On 14 February 1942, the day before the Japanese capture of Singapore, Hitler was in Berlin, for Dr Todt’s funeral. That day, in a private conversation with Dr Goebbels, it was upon the surviving Jews of Europe that his thoughts were set. ‘The Führer once more expressed his determination to clean up the Jews in Europe pitilessly,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘There must be no squeamish sentimentalism about it.’ The Jews had ‘deserved the catastrophe that has now overtaken them. Their destruction will go hand in hand with the destruction of our enemies. We must hasten this process with cold ruthlessness.’ In the Crimean city of Simferopol, that ‘ruthlessness’ had resulted, according to Operational Situation Report USSR No. 170, in the murder of ten thousand Jews between January 9 and February 15.
On February 15, while still in Berlin, Hitler exhorted that year’s graduate officers of the SS to ‘stem the Red tide and save civilization’. Beginning on February 16, and continuing for twelve days, further round-ups in the Crimea led to the execution, officially reported from Berlin, of 1,515 people, ‘729 of them Jews, 271 Communists, 74 partisans, 421 Gypsies and asocial elements, and saboteurs’.
In the Far East, horrifying slaughters had also begun. On February 16, on the coast of Malaya, sixty-five Australian Army nurses, and twenty-five English soldiers, surrendered to the Japanese. The soldiers were taken to the beach, bayoneted and shot; only two survived. The nursing sisters were ordered to march into the sea; once in the water, they were fired on by Japanese machine gunners. Only one nurse, Sister Vivien Bullwinkel, survived. Two days later, on Singapore Island, the first group of five thousand Chinese civilians, most of them prominent members of the island’s Chinese community, was rounded up. After two weeks, all had been killed. Many, their hands tied behind their back, had been decapitated.
On February 16, five of the largest German submarines, each of a thousand tons, were sent across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Their instructions were to attack Allied merchant ships off the coast of America, from Trinidad to New York. Once more, the darkened hulls of their victims were silhouetted against the bright lights of the still blackout-free coastal towns of the Atlantic seaboard, reducing the skills of naval attack to little more than those of target practice.
On the Eastern Front, the Red Army struggled to push back the German line near Rzhev, launching a new offensive on February 17. As well as a frontal assault, 7,373 soldiers were dropped by parachute behind the German lines; because of fog, more than a quarter fell directly on to the German positions and were taken prisoner. The German forces, despite heavy losses, and a temperature which fell to minus fifty-two degrees centigrade, held on to their line. One SS regiment came out of the battle with only thirty-five of its original two thousand men.
To ‘make way’ for the wounded German soldiers evacuated from the Eastern Front, Germany’s remaining mental asylums were being ‘cleared’ of their patients. The method used was euthanasia: death by gassing or by lethal injection. On February 19 the British Government received a report to this effect from Sweden, sent by a leading Swedish expert on euthanasia who had just returned from a visit to Germany. He told of one asylum ‘where 1,200 people had been removed by poison’.
On February 19, in the Far East, Japanese bombers struck at the Australian port of Darwin. All seventeen ships in Darwin harbour were sunk, including the American destroyer Peary. In the air battle above the port, twenty-two Australian and American warplanes were shot down, for the loss of only five Japanese aircraft. The Allied death toll was 240. In retaliation for the raid, American carrier-borne aircraft struck at Wake and Marcus Islands.
On Amboina Island, Lieutenant Nakagawa ordered the execution of a further 120 Australian prisoners-of-war on February 20. All were made to kneel down with their eyes bandaged, and were then killed either with sword or bayonet. ‘The whole affair took from 6 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.,’ Nakagawa later recalled. ‘Most of the corpses were buried in one hole but because the hole turned out not to be big enough to accommodate all the bodies, an adjacent dug-out was also used as a grave.’
On February 20, President Quezon of the Philippines was taken off Luzon in an American submarine. On the following day, President Roosevelt ordered General MacArthur to leave the Philippines and transfer his headquarters to Australia. On February 23 the Allied Headquarters Staff on Java was evacuated to Australia; that day, six American bombers struck at the Japanese occupation forces in Rabaul, New Britain, the second American air raid on Japanese-held territory. ‘We Americans have been compelled to yield ground,’ Roosevelt declared on February 23, ‘but we will regain it. We and other United Nations are committed to the destruction of the militarism of Japan and Germany. We are daily increasing our strength. Soon we, and not our enemies, will have the offensive; and we, not they, will win the final battles; and we, not they, will make the final peace.’
The Allies, despite the daily setbacks in the Far East, strove to take the initiative wherever possible. On February 23, off the coast of Norway, a British submarine, the Trident, torpedoed the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, less than two weeks after its successful ‘Channel Dash’ from Brest. Although the warship was not sunk, fifty men were killed; not only crewmen, but also workers of the Todt Organization being transported to forced labour. On the Eastern Front, the activities of Soviet partisan units continued to disturb the German High Command. ‘The area east of the Dnieper’, a panzer division officer had reported on February 20, ‘is infested with well-armed partisans under unified command. The roads are heavily mined. The whole male population is being recruited and is trained in special training areas. It would appear’—the report continued—‘that the partisans are constantly reinforced by airborne troops’. The ‘top secret’ German Operational Situation Report USSR of February 23 confirmed this picture. East of Minsk, it noted, was a partisan camp numbering between four hundred and five hundred men. Their weapons included heavy machine guns and anti-tank guns. In another village east of Minsk, where about 150 partisans were based, ‘partisans arranged a dance’. In the Cherven region there were a further five partisan camps. ‘The partisans have strict orders not to start any action,’ the report noted, ‘only to attack and destroy German search parties.’
Soviet partisans had also established a wide zone of operations behind the German lines east of Smolensk; in an area more than seventy-five miles long from east to west, and almost fifty miles deep, they worked with airborne and regular troops to disrupt German troop movements both eastward and on the north-south axis: a formidable obstacle to the maintenance of the German line, and German morale.
