For the Germans, the year 1943 opened badly. In both Tunisia and Libya, the Allies were clearly poised for the destruction of all Axis forces in North Africa. On the Eastern Front, amid the rigours of winter, partisan bands were so active and ubiquitous that three separate operations were about to be launched against them: ‘Polar Bear II’ between Bryansk and Dmitriev, ‘Winter Magic’ in Lithuania, and ‘Burdock’ around Kletnya. On the Eastern Front itself, despite reinforcements brought hurriedly from France, the German forces which had so recently come to within thirty miles of their colleagues trapped in Stalingrad were now pushed back 120 miles south-west of the city, while, in the northern sector of the front, despite a tenacious defence, the Germans were driven from Velikiye Luki.
Despite the setbacks on the battlefield, the Final Solution went on without interruption. At four concentration camps in Yugoslavia, Loborgrad, Jasenovac, Stara Gradiska and Djakovo, more than thirty thousand Jews—men, women and children—had been starved to death or shot by the opening days of 1943. Some were able to escape the round-ups. Of more than four thousand who did so, and who then joined the partisans, 1,318 were killed in battle.
In France, that January, a Frenchman, Joseph Darnard, set up a police force of 25,000 men. Known as the Milice, this force worked in close collaboration with the Gestapo, helping to arrest any Frenchmen suspected of resistance activities, and to round up Jews.
Repression was only one facet of Nazi racial policy; confidence in the race was such that Himmler envisaged replenishing German stock by deliberate means. Seven years earlier, in December 1935, he had established the Lebensborn Organization—its literal meaning was ‘Spring of Life’—to pursue his racial theories. The idea was to replenish SS stock lost as a result of the fighting in the East, and to do so by organizing extra-marital procreation between SS men and suitable partners. By January 1943 there were more than twenty Lebensborn houses throughout German-occupied Europe, several of them in Norway, which Himmler felt had special merit as an ‘Aryan—Nordic’ breeding ground. In Eastern Europe, children from Slavic backgrounds who were thought to have suitably Germanic traits were taken forcibly from their parents, transported to Germany and offered for adoption to childless SS and Nazi Party couples; an estimated 70,000 mothers and children had passed through Lebensborn houses or adoption centres by 1945.
Racial purity was the Nazi ideal; setbacks at Stalingrad and in North Africa were the German reality. In the Far East, 1943 also opened badly for the Japanese, with the decision to evacuate the island of Guadalcanal. All hope of holding the Solomon Islands was now lost, and with it all chance of controlling the approaches to Australia. In New Guinea, the Japanese now gave up their last defensive stronghold, at Buna Mission, with many of the defenders swimming out to sea in order to die, rather than be taken prisoner. The garrison commander, a colonel, committed suicide rather than bear the disgrace of surrender. Even on the Indian frontier with Burma, the British felt confident enough to begin to attempt a reconquest of Burma, launching Operation Cannibal on January 1, from Chittagong towards Donbaik.
In the Philippines, an American Army officer, Captain Ralph B. Praeger, who had escaped into the interior of Luzon when Corregidor fell, transmitted a radio message on January 3, to General MacArthur. He had managed to get together five thousand Filipinos, and needed only an air drop of arms to begin a massive sabotage campaign.
MacArthur refused Captain Praeger’s request, partly because his own resources were being strained to the utmost by the campaign in New Guinea, and partly for fear of Japanese reprisals against Filipino civilians. Instead he instructed Praeger to confine his activities to Intelligence gathering. But for many of the Filipinos in Praeger’s area, the ambush of Japanese soldiers became a way of life, despite the savage reprisals which each ambush provoked.
On January 4 the Germans were driven from Mozdok, in the Caucasus, the most eastern important town captured during their advance the previous August. The mountain town of Nalchik, fifty miles to the west, was lost on the following day. A swift advance was being replaced by an even swifter retreat.
In German-occupied Europe, the pace of deportation and killing was relentless, often marked by bizarre and effective deception. On January 5, all Jews in the Polish town of Opoczno were told that those with relatives in Palestine would be allowed to leave, as part of an official exchange scheme: Palestinian Jews for German nationals caught in Palestine at the outbreak of war. Five hundred Jews registered for the exchange. They were taken away by train, not to Palestine, but to Treblinka, and to their death. On the following day, the first of fifteen trains to reach Auschwitz that January arrived from Belgium, to be followed by trains from Holland, Berlin, Grodno and the Bialystok region. Of the twenty-four thousand deportees on these trains, all but four thousand were gassed on their arrival at Auschwitz.
