27

Stalingrad and ‘Torch’

SEPTEMBER–OCTOBER 1942

On 25 September 1942, during a Nazi Party rally in Oslo, British aircraft, flying across the North Sea, attacked the Gestapo headquarters in the city. Their aim was to destroy the Norwegian Resistance records which were being kept in the building, as well as to give a demonstration of Allied power. The building itself was not hit, and in the surrounding buildings four people were killed. There was, however, panic among the Nazis, many of whom fled the city, and their meeting ended in chaos.

That same day, at Stalingrad, German tanks, driving in from Gorodishche, reached the western edge of the Krasny Oktyabr factory, and the south-western corner of the Barrikady factory, on the very banks of the Volga. The heroism of the defenders was typified, at the height of the battle, by Lyuba Nesterenko, a girl nurse who, trapped in a basement, looked after twenty-eight seriously wounded men until she herself died from a chest wound. On September 27, though the swastika flag flew in apparent triumph above the headquarters of the Stalingrad Communist Party, more reinforcements came across the Volga, landing under a murderous shellfire and hurrying forward to retake a cellar or hold the basement of an already pulverized building. That day, Hitler flew back from Vinnitsa to Berlin. He had hoped to announce the capture of Stalingrad, which his troops had indeed penetrated to the very banks of the river; but they had not subdued it. On the northern reaches of the Volga, 680 miles north-west of Stalingrad, Russian troops crossed the Volga near Rzhev, regaining twenty-five villages. On the following day, in Istanbul, a young Jew, Chaim Barlas, overheard two Germans in a restaurant say that Hitler had ‘lost the war.’

On September 29, in Berlin, Hitler warned his commanders of the danger of invasion from the West. To try to mitigate the fury of the Anglo-American air raids, he ordered the construction of massive, fort-like, anti-aircraft towers, known as Flak Towers, in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Linz and Nuremberg.

In Prague, 255 Czechs were sentenced to death on September 29 for supporting, sheltering or refusing to denounce the murderers of Heydrich. At Auschwitz, in the last week of September, four thousand Jews from Slovakia, France, Holland and Belgium were gassed, among them Rene Blum, the brother of the former French Prime Minister, Léon Blum. In Berlin, on September 30, Hitler told a mass meeting gathered to launch the Nazi Party’s Winter Aid Programme: ‘I said that if Jewry started this war in order to overcome the Aryan people, then it would not be the Aryans but the Jews who would be exterminated. The Jews laughed at my prophecies. I doubt if they are laughing now.’ In the Caucasus, on September 30, as a reminder to his troops of what was expected of them, the German commander reissued Field Marshal Manstein’s Order of the Day of 20 November 1941, that the German soldier was ‘not merely a fighter according to the rules of the act of war, but also the bearer of a ruthless ideology’. He must therefore understand ‘the necessity for a severe but just revenge on sub-human Jewry’.

***

In Britain, the reading of the German Enigma messages was put to good use for the Russians as well as for the British. The total number of Enigma keys now broken, and being read regularly, had reached more than fifty. On September 30 the British cryptographers had broken the Enigma key used by the Todt Organization. Known as ‘Osprey’, this key was to be read until the end of the war. Also on September 30, Churchill personally passed on to Stalin the information, obtained from the German Enigma messages, that plans had been made in Berlin to establish a German naval flotilla on the Caspian Sea, that its base was to be Makhach-Kala, and that a German admiral had already been selected to command it. Submarines, torpedo craft and minesweepers were to be transported to the Caspian from the Black Sea, by rail from Mariupol. ‘No doubt’, Churchill commented, ‘you are already prepared for this kind of attack.’

The Germans’ Caspian plan came to nought; on October 1 the Russian forces in the Caucasus finally brought the German advance to an end. That same day, in Berlin, Rommel told Hitler that British air supremacy, and the shortcomings of the Italian officers under his command, had forced him to give up the march to Cairo.

***

In the Far East, on October 1, a torpedo hit the Japanese ship Lisbon Maru, which began to sink. On board were 1,816 British prisoners-of-war, being taken from Hong Kong to Japan. When the prisoners tried to leave the sinking ship, the Japanese had the hatches battened down. As the ship went down, hundreds attempted to break out. The Japanese fired at them. Those who managed to jump into the water, and tried to climb up the ropes of four other Japanese ships standing by, were kicked back into the sea. More than 840 were killed or drowned. The rest, picked up later by small patrol vessels or by sympathetic Chinese, were taken as prisoners-of-war to Japan.

On the Eastern Front, October 3 saw the launching of a five day German sweep against Soviet partisans, Operation Regatta, near the White Russian town of Gorky, near Smolensk. A day earlier, near Peklina, fifty telegraph poles had been blown up by Soviet partisans. The ceaseless partisan attacks demoralized the German soldiers, who, so far behind the lines, were nevertheless vulnerable.