In the northern sector of the front, after a ten day battle, on February 24 Russian forces surrounded and cut off a German Army corps south-east of Staraya Russa. But as the situation in the Far East worsened, the news of Russian victories, so important on the Eastern Front, had a hollow ring for the Western Allies. On February 24, Churchill wrote despondently to King George VI: ‘Burma, Ceylon, Calcutta and Madras in India, and part of Australia, may fall into enemy hands.’ On the following day, the British Commander-in-Chief of the forces in the Far East, General Wavell, withdrew from Java, and on February 26 the American flying boat support ship Langley was sunk by Japanese air action, and all of her thirty-two aircraft lost. It was small consolation that, on the same day, the first of the Japanese warships used in the attack on Pearl Harbour was itself sunk—the submarine 1–23.
On February 27, in the Java Sea, an Allied naval task force, commanded by a Dutch Admiral, Karel Doorman, sought to intercept a Japanese invasion fleet which was on its way to Java. In a seven-hour battle, Doorman’s flagship, the light cruiser De Ruyter, was sunk and the admiral was drowned. Also sunk during the battle were the Dutch light cruiser Java and two British destroyers, Electra and Jupiter. Only one Japanese troop transport was sunk, and no Japanese warships. The American heavy cruiser Houston and the Australian cruiser Perth both escaped from the battle zone, but they were chased and sunk on the following night.
On the Perth alone, 352 sailors were drowned; of the survivors rescued by Japanese ships, 105 died while prisoners-of-war. On March 1, three more Allied warships, the British cruiser Exeter, one of the victors of the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939, the British destroyer Encounter, and the American destroyer Pope, were sunk. So too, on March 4, was the British destroyer Stronghold and the Australian sloop Yarra; 138 of her sailors were drowned. The Japanese, now masters of the Java Sea, prepared for the conquest of Java itself.
On February 27, as the naval battle raged in the Java Sea, the British carried out Operation Biting across the English Channel. Its objective, to be achieved by parachute troops, was to seize key components of German radar equipment at the Bruneval radar station near Le Havre. The raid was a success: not only was the radar equipment captured, but also two German prisoners, one of them a radar operator. Two paratroopers were killed, and six Germans. For the British, the raid was a boost to morale, and proof of the prowess of their airborne troops. But still it was the Far East that dominated the news, and seemed to threaten disaster. ‘I cannot help feeling depressed at the future outlook,’ King George VI wrote in his diary on February 28. ‘Anything can happen, and it will be wonderful if we can be lucky anywhere.’ That day, Japanese troops landed on Java, while, from his headquarters in Berlin, the Indian nationalist and Bengali leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, broadcast on India’s wish for freedom, and his consequent readiness to co-operate with Germany. Dr Goebbels noted in his diary: ‘In London there is boundless wrath about the appeal of Bose, whose present abode is fortunately not known. At the last moment I prevented the Foreign Office from revealing it prematurely.’
Java could not be saved; on February 28 the carrier Sea Witch brought twenty-seven crated aircraft to Tjilatjap, but it was too late to assemble the planes, which the Dutch, to prevent them falling into Japanese hands, dumped in the harbour. In the Atlantic, the German submarine offensive, Operation Drum Roll, had scored an even greater success by the end of February than in the previous month, sinking sixty-five Allied merchant ships off the eastern seaboard of the United States. In Leningrad, still effectively besieged, more than 100,000 people had died that February of starvation.
On March 1, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, the recently appointed commander of Army Group South, informed Hitler that despite their huge losses in battle, the Russians might still be able, not only to draw on enough reserve troops to counter the German spring offensive, but also to create new armies east of Moscow. General Halder disagreed. He did however give an estimate, on March 1, of the substantial German losses in battle thus far on the Eastern Front: in the eight months since June 1941, 202,257 German soldiers had been killed, 725,642 wounded, and 112,617 incapacitated by frostbite. A further 400,000 had been taken prisoner.
German losses in battle, though averaging two thousand a day, were nevertheless far lower than the daily murder of civilians by Germans. On March 2 at least five thousand Jews were taken from the ghetto in Minsk and murdered. From Krosniewice, in German-annexed Poland, nine hundred Jews were taken that same day to Chelmno, and killed in gas vans; on the following day a further 3,200 Jews from the nearby town of Zychlin were gassed. Further east, in White Russia, three thousand Jews were taken out of the ghetto at Baranowicze on March 4, and killed; a total destruction of more than twelve thousand people in forty-eight hours. In an anti-partisan sweep that month, Operation Marsh Fever, its commander, General Jaeckeln, was able to report to Berlin at the successful conclusion of the sweep: ‘389 partisans killed, 1,274 persons shot on suspicion, 8,350 Jews liquidated’.
Jews were also used in medical experiments. In March, Dr Rascher conducted what he called a ‘terminal experiment’ on a ‘thirty-seven-year-old Jew in good condition’. This man was put alive in a chamber in which Dr Rascher simulated altitude, gradually reaching twelve kilometres. The suffering and death of the Jew was meticulously noted, as first he began to perspire, then develop cramp, then become breathless, then become unconscious, and finally die.
This case, Dr Rascher informed Himmler, was ‘the first one of this type ever observed on man’. The ‘above-described actions’, Rascher went on to explain, ‘will merit particular scientific interest because they were recorded until the very last moment by an electrocardiogram’.
Dr Rascher conducted two hundred such experiments. It is believed that about eighty of those on whom he experimented died. In his twenty-four page report to Himmler, setting out his conclusions, Dr Rascher stated with assurance that flying without pressure suits and oxygen was ‘impossible’ above twelve kilometres.
