The New Year of 1944 opened with the establishment of yet another German concentration camp on Polish soil, at Plaszow, a suburb of Cracow. A forced-labour camp since March 1943, ruled by a notorious sadist, Amnon Goeth, it now joined the ranks of those places at which tens of thousands of people were toiled and tortured to death. The total death toll at Plaszow was to reach 80,000; Poles, Jews, Gypsies, Italians, Hungarians and Roumanians. A special branch camp was set up near by specifically for Soviet prisoners-of-war, thousands of whom likewise perished.
Not only death, however, but also resistance, characterized the world behind the lines that New Year’s Day. On the Eastern Front, as the Red Army battled for Vitebsk and Orsha, more than sixty thousand partisans were active in five widespread areas, a constant threat to the German troops and supplies moving up to the front; in another partisan area, near Mogilev, on the very axis of Hitler’s ‘Panther’ defence line, six thousand partisans had at their disposal five underground hospital bunkers, and two more underground bunkers for men with contagious diseases.
In the Philippines, an American mining engineer, Wendell Fertig, who in May 1942 had decided to go into the jungle rather than surrender, had built up a force of several thousand Filipinos, willing to suffer the considerable privations and hazards of jungle life in order to harass the Japanese, whose rule had become increasingly tyrannical. In Burma, it was an Englishman, Hugh Seagrim, who organized a guerrilla force of two hundred native Karens and, for two years, struck at Japanese outposts and lines of communication. So savage were the Japanese reprisals against the Karen tribes that Seagrim decided to spare them further slaughter by giving himself up. The Japanese executed him. But the reprisals continued. So too did Karen resistance.
The British had planned a further air raid over Berlin for the first night of the New Year. Bad weather forced its brief postponement, until the early hours of January 2. More than four hundred bombers took part; twenty-eight were shot down or crashed, and 168 crewmen killed. The Berliners had seventy-nine dead, twenty-one of whom died when there was panic at the entrance to their shelter, although no bombs fell anywhere near it. For failing to control the panic, several police officers were transferred to the Eastern Front.
It was on the Eastern Front that a dramatic Soviet advance now caught the headlines of all Allied newspapers. ‘Russians 27 Miles from Poland’, was the banner headline in the Sunday Express on January 2, followed by a second line: ‘300 more towns taken in great surge towards frontier’. Along a two hundred mile front, the newspaper added, Field Marshal von Manstein’s forces were reported to be ‘everywhere falling back in disorder, leaving vital bridges intact and villages unscorched’. Even as Western newspaper readers rejoiced at this news, Russian forces captured Radovel, a mere eighteen miles from the 1939 border.
The Allied planners were less exultant than the newspapers, for they knew, through their clandestine reading of neutral diplomatic telegrams, that Hitler’s deliberate policy was to yield space in the East in order to build up his forces and defences in the West.
That night, in yet another air raid on Berlin, 383 British bombers dropped more than a thousand tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Twenty-six bombers were shot down, mostly by German night fighters which were able to exploit the bombers’ radar transmissions. A total of 168 aircrew were killed, but only seventy-seven Berliners.
Those who had to carry out these regular air attacks had begun to fear such a high rate of attrition. When the aircrews walked into their briefing room and saw that Berlin was to be their target for the second night running, there was then, one flight commander recalled, ‘the nearest thing I ever saw to mutiny’, ‘a rumble of what I might call amazement, or horror, or disbelief’.
The raid had gone on; on every front, the war with all its terrors, was uninterrupted and insatiable. On January 2, in the Pacific, the Americans launched yet another seaborne landing, Operation Dexterity, against the Japanese fortified bastion of Saidor, on New Guinea. In capturing Saidor, fifty-five Americans were killed, for the cost of 1,275 Japanese lives. The success of the landing brought an even greater disaster for the Japanese than the loss of a single garrison; twenty thousand Japanese troops and civilians, who had earlier retreated from Lae and Salamaua, were now forced to begin a two hundred mile inland retreat through the jungle to Madang. Starving, dispirited, attacked by the Australian forces based on Finschhafen, ten thousand perished on the march.
The American forces, steadily advancing in New Guinea and New Britain, were still a long way from Japan. But with every day the Red Army drew closer and closer to Germany. On January 3 it reached Olevsk, only ten miles from the 1939 Polish border, and 280 miles from the border of East Prussia. On the following day, American and British aircraft began Operation Carpetbagger, the dropping of arms and supplies to resistance groups in France, Belgium, Holland and Italy. Hitler with his mind as much on the problem of a cross-Channel invasion as on that of a Russian breakthrough, now put his faith in jet aircraft. Allied aerial photographic reconnaissance had already revealed that the development of the German jet was more advanced than that of Britain or the United States; nor did the Soviet Union have any jet designs sufficiently advanced for operational use in 1944 or 1945.
