August 1943 had seen many setbacks for Germany’s war-making machine. September was to see many more. The first of them that month was particularly of Germany’s own making, the mutiny of Muslim volunteers in the 13th SS Division. These Muslims, living in Sarajevo and its surrounding villages and valleys, wished to further their own aspirations by fighting alongside Germany in the Balkans. But they were belittled and maltreated by their German officers, who despised them, and, during the mutiny, several Germans were killed. From Berlin, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who had cast his lot with the Germans against Britain, hurried to Bosnia, where, with some difficulty, he helped to restore order among the mutineers.
Similar discontent in the Ukraine could not be so easily quelled; many Ukrainian nationalists had looked to the Germans to create an independent Ukraine, protected by German arms from a return of Soviet rule. Hundreds had volunteered to serve in SS and police units, and as concentration camp guards and tormentors. But once again, the scorn in which Slavs were held, and by some Germans even the hatred, turned a potential ally into a cowed, sullen but vengeful foe.
The military situation in the East was now turning seriously against Germany; on September 3, with the 800,000 German soldiers of Army Group South outnumbered two to one in manpower and even more in tanks and guns, both Field Marshal von Manstein and Field Marshal von Kluge protested to Hitler about the neglect of the Eastern Front, now that German forces were also in daily action and retreat in southern Italy. That night, the British launched their third bomber raid against Berlin in eleven nights, sending just over three hundred bombers to drop 965 tons of bombs. The German death toll was 346; the British lost 130 aircrew killed during the mission. The only German victories were those forecast on the radio; on September 4, William Joyce, Lord Haw Haw, broadcasting to Britain from Hamburg, declared: ‘Now that we have arrived in the fifth year of the war, I will only say that German victory is certain. The German people know that while many blows are yet to be struck, the final blow will be struck by Adolf Hitler.’
On September 5, in the Pacific, nearly two thousand American and Australian parachutists seized Nazdab, in New Guinea, at which an airstrip was quickly built, for the continuing assault on Lae. Among those jumping successfully at Nazdab were thirty-four Australian field gunners, together with their twenty-five pounder guns; they had only been added to the assault a week before, and had not had time for more than a single practice jump.
The Japanese fell back towards Lae. On the Eastern Front in Europe, the Germans were also in retreat; on September 6 the Red Army seized Konotop, an important railway junction. The Germans, now forced to give up the Don Basin, instituted a policy of scorched earth, destroying coal mines, factories and industrial installations. On September 7, Stalino was evacuated, its mines left in ruins.
On September 7, Allied bombers struck at German military targets in the Brussels area. One bomb, falling on an artillery barracks, hit the cell in which Jean Greindl, organizer of one of the Allied escape routes, was awaiting execution; he was killed at once. That same day, from Westerbork camp in Holland, a further 987 Jews were deported eastward to an ‘unknown destination’. One of the deportees, a teenage girl, Etty Hillesum, managed to write a postcard to a friend and throw it out of the train while it was still on Dutch soil. ‘We left the camp singing,’ she wrote, ‘Father and Mother firmly and calmly, Mischa too. We shall be travelling for three days.’ The train’s destination was Auschwitz, where most of the deportees were gassed on arrival. Etty Hilversum, sent to the barracks in the women’s camp, died there on the last day of November.
In five further deportations that month, two thousand more Dutch Jews, 1,400 Belgian Jews and a thousand French Jews were sent to their deaths.
Early on the morning of September 8, Hitler flew from Rastenburg to the headquarters of Army Group South at Zaporozhe. There, Field Marshal von Manstein gave him a grim account of the numerical superiority of the Soviet forces, and of the pace and pattern of their advance. Shortly after midday, Hitler flew back to Rastenburg; he was never again to be on Russian soil. On his return, he emulated Churchill’s habit of a late afternoon sleep, only to be woken up with the news that, according to the BBC, Italy had surrendered.
