On 27 April 1942 British bombers again struck at Rostock, on the Baltic. ‘Seven-tenths of the city have been wiped out,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘More than 100,000 people had to be evacuated’. There had in fact, Goebbels added, been ‘panic’ in the city. The American air raid on Tokyo was also the subject of much talk and speculation; it had not yet been admitted to by the United States. ‘It is even reported from Japan’, Roosevelt told the American people in his fireside chat on April 28, ‘that somebody has dropped bombs on Tokyo and on other principal centres of Japanese war industries. If this be true,’ Roosevelt added, ‘it is the first time in history that Japan has suffered such indignities.’
It was not indignities, however, but successes, that came to the Japanese war machine as April drew to its close. On April 29, Japanese forces seized Lashio, the terminus of the Burma Road, through which Amerian and British supplies were being sent to China. On April 27, as the Japanese grip on Burma intensified, General Stilwell had sought permission, now that his position inside China was untenable, to withdraw to India, taking with him the 100,000 Chinese troops under his command; Washington authorized his withdrawal on April 30. Four days later, the British were forced to abandon the port of Akyab on the Bay of Bengal, less than a hundred miles from the border of India.
In German-occupied Europe, resistance was everywhere apparent, but ruthlessly suppressed. In the Norwegian fishing port of Taelvag, two Germans and one Norwegian were killed when a resistance group was caught by surprise; in reprisal, every house and all the fishing boats of the village were destroyed, and all twenty-six men between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five sent to concentration camps in Germany, where most of them died. At the same time, the Germans shot eighteen young Norwegians who had been arrested at Ålesund two months earlier, while trying to escape by boat to England. ‘I hope these executions will have their effect in changing the attitude of the Norwegian population,’ Goebbels wrote in his diary on May 5. ‘If they don’t want to learn to love us, they must at least fear us.’
In Greece, in May 1942, the Germans launched Operation Olympus against Greek partisans; but the peasants, themselves so often the victims of reprisals, provided food, hiding places and escape routes. On May 1, in German-occupied Russia, Soviet partisans in one region put up forty-five Red Flags, to which mines were attached to blow up anyone trying to pull them down. Elsewhere, May Day festivities were arranged with the local population, with village dancing and the singing of patriotic songs. There were also widespread anti-German demonstrations in France. But the daily terror was unremitting. On May 1 the German ruler of the Warthegau, Arthur Greiser, wrote to Himmler from Poznan to propose that Poles with tuberculosis should be sent to Chelmno for ‘special treatment’. That same May, more than nineteen thousand Jews were gassed at Chelmno, as well as more than six thousand at Auschwitz, five thousand at Belzec and thirty-six thousand at Sobibor. That same month, in German-occupied Russia, five thousand Jews in Dubno, judged ‘non-productive’ for the German war effort, were taken outside the town and killed in a hail of rifle and machine-gun fire; elsewhere in German-occupied Russia, thirty thousand Jews were murdered that month in fields and ditches, a total Jewish death toll in a single month in excess of 130,000.
For the Western Allies, particularly as there was not to be any invasion of Europe in 1942, the justice of the Allied cause was something which seemed to need reiteration; on May 2 the United States War Department set up a special Photo Signal Detachment, in which seven Hollywood scriptwriters prepared a series of films, under the general title ‘Why We Fight’, to explain the origins and development of the war. The first of these films, Prelude to War, directed by Frank Capra, was only ready for release, however, a year after the detachment was set up.
On May 2, alerted by their daily reading of the most secret Japanese cyphers, United States naval forces intercepted a Japanese fleet escorting two invasion forces across the Coral Sea, one aiming for Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, the other for Port Moresby, on the southern coast of New Guinea, less than five hundred miles from Australia. For four days, a series of battles were fought, mostly from the decks of aircraft carriers, in which seventy Japanese and sixty-six American warplanes were shot down; almost equal losses in what was the first ‘air—naval’ battle in history: not a single shot was fired by the ships against each other, the battle being entirely fought by aircraft from the aircraft carriers of the two fleets, plane against plane and plane against ship. During the battle, the American fleet aircraft carrier Lexington was so badly damaged by aerial attack that she had to be sunk; of her crew, 216 had been killed by Japanese bombs and aerial torpedoes. The Japanese lost the light aircraft carrier Shoho. If ships lost were the measure, it was a Japanese victory. Japan, however, was forced as a result of her losses in the air battle, particularly of highly trained and experienced pilots, to call a halt to her southward expansion.
Among the heroes of the Battle of the Coral Sea was a United States Navy lieutenant, John James Powers. Four months later, Roosevelt was to speak during a radio broadcast of how, on the third day of the battle, Powers said to his fellow pilots: ‘Remember, the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.’ Dropping from eight thousand feet, Powers released his bomb less than two hundred feet from the deck of a carrier; his plane was destroyed by the explosion of his own bomb. ‘I have received a recommendation from the Secretary of the Navy’, Roosevelt said, ‘that Lieutenant James Powers of New York City, missing in action, be awarded the Medal of Honour. I hereby and now make this award.’