The Eastern Front, winter 1943–1944
‘If I get the jets in time,’ Hitler told Albert Speer and Field Marshal Milch on January 4, ‘I can fight off the invasion with them’. More than a momentary respite was at stake. ‘If I get a few hundred of them to the front line,’ Hitler remarked a few days later, ‘it will exorcise the spectre of invasion for all time’.
German propaganda broadcasts were beginning to reflect concern about a possible cross-Channel invasion. ‘Can the ordinary British soldier understand’, William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, asked on January 4, ‘why he should have been expected to die in 1939 or 1940 or 1941 to restore an independent Poland on the old scale, whilst today he must die in order that the Soviets may rule Europe?’
On January 6, the Red Army crossed the 1939 Polish-Soviet border, and advanced twelve miles inside it, to capture the Volhynian town of Rokitno. Five days earlier, Stalin had established a Polish National Council to be the ‘supreme organ of democratic elements’ in Poland. It was to have its own armed forces and its own administration, in direct challenge to the Polish Government-in-exile in London.
To combat the growing resistance to German rule in Denmark, a German group headed by Otto Schwerdt, had arrived in Denmark to carry out a series of terror killings. The first of these took place on January 4, when the victim was the clergyman and poet, Kaj Munk. Far from deterring resistance, Munk’s death served only to stimulate it. His funeral a few days later, at Vederso, was a powerful demonstration of Danish national unity and defiance. The murder of Danish patriots also continued, including the shooting of four doctors in Odense, and of eleven members of the Resistance, killed after their capture.
On January 9, two German soldiers were shot dead in the French city of Lyon. In reprisal, twenty-two Frenchmen held in Lyon prison were shot dead. ‘We were in the right,’ the Gestapo chief in Lyon, Klaus Barbie, commented many years later, ‘because they shouldn’t have shot our soldiers in the back. It was against all the laws.’ On the day after the shooting, the chief of the French Milice in Lyon, Joseph Lecussan, arrested the former National President of the League of Human Rights, the eighty-four-year-old scholar and philosopher, Victor Basch, and his seventy-nine-year-old wife. They were shot a day later, and a placard hung on Basch’s corpse with the words: ‘Terror against terror—the Jew pays with his life for the death of a National.’
Payment of a very different kind was exacted that week on five former Italian Fascist leaders, brought to trial in Verona by the remnants of the Fascist régime, Mussolini’s Republic of Salò. All five were executed on January 11, including Mussolini’s own son-in-law and former foreign minister, Count Ciano, and his former military commander, Marshal De Bono. On the following day, with the connivance of local Fascist militia, thirty-two Jews were deported from Trieste to Auschwitz.
Still determined to break the German front line in Italy, and to reach Rome, the Allied forces launched an assault on January 12 on the heights of Monte Cassino. The attack was led by the French Corps under General Juin. Progress was made, but not enough; the combination of a determined German defence, and appalling winter weather, made the capture of the town of Cassino impossible. That night, a new Allied bombing offensive was begun, aimed at the total destruction of the German aircraft industry. Three aircraft factories were hit that night, at Halberstadt, Braunschweig and Aschersleben, and considerable damage was done. But, as with the British bomber raids over Berlin, the cost was high; of the 650 American bombers which took part in the raids, 60 were shot down.
On January 14, the Red Army resumed the offensive in the Leningrad region, determined once and for all to break the German grip on the city. That same day, in the central sector, Russian troops drove the Germans from Mozyr and Kalinkovichi, on the eastern edge of the Pripet Marshes, creating a deep salient in the German front line. Hitler, pressed by his commanders to make a tactical withdrawal, refused to do so. Instead, he ordered a series of counter-attacks. ‘Our armies have indeed achieved success of late,’ Stalin wrote to Churchill that day, in thanking Churchill for his congratulations on the most recent advances, ‘but’, he added, ‘we are still a long way from Berlin. What is more, the Germans are now launching rather serious counter-attacks.’ What was now needed, Stalin told Churchill, was that Britain ‘should not slacken, but intensify the bombing of Berlin as much as possible.’
In France, January 14 saw the arrest by the Gestapo of Captain Gustave Bieler, a Canadian who had been parachuted into the Montargis region in November 1942. Although seriously hurt on landing, he had managed to set up a sabotage network near the Belgian frontier, disrupting German rail movements. Repeatedly tortured, he revealed nothing. After three months in prison at Fresnes, he was taken to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, and held there, in the prison section, in solitary confinement, for three more months. Taken out of his cell one day, and led to the prison courtyard, Captain Bieler was executed by a firing squad.