That evening, Hitler issued orders for Operation Axis, the German occupation of Italy. At the same time, the Allies gave orders for the launching of Operation Avalanche, a landing on the Italian coastline, at Salerno. That night, German forces entered Rome. As they did so, Marshal Badoglio and the Italian Royal Family drove across Italy to the Adriatic port of Pescara, where they were taken by sea to Brindisi, and at once set up an anti-fascist Italian government. There were no plans, however, for a general Italian uprising against the Germans; the Allies were therefore forced to cancel a plan, Operation Giant, devised by General Eisenhower, for an airborne assault near Rome, ‘as no, repeat no, arrangement for its reception has been made by the Italians’—General Alexander explained to Churchill—‘and we have reason to believe the Germans are in occupation of airfields’.
Throughout southern Europe and the Aegean, Italian soldiers surrendered to their German allies of the previous week. Where Italian troops resisted German efforts to disarm them, there was bloodshed; on Cephalonia, in Greece, in a vicious massacre, 1,646 Italian soldiers were killed. The remaining five thousand then surrendered; after laying down their arms on September 22, they were shot. Three thousand more, sent by ship to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, drowned when the ships taking them were sunk by the Allies, who had no knowledge of their human cargo.
At La Spezia and Genoa, the Italian naval forces under the command of Admiral Carlo Bergamini, so recently the object of Allied air attack, set sail on September 8 for the Allied ports of North Africa. German bombers attacked them, sinking the battleship Roma with a novel type of radio-controlled bomb; 1,552 of the two thousand crewmen of the Roma were drowned, including Bergamini and his staff. The rest of his squadron, twenty-eight ships in all, reached Malta, where they joined the Allies. ‘Now,’ wrote one of the historians of Malta’s wartime struggle, ‘the bulk of the large and strong Italian fleet nestled within the waters of the small island it had once sought to subdue.’ Elsewhere, a hundred Italian merchant ships sought sanctuary in Allied ports, while a further 168 were scuttled, to avoid capture by the Germans.
With Italy’s defection, the Germans removed 50,000 Allied prisoners from Italy; they also took 268,000 Italian soldiers back to Germany as prisoners-of-war, to work in labour camps throughout Germany. Some British and American prisoners-of-war managed to flee southward as German forces moved into Italy. A special British unit, commanded by Captain Christopher Soames, was set up with instructions to ‘utilize all known available means to produce a network of helpers behind the enemy lines, and make local plans for the early rescue of ground troops and air crews at large within enemy territory’. At least a thousand prisoners-of-war were brought to the Allied lines by this means. Several hundred more stayed in Italy, to join the local partisan units which quickly formed in northern Italy.
It was against partisans in Russia that the Germans were forced, that October 8, to divert still more troops from the fighting front, in launching yet another anti-partisan sweep, Operation Jacob, in the area north of Uzda.
On the morning of September 9, German troops in Athens seized the docks and railway yards, hitherto guarded by the Italians. All Italian troops in the Greek capital were seized, disarmed and deported to Germany. That morning, the Allied troops of Operation Avalanche landed near Salerno, while British airborne troops carried out Operation Slapstick, seizing the southern Italian port of Taranto. On September 10, after a brief skirmish with Italian troops, the Germans occupied Rome. In Germany itself, a group of Germans, led by a Protestant teacher, Elizabeth von Thadden, met to discuss the evils of the Nazi regime; they were betrayed to the Gestapo, and arrested.
The German regime remained as vigilant as ever, both inside and outside Germany. At Kiev, when 355 Soviet prisoners-of-war and Jews tried to escape from a unit whose task was to dig up the corpses of the victims of Nazi armies and burn them, all but fourteen were hunted down and shot. That same week, five thousand German, Austrian and Czech Jews reached Auschwitz from the Theresienstadt ghetto; a further fifteen thousand Jews had already reached Auschwitz that month from the Czech city of Moravska Ostrava, and from several cities in Western Galicia.
On September 11, as the impact of the Italian surrender continued to be felt, the French launched Operation Vesuvius, for the recapture of Corsica. Hitler, unwilling to become embroiled on the island, ordered all 27,347 German troops to be evacuated. But in the eastern Mediterranean, it was Hitler who went over to the offensive, ordering his seven thousand troops on the island of Rhodes to seize control from the much larger Italian garrison. This they did, thereby forestalling a British plan, Operation Handcuff, to seize the island.