On January 8, the commander of the Russian Don front, General Rokossovsky, sent General von Paulus an ultimatum with terms for the surrender of his forces trapped in Stalingrad. Von Paulus, unwilling to disobey Hitler’s orders against any surrender, rejected the Russian demand. On the following morning, Rokossovsky gave the orders to begin Operation Ring, the direct assault on the trapped German forces. As Soviet troops renewed their assault, the Germans had to continue to fight with less and less chance of airborne supplies reaching them; 490 transport and bomber-transport aircraft were shot down trying to fly in supplies to the two remaining airfields under German control. Inside the trap, 12,000 wounded men were without medical supplies.
As the Red Army’s ring closed around Stalingrad, the siege of Leningrad was about to come to an end, as, on January 13, Soviet troops launched Operation Spark, breaking through the German lines, and opening a narrow corridor, only ten miles wide, south of Lake Ladoga. Through this corridor, supplies could travel by land; within a week of the corridor being opened, men, arms, munitions and food were entering the city. But so narrow was the strip over which these supplies could pass, and so ferocious the German artillery bombardment against it, lasting for another year, that it soon became known as the ‘Corridor of Death’.
On January 14, Roosevelt and Churchill met at Casablanca, in newly liberated French North Africa, to co-ordinate the next stage of their joint war policy. During their meeting, they publicly reaffirmed that the ‘unconditional surrender’ of Germany and Japan was their unalterable policy. Also reached at Casablanca was an Anglo-American agreement—made as a result of a clear warning by the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the many problems of supply and preparation—not to launch the cross-Channel liberation of German-occupied Europe until the early summer of 1944. Even the Sicily landing would not take place until later than originally intended. Stalin was not alone in being disappointed at the time lags, especially for the cross-Channel attack. An American observer, the diplomat Averell Harriman, noted during the Conference that Churchill and Roosevelt, while ‘much pleased with the meeting’, were both ‘disappointed by the slowness of the new moves’.
As the Casablanca Conference continued, Soviet forces, driving towards Stalingrad from the north-west, overran the principal German supply airfield at Pitomnik. Only one airfield, the much smaller Gumrak, now linked the Germans with the outside forces that could no longer come to their aid by land.
Behind German lines, on January 15, the German Army launched its fourth offensive against Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. The campaign, Operation White, was commanded by General Alexander von Löhr, and was the largest military operation conducted by the German forces in Yugoslavia since their invasion in April 1941. Joining the German forces were a considerable number of Italian troops, as well as the Croat Ustache forces of Ante Pavelić, who had earlier been flown to see Hitler at Vinnitsa in order to stiffen his resolve.
Forcing the partisans from their headquarters at Bihac, on the border of Croatia and Bosnia, the troops of Operation White drove them more than two hundred miles southward, to the inhospitable slopes of the 8,290-foot Mount Durmitor, in Montenegro. That same day, in German-occupied Russia, during an anti-partisan sweep near Kletnya, 441 partisans were killed. Also on January 15, in Paris, the thirty-three-year-old Kurt Lishka was appointed commander of the German Security Police, responsible for planning and supervising the continuing deportation of Jews from France to Auschwitz. That same day, in Brussels, the Gestapo began a series of arrests which was soon to break the ‘Comet’ escape line from Belgium, Holland and France to the Pyrenees, through which more than a hundred Allied airmen had been brought to safety, and in most cases returned to their Air Force tasks. Several hundred of those who had helped organize or guard the escape route were arrested; many of them were killed in captivity, or died of ill-treatment. A few escaped through Spain to Britain. One who stayed behind, Jean Greindl, whose code name was ‘Nemo’, tried to protect those few still in hiding from arrest; but he himself was arrested three weeks later, and condemned to death. Before the death sentence could be carried out, however, Greindl was killed by an Allied bomb in an air raid.
Air raids were a principal theme of the continuing discussions at Casablanca, where Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that the bombing of Germany both by day and by night, and on a massive scale, should be intensified, in order to achieve not only ‘the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system’, but also, as their secret directive explained, ‘the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened’. On January 16, five days before this directive was finalized, British bombers carried out their first heavy raid on Berlin for more than fourteen months.