Elsewhere in German-occupied Europe, partisan and resistance activity was continually on the increase: in France, in Yugoslavia, in Greece, even in Albania. In each area, British agents were parachuted in, to try to co-ordinate the work of sabotage. German reprisals were fierce, particularly in the Balkans, where whole villages were burned to the ground, and villagers shot almost daily.
In yet another attempt to crush the Yugoslav partisans, on January 15 the German Army launched its sixth offensive in just over three years. Tito’s headquarters at Jajce were attacked, and he was forced to move forty miles westward, to Drvar. By now, however, he was receiving considerable aid by air from the British and Americans.
On January 15, the Red Army finally broke the German ring around Leningrad, the city’s defenders and those driving towards it from the east linking up at the village of Ropsha, scene long before of the assassination of Tsar Peter III, the ‘Prussomaniac’. ‘The fierceness of the fighting was such’, one Soviet soldier later recalled, ‘that we didn’t take many prisoners’. Within hours, Pushkin, Slutsk and Gatchina, to the south of the city, and Mga in the east, fell to the Red Army. As the whole Leningrad Province was cleared of the Germans, more than sixty thousand German soldiers were killed. That same day, in Italy, the first allied shells fell on the monastery above Cassino.
British troops now joined the French in the assault on Cassino, launching Operation Panther on the morning of January 17, and crossing the Garigliano river between Cassino and the sea. But a further assault on Cassino itself was repulsed. Behind German lines, the second week of January saw no diminution in terror. On January 18, a German military sweep, using tanks, searched in the Buczacz area of Eastern Galicia for Jews who had escaped deportation nine months earlier and were still in hiding; three hundred were found, and killed. That same day, in Greece, a German Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Kurt Waldheim, reported that there were as many as 25,000 Greek partisans active in northern Greece, as well as four thousand Italian soldiers. Operations against these forces were continuous, as were reprisals against the villages which sheltered them.
Also on January 18, in Paris the Gestapo arrested the twenty-three-year-old Baron Jean-François de Nothomb, who for almost a year had been organizing, under the code name ‘Franco’, an escape route to Spain for Allied airmen and escaped prisoners-of-war. Tortured, and then imprisoned, he was to survive the war. On the day after Nothomb’s arrest, two British saboteurs, Captain George Hiller and Lieutenant Cyril Watney, both of whom had been parachuted into France, organized the destruction of an aircraft propeller factory at Figeac. Production was never resumed. That day, in further preparation for an invasion which they knew must soon come, the German Armed Forces High Command designated as ‘fortresses’ all the principal ports along both the Atlantic and Channel coasts. Each fortress was given a commander, who took an oath to defend his fortress to the death.
On January 20, in Italy, the armies of which President Roosevelt was Commander-in-Chief reached the Rapido river, and were in action north of Cassino; they were also in the final forty-eight hours of planning for a landing from the sea at Anzio, just south of Rome. That night, as more than a thousand Jews were deported from Paris to Auschwitz, crossing Germany by rail from west to east, 759 British bombers, also flying from west to east, across the North Sea, struck at Berlin. Their 2,456 tons of bombs was the heaviest load for two months. Thirty-five of the bombers were shot down, and 172 aircrew killed. During the raid, the main railway line to Hamburg was cut, and a factory making radar components for the German Air Force was put out of action completely. A total of 243 Berliners were killed during the raid, and a further 13 people outside the city. One bomber, dropping its bombs thirty miles from the target, possibly because the pilot was not prepared to risk a flight through the centre of the target area, caused considerable damage, entirely by mistake, to a Todt Organization depot and workshop.
In London, on January 21, General Eisenhower, the Commander-in-Chief designate of the Allied cross-Channel invasion forces, held his first meeting with his commanders. The long-awaited Operation Overlord was now little more than four months away. As the commanders began their discussion, British and American troops, escorted by twenty-eight warships, were sailing from Naples for Operation Shingle, the landing at Anzio, designed to turn the German flank in Italy, and open the way to Rome. A few minutes after midnight, in the early hours of January 22, the first troops went ashore. They were unopposed. The Germans having been taken by surprise, 227 of them, who were based in the landing area, surrendered. Within twenty-four hours, more than 36,000 Allied troops were ashore; only thirteen had been killed.
The Italian Front, 1943–1944
On January 21, when the British bombers’ target was the city of Magdeburg, two German fighter aces died. One of them, Major Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a descendent of Franz Liszt’s celebrated mistress, had eighty-three British, American and Russian bombers on his ‘kill’ list; during the Magdeburg raid he shot down four more, but was himself shot down while attacking a fifth. At the time of his death, Prince Wittgenstein was already a legendary figure in Germany; Hitler recognized this by conferring on him, posthumously, the Oak Leaves with Swords to his existing Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. The second German ace who was killed that night over Magdeburg was Captain Manfred Meurer. As the third highest scoring German night-fighter pilot, he had already shot down sixty-five Allied aircraft. As he was about to shoot down his sixty-sixth, it blew up above him, causing him to crash. That night, 447 German bombers attacked London, the first of a series of short, sharp raids—all that the German Air Force was now capable of—code-named Operation Ibex. But of five hundred tons of bombs carried, only thirty-two were dropped on the capital.
