In the Far East, Allied prisoners of war continued to suffer in camps without proper medical care, and amid terrible punishments. In the Thailand railway camps, such as his own camp at Konyu, Colonel Dunlop noted in his diary on March 19 that the Japanese intention was ‘of just breaking men on this job, with not the faintest consideration for either life or health’. This, Dunlop added, ‘can only be regarded as a cold-blooded, merciless crime against mankind, obviously premeditated’. In the nearby prisoner-of-war camp for Dutch soldiers, at Kinsayok, six men had died in six days. For the Japanese, all that mattered was to complete the railway.
On March 29, at Salamaua, on New Guinea, a twenty-three-year-old American flight lieutenant who had been shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire, was sentenced to be decapitated. ‘The unit commander has drawn his favourite sword,’ a Japanese officer noted in his diary. ‘He taps the prisoner’s neck lightly with the back of the blade, then raises it above his head with both arms, and brings it down with a sweep.’ The head was severed with one blow. ‘All is over. The head is dead white like a doll’s. The savageness which I felt only a while ago is gone, and now I feel nothing but the true compassion of Japanese Bushido. A senior corporal laughs loudly, “Well, he will enter Nirvana now”. Then a superior seaman of the medical unit takes the chief medical officer’s sword and, intent on paying off old scores, turns the headless body over on its back, and cuts the abdomen open with one clean stroke’.
Fifty miles south east of Salamaue, at Morobe, American infantry units landed and began to prepare a defensive position; these were part of the MacKenzie Force, named after the officer commanding it, which was charged with advancing along the coastline towards Salamaue and Lae.
Over Europe, Allied bombing was now a daily and nightly feature of civilian life. On April 2 a decree issued by Goering made air raid patrol duty compulsory for every able-bodied German, men and women alike. On 3 April, the British had dropped nine hundred tons of bombs on the Krupp factory at Essen, and on April 5, a further 1,400 bombs on Kiel, ‘one of the heaviest discharges’, Churchill told Stalin, ‘we have ever made’. Also on April 5, by day, American bombers had attacked the Renault tank assembly lines near Paris; 228 French civilians were killed. An air raid on port installations at Naples on April 4 left 221 Italians dead.
One of the American bombers on the Naples raid was a Liberator which had recently reached North Africa from the United States, and was on its first wartime mission. Known to its nine-man crew as the ‘Lady Be Good’, it had taken off from Soluch airfield thirty miles south of Benghazi. On its return flight, it lost its bearings and flew on two hundred miles into the Libyan desert, before its crew, their fuel almost gone, baled out, still believing that they were over the sea. And it was over the sea, two hundred miles away, that the search for the lost bomber took place.
The crew of the ‘Lady Be Good’ set off across the desert. Two of them kept diaries. Each day, using their parachute harnesses and large stones, they set out arrow markers in the sand. ‘Still having prayer meetings for help,’ the co-pilot, Second Lieutenant Robert F. Toner, noted in his diary during their fifth day in the desert. ‘No signs of anything, a couple of birds; good winds from north. Really weak now, can’t walk, pains all over, still all want to die. Nights very cold, no sleep.’ On the following day, five of the crewmen could go no further. Only three were able to continue. That night, one of the three, the engineer, Technical Sergeant Harold S. Risplinger, noted in his diary: ‘Palm Sunday. Still struggling to get out of dunes and find water.’
The three surviving airmen had walked for more than eighty miles across the desert. One by one they collapsed. The last to be able to walk was one of the gunners, the twenty-six-year-old Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley. He walked on a further seven miles, having covered a total distance of ninety miles, the last two or three days without water.
None of this saga was known at the airbase from which the ‘Lady Be Good’ had set out, and to which she had failed to return. First reported as missing on April 4, the status of the crew was amended on April 5 with the added words ‘presumed dead’. That at least was true; but it was to be more than fifteen years before any knowledge or trace of their fate was found.
On April 5, as the crew of ‘Lady Be Good’ were still struggling across the Libyan desert, American bombers based in Britain launched a daylight raid on Antwerp, intending to destroy the Minerva aircraft factory, plans of which had been smuggled to London by two Belgian Resistance agents. Only a few bombs hit the target, doing far less damage than had been intended. Owing to a navigational error, most of the bombers dropped their bombs on a built-up area of the city, killing 936 civilians, including 209 schoolchildren who were at their school. Within a few weeks, the Minerva factory was back to almost full production. Only the Nazi leaders rejoiced. ‘An imposing funeral has been arranged,’ Goebbels noted in his diary on April 11, and he added that the British and American silence on the raid ‘supports our idea of making a first-class propaganda matter of the Antwerp incident’.
In Berlin, the Gestapo had begun to search out critics of the regime at the highest level. On April 5, the Protestant pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had earlier contacted the British in Sweden, was arrested, charged with ‘subverting the armed forces’, and imprisoned. Also arrested that day, in his office in German Military Counter-Intelligence, was Hans von Dohnanyi, who had been involved in the attempt to kill Hitler at Smolensk on March 13. Von Dohnanyi revealed nothing, betrayed nobody but, after two years in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, was murdered.
Two days after these arrests in Berlin, Lieutenant Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the leading figures of the discontented German officer corps, was gravely wounded by a mine on the Tunisian front, losing his left eye, his right hand, half his left hand and part of his leg. He was flown to a hospital in Munich, where the sight of his right eye was saved. As he recovered, he resolved to put all his efforts and abilities at the disposal of those Germans—mostly among his fellow officers—who wished to remove Hitler at all costs.
