34

‘Bleeding to death in the East’ (Goebbels)

WINTER 1943

On 25 October 1943, Soviet forces, crossing the lower Dnieper in a surprise attack, entered Dnepropetrovsk, one of the largest and most important cities of southern Russia. That same day, Dneprodzherzhinsk, another of the cities on the western bank of the Dnieper, fell to the advancing Russians. From Berlin came a radio broadcast, admitting that the German military position in Russia was ‘extremely grave’. On the following day, Field Marshal von Kleist, on his own initiative, ordered the evacuation of the Crimea. Hitler had not been consulted. That evening, at Hitler’s insistence, the order was cancelled. In the Pacific, the Japanese were less reluctant to accept the need to withdraw. When New Zealand troops landed on Stirling Island, in the Central Solomons, on October 27, they found the island undefended. Landing that same day on nearby Mono Island, the New Zealanders did discover a small Japanese garrison, but it was soon overcome, two hundred Japanese defenders being killed, for the loss of fifty-two New Zealanders and Americans.

On Choiseul Island, an officer in the Australian navy, Alexander Waddell, and his colleague Sergeant Seton, both of whom had been carrying out Intelligence tasks on the Japanese-held island for almost a year, were able to guide an American force ashore. During a diversionary attack, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy’s PT boat was among those sent to bring American troops away from their beach-head; when one of the boats, hitting a coral reef, began to sink, he rescued eight of those on board, including three wounded men, one of whom, Corporal Schnell, died before he could be brought to safety. Three days later, Kennedy and his boat were in action against Japanese barges off Moli Island.

***

On October 28, the sixty-first deportation train in less than a year and a half left Paris for Auschwitz. Among those on it, and later killed at Auschwitz, was the thirty-nine-year-old Roumanian-born Arno Klarsfeld. In 1939 he had volunteered to fight with the French Army. Taken prisoner by the Germans, he had escaped. Reaching Nice, he had joined the Resistance group ‘Combat’. Arrested by the Gestapo, he had been sent to Auschwitz with a thousand other Jews, of whom only forty-two survived the war. Of the 125 children of seventeen years and under on this train, including a five-month-old girl, Michele Nathan, not one survived.

***

German forces on the Eastern Front succeeded, in the last week of October, in halting the Red Army’s westward thrust. In one German counter attack, north of Krivoi Rog, three hundred Soviet tanks and five thousand soldiers were captured, and the Russians driven back halfway to the Dnieper. Further north, a tenacious German defence was preventing Vitebsk from falling into Soviet hands. On October 28, Field Marshal von Rundstedt gave Hitler an assessment of the danger in Western Europe, indicating the Channel coast, the French Riviera and the Bay of Biscay as three possible areas for an Allied landing. Hitler, realizing that the presence of Allied troops on Italian soil marked only the first stage of Anglo-American endeavour on European soil, issued on November 3 his Directive No. 51, stating that Germany was now in greater danger from the West than from the East, that the German forces in the West should not be reduced, and that more tanks and artillery should be sent to the armies in the West.

In Italy, meanwhile, the Allies struggled in vain to break through to Rome. The Germans gave up even the smallest sector of the line only after the most furious of battles. In the eastern Mediterranean, German aircraft based on Rhodes disrupted British attempts to reinforce the two smaller islands of Samos and Leros, seized by Britain after Italy’s surrender. On October 30, in the Aegean, forty-three British sailors were killed during a German dive-bomber attack on the cruiser Aurora. One of the ship’s officers, Lieutenant Kenneth More, an actor and film star in civilian life, later recalled how, that night, ‘My turn came round to be on watch and I had the dreadful, melancholy job of probing the shattered decks with a torch, retrieving torn-off limbs from corners, and even from the rigging.’

***

Behind German lines, the power of partisan and anti-Nazi forces was growing. In German-occupied Poland, November 1 saw the publication in an underground journal of a death sentence on Waclaw Noworol, a farmer from the Nowy Sacz region accused of betraying Jews and Poles who were in hiding from the Germans. Also on November 1, German forces north of Vitebsk were forced to launch two anti-partisan sweeps, Operation Snipe and Operation Wild Duck, in order to protect the supply lines of both Army Group Centre and Army Group North. That same day, Field Marshal von Weichs, the German Commander-in-Chief in the Balkans, noted in his diary: ‘The grim partisan situation puts a completely different complexion on things. Not that you can speak of “partisans” any more—under Tito, a powerful Bolshevik army has arisen, rigidly led, acting on directives from Moscow, moving from strength to strength, and growing deadlier every day.’ In addition, Weichs added, ‘It has strong British support.’