On September 12, the Germans were sufficiently well recovered in Italy to make their first attack on the Allied bridgehead at Salerno, cutting off the bridgehead from the forces battling towards it from the south. But it was only to be a short setback. Nor were the German troops holding the islands around the Bay of Naples able to resist for long the Allied efforts to dislodge them. On September 12 the German garrison on the island of Capri surrendered without firing a shot; the Anglo-American island-hopping force, which had already taken the island of Ventotene, included a United States lieutenant, Douglas Fairbanks Junior, who, before joining the Navy, had been a leading Hollywood film star. For his part in these island operations he was awarded the Silver Star.
For Germany, the loss of Capri on September 12 was offset, at least in terms of morale, by the spectacular success of Operation Oak, the seizure of Mussolini from the isolated mountain hotel on the 9,000-foot high Gran Sasso d’Italia, in the Abruzzi mountains, where he was being held by Italians loyal to the King. Using ninety soldiers in gliders, and a small plane, the German commando leader, Captain Otto Skorzeny, landed on the mountain, outwitted the Italian garrison of 250 men, and flew off with a bewildered Mussolini to a small hamlet in the Rome province, whence Mussolini was flown northward, first to Vienna, then to Munich, and finally to Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg.
Over France, the night of September 12 was the night of Operation Battering Ram, when three British pilots flew eight members of the French Resistance to a rendezvous between Saumur and Chinon, and took off with eight more back to Britain. The passengers brought to France included Colonel Marchal, who was arrested ten days later, and who avoided interrogation by taking his cyanide pill. Another of the passengers, Colonel Jarry, was later arrested, tortured and shot.
In a further clandestine operation, on September 14, the British parachuted Major Philip Worrall into the Pindus mountain area of Greece, to make contact with Greek partisans. There, he found himself protecting Italian soldiers both from the Greeks who wanted revenge on them, and from the Germans who wanted to capture them: by the end of the month, 100,000 Italian soldiers had been deported from Greece to labour camps in Germany. At one point, Worrall was forced to leave behind ninety sick Italians whom he was protecting. He put them, for safety, in a makeshift hospital, assuming that Red Cross conventions would apply to them, and would protect them. The Germans, reaching the hospital, took out all ninety Italians, and shot them dead.
Partisans were now active against the Germans in Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Russia. In the General Government of Poland also, so Goebbels noted in his diary on September 17, ‘acts of sabotage and terrorism have increased enormously’. In Yugoslavia, on September 17, the British parachuted Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean to Tito’s headquarters, to command the Allied Mission and co-ordinate Allied help to the partisans. In France, Resistance groups had begun to embark on acts of sabotage, including the execution of collaborators and members of the Milice, four of whom were killed that September.
On the Eastern Front, following a further meeting with von Manstein and von Kluge on September 14, Hitler agreed to a substantial withdrawal, involving the imminent loss of Smolensk, Roslavl and Klintsy, and to the strengthening of the Panther Line defence, between Vitebsk and Kiev. The area to be given up was almost half the territory captured by Army Group Centre since July 1941. On September 15, the day after this German decision to withdraw, Soviet forces captured Nezhin, less than sixty miles north-east of Kiev.
The daily budget of news reaching Hitler at Rastenburg made it clear that the massive blood letting and sacrifice of his 1941 and 1942 offensives had been in vain; on September 16, Soviet forces entered the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, as the remnants of the German forces which a year earlier had raised the swastika flag on the highest mountain of the Caucasus now crossed the Kerch Strait for the comparative safety of the Crimea. That same day, September 16, the Germans evacuated Bryansk.
Only Nazi racial plans seemed to be rolling forward, unimpeded. Indeed, with the German occupation of Italy, new areas of deportation were opened up where, under Mussolini, no Jews had been deported or killed. Now, on September 16, the first twenty-four Jews were deported by the Germans from the northern Italian town of Merano, direct to Auschwitz. One of them was a child of six. He was gassed on arrival.
In the Pacific, September 16 saw the Japanese garrison of 7,500 men abandon the town of Lae, in New Guinea, and slip away to the north. In a year’s fighting on New Guinea, 12,161 Australians had been killed—nearly ten per cent of the total Australian population of New Guinea. On the following day, determined to drive the Japanese from the northern coast, further Australian troops prepared to land at Finschhafen. Port by port and beach by beach, New Guinea was to be reconquered. As they assembled for the assault, Japanese bombers struck at Western Australia, missing the Allied airstrip which was their target, but destroying the Drysdale River Mission a mile away.