On May 5, as the Battle of the Coral Sea entered its third day, Japanese forces landed on Corregidor in the Philippines. The landing had been long expected, and had been preceded by artillery bombardments of exceptional ferocity, culminating in 16,000 shells in the twenty-four hours before the landing. On the morning of May 6, after General Wainwright was told that nearly eight hundred of his men had already been killed, he broadcast a message of surrender to the Japanese, then radioed his decision to Roosevelt in Washington and MacArthur in Australia. The Japanese, in their initial amphibious assault on the island fortress, had lost 1,200 men. In Manila, the Japanese were seeking Filipino leaders to serve under them. The Chief Justice of the Philippines, José Abad Santos, refused to do so. He was executed on May 7.
More than five thousand miles to the west of the Philippines, May 7 saw the climax of Operation Ironclad, a British landing at the Madagascan port of Diego Suarez, an operation aimed at denying the Japanese a base from which to dominate the Indian Ocean. The troops of Vichy France, driven from the port, still resisted, however, any further British advance across the island, and plans had to be made to renew the operation in the autumn.
No day now passed without some military, naval or air initiative by one or other of the combatants. On May 4, in Yugoslavia, the Germans and Italians had launched Operation Trio, their third offensive in six months against Tito’s partisans. One German division, three Italian divisions and several Croat units combed the countryside and villages, searching for partisans and seizing hostages. At Pljevlja, the Italians killed thirty-two hostages; more were killed three days later at Cajnice. Driven from their base at Foca, the partisans moved more than two hundred miles northward, to Bihac.
In German-occupied Russia, the first week of May saw the capture and torture of Isai Kazinets, who for many months had organized partisan activity, both sabotage and reconnaissance, in the Minsk area, and who had also made contact with the Jewish underground in the Minsk ghetto. Kazinets, himself a Jew, though brutally tortured, betrayed nobody. He was hanged on May 7. Twenty-three years later he was posthumously created Hero of the Soviet Union.
The Germans now embarked upon the preliminary phase of their Russian summer offensive, launching on May 8, in the Crimea, an assault on the Kerch Peninsula and on the besieged port city of Sevastopol. Dive-bomber attacks on the Kerch Peninsula devastated the defenders; 170,000 Russian soldiers were taken prisoner. But Sevastopol held out for more than a month. For the collective courage of its defenders, it received the title of Hero City. Also besieged, the island of Malta was the beneficiary on May 9 of a second attempt to provide its defenders with adequate air support. This was Operation Bowery, in which two aircraft carriers, the British Eagle and the American Wasp, brought sixty-two fighters to within seven hundred miles of the island. All reached Malta safely and were then refuelled so quickly as to be ready to take off again within only thirty-five minutes of landing; six of them were refuelled and airborne within nine minutes. That day there were nine German and Italian air raids against Malta, each one successfully intercepted. The safe arrival of the sixty-two fighters proved to be the turning point in Malta’s struggle for air supremacy above the island. Morale in Malta received a further boost that week when the fast British minelayer Welshman managed to cross the Mediterranean from Gibraltar with 340 tons of supplies.
The night of May 9 also saw a British success in the clandestine war of sabotage, when three French agents, who had been parachuted into France three days earlier, blew up the main transmitter of Radio Paris, located near Melun, putting it out of action for two weeks.
Beginning on May 10, and continuing for two days each week until the end of the year, a new death camp came into operation in German-occupied Russia. It was located just outside Minsk, near the village of Maly Trostenets, where Russian prisoners-of-war and Jews had been forced to build barracks for six hundred slave labourers and their German and Ukrainian guards. To Maly Trostenets were brought by train tens of thousands of Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. From the train station they were driven towards the village in large vans. These vans were mobile gas chambers; when the vans reached the camp all those inside them were dead. The corpses were taken out, as at Chelmno, by a special prisoners’ unit, which threw them into deep pits.
The existence of Maly Trostenets was kept a close secret. Although tens of thousands of Jews were brought there from Western Europe and killed, even the name of the camp was unknown to those who, in the Allied capitals, tried to monitor the fate of Hitler’s victims.
War-weariness had led to a plethora of hopes and rumours throughout the warring globe. In the Warsaw ghetto it had been rumoured on May 8 that the Red Army had retaken Smolensk and Kharkov, that 43,000 Germans had been killed on Lake Ilmen south of Leningrad, that Mussolini had been deposed, and that Roosevelt had given the German people until May 15 to surrender. On May 11, in a prisoner-of-war camp at Bandung, the Australian, British and Dutch prisoners-of-war discussed the ‘news’, which Colonel Dunlop described as ‘an extraordinary mixture and mostly tripe’, that Hungary, Roumania and Bulgaria had each surrendered to the Russians, that the Germans had marched out of Holland, and that Anthony Eden had made a speech ‘giving an ultimatum to Germany to surrender completely’. One item of real news, made public in America on May 10, was the ‘Doolittle Raid’ on Tokyo. On the following day, the aircrew which had crash-landed at Vladivostok and been interned by the Russians managed to make their escape from a village in the Urals to the Persian border; once inside Persia, a British consul guided them to the Indian border city of Quetta.
