On 12 February 1943, British forces crossed into Tunisia from the south. Throughout the length of western Tunisia, American and British forces already held a line well inside the frontier. But the initial failure to take Tunis at the time of the Operation Torch landings three months earlier was to cost the Allies dear, as Rommel prepared to send his experienced tanks crews and battle-tested tanks against the inexperienced American forces holding the Kasserine Pass. That same day, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army entered Lozovaya, an important junction south of Kharkov. Nor had the Soviet partisan impetus slackened; on 12 February, in the Rogachev region, more than two hundred miles behind the front line, the Germans were forced to launch a four day military sweep, Operation Ursula. Then, on February 14, the Russians retook Rostov, and the city, which had twice been held by Germany, was now lost forever; so too, that day, was the industrial city of Voroshilovgrad. Only in North Africa was there a brief turn of fortune in favour of Germany on February 14, an attack, devised by Rommel, against the British and American forces in western Tunisia. But on the following day, in eastern Tunisia, British forces entered Ben Gardane. Rommel now began to fortify the Mareth Line.
Those of Rommel’s forces which attacked westward on February 14 had, however, an immediate success, driving the inexperienced American forces which faced them back across the Kasserine Pass. But Rommel’s object, to drive far back across the Algerian border, failed; his troops were halted before Tébessa, and could make no further progress.
The Allied armies in North Africa still had to face the prospect of a long campaign against two Generals, Rommel and von Arnim, who, under orders from Hitler, would cling to Tunisia with skill and tenacity. Unknown to Rommel or von Arnim, however, the most sensitive element of any General’s ability to fight, his system of top secret communications to the high command, had been almost totally undermined. The very Enigma machine which gave both Rommel and von Arnim the welcome knowledge that aircraft reinforcements were on the way, and which transmitted to them their tactical directives, enabled their adversaries, from their Signals Intelligence centre in Britain, to monitor their strength and intentions, and to reduce and impede them until the day would come when neither General could hope even to hold a defensive line.
The battle for Tunisia, January–May 1943
In Burma, on February 14, three thousand British and Gurkha troops of the 77th Indian Brigade, known as the ‘Chindits’, set off from Imphal towards the inhospitable jungles of Burma, on a mission of sabotage against the Myitkina—Mandalay railway. Crossing into Burma at Tamu, and moving more than five hundred miles into Japanese-held territory, this expedition, code-named ‘Loincloth’, the brainchild of Brigadier Orde Wingate, blew up the railway between Wuntho and Indaw; three bridges were cut, and a Japanese force which tried to stop the demolitions was driven off. After four weeks of determined marching, and of continued sabotage, five of Wingate’s columns crossed the Irrawaddy river. Once over the Irrawaddy, however, and at the limit of air supply, the expedition was forced to return. Before it did so, an ambush was set for the Japanese, in which a hundred Japanese were killed for the loss of a single Gurkha. The aim of Operation Loincloth, to ‘stir up a hornets’ nest’ in Japanese-occupied Burma, had been successful, so much so that the Japanese were later to launch their own imitative attack against India, in the region of Imphal. Wingate, too, was to try again, on a far more substantial scale.
On February 16, the Red Army reached the outskirts of Kharkov. That day, over France, an American airman, Lieutenant T. P. Mayo, was shot down on his way back from an air raid over St Nazaire. As he landed, several French-women came up to him, some of them already carrying plain clothes for him to change into, so that he would all the more easily be able to evade capture. Slowly but surely, the forces of resistance and rescue were gaining in strength and organization. Even an Allied airman lost over France could now expect to be helped, hidden and sent southward to the Pyrenees, and Spain. That same night, over Norway, six specially trained Norwegians were parachuted on to a frozen lake thirty miles north west of Vermork, in a second Allied attempt to destroy the high concentration heavy water plant on which a German atomic bomb would depend. This time, the mission, code named Operation Gunnerside, was a success; nine days after the landing, having been joined by four men from the earlier Swallow mission, the Norwegians blew up the high-concentration plant at the factory. None of the saboteurs was caught; one of them, fully armed and in uniform, went across the snow on skis to neutral Sweden, the other nine remained in Norway and, despite repeated German searches, avoided capture.