In the Far East, in New Guinea, January 16 saw a combined American and Australian attack on Sanananda; after nine days of battle the Japanese forces were destroyed, and three thousand killed. But still the Japanese refused to give up their dwindling hold. Nor would they do so on Guadalcanal, where, despite a decision in Tokyo to withdraw from the island in February, the fighting went on, and an American call by loudspeaker, inviting the Japanese to surrender, was rejected.
It had been nearly four months since the Germans had stopped their daily deportations from Warsaw to Treblinka, but on January 18 a German unit entered the ghetto to start up the deportation again. Six hundred Jews were killed in the streets as the brutal round-up began, and six thousand were deported to Treblinka and their deaths. As the renewed deportations began, a group of Jews who had managed to acquire arms fired back. Several Germans fell. Then the Germans began to return the fire, the machine-gun bullets of the conqueror challenging the pistol shots of the Jews. Nine of the Jewish fighters were killed. ‘For the first time since the occupation,’ one young Jew, Tuvia Borzykowski, later recalled, ‘we saw Germans clinging to walls, crawling on the ground, running for cover, hesitating before taking a step in the fear of being hit by a Jewish bullet’. The cries of the wounded Germans, Borzykowski added, ‘caused us joy, and increased our thirst for battle’.
That battle came, on the following day, and again on January 21, when grenades were thrown at the buildings in which Jews sought to resist. ‘All through the day,’ Borzykowski recalled, ‘the ghetto resounded to the explosions in which hundreds of Jews perished.’ But the resistance continued, and forty Jews, going from house to house and rooftop to rooftop, not all of them armed, but taking arms from the Germans, kept up the firing. Then, to the amazement of the fighters, the Germans withdrew from the ghetto. ‘At the time,’ Borzykowski later wrote, ‘we had only ten pistols.’ Had the Germans known this, they would probably have continued the raids, and Jewish resistance ‘would have been nipped in the bud as a minor, insignificant episode’. ‘We obtained faith’, another of the Jewish fighters, Yitzhak Zuckerman, later recalled, ‘that we can fight; we know how to fight.’
Twelve Germans had been killed in battle with the Jews. The German units withdrew, to leave the ghetto for a later time. On January 18, west of Osipovichi, Operation Harvest Home was launched against Soviet partisans. That same day, in Norway, five Englishmen who had been captured during the glider raid the previous November were taken to a forest outside Oslo and shot.
Inside Germany itself, the effect of the recent setbacks in North Africa and Russia was beginning to be felt. ‘The times have grown very grave, in the East also,’ Rommel wrote to his wife from Tunisia on January 19, and he added: ‘There’s going to be total mobilization for every single German without regard for place of residence, status, property, or age.’ The supply position, Rommel wrote on January 20, ‘is making our situation more difficult every day’. During a meeting that day between Rommel and the Italian Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Cavallero, ‘the bad news came in’, Rommel later recalled, ‘that British torpedo boats had sunk ten out of fourteen petrol barges west of Tripoli’.
Unknown to Rommel or Cavallero, it was their own top-secret Enigma and C 38m radio messages, decrypted at Bletchley, which were enabling the British to locate and then destroy almost every supply ship or barge which set off from Italy carrying fuel and ammunition.
In the Far East, the British launched Operation Bunkum on January 19, landing six men by submarine on the west coast of the Japanese-occupied Middle Andaman Island, a thousand miles south-east of Calcutta. Working their way through dense jungle and mangrove swamps, three of the six, led by Major D. McCarthy, former Commandant of the Andamans Police, reached the capital, Port Blair, and made a detailed study of the defences. For thirty-two days they moved through enemy territory, covering a total of 130 miles. Returning to Ceylon, Major McCarthy reported that ‘Japanese brutality, which consists of public beating and limb-breaking at the smallest provocation’, made the Andaman Islands a fertile ground for subversion. But it was to be more than a year before their efforts could be followed up.