‘We’re all hoping that we’ll be able to bring the war to an end this year,’ General Rommel wrote confidently to his wife from the Western Desert on May 12, and he added: ‘It will soon have lasted three full years.’ That day, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army launched a surprise attack on the German forces south of Kharkov, forcing the Germans to postpone their own plans for an offensive later in May. At his headquarters at Rastenburg, Hitler’s thoughts, like Rommel’s, were on the post-war world of victory and peace: that day, musing on the future of his empire, Hitler drew the floor plan of a new art gallery for Linz, and sketched out the rough plans of a mansion to be built on a hill above the Danube, with grand entrance hall, pavilion terrace and, upstream from the main house, a special ‘architecture garden’.
On May 13, Russian troops were forced to withdraw from the Kerch Peninsula. South of Kharkov, however, they continued to advance. In Leningrad, the deaths from starvation, while not as many as in April, were still in their thousands every day. It was on May 13 that Tanya Savicheva, a young girl who had been in the city throughout the siege, noted in her child’s address book, under the letter M: ‘Mummy May 13 at 7.30 morning 1942. The Savichevs are dead. All dead. Only Tanya remains.’ Earlier alphabetical pages showed ‘Zhenya, died Dec 28’, ‘Granny, died Jan 25’, ‘Leka, died March 17’, ‘Uncle Vasya, died April 13’ and ‘Uncle Lyosha, May 10’.
Evacuated to Gorky, on the Volga, Tanya herself died of chronic dysentery in the summer of 1943.
On May 14, German torpedo bombers sank the cruiser Trinidad west of Bear Island, as it escorted Allied merchant ships on the summer route of the Russian convoy run from Iceland to Archangel. Eighty sailors were killed, twenty of whom were injured men who had been taken off the cruiser Edinburgh, when she had been hit on the same run two weeks earlier. But more than a hundred merchant ships managed to reach Murmansk that month, with their war cargoes for the Russian front. It was on May 17 that the Germans launched their second offensive of 1942 on that front, striking at the westward bulge in the Russian lines at Izyum, south-east of Kharkov; the Germans captured Izyum on the following day, clearing a major obstacle to the principal offensive towards Stalingrad, and capturing 214,000 Soviet soldiers and 1,200 tanks.
In Berlin, anti-Nazi posters had begun to appear in the streets that May, and several of the exhibits in an anti-Soviet exhibition had been set on fire. Twenty-seven people were arrested for these acts of defiance. All of them were Jews, led by Herbert Baum, a German Communist. Among the group were two sisters, Alice and Hella Hirsch, aged nineteen and twenty-two respectively, and Baum’s sister, Marianne. All but two of those arrested were executed or perished. Also sentenced to death on May 18, at Wandsworth Prison, London, was a citizen of Gibraltar, José Key, arrested on the Rock two and a half months earlier for having passed on to the Germans information about the movement of Allied ships and aircraft.
As the Japanese advanced deeper and deeper into Burma, the British Commander-in-Chief, General Alexander, ordered his troops across the border into India, to the region of Imphal. The Chinese forces in Burma, led by General Chiang Kai-shek, fell back to the road between Myitkyina and Fort Herz; they were also soon to cross into India, to the Ledo region. Inside China, an Australian surgeon, Lieutenant-Colonel Lindsay Ride, who had recently escaped from Japanese captivity, was formally appointed on May 16 to be the representative of British Military Intelligence’s escape organization, MI9. Colonel Ride not only helped to organize the return to India of prisoners-of-war who managed to escape from Japanese captivity, but also provided medical help for tens of thousands of Chinese in an area where the Chinese Army had no medical service at all. From his base at Kweilin, Ride also issued twice-daily weather reports, which were of inestimable help to the Allied air forces operating over China, just as, from German-occupied Poland, the Polish underground Home Army sent twice-daily weather reports to Britain, to assist British bombing operations over Germany.
The German discomfiture in Europe was continuous; on May 19 British bombers raided Mannheim. That same day, as the German Army continued its counter-offensive on the Eastern Front against the Red Army, Soviet partisans, as Goebbels noted in his diary, ‘blasted the railway tracks in the central front between Bryansk and Roslavl at five points—a further proof of their extremely discomfiting activity’. South of that region, Goebbels added, Hungarian troops were fighting ‘under great difficulties’, and he went on to explain: ‘They must now capture one village after another and pacify it, a thing that has not proved exactly a constructive process. For when the Hungarians report that they have “pacified” a village, this usually means that not a single inhabitant is left. In consequence, we can hardly get any agricultural work done in such regions’.
Further behind the lines, ‘pacification’ had also been brutal. On May 21, 4,300 Jews were deported from the town of Chelm to the death camp at Sobibor, less than twenty-five miles away. On arrival, all were gassed. Also on May 21, more than two thousand Jews were taken from their homes in the Volhynian town of Korzec, and murdered in the fields near by. That same day, the German industrial firm of IG Farben set up a factory at Monowitz, just outside Auschwitz, for the manufacture of synthetic oil and rubber; the principal source of labour for the factory was to be Jews deported to Auschwitz, separated from their families, and sent, not to the gas chambers, but to the barracks. There, tattooed with an indelible number on their forearm, they became the slaves of German industry. Hundreds of thousands of them worked at Monowitz; tens of thousands died in conditions of unremitting toil, minimum sustenance and the sadistic brutality of their guards.