In Munich that day, stunned citizens saw the words ‘Freedom’ and ‘Down with Hitler’ painted in large white letters on a wall in one of the city’s main streets. Two days later, at Munich University, anti-Nazi leaflets were scattered in the main entrance hall. ‘Germany’s name will remain disgraced for ever’, one sentence in the leaflet read, ‘unless German youth rises up immediately, takes revenge, and atones—smashes its torturers, and builds a new, spiritual Europe.’
Those responsible for the leaflet, the twenty-four-year-old Hans Scholl, his twenty-one-year-old sister Sophie and their friend Christoph Probst, were members of a small group which called itself the ‘White Rose’, a rare dissenting voice in Nazi Germany. They were soon arrested and brought to trial. Their judge was Roland Freisler, President of the People’s Court. The three were sentenced to death by decapitation, and guillotined. Before putting his head under the guillotine, Hans Scholl called out, with a cry that was heard throughout the prison: ‘Long live Liberty!’
Within Munich University, the White Rose had been encouraged by Kurt Hüber, a professor who shared its anti-Nazi views; later he too was arrested and executed, together with two other members of the group, Willi Graf and Alexander Schmorell, both of whom had served on the Eastern Front in 1942, and been shocked at what they had seen there of the barbarity against the Jews, as Hans Scholl had been. Scholl, as a gesture of protest, had shaken the hands of Jews in cattle-trucks at railway stations in eastern Poland.
On February 18, the day of the arrest of Hans and Sophie Scholl in Munich, Goebbels spoke in Berlin of the need for total war. ‘Do you want total war?’ he asked, and he went on: ‘Do you want it, if it has to be, more total, more radical than we can possibly imagine today?’ The crowd roared in unison, ‘Yes!’ Goebbels then asked: ‘Is your confidence in the Führer greater, surer, more unshakeable than ever?’
‘Yes!’ came the echoing cry.
Goebbels also spoke that day about the Jews. ‘The Jews are the root of evil in the world,’ he declared, ‘they are the Devil who pushes the West towards its downfall; they are the carrier of ruin and destruction within the body of Western civilization; they are the instigators of chaos in the world,’ and he went on to warn: ‘The crocodile tears shed abroad over the treatment of Jews in German-occupied territories will not deter Germany from carrying out its plans and ideas. On the contrary, Germany will pursue its course with more vigour, by lawful means if necessary, in order to implement its plan which provides for the total elimination of Jewry’.
Hitler was at the front on February 18, at Field Marshal von Manstein’s headquarters at Zaporozhe, within sound of the Soviet artillery. On the following day he told Manstein’s soldiers and airmen, shortly to launch Germany’s third offensive against Russia: ‘The outcome of a crucial battle depends on you! A thousand kilometres away from the Reich’s frontiers the fate of Germany’s present and future is in the balance.’ The youth of Germany, Hitler told his listeners, was manning the anti-aircraft defences around Germany’s cities. More and more divisions were on their way to the East. ‘Weapons unique and hitherto unknown are on the way to your front.’ He had come to see them, he said, to do everything he could to convert their hitherto defensive battle ‘into ultimate victory’.
Immediately after his speech, Hitler flew back to his ‘Werewolf’ headquarters at Vinnitsa. His troops were ready to launch their new offensive. But even as they made their final preparations, the Russians continued to push forward, retaking Pavlograd, less than sixty miles from the German headquarters at Zaporozhe, on February 20.
For the Dutch living under German occupation, February 20 saw the execution, near Schiphol airport, of several members of the Resistance. It was also the day on which a Dutch member of the Germanic SS, Gerardus Mooyman, became the first foreign volunteer in the SS to be awarded the Knight’s Cross to his already awarded Iron Cross, First Class. He had knocked out seventeen Soviet tanks in only two days.
February 21 was Red Army Day, the anniversary of the foundation in 1918 of the Soviet armed forces. That day, it was announced in London that King George VI would present a Sword of Honour to the city of Stalingrad. ‘It was the unyielding resistance of Stalingrad’, the King declared, ‘that turned the tide and heralded the crushing blows which have struck dismay into the foes of civilization and freedom.’