On the Thailand to Burma railway, a case of cholera had broken out at Kinsayok camp. The Japanese decided to deal with the case by shooting, as in target practice, at the sick man from outside the tent, hoping to hit him in due course. To spare the soldier this cruel end, the British adjutant of his battalion, Lieutenant Primrose, killed him with a single shot.
In Italy, the Allied forces, advancing northward, linked up on September 19 with the troops at the Salerno beachhead. Italy had now become a source of constant strain for the German forces, and a persistent claimant for men, munitions and fuel. Meanwhile, at Split, on the Adriatic, it took the Germans seven days of attack, including the use of dive-bombers, to drive the partisan forces of General Mihailović out of the port, which they had seized on September 20.
It was on the evening of September 20 that the British launched Operation Source, a submarine attack against the German battleship Tirpitz, then in the apparent safety of Norwegian waters, at Altafjord. This powerful ship not only threatened the movement of urgently needed stores to Russia through Arctic waters, but tied down large British naval forces which the British Government wished to send to the Pacific.
In an attempt to destroy the Tirpitz, six midget submarines, each with a four-man crew, were towed to northern Norway by submarines, and released; one disappeared on the way and was never seen again. A second, becoming unserviceable, was scuttled. A third was damaged and two of its crew drowned. Three of the submarines reached their objective, and their crews went into action. The Tirpitz, although not sunk, was severely disabled by explosive charges laid on the sea bed underneath her keel, and put out of action for at least six months. Two of the submarine commanders, Lieutenant Place and Lieutenant Cameron, were awarded the Victoria Cross. Both had been captured and, with the four other survivors, spent the rest of the war in captivity. The two drowned crewmen whose bodies were recovered were buried at Tromsö by the Germans, with full military honours.
It was on September 20 that senior German Government officials received details of German losses on the Eastern Front. Since the start of the war, until the last day of August 1943, a total of 548,480 German soldiers had been killed, and almost two million wounded. ‘It is a curious thing’, Goebbels noted that day in his diary, ‘that although every individual soldier returning from the Eastern Front considers himself personally superior to the Bolshevik soldier, we are still retreating and retreating. The Soviets are able to publish new and justified reports of victories every day.’ The front had not actually broken down, Goebbels added, ‘nor been torn up, but that is meagre comfort considering the extremely valuable industrial and agricultural terrain and the tremendous quantities of supplies which we have had to abandon’.
On September 21 the Red Army entered Chernigov, less than forty miles from the River Dnieper, and the Panther Line. On the following day, the Germans evacuated Poltava, one of the principal industrial cities of the Ukraine. In Italy, partisans prepared to take control of rural and mountain areas throughout the northern region, proclaimed by Mussolini on September 23 as the ‘Italian Social Republic’. Direct German administration was set up in the Trieste, Istria and Trentino regions.
On the Channel coast, September 23 marked the near completion of fifty-eight flying bomb sites. But a British agent, the Frenchman Michel Hollard, who had already reported on several of the new constructions, was able to send in a recently qualified engineer, André Comps, to work as a draftsman at one of the sites; Comps made copies of the site-design blueprints, which Hollard then smuggled back to Britain, crossing with them into Switzerland on one of his forty-eight clandestine wartime crossings. As soon as the design reached Dr R. V. Jones in Britain, models were prepared from which it was possible to make detailed plans of the buildings, although it was still not known precisely what weapons the sites were intended to house, or to launch.
After the war, Hollard was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the highest British military decoration for which a non-British subject is eligible. In the First World War, having joined the French Army at the age of sixteen, he had won the Croix de Guerre. Now his efforts were to engage the detailed scrutiny of Britain’s scientists, searching for Hitler’s ‘secret weapon’, and determined to find and if possible to destroy it.
On September 24, German forces withdrew from Smolensk after bitter fighting; on the following day, Stalin announced the city’s recapture. In southern Russia, Red Army units crossed the River Dnieper between Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk. In Italy, Allied troops were advancing northwards towards Naples; on September 27, after German soldiers began to loot a shop in the centre of Naples, its citizens rose in revolt. In Paris, on September 27, Resistance fighters shot and killed Dr Julius Ritter, the German official responsible for rounding up Frenchmen for forced labour in Germany. ‘We shall have to take extremely severe measures’, Goebbels wrote in his diary two days later, ‘to make the French de Gaullist population understand there is a limit to German patience, even in our present military situation.’ The measures chosen were indeed ‘severe’; fifty Parisians were arrested in reprisal, held for a while as hostages, and then shot.
