G.H.Q. is now believed to be. There are no indications up to the present time of the arrival of reinforcements in Libya.

From the Military Situation for the week.

Constant and heavy pressure has been maintained on Tobruk, whilst aerodromes likely to assist in the defence of the position have been made untenable by the attacks of our aircraft. Reports of abandoned aircraft and landing grounds indicate that the enemy has withdrawn his air forces to the Benghasi area.

Benghasi was heavily attacked five times. Hits were registered on five large ships in the harbour, on the mole and on Government buildings. The neighbouring aerodromes of Benina and Berka were also successfully attacked, and much damage was caused to aerodrome buildings, hangars and aircraft on the ground. At Benina, at least twelve enemy aircraft were set on fire.

On the 8th January there was a very successful bombing attack on a convoy of motor transport near Jerabub by Blenheims, followed by a machine-gun attack by Hurricanes, as a result of which the convoy was abandoned.

Our fighters were also very active. They maintained offensive patrols in the Tobruk and other areas, and destroyed several enemy aircraft both in the air and on the ground.

Several reconnaissances of the Libyan coast were flown by our Sunderlands.

Enemy aircraft activity was slight. An attack was made on our troops in the Tobruk area, but little damage was caused.

From the Air Situation report for the week, see TNA CAB 66/14/33

British capture Sidi Barrani from Italians

08.30 direct shell burst on gun-fell flat on my side & passed out for half a minute – came to and saw my left arm jerking up and down – thought at first it had been blown off – heard someone say ‘Gawd-the Captain’s been killed’ – so managed to sit up and say ‘no, you bugger, fire the gun’

Sidi Barrani
Italian prisoners captured at Sidi Barrani are marched into captivity.

The small town of Sidi Barrani on the Egyptian coast was the first of the main Italian positions to fall during the British ‘Operation Compass’. During the 9th and 10th they had successfully overcome the series of Italian desert fortified camps that ran south from their main base in Sidi Barrani.

Seven Gloster Gladiators of No. 3 Squadron RAAF make a low pass in loose line abreast formation over the Squadron’s mobile operations room at their landing ground near Sollum, Egypt, from which they operated during Operation COMPASS.

Then the British reached the coast road running back to Libya, blocking it west of the town of Sidi Barrani. This left the Italian garrison of some 20,000 men to fight it out.

The fierce artillery duel on the 10th is described by Captain Walter Drysdale commanding 16th Brigade Anti-Tank company:

08.00 Led guns into action

– chose as target a knoll to right of A&SH [Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders] forward Company from where fire seemed to be holding up A&SH – one gun going into action was hit & burst into flames – got remaining guns into action & directed fire onto knoll- shooting was accurate but armour piercing shells cannot have very much effect – enemy artillery fairly plastering my guns-artillery duel is very thrilling – our own troops moving forward slowly-

08.20 only one gun left in action

08.25 shell burst wounded two of the crew

08.30 direct shell burst on gun – fell flat on my side & passed out for half a minute – came to and saw my left arm jerking up and down – thought at first it had been blown off – heard someone say ‘Gawd-the Captain’s been killed’so managed to sit up and say ‘no, you bugger, fire the gun’ – realised blood was spurting out of a wound just above the heart – Cpl Bishop came to me and tried to bind it – told me the gun was wrecked and all gun crew wounded. Tried to get up but couldn’t and fainted – came to later and crawled over to No.1 of the gun who was obviously in pain – reached him.

Read his full account on BBC People’s War.

Eventually the Italians surrendered and the British found themselves struggling to deal with unexpected numbers of prisoners. It was all welcome news back in Britain, the first substantial British success since the start of the Blitz.

HMS Terror, Gun boat
HMS Terror, the World War I vintage Monitor or Gun Boat. Her two 15 inch guns were used to bombard Sidi Barrani from the sea at the same time as an artillery assault by land.