Red Army Day was not to pass, however, without drama of its own on the battlefield; for this was the day chosen by Hitler to launch his third Russian offensive. The aim was no longer the ambitious previous targets of Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad or Baku; but in seeking to recapture control of Kharkov, Hitler hoped not only to halt the Soviet advances of the previous three months, but to regain the initiative, and to recapture as much ground in southern Russia as possible. His visit to the troops at Zaporozhe had underlined the importance of the new offensive.
Within twenty-four hours of the renewed German onslaught in the south, however, the Red Army was able to open a counter-offensive towards Rzhev, in the central sector of the front, and against Sumy, in the Ukraine, which was recaptured.
In Tunisia, Rommel was forced that day to break off his attacks on the Allied armies, as British reinforcements began to arrive, but his own fuel supply ships could not get through to Tunis. As British Signals Intelligence was listening into their instructions, action against the ships was swift and sure.
The setbacks to Germany on the battlefield did not affect her behaviour as an occupying power, nor the behaviour of her agents. On February 22, in Oslo, Vidkun Quisling ordered a general mobilization of the whole civilian population. Anyone not registering could lose their ration cards. The first project, road and railway building works, and the construction of military installations, being undertaken by the Todt Organization, called for thirty-five thousand men. When two senior Church leaders, Bishop Berggrav of Oslo and the lay leader, Professor Hallesby, protested, they were arrested and imprisoned at Grini concentration camp.
Also on February 22, the Bulgarian government agreed to a German request to deport the eleven thousand Jews living in those areas of Yugoslavia and Greece which Bulgaria had occupied in 1941. Twenty trains were allocated for those deportations. Within a month of the agreement being signed, all eleven thousand Jews had been taken the length of Europe, some from the Aegean coast, and even from the Aegean islands, through Belgrade and Vienna, to their deaths at Treblinka. No Jewish community, however small, escaped the net; a memorial in Greece records the deportation and death of the three Jews who lived on the remote and beautiful island of Samothrace.
In the Polish town of Zamosc, an act of barbarity took place on February 23, the day after the German—Bulgarian deportation agreement, when thirty-nine Jewish boys, who had been in hiding, were murdered by phenol injections. A further eight were killed by the same method a week later.
For the Jews, a sense of powerlessness was combined with a determination to fight back whenever opportunity arose. Throughout February, a division of the Red Army, the Sixteenth Division, had been training for combat. Many of its twelve thousand men were Jews from Lithuania. On February 23 the division attacked the Germans at Alekseyevka, in the Ukraine, Jewish riflemen and machine-gunners charging on foot across the snow-covered plain. For two days the division struggled against superior German firepower until, its ammunition gone, it was ordered to withdraw. Several hundred Jews lay dead.
Hitler himself broadcast over German radio on February 24, telling his listeners: ‘We shall smash and break the might of the Jewish world coalition, and mankind struggling for its freedom will win the final victory in this struggle.’ As the German armies struggled to regain the initiative in the East, a sense of hope in victory was renewed. ‘Communiqués from the East now sound a little better again,’ Rommel wrote to his wife on February 24, and he added: ‘That’s a ray of light after such bad times.’
On February 23, Stalin issued a second partisan order, urging that the ‘flame of partisan warfare shall be kindled and spread’. Fourteen partisans had already been created Hero of the Soviet Union, among them Ivan Nikitin, who, in the course of fifty reconnaissance missions, enabled his unit to attack and kill several thousand Germans. Nikitin himself blew up several bridges and motor vehicles, killing in all more than 350 German soldiers.
The struggle on the Eastern Front was also aided by further British successes in breaking the various German Enigma keys; on February 25 the ‘Ermine’ key, used by one of the main German Air Force combat units in the East, was broken, followed four days later by the breaking of yet another Enigma key, that of the German Air Force administrative area in the southern Ukraine. This key was known to the British as ‘Orchid’.
The day of the breaking of the ‘Ermine’ key was also the day on which, as a result of the decisions made at the Casablanca conference, a ‘round-the-clock’ air offensive was launched against Germany, with British bombers attacking by night and American bombers by day, a daylight raid on February 25 against Nuremberg marking the start of this intensification of the air war. Within forty-eight hours, two thousand Allied bombers had dropped their bombs.