In Naples, the Germans fought throughout September 28 to regain control. On the Adriatic side of Italy, the allies captured Foggia, by far the most important airport in the region, giving the possibility of eventual air attacks on targets in the Balkans, the Danube basin, southern Germany and even Silesia. ‘They hope to use it’, Goebbels noted disconsolately in his diary on September 29, ‘as a jumping-off place for targets in southern Germany.’
In Denmark, there were rumours that the Germans intended to arrest and deport all Denmark’s seven thousand Jews. One of these Jews was the atomic scientist, Niels Bohr; he and his wife escaped to Sweden by boat on the night of September 29. Bohr went at once to Stockholm, to plead with the Swedish Government to help the Jews. The Swedes had already decided to do so; twenty-four hours before the round-up was to begin, almost all Denmark’s Jews were smuggled by Danish fishermen across the water to the safety of neutral Sweden. Already safe from deportation were the three thousand Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who had reached Sweden as refugees before the outbreak of war.
At Auschwitz, the tortures continued; on October 3, an SS doctor, as part of a regular inspection in the camp’s barracks, selected 139 Jewish labourers whom he judged too sick to work. They were taken away and gassed.
October 3 was also the day on which the Gestapo in Athens issued an order for all Athenian Jews to register. In response, a Greek underground newspaper called on the local population to ridicule the German measures and to offer asylum to the Jews. Three thousand Athenian Jews fled from their homes, and were given shelter. Among those who hid Jews in her home was Princess Andrew of Greece, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Princess Andrew’s son, Prince Philip, was then serving in the Royal Navy.
Among the Greek Jews who left Athens that October was the Chief Rabbi of Athens, Elias Barzalai; he went to Thessaly, where he joined the Greek partisans, as did hundreds of other Jews. Many Jews were also smuggled by the partisans by boat across the Aegean Sea, to the coast of Turkey, from where they could make their way to Palestine.
Greece was also a focal point of Allied concern during the first week of October, as German troops launched Operation Polar Bear. Since the defection of Italy from the Axis nearly a month earlier, British troops had been in occupation of several of the Dodecanese Islands. One by one, the Germans now attacked them, landing their first parachute troops on the island of Kos on October 3. Within twenty-four hours the British were beaten; of the garrison of 1,500, only a hundred men were brought off to safety. The rest had either been killed or taken prisoner. The Germans, who had shown a remarkable and unexpected power to hit back, lost only eighty-five men.
On October 2, in New Guinea, after the Australian capture of Finschhafen, a Japanese counter-attack was driven off, with the loss of a thousand Japanese lives. On the Russian front, two days later, the leader of the Spanish volunteer Blue Division, Esteban Infantes, was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. In all, 4,500 Spanish volunteers were to die on the Eastern Front, and several thousand more taken prisoner. Also on October 4, at Poznan, Heinrich Himmler spoke to the SS group leaders, many of whose special squads had in the second half of 1941 and throughout 1942 murdered more than a million Jews in the ditches of German-occupied Russia. ‘Most of you know what it means’, he said, ‘to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have stuck it out and at the same time—apart from exceptions caused by human weakness—to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and shall never be written’.
Himmler went on to tell his listeners: ‘We have fulfilled this most difficult duty for the love of our people. And our spirit, our soul, our character has not suffered injury from it.’ This abuse of language—the proud boastings of ‘spirit’, ‘soul’ and ‘character’—was one of the tools of tyranny, creating a state of mind which made possible unimaginable horrors. On the day after Himmler’s speech in Poznan, 1,260 children who had been sent in August from the Bialystok ghetto to Theresienstadt, together with the fifty-three doctors and nurses who had accompanied them, were sent from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. They had been told that their destination was Palestine, or Switzerland.