On January 23, German aircraft struck at the Anzio beachhead forces and their supplies, sinking the British destroyer Janus. On the following day, the hospital ship St David’s was also sunk. On land, the American commander, General Lucas, hesitated to advance before tanks and heavy artillery had been landed; as he waited, the Germans were able to rush up reinforcements. On January 24, in a special Order of the Day, Hitler instructed his troops to hold the front line in Italy at all costs; in a counter-attack that day, they retook Castelforte and Monte Rotondo from the British, but with heavy loss of life. That same day, Hitler told the Japanese Ambassador to Germany that he was now having to conduct the war in Russia on the principle of not jeopardizing the defence of Western Europe; he had been obliged, he told the Ambassador, to reinforce his armies in Italy and the Balkans by thirty-five German divisions, at the expense of the Eastern Front.
Using his most secret method of radio communication, the Japanese Ambassador sent Tokyo a full account of his interview with Hitler; as with all his most secret messages, this one was intercepted and read in Britain and the United States. Also intercepted were most of the actual German Army and Air Force movements, both to the Anzio bridgehead and to the front line, as well as to the Balkans. These intercepts became of additional importance from January 25, when the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff agreed to Plan Jael, a comprehensive scheme to lure German attention away from Normandy. This was to be done by creating several entirely fictitious land, sea and air operations, intended to force the Germans to divert troops and resources.
For several months, in preparation for the cross-Channel invasion, British and American deception experts had sought to give the Germans the impression that it was not Normandy, but the Pas de Calais, which was to be the Overlord landing area. One plan involved the creation of a vast military formation, the First United States Army Group—FUSAG—which did not in fact exist. It was given a commander—General Patton—bases, training grounds, a communications network, plans, orders of battle and a specific target, the French coast between Calais and Boulogne. The first indication that the deception was working came in two Enigma messages, sent on February 9, in which, through the Germans’ own most secret method of communication, German troops in the Balkans were ordered from Split to Skoplje, and from Mostar to Sarajevo, in order, the message explained, to be available for rapid movement in the event of an Allied landing in Greece. Further messages, decrypted at Bletchley two weeks later, revealed to the British planners of the Normandy landings that, for the Germans, the First United States Army Group was a reality. The phantom Army could therefore go on ‘threatening’ Calais.
The Normandy and South of France deception plans
Not only was a fictitious United States Army Group to participate in these operations, but also an equally fictitious Twelfth British Army, containing among its forces the 15th British Motorized Division, the 34th British Infantry Division, the 8th British Armoured Division and the 7th Polish Infantry Division, all to be equipped, deployed, moved, trained and communicated with, and all existing only on paper.
It was by reading Germany’s own top-secret messages that the Combined Chiefs of Staff would know whether the Germans had fallen for these deceptions, intended to ensure the widest possible dispersion of German forces, and to do so by skilfully leaked preparation of nine separate, but each of them spurious, British landings: Operation Fortitude North against central Norway, centred on Trondheim; Graffham against central Sweden; Royal Flush against the triply deceptive coastlines of southern Sweden, Spain or Turkey; Zeppelin, a triple assault against the Roumanian Black Sea coast, Crete, and the western coastline of Greece and Albania; Ironside against Bordeaux; Vendetta against Marseille; Ferdinand against Rome; and Fortitude South against Calais.
A careful scrutiny at Bletchley of the Ultra decrypts revealed just how seriously the Germans were taking these non-existent threats. Reports had been received, Churchill told General Wilson, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the Mediterranean, ‘that the islands off the Dalmatian coast are being equipped with naval guns’. Churchill’s telegram was dated February 13; Ultra was his source. That same day, the Allied planners finalized Operation Fortitude, that part of Operation Jael intended to persuade the German Army ‘to make faulty strategic dispositions in north-west Europe’ before the cross-Channel invasion, and also to induce it to make ‘faulty tactical dispositions’ not only during, but even after the Normandy landings, by making the Pas de Calais the apparent location of the principal invasion force.