It was on April 7, the day on which von Stauffenberg was wounded in Tunisia, that Hitler met Mussolini at Salzburg. ‘I guarantee you that Africa will be defended,’ Hitler assured his guest, and he added: ‘Verdun stood out against the attack of the best German regiments. I do not see why we should not stand out as well in Africa. With your help, Duce, my troops will make Tunis the Verdun of the Mediterranean.’
As Hitler gave Mussolini this pledge, Italian troops in Tunisia were once again falling back under a further heavy assault from the Eighth Army; during a two day battle, more than half of the Italian Centauro Division were killed or captured before reaching the safety of a new defence line at Enfidaville, less than fifty miles south of Tunis.
In the Far East, on April 7, the Americans were confronted with the largest Japanese attacking air force since Pearl Harbour. The force struck in the area of the recently lost Guadalcanal, and in particular at Tulagi. A total of 188 Japanese warplanes took part, sinking the American destroyer, Aaron Ward, a New Zealand corvette, Moa, but only a single merchant ship, beneath what had become known as Iron Bottom Bay, because of such a large tonnage of destroyed Japanese and American shipping now lying on the sea bed. Four days later the Japanese renewed their attack, sinking two more Allied merchant ships, but posing no threat to the American forces on Guadalcanal. A Japanese aerial attack on Port Moresby on April 12, made with 177 warplanes, did little serious damage, and was likewise no threat to the Australians in New Guinea.
In Tunisia, German and Italian resistance continued, but in desperation. When, on April 10, the Eighth Army occupied Sfax, General Montgomery told his troops: ‘Forward to Tunis and drive the enemy into the sea.’ Sousse fell two days later, and Enfidaville on April 13. The Axis forces in Tunisia were trapped in a small and vulnerable pocket, their supply links with Sicily and Italy exposed through Enigma to devastating attack, their air cover virtually destroyed, and all hope of reinforcements gone. It could only be a matter of weeks before they would have to surrender. Like the trap at Stalingrad, that at Tunis was without hope of relief or rescue.
On April 13 the Axis suffered yet another disaster. This was the successful decrypting, by the American Pacific Fleet’s Radio Unit, of a Japanese message giving the exact timing and itinerary of a visit being made four days later by the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Yamamoto, to the Japanese bases at Ballale and Buin on Bougainville Island. It was decided by the American Chiefs of Staff to shoot down Yamamoto’s aeroplane. Thus was launched Operation Peacock, the successful killing of the most illustrious of Japan’s war leaders. To protect their secret code-breaking exercise, the Americans made no mention after the attack of Yamomoto’s death, treating it as merely another aircraft clash. Only when the Japanese had brought Yamomoto’s ashes back to Tokyo on May 21, and publicly mourned his death, did the Americans announce it, but not their deliberate part in it.
That April, a series of lectures by the nuclear scientist, Robert Serber, given to a secret circle of chemists and physicists at Los Alamos in the United States, described the ‘Manhattan Project’ in detail. Serber described the aim of the Project as ‘to produce a practical military weapon in the form of a bomb in which the energy is released by a fast neutron chain reaction in one or more of the materials known to show nuclear fission’. Such an outcome, Serber believed, was obtainable within the next two years. The project would therefore go ahead.
Unknown to the Americans, a meeting of Japanese physicists in Tokyo a month earlier had come to the conclusion that, while an atomic bomb was possible, it could not in practice be produced by any of the warring powers in time to be of use to them in the present war.
The Germans’ regular Enigma messages now revealed to the Allies considerable German activity on the northern side of the Kursk salient. One such message was decrypted on April 15, the very day on which Hitler explained to his commanders his detailed plans for Operation Citadel. The attack on the Kursk salient, Hitler wrote, ‘must succeed rapidly and totally’, in order to give the Germans the initiative for the spring and summer. ‘The victory at Kursk’, Hitler urged, ‘must be a beacon to the world.’
On April 16, Churchill was told that the impending German operation involved launching an attack against the Kursk salient from the Smolensk—Orel area, though British Intelligence was still uncertain whether this was to be a full military offensive or one confined to air attack. It was an uncertainty soon cleared up, however, as more and more of the German orders were decrypted in Britain within a few hours of their reaching those in Smolensk who had to act on them.
At Smolensk itself, it was still Soviet partisan activity behind the lines that was causing the Germans considerable concern. On April 17, in order to curb this activity, the Germans launched Operation Magic Flute, a week-long sweep against partisans who, operating near Minsk, were disrupting the movement of men and supplies to Army Group Centre. It was the task of Army Group Centre to strike at Kursk from the north, as its own top secret Enigma messages were revealing to the British with the greatest precision each day.
Hitler was angered that April by the large number of Jews still alive beyond his grasp. The Italian, Finnish and Bulgarian Governments had each rejected Germany’s requests to deport Jews to German camps. Yet the statistics presented to the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 had made it clear that the plans for the Final Solution included the several million Jews who lived scattered throughout Europe in countries over which Germany had no direct control. On April 17, Hitler personally took up this point with the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, when the two leaders met at Klessheim Castle, near Salzburg.
The Jews, Hitler told Horthy, were ‘pure parasites’. In Poland, however, ‘this state of affairs had been fundamentally cleared up. If the Jews there did not want to work, they were shot. If they could not work, they had to succumb. They had to be treated’, Hitler added, ‘like tuberculosis bacilli, with which a healthy body may become infected. This was not cruel, if only it was remembered that even innocent creatures of nature, such as hares and deers, have to be killed, so that no harm is caused by them’. ‘Nations’, Hitler warned, ‘which did not rid themselves of Jews, perished’.
