On 7 August 1942 the Americans launched Operation Watchtower, the first Allied counter-offensive in the Pacific. The assault began with the landing of 16,000 American troops on the island of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. In the course of the landings, four Allied heavy cruisers were sunk, the American warships Quincy, Astoria and Vincennes and the Australian Canberra, leaving more than a thousand Allied dead, 370 of them on the Quincy, 332 on the Vincennes, 216 on the Astoria and 84 on the Canberra. Ashore, however, the Americans, often in savage hand to hand fighting, repulsed all Japanese efforts to dislodge them; within two weeks the island’s airfield was under American control, but the Japanese, rushing in reinforcements, could not be dislodged from the island. In one month of fighting, nine thousand Japanese soldiers were killed, for the loss of 1,600 American lives. Of the 250 Japanese soldiers manning the garrison at the first American assault, only three had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner; in every engagement, the Japanese fought to the death, or, at the last moment, killed themselves to avoid capture.
At the same time as the landing on Guadalcanal, American Marines also fought their way ashore at four smaller islands, Florida, Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo. Once again, the tenacity of the Japanese defenders shocked those who had to overcome it. ‘I have never heard or read of this kind of fighting’, Major-General Alexander A. Vandegrift wrote to the Marine Commandant in Washington, and he went on to explain: ‘These people refuse to surrender. The wounded will wait till men come up to examine them, and blow themselves and the other fellow to death with a hand grenade.’
On August 9, the third day of the battle of Guadalcanal, German forces in the Caucasus reached the oilfields of Maikop. But Soviet forces having blown up the wells as they withdrew, Hitler was cheated of the oil. That same day, reaching Krasnodar, the Germans again found that the oil installations had been destroyed. Behind the lines, however, there was no impediment to the Germans’ own destructive policies. On August 9, a Catholic nun, Edith Stein, the converted daughter of a Jewish timber merchant from Breslau—she had been deported to Auschwitz from Holland because she was of Jewish parentage—was among hundreds of Dutch Jews murdered that day in the gas chamber. Known by her Catholic name of Sister Benedicta, she was considered a martyr by the Catholic Church. Forty-five years later she was sanctified.
On the day after Edith Stein’s death, a telegram from Gerhart Riegner, the Secretary of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, alerted Jews in London and New York to the scale and intention of the killings of Jews. Reports had reached Geneva, Riegner wrote, ‘stating that, in the Führer’s Headquarters, a plan has been discussed, and is under consideration, according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany, numbering three and a half to four millions, should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be at one blow exterminated, in order to resolve, once and for all the Jewish question in Europe’.
The message sent on by Riegner to the West had apparently been sent to Switzerland by someone who had learned not only of Himmler’s July 16 visit to Auschwitz, but also of his order of July 19 for the ‘total cleansing’ of the Jewish population of the General-Government by the end of the year.
Unknown to those who received the telegram of August 10, the ‘plan’ of mass murder was not only ‘under consideration’, but being put daily into practice, as the deportations to Auschwitz from France, Holland and Belgium, and from several Polish cities, continued, as did the deportations from Warsaw to Treblinka, and from central and southern Poland to Chelmno, Sobibor and Belzec. At the same time, more than 87,000 Jews were murdered in the Volhynia and more than 9,000 in White Russia, where, in the towns of Mir and Zdzieciol, five hundred Jews had broken out of the Gestapo cordon to reach the forests and to join the Soviet partisans. But the opportunity to resist was tiny.
On August 10, the day on which Edith Stein was gassed in Auschwitz, a train arrived at Maly Trostenets, the camp near Minsk of which even the name was unknown in the West. From this train, on which were a thousand Jews from the Theresienstadt ghetto on their way to ‘the East’, forty Jews were taken off at Minsk for work in a labour camp. The remaining 960 deportees were gassed on reaching Maly Trostenets.
Of a thousand Jews sent from Theresienstadt to Maly Trostenets in a further deportation two weeks later, only twenty-two of the younger men were taken to work at an SS farm. The rest were ordered into the vans and killed. Of the twenty-two men sent to the farm, two survived the hard labour and sadism of their overseers, and escaped in May 1943 to join the Soviet partisans. One was killed in action. One survived the war—the only survivor of the thousand.
From Warsaw, each day that August saw more deportations to Treblinka and the destruction of the deportees. ‘It gave me great pleasure’, SS Lieutenant-General Karl Wolff wrote to the manager of the German Ministry of Transportation on August 13, ‘to learn that already, for the last fourteen days, one train goes daily with five thousand passengers of the Chosen People to Treblinka; and we are even in a position to complete this mass movement of people at an accelerated rate.’