On January 26, in Poznan, Heinrich Himmler spoke to three hundred German generals, admirals and officers of the General Staff. One of his listeners, Count von Gersdorff, later recalled Himmler’s declaration that day, that when Hitler had given him the order ‘to carry out the total solution of the Jewish question’, he had hesitated, ‘uncertain whether I could demand of my worthy SS men the execution of such a horrid assignment’. But, Himmler added ‘this was ultimately a matter of a Führer order, and therefore I could have no misgivings. In the meantime, the assignment has been carried out, and there is no longer a Jewish question.’ This was indeed true as far as Poland was concerned, since almost all Poland’s three million Jews had been murdered. From Western Europe, however, the deportations to Auschwitz, part of a monthly quota, continued. From France, almost a thousand Jews were being deported every week. From Italy, 563 were to be deported from Milan on January 30 and a further 462 from Fossoli three weeks later. Nor, as yet, had the three quarters of a million Jews of Hungary, or the six thousand Jews of central Greece, or the Jews of Corfu, Rhodes or Kos, come within the Nazi deportation net. This did not lessen, however, the chilling note of Himmler’s message; his own speech notes contained the words: ‘Racial struggle.—Total solution. Don’t let avengers arise to take revenge on our children.’
On the battlefield, the Allies were now in constant motion. On January 26, German troops were being attacked at all points still held by them on the Moscow—Leningrad railway, between Tosno and Lyuban. In Italy, American troops crossed the Rapido river, establishing a small bridgehead north of Cassino. In the Pacific, more than two hundred American bombers and fighters struck so forcefully at the Japanese airbases at Rabaul that the Japanese were no longer capable of launching any effective air counter-strike on General MacArthur’s forces in the Solomon Islands or on New Guinea.
On January 27, the Moscow—Leningrad line was cleared. The 880-day siege of Leningrad was finally at an end. That night, the Soviet warships anchored in the Neva fired a salute of 324 rockets.
Determined to crush the rising tide of resistance throughout German-occupied Europe, Hitler told his generals on January 27: ‘You can’t smash terror by philosophizing, you have to smash it by using even greater terror.’ Twenty-four hours later, in Warsaw, 102 Poles were executed publicly on Jerusalem Avenue.
At Anzio, the Allies were now pinned down by the Germans to a bridgehead from which they could neither link up with the main Allied force to the south, nor drive on Rome. On January 27, over Berlin, thirty-three British bombers were shot down, and 182 aircrew killed. Of the 474 dead in Berlin, 132 were foreign workers. In a further British raid on the following night, 254 aircrew were killed. On January 29, off the Anzio bridgehead, German bombers sank the British cruiser Spartan and the cargo ship Samuel Huntington, on which four crew died. That night, German bombers struck at London, their second raid of Operation Ibex. In contrast to the 1,887 tons of bombs dropped on Berlin the night before, the tonnage of German bombs dropped on London was less than forty. That day, eight hundred American bombers struck at industrial targets in Frankfurt-on-Main. Fifty were shot down.
In this shooting down of American airmen over Germany, several hundred, surviving the crash-landing of their plane or parachuting to the ground, avoided capture and sought out the various escape lines which were in operation. So confident were airmen that these escape lines could help them, that when on January 25, a British Flying Officer, H. Furniss Roe was shot down over France for the second time in five months, he sent back a final radio message from his cockpit to his base in England: ‘Back in two months’; he was back, in fact, only three weeks later than the date he set himself.
On January 29, a new Allied escape organization, code named ‘Shelburne’, involved a motor boat run from the Channel port of Dartmouth to the French beach resort of Plouha. In the five months before ‘Shelburne’ was discovered by the Germans, 135 Allied airmen were brought back to Britain; the first nineteen, brought back on January 29, were thirteen American airmen and four British airmen. With them were two French civilians who wanted to join the allied forces.
One particularly successful evasion line was in the Aegean, where A. C.—‘Tony’—Simonds organized a large number of clandestine journeys by small boats which, wending their way among the Greek islands, brought to safety in Turkey more than seven hundred people in December 1943 and January 1944. These seven hundred included 425 Greeks, 121 Britons, 41 Jews and 39 Americans, as well as several hundred wounded Allied soldiers taken off the German-occupied islands of Kos, Leros and Samos.
Far more Allied servicemen were captured than could escape; in the British bombing raid on Berlin on January 30, a total of 193 aircrew were killed, and forty-three taken prisoner-of-war. More than 2,400 Berliners perished, nearly half of them under rubble so deep that they could not be dug out that night, or for many nights to come. Among the buildings damaged in the raid was Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry. Industrial production, however, suffered little.
On the day of the Anzio landings, a British soldier, Christopher Hayes, had found a six-year-old Italian girl wandering in one of the minefields behind the beach. Her name, she told him, was Angelita. She did not know where her mother had gone, and stayed with Hayes’ unit for ten days. Then, on February 1, she was riding with the unit on a lorry when it was hit by a shell, and all its occupants thrown out. ‘My rifle was shattered’, Hayes later recalled. ‘I lifted Angelita out of the trench. She died and I left her by the roadside’.