Horthy resisted these arguments and pressures, telling Hitler: ‘The Jews cannot be exterminated or beaten to death.’ Two days later, unknown to Horthy, 1,400 Jews were deported from Brussels to Auschwitz, followed on April 20 by 1,166 from Holland. But the Jews themselves, despite tyranny, brute force and deception, had twice that month already resisted deportation, first from the Eastern Galician town of Skalat, and then, on April 18, from Jaworow, where 3,489 Jews had been shot during a ferocious German reprisal. But it was on April 19, two days after Hitler’s exhortation to Horthy about the need to destroy the Jews like animals, that the most prolonged Jewish revolt of all took place, in the Warsaw ghetto, when the Germans tried to renew yet again the deportations to Treblinka.
With a courage which impressed all who learned of it, 1,200 Jewish fighters battled in the streets, apartments, cellars and sewers of the Warsaw ghetto. Against these Jews, who possessed only seventeen rifles, the Germans brought in 2,100 troops armed with machine guns, howitzers, and 1,358 rifles. Even so, three hundred German soldiers were killed, many by hand-made grenades, before the revolt was crushed three weeks later.
As the German soldiers moved through the Warsaw ghetto street by street, seven thousand Jews were killed, and a further seven thousand deported to Treblinka. More than ten thousand Jews found refuge in the Christian section of Warsaw, though as many as a third of these were later hunted down, or betrayed.
During April 1943, the Germans accelerated the round-up and deportation of forced labourers throughout German-occupied Western Europe. By the beginning of the month, 248,000 labourers were at work constructing the Atlantic Wall. Others were deported to work in Germany, where they were forced to work on average for eleven hours a day, even twelve hours a day, in one of the Krupp factories. For breaches of work discipline, the deportees could face up to a four week deprivation of their ration cards. By the end of April 1943, a total of 1,293,000 forced labourers from the West were working in factories in Germany. Also deported to Germany were those considered actual or potential enemies of the occupation régimes; they were sent to concentration camps. Of a quarter of a million Frenchmen deported to such camps, only 35,000 survived the war. Also deported to concentration camps were 37,000 Belgians, 12,000 Dutchmen, 6,000 Luxemburgers, 5,400 Norwegians and 5,200 Danes. Many of them also died as a result of the terrible conditions in the camps, and the brutal treatment.
Inside France, the arrest of members of the Resistance was sometimes only possible because they were betrayed by fellow-Frenchmen. One Resistance fighter, Olivier Giran, was executed on April 16. On the day of his death, he wrote to his parents: ‘Men are cowards, traitors, rotters. But France is pure, clean, vital. I am happy. I am not dying for any faction or man, I am dying for my own idea of serving her, my country, and for you too, whom I adore. I am happy I love you. The door is opening. Adieu’.
In the Atlantic, the Allies now began to reap the benefit of their resumed breaking of the revised German U-boat Enigma key. In mid-April, a convoy of merchant ships being guarded by a combined Anglo-American naval escort force was attacked by a German submarine pack. Only a single merchantman was sunk, but one of the attackers, U-175, was destroyed by depth charges. On April 18 the War Diary of the U-boat Command noted: ‘Meagre success, achieved generally at the cost of heavy losses, renders operations in these areas undesirable.’ It was a major victory for Signals Intelligence, the hidden arm, and secret ear, of war.
In Tunisia, British Signals Intelligence was given clear warning of the German and Italian defence plans. Even so, each strongpoint had to be fought for. On April 19, at Takrouna, a small New Zealand force, consisting mostly of Maoris, overran a fortified hill which dominated the battlefield. The final assault on the hill was made by thirteen men; one of them, Private H. Grant, took sixty Italian prisoners single-handed. Elsewhere, a Maori soldier, Private T. Heka, advancing alone with two tanks as ‘support’ at long range, captured an anti-tank gun and three machine guns, killed several Italians and took fourteen prisoners. Having carried the position, Heka held it until reinforcements arrived. For his bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
In the struggle between sovereign States, many national minorities, such as the Maoris, were enlisted to fight or to work. In Thailand, it was Tamils whom the Japanese took, not as volunteer soldiers but as forced labourers. It was said by the local Siamese, Colonel Dunlop noted in his diary at Konyu Camp on April 22, that the Tamils ‘require a lot of care and die like flies of pneumonia if exposed to wet’. Dunlop added: ‘It was a sad sight to see these poor wretches trudging their way up the deep slushy mud of our road’—guarded by Japanese troops—and he commented: ‘Just another of those dreary, homeless, mass migrations of war along a road of sickness and death.’
In Europe, resistance activity was met with swift reprisals. On April 24 one of the organizers of the recently established French Milice, Paul de Gassovski, was killed in Marseille. Less than three weeks earlier, on April 7, a pro-Nazi journalist, Paul Colin, had been killed in Brussels; Colin’s killer and his two accomplices were arrested on May 3, tried on May 6 and hanged on May 12. Witnesses of the execution recall that their final agony was increased because the German hangman used a thick rope, so that one of those executed took eight minutes to die after the trap had opened. At their place of execution, Fort Breendonk, one of the forts surrounding Antwerp, at least 187 Resistance fighters and their accomplices were executed during the course of the war, many after prolonged and agonizing torture.