On August 10, in a further attempt to reinforce Malta, a British naval convoy had passed through Gibraltar towards Malta, in an operation code-named ‘Pedestal’. From the following day the convoy came under sustained German and Italian attack, during which the aircraft carrier Eagle, the anti-aircraft ship Cairo, the cruiser Manchester, and the destroyer Foresight were sunk, as were nine of the merchant ships laden with supplies for Malta. But as the escort vessels battled against German and Italian air, sea and submarine assault, five merchant ships reached Malta. For Britain, despite the losses, it was a naval triumph; the 55,000 tons of food and fuel delivered by this convoy saved Malta from surrender, and allowed Malta-based aircraft and submarines to resume their attacks against Rommel’s supply lines. Had the Pedestal convoy failed, Malta would have surrendered on September 7.
On August 12, the second day of Pedestal’s courageous struggle, Churchill was in Moscow explaining to Stalin that there would be no Second Front in Europe that year, but a landing in French North Africa instead. On first learning the news, as Churchill’s interpreter noted, ‘Stalin’s face crumpled up into a frown.’ Why, he asked, were the British ‘so afraid of the Germans?’ As the North African plan was explained to him, however, Stalin quickly grasped its strategic implications, the opening up of Italy to a joint Anglo-American assault early in 1943, in order, as Churchill phrased it, to ‘threaten the belly of Hitler’s Europe’. Churchill also told Stalin that, in the air war against Germany, ‘we hoped to shatter almost every dwelling in almost every German city’. That, Stalin replied, ‘would not be bad’, and he went on to advise Churchill to drop Britain’s new four-ton bombs ‘with parachutes, otherwise they dug themselves into the ground’.
On August 13, while Churchill was still in Moscow, German forces reached the town of Elista, 200 miles south of Stalingrad, and, even more dangerous for the Soviet Union, only 155 miles from the Caspian Sea. That same day, the Caucasian town of Mineralniye Vody fell to the Germans. At his ‘Werewolf’ headquarters in Vinnitsa, Hitler was thinking that day not only of Russia, but of the Second Front which must surely come sooner or later. In a discussion that day with his Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, Hitler—recognizing for the second time the possibility that his grand strategy might miscarry, and that he might have to fight on two fronts simultaneously—reiterated his call to build up an ‘Atlantic Wall’ of fortifications against any attempted Anglo-American landing; it was to consist of 15,000 concrete bunkers, set, some at fifty- and others at hundred-yard intervals, to be built without regard for cost. ‘Our most costly substance’, Hitler explained, ‘is the German man. The blood these fortifications will spare is worth the billions!’
The West had to be defended, but it was in the East that danger as well as opportunity loomed most large; on August 14 the Germans launched Operation Griffin against Soviet partisans active in the area of Orsha and Vitebsk. These partisans were threatening to disrupt the German lines of communication along the ‘Moscow Highway’ from Brest-Litovsk through Minsk to Smolensk. That day, unknown to Hitler, and never to be discovered by him or his commanders, British Intelligence broke the main Enigma key used by the SS; known to the British eavesdroppers at Bletchley as ‘Quince’, it continued to be read without interruption until the end of the war. Only the Gestapo Enigma, known as TGD after its Berlin call-sign, was to elude them.
On the morning of August 15, the Germans, with their success in the Caucasus dominating Allied fears, intensified their attack on Stalingrad. In Moscow, Stalin asked Churchill for a minimum of 20,000 lorries a month; Russia’s production, he said, was only 2,000 a month. Churchill agreed to supply the Soviet needs. His own news that day was good; despite the severe losses to Pedestal, the American oil tanker Ohio had managed to reach Malta, with ten thousand tons of oil. The Ohio had been so badly damaged during the run that she was declared a total loss, but her oil saved the day—and many days—for Malta.
On August 11 the German authorities began the deportation of Frenchmen needed as further drafts of forced labour for the German war effort, now becoming seriously overstretched. Four days later, a new labour camp was opened in the underground coal mines of Jawiszowice, near Auschwitz. Not only French, and later Belgian labourers were sent to these mines, but also Jews from the barracks at Birkenau. Thousands of labourers died in the harsh conditions. In Holland, anti-German feeling had led to an attempt to blow up a train carrying German troops in Rotterdam. The attempt failed, but on August 15 the Germans shot five civilian hostages as a deterrent to further acts of sabotage. On the battlefield, German troops seemed unbeatable; on August 17 they reached the high valleys of the Caucasus mountains, occupying Kislovodsk, and prepared to climb, as an act of athletic if not military prowess, the 18,000-foot peak of Mount Elbruz.
