On the Eastern Front, the Germans were now in retreat in every sector. In the north, German SS units recruited outside Germany had been thrown into the battle; on February 20 the commander of the Walloon Legion of Belgian SS volunteers, Léon Degrelle, was awarded the Knight’s Cross to add to his Iron Cross after the Legion was in action near Narva. But on the following day, the Germans were driven from Kholm, nearly two hundred miles south of Leningrad. Twenty-four hours later, they were driven from Dno. Further south and west, the Red Army was consolidating its positions inside the pre-1939 Polish frontier; but it was still three hundred miles away from East Upper Silesia, too far to help the hundreds of thousands of slave labourers in southern Poland. On February 22, a German survey noted that there were 73,669 Jewish slave labourers in the Auschwitz region alone, 24,637 of them women, working in ten separate industrial enterprises, more than six thousand of them at IG Farben’s petrochemical factory at Monowitz, the Buna Works, located only six miles from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Also working at Monowitz were several hundred British prisoners-of-war, held in special camps adjacent to the Jewish one; it was for his exceptional courage in helping to save the lives of Jews at Monowitz that one of the British prisoners, Sergeant Charles Coward, was later awarded a high honour by the State of Israel.
At Dachau, on February 22, thirty-one Soviet prisoners-of-war, all of them officers, were taken from the barracks and executed. The two youngest were both twenty-one years old, Anatoly Dunov and Konstantin Atamasov. Their names, and those of the other twenty-nine victims, are known because a Polish priest, Jan Domagala, a clerk in the camp, later took away several hundred lists of such executions, to ensure that the facts would be preserved.
On the night of February 25, in the Barents Sea, fourteen German submarines attacked a convoy of forty-three merchant ships on their way to Russia; one of the submarines torpedoed an escort vessel, the British destroyer Mahratta; of the ship’s crew of more than two hundred, only seventeen could be saved from the icy waters by another destroyer, Impulsive. In the battle of the escorts, two German submarines were also sunk. The convoy continued intact.
In Germany, bizarre ideas were now being thought up in a search for some way out of a losing war; on February 28, when the test pilot Hanna Reitsch visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden to receive the Iron Cross, First Class, she suggested the creation of a ‘Suicide Group’ of pilots, to fly specially designed suicide planes. Hitler’s first instinct, she later recalled, was to reject the idea ‘completely’, but he did agree to her request to start experimental work on the type of plane that would be most suitable, and effective. Shortly afterwards, when a Suicide Group was set up, Hanna Reitsch was one of the first to sign the pledge: ‘I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.’
That February, Hitler had a more personal problem to deal with. For nearly a year his meals had been cooked by Frau Marlene von Exner, a Viennese dietician originally recommended to him by the Roumanian dictator, Marshal Antonescu. In due course, Frau von Exner became engaged to an SS adjutant at Hitler’s headquarters, whereupon it was discovered that she had a Jewish great grandmother. ‘You will understand’, Hitler told her, ‘that I must pay you off. I cannot make one rule for myself and another for the rest.’
Frau von Exner left Hitler’s employ, and her relatives were forced to leave the Nazi Party. But there were no further repercussions. Meanwhile, on February 23, in Warsaw, twenty-six Jews were discovered in hiding and deported to Auschwitz, followed two days later by thirty-seven Jews from Vienna, Frau von Exner’s own city. Nor did the deportations end there; on March 3 it was the turn of 732 Dutch Jews to be deported, followed on March 7 by 1,501 Jews from France. Nearly two thousand of them were gassed.
On March 1, the German Air Force resumed its bombing offensive over Britain; in six raids that month, 279 British civilians were killed. The principal raids were over London, Hull, North-East England, and South Wales. But they were small compared to the British bomber raids on Germany that month, in which six thousand bombers dropped 27,000 tons of bombs on Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Essen, Nuremberg and Berlin. It was during these raids that the British dropped 4,000-pound bombs for the first time.
British agents also continued to be parachuted into occupied Europe; on March 2, Alec Rabinovitch, code named ‘Arnaud’, dropped near Nancy, his second mission into German-occupied France, to set up a sabotage network. With him was a French Canadian, Roger Sabourin. By mischance, the dropping zone was under German control, and both men were arrested. Rabinovitch was sent to a concentration camp at Rawicz, in Poland; Sabourin was sent to Buchenwald, where, after six months as a prisoner, he was hanged. Also captured that March, and later executed, were two other members of the French Resistance, Robert Benoist, the pre-war motor racing champion, hanged at Buchenwald, and Denise Bloch, code name ‘Ambroise’, executed at Ravensbrück.
March 2 saw the first Allied bombing mission, from bases in southern Italy, in support of the Yugoslav partisans. In an attack on the rail junction and marshalling yards at Knin, the lines were hit. That same day, a strafing mission along the Dalmatian coast struck at German petrol supply dumps at Vodice, and along the coasts of Zlarin and Zirje islands and destroyed five motor vehicles at Sukosan. That same night, from a field near Châteauroux, in France, a British agent, the French barrister Jean Savy, was flown back to Britain with information about a German ammunition dump near the town of Creil which contained two thousand flying bombs, being made ready to fly against London. Thus pinpointed, they were later bombed and destroyed. Meanwhile, on March 3, another bomb was dropped, a dummy atomic bomb, at Muroc Army Air Force Base in California. It was the first of a series of tests that were to culminate five months later in the setting up of a special Air Force unit, the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, which would be given the task of delivering the real bombs once they were ready for action.