There was another war, however, the scientific war, where German morale was high. On October 3, at Peenemünde, the Germans were finally successful in firing their twelve-ton rocket, the A4, capable of carrying a one-ton warhead for two hundred miles. This weapon had been the brainchild of a rocket enthusiast, Wernher von Braun. As a result of this success, Hitler, hitherto sceptical, now authorized the rocket’s mass production.

Returning from Berlin to his Ukrainian headquarters at Vinnitsa on October 4, Hitler learned of a British commando raid on the Channel Island of Sark, Operation Basalt, during which three German Army engineers had been killed. During the raid, five Germans who were being taken, with their hands tied behind their backs, through the undergrowth, to be spirited back to Britain by sea, realized how few their captors were and began to struggle in an attempt to escape. As they struggled, three were shot. When the Germans found the three bodies with their hands tied behind their backs, it was assumed that they had been deliberately executed in cold blood while being held captive. Hitler at once ordered all British prisoners who had been captured at Dieppe to be manacled as a reprisal. He also drafted an Order of the Day, broadcast on October 7, which was to be obeyed with terrible consequences. ‘The terror and sabotage squads of the British and their accomplices’, it declared, ‘act more like bandits than soldiers. In the future they will be treated as such by German troops and ruthlessly put down in battle, wheresoever they may appear.’

***

At Stalingrad, two armies were enmeshed in a single city. The Germans, although they had reached the landing stages on the Volga, could not dislodge the Russian defenders from the city’s factories, nor could they stop the arrival of reinforcements across the river. Between September 25 and October 5, more than 160,000 Russian soldiers had crossed the Volga. ‘Stalingrad must not be taken by the enemy,’ Stalin telegraphed from Moscow on October 5, and he added: ‘That part of Stalingrad which has been captured must be liberated.’ On October 7, in answer to an appeal from Stalin for more fighter aircraft, Churchill arranged, as a matter of urgency, for thirteen merchant ships to sail at once to North Russia, individually and unescorted; five arrived. On the following day, Churchill was able to tell Stalin that, according to his ‘latest information’, the German plans for sending shipping to the Caspian sea by rail ‘have been suspended’. Although Churchill could not say so, this welcome news was derived from the Enigma decrypts. The Germans had now accepted, in their most secret communications at least, that in the Caucasus their plans for 1942 had come to nought.

There had also been an American contribution to the battles at Stalingrad and in the Causasus; in the six months before November 1942, the United States had delivered to the Soviet Union, mostly through Persia, 56,445 field telephones, 381,431 miles of field telephone wire and 81,287 Thompson machine guns. These had proved a timely addition to the Soviet arsenal and means of communication.

In German-occupied Russia, there had been no interruption to the slaughter of the whole Jewish populations of towns and villages. On October 5 a German engineer, Hermann Graebe, had witnessed the murder of fifteen hundred Jews in a pit just outside the town of Dubno. ‘I looked round for the man who had shot them,’ he later recalled. ‘He was an SS man, who was sitting on the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his legs dangling into it. He had a submachine gun across his knees and was smoking a cigarette.’ On October 7, at Vinnitsa, Himmler had discussed the work of Odilo Globocnik at the Sobibor and Belzec death camps. Hitler himself had, apparently, seen Globocnik, who later recalled that the Führer had said to him: ‘Faster, get the whole thing over with faster!’ A month later, Globocnik was appointed to the SS rank of major-general. When, in Hitler’s presence, the Ministerial Director of the Ministry of the Interior, Dr Herbert Linden, had suggested that it might be better to burn the corpses of those murdered, rather than to bury them, as perhaps another generation ‘will think differently of the matter’, Globocnik replied: ‘But, gentlemen, if a generation coming after us should be so cowardly and so corrupt as not to understand our deeds, which are so beneficial and so necessary, then, gentlemen, the whole of National Socialism will have been in vain. Rather, we should bury bronze plates with the corpses on which we should write that it was we who had the courage to accomplish this gigantic task!’ According to Globocnik, Hitler then replied: ‘Yes, my dear Globocnik, that is the truth of the matter. I entirely agree with you.’

It was while this bizarre debate was in progress at Vinnitsa, about whether the corpses of the victims were a cause of shame or pride, that, five hundred miles further west, at Auschwitz, German doctors, trained in pre-war Germany’s finest medical schools, were using the corpses of specially murdered Jews for medical experiments. One of the doctors at Auschwitz, Dr Johann Kremer, clearly understood that there was no limit to the experiments he could carry out. ‘I took and preserved material from quite fresh corpses’, he wrote in his diary on October 10, ‘namely, the liver, spleen and pancreas’. Kramer later recalled how one patient was put on the dissecting table ‘while he was still alive’. Kremer had then questioned him in detail about his medical history. ‘When I had collected my information,’ Kremer added, ‘the orderly approached the patient and killed him with an injection in the vicinity of the heart’.

After the war, Kremer was to serve ten years in prison in Poland, followed by ten more years in prison in West Germany.