In Berlin, on February 27, the Germans rounded up eight thousand Jews, the last remaining Jews in the capital, most of them factory workers hitherto exempt from deportation, hence the round-up’s name, the ‘Factory Action’. Within twenty-four hours, all were deported to the East, including several Jews who, as converts to Christianity, had married Christian wives. It was this deportation of Christians which led to a protest by the Archbishop of Breslau, Cardinal Bertram. As a result of this protest, a few of the converts were exempted from deportation. Most, however, were sent, like the other deportees, to Auschwitz. Eight of those rounded up on February 27 had earlier been brought to Berlin from Helsinki, as a result of pressure by Himmler on the Finnish Government. Only one was to survive the war. Following protests by churchmen and politicians in Finland against the deportations, the Finnish Cabinet refused to deport any more of its two thousand Jews, several hundred of whom were themselves Germans or Austrians who had fled to Finland as refugees before the war; now, they were safe.
Even in Berlin, there had been protest at the deportations. ‘Unfortunately,’ Goebbels noted in his diary on March 2, ‘our better circles, especially the intellectuals, once again have failed to understand our policy about the Jews and in some cases have even taken their part.’ These protests did not affect the deportations from France. That day, of a thousand Jewish deportees sent from Paris to Auschwitz, three hundred were more than seventy years old. They too were gassed.
Also on March 2, in France, the Allied escape line ‘Pat’ was destroyed, when a British Army deserter, Herbert Cole, betrayed its leader, the Belgian doctor, Captain Guérisse, known as Lieutenant-Commander Pat O’Leary, RN, in Toulouse.
On March 3, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army recaptured Rzhev. That night, British bombers struck at Hamburg. In London, in an area where no bombs were falling, panic struck those entering a Tube shelter at Bethnal Green after an alert had sounded; 173 were killed by suffocation as they fell and were crushed on the steps leading to the shelter.
In the Far East, Operation Cannibal, a British offensive designed to recapture the Burmese port of Akyab by an overland advance from India, came to an unsuccessful end on March 4, when the Japanese forces facing it went over to the offensive. But in the Pacific, in the Bismarck Sea, a Japanese attempt to send seven thousand reinforcements as well as aircraft fuel and spare parts, to Lae and Salamaua, in New Guinea, was routed that day, when 137 American bombers, protected by American and Australian fighters, destroyed all eight of the Japanese troop transports and four Japanese destroyers; 3,500 Japanese troops were drowned. The aircraft fuel and spare parts, both desperately needed by the Japanese at Lae and Salamaua, were also sunk, and 102 of the 150 Japanese aircraft involved in the battle were shot down.
It was exactly ten years since Roosevelt had been inaugurated President for the first time. ‘Accept my warmest congratulations’, Churchill telegraphed to him that day, ‘on your brilliant victory in the Pacific which fitly salutes the end of your first ten years.’
That night, 442 British bombers struck at Essen, in the Ruhr, destroying more than 160 acres of industrial property, and continuing their work of gradual erosion of the German war economy.
Even as the Germans struggled to regain territory in the East, being checked again and again by the tenacity of the Russian defence, the Nazi Governor of the Ukraine, Erich Koch, was speaking with contempt of the Russians under his control. In a speech in Kiev on March 5, he declared: ‘We are a master race, which must remember that the lowliest German worker is racially and biologically a thousand times more valuable than the population here.’ As to the Russians, they, said Koch, ‘will have to work, and work, and go on working’. In fact, the Russians went on fighting, in partisan actions throughout Koch’s own empire, as well as at the front; on March 6 the Red Army took Gzhatsk, on the railway line from Moscow to Smolensk, pushing the Germans yet further away from Moscow.
In North Africa, the British ability to eavesdrop on Rommel’s most secret messages now reaped one of its most important dividends, with the decrypting on February 28 of Rommel’s plan—after his failure to break through against the Americans in western Tunisia—to attack the British Eighth Army instead, driving southward on Médenine with three panzer divisions, in order to encircle the British forces in front of the Mareth Line. Between February 28 and March 4, as Rommel moved troops and tanks from the one front to the other, further decrypts gave the exact size of the forces which he intended to throw into battle. Learning of this through his own secret link with Bletchley, Montgomery was able to rush extra troops, including the New Zealand Division, as well as four hundred tanks and 470 anti-tank guns, two hundred miles along the single surfaced road, to match and exceed the forces being gathered against him.