It was on August 17, as German troops reached the resort towns of the Caucasus, that American morale was lifted by a daring Marine landing on the Makin Atoll, which the Japanese had seized three days after Pearl Harbor. Thirty Marines lost their lives in what one American General, Holland M. Smith, was later to call a ‘piece of folly’, serving as it did to encourage the Japanese to fortify the Gilbert Islands, making their subsequent capture more costly than it might have been. The Americans withdrew a few days later. Nine Marines, accidentally marooned on the atoll, were captured, taken to Kwajalein, and then beheaded.
Another Allied raid followed the American assault on Makin within forty-eight hours; this was a joint British and Canadian commando raid on August 19 on the French port of Dieppe, a mere sixty-five miles across the English Channel from Britain.
Five thousand Canadian and a thousand British troops took part in the Dieppe raid, as well as fifty American Rangers and two dozen Free French soldiers. The landing, code-named Operation Jubilee, was intended, like that on Makin, to be brief. Its aim was to practise techniques for an eventual invasion of northern Europe. One of the British commandos who took part, Captain Pat Porteous, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage in the raid, as was a Canadian officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Merritt. Another Victoria Cross was awarded to a Canadian chaplain, John Foote, who spent many hours tending to wounded men while under fire on the shingle. When the time came to take the men off, Captain Foote carried them to the boat, but himself made no attempt to embark, preferring to stay behind, accept capture, and continue to help the wounded men as a prisoner-of-war.
Unknown to the Germans, a British Flight-Sergeant, Jack Nissenthall, who accompanied the raiders, carried out a foray against a nearby German radar station, thereby taking back crucial knowledge for future British jamming and deception.
The Allied casualty rate at Dieppe was high; just over a thousand of the raiding force were killed and a further two thousand taken prisoner, while all their vehicles and equipment had to be left behind on the beach. ‘This is the first time’, mocked Hitler, ‘that the British have had the courtesy to cross the sea to offer the enemy a complete sample of their weapons.’ Later however, Hitler told his commanders: ‘We must realize that we are not alone in learning a lesson from Dieppe. The British have also learned. We must reckon with a totally different mode of attack and at quite a different place.’
Twenty-five German bombers and twenty-three fighters had been destroyed during the Dieppe raid, and the German Air Force, by a certain weakening of its air forces on the Eastern Front, increased the size of its fighter force in north-west Europe. As for the Allied lesson learned at Dieppe, this, Admiral Mountbatten told the British War Cabinet on the following day, would be ‘invaluable’ in planning for the future cross-Channel invasion; many years later he was to say that the Dieppe raid ‘gave the Allies the priceless secret of victory’.
It was during the Dieppe raid that the first United States soldier was killed in France, Lieutenant Edwin V. Loustalot.
For the Canadians, Dieppe was a setback and a blow; 907 Canadians had been killed, and 1,874 taken prisoner. The Germans lost 345 men killed, and four taken prisoner and brought back to Britain.
On August 19, with their southern forces approaching Stalingrad and atop the Caucasus, the Germans were themselves attacked outside Leningrad, by Russian forces intent on breaking the German grip on the city. That day, the Nazi leader Martin Bormann wrote, of the Russians and Poles who were being used in their hundreds of thousands as slave labourers for Germany: ‘The Slavs are to work for us. In so far as we do not need them, they may die. Slav fertility is not desirable.’ That day, the swastika flag was raised on Mount Elbruz, provoking Hitler’s irate comment that his Army’s ambition should be to defeat the Russians rather than conquer mountains. A hundred and sixty miles east of Mount Elbruz lay Grozny, the principal city and oil centre of the Caucasus; Hitler knew the perils that could lie along the way.
In German-occupied Europe, August 19 saw the deportation to Treblinka, and to their death, of all the mental patients of a Jewish mental asylum at Otwock, near Warsaw, several hundred more victims of a racial policy which wanted neither the Jews nor the mentally ill to survive the triumph of the Reich. Also behind the German lines, the partisan war continued to provoke fierce reprisals. On August 22, in a village in the Bialystok region, Gestapo and SS men rounded up all the men of the village, then selected ten, who were immediately tortured and shot. On the same day, in the nearby Slonim region, after what a Gestapo report called ‘an armed fight lasting about six hours’, two hundred partisans and villagers, ‘half of them Jews’, were shot, and two partisan camps ‘eradicated’. Gypsies too were being hunted down. Three days after the Slonim action, all German army groups in Russia were warned, by the Army Field Police, that there were also many Gypsy bands roaming the countryside which ‘render many services to the partisans, providing them with supplies etc.’. If only a part of the Gypsies were punished, the Field Police added, ‘the attitude of the remainder would be even more hostile towards the German forces, and would support the partisans even more than before’. It was therefore ‘necessary to exterminate these bands ruthlessly’.