***

On October 10, the German Air Force began a ten day assault on Malta. Six hundred aircraft, based in Sicily, attacked the island in waves of a hundred. Alerted by the careful reading of the German Air Force’s own Enigma messages, the British intercepted each wave of the attackers while they were still over the sea. In the Pacific, an equally careful reading of the most secret Japanese codes enabled the American Navy, on October 11, to intercept off Cape Esperance a Japanese fleet bringing reinforcements to Guadalcanal. In a night battle fought, not by aircraft but by surface ships, one Japanese heavy cruiser, the Furutaka, and three Japanese destroyers were sunk, for the cost of a single American destroyer. But during the battle, forty-eight sailors were killed on the American destroyer Duncan when she was caught in Japanese and American cross-fire, and more than a hundred American sailors were killed when their light cruiser Boise was hit by Japanese shellfire after she had turned on a searchlight to illuminate a Japanese target.

To the amazement of the Americans, when the battle was over many of the Japanese sailors whose ships had been sunk refused to be rescued by the American ships, preferring to be devoured by the sharks that infested the waters of the battlefield.

In the Atlantic, on October 12, a convoy with forty-four merchant ships, SC 104, was attacked by a pack of thirteen German submarines, at the very point, known as the ‘black gap’, where no air escort could be provided. As the merchant ships continued on their course, the warship escort gave battle. During five days of continuous action, eight merchant ships were sunk, but three German submarines were also destroyed. Among the Allied warships were two Norwegian corvettes whose captains, the British senior officer reported, ‘pounced like terriers’ whenever opportunity arose.

***

At Stalingrad, on October 11, after fifty-one days of continuous fighting, no German infantry or tank assaults took place; the Germans were preparing one final, and as they hoped, devastating assault. Meanwhile, on the Moscow front two days later, Soviet partisans blew 178 gaps in the Bryansk—Lgov railway; this had been done by demolition experts specially trained at Tula and parachuted behind the lines for the operation. It was on October 14 that the renewed German assault on Stalingrad came, with an attack aimed at driving the defenders from every nook and cranny, from every cellar and ruin, from the fortified shells of factories and from the river bank. Three hundred German tanks took part in the onslaught. But still the Tractor Factory did not fall, although it was completely surrounded and, between the Tractor and Barrikady factories, buildings were captured by the Germans, then recaptured, and captured again. Fighting took place in every attic, on every floor, on the ruins of floors, and in the cellars.

That night, 3,500 wounded Soviet soldiers were ferried across the Volga to the safety of the eastern bank. Driven almost into the ground, pounded from the air, overrun by wave after wave of German infantrymen, still the defenders of Stalingrad refused to give up. They were still defending their ruins on October 15. The German push, for all its fury, and despite its many successes, had failed. But it was renewed three days later with equal intensity, drawing forth a defence of unprecedented tenacity.

As the battle for Stalingrad moved into its third month, resistance and terror were everywhere in evidence behind the German lines. On October 14, from the Polish city of Piotkrow, the Germans began the deportation of 22,000 Jews to Treblinka; the deportation took seven days. One of these who was deported that week, and killed, was a young girl, Lusia Miller, who wrote to a friend a few days before the deportation: ‘It is true that it is terrible; terribly sad that young people die, because everything, everything wants to live in me. And yet, at such a young age, at thirteen, one is only beginning to discover life. And perhaps it is just as well that it is so early. I don’t know. But I really do not want to die’.

In German-occupied Warsaw, fifty Polish Communists, members of an underground resistance group, were hanged in public on October 16, their bodies left hanging as a warning to others who might wish to rebel. On October 17, more than ten thousand Jews then in Buchenwald, and seven thousand in Sachsenhausen, some of whom had been prisoners there for four years, were deported to Auschwitz. From Norway, 209 Jews were sent, first by sea and then by train, to Auschwitz. From Holland, five trains that month brought nearly five thousand Jews to the same camp. Also in October, at Belzec, forty-nine thousand Jews were killed, at Sobibor eleven thousand, and at Treblinka more than a hundred thousand, drawn from towns and villages throughout central Poland.

On October 18, at Auschwitz, on a day during which 1,594 Dutch Jews were gassed, Dr Kremer noted in his diary: ‘terrible scenes when three women begged to have their lives spared’. They were ‘young and healthy women’, Kremer later recalled, ‘but their begging was to no avail. The SS men taking the action shot them on the spot’.

Thousands of people were killed each day at Auschwitz, where human life had been declared of no value. Elsewhere, the value of each human life was clearly recognized, and individuals were rescued in daring and courageous acts. When, that same October 18, Squadron-Leader Tony Hill, a much-decorated British reconnaissance pilot, was shot down over Le Creusot in south-eastern France, breaking his back, he was not only rescued and hidden by the French Resistance, but a special aircraft was flown from England to land at a clandestine airstrip in France, and then to take him back to England. On November 12, as he was being carried to the plane, he died.

Two days after Squadron-Leader Hill’s crash, an Englishwoman, Mary Lindell, was parachuted into France to establish an escape line for Allied airmen and escaped prisoners-of-war. Herself a much decorated Red Cross officer in the First World War, who had won the Croix de Guerre in 1916, she had escaped from France only three months earlier. Hundreds were to owe her their freedom.