By the morning of March 6, when Rommel launched his attack, the German and Italian forces had lost both the element of surprise and the advantage of superior numbers. Within a few hours, it was clear that the British tanks and artillery would overwhelm any assaulting force. Nor could the German tanks make progress against the British anti-tank gun fire. At seven o’clock that evening, Rommel ordered ‘an immediate cessation of the battle’.
In Berlin there was a minor setback to the Final Solution, when Goebbels was forced to postpone the last deportation of Jews from the German capital. ‘Unfortunately,’ he wrote in his diary on March 6, ‘there have been some regrettable scenes at a home for aged Jews, when a large number of people gathered and some of them even sided with the Jews.’ That same day, in Zagreb, the Catholic churchman, Archbishop Stepinac, protested to the Croat leader, Ante Pavelić, against the killing of Jews who were married to Christians. How could the Christian member of the marriage, he asked, be expected to remain silent ‘while their beloved are being violently exterminated and their children exposed to an unknown fate’? Pavelić agreed to halt the killing of Jews who were married to Christians. But the killing of the remaining Croat Jews went on; the Archbishop’s protective hand did not extend to them.
On the night of March 6, as Churchill and Roosevelt’s Casablanca Directive was brought into full effect, British bombers returned to Essen. ‘The city of the Krupps has been hard hit,’ Goebbels noted in his diary on the following day, and he added: ‘The number of dead, too, is considerable. If the English continue their raids on this scale, they will make things exceedingly difficult for us.’
While Goebbels was in Berlin, receiving reports of the increasing severity of the air raids over Germany, Hitler was at his ‘Werewolf’ headquarters at Vinnitsa, to which Goebbels flew on March 9. It was ‘by no means impossible’, Hitler told him, that the Russians might collapse ‘sooner or later’.
The vision of a defeated Russia could not be dislodged from Hitler’s mind.
That evening, news was telephoned to Vinnitsa that Nuremberg had suffered a heavy air raid. ‘The Führer is very much worried about the fate of this city,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘I telephoned to Nuremberg twice and asked for reports. The damage was not so great as we at first thought.’
For Rommel, who had also arrived at Vinnitsa that day, there was the award of the highest of all orders of the Iron Cross, the Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds. There was also advice from Hitler, that he go on sick leave, with the aim, Rommel recalled, ‘that I could take command again later for operations against Casablanca’. Rommel added: ‘It simply never occurred to him that things could go wrong in Tunisia. Nor would he hear of the front being shortened, for then it would be impossible to take the offensive again.’
On the morning of March 10, German troops began a massive assault on the centre of Kharkov. As Rommel and Goebbels flew back to Germany, Hitler flew eastward once more to Manstein’s headquarters at Zaporozhe. Since the start of Manstein’s offensive on February 21, more than 23,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed, and 634 Russian tanks destroyed. Now Kharkov lay once more within the German grasp.
That night, British bombers struck at Munich. ‘Again one asks: How is this to go on?’ Goebbels wrote in his diary on March 11, and he added: ‘If the English are in a position night after night to attack some German city, one can easily imagine how Germany will look after about three months unless we take effective countermeasures.’ Goebbels was also angry because, he wrote, ‘The scheduled arrest of all Jews on one day failed because of the shortsighted behaviour of industrialists who warned the Jews in time.’ Now, on Goebbels’s instructions, those Jews were being hunted down.
In the defence of the city of Kharkov, the Russians had, as allies, a thousand Czechoslovak troops. Four hundred of the soldiers were Czechs who had fled from Czechoslovakia to Poland in March 1939 and from Poland to Russia in September 1939. Six hundred were Czech Jews who had sought refuge on Soviet soil in 1939, been sent by the Soviets to labour camps in 1940, and in 1942 released to join this Czechoslovak Division.
These Czech troops were first in action between March 8 and 11 at Sokolovo; by the end of the battle, 140 of the Jewish soldiers had been killed in action.
On March 12, Soviet forces liberated Vyazma. In Italy, 100,000 workers, in Turin and Genoa, went on strike, bringing war production to a halt, nor could Mussolini assert sufficient authority to get the men back to work. ‘If you show the least weakness in cases like this,’ Hitler told his Staff, ‘you are finished!’