In Holland and Norway, Resistance fighters were likewise active, risking torture and execution if caught. Allied commandos took the same risk. On April 29, six British commandos, led by John Godwin, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, were taken by motor torpedo boat across the North Sea to Norway where, in Haugesund Fjord, north of Stavanger, they placed limpet mines on several German ships. After being caught, all six commandos were sent to Grini concentration camp near Oslo, and then to Sachsenhausen north of Berlin. One of their number, by name of Mayer, was presumed by the Germans to be Jewish and taken away, never to be seen or heard of again. The other five were forced to walk thirty miles a day, seven days a week, around a closed cobbled track, testing boots for the German Army. ‘They cracked jokes with each other,’ the historians of their fate have written, ‘despised their gloomy guards, knew their own side was going to win the war, and did not brood about their own fate.’
It was on April 26 that, in the Indian Ocean south-east of Madagascar, a German submarine transferred to a Japanese submarine the Indian National Army leader, Subhas Chandra Bose. Within a year 25,000 Indian prisoners-of-war in Japanese camps had volunteered to serve alongside the Japanese army against the British. ‘When I appear in Bengal’, Bose told his Japanese sponsors that November, ‘everyone will rise up in revolt.’
On April 30, in an attempt to deceive the Germans as to where they would strike once Tunis fell, the British launched Operation Mincemeat, floating ashore the body of a man who had recently died. The body was floated ashore from a submarine off the coast of Spain. On it were documents purporting to show that the build-up of activity against Sicily, such as the recent intensified Allied air attacks on Sicilian airfields, was a cover plan to disguise the real Allied intention, a landing in Greece. The Germans, believing the body to be that of an officer shot down during a flight to North Africa, fell into the trap. Only two weeks after the body floated ashore at Huelva, the German High Command in Berlin sent a ‘most secret’ message to the German Admiral commanding in Greek waters, with information from what it described as an ‘absolutely reliable’ source, that the ‘objective’ of an Allied landing in the eastern Mediterranean was Kalamata and Cape Araxos in Greece.
Both these locations had been mentioned in letters found on the body. The German Admiral was also asked ‘to reinforce rapidly the defensive strength of the areas which are specifically threatened’, including the laying of minefields off Kalamata. He was even given the supposed Allied code name for the Greek landings, ‘Husky’, which was in fact the code name of the landings in Sicily. The deception had encompassed even the code name.
On account of its extreme secrecy, the message to the German Admiral in Greece was sent by Enigma. Solely because it was sent by Enigma, it was decrypted in Britain and, on May 14, a telegram sent to Churchill, who was then in Washington, informing him: ‘“Mincemeat” swallowed rod, line and sinker by the right people, and from best information they look like acting on it.’
To prepare for the non-existent assault on Greece, Rommel was asked to cut short his recuperative leave in Germany, in order to revitalize the Greek defences. A few weeks later, a full strength armoured division, the First Panzer Division, was transferred from France to Greece, and a group of German motor torpedo boats was ordered to proceed from Sicily to the Aegean. The Enigma messages giving these facts were likewise read in Britain, confirming that the deception had succeeded.
An Enigma message at the end of April also confirmed that the German intention on the Eastern Front was to cut off the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient by means of a pincer movement, from Orel in the north and Kharkov in the south, together with a third attack against Kursk itself from the west. These facts were passed from London to Moscow on April 30, together with estimates, also based on the German Army’s own Enigma orders, of the strength of the German divisions deployed around the salient.
On the last day of April, the Germans deported two thousand Polish Jews from Wlodawa to Sobibor. On reaching the camp, the Jews, alarmed at what suddenly seemed to be a danger, attacked the SS guards with pieces of wood torn from the carriages. All were shot down by machine gun fire or blown up with grenades. Like the revolt of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, and in hundreds of other ghettos throughout eastern Europe, it was a courageous, and also a hopeless act of resistance. The machinery of tyranny, deception and mass murder was by now perfected and overwhelming. The murderers were far too many, their forces far too well armed, and their determination to destroy far too deeply rooted, for them to be overcome.
There continued to be enormous profit, too, in this massive destruction of human life. In the three months to April 30, Hans Frank reported to Himmler from Cracow, a huge amount of personal belongings had been delivered to Germany, including 94,000 men’s watches, 33,000 women’s watches, 25,000 fountain pens, 14,000 propelling pencils and 14,000 pairs of scissors. The men’s watches were being distributed to the combat troops, to the men of the submarine service and to the guards in concentration camps. The five thousand ‘most expensive’ watches, as well as those in gold or platinum cases or partly fitted with precious stones, were either to go to the Reichsbank in Berlin ‘for melting down’ or were to be retained by the SS ‘for special use’.
On May 3, in Croatia, a final manhunt was launched against Jews who had escaped earlier round-ups, or been exempted from them. Among those seized was Dr Hugo Kohn, the President of the Jewish Community of Zagreb, and Dr Freiberger, the chief Rabbi of Zagreb, a personal friend of Archbishop Stepinac. Despite church protests, however, all those who were seized that day were sent to Auschwitz. In nearby Bosnia, the month of May saw the launching of a double sweep against Yugoslav partisans, ‘Black I’ and ‘Black II’. This sweep, which lasted until mid-June, led to the deaths of several hundred partisans.