In reprisal for the two bombing raids on Berlin, German bombers now returned to Britain in force for the first time in almost two years. In a single week of renewed aerial bombardment, 328 British civilians were killed, including thirty-nine schoolchildren on January 20, when a school was hit at Lewisham, in South London. It was also on January 20, from his desk in Berlin, that Himmler sent the German Minister of Transport a top secret letter about ‘the removal of Jews’ from the General Government, the Eastern Territories and ‘the West’. For this purpose, Himmler wrote, ‘I need your help and support. If I am to wind things up quickly, I must have more trains for transports.’ ‘I know very well’, Himmler added, ‘how difficult the situation is for the railways and what demands are constantly made of you. Just the same, I must make this request of you: help me get more trains.’
That same day, the deportations from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz were renewed, with two thousand deportees sent ‘to the East’. On reaching Auschwitz, 1,760 were gassed.
In a train which left Holland on the day after Himmler wrote his letter on the need for ‘more trains’, the deportees included several hundred mental patients from the Jewish mental hospital at Apeldoorn. Before the train left Apeldoorn, the commander of the German Security Police in Holland, Ferdinand aus der Fünten, called for volunteers among the hospital nurses to accompany the train. Twenty came forward; he himself chose a further thirty. The ‘volunteers’ travelled in a separate wagon, at the back of the train. All were offered the choice of returning home immediately after the journey, or working in a ‘really modern mental home’. On reaching Auschwitz, nurses and patients alike were sent to the gas chambers. Not one survived: neither the sick, nor those who had been devoted to their care.
On the day after the deportation from Apeldoorn to Auschwitz, thirty Jewish orphans were seized from their orphanage in Marseille, together with their guardian, Alice Salomon, who insisted upon going wherever they were going; it was to Sobibor, and to their deaths. That week, eighty miles east of Marseille, the Germans tried to round up Jews living in the Italian zone of occupation; but on January 23 the Italian authorities refused to co-operate, and no deportations took place.
On January 22, a German Top Secret report gave details of the success of Operation Hamburg, an anti-partisan sweep behind the German lines in Russia, in the area of Slonim. In all, 1,676 partisans had been killed, as well as 1,510 civilians ‘on the grounds that they belonged to the gangs’. Four armoured cars and eight machine guns had also been captured, as well as cattle and grain.
Later that month, in Yugoslavia, during the German anti-partisan sweep, Operation White, Tito’s partisans agreed to a German request for a limited exchange of prisoners. Among the partisans returned under the exchange was Tito’s wife, Herta. As the partisan retreat continued, Tito appealed to Stalin for material help, but Stalin replied that there were ‘insurmountable technical difficulties’. When, a few days later, Moscow complained about the partisan-German agreement for the prisoner exchange, Tito replied: ‘If you cannot understand what a hard time we are having, and if you cannot help us, then at least do not hinder us’.
On January 21, as Soviet forces continued to drive forward towards Stalingrad and, on the Caucasus front, captured the main German Air Force base and supply centre at Salsk, the British eavesdroppers at Bletchley broke yet another of the Enigma keys, known to them as ‘Porcupine’, which provided the Allies for the next crucial month with all German Air Force messages relating to ground—air co-operation in south Russia.
On January 22, in the Pacific, off the north-eastern tip of Australia, a Japanese seaplane dive-bombed a boat sailing off Lower Wessell Island. The boat was sunk, and six of those on board were killed. Moments later, the seaplane landed, and its crew seized one of the surviving Australians, Leonard Kentish, a missionary. Kentish was taken away in the seaplane. Later, on one of the Japanese held islands of New Guinea, he was beheaded. By an extraordinary chance, an eye witness to his death survived, and, in August 1948, his executioner, Lieutenant Sagejima Mangan, was brought to trial in Hong Kong, and executed.
In the Far East, both on Guadalcanal and in New Guinea, the Japanese forces were facing the possibility of a defeat on land. It came on January 22, when the American and Australian forces on New Guinea overran the last pockets of Japanese resistance west and south of Sanananda. An estimated seven thousand Japanese soldiers had been killed during the campaign; the American and Australian forces lost three thousand. Almost no Japanese had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner; most of the 350 prisoners taken were Chinese or Korean labourers attached to the Japanese forces.
Even as the Japanese were driven for the first time from one of their principal land conquests, the German and Italian forces in North Africa were driven from Tripoli, in which they had been so powerful less than a year earlier. Falling back towards Tunisia, they were constantly pursued and harassed by Montgomery’s forces.