Since the surrender at Stalingrad, Hitler’s own confidence had been shaken. ‘He seemed very depressed and upset about the Stalingrad disaster,’ Rommel recalled of his conversation at Vinnitsa on March 9. ‘He said that one is always liable to look on the black side of things after a defeat, a tendency which can lead one into dangerous and false conclusions.’ Not only Hitler, but several senior Army officers, had also been ‘upset’ by Stalingrad, not so much by the defeat as by Hitler’s part in it. As they saw it, his refusal to allow von Paulus to retreat was typical of interference in military matters, leading to disaster. There were also officers who had come to dislike other facets of the regime: its tyranny, the ostentation and dominance of Nazi Party officials, and Hitler’s willingness to fight both Russia, whom most of them feared, and the Western Allies, whom some of them would have liked to see outside the conflict. To these officers, the appeal by Goebbels for ‘total war’ was a call to suicide. The nucleus of a military conspiracy had begun.
The German retreats, February to August 1943
On March 13, Hitler was at Vinnitsa, preparing to return to Rastenburg. He had let it be known that, during the flight, he would land briefly at Smolensk, to visit the headquarters of Army Group Centre. At Smolensk, Major-General Henning von Treschkow and his staff officer, Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, leaders of the disaffected officers, had planned to kill Hitler with a parcel bomb. The bomb was given to one of the officers accompanying Hitler during the flight on to Rastenburg; this officer, who was not in the plot, had been told that it was a gift of two bottles of liqueur for a senior officer at Rastenburg.
The parcel was taken on the plane, and Hitler flew westward. In Berlin, other conspirators, among them Colonel Hans Oster, Chief of Staff of the German Armed Forces Counter-Intelligence service, and his deputy, Hans von Dohnanyi, waited for the code word ‘Flash’, to indicate that they should take control in the capital. The bomb had been timed to go off in the region of Minsk. But, two hours after leaving Smolensk, the plane reached Rastenburg without incident. The conspirators, recovering the parcel, discovered that the detonator had been defective. Operation Flash had failed.
Not only German Army officers and aristocrats, but students and liberals, had been spurred after Stalingrad to protest against the Nazi régime. In Düsseldorf, sixty-one people were arrested that March for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. Other arrests were made in Dortmund, Görlitz, Chemnitz, Nuremberg, Saarbrücken and Weimar. The local population, a German Security Police report of March 15 complained, was ‘no longer meeting such manifestations as before, by, for instance, the prompt removal of the inflammatory writings or the handing over of leaflets, but instead reads the contents and hands them on’.
On March 13, the United States Treasury agreed to a request from Colonel Donovan, to make five million dollars available for Polish resistance behind the German lines. The money, in small denomination bills, was flown from Britain in an aeroplane which landed at night on Polish soil, left the money with members of the Polish resistance, and flew back safely. A further fifteen million dollars was to be sent to Poland during the next fourteen months.
Twenty-four hours after this American decision to help Polish resistance activity, German troops re-entered Kharkov. ‘We have shown the Ivans we can withstand their terrible winter,’ one SS officer wrote in triumph, and he added: ‘It can hold no fear for us again.’ Not winter, however, but the coming of spring, hampered further German advance, as the thawing steppes were turned once again into bogs across which tanks and men could move only with considerable difficulty.
On March 15, Goebbels noted in his diary that he had told Hitler ‘that I deemed it essential to force the Jews out of the entire Reich as quickly as possible’. Goebbels added: ‘He approved, and ordered me not to cease or pause until not a single Jew is left anywhere in Germany.’ That day, more than nine hundred miles from Berlin, the deportations began of the Jews of Salonica: an ancient Sephardic community established shortly after 1492 by Jews who had been expelled from Spain. Ten thousand Salonica Jews had been deported from the Aegean port by the end of March, a further twenty-five thousand in April, and ten thousand more in May. They had no idea of their destination, having been told that it was a ‘resettlement’ area in Poland.
Each deportee from Salonica was allowed to take a food parcel for the journey, and up to fifteen kilogrammes of clothing for the ‘resettlement’ area. In fact, their destination was Auschwitz.