Three Allied offensives were launched on the first day of February 1944. The first, an attempt at a series of American landings on three of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, Kwajalein, Roi and Namu, succeeded after four days of fighting, when, on Roi and Namu, 3,742 Japanese were killed and ninety-nine taken prisoner, for a loss of less than two hundred American dead. On Kwajalein 7,870 of the eight thousand Japanese defenders were killed, for the loss of 372 Americans. Although the eight thousand Japanese on Kwajalein, and the 3,841 on Roi and Namu had been numerically overwhelmed from the outset—on Kwajalein by more than forty thousand Americans—they had chosen once more to fight, literally, to the end.
The second Allied offensive begun on February 1, on the Eastern Front, saw the Red Army reach the town of Kingisepp, cross the River Luga, and push on to within a mile of the Estonian frontier of 1940. The third Allied offensive, in Italy, brought the Allied forces even closer to Cassino than before, although the break-through still eluded them.
Behind the lines, the pattern of killing continued; on February 1, three Gypsies were killed at Auschwitz as they tried to escape from a labour gang. At Dachau, a group of Soviet prisoners-of-war, all officers, was shot by a firing squad. In Warsaw, on February 2, Polish partisans killed SS General Franz Kutschera, the commander of the Warsaw SS and of the District Police; in reprisal, three hundred Poles were executed in the city on the following day.
Poland was much on Churchill’s mind that week, as news reached London that two former Polish towns, Rovno and Lutsk, had both been liberated by Soviet troops. ‘Now that the Russians were advancing into Poland,’ Churchill told his senior military advisers, ‘it was in our interest that Poland should be strong and well-supported. Were she weak, and overrun by the advancing Soviet armies, the result might hold great dangers in the future for the English-speaking peoples.’
A prospect of post-war conflict was now quickly opening up, with the Soviet Union on one side of the divide and the Anglo-American alliance on the other; a divide of conflicting ideology, backed by territorial control. On the day of the fall of Rovno and Lutsk, Churchill argued in favour of diverting some of the Royal Air Force’s ‘responsibilities’ over Germany to helping the Polish resistance movement being organized by the Polish Government in London. At the same time, Churchill was spending endless, patient hours trying to persuade the ‘London’ Poles to give up their claim to a return of Polish sovereignty over eastern Poland. This substantial territory had been secured by Poland in 1921, under the Treaty of Riga, following the Polish victory in the Polish—Soviet war. It was a Treaty which pushed the Polish border eastward from the proposed Curzon Line along the River Bug, to the Pripet Marshes and into White Russia.
Stalin welcomed this pressure on Poland to give up as much as one third of the territory of pre-war Poland, the very towns and villages from which his armies were even then driving the Germans; during the first week of February several Red Army units had come to within fifty miles of Brest-Litovsk, and of the post First World War Curzon Line, which Stalin wished to see as the new post-war border between Poland and the Soviet Union. Stalin did not intend, however, to rely upon Churchill to persuade the London Poles to accept this considerable reduction of Poland’s inter-war territory. He was also supporting the claims of the Polish National Council, a predominantly Communist group, still based in Russia, to be the post-war Government of Poland. This Council had already accepted the Curzon Line.
Churchill, meanwhile, stood by the legitimacy of the London Poles to return to Poland as the country’s post-war Government, pointing out to Stalin in a telegram sent to Moscow on February 5 that a Polish Division established by the London Poles ‘had already entered the line against the Germans in Italy’, and that a second Polish Division was at that very moment under training in England as part of the Allied forces preparing for the cross-Channel invasion.
That cross-Channel invasion had become a massive commitment of planning, energy and resources, absorbing the combined skills of soldiers, sailors, airmen, scientists and technical experts of all sorts, as well as a formidable Intelligence effort which had begun in 1941. ‘Overlord’ was also a cause for daily concern to those who knew of its detailed planning. ‘The more one goes into it,’ King George VI wrote in his diary on February 3, ‘the more alarming it becomes in its vastness.’ That day, in Italy, the Germans showed that they still had considerable reserves of force and willpower, launching Operation Fish Trap against the Allied forces on the Anzio beachhead, pushing back the borders of the bridgehead, and ensuring that a landing which was originally intended to break the German line in Italy, would remain little more than an irritant. On the main front, similar German tenacity still denied the Allies control of Cassino, even though, on February 4, American troops came within a thousand yards of the monastery which dominated the town.
On February 5, in France, the Gestapo arrested Michel Hollard, the man who had done so much to alert the British to the dangers, and indeed to the existence, of the German flying bomb. After terrible tortures, to which he did not succumb, he was sent to a concentration camp. Unlike so many who were caught and imprisoned, Hollard survived the war.