In nine days in mid-October, Goebbels noted in his diary on November 2, more than nine thousand German soldiers had been killed on the Eastern Front. ‘We cannot stand such a drain for long’, he wrote. If it went on, ‘we are in danger of slowly bleeding to death in the East’.

On the day that Goebbels wrote these words, a blood-letting of a different sort had begun at the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin. Within a week, forty-five thousand survivors of the Warsaw ghetto were killed, shot by machine gun fire in ditches behind the gas chamber, eighteen thousand of them on a single day. Also killed that week were five thousand former Jewish soldiers of the Polish Army. These soldiers had been held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Lublin for the previous four years—since October 1939. In mocking imitation of a military operation, this mass killing was given the code name Harvest Festival.

On November 3, in Italy, two hundred Jews from Genoa, and a further hundred Jewish refugees from central Europe who had found a haven in Genoa before the war, were deported to Auschwitz. Among them was the Rabbi of Genoa, Riccardo Pacifici, who was killed with his congregation. That same day, in Germany, the Catholic pastor, Bernhard Lichtenburg, who had been held in prison in Berlin for just over two years, as a result of having prayed publicly for the Jews, was transferred to Dachau; he died during the journey.

***

On November 5, the Red Army approached Kiev; the Soviet Union’s third largest city after Moscow and Leningrad. As the battle for Kiev raged, demolition charges were set off, and many ancient churches and public buildings destroyed. That evening, Czechoslovak soldiers of the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade, urged by their commander, Colonel Svoboda, to fight for Kiev as if they were fighting ‘for Prague and Bratislava’, captured the main railway station. On the following morning, Kiev was once more in Russian hands, after more than two years of German rule. For Hitler, the loss of Kiev was a blow. Nor did the Red Army halt at Kiev, but, still driving the Germans before it, advanced a further thirty miles on November 7, taking the town of Fastov, an important railway junction for German supplies moving south-east towards the Dnieper bend. Fastov lay to the west of the ‘Panther’ defence line which Hitler had established less than two months earlier.

For the Red Army, even amid the devastation of Kiev, a sense of victory had now emerged; indeed, on November 8 an ‘Order of Victory’ medal was created, for senior commanders who successfully carried out such military operations on one or several fronts ‘as to result in a radical change of the situation to the enemy’s disadvantage’. The Order, made of platinum, contained ninety-one diamonds; a roll of honour with the names of the recipients was to be set up in the Kremlin. That same day, an ‘Order of Glory’ was created for the lower ranks, and for Air Force lieutenants, to reward deeds of personal valour; those holding the Order would have the right to a pension for life, and free education for their children.

***

On November 8, in Munich, Hitler made his annual beer hall speech. ‘Even if for the present we cannot reach America’, he said, ‘thank God that at least one country is near enough for us to tackle, and on that State we are going to concentrate.’ Hitler’s scientists had assured him that the rocket bomb would be ready by the end of the year, but on November 8, Albert Speer noted that ‘the research is not as complete as the development team would have people believe’.

It was also on November 8, in Britain, that scientists and military experts, having studied the drawing of one of the sites smuggled out by Michel Hollard, decided to re-examine existing aerial photographs of the whole of northern France, and to take as many new photographs as possible, in order to try to work out what was happening at them; the existence of an actual rocket, or of a flying bomb, had yet to be proved.

That same day, the first of the new reconnaissance flights took place. Breaking the secret of the ‘Ski’ sites was now a British priority. That day, in Italy, a train left Florence for an ‘unknown destination’. The four hundred Jews on the train had been rounded up in Siena and Bologna as well as Florence. Not one is known to have survived.