On many occasions, Jews were deported to an ‘unknown destination’ which was never to become known. On May 22 it was the turn of eighty young German-Jewish men and women, all of them Zionists, who since 1939 had been living and working on a farm in Germany—at Steckelsdorf, forty-five miles west of Berlin—training for agricultural work in Palestine. That day, they were ordered by the Gestapo to leave. Their destination, they were told, ‘lay in a cold region’. They could therefore take with them two blankets each, as well as washing things and food. The young Jews were taken away, never to be seen or heard of again. Three weeks earlier, 2,100 Jews from Dortmund had been sent east, either to Sobibor or to Belzec, where all of them were gassed on arrival; the young pioneers may well have taken the same route, or perhaps one even further east, to Maly Trostenets.
On May 23, British Intelligence, without revealing its source, sent the Soviet High Command the precise details, culled from the Germans’ own Enigma messages, of where, and in what strength, the principal German summer offensive would come. The Germans themselves, continually harassed by Soviet partisan operations behind the lines, launched Operation Hanover, to try to clear the partisans from the Bryansk—Vyazma railway; for six days, beginning on May 24, as many as 45,000 German troops, including panzer and SS units, searched for an estimated 20,000 partisans, thousands of whom were caught and killed.
Aid to Russia had continued to be sent eastward across the Arctic Sea, but the hazards were enormous. On May 26, a total of 260 German aircraft struck at Convoy PQ 16, helped in finding their targets by the twenty-four hour Arctic day. Seven of the merchant ships were sunk, and many merchant seamen killed. As the remaining ships and their escorts made their way, battered but unbowed, to Murmansk and Archangel, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, was in London, where, on May 26, he signed a twenty-year alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union, whereby both countries undertook ‘to afford one another military and other assistance and support of all kinds in the war against Germany and all those States which are associated with her in acts of aggression in Europe’. Both signatories also agreed not to negotiate or conclude any armistice with Germany or her allies ‘except by mutual consent’.
The day of the signature of the Anglo-Soviet Treaty marked the first day of Rommel’s renewed offensive in the Western Desert. At Bir Hakeim, the desert strongpoint held by Free French forces, many of them members of the Foreign Legion, repeated infantry, tank and air onslaughts could not dislodge the defenders until two weeks had passed. Elsewhere, Rommel pressed back the British line, determined to capture Tobruk and then drive on to the Egyptian border.
On May 27, the second day of Rommel’s assault, and while German forces in Russia continued both to crush the partisans in the rear areas and to straighten their front line near Kharkov, Reinhard Heydrich was ambushed and gravely wounded in Prague by Czech patriots. Two of them, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, had earlier been parachuted into German-occupied Czechoslovakia from Britain. ‘We shall have no problem’, Goebbels noted in his diary on May 28, ‘crushing this attempt at creating chaos in the Protectorate and the occupied territories.’ Goebbels added: ‘My campaign against the Jews in Berlin will be waged along similar lines. I am currently having a Jewish hostage list put together. Sweeping arrests will follow.’
For Goebbels, the attack on Heydrich made no difference to the policy of extermination. ‘Ten Jews either in a concentration camp or six feet under’, he wrote, ‘are preferable to one roaming at large. There is no room for sentimentalism here.’ Nor was there any ‘sentimentalism’ for non-Jews in German-occupied Poland that day, when more than two hundred Poles were taken from Warsaw to the village of Magdalenka and shot, among them three women who had to be brought on stretchers from the Pawiak prison hospital, and fifteen women who had been sent back to Poland from Ravensbrück concentration camp.
On May 29, Hitler, having returned briefly to Berlin from Rastenburg, agreed with Goebbels that all Jews should be removed at once from Berlin. In Paris, the Jews were ordered that day to sew a yellow star on the left side of their coats or jackets. ‘The yellow star may make some Catholics shudder,’ one French collaborationist newspaper declared, but, it went on, ‘it renews the most strictly Catholic tradition.’
As Heydrich lay wounded, deportation and mass murder were being continued. In the Volhynian village of Radziwillow, three thousand Jews were rounded up for slaughter on May 29. A group of young men, among them Asher Czerkaski, organized a breakout. As they ran, fifteen hundred Jews were shot down. The others reached the immediate safety of the nearby forest, but most of them were soon caught and killed.
Still in Berlin on May 30, Hitler told Goebbels, as Goebbels noted in his diary, ‘that all restraint be dispensed with, and that the interests of the security of the Reich be placed above the interests of single individuals from whom we can expect little good’. That day, in a mission organized by Admiral Canaris’s Intelligence service, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer flew to Sweden. There, he held a secret meeting with a British clergyman, Bishop Bell of Chichester, to whom he spoke of the crimes which his nation was committing, and assured Bell of the growing resistance inside Germany to such evil acts.