On August 23, at Izbushensky, in the great bend of the River Don, six hundred Italian soldiers of the Savoy Cavalry charged on horseback against two thousand Russians armed with mortars and machine guns. The Italians, using sabres and hand grenades against mortars and machine guns, put the Russians to flight. It was the last successful cavalry charge of the war. Later that day, units of the German Army reached the western bank of the River Volga just north of Rynok, the northernmost suburb of Stalingrad. Six hundred German bombers, on what it was hoped was the eve of the fall of the city, struck at industrial targets and built-up areas.
The city of Stalingrad stood on the border between European and Asiatic Russia, a centre of communications by rail and river, a hub of industry and commerce, a symbol both of the old Russia of trade and the modern Russia of industrialization. The city was not only a symbol of Soviet achievement, but also a symbol of the power of Russia itself—despite the battering of the previous year—to continue to resist, and to survive.
On August 24, as Stalingrad prepared to defend herself, in the Eastern Solomon Islands, the Americans secured another naval victory over the Japanese, sinking the aircraft-carrier Ryuho, as well as a light cruiser, a destroyer and a troop transport, with the loss of several thousand Japanese lives. Ninety Japanese aircraft were also shot down, for the loss of twenty American aircraft. On the following day, Japanese transports carrying reinforcements to Guadalcanal were attacked, and forced to turn back. Other Japanese troops, landing on August 25 near Rabi, at the south-eastern end of New Guinea, were attacked by the Australians, and, despite further Japanese reinforcements, forced to withdraw two weeks later. It was their first defeat on land. The main Japanese advance from Buna towards Port Moresby continued, however, with the Australians forced further back along the Kokoda Trail, while in the Pacific, despite their most recent naval setback, Japanese troops occupied Ocean Island, west of the Gilbert Islands.
On August 27 the Germans made plans to round up Jews from the unoccupied zone of France. The Vichy authorities collaborated in the round-ups. But many Frenchmen, and many Catholic priests, sheltered Jews and urged their parishioners to do likewise. On August 28 the Germans ordered the arrest of all Catholic priests who sheltered Jews. With each round-up, the trains to Auschwitz gained new victims; on August 28 the thousand deportees from Paris included 150 children under the age of fifteen. On the day that their train reached Auschwitz, a new German surgeon, Dr Johann Kremer, who had reached the camp on the previous evening, and was to live in the SS Officers’ Home near Auschwitz station, noted in his diary: ‘Tropical climate with 28 degrees centigrade in the shade, dust and innumerable flies! Excellent food in the Home. This evening, for instance, we had sour duck livers for 0.40 mark, with stuffed tomatoes, tomato salad etc.’. The water, Kremer added, was infected ‘so we drink seltzer water which is served free’.
Stalingrad besieged, September–November 1942
Two days later Dr Kremer noted: ‘Was present for the first time at a special action at 3 a.m. By comparison, Dante’s inferno seems almost a comedy. Auschwitz is justly called an extermination camp!’ The Jews whom Kremer saw being gassed that day were from France, including the seventy boys and seventy-eight girls under fifteen, deported on August 28. Many of these children had been deported without their parents, among them Helène Goldenberg, aged nine, and her sister Lotty, aged five.
The cruelty of these French deportations, the round-ups for which were done in full view of the public, and the knowledge that children were being separated from their parents, led to considerable revulsion in France, so much so that on August 29 the Swiss Government decided that it would no longer turn back Jewish refugees who sought to cross from Vichy France to Switzerland. On the following day, in all the churches in his diocese, Monsignor Théas, Bishop of Montauban, caused a protest which he had written to be read out, against the ‘painful and at times horrible’ deportations which were, he said, being carried out ‘with the most barbarous savagery’.
Throughout Vichy France, there were those who hid Jews, or who, like the Military Commander of the Lyon region, General de St Vincent, refused to assist in the deportations. But the Vichy police were all too active; by September 5, a total of 9,872 Jews, most of them foreign-born, had been rounded up and sent to Paris, for deportation to Auschwitz as soon as the trains were ready.
On August 30, in the Western Desert, Rommel launched an attack which he hoped would take him on to Cairo. ‘The decision to attack today’, he told a colleague, ‘is the most serious I have taken in my life. Either, the Army in Russia succeeds in getting through to Grozny, and we in Africa manage to reach the Suez Canal, or…’ and here Rommel made a gesture of defeat.