British coastal defences prepare for invasion

All forward companies have completed very good defensive positions. In the interior there is plenty of room and the men are very comfortable when they have to sleep at their posts. On the exterior there is a diversity of camouflage varying from rubbish heaps to innocent looking fishing huts. Along the beach both at Dunwich and Southwold, also Walberswick, there is an imposing array of concrete anti-tank obstacles, which in some places pass right in front of the section post.

The crew of a coastal gun emplacement \’somewhere in England\’ prepare for action.

All along the coast of Britain defence emplacements and fortifications were being rapidly established. The overall strategy was that any invasion force would be severely disrupted, hopefully destroyed, by the Royal Navy. The main British Land forces would be held inland and directed to the landing points when they became known.

This still called for a relatively thin crust of defensive positions on the coast itself, ready to disrupt any initial landings and contain them until re-inforced:

‘We can and must … inflict as heavy casualties as possible on the enemy and disorganise him during the actual landing. Our second and more important task is to prevent him exploiting an initial landing success by blocking all main approaches until such time as Tps [troops] from the mobile Division can arrive in the area and effectively deal with the enemy’

163 Infantry Brigade Operating Instructions:
TNA WO 166/1036

The 2nd/4th South Lancashire Regiment were based at Walberswick in Suffolk, facing potential invasion forces from the North Sea. The 450-500 men in this former Territorial Army unit were responsible for seven miles of coast line to a depth of 6 miles. By the end of June they felt that they were reasonably well prepared:

Bulcamp June 30th

The Battalion, as a result of a really hard month’s work in which every man has played his part is now fully prepared for any eventuality. We can assure any prospective visitors, whether they are coming to protect us or not, of a warm welcome. All forward companies have completed very good defensive positions. In the interior there is plenty of room and the men are very comfortable when they have to sleep at their posts. On the exterior there is a diversity of camouflage varying from rubbish heaps to innocent looking fishing huts. Along the beach both at Dunwich and Southwold, also Walberswick, there is an imposing array of concrete anti-tank obstacles, which in some places pass right in front of the section post.

All personelle have fired their rifle and L.M.G. courses and each company in turn fired at toy balloons by way of A.A. practice. Several balloons were shot down. D. Company with four were the top scorers. As many men as there were ammunition for fired the Anti-Tank rifle. They found it to be far less frightening than they had expected. It has now been found possible to allow one platoon of each company to go out training locally each day.

2nd/4th South Lancashire Regiment War Diary
TNA WO 166/4680

For much more on the coastal defences of Britain at this time, including animated reconstructions, see WALBERSWICK.

The BEF are encircled, 7th Royal Sussex are decimated

Lots of rumours of tanks again. On arrival back forced another perimeter of village and blocked all roads. Sudden move again this evening. Marched to Ere about seven miles, Waited there several hours, supposed to be taking over line from another unit… All slept on the side of road. Finally received orders to return Taintignies. While waiting at the roadside to Ere about 10.30 p.m. Pte Hutchinson had his arm run over and broken by a truck.

German artillery on the western front, May 1940

With the situation rapidly deteriorating in France the British Expeditionary Force sent forward their main reserves. The intention was to launch a counter-attack in the region of Arras, hopefully in co-ordination with the French.

Private D.J. OSBORNE was a lorry driver with the 7th Battalion Royal Sussex Rifles. On the 18th May he was fortunate enough to remain behind with 200 other men from the HQ and Motor Transport sections of the battalion while the 581 men in the main rifle companies were rushed forward by train. Their ultimate destination was Arras but they never made it.

On the outskirts of Amiens the train was attacked by Stuka dive-bombers. Eighty men died, including eight officers in one carriage. Unable to move any further and cut off from contact with HQ, the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin, himself wounded, decided that they would be best employed maintaining a defensive position on rising ground on the outskirts of Amiens. Unfortunately the remaining 501 men now found themselves in the direct path of the Germans:

At 16:00 hrs on 19th May 1940 the enemy appeared and gave battle until 18:00 hrs when they disengaged, and overnight regrouped and made good his losses.