The Allied bombing offensive over Europe now combined massive raids, using several hundred bombers, with raids against specific single targets. One such special raid took place on May 3, when a New Zealand pilot, Squadron Leader Leonard Henry Trent, led twelve bombers of a New Zealand squadron on a mission to bomb a power station on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Trent’s aircraft was the only one to reach the target: nine of the bombers were shot down and two others were forced to return to England. Trent made a solo attack on the power station before he was himself shot down. He and his navigator survived and were taken prisoner. The full story of the raid did not emerge until after the war, when, in 1946, Trent was awarded the Victoria Cross for his determined leadership and devotion to duty.
In the Atlantic, the fortitude of the Allied merchant seamen and the increasing effectiveness of their naval escorts was at last to be rewarded that May. Success came as a result of the British cryptographers’ success in the resumed breaking of the German U-boat Enigma key. Convoy ONS 5 had begun its transatlantic journey on April 22, its escort commanded by Commander Peter Gretton. Tempests beset the convoy’s path; by April 30 it was sailing through a full gale. Then, on May 4, the German submarine U-630, about to attack the convoy, was sunk by the depth charges of a Canadian Royal Air Force aircraft. On the following day a second submarine, the U-192, was destroyed by the corvette Pink.
As more than thirty German submarines gathered for the attack, it seemed that even prior knowledge could not help. By the evening of May 6, eleven merchant ships had been sunk. One officer of the escort, who knew nothing of the Enigma window on German submarine movements, noted in his log: ‘The convoy seemed doomed to certain annihilation.’ But then four U-boats were sunk in quick succession and, as a further twenty-five gathered for the kill, local radio direction finding, combat skill, and courage combined to frustrate them. Only one more merchant ship was sunk.
For Grand Admiral Dönitz, the loss of four U-boats in a single attack was a disaster. It was compounded when two more U-boats collided and sank. But worse was to come. On Gretton’s next convoy, not a single ship was sunk, but five more U-boats were destroyed, in one of which Dönitz’s son was killed.
The Battle of the Atlantic had become a disaster for Germany. So too had the battle for Tunis. On May 4, as a result of the precise details sent, and read, in an Enigma decrypt, British destroyers were able to find and sink a large Italian merchant ship, the Campobasso, taking fuel and military supplies to the Axis forces. On the following day, also as a result of an Enigma decrypt, American bombers sank a second merchant ship on its way to Tunis, the San Antonio. These were the last two merchant ships of any size to attempt to bring supplies to the beleaguered Axis forces.
On May 6, at dawn, the British First Army began the final assault on Tunis. To the south and north, French and American troops joined in the attack. That same day, Allied bombers attacked the principal harbours in Sicily, as well as the Italian port of Reggio di Calabria, the mainland terminal of the ferry system to Sicily. That day, in an attempt to show the Russians that Britain too had suffered in human terms in the fighting, the British Chiefs of Staff sent the Russian General Staff a note of British deaths between 3 September 1939 and 31 March 1943. These included 38,894 soldiers, 30,540 sailors, 23,588 airmen and more than 20,000 merchant seamen, a total war dead of more than 103,000. This did not include those servicemen who had been reported missing, and made no mention of more than 45,000 civilian dead in air raids over Britain itself.
On May 7, Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, and Bizerta, its principal port, were both taken by the Allies after desperate German and Italian resistance. Such Axis troops as could escape capture withdrew into the Cape Bon peninsula, known to the Allies as the ‘Tunisian Tip’. On May 8, three Italian supply ships, hurrying from Sicily to Hammamet with essential fuel, were sunk before they could unload. That day, the German Air Force abandoned its remaining North African airfields, and withdrew to Sicily. In Berlin, however, Goebbels noted in his diary: ‘The Führer expresses his unshakeable conviction that the Reich will one day rule all of Europe. We will have to survive a great many conflicts, but they will doubtless lead to the most glorious triumphs. And from then on, the road to world domination is practically spread out before us. For whoever rules Europe will be able to seize the leadership of the world’.
Such was Hitler’s confident belief on 8 May 1943, two years to the day before his defeated armies were to surrender unconditionally amid the ruins of the Reich.
On 9 May 1943 the German forces in the Tunisia Tip surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. That same day, the now triumphant Allied forces began to plan Operation Corkscrew, for the capture of the Italian island of Pantelleria, the stepping stone for Sicily. In Berlin, Rommel, when asked for an explanation for the defeat in North Africa, noted in his diary: ‘I stressed to both the Führer and Goebbels the meagre fighting quality of the Italians and their reluctance to fight.’
The last pockets of Axis forces between Hammamet and Kelebia, having ignored the surrender two days earlier, capitulated to the Allies on May 11 and 12. In all, in the Tunisian Tip, 238,243 unwounded Germans and Italians were taken prisoner.
On May 12, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Washington to discuss future Allied strategy. That day, on the Aleutian Island of Attu, an American force of 11,000 landed in the face of the determined defence of a mere 2,500 Japanese. Fighting, as in every Japanese encounter, was severe, as Operation Landgrab sought to drive the Japanese from American soil. Two days later, on May 14, in the Pacific, a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank the Centaur, an American ship clearly marked as a hospital ship and brightly lit up; 268 of those on board, including many men badly wounded in action, were drowned.
In Washington, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that the sequence of Allied war moves should be, first, the invasion of Sicily, second the invasion of Italy, and third, however the situation in Italy might develop, the cross-Channel invasion of northern Europe. It was clear that much planning and much hard fighting remained to be done, but a sense of triumph was nevertheless in the air. ‘It is my duty to report that the Tunis campaign is over.’ General Alexander telegraphed to Churchill in Washington on May 13. ‘All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores’.