In his speech at Poznan, Himmler did not limit his reflections and exhortations to the mass murder of Jews. He also spoke of other civilian victims of the SS. ‘What happens to the Russians, what happens to the Czechs,’ he said, ‘is a matter of utter indifference to me’, and he added: ‘Such good blood of our own kind as there may be among the nations we shall acquire for ourselves, if necessary by taking away the children and bringing them up among us. Whether the other peoples live in comfort or perish of hunger interests me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our Kultur. Whether or not 10,000 Russian women collapse from exhaustion while digging a tank ditch interests me only in so far as the tank ditch is completed for Germany’.
Himmler spoke of decency: ‘We shall never be rough or heartless’, he said, ‘where it is not necessary; that is clear. We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude to animals, will also adopt a decent attitude to these human animals, but it is a crime against our own blood to worry about them and to bring them ideals.’
On October 6, Himmler once more addressed the senior SS men gathered at Poznan. Once more, he spoke of the mass murder of the Jews. ‘Then the question arose’, he said, ‘What about the women and children?’, and he went on to explain: ‘I decided to find a perfectly clear-cut solution to this too. For I did not feel justified in exterminating the men—that is, to kill them or have them killed—while allowing the avengers, in the form of their children, to grow up in the midst of our sons and grandsons.’
As Himmler spoke, the 1,260 Jewish children who had just reached Auschwitz from Bialystok were being taken to their deaths.
In the Pacific, on October 6, the Americans landed unopposed on the Central Solomon Island of Kolombangara; once more, the Japanese had chosen not to fight. But they still held out on Vella Lavella, forcing the Solomon Islands battle, in which 1,100 Americans and 2,483 Japanese had already been killed, to continue. On October 7, on Wake Island, which the Americans had decided not to invade, but to leave its Japanese garrison to its own devices and starvation, all ninety-six Allied prisoners of war on the island were made to sit down in a long line with their backs to the sea. Blindfolded, and with their hands tied behind their backs, they were then shot.
In Norway, October 7 saw an act of sabotage by a Norwegian Communist resistance group. Two Germans, and a large number of Norwegians, were killed when a main line train was attacked. In reprisal, the Gestapo executed five hostages. In Italy, in reprisal for the capture of two German soldiers, the Gestapo killed thirty Italian civilians at Boves. That same week, it was the round-up of Italian Jews which dominated much of the Gestapo’s work. On October 9, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish calendar, and the holiest day in the Jewish year, a hundred Jews were deported by train from Trieste to Auschwitz. None survived the war. That same day, however, in Ancona, a Catholic priest, Don Bernardino, warned the local Rabbi, Elio Toaff, of the impending deportation; the Jews went into hiding, most of them with Christian families. Only ten were caught and deported, one of whom survived the war. At Auschwitz, on that Day of Atonement, a thousand men and women, judged too sick to work any more, were taken from the barracks and gassed. Two days later, in the Polish villages of Sokolka and Laznie, fifty-six villagers, including women and children, were shot; the villagers had been accused of sheltering Soviet partisans.
Those who lived under terror had no alternative but to submit to it, if they were to avoid reprisals and the murder of hostages. Yet for the slave labour gangs now being used at several hundred mass murder sites to dig up the bodies of those who had been killed, and to burn them, death was also to be their end. Revolt, however hopeless, represented at least an outside chance of survival. So it was, at the former Sobibor death camp, that the six hundred Jewish slave labourers being forced to dig up and burn the bodies of those killed there in 1942 decided, on October 13, to attack their armed guards with such knives and hatchets as they could find beforehand. Led by a Soviet prisoner-of-war, Alexander Pechersky, and a Polish Jew, Leon Felhendler, they turned on their guards on the following day, killing nine SS men and two Ukrainians, and then breaking through the camp wire. Three hundred of the prisoners managed to get beyond the wire. Two hundred of them were shot down as they ran. The three hundred who could not get beyond the wire were killed by German military and police units hurried to the camp from the nearby town of Chelm. The hundred who escaped took their chances in the forests and swamps of eastern Poland; many were able to reach Soviet partisan units, and fight with them against their former tormentors. Some joined the Red Army, among them Semyon Rozenfeld, who was in Berlin on the day of victory.