At Casablanca, Roosevelt and Churchill held their final plenary meeting on January 23. Speaking of assistance to Russia, in relation to the other commitments of Britain and the United States, Roosevelt suggested retaining in the next round of supply negotiations the sentence in the Combined Chiefs of Staff report that ‘supply to Russia will not be continued at prohibitive cost to the United Nations efforts’. But Churchill replied that aid to Russia ‘must be pushed and no investment could pay a better dividend’. The United Nations, Churchill insisted, ‘cannot let Russia down’.
In the discussions which followed, however, two of the American Chiefs of Staff, Admiral King and General Marshall, stressed the extent of the shipping losses to the northern convoys. ‘Such losses,’ Marshall warned, ‘made it impossible for us to attack on other fronts and thus eliminate the possibility of forcing the Germans to withdraw ground and air troops from the Russian front.’ It must be ‘made certain’, Marshall added, that, by continuing the convoys to Russia, ‘we do not hazard’ the success of the Sicily landing.
If ‘passage of convoys on the northern route were prohibitive in cost’, Churchill agreed, ‘they must be stopped’. Whatever was decided, Churchill added, Stalin must be told ‘the facts’. The convoys would be stopped ‘if the losses are too great’.
The conference then discussed the timing for the Sicily landings. Churchill pressed for the earliest possible date, telling Roosevelt ‘that he feared the gap of perhaps four months during the summer when no United States or British troops would be in contact with the Germans’. Roosevelt accepted this argument, commenting that such a gap ‘might have a serious effect all over the world’.
Churchill then pressed for a June date for the landings in Sicily. But, after General Marshall warned of the need to avoid any timing which would be ‘at the expense of adequate preparation’, it was agreed that the July date should stand, ‘subject to an instruction that in the next three weeks, without prejudice to the July date, there would be an intense effort made to try and achieve the favourable June moon as the date of the operation’.
The eight days of discussions, ‘almost continuously’, at Casablanca, of every facet of Anglo-American war policy had been, Churchill reported in his telegram that day to the War Cabinet in London, ‘from one point of view, very remarkable’. The priority of ‘Hitler’s extinction’ as against the defeat of Japan had been re-established. Priority had been secured for the Mediterranean, as against the cross-Channel assault that summer, but without prejudice to the ‘maximum’ development of the build-up in Britain of the forces that would be needed for an eventual cross-Channel landing, in 1944.
On the Eastern Front, on 24 January 1943, the Germans were driven from Voronezh, and in the north Caucasus from Armavir. From Stalingrad, that day, von Paulus asked Hitler for permission to surrender. ‘The Sixth Army’, Hitler replied, ‘will hold its positions to the last man and the last round.’ That day, the Russians overran von Paulus’s last airfield, at Gumrak. In North Africa, Rommel’s troops, retreating continually westward, crossed into Tunisia at Ben Gardane, and began to prepare a defensive line just west of Médenine.
In Germany, from January 26, because of the urgent need on the front line for more men, anti-aircraft batteries in the Reich itself were manned by members of the Hitler Youth from the age of fifteen and upward. On the following day, the United States Eighth Air Force, based in Britain, carried out its first bombing raid over Germany, against warehouses and factories at Wilhelmshaven. In the air battle above the port, twenty-two German aircraft were shot down, for the loss of only three of the sixty-four American bombers which took part in the attack.
After their conference at Casablanca, Churchill and Roosevelt went to Marrakech, where, in a telegram to Stalin, they told the Soviet leader of their decisions which, they believed, together with the ‘powerful’ Soviet offensive, ‘may well bring Germany to her knees in 1943’.
Their ‘main desire’, Churchill and Roosevelt told Stalin, had been ‘to divert strong German land and air forces from the Russian front and to send Russia the maximum flow of supplies’. No exertion would be spared to send Russia material assistance ‘by every available route’. Once the Axis had been cleared out of North Africa, a large-scale amphibious operation would be launched in the Mediterranean, while—from the air bases set up in North Africa—Britain and the United States would launch ‘an intensive bombardment of important Axis targets in southern Europe’. The allied bomber offensive against Germany from Britain would also be increased ‘at a rapid rate’.