On the battlefield, the scale of casualties had risen during the second week of November; in the Pacific, where on November 9 the Americans began their advance into the interior of Bougainville; in Italy, where the Allied forces had now to accept that Rome was beyond their grasp; and on the Eastern Front, where the Germans were blocking any further Soviet advance west of Kiev, but further north were forced to give up Zhitomir, only seventy-five miles from the pre-war Polish—Soviet frontier. In the Eastern Mediterranean too the clash of arms suddenly intensified, when a landing by German forces on the island of Leros on November 11 was resisted by ten thousand British and Italian troops, with heavy casualties on both sides, until, after five days, the defenders were overwhelmed.

***

On November 14, during an American daylight air raid over Germany, twenty German fighters, hitherto the scourge of such raids, were shot down. ‘The Americans are now flying in by day with fighter protection,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. This, he commented, was ‘a thing that is naturally very hard for our anti-aircraft to cope with’. On the Eastern Front, too, Goebbels saw the danger looming for Germany, despite the recapture of the western Ukrainian city of Zhitomir on November 15, and the death in action that week of as many as twenty thousand Russian soldiers. ‘Where will it ever end!’ Goebbels wrote. ‘The Soviets have reserves of which we never dreamed in even our most pessimistic estimates.’

Himmler was determined that it would not ‘all end’ until the racial theories of Nazism had been put fully into practice. On November 15, an order was published whereby nomadic Gypsies and ‘part-Gypsies’ were to be put ‘on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps’. In ‘cases of doubt’, local police commanders would decide ‘who is a Gypsy’. Following this order, several hundred Gypsies then in labour camps were deported to Auschwitz: the first twenty being brought from Grodno. Also deported to Auschwitz, on November 15, were 1,149 Dutch Jews, followed a day later by 995 more. Of this later group, 531 were gassed on reaching the camp, including 166 children. At the same time, 164 Poles were brought to the gas chamber and killed; twelve of them were women members of a Polish resistance group.

Dutch Jews and Polish patriots perished together, their deaths witnessed by a Jewish slave labourer who managed to note down, and to hide, the exhortation of one of the Polish women on the threshold of death: ‘Tell our brothers, our nation, that we went to meet our death in full consciousness and with pride’. Thus she died; the slave labourer was also killed not long afterwards. But his note, and her words, survived.

Another eye-witness of the extermination that November was Josef Reznik, a Polish Jew who had been held prisoner-of-war by the Germans since his capture on the battlefield in September 1939. With three hundred other Jews, his life had been spared during the ‘Harvest Festival’ killings which began at Majdanek on November 2, in order to create a further Blobel Commando, digging up and then burning the corpses of those who had earlier been murdered. This particular Commando was sent to a camp in the Borki woods outside Chelm. Reznik later recalled how he and his fellow captives dug up more than thirty thousand corpses in the Borki woods that winter. Most of them were former Soviet soldiers who had been taken prisoner in 1941. There were also several thousand Jews, among them many children from the nearby town of Hrubieszow. The most ‘recent’ corpses, Reznik noted, were those of Italian soldiers, brought to Borki as prisoners-of-war after Italy’s defection, and likewise murdered.

***

On the night of November 15, British Special Operations Executive carried out Operation Conjuror, flying in six agents from Tangmere, in southern England, to a hilltop landing strip in France, near Angers. One of these brought in was Victor Gerson, organizer of the ‘Vic’ escape line for Allied prisoners-of-war and air crew evaders. Three of those brought in were arrested on reaching Paris. Leaving the field on the return flight were twelve people; one of them, François Mitterand—using the code name ‘Monier’—had for more than a year been in charge of the ‘Morland’ group, active in maintaining links with French prisoners-of-war and civilian deportees; in 1940, he had himself escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.

Two months later, Mitterand returned to France, being taken by depot ship from Dartmouth to a motor gunboat out at sea, and then across the Channel by night to a small beach at Beg-an-Fry. Back in France, he formed a new Resistance committee to organize help for all French prisoners-of-war and deported labourers. Thirty-eight years later, he was elected President of France.