***

At Stalingrad, German and Russian forces now battled in the ruins in heavy rain. The Tractor Factory could hold out no longer, although Soviet troops in the Barrikady and Krasny Octyabr factories beat off all attempt to overrun them. By October 20, however, the Russians held no more than a thousand yards of the western bank. ‘The Führer is convinced the Russians are collapsing,’ Field Marshal Keitel noted on October 21, and he added: ‘He says that twenty million will have to starve.’ That day, far behind the lines, a German police company uncovered a Jewish family camp deep in the forest. Such camps were a wonderful attempt at humanitarianism in a brutalized world. Not only did armed men guard hundreds of women, children and old people in the inhospitable forest, but they also foraged for food, and were ever-vigilant against those who sought to destroy the sanctuary. In the attack on October 21, however, the Germans found the camp, and killed 461 people. Only a dozen managed to escape. Two Polish peasant families were also killed, for ‘maintaining contact’ with the partisans in the region.

Far to the south, at Elista, now the Germans’ most easterly outpost, two partisans were captured on October 22; they had been parachuted from Astrakhan, at the mouth of the Volga. In the weeks that followed, many more partisans were to be parachuted into this region. A Cossack cavalry squadron supported the Germans in trying to hunt them down but, a German report admitted, ‘Frequently the bands withdrew temporarily, only to make new sallies from their hideouts.’

***

In North Africa, the Western Allies were a mere two weeks away from Operation Torch, the first Anglo-American amphibious landing of the war. To help prepare it, on October 22 the American General, Mark W. Clark, together with some of his staff, landed secretly by submarine in Algiers, for talks with those senior French officers who supported the Allies, and with the Resistance leaders. On the following day, in the Western Desert, General Montgomery launched an attack at El Alamein on the German and Italian forces.

It was a brave battle on both sides, but also an unequal one. The Germans’ own top-secret Enigma messages had revealed to the British every German position, and every German weakness, especially in fuel oil; they had also enabled every essential German supply ship to be shadowed and sunk, including two which reached Tobruk harbour on the second day of the battle. In addition to this advantage derived from Signals Intelligence, Montgomery’s tanks included many of the new American Shermans, more than a thousand tanks in all, against his opponents’ 480. In manpower, aircraft and guns he was also superior. Rommel, whose presence on the battlefield might also have made a difference, was in Germany on sick leave.

‘The battle in Egypt began tonight at 8 pm….’ With these words, Churchill announced in a telegram to Roosevelt on October 23 the opening of the desert offensive on which so much depended. ‘The whole force of the Army will be engaged’, Churchill added. That same day, General Stumme, Rommel’s replacement, died of a heart attack, and Rommel was recalled to Egypt, reaching the battlefield on October 25.

On the first day of battle, October 23, General Montgomery had under his command, along a forty mile front, 150,000 men—including Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and British—2,182 pieces of artillery, and the use of 500 fighter aircraft and 200 bombers, in addition to his thousand tanks. The battle opened with the simultaneous firing of nearly a thousand of his artillery pieces, an unprecedented barrage of fire on so narrow a front.

There were many moments in the battle of El Alamein when the precious advantage gained by prior Intelligence had to be supplemented on the battlefield by the skills and courage of soldiers and airmen. Throughout October 26, the Allied forces were exposed to a series of cleverly planned German counter-attacks. These however were dispersed by Royal Air Force bombing before they could be put fully into operation. That night, a series of Allied advances along the whole front secured the strategic contour of Kidney Ridge, a geographic feature described by General Alexander to Churchill as ‘a small but important spur in this featureless plain’. Montgomery’s method of attack—the infantry moving forward to open a path for the tanks—was novel and effective.

The battle of El Alamein lasted for five days. When it was over, the German and Italian forces were in swift retreat. The Italian and German losses were 2,300 killed, and 27,900 taken prisoner.

On October 26, as Montgomery drove to victory at El Alamein, Japanese troops under General Kawaguchi launched a fierce attack on the American positions at Guadalcanal, but were driven off, bringing Japanese losses since the American landing began to more than four thousand. In this most recent attack, more than a hundred Japanese aircraft were shot down, for fifteen American planes. That day, off the Santa Cruz Islands, two small American naval task forces tried to stop a far stronger Japanese fleet, including five aircraft carriers, on its way to Guadalcanal with reinforcements. Once again, as in the Coral Sea five months earlier, the battle was fought entirely by the aircraft of the opposing fleets, neither of which even came within firing range of each other. During the battle, the Americans lost the aircraft-carrier Hornet. No Japanese carriers were lost, though a hundred Japanese aircraft were shot down. The American aircraft losses, seventy-four in all, were also heavy. But the Japanese air losses effectively impeded their ability to reinforce Guadalcanal; this was in itself a victory for the United States.