At 03:00 hrs on 20th May 1940, the enemy re-appeared, coming from the east. A column of motorized infantry accompanied by tanks approached the positions of the 7th Battalion RSR. Their positions had previously been detected and noted by German spotter planes. The Germans had decided that it was essential to eliminate this possible threat to their advance. The enemy troops were [from 1st Panzer Division, the spearhead for] German Army Group “A” commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt. It consisted of 44 Infantry Divisions, 7 Armoured Divisions and 3 Motorized Divisions.

It should be remembered that the 7th Battalion RSR, in common with all Battalions of 12th Division, had very few arms. Each man carried a Rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition and their experience of handling these was very limited. The Battalion’s supply of ammunition was minimal as no effort had been made by their Divisional Staff to ensure that they were properly equipped before they were sent into battle. Nevertheless the men of the 7th Battalion RSR engaged the enemy as if they were a well founded Battalion. The enemy was quite unaware of the weakness of the force against them. From behind every bit of cover these gallant but doomed men fought their one-sided battle.

A lucky shot from one of the few anti tank rifles put a tank out of action. This caused the enemy to become wary. The German Infantry deployed both heavy mortars and a battery of field artillery was bought into action to add to the deluge of shells being poured out by the encircling tanks. Against the might of the enemy, the 7th Battalion RSR had 6 Boyes anti-tank rifles with 32 rounds in total and 10 Bren guns.

The ammunition was soon expended; there was no reserve, they had no mortars and no artillery support or signals platoon to help them. When the fire from the 7th Battalion RSR slackened, the enemy was reluctant to advance for the kill, so they called up the Stuka U.U.87 Dive Bombers to help them. However the outcome was never in doubt. As the afternoon wore on the casualties increased, and finally at 20:00 hrs with every round fired, the survivors reluctantly surrendered.

Of the 581 men of all the Companies that had left Buchy on 18th May 1940, only 70 men survived to be taken into captivity. Not even during the murderous engagements on the Somme or at Paschendaele in World War I had any unit suffered such casualties. But their sacrifice had not been in vain: it so discouraged the enemy from penetrating southwards that it had saved their sister Battalion the 6th Battalion RSR from a similar fate and that of a Moroccan Regiment that was not far off.

Of those men taken into captivity, the Adjutant of the Battalion, a Major Cassels, had refused to raise his arms in surrender and was promptly shot.

During the action Sergeant Glover (Carriers) shot down two Stuka Dive Bombers with a Bren gun. He would have had three, but in the confusion of battle he forgot to remove the safety catch and the target had passed by the time he had realized. The 7th Battalion RSR had delayed the advance of the German Army Group ‘A’ for a total of 21 hours.

Lieutenant Colonel R. Gethin was taken prisoner by Oberleutnant Gerhard Richter who in due course delivered him to his commanding officer Major General Erwin Rommel. Rommel was commanding the 7th Panzer Division, a section of which had been detailed to eliminate the threat posed by the 7th Battalion RSR.

All the men captured at St Roche (70) served a total of 5 years at the German P.O.W. camp, Stalag XX “A”, at a place called Torun in Poland, and when the war was over they had to walk a distance of 1300 miles back into Germany to get repatriated. All the 430 men killed at St Roche (Amiens) now lay buried in the Military Cemetery at Abbeville, row upon row of them.

Read the whole of Private D.J. OSBORNE’ account on BBC People’s War . There is another account at 7th Royal Sussex which suggests that more than 70 men were taken prisoner. Nevertheless there is an incomplete picture of this action because of the very heavy casualties and because the Battalion’s War Diary was lost during the course of it.

Late on the 20th May 1940 the advance German units reached the French coast at Noyelles. The French Army was cut in two, with the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force cut off in Belgium and north west France with their backs to the English Channel. In London there was a growing realisation that a full scale evacuation of the BEF was needed.