For many generations the Jews of Salonica had served in the port as stevedores and dock workers: the smooth working of the docks depended upon them. But the Nazi design would allow no exceptions, no logic, no special pleading. Jews from the villages around Salonica were also deported, except from Katerini, where the local Greek head of police gave the Jews three hours to flee after receipt of the deportation order. Thirty-three Jews fled, and were hidden by Greek villagers. Three, who were unable to leave, were shot by the Gestapo.
On March 18, American bombers based in Britain struck at German submarine yards at Vegesack, near Bremen. The bombardier on the lead aircraft, First Lieutenant Jack W. Mathis, despite being severely wounded by anti-aircraft fire when directly over the target, released his bombs on time. Posthumously, he was awarded the Medal of Honour, the first Eighth Air Force recipient. In Warsaw, on March 18, three Polish resistance fighters were in a battle with the Germans. One of them, Hanka Sawicka, was seriously wounded in the fight. All three, after being captured, were tortured to death in Pawiak prison.
On the Eastern Front, the Germans captured Belgorod on March 19; but north of Belgorod, the Russians had created a bulge in the German line west of Kursk which threatened all the German gains in the south. Hitler ordered this Kursk salient to be eliminated. The plan of attack was given the code name Operation Citadel.
In the Atlantic, the British and Americans, whose grip on the U-boat Enigma had become temporarily intermittent, were confronted by a sudden resurgence of German submarine activity. In the three weeks leading up to March 20, a total of 107 Allied merchant ships had been sunk in the North Atlantic, most of them in the mid-Ocean gap between the maximum range of effective air cover from either Canada or Britain. In the first ten days of March, forty-one ships had been sunk, and in the ten days up to March 20, a further fifty-six. The British Naval Staff later recorded that ‘the Germans never came so near to disrupting communications between the New World and the Old’, so much so, the Naval Staff added, that ‘it appeared possible that we should not be able to continue convoy as an effective form of defence’.
On March 20 the Royal Air Force launched Operation Enclose, to try to catch the German submarines while they were in the Bay of Biscay. But, despite twenty-eight sightings in eight days, only a single submarine was sunk. The crisis of the German submarine successes, which had arisen from the problems of decrypting the new German naval Enigma key, was about to be resolved by an outstanding Intelligence success at Bletchley, the successful overcoming of the recent setbacks in reading the U-boat Enigma. Within two months, a mortal danger had passed.
On March 21, on the Eastern Front, the Russians advanced further into the Kursk salient. They were also able that day to push the Germans back further north, capturing Durovo, only fifty-six miles north-east of Smolensk. That day, in Berlin, Hitler was to attend the annual memorial dedication to the dead of the First World War. After the ceremony, he would also be shown a collection of weapons captured from the Russians. The military conspirators, despite their setback at Smolensk, decided to try once more to kill Hitler. One of their number, Major General Baron von Gersdorff, was to be on duty at the exhibition. He proposed the following suicide mission: putting a bomb into his greatcoat pocket, he would detonate it as Hitler passed him. Briefed by Major-General von Tresckow, von Schlabrendorff searched for a bomb with a specially devised short time fuse which would go off after ten minutes, but he could not find one, and the attempt was called off. Ironically, Hitler only stayed at the exhibition for eight minutes after the dedication ceremony ended. As during the Munich Beer Hall assassination attempt in November 1939, he would have left the building just in time.
On March 22 the Germans completed the retreat from a salient in the central sector of the Russian front, giving up a hundred mile stretch of the Vyazma—Moscow—Smolensk railway. The retreat, given the codename Operation Buffalo, considerably shortened the line, as well as giving up areas in which Soviet partisans had been particularly active. That same day, in the village of Khatyn, near Minsk—not to be confused with Katyn near Smolensk—an SS unit formed from German criminals, who had hitherto been imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin, murdered 149 villagers, and burned the village to the ground. The aim of this action had been to deter villagers from giving help to partisans, but by the end of the year partisans were in control of half the countryside.
On March 23 a German statistician, Dr Richard Korherr, submitted to Himmler a report on the number of Jews who had been subjected to ‘total evacuation’ and ‘special treatment’. The figure he gave was 1,274,166 in the camps in the General Government, and a further 145,301 in the Warthegau.
Although Korherr had no reason to say so, further deportations were continuing that very day, both from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia, and from the Greek city of Salonica. These latter deportations had led to a protest, also on March 23, from Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens to the Greek collaborationist Government in Athens.