As British reconnaissance flights continued to search out and photograph the mysterious ‘Ski’ sites in northern France, the hopes placed in another of Hitler’s potential victory weapons were finally eliminated when, in Norway, on 16 November, 160 American bombers, flying from bases in Britain, struck at the hydro-electric power station and heavy water factory at Vermork. Twenty Norwegian civilians were killed in the raid, which, although missing the factory, did such serious damage to the power station that no further heavy water could be produced there. Such stocks of heavy water as existed were ordered to be brought back to Germany. Norwegian secret agents passed this information back to London, where plans were made to destroy these stocks on their journey.

On November 18, two days after the American daylight raid on Vermork, 440 British bombers struck by night at Berlin. The raid, intended to hit at industrial areas, killed 131 Berliners, but did little damage to factories. Nine British bombers were shot down, and fifty-three of the aircrew killed, among them Wing Commander John White, who had earlier played a vital part in the raid on Peenemünde, placing his markers in exactly the right place, and drawing the bombing back from the camp for foreign workers on to the correct target.

***

On November 20, in the Pacific, the Americans launched Operation Galvanic, against three atolls in the Gilbert Islands, Makin, Tarawa and Abemana. On Makin, where more than six thousand Americans landed, there were a mere three hundred Japanese soldiers and five hundred Korean labourers; but the Japanese were determined to fight to the bitter end; 550 of the defenders were killed before the rest—almost all of the surviving Koreans—surrendered. Sixty-four Americans lost their lives during the assault, thirty-five of them as ‘non-battle’ casualties. But an American escort carrier, Lisome Bay, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, and, in a terrible explosion which blew the ship apart, 644 of her crew of nine hundred were killed. A further forty-three Americans were killed on the battleship Mississippi, when a turret accidentally exploded during the pre-landing bombardment.

The native islanders on Makin were effusive in their welcome of the Americans. Lieutenant Clarence B. Selden, the Navy Beachmaster, later recalled meeting a native chief who said to him in a single breath: ‘I-am-so-glad-you-have-come-we-have-waited-many-months-we-are-happy-you-have-come-may-I-get-your-men-coconuts?’

On Tarawa Atoll, more than five thousand Japanese defenders met a similar number of American attackers on the beaches of Betio Island. At the end of seventy-six hours of savage fighting, only one Japanese officer and sixteen men, and 129 Korean labourers, were still alive. A thousand Americans—a fifth of the invasion force—had been killed in overcoming the fanatical resistance of the five thousand. The battle on Tarawa greatly shocked American opinion, indicating, as it did, how costly the total defeat of Japan would be. Nor was it a shock confined to statistics; newspaper photographs of American corpses floating with the tide, or piled up on the beaches next to burned out landing craft, shocked an American public which had hitherto been protected by censorship from such scenes.

Against the small Japanese garrison on Abemana, it was decided, after one Marine had been killed during an attempted landing, to use only naval gunfire. This was effective, a native islander reporting to the Americans on November 25 that all the Japanese defenders were dead. Fourteen had been killed by naval gunfire; the rest had committed suicide.

On November 22, as the Americans struggled to overcome Japanese resistance on Makin and Tarawa, the British had carried out another night raid on Berlin, with 764 bombers sent against the German capital. To Hitler’s chagrin, considerable damage was done to the Government section of the city, including the Admiralty, the Air Ministry, and the Ministry of Armaments and War Production. Even Hitler’s Chancellery was damaged, as was much of his train, Amerika, then in a railway siding; Hitler himself was at Rastenburg.

For the Berliners, this raid involved two civilian disasters, a hundred people being crushed to death trying to get down the steps of an underground shelter, and five hundred being killed when a four thousand pound bomb exploded just outside a public shelter in the basement of a school. In all, 1,737 civilians were killed that night in Berlin. ‘Hell itself seems to have broken loose over us,’ Goebbels noted in his diary that night. ‘Mines and explosive bombs keep hurtling down upon the Government quarter. One after another of the important buildings begins to burn.’

Although 167 British aircrew had been shot down and killed in the raid over Berlin on November 22, a further raid took place on the following night, when 127 more aircrew died. For Berliners, this second raid was hardly less severe than the one the night before, with 1,315 recorded deaths, a total for the two consecutive nights of more than three thousand. ‘The second air raid equalled the first in intensity’, Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘Though at first we thought it might be weaker, this hope was not realized.’ His own official residence had been hit, and its upper rooms destroyed. ‘Gradually, we are learning to accustom ourselves again to a primitive standard of living’; in his own house that morning there was ‘no heat, no light, no water’, and he added: ‘One can neither shave nor wash. One must get up in the shelter by the light of a burning candle.’