On October 13, the Government of Italy, based in Brindisi, declared war on Germany. On the battlefield, Italian soldiers joined the Allied forces in trying to break through towards Rome. But Hitler ordered his troops to hold the line. As they did so, 228 American bombers, flying in tight formation without fighter protection, carried out a daylight raid, on October 14, on the German ball bearing factory at Schweinfurt. Little damage was done to the factory, but sixty-two of the attacking aircraft were shot down, and more than a hundred American airmen killed. The American commanders realized that such a scale of loss was unacceptable, both in human and in material terms. No further such raids could therefore take place, until adequate fighter escorts became available. Thus Schweinfurt obtained a three-month reprieve, and German ball-bearing production, vital to the construction of many different types of weapons, was brought up to full capacity.
In Italy, Allied troops were engaged in a daily battle to try to force the Germans northward. By October 16 they were only ninety miles from Rome. That day, in Rome, SS troops seized more than a thousand of Rome’s seven thousand Jews. Two days later those who had been rounded up were deported to Auschwitz. Eight hundred of the deportees were gassed on arrival, among them a baby born after the round-up. Of the three hundred deportees who were tattooed on the forearm and taken to the barracks, only sixteen survived the war. But in Rome, more than four thousand Jews had been given shelter in private homes, monasteries and convents, 477 of them in the Vatican itself. Thus the Germans were cheated of most of their intended victims. The same happened also in Milan, when two hundred Jews were arrested by the SS on the evening of October 16, and a further six hundred a few days later; they too were deported to Auschwitz; but more than six thousand other Jews, both Italian-born and pre-war refugees from central Europe, found shelter in Christian homes in Milan, and survived.
The night of October 16 also saw the rescue, by a British aircraft, of seven Frenchmen, picked up from a large meadow near Mâcon. They were one of three groups picked up that night, on what had become regular rescue sorties from the Royal Air Force base at Tangmere. Among the seven taken off that night was General de Lattre de Tassigny, who had escaped six weeks earlier from a German prison at Riom, having been condemned to ten years’ imprisonment for trying to resist the German occupation of Vichy France in November 1942. These acts of rescue brought out several hundred Resistance fighters, soldiers, administrators and agents.
The future of France was much thought of on October 17, when a British naval, air and Army exercise, Exercise Pirate, was carried out at Studland Bay, in southern England. The aim of the assaulting force was to make use of naval gunfire, including rocket fire from special vessels, and self-propelled artillery fire from the tank landing craft, during the actual run in to the beach. Slowly but surely, the preparations for a cross-Channel invasion were advancing. Earlier that month, the code name ‘Mulberry’ had been chosen for the huge artificial harbour made of concrete which was to be an essential part of the invasion plan.
On the Eastern Front, the Russians attacked yet again, east of Vitebsk, driving a deep salient into the German lines, behind which, as a German Army report noted on October 18, Soviet partisans were carrying out ‘strong, disruptive activities’, so much so that the destruction of road and rail bridges ‘has occurred in assembly line fashion’. That same day, far to the south, in the fighting for Melitopol, a nineteen-year-old Red Army lieutenant, Abram Zindels, led his men into one sector of the town, destroying twenty-three machine gun points. As Zindels ran out of ammunition, the Germans called on him to surrender. ‘A Soviet officer will not be taken prisoner,’ he replied, blowing up himself and the Germans near him with his last grenade. Zindels was posthumously created Hero of the Soviet Union.
In Moscow, the three principal Allied Foreign Ministers, Cordell Hull, Eden and Molotov, met on October 18 to confirm that America, Britain and Russia would not consider any separate peace negotiations with Germany. On the following day, in Washington, agreement was reached on the scale of American aid to Russia over the next eight months; 2,700,000 tons of supplies would be sent through the Russian Pacific ports and a further 2,400,000 tons through the Persian Gulf, in addition to nearly a million tons sent through the Arctic route. In a final session with Cordell Hull, at which a film was shown which included scenes of the defeat of Japan at Khalkin Gol in August 1939, Stalin made it clear that the Soviet Union also considered Japan as an enemy. ‘Now I see, Marshal Stalin,’ said Hull, ‘that you have accounts to settle with the Japanese, which you will undoubtedly present in good time. I understand you, and am confident of success.’