On March 1, an Australian soldier, Colin F. Brien, was among more than fifty soldiers who, having been captured by the Japanese, was led to a freshly dug, shallow grave. ‘I was told to sit down,’ he later recalled, ‘with my knees, legs, and feet projecting onto the grave. My hands were tied behind my back. A small towel was tied over my eyes and then—my shirt was unbuttoned and pulled back over my back, exposing the lower part of my neck. My head was bent forward, and after a few second I felt a heavy dull blow sensation on the back of my neck. I realized I was still alive, but pretended to be dead and fell over on my right side; after that, I lost consciousness.’
Brien survived. After he had fled, but been recaptured, the amazed Japanese put him first into hospital and then into a prisoner-of-war camp, where, as an historian of this episode has written, ‘he survived the war as a novelty’. Brien was later to testify to this mass execution at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.
On March 3, nine Japanese fighters raided the Western Australian town of Broome. In a fifteen minute attack on the flying-boat base being used to ferry soldiers and refugees from Java, twenty-three Australian, American, Dutch and British aircraft were destroyed, and about seventy people killed, many of them refugees from Java who had just arrived in Broome. One American bomber, managing to take off as the raid began, was shot down some way out to sea. Of the thirty-three men on board, only one survived.
Off Java, twenty-five Japanese warships attacked three British ships which had left Batavia on March 3 taking refugees towards Australia. All three ships were sunk. Twenty-six survivors scrambled on to two lifeboats. The Japanese ships steamed by them, not to shoot, but to stand solemnly to attention in their honour, saluting the brave, and then to steam away. The twenty-six remained at sea, running out of food and water. Rain water, and the raw flesh of three seabirds, were their only sustenance. On reaching the coast of Java, only eighteen were still alive. A further six died trying to get ashore in a heavy sea. The twelve survivors were taken prisoners-of-war.
On the night of March 3, in France, more than two hundred British bombers struck at the Renault vehicle works at Billancourt. Of the French workforce of three thousand, only five were killed. When, however, some of the bombs fell off target, hitting nearby houses, five hundred Frenchmen were killed, including many whole families. The Germans hoped to exploit these deaths to their advantage, but a French informer in German pay reported, disparagingly, to the military authorities: ‘In general, if the pulse of public opinion is taken, indignation is not widespread enough.’ On the following day a German guard was shot dead in a Paris street. Twenty French Communists were at once shot in reprisal. ‘That’s the method I proposed,’ Dr Goebbels noted in his diary, and he added: ‘If rigorously applied it will lead to visible results.’
In the Crimean town of Feodosiya, beginning on March 5, three anti-partisan sweeps within three weeks led to the killing of more than two thousand people, of whom, according to Operational Situation Report No. 184, ‘678 were Jews, 359 Communist officials, 153 partisans, and 810 asocial elements, Gypsies, mentally ill, and saboteurs’.
The German killing squads had no respite. On March 6, at Klintsy, thirty Gypsies and 270 Jews were brought by truck to a ditch outside the town, ordered to undress, and shot. ‘The situation is now ripe for a final settlement of the Jewish question,’ Dr Goebbels noted in his diary on the following day. ‘Later generations will no longer have either the will-power or the instinctive alertness. That is why we are doing good work in proceeding radically and consistently. The task we are assuming today’, Goebbels added, ‘will be an advantage and a boon to our descendants.’
There were, however, still a handful of people who protested at the persecution of the Jews. On March 7, in Zagreb, Archbishop Stepinac wrote to the Croatian Minister of the Interior about rumours ‘of impending mass arrests of Jews who are to be sent to concentration camps.’ If such rumours were true, Stepinać wrote, ‘I take the liberty to appeal to you to prevent, by virtue of your authority, an unlawful attack on citizens who are not personally guilty of anything.’ The Archbishop’s appeal was in vain.
On March 5, the Dutch announced the evacuation of Batavia; Java could no longer be held against the sustained Japanese attack. That day, in Burma, Japanese forces entered Pegu, a mere forty miles from the capital, Rangoon. On the following day, after Indian troops failed to reopen the Rangoon—Pegu road, General Alexander—who had been the last man to leave the Dunkirk beachhead in June 1940—ordered the evacuation of Rangoon. On March 7, Rangoon was evacuated. That day, in Java, the Dutch surrendered; 100,000 Dutch, British, Australian and American troops were taken prisoner. Their travails had only just begun.
In all, 8,500 Dutch soldiers were to die in captivity, nearly a quarter of those who were taken prisoner. A further 10,500 Dutch civilian internees were to perish, out of 80,000 interned. Many soldiers and civilians died while hiding on remote islands, hoping for rescue, or building boats in which to seek possible succour on other islands. On March 7, on Tjebia Island—known as a ‘fever island’—off Sumatra, the first of nineteen Englishmen who had reached the island after escaping by boat from Singapore, died of disease and exposure. He was Commander Frampton, a member of the naval staff at Singapore. Three days later, another member of the group, the former Air Officer Commanding Far East, Air Vice-Marshal C. W. Pulford, died. So too, before the stranded soldiers, sailors and airmen were able to make their vessel seaworthy, did the former commander of the Singapore naval base, Rear Admiral E. J. Spooner. Those who did later get away were captured by a Japanese submarine and taken prisoner.
The Japanese forces now turned towards New Guinea, occupying Lae and Salamaua on March 8. Two days later they landed in Buka, one of the Solomon Islands. On March 11, with Luzon Island almost entirely under Japanese control, General MacArthur left by motor torpedo boat for Mindanao, the first stage of the journey being through a minefield. After thirty-five hours he reached Mindanao, a journey of 560 miles through Japanese controlled waters. Then, from Mindanao, leaving the Philippines behind him, he flew on to Australia, telling the reporters who met him at an airfield just south of Darwin: ‘I came through, and I shall return’.
On March 7, the German battleship Tirpitz sailed from Trondheim with three destroyers. She failed, however, to reach the Arctic convoy, which was her target, while the British Home Fleet also failed initially to intercept her. Three days later, after Enigma fixed the ship’s location, aircraft from the Victorious attacked her, but unsuccessfully. The mere existence of the Tirpitz in Arctic waters was to cause continual and grave alarm to the convoys to Russia. She had the power to attack any convoy and to sink all its ships. There was no way of taking for granted that she could be sunk, even when identified and located.