In German-occupied Poland, resistance brought rapid and violent retribution; on February 9, at Lesno, sixty Polish women railway workers were killed as a reprisal for a local act of sabotage, while on the following day 140 Poles were executed in the Warsaw suburb of Ochota as a further reprisal for the murder of SS General Franz Kutschera nine days earlier.
For the Germans, these acts of sabotage had for a long time made it a clear sign that it was not only the Allied armies, but the captive peoples, who were making progress and gains. On February 10, French Resistance fighters so seriously damaged a Peugeot factory making aircraft parts at Sochaux-Montbéliard that production was halted for five weeks; when replacement machine tools were sent from Germany, they were destroyed on arrival. The public mood in Germany was the subject of a German Security Service report on February 10. ‘In spite of all his stupidity and obtuseness,’ the report read, ‘the enemy is getting his claws upon us and no one can imagine how we can shake him off again, however often he has been or may be “cracked over the head”.’
Such moods led to no relaxation of terror; on February 11, on the German-occupied Channel Island of Guernsey, the Gestapo arrested Charles Machen, founder of a clandestine news bulletin. Deported to the mainland, Machen died in prison in Germany, at Naumburg-on-Saale, eight months later; he had been betrayed.
In Italy, the second week of February saw no progress in the battle for Cassino, yet without the capture of Cassino there could be no Allied advance on Rome, and no linking up with the now trapped bridgehead at Anzio. On February 12, leaflets were dropped on Cassino, addressed to ‘Italian friends’, warning that the monastery on Monte Cassino, hitherto exempt from shelling, was about to become a target. ‘The time has come’, the leaflets declared, ‘when we must train our guns on the monastery itself. We give you warning so that you may save yourselves. We warn you urgently: Leave the monastery. Leave it at once. Respect this warning. It is for your benefit.’
In northern Italy, there was a setback to the allies on February 13, when the Germans attacked one of the main Italian partisan formations, numbering about five hundred men under the leadership of Filippo Beltrami, who was killed in the action. It was to be more than six weeks before the routed units could be regrouped. Two days after Beltrami’s death, Allied bombers struck at the monastery on Monte Cassino. In four hours, more than four hundred tons of bombs were dropped on one of the shrines and showpieces of early medieval Christian culture, killing the bishop, who had remained in the monastery despite the warning leaflets, and some 250 civilian refugees who were sheltering in the upper levels. The monastery itself was reduced to ruins. An infantry assault later that day, however, in which Maori, Indian and Gurkha troops fought with bayonets against the German defenders on the slopes, failed to dislodge them; indeed, the Germans, having driven off the assault, managed to find the strength to counter-attack, forcing two Maori companies back across the Rapido river.
That night, 875 British bombers attacked Berlin; of the Allied aircrews, 265 were shot down and killed. Five hundred Berliners also died, as did eighty foreign slave labourers. As with the Korean labourers killed in every Pacific battle, so, in Europe, those whom the Germans had forced from their homes, and brought to the Reich, suffered both as victims of the Germans and as victims of the Allied bombing of Germany.
On February 16, the Germans launched a second attack on the Anzio bridgehead, and did so with sufficient forces to drive the Allies back to the sea shore. Their detailed plans were sent to the troops, however, over their top-secret Enigma communication system, and were thus known to the Allied defenders, who were able to halt the new offensive, and then to throw it back.
Elsewhere on February 16 the Allies were massively victorious. On the Eastern Front, at least twenty thousand German soldiers were killed—the Soviet estimate was 55,000—as, at Korsun, Soviet forces destroyed the last German forces in the Dnieper bend. In the Pacific, on the island of Truk, in the Carolines, American bombers and torpedo planes, launching Operation Hailstorm, destroyed fifteen Japanese warships, twenty-five merchant ships and 265 aircraft—220 of them on the ground—for the cost of only twenty-five American aircraft, while, on Eniwetok Island, in the Marshalls, in Operation Catchpole, American Marines overwhelmed the 2,677 Japanese defenders, all but sixty-four of whom were killed, at the cost of 195 American lives.
On the Eastern Front, on February 18, Soviet forces drove the Germans from Staraya Russa, south of Lake Ilmen. That same day, in Germany, Admiral Canaris was dismissed from his post as head of German Military Counter-Intelligence, his responsibilities being transferred to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, already in charge of the Gestapo and concentration camp system. Canaris went on extended leave. That day, on the eve of the intended execution of twelve members of the French Resistance then in prison at Amiens, German Intelligence suffered a blow to its prestige and rule when nineteen British bombers carried out Operation Jericho, breaching the walls of the prison and enabling fifty members of the Resistance to escape. Ninety-six prisoners were, however, killed in the raid, including fifty-six members of the Resistance; a heavy toll.