That night, British bombers dropped a thousand tons of bombs on Bochum, in the Ruhr, in forty-five minutes. These devastating air raids had not found the Germans without responses, among them the labour mobilization and the forced labour system, whereby hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Danes, Belgians, Norwegians, Poles, Slovaks and Jews were brought to factory sites throughout Greater Germany, and put to work in conditions of considerable severity.
On May 13, when Hitler was back at Rastenburg awaiting the start of Operation Citadel—the German attack into the Kursk salient—his Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, flew from Berlin to report a substantial increase in German armaments production, in spite of Allied bombing. In the previous four months, German tank production had doubled. ‘In the autumn,’ Speer told Hitler, ‘you instructed us to deliver specific quantities of arms by May 12. Today we can report that we have met every one of those figures and in some cases far exceeded them.’ There was another report on May 13, which Goebbels noted in his diary. It was from Croatia, where, in the latest action against partisans, ‘more than 13,000 rebels were killed, among them a great many intellectuals’.
On May 14, in Washington, the British and American Chiefs of Staff, meeting as a single body, approved Operation Pointblank, a combined Anglo-American bomber offensive from airbases in Britain. Its aim was set out as ‘the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened’, in order—and this was a step forward from previous bombing aims—‘to permit initiation of final combined operations on the continent’.
Six German systems were to be attacked under Operation Pointblank: submarine construction yards and bases, aircraft factories, ball bearing factories, oil production and storage plants, synthetic rubber and tyre factories, and military transport vehicle factories and stores. Nor would the new targets have to wait for any complex procedure of planning or implementation; on the very night that Pointblank was agreed to, British bombers struck at the Skoda munitions factory near Pilsen, deep inside Greater Germany. ‘Among other targets the drafting room was destroyed,’ Goebbels wrote in his diary on the following morning, and he added: ‘This is quite a setback for us. However, the number of planes we shot-down is colossal. Within forty-eight hours the English lost seventy-eight four-engined bombers.’
For Hitler, the greatest danger now lay in the defeat of Italy, or in Italy’s defection from the Axis. ‘Europe must be defended at its margin’, he told his generals on May 15, ‘we cannot allow a second front to emerge on the Reich’s frontiers.’ To ensure that the Allies were resisted in Italy, German troops would have to be taken away from Operation Citadel in Russia.
Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, Hitler’s successful war and conquest were giving way to defence and withdrawal. Nor was Germany to be given any respite from the now virtually daily air bombardment; on May 16, the day after Hitler’s speech to his generals, the British launched Operation Chastise, against the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams, which controlled the water level in the Ruhr area.
Led by Wing-Commander Guy Gibson, one of the Royal Air Force’s outstanding bomber pilots, and using special ‘bouncing’ bombs developed by Dr Barnes Wallis, the raid succeeded in breaching two of the three dams, and in causing considerable damage, though not the widespread devastation that had been expected. Eighteen bombers took part, flying at low altitude across the North Sea and Holland. During the raid, six of the bombers were shot down while crossing the Dutch coast and two at the dams, killing 56 of the 133 crew members who had set out. ‘If only I’d known,’ Barnes Wallis remarked when this death toll was known, ‘I’d never have started this.’
In the flood caused by the breaching of the two dams, 1,268 people were killed, including seven hundred Russian inmates in a slave labour camp. For planning and leading the raid, Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross. ‘The Führer is exceedingly impatient and angry about the lack of preparedness on the part of our Air Forces’, Goebbels noted in his diary on May 18, and he added: ‘Damage to production was more than normal.’ To make good the damage, 50,000 workers were brought to the Ruhr from the Todt Organization’s force working on the Atlantic Wall, while anti-aircraft guns needed elsewhere were brought to protect dams not only in the Ruhr, but throughout Germany, though none were in fact endangered.
Behind the lines on the Eastern Front, in the Bryansk area, May 16 saw the launching by the German Army of Operation Gypsy Baron, a three week anti-partisan sweep involving five infantry divisions, one armoured division, and aircraft which dropped, not only bombs, but 840,000 leaflets calling on the partisans to surrender. Of the six thousand partisans in the area, 1,584 were killed and a further 1,568 were captured. Twenty-one heavy guns and three tanks were also captured. But, within a few weeks of the end of the sweep, German Intelligence estimated that there were at least four thousand partisans still in the area, including the undestroyed partisan command staffs.
The launching of Operation Gypsy Baron in Russia took place on the very day when SS Brigadier Jürgen Stroop reported to his superiors: ‘The Warsaw ghetto is no longer in existence.’ The Jewish revolt, which had begun on April 18, had ended that evening, Stroop wrote, ‘by blowing up the Warsaw synagogue’. As well as the fourteen thousand Jews killed in the fighting or sent to their deaths at Treblinka, a further forty-two thousand were sent to labour camps in the Lublin district. In recognition of his services, Stroop was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class.
Nearly six months had passed since one of the first American bombers based in Britain, the ‘Memphis Belle’, had flown her initial sortie over German-occupied Europe. On May 15, she flew on a bombing mission against Wilhelmshaven; then two days later, in a raid on the German submarine base at Lorient, on the French Atlantic coast, she became the first British-based American bomber to complete twenty-five operational missions. As the ‘Memphis Belle’ prepared to return to the United States, her crew were filmed receiving combat medals; the filming was part of an exercise in producing a colour feature film of a day in the life of a bomber, to be shown in the United States; the raid on Wilhelmshaven on May 15, was used as the focal point of the film, which included a dramatic sequence showing another bomber, hit by German anti-aircraft fire, falling out of the sky, as one by one its crew, though not all its crew, parachuted out. Included in the film was a sequence showing a bomber returning from what was presumably a combat mission, with much of its tail fin apparently shot away. In fact, the damage had been caused not by German anti-aircraft fire, but in a collision with another American bomber over the English Channel.