The encirclement was very large and the British forces were not yet in any danger of being attacked from the rear. Nevertheless the German forces pursuing them in Belgium maintained their pressure. Captain Leah describes the confusion they encountered while seeking to withdraw under shell fire: Continue reading “The BEF are encircled, 7th Royal Sussex are decimated”

British withdrawal accelerates as Churchill speaks

Apparently insufficient transport for everybody. Transport took some on, part of the way, then came back and lifted others, and so on. We marched until about 10 a.m. Everybody extraordinarily tired. Road crowded – at least 2 waits moving back on our road. Our Tpt not too well organized, drivers did not know their destination nor did I.

German tanks, 1940
German armour advancing into Belgium

The situation in France was unravelling fast. The Germans had now secured their breakthrough in the gap they had forced north of the Maginot Line. The great bulk of the French Army was still confined to these great fortresses and there was neither the means, nor seemingly the will, to bring them into the battle. A plan was drawn up to cut off the German Panzer thrust by the French driving north and the British driving south at the base of the German advance. It was the logical thing to do but it never materialised.

The British Cabinet was now informed that the British Army might have to be evacuated from the north French coast in order to save them – it was just over a week since they had gone forward into Belgium so confidently.

At home Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation, his address made the seriousness of the situation abundantly clear. He acknowledged that the Germans Panzers “have penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their track” but he still held out the hope that the front could be stabilised:

We may look with confidence to the stabilization of the Front in France, and to the general engagement of the masses, which will enable the qualities of the French and British soldiers to be matched squarely against those of their adversaries. For myself, I have invincible confidence in the French Army and its leaders.

Only a very small part of that splendid Army has yet been heavily engaged; and only a very small part of France has yet been invaded. There is a good evidence to show that practically the whole of the specialized and mechanized forces of the enemy have been already thrown into the battle; and we know that very heavy losses have been inflicted upon them.

No officer or man, no brigade or division, which grapples at close quarters with the enemy, wherever encountered, can fail to make a worthy contribution to the general result. The Armies must cast away the idea of resisting behind concrete lines or natural obstacles, and must realize that mastery can only be regained by furious and unrelenting assault. And this spirit must not only animate the High Command, but must inspire every fighting man.

He knew that his main task was to unite and inspire the British people for the long fight ahead:

We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all – to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be. This is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain.

It is also beyond doubt the most sublime. Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide empires which rest beneath their shield – side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.

Behind them – behind us- behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France – gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians – upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.

Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

For the full speech see The Churchill Centre.

Captain R. Leah describes the practical difficulties faced by the British Expeditionary Force units as they seek to withdraw:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Sunday 19th May.

Anxious to get away before light, but no sign of A.F.V’s till about 3 a.m. and were just moving out of Lessines as dawn was breaking. “B” Coy were rear guard and last away. Heavy mortar shelling this morning. Apparently insufficient transport for everybody. Transport took some on, part of the way, then came back and lifted others, and so on. We marched until about 10 a.m. Everybody extraordinarily tired. Road crowded – at least 2 waits moving back on our road. Our Tpt not too well organized, drivers did not know their destination nor did I. Saw Michael Kemp when entering Tournai. R.A.S.C. finally dumped us in Tournai. Eventually got hold of Rutterford, P.S.M., who took me to Bn area, borrowed some tpt and went back and fetched company. Continue reading “British withdrawal accelerates as Churchill speaks”

Red Army begins its assault on the outskirts of Berlin

One accidental pull on a trigger could have startled every one of our machine guns into unleashing a hail of bullets at the tanks, which were easily within range. ‘Hold fire,’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘Let the officers decide.’ After a short but heated discussion, the officers let the tanks pass without firing a single shot but I dared not speculate the fate that might await the terrified hostages. We all knew of, and believed, the reports of Russian tanks deliberately squashing columns of refuges under their tracks as they fled East Prussia.