On March 12, ten Soviet parachutists landed near Birzai, in Lithuania. They were seen, chased and shot, and all their equipment, including a radio transmitter, was seized. But such setbacks did nothing to deter the despatch of further partisan units behind the German lines.
On March 13, the German war against the Jews took yet another evil turn. Hitherto, there was only one camp, Chelmno, to which Jews were deported with the sole aim of killing them the moment they arrived. Now a second such camp was ready, at Belzec, on the eastern edge of the General Government. The first six thousand Jews deported there, from the southern Polish town of Mielec, had been told that they were needed for agricultural work further east. But their destination was death. They were followed three days later by 1,600 Jews from Lublin. By the end of the year, Jews from more than two hundred communities throughout the Lublin region, and East and West Galicia, had been driven from their homes, deported by rail to Belzec, and killed there; a total of 360,000 victims. Also gassed at Belzec, as the death camp memorial stone records, were 1,500 Poles, deported to the camp ‘for helping Jews’.
Even as the first of what were to be several trains a day took Jews to Belzec, the German Enigma messages revealed to the British a build up of German rail traffic, as well as airfield construction, in the Ukraine, especially south of Kharkov. On March 14 the War Cabinet’s Joint Intelligence Committee concluded that the next major German offensive would be against the Russian southern front. Further Enigma messages showed that it was being fixed for May 15. Churchill, knowing the Russian disappointment that no Anglo-American landing in northern Europe was possible that summer, offered Stalin a massive British bomber offensive against German industrial targets, with the aim, Churchill explained on March 14 to the Chiefs of Staff representative in Washington, of ‘taking the weight off Russia by the heaviest air offensive against Germany which can be produced, having regard to other calls on our air power’.
That British offensive had effectively begun on the night of March 8, with a raid by 211 bombers against Essen. Despite special marker flares and initial incendiary drops, little damage had been done. A few nights later, the whole force attacked the wrong town, Hamborn, eight miles from Essen, after a bomber which had been hit had jettisoned its direction-indicating incendiaries. On another occasion, decoy fires at Rheinburg, twenty miles from Essen, had lured most of the crews away from the real target. These setbacks did not however weaken Bomber Command’s determination to bomb accurately and effectively. Hitler’s pledge, on March 15, in a speech in Berlin, that Russia would be ‘annihilatingly defeated’ in the coming summer, only strengthened Churchill’s resolve to give Russia the maximum support from the air, support for which Stalin, who was not always forthcoming, gave acknowledgement and thanks.
Stalin’s armies did not intend to wait for Hitler’s attack, nor were the Soviet forces behind the German lines relaxing their efforts in any way. ‘The activity of the partisans has increased notably in recent weeks,’ Goebbels noted in his diary on March 16. ‘They are conducting a well-organized guerrilla war.’ To combat partisan activity, a special air detachment had been set up two days earlier in Bobruisk, to bomb partisan camps and seek out from the air the movement of partisan units. This air detachment was to be made ready for action as part of Operation Munich, an anti-partisan sweep planned to begin in the third week of March. Further behind the lines, in Kovno, twenty-four Jews who were found outside the ghetto on March 17 trying to buy food from local Lithuanians were shot by the Gestapo. That same day, in Ilja, north of Minsk, nine hundred Jews were rounded up and shot, despite a courageous attempt at collective resistance.
Operation Munich was launched on March 19. Supported by the newly created air detachment, German troops struck at partisan bases throughout the Yelnya—Dorogobuzh area. In a further sweep, near Bobruisk, code-named Operation Bamberg, Russian villages were set on fire and their inhabitants killed in raids which, though punitive in the extreme, and killing 3,500 villagers, served only to intensify the hatred of the occupier, and to intensify the determination to help the partisans, who almost invariably escaped the net to fight again, and to return. However ferociously the Germans struck, the partisans fought back, reinforced by parachute drops of arms and men. ‘There are indications’, the Third Panzer Army reported later in March, ‘that the partisan movement in the region of Velikiye Luki, Vitebsk, Rudnya, Velizh is now being organized on a large scale. The fighting strength of the partisans hitherto active is being bolstered by individual units of regular troops’—men trained in the use of heavy weapons, artillery and anti-tank guns. A similar accretion of Soviet partisan strength was reported near Polotsk.
Soviet partisans, 1942
The first day of Operation Munich, March 19, was also the day of a German Army directive issued to all occupation troops in Serbia and Croatia, insisting that wherever Yugoslav partisan activity had taken place, the houses, and even the villages, suspected of having been used by the partisans were to be destroyed. ‘Removal of the population to concentration camps can also be useful,’ the directive added. If it was not possible to ‘apprehend or seize’ the partisans themselves, ‘reprisal measures of a general nature may be in order, for example the shooting of male inhabitants of nearby localities’. This shooting was to be done, the directive explained, ‘according to a specific ratio, for example, a hundred Serbs for one German killed, fifty Serbs for one German wounded’.
Similar acts and ratios of reprisals took place throughout the areas under German occupation. On March 20, in the Polish town of Zgierz, a hundred Poles were taken from a nearby labour camp to be shot; all six thousand inhabitants of Zgierz and its surrounding villages being driven to the market place and forced to watch the execution. That same day, at Rastenburg, Hitler spoke to his guest, Dr Goebbels, of the Jews. ‘Here the Führer is as uncompromising as ever,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘The Jews must be got out of Europe, if necessary by applying the most brutal methods.’