Powerful though the film was, as an indication of the risks and perils facing bomber crews, and how they met them, it was to be another eleven months before the ‘Memphis Belle’ was ready for release. Its final message was that the risks and perils would continue, ‘so we can bomb the enemy again and again and again—until he has had enough’.
On May 17, the day on which the ‘Memphis Belle’ completed her twenty-fifth bombing mission, the higher direction of the Allied war effort was significantly enhanced by an Anglo-American agreement on the full exchange and distribution of Signals Intelligence. To bring the German Enigma, Italian ‘C 38m’, and Japanese Purple decrypts into a standard form, the code name Ultra was adopted.
Rapid progress had also been made by May 1943, and would continue to be made, in the breaking of many of the signals circuits using the German Geheimschreiber, or secret teleprinter. The task in breaking this vital communications link was in some ways more formidable than breaking the Enigma. Because the teleprinter was used between German military authorities at the highest level, the results for the Allies in reading it were no less important than those of the Enigma; for the most secret messages sent to and from German Army Headquarters at Zossen and the Mediterranean and Eastern Fronts it was even more important. With Enigma as its first triumph, Ultra was now a potent weapon in the Allied ability to make war, and to anticipate danger.
As a result of the agreement of May 17, American cryptographers came to Bletchley to study the British methods and how to operate them, while British cryptographers went to Washington to help with the decrypting of Japanese cyphers. More than five thousand people were now working at Bletchley; the Naval section, which before the war had a staff of twenty-four, now had a thousand.
Many thousands more were working at intercept stations throughout the British Isles where the top-secret signals were intercepted in the form in which they were being transmitted by Axis radio stations. There were also several intercept stations overseas, including those at Socotra and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, at Brisbane in Australia, and at Abbottabad in northern India, which picked up Japanese signals.
Drawn into this most secret work were professors, linguists, classicists, historians, mathematicians—men and women, British-born and refugees from Germany—a secret army through whose daily intellectual exertions almost the whole pattern of Axis preparations and activities was made known to those who had to direct Allied strategy and tactics.
In the third week of May, Hitler gave instructions to start an anti-Bolshevik Legion made up of British prisoners-of-war. ‘These are to take part’, Goebbels noted in his diary on May 18, ‘in the fight against the Soviet Union, as volunteers’. The prisoner-of-war camps were combed. But the number of volunteers, most of whom merely hoped to exchange their lives as prisoners-of-war for something less onerous, was small: 1,500 had been hoped for, less than fifty came forward to fight against Russia. Not the Russian front, however, but the imminent danger of the opening of an Italian front, was much on Hitler’s mind that week. On May 18 he gave orders, in such strict secrecy that he would not even sign a top secret directive to that effect, for Operation Alaric, the German occupation of Italy in the event that his Axis partner either collapsed or defected. To command the troops for Alaric he appointed Rommel, instructing him to assemble eleven divisions for the task.
In May, Churchill was once again in the United States, to co-ordinate Anglo-American war policy for its decisive moment, the cross-Channel invasion of German-occupied northern Europe. Speaking to a joint session of Congress on May 19, he warned: ‘The enemy is still proud and powerful. He is hard to get at. He still possesses enormous armies, vast resources and invaluable strategic territories.’ There was, Churchill said, ‘one grave danger’, the ‘undue’ prolongation of the war, and he went on to explain: ‘No one can tell what new complications and perils might arise in four or five more years of war. And it is in the dragging-out of the war at enormous expense, until the democracies are tired or bored or split, that the main hopes of Germany and Japan must now reside’.
On May 19 Churchill and Roosevelt fixed a date for the cross-Channel landing. It was to take place no later than 1 May 1944, whatever problems or opportunities might be created by the invasion of Italy, and was to be carried out by twenty-nine divisions, with the possibility of a Free French division being added.
At that moment of Anglo-American decision, Tito’s partisan forces in Yugoslavia were holding down thirty-four German and Italian divisions; it was to encourage him in his struggle, and to undertake ‘joint acts of sabotage’ in order to continue to keep the German and Italian forces tied down, that Britain launched Operation Typical on May 22, parachuting into Tito’s mountain headquarters a small British mission, headed by two officers, Captain Stuart and Captain Deakin, and two wireless operators, Sergeant Wroughton and Sergeant Rosenberg. Deakin had been Churchill’s literary assistant before the war. Rosenberg was a Jewish volunteer from Palestine; later he recalled how the mission arrived in the middle of a battle, the whole area being surrounded by German troops who had ‘explicit orders that all partisan forces to be found within were to be destroyed, including civilians, animals—whatever is found within must be destroyed’.
This German partisan sweep was Operation Black I and II, the fifth sweep in Yugoslavia since November 1941. In it, the Germans sent 67,000 German troops, 43,000 Italians and 11,000 Croats, against 16,000 partisans. ‘The troops must move against the hostile population’, their operational order stated, ‘without consideration and with brutal severity, and must deny the enemy any possibility of existence by destroying abandoned villages and securing existing supplies.’ Despite considerable losses, the Yugoslav partisans fought a tenacious battle; German brutality against the civilians in the villages through which the partisans had found shelter during their marches served only to strengthen the resolve, not only of the partisans themselves, but of the local population.