Red Army soldiers in trenches during the approach to Berlin.
Red Army soldiers in trenches during the approach to Berlin.
Soviet tank T-34-85 in a pine forest south of Berlin.
Soviet tank T-34-85 in a pine forest south of Berlin.

Erwin Bartmann had been wounded on the Eastern Front serving with the 1st SS Panzer Division. After recovering he was sent to a training school for young recruits. Now he returned with them to the Eastern Front, only this time that front was within Germany.

The Red Army had begun their assault on the Seelow Heights, the defensive line in the hills east of Berlin, on the 16th April. The following day Bartmann and his young recruits were transported to very outskirts of Berlin to face action for the first time. That evening he realised that they were too young to be able to cope with the small quantity of schnapps that he had obtained:

On the night of 17th-18th April 1945 they started to come under Soviet artillery fire:

Throughout that night, a heavy artillery bombardment shook the earth. Every young face bore the furrow-lines of fear. ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured them, ‘the detonations are too far away to do us any mischief. Ivan doesn’t know we’re here yet.’ ‘They’re too close for comfort.’ exclaimed one of the recruits whose shoulders yanked up tight at every whizz or bang. ‘How do you know?’ piped up the recruit who had complained on the overnight march. ‘He’s on old hare, he can tell.’

I felt my lips pull an involuntary smile. It was strange, but nevertheless gratifying, to hear myself referred to as an ‘old hare’ though I was not yet twenty- two years old. Yet it was easy to understand the recruit’s anxiety — I had felt the same tension when crossing the Dniepr under the protection of Unterscharfuhrer Nowotnik.

‘Settle down and get some sleep,’ I said, feeling almost fatherly. …

A depressingly grey dawn crept over the horizon, the signal for the start of a barrage of 15 centimetre Russian mortar shells that fell with frightening accuracy along our front line. No one could hear the screams of the wounded above the thud of continually exploding rounds; the land itself seemed to shake with fear.

I popped my head above the line of the trench to make sure the Russian infantry had not crept up on us under the protection of the barrage. At that instant, a shell detonated close by, sending a gust of tiny slivers of steel blasting against my face.

As I ducked back under cover, the recruits looked at me as if they had seen the devil himself. Only then did I notice the warm rivulets of blood trickling down my cheeks. Once again my guardian angel was at my side; none of the little steel needles had found my eyes and those that were imbedded in my skin were easily plucked out. As the bombardment waned, German steel helmets appeared above the lines of our trenches. Someone close by was shouting, swearing, as he pointed in the direction of the Frankfurt—Mullrose road.

A squadron of Russian T-34 tanks was heading south. I raised my binoculars. The image that loomed into focus sickened me to the pit of my stomach. Women and children were bound to the tanks’ guns. Though they were too distant for me to hear their wails above the sound of the tank engines, the body language of the mothers told its own pitiful tale. Cold, silent, helpless rage filled my heart. ‘What should we do?’ yelled one my machine-gun crew, his boyish face contorted by an expression of confused agony.

One accidental pull on a trigger could have startled every one of our machine guns into unleashing a hail of bullets at the tanks, which were easily within range. ‘Hold fire,’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘Let the officers decide.’ After a short but heated discussion, the officers let the tanks pass without firing a single shot but I dared not speculate the fate that might await the terrified hostages. We all knew of, and believed, the reports of Russian tanks deliberately squashing columns of refuges under their tracks as they fled East Prussia.

Russian fighter planes swooped on our trenches, raking the area with machine-gun fire. I made sure my recruits kept their heads down and we escaped the onslaught without a single casualty. By early afternoon, an enemy infantry battalion was gathering without hindrance just a kilometre away. ‘Don’t worry about the bayonets,’ I told the youngsters of the machine-gun crew whose trench I shared, ‘they won’t get close enough to use them.’

Mutterings of anxiety continued to pass between the recruits as we waited for the inevitable onslaught. At last, the enemy infantry charged. Our machine guns unleashed a storm of bullets into their killing zone, scything through wave after wave of brown uniforms. The two crews directly under my command performed well and we managed to hold back the attack on our sector of the defence line.