Unknown to Rommel, the British had been waiting for him in more ways than one. From their reading of the Enigma messages they knew his plan. But, as important, perhaps even more important, Enigma, and the likewise broken Italian cypher C 38m, had also told the British eavesdroppers of the exact times of sailings, routes and cargoes of every ship bringing Rommel munitions and fuel oil. With this knowledge, the British had already attacked and sunk three vital fuel ships. One of these, the Dielpi, with 2,200 tons of aircraft fuel, was sunk on August 28. A fourth ship, the San Andrea, with essential tank fuel, was sunk on August 30.
‘Rommel has begun the attack for which we have been preparing,’ Churchill telegraphed to Roosevelt and Stalin on the morning of August 31. Within forty-eight hours, beset by problems of fuel supply, and confronted by the determined defence of British, New Zealand, Australian, South African and Indian troops, Rommel was forced to withdraw from the Alam Halfa ridge in front of El Alamein. The commander of the forces ranged against him was General Montgomery, whose first desert victory this was.
In the Caucasus, as Rommel had feared, the German advance was slowing down; German troops were never to get to Grozny, nor indeed to within thirty miles of it. But as Rommel struggled in vain to push past Alam Halfa, it was upon Stalingrad, not the Caucasus, that all eyes were set. On August 31, after a conference at Hitler’s headquarters at Vinnitsa, General Halder noted in his diary: ‘The Führer has ordered that, upon penetration into the city, the entire male population be eliminated, since Stalingrad with its one million uniformly Communist inhabitants is extremely dangerous.’ The female population, Halder noted, ‘must be shipped off’—he did not say to where.
On September 2, as the battle for Stalingrad began, the German Army was forced to launch Operation North Sea against Soviet partisans operating in the Mogilev region, and threatening German’s principal lines of communication and supply through Smolensk. Every such anti-partisan operation tied down German forces which might have been used for the main battles.
German and Italian prisoners-of-war held in Britain, or shipped across the Atlantic to Canada, were treated well; none of them died of ill-treatment while in captivity, and none was executed. For the Allied soldiers in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, however, the situation was almost unbearable. On September 2, in Singapore, after two Australian and two British prisoners-of-war had escaped and been recaptured, the Japanese officer in charge of prisoners-of-war, Major-General Shempei Fukuei, ordered them to be shot, not by his fellow Japanese, but by four Indian Sikhs who were also prisoners-of-war.
The execution duly took place, and the four would-be escapees were killed: they were Corporal Rodney Breavington and Private Victor Gale from Australia, and Privates Harold Waters and Eric Fletcher from Britain.
On the night of September 3, in the Channel Islands, twelve British commandos landed on a German lighthouse which was also being used as a radio station. All seven Germans manning the lighthouse were captured, together with their code books. Their radio equipment was destroyed. Four weeks later, in a conference with von Rundstedt, Goering and Speer, Hitler mocked at the assertion of his advisers that the Atlantic Wall could not be broken. ‘Above all’, he said, ‘I am grateful to the English for proving me right by their various landing attempts. It shows up those who think I am always seeing phantoms, who say “Well, when are the English coming? There is absolutely nothing happening on the coast—we swim every day, and we haven’t seen a single Englishman!”’
On September 3, with German troops established on the western shore of the River Volga and just north of Rynok, the most northerly suburb of Stalingrad, Stalin telegraphed to Marshal Zhukov: ‘Get the commanders of the troops to the north and north-west of Stalingrad to attack the enemy without delay and get to the relief of the Stalingraders. No delay can be tolerated. Delay at this moment is equivalent to a crime.’ On the following day, as Zhukov regrouped his forces for a counter-attack, a thousand German bombers flew repeated sorties over the city. Also on September 4, thirty-two British and Australian bombers flew from Britain to north Russia, to take part, from Soviet airbases, in the protection of the Arctic convoys. Nine of the aircraft never arrived, either running out of fuel and being forced to crash land in Sweden, or, in one case, being accidentally shot down by Russian fighters as they approached the Russian coast. Even in the water, the crew continued to be fired upon, until their shouts of ‘Angliski!’ were recognized.
One of the bombers on this flight to Russia was damaged by anti-aircraft fire from a German patrol ship. Forced to land on the Norwegian coast, its crew did not have time before they were captured to destroy secret documents about the imminent convoy PQ 18. A week later, the convoy was attacked, as PQ 17 had been in June, by a combined German air and submarine force. Of the forty merchant ships in the convoy, thirteen were sunk, as well as two of the warships escorting the convoy, the destroyer Somali and the minesweeper Leda. The Germans, however, lost four of their submarines and forty-one aircraft.