The pilot who led the Amiens raid, Group Captain Charles Pickard, who two years earlier had led the raid on the Bruneval radar installations, was also killed, together with his observer, Flight Lieutenant Alan Broadley. The third airman killed was one of the navigators on the raid, Flight Lieutenant Sammy Sampson, of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Among those who did escape from Amiens was Louis Vivant, leader of the Resistance in the Department of the Somme; the Germans were never to catch him again.
On the following night, more than eight hundred British bombers struck at Leipzig, followed within twelve hours by an American daylight raid; in this twin assault, of a type which was to become increasingly frequent, 969 German civilians were killed and more than fifty thousand made homeless. But during the raid, seventy eight of the attacking aircraft were lost and nearly four hundred aircrew were killed, the largest aircrew deaths so far in any bombing raid over Germany.
In the Pacific, the American death toll at sea rose on February 21, when, off Iwo Jima, two American warships were hit by Japanese torpedo bombers. On one of the warships, the Bismarck Sea, 119 men were killed; a further 123 died on the Saratoga.
To those survivors who had no means of defending themselves, the Japanese showed no mercy; on February 22, two boats and four rafts containing survivors of a British merchant ship, the British Chivalry, torpedoed in the Indian Ocean, were machine-gunned by the same submarine which had torpedoed them; four days later, the survivors of the merchant ship Sutlej were likewise machine gunned as they clung to the rafts and wreckage of their ship.
Three days later, another British merchant ship, the Ascot, was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean, on its way from Colombo to Diego Suarez. Four of the crew were killed when the ship was hit, but the remaining fifty-two managed to get away in two of the ship’s boats. The Japanese submarine which had sunk the Ascot then surfaced, and, as had happened twice before that week, began to machine gun the survivors. Ten survivors were killed. The submarine then left the scene, but returned half an hour later, and once more opened fire. Only eight survived this second ordeal.
On February 20, in Norway, Norwegian saboteurs, acting on instructions from London, blew up the ferry-boat Hydro, as it carried all Germany’s existing supplies of heavy water across Lake Tinnsjo, on their way to Germany. The sinking of the ferry, in which four German guards and fourteen Norwegian civilians were killed, was yet another setback to Germany’s ability to produce an atomic bomb. That same day, over Germany, American bombers launched Operation Argument, a week-long series of massive attacks, also known as ‘Big Week’, against German aircraft and ball-bearing factories, and port installations, within the triangle Brussels—Rostock—Pola.
On the first night of the Anglo-American ‘Big Week’ raids, the Germans were also bombing London; four people were killed just outside the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, although Churchill himself was out of London that night. Returning to London two days later, he revealed to the House of Commons that, since the beginning of the war, 38,300 British pilots and aircrew had been killed, and ten thousand aircraft lost. The most recent four raids, including the one on Leipzig, ‘constitute’, he said, ‘the most violent attacks which have yet been made on Germany, and they also prove the value of saturation in every aspect of the air war’. The air offensive, he added, ‘constitutes the foundation upon which our plans for overseas invasion stand’, and he went on to tell the House of Commons, in words which summed up the feeling of millions of people on the Allied side, as they contemplated the daily and nightly rain of bombs on Germany: ‘The air power was the weapon which both the marauding States selected as their main tool of conquest. This was the sphere in which they were to triumph. This was the method by which the nations were to be subjugated to their rule. I shall not moralise further than to say that there is a strange, stern justice in the long swing of events’.
As Churchill spoke, 248 American bombers, guarded by 185 fighters, struck at the German aircraft-factory in Regensburg, on the upper Danube, while a further 288 bombers and 596 fighters attacked aircraft factories at Fürth, as well as the German airfield at Graz, railway lines at Zell-am-See, and harbour installations, warehouses and storage sheds in the Adriatic ports of Fiume, Pola and Zara. In the air battles above the targets, more than 170 American aircraft were shot down. On the following day, two further raids, on a similarly heavy scale, were made on German aircraft and ball-bearing factories at Steyr, Gotha and Schweinfurt. The ‘main tool of conquest’ had been turned against the would-be conqueror. Yet the considerable damage done during Big Week was, in many of the bombed factories, quickly repaired. At Augsburg, the main aircraft factory was back in full production in little more than a month. At Aschersleben, however, production of aircraft engines remained at only half its pre-bombing capacity for the whole of March and the first half of April. Nevertheless, whereas the average German monthly production of single-engine fighters was 851 in the last half of 1943, it rose to a monthly average of 1,581 in the first half of 1944. Despite the massive damage done by air attack, Germany’s aircraft factories continued to produce substantial numbers of aircraft, though in the end this productivity was not matched by the training of sufficient pilots.
‘Big Week’ air raids, 20–26 February 1944
For the Americans, the losses during Big Week were considerable, with 2,600 crewmen either killed in action or seriously wounded, or taken prisoner.