My experience on the Ostfront enabled me to keep our losses to just two men. Qne of these we buried in the Friedhof in Lichtenberg, the other, a handsome young chap, I buried with the help of two Kameraden, close to where he fell.

The next Russian attack was more determined. They had found a gap in our lines and Untersturmfuhrer Gessner’s infantry platoon left the cover of the woods to set off down the hill, ahead of our machine-gun positions, with the aim of throwing back the enemy attack. Unfortunately, he took his unit too close to the enemy for us to give effective machine-gun support. With the intention of fending off any assault on Gessner’s squad, I led one of the crews down the hill to get a better firing position.

Having covered about 500 metres, we came under intense small-arms fire and threw ourselves to the ground. When the firing stopped, I was horrified to see a Russian infantry platoon close on Untersturmfuhrer Gessner. He was on his knees with a pistol at his temple. There was a puff of smoke and he slumped to the side. His courage had not failed him.

I pulled my machine—gun crew back to our lines at the edge of the woods only to find the other recruits exactly where I had left them. ‘If you had followed us we could have saved Untersturmfuhrer Gessner,’ I roared angrily only to be confronted with an avalanche of excuses intended to justify their inaction.

The night passed without further event.

See Erwin Bartmann: Fur Volk und Fuhrer: The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler

Volkssturm with anti-tank rocket ("Panzerschreck" / "stovepipe") in a foxhole in the open field outside Berlin, end of April 1945.
Volkssturm with anti-tank rocket (“Panzerschreck” / “stovepipe”) in a foxhole in the open field outside Berlin, end of April 1945.
Berlin, Elderly members of the Volkssturm who are building tank barriers on the streets of Berlin are brought food by their families, April 1945.
Berlin, Elderly members of the Volkssturm who are building tank barriers on the streets of Berlin are brought food by their families, April 1945.

Allies launch the last big offensive in Italy

All four companies then lay low in their assembly areas, to be clear of the artillery bombardment. Fifteen minutes later, all hell broke loose. For four hours, the Germans were bombarded by artillery and mortars and bombed and strafed at intervals by hundreds of Allied aircraft. Thousands of fragmentation bombs hit enemy artillery dugouts and reserve areas. Sunset that day illuminated a hellish pall of smoke and dust across the German lines. The noise was thunderous. For the beleaguered Jerries it must have seemed like the end of the world.

A casualty is brought back across the River Reno during operations by 'C' Company, 1st London Irish Rifles to establish a bridgehead across the river, 6 April 1945.
A casualty is brought back across the River Reno during operations by ‘C’ Company, 1st London Irish Rifles to establish a bridgehead across the river, 6 April 1945.

The long hard slog up Italy was nearing the end. The Allies were almost out of the mountains, the natural defensive features that had favoured the Germans and hindered progress since 1943. Now they were ready to push north east into the open country beyond Bologna towards the River Po. The US 5th Army would attack on the left the British 8th Army on the right.

Major Ray Ward commanded A Company of 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. ‘It was a big push, one of of the biggest of the war’, although little remembered now by comparison with the other big attacks in northern europe. A Company had the task of seizing the banks of the River Senio before the other companies moved through their positions:

The morning of Monday 9 April 1945 heralded the noisiest day I have ever lived through.

At 1440 hours, four hours and 40 minutes before H-hour, A and D companies pulled back from the positions at the river bank. At 1505, sections from A Company ran forward and threw and fired cortex mats to blow up mines and booby traps on top of the near floodbank, then withdrew 200 metres under covering fire.

All four companies then lay low in their assembly areas, to be clear of the artillery bombardment. Fifteen minutes later, all hell broke loose.

For four hours, the Germans were bombarded by artillery and mortars and bombed and strafed at intervals by hundreds of Allied aircraft. Thousands of fragmentation bombs hit enemy artillery dugouts and reserve areas. Sunset that day illuminated a hellish pall of smoke and dust across the German lines. The noise was thunderous. For the beleaguered Jerries it must have seemed like the end of the world.