On September 5, the first Soviet troops counter-attacked the German forces on the Volga, but were beaten back. On the following day, Soviet air reinforcements reached Stalingrad. A massive German thrust on September 7 was halted. ‘Millions of German troops’, Roosevelt broadcast that day to the American people, ‘seem doomed to spend another cruel and bitter winter on the Russian front.’ At his Vinnitsa headquarters, Hitler had attended to another matter on September 7, when he received as his visitor Erich Koch, the Governor of the Ukraine, who was in the process, since early August, of supervising the shooting of seventy thousand Jews in the city of Rovno, and throughout the Volhynia region. That same September 7, as German troops consolidated their position in the Caucasus, eighteen hundred Jews living in the mountain resort town of Kislovodsk were ordered to prepare for a two day journey ‘for the purpose of colonizing sparsely populated districts of the Ukraine’. They were taken instead, not to the distant Ukraine, but to the nearby spa town of Mineralniye Vody, where, after being marched two and a half miles to an anti-tank ditch, they were shot, together with two thousand Jews from Essentuki and three hundred from Pyatigorsk. Even as these murders took place, the German Commander-in-Chief of the Caucasus front, Field Marshal Wilhelm List, was being blamed by Hitler for failing to break through to the Caspian Sea, and was dismissed.
On September 8, as Churchill had promised Stalin in Moscow three weeks earlier, British bombers struck with renewed ferocity at a German city, this time Düsseldorf. Among the bombs which they dropped were many which weighed two tons, nicknamed ‘block-busters’. That same day, a small Japanese aircraft, launched from a submarine, dropped incendiary bombs near Brookings, in the State of Oregon, setting a forest on fire. This was the only Japanese attack to take place inside the continental United States. It was followed two days later by an American air raid from their newly established airbase at Adak, in the Aleutian Islands on the Japanese forces occupying Kiska Island, two hundred and fifty miles away.
On September 12 the British launched what they called a ‘butcher and bolt’ commando raid on the French coast, landing ten men at Port-en-Bessin, a small harbour in Normandy. The raiders killed all seven Germans whom they found in the harbour, but the shooting alerted other soldiers in the area and, as the British embarked, all but one of them were killed. That one, a man by the name of Hayes, who managed to swim along the coast, was aided by a French family, who then passed him to the French Resistance, who helped smuggle him into Spain. There, however, he was caught by General Franco’s police, sent back to France, interrogated by the Gestapo in Paris, and shot.
At sea, September 12 saw the sinking of a British troopship, the Laconia, by a German submarine, U-156, commanded by Captain Hartenstein. On board were more than 1,500 Italian prisoners-of-war being taken to Canada, together with 180 Polish guards, and 811 British passengers and crew. Learning from survivors that he had been responsible for putting at risk the lives of so many Italians, then clinging desperately to the wreckage, Hartenstein sent a series of signals offering not to attack any ship which came to their rescue. Two British and one French warship hurried to the scene, but, as their rescue work was in progress, an American Army aircraft, flying from the newly established South Atlantic base on Ascension Island, attacked the German submarine with its bombs. As a result, Admiral Dönitz issued an order to every German naval vessel: ‘All attempts to rescue the crews of sunken ships will cease forthwith.’
More than a thousand of those on the Laconia when she had been sunk were men who had already been rescued from the sea. In all, more than 1,400 of the 2,491 men and sailors on the ship were drowned. Hartenstein, who had done his best to help the survivors, was killed six months later, when his submarine was sunk by American Navy aircraft east of Barbados.
Two British operations were launched on September 13, ‘Bluebottle’, in which a Royal Navy vessel, the Tarana, sailing through the Mediterranean, successfully took off British prisoners-of-war from a beach near Perpignan, and ‘Agreement’ when, with less success, British troops attacked Tobruk both overland and by sea, in an attempt to destroy Axis supply depots and port installations. During the attack, three British warships were sunk, the valuable Fleet destroyers Sikh and Zulu, and the anti-aircraft ship Coventry, and several hundred Marines were killed. That night, British bombers made their hundredth raid of the war on the German North Sea port of Bremen. Ironically, it was also on September 13 that the much bombed British island of Malta was presented with an award for bravery, the George Cross, normally given to individuals. September 13 was also the day on which the Germans intensified their assault on Stalingrad, driving towards the city’s centre; by nightfall, German troops had broken into the Minina suburb in the south, and were also poised to drive the Russian defenders from the Mamayev Kurgan.