On March 21, Hitler authorized Fritz Sauckel, his Plenipotentiary General for Labour Mobilization, to obtain, by whatever methods might be needed, the labour force required to push the German war economy into its highest possible productive capacity. Labourers could be brought from all the occupied lands; even seized, if necessary, from the streets. Yet from Eastern Galicia, for the rest of the year, Jews continued to be deported, not to forced labour, but to Belzec and to their deaths, including a thousand from Tarnopol on March 25 and six thousand from Stanislawow six days later. From Germany, too, Jews were sent to Belzec, and to their immediate destruction; on March 24 there were deportations to Belzec of 42 Jews from Jülich, 320 from Würzburg and 224 from Fürth. None of these deportees survived.
Under the Labour Decree of March 31, however, a different concept of deportation was about to be put into effect: the selection of deportees into those ‘fit’ to work and those ‘unfit’. Whereas at Chelmno and Belzec, and shortly at Treblinka and Sobibor, all deportees were to continue to be killed, irrespective of whether they were ‘fit’ to work or not, at a new camp, Birkenau, attached to the existing concentration camp of Auschwitz, a ‘selection’ was to take place of all arrivals. The able-bodied, both men and women, were to be sent to the barracks of Birkenau as a labour force, cruelly treated, but set to work in factories and farms. The old, the sick and all the children were sent, within hours, to the specially constructed gas chambers, and killed by gas.
The first deportation of Jews to Auschwitz took place on March 26, when 999 Jewish women from Slovakia reached the camp, and were sent to the barracks. They were followed on March 27 by a deportation of Jews from France, a so-called ‘special’ train which left Paris with 1,112 deportees. One of the French deportees, Georges Rieff, managed to jump from the train before it reached the German border, and escaped. Of the rest, more than half were gassed not long after their arrival. Those ‘selected’ to work were fortunate, but only in the short term; only twenty-one of them were still alive five months later.
All over Europe, Jews were being rounded up for deportation, held in camps, and then sent by train to Auschwitz. The conditions in these holding camps were themselves cruel and demoralizing, weakening the physical strength and undermining the will. At Westerbork in Holland, at Malines in Belgium, at Drancy on the outskirts of Paris, isolation, hunger and constant indignities were the lot of tens of thousands of men, women and children uprooted from their homes at a moment’s notice, and suddenly deprived of all but the most pathetic of personal possessions. In southern France, the holding camps were if anything more unpleasant and debilitating than those further north. At Gurs, Noé and Récébédou in the Pyrenees, at Rivesaltes near the Mediterranean coast, and at Les Milles in Provence, the daily rigours of life were a grim prelude to the uncertainties of deportation and its evil outcome; in these four camps alone, 1,864 people, lacking even the rudiments of medical help or spiritual hope, died before deportation.
Death camps, deportations, air raids and reprisals, 1942
That March, the deportations to Belzec were being discussed in Berlin. ‘Beginning with Lublin,’ Dr Goebbels noted in his diary on 27 March, ‘the Jews under the General Government are now being evacuated eastward. The procedure is pretty barbaric and is not to be described here more definitely. Not much will remain of the Jews. About sixty per cent of them will have to be liquidated; only about forty per cent can be used for forced labour.’ Odilo Globocnik, the former Gauleiter of Vienna, who was carrying out the measure, was doing it, Goebbels noted, ‘with considerable circumspection and in a way that does not attract too much attention’. Goebbels’ diary entry continued: ‘Though the judgement now being visited upon the Jews is barbaric, they fully deserve it. The prophecy which the Führer made about them for having brought on a new world war is beginning to come true in a most terrible manner. One must not be sentimental in these matters. If we did not fight the Jews, they would destroy us. It’s a life-and-death struggle between the Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus.’
‘No other government,’ Goebbels reflected with pride, ‘and no other régime, would have the strength for such a global solution as this.’
On March 23, Japanese forces occupied the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, this former British penal colony having been earlier evacuated by its British and Gurkha garrison. In the Mediterranean, a British attempt to reinforce Malta met with disaster that day, when Italian naval forces sank four merchant ships bringing oil fuel to the beleaguered island; of the 26,000 tons of petrol carried by the convoy, only 5,000 tons were salvaged. It had been possible to send up only five British fighters to counter an attack by two hundred aircraft; later, when forty-seven Spitfires reached Malta as reinforcements, thirty of them were destroyed during a German air assault.
In the early hours of March 28, British naval and commando forces carried out Operation Chariot, an attack on the German dry-dock at St Nazaire. As this was the only dock on the Atlantic coast capable of repairing Germany’s one surviving modern battleship, the Tirpitz, its destruction would seriously hinder the use of the Tirpitz as a commerce raider in the Atlantic. In the attack, the dock was seriously damaged, and four hundred Germans killed, many of them in their own cross-fire. Of the 611 British commandos taking part in the raid, 205 were killed, and most of the others taken prisoner; 185 British sailors were also killed. Four Victoria Crosses, two of them posthumous, were won in the action, which disabled the dry dock for the rest of the war. In the panic when the raid began, the Germans had fired on the French civilian workers at the dock, killing three hundred; a total death toll that March 28 of more than a thousand soldiers, sailors and civilians.
Even as the commando raid on St Nazaire was in progress, Hitler, at Rastenburg, was informing his military commanders of their tasks for the summer campaign against Russia, Operation Blue. First, the city of Voronezh, on the Don, would be captured, then Stalingrad, on the Volga. Further south, the Caucasus mountains were to be reached by early September. After the defeat of the Russian armies, an East Wall would be built along the Volga, behind which the remnants of Russia’s armies would remain, to be attacked whenever they threatened to become too strong.
Also on March 28, in an attempt to tie down as many Russian troops as possible in the Far East during the coming offensive, Joachim von Ribbentrop pressed the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin, Count Oshima, to secure a Japanese attack on Russia simultaneously with Germany’s ‘crushing blow’. The German General Staff, in order to encourage such a Japanese attack, would send their Japanese opposite numbers a specific proposal for a Japanese attack against Vladivostok and on to Lake Baikal.
Such was Ribbentrop’s proposal to Japan on March 28. But the Japanese took no action.