***

On October 26 the British had tried, by an unorthodox means, to sink the Tirpitz, then in a Norwegian fjord, sending a Norwegian naval officer, Leif Larsen, across the North Sea with two manned torpedoes, known as ‘Chariots’, slung beneath his fishing boat. Larsen reached a point near Trondheim from which his attack could have succeeded, but lost his Chariots in an unlucky squall.

It was also on October 26 that a second deportation took place of Jews in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Already uprooted a year earlier from their homes in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, they were now forced to move again, this time to an ‘unknown destination’, said to be somewhere ‘in the East’. That destination was Auschwitz. In this second Theresienstadt deportation, 1,866 Jews were sent east; on arrival, 350 men under fifty years of age were chosen for forced labour. All the other deportees, the old men, all the women and all the children, were gassed. Of the 350 men chosen for the barracks and forced labour, only twenty-eight were to survive the war. In the next two years, a further twenty-five trains were to leave Theresienstadt for Auschwitz; of more than forty-four thousand deportees, less than four thousand were still alive when the war ended.

On the day after the first deportation of Jews from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, a seventeen-year-old member of the Hitler Youth, Helmuth Günther Hubener, was executed in Germany; he had been charged with listening to foreign broadcasts and spreading the news which he had heard. German severity was everywhere in evidence. On October 28, the commander of the German forces in the Balkans, General Löhr, instructed his troops to treat all captured partisans with ‘the most brutal hardness’. That same day, a ‘top secret’ SS directive sent from Berlin ordered all children’s stockings and children’s mittens stored in the death camps to be sent to SS families.

At a public meeting held in London on October 29, leading British churchmen and public figures protested against the persecution of the Jews, and in a message to the meeting, Churchill declared: ‘The systematic cruelties to which the Jewish people—men, women and children—have been exposed under the Nazi regime are amongst the most terrible events of history, and place an indelible stain upon all who perpetrate and instigate them.’

‘Free men and women’ Churchill added, ‘denounce these vile crimes, and when this world struggle ends with the enthronement of human rights, racial persecution will be ended’.

Every day, and every region under German rule, had its quota of persecution. In the Polish village of Suchozebry, a monument records the death, in a prisoner-of-war camp just outside the village, of 60,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war who perished there between July 1941 and October 1942. Most of them died of starvation and sickness; there were times when men who were badly ill were stripped of what clothes they wore, and flung, still alive, into ditches where they died. In another Polish village, Ostrowek, 10,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war likewise perished. Ostrowek was less than fifteen miles from Treblinka by rail, Suchozebry less than twenty miles.

Resistance was growing throughout German-occupied Europe, but reprisals were harsh. In Norway, on October 30, a twenty-year-old seaman engaged in anti-German sabotage, and wounded in the legs by his captors, was executed on Hitler’s orders. So too was an Englishman captured during the attempted sabotage of the power station at Glomfjord. In Trondheim, ten prominent Norwegian citizens were shot as ‘atonement for sabotage’. A further twenty-four Norwegians were later shot ‘for transport of weapons and assistance to saboteurs’.

The bravery of individuals could also lead to the saving of lives. On October 30, the Gestapo seized more than a hundred Jewish orphan children from a children’s home in Brussels. The staff refused to leave the children and were taken with them to the deportation camp at Malines. There were immediate protests, including one by L. C. Platteau, Secretary-General of the Belgian Ministry of Justice. The protest was successful; the children and staff were sent back to the home.

***

At the end of October, a British merchant shipping convoy, SL 125, homeward bound from Freetown with thirty-seven cargo ships, ran into a German submarine pack north east of Madeira. For seven days the ten U-boats chased and torpedoed, sinking thirteen ships with a heavy toll of life. On the President Doumer, 174 seamen were drowned. It was a disaster, however, which had a beneficial effect on the Allied cause which the Germans could not have foreseen; the U-boats which carried out the attack were unaware that ‘assault convoys’ carrying troops for the North African landings were at that very moment leaving Scotland for the Atlantic, and for the long southward journey to Gibraltar.

There was another British naval achievement on October 30, when, after a sixteen hour hunt, four British destroyers caught the German submarine U-559 some seventy miles north of the Nile Delta. As the submarine was being scuttled, Lieutenant Tony Fasson, Able Seaman Colin Grazier and a young canteen assistant, Tommy Brown, entered the submarine and succeeded in extracting its Enigma machine, together with documents which were to enable Bletchley Park to break once again into the U-boat Enigma which had eluded them for more than nine months.

A few seconds after Fasson and Grazier had handed this precious booty to Brown, they went down with the submarine. Both were posthumously awarded the George Cross. Brown, who survived, received the George Medal; it subsequently emerged that he was only sixteen years old, having lied about his age to join the Navy. He was immediately discharged and sent home. Two years later he was killed while trying to rescue his two sisters, who had been trapped in their slum tenement during a fire.

***

The first days of November 1942 saw the conclusion of three decisive battles. At Stalingrad, the Russian defenders continued to cling to the city against a massive German assault. West of El Alamein, British and Commonwealth forces continued to drive the Germans and Italians from their Egyptian conquests. On Guadalcanal, the Americans continued to force the Japanese to cede land over which their conqueror’s flag had flown. All three victories were being achieved at a high cost in lives and material; but they represented a decisive turning of the tide.