Archbishop Damaskinos’ protest was to no avail. A week earlier, however, on March 17, the Bulgarian parliament had voted unanimously against any deportation of Jews from pre-war Bulgaria, and this protest was successful, having as it did the support not only of the King of Bulgaria, but also of the Papal Nuncio in Turkey, Angelo Roncalli, who was godfather to the King’s son. Fifteen years later, Roncalli was to be elected Pope, as John XXIII.
On March 25, a protest against the treatment of the Jews, written in German, was forwarded by Hans Frank in Cracow to Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin. The letter was anonymous. In it, the writer described his disgust at what he had seen during the liquidation of an eastern ghetto. Jewish children, he wrote, had been thrown to the ground, and had then had their heads deliberately trampled on with boots. This was no exaggeration. But a single, anonymous protest could lead to no change in the pattern of destruction. On March 25, two thousand Jews from the town of Zolkiew, in Eastern Galicia, were driven to a nearby forest and killed. The remnants of Jewish communities throughout Poland, most of whom had been deported to their deaths six months or a year earlier, were now being searched out, or taken from the labour camps to which they had been sent in 1942, and killed.
In the Far East, a Japanese naval squadron seeking to supply the Japanese garrisons on Kiska and Attu islands, in the Aleutians, was intercepted by a smaller American naval force, which courageously engaged it. No capital ships were sunk, but, in the last major naval battle fought with naval guns, the Japanese heavy cruiser Nachi and the American heavy cruiser Salt Lake City were both badly damaged. The Japanese, however, never again broke the American naval blockade of the Aleutians. The Battle of the Komandorski Islands, as it became known, was a strategic victory for the United States.
In North Africa, with Rommel still recuperating in Germany, his successor, the Italian General Messe, had stood for seven days against a continuous onslaught by the British Eighth Army against the Mareth Line. In scale and ferocity, the Battle of Mareth was comparable with El Alamein. By March 27, Messe could hold the line no longer, and made preparations to withdraw twenty-five miles northward, to El Hamma. ‘I hope you will now be able to break and defeat the enemy and completely drive him out of Tunis,’ Stalin telegraphed to Churchill from the Kremlin. ‘I hope also’, Stalin added, ‘that the air offensive against Germany will go on inexorably increasing.’ That night, the Royal Air Force again raided Germany: 395 heavy bombers, as Churchill telegraphed to Stalin, ‘flung 1,050 tons on Berlin in fifty minutes. The sky was clear over the target and the raid was highly successful. This is the best Berlin has yet got. Our loss is nine only.’ Twice as many bombs were dropped on Berlin that night as had been dropped by the Germans on London during their heaviest raid, that of 18 April 1941.
From Tunisia, on March 28, Churchill received the first signal of victory: ‘After seven days of continuous and heavy fighting’, Montgomery telegraphed, ‘Eighth Army has inflicted severe defeat on enemy.’ Enemy resistance was ‘disintegrating’. The Eighth Army was in possession of the whole Mareth Line defences, occupying Gabès and El Hamma on March 29, after a fierce German resistance which was largely overcome by the New Zealand forces.
Hitler’s thoughts were not on retreat but retaliation; on March 29 he approved a blueprint submitted to him by Alfred Speer for a massive reinforced concrete missile silo on the Channel coast, from which London could be bombarded. The British were not unaware of this missile development. On March 27, the War Cabinet’s rocket expert, Dr R. V. Jones, had been shown the translation of a conversation listened into by British Intelligence, between two German prisoners-of-war, General Cruewell and General von Thoma, both of whom had been captured at El Alamein. During one of their discussions, which had taken place on March 23, von Thoma told his fellow captive that, knowing as he did that their prison was somewhere near London, and hearing no large explosions, he knew that there must have been a hold-up in the rocket programme. ‘No progress whatsoever’, Thoma said, ‘can have been made in this rocket business’, and he added, in describing a visit he had once made to an experimental rocket station: ‘The Major there was full of hope—he said: “Wait until next year and the fun will start!”’ As to the rocket’s range, Thoma added, ‘There’s no limit.’
Germany’s much vaunted secret weapon was on its slow way to reality; but, thanks to a hidden microphone and vigilant eavesdroppers, it was no longer secret.