Over western Europe, British air forces were particularly active on March 28, a day which saw the first parachute drop of supplies to the British agents in France. The drop, at Blyes, was successful. That night, 234 British bombers left their bases in Britain to strike at the German Baltic port of Lübeck. ‘The main object of the attack,’ the head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, later recalled, ‘was to learn to what extent a first wave of aircraft could guide a second wave to the aiming-point by starting a conflagration; I ordered a half-an-hour interval between the two waves in order to allow the fires to get a good hold.’ Harris added, by way of explanation of the choice of Lübeck as a target that night: ‘Lübeck was not a vital target, but it seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to toil to destroy a large industrial city’. In addition, Harris wrote, ‘I wanted my crews to be well “blooded” as they say in fox-hunting, to have a taste of success for a change.’
The Eastern Front, May 1942
Two thousand of Lübeck’s buildings were totally destroyed that night, and 312 German civilians killed. Of the 191 bombers which reached the city, twelve were shot down. Fifteen thousand Germans had lost their homes. ‘This Sunday has been thoroughly spoiled’, Goebbels noted in his diary, ‘by an exceptionally heavy air raid by the Royal Air Force on Lübeck’. Eighty per cent of the medieval city, he added, ‘must be considered lost’.
Even as Goebbels contemplated the destruction of Lübeck, the British faced a setback in the despatch of war supplies to Russia; on the morning of March 29, four Allied ships, scattered from their destroyer escort by a ferocious storm, were attacked and sunk. In the ensuing battles between the escort—including two Russian destroyers—and the German submarines, the cold was so intense that sea-spray, sweeping over the ships, froze solid on the gun-mountings. Nevertheless, two German submarines were sunk.
The month of March had seen the greatest Allied losses in the war at sea; 273 merchant ships had been sunk, including ninety-five in the North Atlantic and ninety-eight in the Far East, with a total of 834,184 tons. Also in the Far East, on March 31 the Japanese reached their most southerly point of conquest, the Australian territory of Christmas Island, south of Java, whose garrison of a hundred British troops surrendered that day. But although the island was a valuable source of phosphate, it was so small and rocky as to be unsuitable for the construction of an airstrip; the Japanese therefore evacuated it four days later.
On 1 April 1942, nineteen merchant ships, Convoy PQ 13, set sail from Iceland for Russia; five were sunk, and their principal escort, the cruiser Trinidad, crippled by German torpedoes. Also on April 1, Operation Performance saw the attempted breakout of ten Norwegian merchant ships from the Swedish port of Gothenburg; five of the merchant ships were sunk by the Germans before they could get clear of the Skagerrak, one was too severely damaged to continue, and two turned back; only two reached Britain safely.
That day also saw the Japanese launch Operation C, using five aircraft-carriers which had taken part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, to cross the Indian Ocean, refuel at Addu Atoll in the Maldive Islands, and bomb Colombo, the capital of Ceylon, four days later, sinking two British cruisers, Dorsetshire and Cornwall, the armed merchant cruiser Hector and the destroyer Tenedos; more than five hundred men were drowned. A further three hundred men died when the aircraft carrier Hermes and the destroyer Vampire were bombed and sunk at Trincomalee. During this same raid, twenty-three merchant ships were sunk in the Bay of Bengal, with a total of 112,000 tons lost. During the raids on Colombo and Trincomalee, thirty-six Japanese aircraft had been shot down; but the raid caused alarm in Calcutta, and seemed to herald yet further and spectacular Japanese advances.
On April 13 Japanese bombers struck at the Burmese city of Mandalay; two thousand people were killed and much of the city set on fire. That same day Japanese troops began a massive assault on the American troops still holding out in the Bataan Peninsula. From his headquarters in Australia, General MacArthur ordered a counter-attack. But his men on Bataan were wracked by malaria and dysentery, hunger, and a severe shortage of munitions.
The Japanese ability to strike at will was evident on April 6, when Japanese bombs fell on two towns in the Madras Presidency, Coconada and Vizagapatam, on the coast of India, while, more than four and a half thousand miles to the east, Japanese troops landed at Lorengau in the Admiralty Islands, less than eight hundred miles from Cape York in Australia.
In Hitler’s Europe, tyranny spread its tentacles further with every day. On April 3, in Germany itself, the deportation of 129 Jews from Augsburg to Belzec marked the final destruction of a community which had been a centre of Jewish settlement and culture for more than seven hundred years. That same day, 1,200 Jews from the Eastern Galician town of Tlumacz were deported to Belzec, followed on April 4 by 1,500 Jews from the neighbouring town of Horodenka.
At his East Prussian headquarters at Rastenburg, Hitler agreed with Himmler, at a dinner-time talk on April 5, that ‘Germanic’ children from the occupied lands could be taken away from their parents and brought up in special Nazi schools. ‘If we want to prevent Germanic blood from being absorbed by the ruling class of the country we dominate’, Himmler explained, ‘and which subsequently might turn against us, we shall have gradually to subject all the precious Germanic elements to the influence of this instruction.’
Himmler envisaged, as he explained to Hitler, that Dutch, Flemish and French children of ‘Germanic’ origin would all come within the sphere of the special schools. But opposition to Nazi ideology continued, courageously. On the very day that Himmler set out his ‘Germanic’ school scheme to Hitler at Rastenburg, the vast majority of Norway’s Lutheran clergy, meeting in German-occupied Oslo, issued a declaration emphasizing the sovereignty of God above all ideologies; the declaration was read from pulpits throughout Norway, and 654 of Norway’s 699 ministers of religion resigned from their positions as civil servants, while continuing to do their work as clergymen. In Germany, on April 7, the Protestant theologian Karl Friedrich Stellbrink was arrested, together with three Catholic priests, for daring to criticize Nazi rule; seven months later all four churchmen were executed.