Churchill and Roosevelt explained to Stalin: ‘We believe an increased tempo and weight of daylight and night attacks will lead to greatly increased material and morale damage in Germany and rapidly deplete German fighter strength. As you are aware, we are already containing more than half the German air force in Western Europe and the Mediterranean. We have no doubt our intensified and diversified bombing offensive, together with the other operations which we are undertaking, will compel further withdrawals of German air and other forces from the Russian front.’
Partisan activities were rapidly becoming an embarrassment to the Germans throughout German-occupied Europe; on January 28, as the battles raged west of Voronezh, Stalingrad and Armavir, German armed forces launched Operation Harvest Home II against Soviet partisan forces west of the Minsk—Slutsk road, two hundred miles behind the front line.
Further behind the lines, far from the battlefield or the partisans, death still came for acts of courage; on January 29, in Wierzbica, near Radom, three Polish families who had been hiding Jews were shot; among the fifteen Poles who were killed that day was a two-year-old girl. Even further west, as several hundred French volunteers left Paris to fight for Germany on the Eastern Front, the words ‘Death to the Jews’ were scrawled on their railway carriages. That same day, also by train, 869 Jews were taken from Westerbork in Holland, and a thousand Jews from Berlin, for Auschwitz.
To ensure that the process of destruction would run efficiently, on January 30, the tenth anniversary of his coming to power in Germany, Hitler appointed his fellow Austrian, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, as head of the Reich Central Security Office, in charge of co-ordinating the round-ups and deportations. Under him, it was Heinrich Müller who signed the orders whereby the Jews were actually deported; one such order required the delivery to Auschwitz of 45,000 Jews by January 31.
Above Germany, British bombers, carrying out the Casablanca directive of Roosevelt and Churchill, attacked Berlin during the daylight hours of January 30 and Hamburg that same night. The raid on Berlin had been timed to coincide with radio broadcasts by both Goering and Goebbels, on the tenth anniversary of Nazi rule. During his broadcast, Goebbels declared: ‘A thousand years hence, every German will speak with awe of Stalingrad and remember that it was there that Germany put the seal on her victory.’
Also on January 31, Hitler appointed von Paulus to be a Field Marshal. It was the very day on which von Paulus surrendered. The German Sixth Army, victors in May 1940 in Holland and Belgium, had now been cut into two separate pockets. Forty-eight hours after von Paulus, in one pocket, surrendered, those in the second pocket also gave up. Of the 284,000 German soldiers originally caught in the Stalingrad trap, 160,000 had been killed in action by January 31. A further 34,000 had been evacuated by air. The survivors, 90,000 frost-bitten and wounded men, were marched eastward, on foot, to Siberia. Tens of thousands died during the march, and tens of thousands more in captivity.
Goebbels’s boasting, and Hitler’s confidence, had for the first time been held up to mockery. The news of the surrender of so vast a German force, and of Stalingrad’s liberation, brought renewed hope to the armies struggling against Germany, and to the captive peoples suffering so cruelly throughout German-occupied Europe. After nearly three and a half years of victories, conquests, advances and the exhilaration of creating fear and uncertainty, the Germans appeared vulnerable. The inevitability of triumph was gone. That day, determined not to lose a single hour of advantage, Allied bombers struck at German airfields and military installations in Sicily.
In the Far East, Japanese troops on New Guinea, with the defeats of Bona and Gona behind them, had tried to reach Port Moresby on January 28 by an attack on the Australian garrison at Wau, but they were beaten off. Near Rennell Island, however, as American reinforcements sailed towards Guadalcanal, Japanese aircraft mounted an attack, sinking the American heavy cruiser Chicago on January 30. Twenty-one Americans were killed, but more than a thousand were taken off safely before the ship went down.
On February 1, in Burma, the Japanese successfully repulsed an attack by Indian troops on the garrison at Donbaik. Unknown to the Japanese, February 1 was also the day on which, at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, ground was broken for the first ever manufacturing plant for the uranium-235 needed to build an atomic bomb. To ensure secrecy and seclusion for the ninety-two acre site, a thousand local families were forced to move away. In their place came engineers and scientists whose number was in due course to reach 82,000, as their deadly work drew closer and closer to completion.