Hitler spoke that day in Berlin to a group of recently commissioned German officers. ‘I do not doubt for a single second’, he told them, ‘that we shall win in the end. Fate has not led me this far for nothing, from an unknown soldier to the Führer of the German nation, and the Führer of the German Army. She has not done this simply to mock at me and to snatch away at the last moment what had to be gained after so bitter a struggle’. A thousand years earlier, Charlemagne had used harsh measures to create a German Empire; the German Army, Hitler warned, must now use harsh measures in the East if it were to win the space needed for the new German Empire to survive and flourish.
In the East, however, the Russians, despite all their losses, were regaining strength, and intensifying resistance. On May 30, as Hitler spoke to his young officers, a Central Staff of the Partisan Movement was created, whereby Russian operations behind the German lines could be co-ordinated to the best military and psychological effect. That same night, the Germans suffered a physical and psychological blow from the West, the launching by Britain of Operation Millennium, when more than a thousand British bombers raided Cologne. In this, the first ‘thousand bomber raid’ of the war, 1,455 tons of bombs were dropped in ninety minutes; thirty-nine of the bombers were shot down by German night fighters and anti-aircraft fire; two had been destroyed when they collided in mid-air.
The principal object of the raid was Cologne’s chemical and machine tool industries; these were crippled. More than thirteen thousand houses were destroyed, 45,000 people made homeless, and 469 killed. ‘Of course’, Hermann Goering wrote in his diary, ‘the effects of aerial warfare are terrible if one looks at individual cases, but one has to accept them.’
‘I hope you were pleased with our mass air attack on Cologne,’ Churchill telegraphed to Roosevelt on the following day, and he added: ‘There is plenty more to come….’
The repercussions of the Cologne raid were considerable. In the Warsaw ghetto, the captive Jews rejoiced. ‘Cologne was an advance payment’, Emanuel Ringelblum noted in his diary a few months later, ‘on the vengeance that must and shall be taken on Hitler’s Germany for the millions of Jews they have killed. So the Jewish population of tortured Europe considered Cologne its personal act of vengeance.’ As for himself: ‘After the Cologne affair, I walked around in a good mood, feeling that, even if I should perish at their hands, my death is prepaid!’
At Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg, Albert Speer, a visitor three days after the raid, recalled: ‘The excitement over the air raid on Cologne had not yet died down’. Nor did Britain intend that it should do so. ‘This proof of the growing power of Britain’s bomber force’, Churchill told ‘Bomber’ Harris, ‘is also the herald of what Germany will receive, city by city, from now on.’ Only William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, broadcasting from Berlin in his regular attempt to lower British morale, turned Cologne into a threat for Britain. ‘Mr Churchill boasts of the attack on Cologne as an instalment of the hell that Germany is to receive,’ Joyce declared, and he added: ‘The German attitude is, “Give us more hell, as much as you can, and we shall repay the hell with interest.”’
Inside Germany, and German-occupied Europe, it was the aftermath of Heydrich’s wounding that was leading to ‘hell with interest’. ‘Heydrich is in critical condition’, Goebbels noted in his diary on May 31. A ‘whole crowd of Jews’, he wrote, had already been shot in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and he added: ‘The more of this filthy race we eliminate, the better things will be for the security of the Reich.’ Two days later, a thousand Jews were deported from Vienna by train to Minsk; they were most probably taken on at once to Maly Trostenets and their death. On 3 June, 110 Jews were rounded up in Warsaw, taken to a prison on the edge of the ghetto, and shot. Those killed included several women, two of whom were pregnant. Three days later, Adolf Eichmann ordered the deportation of 450 Jews from the Koblenz region; the inmates of a mental home in a nearby village were, he said, to be included. To maintain secrecy, and deception, Eichmann’s office insisted that the words ‘deportation to the East’ should not be used in describing these moves, but instead ‘people who emigrated elsewhere’.
On the night of May 31, war came briefly to the Australian city of Sydney, when one of two Japanese midget submarines, penetrating the harbour defences, fired its torpedoes at the American cruiser Chicago. They missed, hitting instead the Australian depot ship, Kuttabul, a converted ferry. Twenty sailors died when the ship went down. All four Japanese submariners also died in the attack, two having committed suicide; the four bodies were cremated in Sydney with full naval honours, and their ashes returned to Japan. That same day, more than six thousand miles to the west, other Japanese midget submarines, reaching Madagascar, sank the British merchant ship British Loyalty in Diego Suarez harbour, and damaged the battleship Ramillies. All the Japanese submariners were killed; as at Sydney, theirs had been, in effect, a suicide mission.
May 31 also marked the end of the fifth month of the German submarine sinkings off the eastern seaboard of the United States, and the month of heaviest sinkings; the 111 merchant ships sunk that May bringing the total since the start of the year to 377, more than a hundred of them between New York and Miami. But the war at sea took a favourable turn for the United States in the first week of June, when, alerted by their reading of Japan’s most secret naval messages, American warships intercepted a Japanese naval assault on Midway Island. The Japanese force was a formidable one, eighty-six warships, including four aircraft-carriers. Four times, American aircraft attacked the Japanese ships in vain, sixty-five of the aircraft being shot down. But the fifth attack, made with fifty-four dive-bombers on the morning of June 5, was successful. Three of the four Japanese carriers, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, were sunk. That same afternoon, the fourth carrier, Hiryu, was also destroyed, but not before her own aircraft had badly damaged the American carrier Yorktown, which was sunk by a Japanese submarine on the following day.