The war diary of the German Sixty-second Army noted the timing, though not the ferocity, of the ebb and flow of the struggle for the centre of Stalingrad. At eight o’clock in the morning of September 14: ‘Station in enemy hands.’ At 8.40: ‘Station recaptured.’ At 9.40: ‘Station retaken by enemy.’ At 13.20: ‘Station in our hands.’ So close had the Germans now come to the bank of the Volga that they were able to sink ships seeking to carry refugees and the wounded across the Volga; when one such ship, the Borodino, was sunk, several hundred wounded soldiers were killed. More than a thousand civilians were drowned when the steamer Iosif Stalin was sunk.
That same day, in the Far East, Japanese troops, pressing southwards along New Guinea’s Kokoda Trail, drove back the Australians to the Imita Ridge, the last peak in the island’s mountain range, and only thirty-two miles from Port Moresby. But there the Japanese were halted by a determined counter-attack.
On September 15, Japanese submarines in the New Hebrides sank the aircraft-carrier Wasp, which had earlier played so important a part in the defence of Malta. They also badly damaged the battleship North Carolina. That day, as fighting continued on the island of Guadalcanal, the American forces, having driven off a Japanese attack, received reinforcements, and further extended the area of the island under their control. Also on September 15, the first United States troops reached Port Moresby from Australia, to join the Australian defence.
The hegemony of the Rising Sun was no longer assured.
As the battle for Stalingrad became one of hand-to-hand fighting in streets, houses and cellars, the Mamayev Kurgan was taken by the Germans, retaken by the Russians, then defended against repeated German assault. Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, the Germans launched two new anti-partisan operations, ‘Triangle’ and ‘Quadrangle’, both of them in the Bryansk region, where the Bryansk to Kharkov railway had been cut repeatedly near Lokot. In a two week action, 2,244 Soviet partisans were killed or captured; but several thousand more escaped the traps set for them, to regroup further north, at Navlya, and to fight again, reinforced by men parachuted in a few weeks later. In the south, another group of 120 partisans were dropped by parachute behind the German line in the area north of Novorossiisk, to replace a group which the Germans had almost totally wiped out. The leader of the second group, Slavin, was believed by the Germans to be a Jew, a fact which seemed to add to the fury of their sweep.
On September 18, Soviet Marines, having reached Stalingrad by ferry across the Volga, took up their positions in the city’s giant grain-elevator, beating off ten German attacks in a single day. That day, lunching with Hitler at his Vinnitsa headquarters, one of his headquarters staff, Werner Koeppen, noted that ‘the idea was to destroy all Russia’s cities as a prerequisite to the lasting German domination of the country’. Also on September 18, Otto Thierack, the German Minister of Justice, who was also a major-general in the SS, came to an agreement with Himmler for the ‘delivery of “asocials” for the execution of their sentences’. ‘Asocials’ meant Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles serving more than three years in prison for civil crimes, and Czechs and Germans serving more than eight years. Their ‘sentences’ were to be forced labour in conditions of such severity and lack of medical help or sustenance that hundreds of thousands were to die. Theirack also advised Himmler that in order to make the newly conquered Eastern territories ‘fit’ for German settlers and colonization, ‘Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Russian and Ukrainians convicted of offences should not be sentenced by ordinary courts but should be executed….’
Behind the lines in the East, winter 1942–1943
That September had seen no slackening in the execution, murder and gassing of those whom the Nazis were determined to destroy. That month, fourteen thousand Jews had been sent from France, more than six thousand from Holland, and more than five thousand from Belgium, to Auschwitz. A further twenty thousand Jews had been deported from Eastern Galicia, principally from the town of Kolomyja, and from Brody, to Belzec. When, on September 19, several hundred of the three thousand Jews in the deportation from Brody broke out in fear and desperation from the deportation train, all but a dozen were machine-gunned to death. That same day, as five thousand Jews were deported from the town of Parczew to Treblinka, and gassed, several hundred managed to escape to the relative safety of a ‘family camp’ which had been set up deep in the Parczew forest. But most of them were to be killed a month later, when German armed units mounted two major sweeps against them.
On September 20, off the coast of Norway, a Free French submarine brought ashore two British commandos, Captain G. D. Black and Captain B. J. Houghton. Their target was the hydro-electric power station at Glomfjord, the supplier of electricity to the largest aluminium manufacturing plant in Norway, and an important source of supply for the German war effort. Travelling across difficult mountain country, Black and Houghton reached the power station and blew it up. Then, running by accident into a large German force, they fought back, were wounded and were taken prisoner. They were subsequently shot by the Gestapo.