As an earnest of the struggle that still lay ahead on the Eastern Front, on February 2 the Soviet Government announced in Moscow the creation of a new medal, ‘To a Partisan of the War for the Fatherland’, to be awarded by commanders of partisan headquarters to members of their units. On the following day, in Berlin, German radio announced a two day period of mourning for the ‘Stalingrad disaster’. Seizing the advantage of the Germans’ discomfiture, on February 3 the Red Army entered Kushchevskaya, south of Rostov, and Kupyansk, east of Kharkov; then, on February 4, in an amphibious assault, Soviet forces landed behind the German lines near Novorossiisk, where, for six days, a small force headed by Major Caesar Kunikov held the beachhead until Soviet forces further along the shore could link up with it. Mortally wounded during the battle, Kunikov was posthumously created a Hero of the Soviet Union.
The day of the Novorossiisk landing, February 4, was, for the Germans, a day of revenge in distant Kovno, when forty-five Jews—men and women—were seized in their various workplaces outside the ghetto, and killed. The Germans dubbed these killings the ‘Stalingrad Action’.
On February 5, the Germans were driven from Stary Oksyol and Izyum, while a Soviet advance to Yeisk, on the Sea of Azov, cut off the German forces around Novorossiisk from the main body of troops retreating towards Rostov. As the retreats continued, the Germans had to face an intensification of partisan action as far behind the lines as Gomel. It was against these partisans that Operation Hare Chase was launched on February 6, two hundred and fifty miles behind the front line.
It was on February 6, in Berlin, that Himmler received a detailed report on the ‘quantity of old garments’ collected from Auschwitz, and the death camps in the Lublin region. The list included, amongst many other items, 22,000 pairs of children’s shoes, 155,000 women’s coats, and 3,000 kilogrammes of women’s hair. The women’s hair filled a large railway wagon.
The clothing of the victims was to be distributed in Germany, some of it to the Hitler Youth Leadership. The question had also been raised three weeks earlier, by Himmler personally, after a visit to Warsaw, as to what to do with spectacles and eye-glasses, ‘of which hundreds of thousands—perhaps even millions’ were lying in warehouses in Warsaw.
The Jewish clothing sent to the Reich filled 825 railway wagons. In addition, the amount of foreign currency, gold and silver listed was considerable, including half a million United States dollars, and 116,420 dollars in gold.
Clothes, valuables, hair: these were among the spoils of the German war against the Jews. Children and their parents were stripped of the very last of their possessions at the entrance to the gas chamber. On February 11, in a deportation from Paris to Auschwitz many of the 123 children under twelve were deported without their parents. All of them were killed. Six days later, in London, Churchill was told that leaflets ‘setting out German atrocities’ had already been dropped over Germany, and would be dropped again ‘when next we raid Berlin’.
As the deportation trains travelled from West to East, the Red Army was advancing steadily from East to West, taking both Azov and Kramatorsk on February 7. Reflecting that day on Stalingrad, Hitler told his Gauleiters gathered to hear him in secret conclave at Rastenburg: ‘What you are witnessing is a catastrophe of unheard-of magnitude,’ and he added: ‘The Russians broke through, the Roumanians gave up, the Hungarians didn’t even put up a fight.’ Hitler then declared: ‘If the German people fails, then it does not deserve that we fight for its future; then we can write it off with equanimity.’
For some of his Gauleiters, faithful and senior Nazi Party men, the governors of the provinces of Greater Germany, Hitler’s declaration was one which caused a certain unease. ‘Not the right attitude of mind’, one of them, Herbert Backe, noted—for his wife’s eyes only.
On February 8, the Germans were driven from Kursk, a principal centre of north-south communications, and a strongpoint on their winter line. On the following day they were forced from Belgorod. It was a black moment for those who, five months earlier, had reached the western bank of the Volga and stood in triumph on the highest mountain of the Caucasus. Nor was there any comfort for Germany in the performance of her Japanese ally. On February 9, at 4.25 in the afternoon, all organized resistance on Guadalcanal came to an end. More than nine thousand Japanese troops had been killed, for the loss of two thousand Americans.
Stalingrad and Guadalcanal had shown the Allies that the Axis could be defeated in battle. But both places stood on the periphery of the areas under Axis control. The continent of Europe, and the vast island expanses of South-East Asia, were still under the military rule of those who had chosen to make war. The Allies, for all their recent triumphs, stood at the edge of immense regions confronted by hugely powerful forces still to be overthrown, and still capable of prodigious efforts not only of defence but also of attack.