The brutality was indeed fearful. Eight days after Operation Black was launched, one of the German combat groups involved issued the order: ‘Now that encirclement is complete, let no able-bodied man leave the circle alive.’ Of the 498 prisoners whom the Germans took during one particular sweep, 411 were shot. In the fighting itself, and in the slaughter carried out in several hundred villages and hamlets, sixteen thousand Yugoslavs were killed.
On May 22, as the British mission joined Tito’s partisans who were struggling to escape the net of Operation Black in Yugoslavia, the Germans in White Russia launched Operation Cormorant, a month-long sweep to try to clear Soviet partisans from the area of the Minsk—Borisov section of the Warsaw—Moscow railway. So effective had the partisans been in reducing the volume of supplies reaching German front-line formations that combat units were having to be taken out of the line in order to undertake security duties along the roads and railways.
In the North Atlantic, German submarine attacks on Allied merchant ships had continued. But the Allies were now masters of the German naval Enigma, including that used between the German U-boats and their command. During the first twenty-two days of May, thirty-one U-boats had been destroyed. On May 23, aircraft from the American aircraft-carrier Bogue and the British aircraft-carrier Archer drove off an attack on convoy HX 239, sinking two more U-boats. The success of Archer marked the very first successful use of air-to-sea rocket projectiles.
For Grand Admiral Dönitz these two sinking were the end of what had so recently been Germany’s most successful, and for the Allies most dangerous, war zone. On May 24 he ordered the U-boats to be withdrawn from the North Atlantic convoy routes. Even as the last U-boat packs were recalled to the less dangerous and less fruitful waters of the south Atlantic, and to their Atlantic coast bases in France, eight more were sunk, six of them in the Bay of Biscay as they made for the shelter of their bases.
No setback at sea could halt the relentless momentum of the Nazi New Order. It was on May 24, the day on which Dönitz accepted failure in the North Atlantic, that a new SS doctor reached Auschwitz. His name was Josef Mengele and he had just celebrated his thirty-second birthday. Driven by the desire to advance his medical career by scientific publications, Dr Mengele began to conduct medical experiments on living Jews whom he took from the barracks and brought to his hospital block. Mengele used the pretext of medical treatment to kill several thousand prisoners personally injecting them with phenol, petrol, chloroform or air, or by ordering SS medical orderlies to do so.
From the moment of his arrival at Auschwitz, Mengele joined the other SS officers and SS doctors, among them Dr Clauberg and Dr Kremer, in the ‘selection’ of Jews reaching the railway junction from all over Europe. With a movement of the hand or the wave of a stick, he indicated as ‘unfit for work’, and thus destined for immediate death in the gas chambers, all children, old people, sick, crippled and weak Jews, and all pregnant women.
Between May 1943 and November 1944 Mengele took part in at least seventy-four such selections. He also took an equally decisive part in at least thirty-one selections in the camp infirmary, pointing out for death by shooting, injection or gassing those Jews whose strength had been sapped by starvation, forced labour, untreated illness or ill-treatment by the guards. Always immaculately dressed in a white medical coat, and wearing white gloves at each murderous ‘selection’, Mengele was known to the Jews at Auschwitz as the ‘Angel of Death’.
On May 25, the day after Dr Mengele reached Auschwitz, a further 2,862 Dutch Jews were deported there from Holland; by the end of the month, the camp had received a total of just over eight thousand Dutch Jews, more than two thousand Croat Jews from Zagreb, and ten thousand Greek Jews from Salonica, as well as 395 Jews from Berlin.
On May 26, it was the turn of the Gypsies to suffer death at Auschwitz. They had been brought to the camp from Bialystok two months earlier, and now there was a typhoid epidemic in their barracks. For Dr Mengele, typhoid was not an illness to be cured, but one to be eliminated; that day, all 1,042 Gypsies were dragged out of their barracks and driven to the gas chambers. Against their names in the camp register were put the letters ‘SB’—‘Sonderbehandlung’, Special Treatment.
The Casablanca and Washington decisions to bomb Germany with increased weight and frequency of bombs continued to be put into effect. On the night of May 24, British bombers attacked Dortmund, ‘probably the worst-ever raid directed against a German city’, Goebbels noted in his diary on the following day. Industrial and munitions factories, Goebbels wrote, ‘have been hit very hard’, and he commented: ‘One can only repeat about air warfare: we are in a position of almost hopeless inferiority and must grin and bear it as we take the blows from the English and the Americans.’ Those Germans living in the western regions, Goebbels added, ‘are gradually beginning to lose courage. Hell like that is hard to bear for any length of time, especially since the inhabitants along the Rhine and Ruhr see no prospect of improvement.’
On May 25, in Washington, Roosevelt and Churchill gave a joint press conference, at which Roosevelt told the assembled newspapermen that the combination of the day and night bombing of Germany by United States and British aircraft was achieving ‘a more and more satisfactory result’.
The air weapon, Churchill told the assembled journalists, ‘was the weapon these people chose to subjugate the world. This was the weapon with which they struck at Pearl Harbour. This was the weapon with which they boasted—the Germans boasted—they would terrorize all the countries of the world. And it is an example of poetic justice that this should be the weapon in which they should find themselves most out-matched and first out-matched in the ensuing struggle’.