On the morning of November 23, in Lille, two hundred German soldiers surrounded the house in which the British Agent Michael Trotobas was hiding. In the ensuing fight, Trotobas killed the Gestapo officer who had come to arrest him, and then kept on firing until he himself was killed. His fellow agent, Denise Gilman, received a wound in the stomach from which she too died. After the war, a Resistance medal was named after Trotobas—Le Croix du Capitaine Michel—the only medal awarded to the French Resistance which was dedicated to the memory of a British officer. Despite Trotobas’s death, his ‘Farmer’ group remained active, harassing German installations throughout north-eastern France.

***

In the Far East, the Japanese suffered a blow to their prestige on November 25, when American bombers attacked Shinchiku airfield, on Formosa. In all, forty-two Japanese aircraft were destroyed, some in combat, others while still on the ground. That same day, in New Guinea, after an eight-day battle, Australian forces captured the 2,400-foot-high Sattelberg summit on the Kokoda Trail; the turning point in the battle being an attack on the last day, led by Sergeant Thomas Derrick. For his courage in action, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In the slave labour camps on the now completed Burma—Thailand railway, disease still took a heavy toll. At Tarsao camp, on November 25, Colonel Dunlop recorded 364 deaths in the previous four months, noting in his diary: ‘The “captains of the man of death” were dysentery, cholera, malaria, deficiency diseases and tropical ulcers. Dysentery was much the most common cause.’

***

On November 26, on the Eastern Front, the Russians captured Gomel, only four hundred miles from Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg. That night, British bombers struck again at Berlin, destroying the main workshops of the Allkett tank factory. Hitler, learning of the raid, ordered fire engines to rush to Berlin from as far away as Potsdam and Brandenburg, but these efforts were in vain. As well as Allkett, several other weapons and munitions factories were badly damaged, as was a factory making radar sets. During this raid, the fourth in a month, 196 British and Canadian aircrew were shot down and killed, or died in crashes and accidents; 470 Berliners were also killed, 92 of them when a bomber crashed on to a building, destroying the building’s air raid shelter.

On the Eastern Front, 6,473 German soldiers had been killed in action in the previous ten days; the civilian deaths in Berlin in the same period totalled 3,653. Of the military deaths, Goebbels noted in his diary on November 27: ‘That is bearable. On the other hand, sickness has increased, and, above all, the troops’ morale has sunk, physically and spiritually, because of our continuous retreats.’

November 28 saw a brief turn of the tide on the Eastern Front, when Field Marshal von Manstein’s Army Group South surrounded a large Russian force in the Korosten area, north-west of Kiev, inflicting heavy casualties on them.

At this moment of Soviet setback, Stalin was not in the Soviet Union. He had travelled outside Russia for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, to meet both Roosevelt and Churchill at Teheran. There, amid tight security, Churchill outlined the Anglo-American plans for a cross-Channel invasion the following spring or summer.

On November 29, during the discussion at Teheran of Operation Overlord, Churchill told Stalin, somewhat to the Soviet leader’s unease, of the conditions, decided upon three months earlier, upon which the launching of Operation Overlord depended: first, that there must be a ‘satisfactory reduction’ in the strength of the German fighter forces in north-west Europe before the assault; second, that German reserves in France and the Low Countries must not on the day of the assault be more than ‘about twelve full-strength first-quality mobile divisions’; and third, that it must not be possible for the Germans to transfer from other fronts more than fifteen first-quality mobile divisions during the first sixty days of the operation.

In response to this, Stalin asked Churchill if ‘the Prime Minister and the British Staffs really believe in “Overlord”’, to which Churchill replied that, provided these conditions were met, ‘it will be our stern duty to hurl across the Channel against the Germans every sinew of our strength’.

Also on November 29, at Teheran, Stalin told Roosevelt and Churchill that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan ‘the moment Germany was defeated’. This, Churchill told the British Chiefs of Staff, was a ‘momentous decision’. It was also one which had to be kept absolutely secret, so much so that it was not recorded even in the secret record of the Teheran talks.