Germany, Italy and Japan were suffering their first serious setbacks of the war. For the Germans, there was also the mystery of some Allied initiative which their Intelligence services knew to be imminent, but the direction of which was not known. From the moment on November 2 that the Germans sighted the invasion shipping assembling at Gibraltar, and surmised that it might be either for another and major Malta convoy or for the invasion of Sardinia, they began to move long-range bomber units from northern Norway, Russia, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Greece and Crete. From the German Air Force’s own Enigma messages, these movements were at once made known to British Intelligence, which was thus able to confirm that the Germans knew nothing whatsoever about the ‘Torch’ landings on the French North African coastline, planned for November 8.

On November 3, from his headquarters at Vinnitsa, Hitler ordered Rommel to ‘stand fast’ in the Western Desert. ‘It would not be the first time in history’, Hitler declared, ‘that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions. As to your troops, you can show them no other road than to victory or death.’ This order, Rommel later commented, ‘demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb.’ It was issued, nevertheless, and, as Rommel later wrote, ‘had a powerful effect on the troops. At the Führer’s command they were ready to sacrifice themselves to the last man.’ No such sacrifice was to be asked of them, however; within twenty-four hours of receiving Hitler’s order not to retreat, Rommel had obtained his permission to withdraw. ‘A victory at last,’ King George VI wrote in his diary on November 4, and he added: ‘how good it is for the nerves’.

There was also good news for the Allied nerves in the messages coming from the Far East, where the Australians had been driving northwards along the Kokoda Trail, denying the Japanese all chance of seizing Port Moresby and, on November 3, retaking Kokoda itself. Four days later, on the Kokoda-Gona trail, Japanese defenders sought in vain to hold up the Australians with a bayonet charge in which 580 Japanese were killed.

***

On the night of November 5 the British launched Operation Leopard, whose object was to land ten tons of military stores, including a considerable number of Bren guns, on the Algerian coast for use by the Algerian Resistance during the Allied landings in three days time. The British force was unable, however, to make contact with those on shore and the operation had to be abandoned. On the following day, in Operation Minerva, General Giraud, who had earlier escaped after two years in German captivity, was rescued from the coast of southern France by a British submarine, taken to Gibraltar, and briefed about the imminent invasion of French North Africa.

In the Caucasus, on November 6, the Germans made one last attempt to break through to Grozny. But they were halted at the town of Ordzhonikidze, where they were repulsed. Hitler had already made plans, two days earlier, for a switch of strategy if the Caucasus oilfields could not be reached; if occupying Baku were to prove impossible, he would bomb it, denying Russia the use of its own oil. Churchill learned of this decision on November 7, from the Germans’ own Enigma messages. He at once passed it on to Stalin. ‘Many thanks for your warnings concerning Baku,’ Stalin replied. ‘We are taking the necessary measures to combat the dangers.’

On the afternoon of November 7, Hitler left the Eastern Front by train for Munich. In the early hours of the morning the train was halted by a signal at a small railway station. There was an urgent message for the Führer from the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin: according to British radio, an American invasion force was disembarking at Algiers, Oran and Casablanca.

The Allied forces which now sought to drive the Germans from French North Africa—Operation Torch—constituted the largest amphibious invasion force thus far in the history of warfare: 300 warships, 370 merchant ships, and 107,000 men. As soon as the beaches were secure, the American officers whose task was to make use of the German Air Force Enigma messages went in. ‘Snipers took potshots at us’, their senior officer, Lewis F. Powell, later recalled, ‘and one of my people was killed the first night we were there’. From a captured senior German Intelligence officer, Powell later learned that the Germans had regarded this landing as a feint, believing even after November 8 that the real effort was either to be against Malta or Sicily, or perhaps the reinforcement of Montgomery in the eastern desert. Hence the Germans’ initial failure to attack the landing convoys off Algiers and Oran.

The invasion of French North Africa was swiftly successful. Within seventy-six hours of the first landings, Allied troops were in undisputed control of 1,300 miles of the African coast, from Safi to Algiers. That evening, when Hitler made his annual speech in the Munich beer hall, he focused his attention on Stalingrad, of which he said: ‘That was what I wanted to capture, and do you know, modest as we are—we’ve got it too! There are only a few more tiny pockets!’ Hitler also spoke about the Jews, and of his 1939 prophecy that the war would lead to their annihilation. ‘Of those who laughed then,’ he said, ‘countless already laugh no longer today; and those who still laugh today will probably not laugh much longer either.’

From France and Holland, thousands were being deported to Auschwitz that November. In central Poland, tens of thousands more were being deported to Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. In the Bialystok region, 110,000 Jews had been seized on November 2 from sixty-five towns and villages. Taken to special camps, they were held there for a few days, before being deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka. In one small village, Marcinkance, all 360 Jews resisted deportation; they were shot down and killed in the village itself.