For the Japanese, the Battle of Midway was a disaster; not only did they lose the four aircraft carriers and a cruiser, but also 332 aircraft and 3,500 men. The American losses were one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, 150 aircraft and 307 men. That same week, the Japanese landed 1,800 men on the two most westerly of the American islands in the Aleutian chain, Kiska and Attu. Their aim had been to draw American naval forces away from Midway, but, as this deception was known to the American signals eavesdroppers, it failed.
The Americans rejoiced at their victory, which had been made all the more pleasurable by the fact that three of the Japanese aircraft carriers sunk had been among the five which had taken part in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Allies were less fortunate in the Atlantic. In the four weeks beginning on June 1, as a result of their special supply submarines, German submarines had sunk 121 Allied merchant ships off the eastern seaboard of the United States. Helped, however, by intercepted German Naval ‘Enigma’ messages, the British were able to sink all five of these ships by the end of June. Following strong protests by Britain to Spain, two other German supply ships, the Charlotte Schliemann and the Corrientes, which had lain at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands since September 1939, were forced to leave the safety of Spanish waters. They too were later sunk.
News of the death camp killings inside German-occupied Poland became public knowledge on 1 June 1942, when a Warsaw underground newspaper, Liberty Barricade, the clandestine publication of the Polish Socialist Party, published an extensive account of the gassings at Chelmno. This information had come from Emanuel Ringelblum, who had himself received it from the young Jew, Jakub Grojanowski, who had escaped from Chelmno in January, after having been forced to participate in the burying of the corpses of those killed in the gas vans. ‘Bloodcurdling news’, the report began, ‘has reached us about the slaughter of Jews.’ Six months and three weeks after it had become a site of mass murder, Chelmno was identified by name in the West. The gassings being carried out elsewhere, at Belzec and Sobibor, as well as in gas vans at Belgrade and Riga, and at Maly Trostenets near Minsk, were as yet totally unknown to the Allies.
For the Germans involved in these murders, the problem was one of technology. In an official note dated June 5, a senior civil servant in Berlin gave details of ‘technical modifications of special vehicles put into service’. Since December 1941, he explained, ‘using three vehicles, 97,000 persons have been “processed”, without any defects occurring in these vehicles’, and he added: ‘The explosion which is known to have occurred in Chelmno should be considered as an isolated case, caused by a technical failure. Special instructions have been sent to the depots involved, in order to prevent such accidents in the future.’ There was one more fault that had to be mentioned; the ‘merchandise’ in the gas van, the civil servant explained, displayed during the operation a regrettable if natural ‘rush towards the light’ which was hampering the efficiency of the procedure. This fault would be ‘rectified’.
In German-occupied Russia, the German Army now launched two major offensives against the Soviet partisans. In the first, Operation Kottbus, begun on June 3, more than sixteen thousand German troops attacked the partisan ‘Republic of Palik’ which had been set up late in 1942 in the Polotsk—Borisov—Lepel area. Two days later, on June 5, a further five thousand German troops launched Operation Birdsong, against 2,500 partisans between Roslavl and Bryansk. In a four week sweep, 1,193 partisans were killed, for a loss of 58 German dead. But a German military report expressed dissatisfaction at the results. ‘The partisans’, one senior officer complained, ‘continued their old tactic of evading, withdrawing into the forests, or moving in larger groups into the areas south and south-west of the Roslavl—Bryansk highway and into the Kletnya area.’ Although no further partisan attacks were reported in the ‘pacified’ area, the officer wrote, nevertheless ‘mines continued to be planted’ and several German vehicles had been damaged. Within two months, Soviet partisans had returned to the ‘Birdsong’ area in force.
On June 8, while Operation Birdsong was in its early days, three Jews, among them a young woman, Vitka Kempner, left the Vilna ghetto on their first ever sabotage mission. Their target was a German military train, and they succeeded. ‘It’s been blown up!’—the words spread throughout the ghetto, bringing a sense of achievement, if not of hope. But the reprisals were swift. Thirty-two families were seized by the Gestapo, taken to Ponar, and shot.
Four days before the three Jews had set off from Vilna on their sabotage mission, Reinhard Heydrich had died of his wounds; at his state funeral in Berlin on June 9, Himmler told the assembled SS mourners that theirs was a ‘holy obligation’ to avenge Heydrich’s death, ‘and to destroy with even greater determination the enemies of our nation, mercilessly and pitilessly’. On the following day, at the Czech village of Lidice, six miles north-west of Prague, all 199 men in the village were rounded up and shot. The eighty-eight children of the village, and their mothers, sixty women in all, were sent to Ravensbrück, Mauthausen and Auschwitz, where all of them were killed. In a second Czech village, Lezaky, seventeen men and sixteen women were shot, and fourteen children sent to concentration camps. Two of the children survived the war, two survivors out of a total of 394 victims.