As the Teheran conference continued on November 29, Stalin was not told, however, that the American scientists working on the atomic bomb had reached that day a decisive stage, the modification of a B-29 bomber to enable it to carry, and to drop, the bomb. Four days later, fifteen atomic scientists arrived in the United States from Britain to join the American atomic bomb team; one of the fifteen, Klaus Fuchs, was a Soviet spy.

Unknown to any of the Big Three that November, there had been an attempt earlier in the month to kill their principal enemy, when a German Army officer, Baron Axel von dem Bussche, undertook to ‘model’ a new type of Army greatcoat which Hitler wished to see. Von dem Bussche proposed putting a bomb in one of the pockets, and, while Hitler was examining the coat, to detonate the bomb, killing both himself and Hitler. Unfortunately for the conspirators, the demonstration dates were repeatedly postponed until, by even greater mischance, the prototypes of the coats were destroyed in one of the November air raids on Berlin. Von dem Bussche, meanwhile, had returned to active service on the Eastern Front, where he was severely wounded.

Hitler now seldom left Rastenburg, but on November 26 he had driven the forty-five miles to Insterburg airfield, to inspect a flying bomb which had been brought specially from its test site at Peenemünde. The test site itself was photographed by a British pilot on November 28. Two days later, a photographic reconnaissance expert, Flight Officer Constance Babington Smith, looking at earlier pictures as part of the November 8 directive, thought she saw, in what had earlier been interpreted as ‘dredging equipment’, a possible flying bomb launch site. The November 28 photograph confirmed that an actual pilotless plane could be seen on a ramp.

In the erroneous belief that the warhead of this new secret weapon might weigh as much as seven tons, the British Government made urgent plans to set aside several million hospital beds for those who might be injured once the flying bombs began to arrive. But plans were also made to try to minimize, and even to avert, the danger.

On December 4, the whole northern French coast containing the mysterious ‘Ski’ launch sites, now mysterious no longer, was re-photographed from the air, to make sure that no sites had been overlooked. On the following day, the systematic bombing of the sites began, code-named Operation Crossbow.

Another air raid on Berlin had taken place on the night of December 2. During the raid, 228 British airmen were killed, and also two Allied war correspondents. The Berliners’ death toll was 150. One bomber, falling behind the others and missing the target, dropped its bombs on Cottbus, fifty miles south-east of Berlin. On the night of December 3, Leipzig was the target. ‘The centre of the city was especially hard hit,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘Almost all public buildings, theatres, the university, the Supreme Court, exhibition halls etc., have either been completely destroyed or seriously damaged.’

In German-occupied Poland, the cowing and terrorizing of the local population continued. On December 3, in Warsaw, the SS and Gestapo publicly executed a hundred municipal tramway workers, as reprisal against a recent act of sabotage. Six days later, Polish underground forces announced the condemnation and death by shooting of two Poles, Tadeusz Karcz and Antoni Pajor, accused of betraying Jews to the Gestapo, and denouncing Poles who were sheltering Jews.

Helped by information smuggled into Allied prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen made repeated attempts to escape, and to return to active duty. One such attempt, made on December 9, was remarkable because of the clothing in which the escapee, Lieutenant D. P. James, Royal Navy, chose to make his way to the Baltic Sea. ‘Owing to the large number of uniforms to be seen in Germany’, he later explained, ‘I resolved to attempt to escape in full British naval uniform, carrying a card purporting to be a Bulgarian naval identity card.’ The name and initial which Lieutenant James chose for his card contained a scarcely concealed message: ‘I. Bagerov’. Changing his disguise in due course to that of a Swedish sailor, James eventually boarded a Finnish ship at Danzig, for neutral Stockholm.

At his Rastenburg headquarters, 110 miles from Danzig, Hitler found time on December 10 to design, for his Bavarian retreat at Obersalzberg, a special protective tunnel against bomb blast. He was particularly concerned, one of his staff noted, to design an effective barrier, or baffle, against the blast created by an explosion.

***

No day passed without some crime being committed in German-occupied Europe; on December 14, nine members of the Polish Communist Party were taken from a local prison at Herby, near Czestochowa, and shot. To this day, a memorial cross marks the site of their execution.