On November 9, a new name entered the vocabulary of evil: Majdanek, a camp just outside the Polish city of Lublin where, on that day, four thousand Lublin Jews were brought, the first of several hundred thousand to be incarcerated, and murdered. At Majdanek, as at Auschwitz, up to half the deportees in each transport could be taken to the barracks; but the rest were taken to the gas chambers.

***

In French North Africa, such resistance as there was had been swiftly overcome by the Allied troops. Where the soldiers of Vichy France decided to fight, they were treated as the enemy. At Casablanca and Oran, 115 of the French defenders were killed. At Algiers, Admiral Darlan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Vichy forces, who happened to be in the city visiting his sick son, ordered the defenders to cease firing. Hitler, fearful of an allied drive to Tunis, hurried German troops to Bizerta on November 9. Three days later, British troops landed at Bône. The struggle for Tunisia had begun.

Retaining his grip on Tunisia would enable Hitler to deny the Allies the short sea route to Egypt and India and compel them to continue to use the very much longer route round the Cape. The shipping thus tied down could not then be used by the Allies to make up for the losses in the major Atlantic U-boat offensive then being planned for early 1943.

In the Western Desert, Rommel was being pushed steadily back; on November 9 he was defending Sidi Barrani, two hundred miles west of El Alamein. ‘Now this is not the end,’ Churchill declared in London at the annual Lord Mayor’s Luncheon on November 10, ‘it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.’

From his daily reading of the Germans’ own top-secret Enigma signals, Churchill knew that his words were more than mere rhetoric. Not only Britain, but the Soviet Union, was proving to be the beneficiary of the North African landings. Four hundred of the five hundred German aircraft moved to Tunisia in the immediate aftermath of the landings on November 8 were brought from Russia, as were several hundred transport aircraft which had been supplying the German forces surrounded at Stalingrad. As a result of the precipitate transfer of these transport aircraft, German bombers had to be pressed into service for Stalingrad in their stead. Goering later commented, of this unforeseen switch of aircraft at Stalingrad: ‘There died the core of the German bomber fleet’.

In moving air units from southern Russia—tentatively in the days before Operation Torch, and then massively after it—the Germans also sent to the Mediterranean their torpedo-bomber units based at Banak in northern Norway. These were the very units which had been proving such a threat to the Arctic convoys.

The relief afforded to the Russian forces at Stalingrad by the transfer of German aircraft to Tunisia ought to have been short-lived; the Western Allies had expected to overrun Tunisia within a few weeks. Because the German resistance in Tunisia was far more tenacious than expected, lasting not six weeks but six months, the German need to keep their air forces in the central Mediterranean continued to be a drain on the Russian front for much longer than would have been the case had the Allies succeeded in their initial plan.

On November 11, in the Western Desert, the British forces re-entered Libya, having been driven out, for the second time, five months earlier. The Germans and Italians were in full retreat. That day, in France, Hitler ordered the occupation of the Unoccupied Zone; henceforth, all France, including Vichy France, was under German rule, except for those eastern areas which had been annexed by Italy in July 1940. Even amid the turmoil and danger caused by Torch, Hitler found time to discuss the Jewish question, doing so on November 11 with Arthur Greiser, ruler of the Warthegau. ‘In our most recent discussion about the Jews’, Greiser told Himmler ten days later, ‘the Führer has told me to proceed against them in whatever manner I judge best.’

On the Eastern Front, Hitler’s soldiers struggled to fulfil his Munich boast that Stalingrad would soon be German; on November 11 German infantry and tanks, driving forward under the protection of massive artillery and air bombardment, reached the River Volga on a five-hundred-yard front, capturing most of the Krasny Oktybar factory and for the second time virtually cutting it off from the defenders in the Barrikady. That same day, as the Volga began to freeze, floating ice made the evacuation of the wounded almost impossible. When Soviet aircraft dropped food and ammunition, most of it either fell on the German lines or went into the river. But the Russian defenders, their forces now cut in two, and under intense bombardment, would not surrender.

In the Far East, the Americans were being put to one of their most severe tests, a Japanese attempt to land more than 10,000 men on Guadalcanal, in order to create a total Japanese force of 30,000 against the 23,000 Americans already on the island. But the Japanese attempt was foiled. For the cost of two light cruisers, including the Atlanta, and seven destroyers, the Americans sank two Japanese battleships, Hiei and Kirishima, the heavy cruiser Kinugasa, two destroyers and, most importantly, seven of the eleven troop transports bound for Guadalcanal. In the end, after two thousand Japanese troops had been killed while trying to land, only two thousand lived to join their comrades already in action, effectively making the island’s capture by the Americans a certainty. American losses in the naval battle had been severe, however: 172 of the crew of the Atlantawere killed when the warship was struck, first by a torpedo, and then by gunfire which totally demolished the bridge superstructure and most of the gun turrets. After 470 unwounded survivors of the Atlanta had been taken off without incident, the crippled cruiser was blown up by a demolition party, and sank beneath the waves.