In a further attempt to prevent German aircraft being sent to the Eastern Front, the British embarked, on April 8, on a series of sweeps along the Channel coast against German air and military installations. Many German air units were tied down by this method, although the Royal Air Force lost 259 aircraft, for 58 German fighters shot down. Nevertheless, as a result of this deliberate diversion, the Germans were forced to impose flying restrictions on their aircraft in Russia.
On April 8, as Japanese forces intensified their attack on the Americans and Filipinos trapped on Bataan, two thousand of the defenders managed to cross to Corregidor. The remaining 76,000, of whom 12,000 were Americans, surrendered to the Japanese on April 9. They were at once marched the sixty-five miles from Balanga northward, in conditions of such terrible brutality and privation that more than six hundred Americans, and at least five thousand Filipinos, perished in what later became known as the ‘March of Death’. Many of those who died were clubbed or bayoneted to death when, too weak to walk further, they stumbled and fell. Others were ordered out of the ranks, beaten, tortured and killed. A further sixteen thousand Filipinos, and at least a thousand Americans, died of starvation, disease and brutality during their first few weeks in prisoner-of-war camps.
On the island fortress of Corregidor, General Wainwright continued to hold out, with 13,000 men under his command, despite a sustained and severe artillery bombardment. In India, the leader of the Congress Party, Jawaharlal Nehru, reacted with alarm to Japanese claims that their advance was one of liberation, even, in due course, for India. ‘It distresses me’, Nehru declared on April 12, ‘that any Indian should talk of the Japanese liberating India.’ That day, as the March of Death continued across Bataan, Japanese soldiers set upon nearly four hundred of their Filipino prisoners, hacking them to death with their swords.
As Australians watched with alarm the Japanese advances throughout the Far East and Pacific, Australian troops were in action in the Western Desert, defending Tobruk against a German siege. On April 13 the Germans launched an attack on the fortress, infiltrating between two Australian posts, and striking at a vital strongpoint. There, among the defenders, Corporal Jack Edmondson, a twenty-seven-year-old Australian farmer, although badly wounded in the stomach and neck, helped drive the Germans out. Shortly afterwards he died of his wounds. Posthumously, he was awarded Australia’s first Victoria Cross of the war.
It was on April 14, in London, that the Combined Commanders Group set up by the British and American Chiefs of Staff finally concluded that no Allied action to help Russia was possible in Europe in 1942, apart from small raids. One such raid, albeit on the very smallest of scales, had taken place three days earlier, when two British commandos paddled a canoe into Bordeaux harbour, blowing up a German tanker. Larger raids were planned. But even a much modified European second front was not to take place in 1942. Meanwhile, the grave pressure on Russia continued. In Leningrad, April 15 marked the 248th day of the siege. On that day, the trams were run again, for the first time in many months. A German prisoner-of-war, Corporal Falkenhorst, later told his captors that he had lost his faith in Hitler when he heard the sound of the tram bells that morning. But the month of April also saw 102,497 deaths from starvation in Leningrad, the highest death rate for any month of the siege, though the burials by which the figure was calculated included a few thousand bodies which had lain frozen in the streets throughout the last winter months.
On April 7, a third death camp began its work, when, south-east of Warsaw, from the medieval town of Zamosc, 2,500 Jews were rounded up and sent by train to an ‘unknown destination’. That destination was in fact a camp just outside the village of Sobibor, which had been chosen as the site of a third death camp, on the pattern of Chelmno and Belzec. All who were brought to Sobibor were to be gassed within hours, except for a few hundred set aside for forced labour. From the 2,500 Jews of Zamosc, only one, Moshe Shklarek, was chosen to work. The others were all gassed. By the end of the year, more than a quarter of a million Jews had been brought to Sobibor and murdered, most of them from central Poland, but some from as far west as Holland, more than eight hundred miles away.
The killings at Sobibor were kept a close secret. Even the already deceptive terminology was being tightened up. On April 10 Himmler’s personal secretary had informed the Inspector of Statistics of the Reich that henceforth ‘no mention should be made of the “special treatment of the Jews”. It must be called “transportation of the Jews towards the Russian East”.’
No such secrecy masked the efforts of the Western Allies; on April 17, twelve British bombers flew a daring, low-level daylight raid against the diesel-engine works at Augsburg. Seven of the bombers were shot down. But the raid, flown deep into Germany at a height of only five hundred feet, caught the British public’s imagination; the leader of the raid, John Dering Nettleton, a South African, was awarded the Victoria Cross. Just over a year later he was killed in action during a night bombing raid on Turin.
That same day, April 17, also saw the escape from German captivity of General Henri Giraud; captured in June 1940, he escaped from the maximum-security castle prison at Königstein in Saxony by lowering himself down the castle wall, jumping on board a moving train, and reaching the French border. For the French population, now approaching their third year under German occupation, Giraud’s escape was a fantastic boost for morale, so much so that Himmler ordered the Gestapo to ‘find Giraud and assassinate him’; but the General finally escaped from France on a British submarine, to reach North Africa and safety; for his courageous escape he was awarded the Médaille Militaire. Hitler, for some weeks after Giraud’s escape, was, Goebbels reported, ‘in a black rage’.
The Americans also had a success to celebrate in that third week of April, though they were not to be told of it until the second week in May. On April 18, in strictest secrecy, sixteen American bombers, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Doolittle, launched a raid against the Japanese mainland. Taking off from the American aircraft-carrier Hornet, the Doolittle raiders flew 823 miles across the Pacific, to bomb oil and naval installations in Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, Nagoya and Yokosuka. At Yokosuka, the aircraft-carrier Ryuho was hit while in dry dock. Unable to fly back over such a great distance, the American bombers flew on to China.
One bomber crash-landed on Soviet soil, near Vladivostock; its crew was interned. Two other bombers crash-landed on Japanese controlled territory; of their eight crew members, captured by the Japanese, three were executed. Angered by the raid, which showed that the heart of the Empire of the Rising Sun was not invulnerable, the Japanese occupied the Chinese province of Chekiang, intending thereby to prevent further overlying missions.