It was on October 19, at Stanley Jail in Hong Kong, that the Japanese executed, without trial, a British prisoner-of-war, Douglas Waterman, a member of the clandestine British Army Aid Group, which encouraged prisoners to escape and tried to smuggle medical supplies into the various prisoner-of-war camps in the Colony. That same day, in the North Borneo capital, Jesselton, local Chinese and native Suluks rose up in revolt against the Japanese occupation; forty Japanese were killed. In reprisal, the Japanese razed many Suluk villages to the ground, arrested and tortured thousands of civilians, and on one occasion put 189 suspects to death without trial. In a further execution, several dozen Suluk women and children, their hands tied behind their backs, were then attached by a rope to the pillars of a mosque. A machine gun was then set up, and the captives shot down in cold blood.
Knowledge of such atrocities culminated in the Allies setting up, on October 20, a United Nations War Crimes Commission, to investigate and bring to trial all individuals responsible for ‘war crimes’. Among the members of the Commission were the Governments-in-exile of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Yugoslavia, on whose soil the murder of civilians had become the daily practice of occupation and reprisal.
Over Germany, on the night of October 22, a British bomber raid on the industrial city of Kassel destroyed essential German aircraft and rocket production facilities. In the ensuing firestorm, 5,300 of Kassel’s citizens died.
On October 23, six British destroyers, accompanied by the new light cruiser Charybdis, embarked upon Operation Tunnel, hoping to catch a German merchant ship on its way from Brest to the English Channel. They were surprised, however, by the merchant ship’s escorts. Charybdis, struck by two torpedoes, sank with the loss of 462 men, while on one of the destroyers, the Limbourne, forty-two men were killed. Many of the bodies, washed up on the beaches of the Channel Islands, were buried by the Germans with full military honours. Five thousand Channel Islanders also made their way to the cemetery, to pay their respects, and as a mark of passive defiance.
Another act of defiance took place on October 23 at Auschwitz, following the arrival there of 1,750 Polish Jews, holders of South American passports, who had been told that they were being sent out of Europe altogether, to the safety of South America. On reaching Auschwitz, the women among the deportees were ordered to undress. As they did so, the German guards, as usual, seized rings from fingers and watches from wrists. During this activity, an SS sergeant-major, Josef Schillinger, ordered one of the women to undress completely. This woman, who according to some reports was a former Warsaw dancer by the name of Horowitz, threw her shoe in Schillinger’s face, seized his revolver, and shot him in the stomach. She also wounded another SS man, Sergeant Emmerich. The shooting of Schillinger served as a signal for the other women to attack the SS men at the entrance to the gas chamber. One SS man had his nose torn off, another was scalped.
Schillinger died on the way to the camp hospital. The other SS men fled. Shortly afterwards the camp Commandant, Rudolf Hoess, entered the chamber, accompanied by other SS men carrying machine guns and grenades. They then removed the women one by one, and shot them outside.
The revolt of the Jewish women at Auschwitz was recorded by two prisoners who worked in the camp. One of them, a Jew, Stanislaw Jankowski, remembered only one other such attempt, when a Soviet prisoner-of-war, who was about to be shot with four of his comrades, snatched the gun of an SS man, ‘but did not manage to make use of it and was overpowered’. The second prisoner, a Polish medical student, Jerzy Tabau, who later escaped from Auschwitz and passed news of the episode to the West, noted that, after October 23, ‘the extermination of Jews continued relentlessly’. On October 25, it was the turn of 2,500 Jewish women and girls, including eight hundred from Salonica, who had been locked in a barrack without food, and with almost no water, for three days and nights, to be taken to the gas chamber and killed.
One of those Jewish girls from Salonica was the eleven-year-old Lillian Menasché. Her father, who survived Auschwitz, was later to recall ‘that cursed day’. But for most of the victims of that particular killing, no one was to know or mourn their fate. All but a tiny minority of Hitler’s victims went to their deaths behind a fog of anonymity; they were numbers, not names; a part of the daily and anonymous statistics of death.
On October 25, the Japanese celebrated the completion of the Burma—Thailand railway. Of the 46,000 Allied prisoners-of-war who had been forced to build it, sixteen thousand had died of starvation, brutality and disease. Also dying on the ‘Railroad of Death’, in conditions even worse than those imposed upon the prisoners-of-war, were more than fifty thousand Burmese labourers, for whom neither their race nor their lowly status had been any protection against the imperial ambitions of Japan.