The Lidice and Lezaky killings were only the start of what the SS described as Operation Heydrich. On that same June 10, a thousand Jews were deported from Prague ‘to the East’. The only survivor was a man who managed to jump from the train early in its journey. There was likewise only one survivor of two further trains, each carrying a thousand deportees, which left the ‘model’ ghetto of Theresienstadt on June 12 and 13 ‘to an unknown destination in the East’. All three trains had probably gone to Minsk, and then on to Maly Trostenets, where gas vans operated without respite.
A headline in The Times on June 10 told of ‘Mass Butchery in Poland’. This was a reference, not to Operation Heydrich, which was centred upon Czechoslovakia, but to a speech made on the previous day in London by General Sikorski, in which he gave details of the mass murder of Jews on Polish soil during the previous twelve months. ‘Massacres of tens of thousands of Jews have been carried out this year,’ he said. ‘People are being starved to death in ghettos. Mass executions are held; even those suffering from typhus are shot.’ As to the Poles, Sikorski added, ‘to smash the resistance of the railwaymen at the Upper Silesian junctions, gallows have been erected in eighteen Silesian towns. Members of the educated classes, railwaymen and workers are being hanged there, and all the schoolchildren are herded there to watch this cruel spectacle.’
Only the warning that punishment would follow, Sikorski added, ‘and the application of reprisals where these are possible, may stay the fury of German killers, and save further hundreds of thousands of innocent victims from inevitable annihilation’. On June 12, two days after Sikorski’s message was published, ten Poles, accused of sabotage in an iron foundry in the Silesian town of Dabrowa Gornicza, were hanged at a street corner, and their bodies left hanging as a warning to all future saboteurs.
In the German Army itself, a young officer, the twenty-five-year-old Michael Kitzelmann, who had won an Iron Cross second class for bravery as a company commander, had spoken out that summer against the atrocities being committed on the Eastern Front. ‘If these criminals should win,’ he told his fellow officers, ‘I would have no wish to live any longer.’ Arrested and tried by court martial, Kitzelmann was shot by a firing squad at Orel on June 11.
Within three weeks of Kitzelmann’s execution, Himmler addressed the officers of the SS Division ‘Das Reich’, to explain to them why they, the SS troops, and not the German Army, were the ones who must wage the race war. ‘The German soldier’, he said, ‘has in the past frequently operated under long-outmoded conceptions that once went unquestioned; these he carried with him to the battlefield in 1939.’ From the very moment that ‘the enemy was taken captive’, Himmler explained, ‘this erroneous notion of what war is all about showed itself unmistakably. Thus, for instance, it was thought that one had to say that even a Jew was a human being and that, as such, he could not be harmed. Or, in the case of a Jewess—even if she had been caught harbouring partisans at the time—one couldn’t touch her; she was, after all, a lady.’ Himmler added that ‘the same held for this Eastern campaign too, when the whole German nation took to the field, their heads filled with such absolute rubbish and over-refined, civilized decadence’.
With pride, Himmler declared: ‘We SS men were less encumbered, one might even say practically unencumbered, by such rubbish. After a decade of racial education we, the entire cadre of the SS, entered this war as unshakeable champions of our Germanic people’.
‘We ought’, Himmler concluded, ‘to spare neither our own nor foreign blood, if the nation requires….’
On June 13, at Peenemünde, on the Baltic, German scientists tested a twelve-ton rocket with a one-ton warhead, intended to be launched in due course from Germany against England. To watch the test, thirty-five senior officials had come from Berlin, among them the State Secretary for Air, Field Marshal Milch, and the Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer.
It was expected that the rocket, known to the Germans as the ‘A4’, and later to the Allies as the ‘V2’, would have a range of up to two hundred miles. The first test, however, was a failure; although the rocket was successfully fired, it crashed to earth less than a mile away, leaving both experts and officials deeply disappointed. Following this failure, however, the research intensified.
In North Africa, Rommel’s forces had continued their advance towards the Egyptian border. ‘The battle is going favourably for us,’ Rommel had written to his wife on June 1, ‘about four hundred tanks have been shot up. Our losses are bearable.’ By June 5, Rommel was able to announce that he had taken four thousand prisoners. Six days later, his forces broke into the French-held fortress at Bir Hakeim.
Even as Rommel drew closer to the Egyptian frontier, the importance of Egypt as an Allied base was underlined when, on June 12, American bombers based in the Nile Delta flew more than nine hundred miles to bomb the Roumanian oilfields at Ploesti, on which the German war machine was so dependent. But, off the Egyptian coast, a British attempt, Operation Vigorous, to run more supplies to Malta encountered severe difficulties that week, with the British cruiser Hermione sunk on June 16, while the British destroyer Hasty and the Australian destroyer Nestor were both so badly crippled that they had to be scuttled.
Also sunk by the Italians before the action in the eastern Mediterranean ended were three more British destroyers, Airedale, Bedouin and Oakley. The latter, on loan to the Polish Navy, had been renamed Kujawiak, and was manned by Polish sailors. Although the Italian heavy cruiser Trentowas also sunk during the battle, Operation Vigorous was a severe tactical defeat for the British, and an engagement of ill-omen.