All over Europe, the tyranny of the occupier was drawing more and more men and women into the resistance. On September 22, in Minsk, Wilhelm Kube, killer of tens of thousands of Jews and Russians, was killed by a bomb planted by his Byelorussian maidservant under his bed. The girl, Elena Mazaniuk, was working for the partisans. After planting the bomb, she succeeded in leaving Minsk, and in reaching a Soviet partisan unit operating nearby.
Also on September 22, German troops reached the very centre of Stalingrad, but the Russians refused to surrender. Hitler, angered by the failure to take either Stalingrad or, as he had hoped to do several weeks earlier, the Caucasian city of Grozny, dismissed General Franz Halder, who since the outbreak of war more than two years earlier had been Chief of the Army General Staff, and replaced him by General Kurt Zeitzler. But Zeitzler was as uneasy as Halder about the German position in Russia, and was also to urge, though unsuccessfully, the need for temporary retreats. Told by Field Marshal Keitel not to upset Hitler by giving him details of German casualties, Zeitzler is said to have replied: ‘If a man starts a war he must have the nerve to hear the consequences.’
On the morning of September 23 the Russians launched a counter-attack in the north-west suburbs of Stalingrad. A few hours earlier, two thousand fresh Siberian troops had been ferried across the Volga. Slowly but steadily, amid ferocious hand-to-hand fighting, the Germans were pushed back through the cellars and devastated buildings around the oil storage depot. Also on September 23, in an attempt to renew the advance in the Caucasus, the Germans launched Operation Attica, hoping to drive along the Black Sea shore, through Tuapse to Sochi, Suchumi and Batum. But the Soviet defenders denied them even Tuapse.
Far from the fighting in Russia, and from the continuing struggle between the Japanese and the Americans on Guadalcanal, on September 23 a development took place in Washington which was to seal the fate of Japan. This was the appointment of Brigadier-General Leslie R. Groves to supervise every aspect, from construction to final delivery, of the atomic bomb. Money, he was told, was no object. Requisition and appropriation were his for the asking. The operation, conducted in strictest secrecy, needed a code name; it was given the name ‘Manhattan Project’.
On September 24, six hundred Soviet partisans, some dressed in German uniforms and using heavy artillery, burned down the town of Ryabchichi, a German staging and supply post on the Smolensk—Bryansk highway. That same day, Ribbentrop passed on instructions to all German Embassies ‘to hurry up as much as possible the evacuation of Jews from the various countries in Europe’. Negotiations should begin at once, his subordinate Martin Luther explained, with the Governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Denmark, ‘with the object of starting the evacuation of the Jews of these countries’. As to what the fate of those Jews would be, the omens that September were clear; of six thousand Jews deported from Theresienstadt to Maly Trostenets in three trains between September 23 and 29, there was not a single survivor. Five death camps were now working at fever pitch: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Maly Trostenets. At Auschwitz, as many deportees were being killed as were being set aside for slave labour. On September 26, a senior SS officer, Lieutenant-General August Frank, sent the Auschwitz camp administration, as well as the head of administration of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, a note of what was to be done with what he called the ‘property of the evacuated Jews’. Foreign currency, jewellery, precious stones, pearls and ‘gold from teeth’ were to go to the SS for ‘immediate delivery’ to the German Reichsbank. Smaller personal items such as clocks, wallets and purses were to be cleaned, ‘evaluated’ and ‘delivered quickly’ to front line troops.
The troops would be able to buy these small items, although gold watches would be distributed exclusively to the SS. Underwear and footwear would be given mainly to ethnic Germans. Women’s clothing, including shoes, as well as children’s clothing, was to be sold to ethnic Germans.
Quilts, woollen blankets, thermos flasks, earflaps, combs, table knives, forks, spoons and knapsacks; all were listed by General Frank. So too were sheets, pillows, towels and tablecloths. All were to go to ethnic Germans. Spectacles and eye-glasses were to go to the Medical Officer of the German Army. Gold frames were to go to the SS. ‘Valuable furs’ were likewise to go to the SS. Everything was priced in meticulous detail: ‘for instance’, General Frank wrote, ‘one pair of used men’s trousers, three marks; one woollen blanket, six marks etc.’. It was to be ‘strictly observed that the Jewish Star is removed from all garments and outer garments which are to be delivered’. All items should be searched ‘for hidden valuables sewn in’.
Within two weeks of General Frank’s note, fifty kilogrammes of the dental gold already accumulated were sent to the SS for its own dental needs. Mass plunder and mass murder had led to mass profit, and were to continue to do so for another two years.