As the Russian forces moved forward, they uncovered more and more German atrocities, and on December 15, at Kharkov, four SS men were brought to trial, accused of using gas vans to murder Soviet civilians. One of the accused was a twenty-four year old SS lieutenant, Hans Ritz. On first having heard the words ‘gas van’ mentioned in Kharkov, Ritz told the prosecutor, ‘I remembered the vehicle from my stay in Warsaw, when I witnessed the evacuation in it of the unreliable sections of the Warsaw population.’ While in Warsaw, Ritz added, ‘I got to know that part of the Warsaw population were evacuated by railway and another part were loaded into the “gas vans” and exterminated.’

Hans Ritz also gave evidence of the mass shooting, in sandpits and stone quarries, of tens of thousands of people in the Soviet cities of Krasnodar, Vitebsk and Taganrog. During the shooting of some three hundred people at a village near Kharkov, Ritz recalled, a woman, trying to save her child, ‘covered it with her body. But this did not help her, because the bullet went through her and the child.’

After three days of hearings, Lieutenant Ritz and his three fellow SS men were found guilty, and condemned to death; they were executed publicly on December 19.

***

On the battlefronts, the third week of December saw yet another intensification of military activity. On the Eastern Front, Soviet forces launched an offensive on December 14 in the central sector of the front against Nevel. In Italy, Allied troops renewed their assault on the German line east of Cassino; on December 15 a German panzer battalion, defending the village of San Pietro Infine, inflicted heavy casualties on the American attackers before being forced to withdraw; in the artillery bombardment, the village itself was almost completely destroyed. A year later, a film made by John Huston about the battle gave such a stark picture of the terrible reality of war that it had to be cut from five reels to three.

In the Pacific, American troops landed on December 15 on the Arawe Peninsula, at the western end of the island of New Britain, the capital of which, Rabaul, although much bombed, remained a formidable Japanese strongpoint. Three days later, in Hong Kong, the Japanese executed four prisoners-of-war, members of the British Army Aid Group, who had managed to smuggle messages out of the Colony to the Allied forces. After the war, three of them were awarded the George Cross. Despite terrible torture, all four had refused to betray their colleagues.

***

Above Berlin, a further bombing raid on December 16 resulted in the deaths of 294 British and Canadian aircrew, 438 Berliners and 279 foreign forced labourers, of whom 186 were women. Seventy of the foreign labourers were Poles and Ukrainians, killed when their train was hit at the Halensee station. Railway stations and marshalling yards had been the main targets of the raid; as a result of it, an estimated thousand railway trucks with weapons and munitions for the Eastern Front were blocked in the city. On being given details of this latest air raid, including the fact that twenty-five of the 482 bombers had failed to return, Churchill instructed the Secretary of State for Air: ‘Compliment officers and crews, from me, on all this series of great attacks.’

Four days after this Berlin raid, Bishop Wurm, a leading German churchman, protested about the mass murder of Jews, in a letter to Dr Hans Lammers, the State Secretary of Hitler’s Chancellery. ‘We Christians’, he wrote, ‘consider the policy of exterminating the Jews as a grave injustice and of fatal consequences for the German people. Our people see the suffering imposed on us by the air raids as an act of punishment for what was done to the Jews.’

In Warsaw, on December 22, two days after Bishop Wurm’s protest, the Polish underground reported that the Gestapo had discovered sixty-two Jews in hiding in a cellar in Warsaw; all sixty-two were killed.

***

On Christmas Eve, 1943, the British again bombed Berlin. The most serious damage was done by bombs which fell at Erkner, fifteen miles south-east of the aiming point, severely damaging a ball-bearing factory. That night, 178 Berliners were killed, and 104 aircrew. Sixteen aircrew were taken prisoner. On Christmas Day, in one of a series of air attacks on flying bomb sites in northern France, American bombers attacked twenty-four sites; seven were totally destroyed. More than half of the aircrew who were shot down were able to avoid capture and go into hiding. Many were then able to join one of the escape lines into Spain, returning in due course to fly again. But at one site, thirty French civilian workmen were killed.