April 18, so successful a day for the Americans, saw the destruction in German-occupied Russia, of a Soviet partisan force in Dorogobuzh; its commander, Colonel Yefremov, having been severely wounded in the back, unable to help his men and unwilling to be taken prisoner, put a pistol to his temple. ‘Boys,’ he said, ‘this is the end for me, but you go on fighting.’ Then he shot himself; his men, fighting on, though almost beaten, never gave up. Some, reaching the nearby front line, returned in due course to harry the Germans behind the lines.
In the Atlantic, April 21 saw the first day of the sailing of the first of several German submarine tankers, boats with no offensive capabilities, but laden with stores, spare parts, and seven hundred tons of diesel fuel each, six hundred tons of which were available for the refuelling of fourteen combat submarines. Helped by this independent source of fuel supply far from their French coastal bases, thirty-two German submarines operated off the East Coast of the United States, and in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, sinking Allied merchant ships as they sailed northward to join the Atlantic convoys.
Behind Japanese lines, Allied prisoners-of-war were being confronted with a savagery of which they had no previous experience, or intimation. On April 22, at a prisoner-of-war camp at Bandung, an Australian medical officer, Colonel Edward Dunlop, recorded in his diary the fate of three Dutch prisoners-of-war who had been caught while trying to escape: ‘Tied to poles and bayoneted to death like pigs before their comrades.’ On being asked if they had a final request, Dunlop added, ‘first man asked for eye bandage to be removed and said firmly “Long live the Queen” which all then said in turn’. A Dutch officer who fainted on witnessing the scene was ‘severely rebuked’ by a Japanese officer ‘for his unmanliness’.
On April 20, the British and Americans launched a combined Operation, Calendar, to deliver forty-seven fighters to Malta. They were brought into the Mediterranean on the American carrier Wasp, then flown seven hundred miles to Malta. But once in Malta, before they could be put into sheltered revetments, or even refuelled, all but ten of them were destroyed in a German air raid. Mussolini now pressed the Germans to carry out Operation C3, the occupation of Malta, but Hitler, on the eve of his second major Russian offensive, refused.
While preparing for a second attempt to reinforce Malta by air, the British carried out a second small raid on the French coast on April 22. This was Operation Abercrombie, sending fifty British and fifty Canadian troops across the English Channel to land at the beach at Hardelot, as training for a more substantial raid planned for August. ‘For the Canadians, unfortunately,’ one of their military historians has written, ‘this little enterprise was just another fiasco. The naval craft which carried them, failed to put them ashore, and while they came under German fire, they took no actual part in the operation.’ A more distant, and highly secret, British operation was being planned that week, after the ‘Tube Alloys’ Technical Committee, responsible for atomic bomb research and Intelligence, recommended that an attempt should be made to stop the German production of heavy water in Norway. This heavy water was an essential component of the manufacture of the atomic bomb; as a result of ‘recent experiments’, the committee reported, it seemed that plutonium could be used in such a bomb, and that ‘it would best be prepared in systems using heavy water’.
Special Operations Executive now had a new task, to plan the destruction of the German heavy water plant at Vermork. As it set about making its plans, the war of high-explosive and incendiary bombs intensified. On April 23, in retaliation for the British bombing raid on Lübeck, forty-five German bombers struck at Exeter. The raid having failed, sixty bombers came over again on the following night. Also on the night of April 24, a hundred and fifty German bombers attacked Bath. As they did so, British bombers, flying in the opposite direction, struck at Rostock, on the Baltic. But it was the German raids, all on medieval city centres, known therefore as ‘Baedeker Raids’, which caused the greatest damage to morale; in Bath, four hundred civilians had been killed. On April 27 Norwich was the target, and on April 28 both Norwich and York, where the fifteenth century Guildhall was destroyed. During the first five days of these ‘Baedeker Raids’, 938 British civilians were killed. The government departments concerned, Churchill told his War Cabinet on April 27, when the raids were at their height, ‘should do all they could to ensure that disproportionate publicity was not given to these raids. Our attacks on Germany were inflicting much greater damage; and it was important to avoid giving the impression that the Germans were making full reprisal.’ German Air Force losses on the raids were in fact too heavy for the Germans to continue them much longer; particularly harmful to Germany’s air power were the losses in instructional crews brought in from the Reserve Training Units to help lead the raids.
Hitler, returning from Rastenburg to Berlin on April 26, was particularly angered by the raid on Rostock, where seventy per cent of the houses in the old city centre had been destroyed and the Heinkel aircraft works badly damaged. Discussing the bombing of Rostock and the reprisal raids with Goebbels, he told his Minister of Propaganda on April 27 that he would ‘repeat these raids night after night until the English were sick and tired of terror attacks’. Goebbels noted: ‘He shares my opinion absolutely that cultural centres, health resorts and civilian centres must be attacked now. There is no other way of bringing the English to their senses. They belong to a class of human beings with whom you can talk only after you have first knocked out their teeth.’
Churchill’s fears in the last week of April were not for Britain, but for Malta. On April 24 he asked Roosevelt to authorize the American aircraft carrier Wasp to make a second dash with air reinforcements. ‘Without this aid’, Churchill warned, ‘I fear Malta will be pounded to bits.’ Its defence, however, was in Churchill’s view ‘wearing out the enemy’s Air Force and effectively aiding Russia’. It was about Russia that Hitler spoke, on April 26, when he addressed the Reichstag in Berlin. The Russian winter of 1941 had been exceptionally severe, he said, the worst for 140 years, with temperatures as low as minus fifty degrees centigrade; but with the coming of spring he foresaw ‘great victories’ for the German forces.
Hitler’s speech contained more than promises; it was dominated by an appeal for ‘obedience to only one idea, namely the fight for victory’. In stern words, full of threat, Hitler warned his listeners: ‘Let nobody now preach about his well-earned rights. Let each man clearly understand, from now on there are only duties.’