On shore, Rommel continued his westward march. ‘Enemy resistance crumbled’, he later recalled, ‘and more and more British troops give themselves up. Black dejection showed on their faces.’ ‘The battle has been won’, Rommel wrote to his wife on June 15, ‘and the enemy is breaking up. We’re now mopping up encircled remnants of their army. I needn’t tell you how delighted I am.’
On June 16, the seven Czechs who had been involved in the assassination of Heydrich were discovered by the Germans hiding in a church in Prague. They had been hiding there for two weeks, and had planned to move on June 19, and to try to reach England. Refusing to give themselves up when they were discovered, they gave battle; fourteen Germans were killed. Jan Kubis, the Czech parachutist from Britain who had thrown the grenade which had mortally wounded Heydrich, was wounded in the battle and died in hospital. Josef Gabcik died in the struggle, as did two other parachutists who had been sent in separately, and three members of the local Czech resistance. They had been betrayed by another Czech, Karel Curda, who had informed the Gestapo of where they were hiding. Curda, like the four parachutists, had been trained in Britain.
The death of the four Czech parachutists, and the betrayal of their group, was not the only disaster for British Intelligence that June. Doing considerable long-term harm was the capture by the Germans of a British agent parachuted into Holland. Using this agent’s wireless transmitter, the Germans sent a number of messages back to London. When it became clear that the deception had not been discovered, German counter-Intelligence mounted Operation North Pole, organizing German reception committees for the continuing drop of British agents, radio operators and supplies, including considerable quantities of arms intended for the Dutch resistance. As a result of Operation North Pole, the Germans captured more than fifty Dutch subjects who were parachuted from England; forty-seven of them were murdered in concentration camps.
Soviet Intelligence also suffered a setback that June, with the arrest in Brussels of Johann Wenzel, the Russian-trained wireless operator of the Red Orchestra. After being captured and tortured, Wenzel agreed to co-operate with the Germans; as a result, several hundred Soviet agents in Western Europe were rounded up and executed, among them Hillel Katz who, despite terrible torture, refused to betray his colleagues. The capture of these Soviet agents was, however, kept secret, with the result that all five wireless sets of the Red Orchestra continued to be used by the Germans to convey disinformation to the Soviets for the next nine months.
In spite of these major setbacks to the Allies, there were three British successes that month in the sphere of Intelligence: first, the breaking of two more German Air Force Eastern Front Enigma codes, ‘Mosquito’ on June 8 and ‘Skunk’ on June 16; second, the forced landing almost intact on British soil of the most modern version of the German Focke-Wulf 190 combat plane, which British aircraft designers were thus able to study and copy; and, third, the successful work of ‘Garbo’, the Spaniard, Juan Pujol Garcia, whom the Germans continued to believe was working for them, but who, as a British agent, was providing false military information and developing a whole team of imaginary agents through whom further disinformation was sent to Germany.
On four separate occasions in June, a thousand Jews had been deported from Paris to Auschwitz. At the same time, the killing of Jews in German-occupied Russia had been uninterrupted, and the deportations from southern Poland to Belzec and Sobibor had continued. More than 52,000 Slovak Jews had also been deported to Auschwitz that summer, bringing the Jewish death toll that June to more than 150,000. ‘The destruction of the Jewish communities is continuing,’ Richard Lichtheim, a Jewish representative in Switzerland, wrote to a colleague in New York on June 15, and he added: ‘The whole of Europe is anxiously awaiting the day when the Allied nations will liberate this tortured Continent.’
Not liberation, however, but further setbacks to the Allied cause came in the second and third weeks of June, when, fort by fort, the Germans broke through the Soviet defences of Sevastapol. On June 13, Fort Stalin had fallen, and on June 17, Fort Siberia. One of the biggest of all, Fort Maxim Gorky, fell on June 18, the Germans using flamethrowers to force out, or to burn to death, the tenacious Russian defenders. On June 20, Fort Lenin fell, but still Sevastopol did not surrender its last pockets of resistance. It was to be another thirteen days before, on July 3, the stubborn defenders were finally overrun.
Meanwhile, in North Africa, Rommel had driven the British back behind Bardia, on the Libyan—Egyptian frontier, and at five-thirty in the morning of June 20, began his assault on the besieged fortress of Tobruk. That same evening, at seven o’clock, the first German tanks entered Tobruk. Thirteen hours later, at eight o’clock on the morning of June 21, the commander of the garrison, the South African General Hendrik Klopper, sent his officers forward with the white flag of surrender.
Thirty thousand men surrendered to Rommel at Tobruk. Also surrendered were two thousand vehicles in working order, two thousand tons of petrol, and five thousand tons of rations. That evening, on learning of the victory, Hitler awarded Rommel a field marshal’s baton. ‘I am going on to Suez,’ was Rommel’s official reply. Later, however, he remarked to his wife: ‘I would rather he had given me one more division.’
Churchill was in Washington with Roosevelt when news of the fall of Tobruk reached him. ‘Defeat is one thing,’ he later commented, ‘disgrace is another’. The silence that greeted the news was broken, however, not by Churchill but by Roosevelt, who asked: ‘What can we do to help?’