‘The war is now reaching the stage’, Roosevelt warned the American people that Christmas Day, ‘when we shall have to look forward to large casualty lists—dead, wounded and missing,’ and he added: ‘War entails just that. There is no easy road to victory. And the end is not yet in sight.’

On Sunday, December 26, on the day after Roosevelt’s broadcast, American troops in the Pacific launched Operation Backhander, a landing at Cape Gloucester, on the extreme western tip of New Britain. Within a week, the Americans had secured an important airfield for their attacks on the as yet unconquered half of New Guinea. But once again, the Japanese fought for every mile of the inhospitable, marshy ground, which the Americans soon named the ‘green hell’ and the ‘slimy sewer’.

That same Sunday, German warships, including the battle-cruiser Scharnhorst, embarked upon Operation Rainbow, an attack on two Anglo-American convoys in the Arctic, between Bear Island and the North Cape. But British warships, alerted by the Germans’ own naval Enigma signals, moved in to attack the attackers, and Scharnhorst was sunk. Two thousand of her officers and men were drowned, including forty cadets on board for training. Only thirty-six men were rescued. ‘The Arctic convoys to Russia have brought us luck,’ Churchill telegraphed to Stalin on the following morning.

***

In Italy, British and Canadian forces captured the coastal town of Ortona on December 28, after a five-day struggle. On the night of December 29, in yet another British air raid on Berlin, 182 Berliners were killed, and eighty-one aircrew. A particular ‘success’ that evening was scored by a German Air Force night-fighter ace, Lieutenant Schnaufer, who shot down two bombers, one over Holland and the other over Germany, to reach a total of forty-two bombers shot down thus far; two days later he was awarded the Knight’s Cross. Later in the war, with 121 successes, he was to receive the Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds, only one of two night-fighter pilots to be awarded this highest of all the grades of the Iron Cross.

There was nothing heroic in German actions in occupied Poland as 1943 came to an end. On December 31, at Karpiowka, as a reprisal for the participation of individual villagers in anti-occupation activities, fifty-nine villagers were locked into a granary, which was then set on fire. All fifty-nine were burned to death.

Death had also come that year, on Polish soil, to several hundred thousand Soviet prisoners-of-war, whom the Germans had imprisoned in several dozen camps, subjecting them to brutal forced labour, deliberate starvation and the denial of even the most primitive of medical help. A traveller through Poland today will constantly come across monuments to these Russian victims; ten thousand at Bukowka, a further ten thousand at Blizyn, twelve thousand at Swiety Krzyz, seven thousand at Barycz, seven thousand more at Skrodow, forty-six thousand at Krzywolka, twelve thousand at Zambrow, and at least ten thousand more at Tonkiele. An obelisk in Tonkiele, overlooking peaceful meadows running gently down the banks of the River Bug, is one of many monuments throughout Poland to these frequently forgotten victims of Hitler’s tyranny.

***

In Italy, in front of Cassino, the German forces could not be dislodged, despite a renewed American attack on December 31. It was now clear that the battle for Italy would be a long and costly one, and not only for the armies; in the previous three months, more than six thousand Italian civilians had been killed in Allied air raids on the peninsula. In south-western France, now under direct German rule for more than a year, December 31 saw the first major act of resistance, a sabotage operation organized from London, carried out simultaneously against several key railway centres, including Eymet and Bergerac. One of the organizers of the explosive charges was ‘Edgar’, Baron Philippe de Gunzbourg, a grandson of one of Tsarist Russia’s leading Jewish philanthropists. His controller was ‘Hilaire’, a British agent, George Starr. Both were to play an active part in sabotage efforts behind the lines at the time of the cross-Channel invasion six months later.

Some execution sites of Soviet prisoners-of-war, Poles and Jews, 1943

***

As 1943 came to an end, Germany and Japan could look forward only to further and relentless attacks, both from the unconquered nations ranged against them, and from the rising tide of partisan and resistance activity. The United States alone now had 1,600,000 servicemen ready to be deployed against Germany, and 1,800,000 more in action against Japan. Yet both Germany and Japan were determined to fight on, still believing that they could break the power of those ‘United Nations’ whose armies, navies and air forces had vowed to fight them until unconditional surrender.

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