Even for the battle-hardened troops on our side, it was an unnerving experience. For the rookies in our battalion it was a terrifying one. Some, not many, had little stomach for it and took a powder. They didn’t get far. They were soon rounded up by MPs to face court martial. To run away and leave your comrades in these circumstances was shameful and unforgivable and they deserved all they got.

Inspecting our assembly area, I was furious to find two young Jocks cowering in their slit trench, clearly too afraid to move. ‘Get out of there! Noise won’t hurt you,’ I yelled. They wouldn’t budge, even when the sergeant major appeared at my side and threatened to shoot them. ‘Miserable bastards. Fuck!’

I’ve no idea what happened to them, whether they caught up later or deserted. I had enough on my plate to bother. I had some sympathy for the poor devils, having seen the effect of bombing and shelling on better men. The Senio was the most frightening introduction to frontline soldiering they could have had. Fortunately their behaviour wasn’t copied by any of the Jocks in A Company, who went forward to the attack resolutely when the time came.

During that frightful commotion — shells whining and aero engines whirring overhead, the crumps of exploding bombs and sporadic return fire – we were compelled to lie huddled in our slit trenches. I made periodic tours of our position, assuming an air of nonchalance I did not feel, to cheer the men up and show them there was nothing to be afraid of.

They thought I was mad, but on that day I didn’t much care what happened to me. If I was killed, as so many others had been in the long campaign, I would have died in a cause most of us believed in.

Nevertheless I was convinced I would survive the war, despite tempting providence by an occasional show of reckless bravado. Luck was everything. Experience seemed irrelevant. Mortar stonks killed two of our men and wounded seven others as they sat waiting for H-hour. CSM Carruthers, one of the battalion’s most seasoned regulars, a veteran of Sidi Barrani where he had won the Military Medal, was shot and killed by a sniper.

‘No one,’ Mac had observed grimly at Faenza, ‘get’s out of the infantry. Just the cowards, and the dead.’

About 10 minutes before we were to go over the top, Churchill tanks drove through our position to shoot up the enemy on the floodbanks. Immediately afterwards, Wasp and Crocodile flamethrowers trundled up to within 25 metres of the near bank. For five minutes, they blazed away at suspected enemy dugouts.

Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.
Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.

The banks of the Senio sizzled with flame and the air stank with petrol fumes. Oily black smoke billowed towards us. The armoured vehicles withdrew.

Dozens of fighter-bombers came over, streaking above our heads to strike further terror into the hearts of the enemy. They made several low-level attacks with bombs and cannon, hitting enemy artillery and spandau positions, forward HQ areas and any Jerry foolish enough to move. By this time, the mere sound of aero engines kept enemy heads down.

Then came the final run, a dummy one. Under its cover, the assault companies of the 8th Indian and 2nd New Zealand divisions launched their attack.

At 1920 hours, we sprang from our trenches and sprinted forward through the flames, smoke and fading light. We knew we only had seconds to seize the Senio before Jerry, sheltering in his bunkers, recovered from the bombardment and grabbed his weapons.

Charges designed to blow a hole in the floodbank for us failed to explode, as the leads had been cut by shelling. In the event, that didn’t matter. My men scrambled up and captured the near bank, hurled cortex matting down the reverse slope and flung a kapok bridge across the narrow trench of the river. Within minutes, we were across and up and over the far bank, and secured a bridgehead.

I gave some Jerries a burst from my tommy gun to keep their heads down. I saw one of my men have a miraculous escape. He trod on an S-mine which shot up in front of him and hung in the air, chest high. It failed to explode. The Jock collapsed in a dead faint.

See Ray Ward: The Mirror of Monte Cavallara

A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945.
A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945.
A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, Italy, 10 April 1945.
A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, Italy, 10 April 1945.