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In the Western Desert, British and Commonwealth forces entered Tobruk on November 13. ‘There is a long road still to tread,’ Churchill told the Emir of Transjordan that day, ‘but the end is sure.’ On November 14, the German and Italian forces in Libya had been pushed back to Gazala. ‘What will become of the war if we lose North Africa? How will it finish?’ Rommel asked that day in a letter to his wife, and he added: ‘I wish I could get free of these terrible thoughts.’

On November 15, church bells were rung throughout England to celebrate the victory in Egypt. That same day, on the French North African coast, British forces occupied Tabarka, inside Tunisia, to be followed within twenty-four hours by an American parachute landing at Souk el-Arba, while French troops, hitherto loyal to Vichy, now found themselves in action against the Germans at Beja.

Even as the Germans prepared to defend Tunisia, and to keep their hold in Africa, the Japanese, pushed northward in New Guinea back along the Kokoda Trail, prepared to defend the northern coastal towns of Buna and Gona against Australian and American troops. In New Guinea, as in Tunisia, it was to be no easy victory for the Allies; both wars were beginning to witness what was to become a main feature of the turning of the tide, that both the Japanese and the Germans would fight for every town and for every mile, reinforcing wherever they could, retaking positions whenever advantage could be won. At Stalingrad, this obdurate German refusal to give up ground even when it was clear that the Russians could not be dislodged was a costly feature of the struggle for both sides.

Another emerging feature of the war was the relentless air bombardment by the Allies of every facet of Axis war power. On the eve of Torch, it had been the Italian port city of Genoa that had suffered most. On November 17 it was the German submarine base on the French coast at St Nazaire which was attacked. St Nazaire was one of the first Atlantic coast targets of the United States Eighth Air Force, based in Britain. So fierce were the German anti-aircraft defences at St Nazaire that the port was dubbed ‘Flak City’ by the bomber crews who were sent against it.

The Japanese were also beginning to feel the impact of air bombardment on their own cities, so much so that on November 16 Japanese newspapers announced that ‘the crew of any aircraft raiding Japan will be punished with death.’

As part of the Allied effort to weaken the German war effort, on November 17 a British agent, Michael Trotobas, was parachuted into France. His aim was to set up, on what was his second mission into German-occupied territory, a sabotage circuit based on Lille. Given the code name ‘Farmer’, this circuit could draw on the growing local hatred of occupation in the one area of France which had also been occupied by the Germans in the First World War.

It was not only in German-occupied lands that the evils of the New Order held sway; on November 17, at a secret conference in Munich, the Bavarian State Commissioner for health, Walther Schultze, explained to the directors of the mental hospitals throughout Bavaria the ‘special diet’ being introduced for all ‘hopelessly ill patients’. This diet, according to Dr Valentin Faltlhauser, director of the Kaufbeuren mental asylum, would lead to ‘a slow death, which should ensue in about three months’. Another expert on euthanasia, Dr Pfannmüller, proudly told the meeting ‘how he had once grabbed a slice of bread from a nurse who had wanted to give it to a patient.’

In Germany itself, the euthanasia programme was revived that winter by a new method: not gassing, but deliberate starvation. This was made clear in a secret directive to all mental homes, dated November 30, issued from Berlin, which set out that ‘in view of the war-related food situation and the health of the working asylum inmates’, it was no longer justified to feed all inmates equally. Those who were being cared for in the asylums ‘without accomplishing any useful work worth mentioning’ must now be subjected to the special diet ‘without delay’.

The scale of the euthanasia killings may never be known; the names of many of the victims are likewise lost to history. Even the locations of these killings are forgotten, no plaques marking the sites of such enormities. Elsewhere in German-occupied Europe, where the murder of civilians and civilian hostages never ceased, many thousand monuments have been set up to remember those who were killed; on November 18, for example, two hundred Poles were murdered in the Gestapo prison in Kazimierz Dolny. Today, a monument marks the spot and tells of their fate.

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On October 18, the British had launched Operation Swallow, dropping four Norwegian parachutists near Vermork, in Norway, with instructions to prepare the ground for the destruction of the German heavy-water plant at Rjukan. A month later, on November 19, ‘Swallow’ was expanded to ‘Grouse’, and thirty-four men were towed across the North Sea in two gliders. Both gliders crashed on landing, as did one of the aircraft.

Seventeen men were killed in these three crashes. Four more, severely injured, were killed by the Gestapo when it was realised that they were too badly injured to be interrogated. A further fifteen were captured shortly after landing, and shot that same day. Four others, who were severely injured during the crash, were taken by the Germans to Stavanger hospital. Too badly injured to be interrogated, they were given lethal injections, and their bodies disposed of at sea.

On every German front, the fate of captured commandos, partisans and resistance fighters was execution. Yet the tide of war was turning. Pressure on the Germans was growing, as Allied bombing increased, and partisan and commando operations gathered momentum. The German failure to take Stalingrad had brought hope to captive peoples everywhere.

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