That March 3, as the American atomic bomb reached yet another stage in its long evolution, two more war trials took place, one in Africa and one in Europe. The trial in Africa, in Algiers, was of two Germans accused of the brutal killings in 1941, in a German punishment camp in the Sahara, of nine Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners. The camp, at Hajjerat m’Guil, had contained many German and Austrian refugees from Nazism who had fled to France, joined the Foreign Legion in 1939, fought against Germany in 1940 and been sent as prisoners to the Sahara after the Franco-German armistice. The accused guards were both sentenced to death.
The second trial of March 3 took place in German-occupied Poland, when a Polish woman, Anna Zwarycz, was accused, for the second time, of sheltering a Jewish child. Eight months earlier, in a lower court, she had been acquitted of this charge because she had ‘kept the child openly and made known to everyone that it was Jewish’. This acquittal had been challenged by Dr Josef Ganser, a senior official in the Ministry of Justice in the General Government. ‘It would be most unjust’, he said, ‘if one who granted shelter openly and audaciously should go unpunished, while one who does the same thing secretly incurs the death penalty.’ Dr Ganser’s challenge was successful. On March 3, Anna Zwarycz was sentenced to death. Twenty years later, her accuser was Senate President of the Patent Court of the German Federal Republic.
‘The Jews are a race which must be wiped out,’ Hans Frank told a meeting of Nazi Party speakers in Cracow on March 4. ‘Whenever we catch one’, he warned, ‘he will be exterminated.’ That same day, in Warsaw, four Jewish women, caught in the city, were shot in the ruins of the ghetto, together with eighty non-Jews. The bodies of those who had been shot, some of whom had not been killed but wounded, were thrown into the basement of a ruined house. The basement was then doused with an inflammable liquid and set on fire. ‘For four to six hours’, the historian of this episode has written, ‘there could be heard the screams of the wounded as they burned alive.’
The names of the four Jewish women killed in Warsaw that day are unknown, like so many of the millions who perished in the war, of every race, nationality and creed. Some of the victims of these terrible times, their names and careers are a part of the history of their people; of their national struggles, their fate, and their aspirations. Thus, on March 5, at the Drancy deportation centre in Paris, awaiting deportation, was the sixty-year-old Jewish poet, Max Jacob. That day he died of bronchial pneumonia. Jacob had been baptized in the Catholic Church in his late thirties. Picasso had been his godfather. Despite his devout Catholicism of more than thirty years, Max Jacob had been forced to wear the yellow star, and had been sent to Drancy for deportation.
On March 4, in Moscow, Soviet Intelligence and military experts gave their approval to the Anglo-American deception plans for the Normandy landings. Fictitious Soviet military activity would make its contribution to the Allied plan for a spurious landing on the coast of Norway. By a coincidence of timing, March 4 was also the day on which a German Intelligence document, discussing the Allied plans for the ‘decisive Atlantic front’, noted that the Allied strategists, having been ‘successful’ in the creation of an active ‘subsidiary front’ in Italy, might have come ‘to a like decision in the Scandinavian area’.
As the British and American cross-Channel planners prepared what was to be the largest amphibious landing in the history of modern war, the battles on the Eastern Front, in Italy, in Burma and in the Pacific continued with all their previous severity. On March 5, British, Indian and Gurkha forces were sent in by glider to a site behind Japanese lines in Burma, as part of Major General Orde Wingate’s second Chindit Expedition. Their first landing was at ‘Broadway’, a clearing more than a hundred miles inside Japanese-occupied Burma, and nearly three hundred miles from the nearest Allied supply base. During the first landings, twenty-three men were killed, but more than four hundred reached the landing area safely. On the next day, as further gliders landed at ‘Broadway’, a second glider landing was made at ‘Chowringhee’, across the Irrawaddy river, followed by a third landing at ‘Aberdeen’ two and a half weeks later.
More than nine thousand officers and men were behind the Japanese lines in Burma by early April. These glider-borne forces were then joined by a fourth Chindit brigade, which had set off early in February, marching overland from the Naga Hills, across precipitous, six-thousand-feet mountain ranges, and across the Chindwin river. Two more land forces, one of American and Chinese troops, the other of Gurkhas and Kachins, were at the same time making their way through upper Burma, from Ledo and Fort Herz respectively towards Mogaung and Myitkyina. ‘We have inflicted a complete surprise on the enemy,’ Wingate told his men when the landings were done. ‘All our columns are inside the enemy’s guts. The time has come to reap the fruit of the advantage we have gained.’
Wingate himself was killed in an air crash before the end of March.
On the Eastern Front, beginning on March 2, four Soviet armies had advanced against the Germans along the whole southern sector, from the Pripet Marshes to the lower Dnieper. While the line remained static north of the Pripet Marshes, the Germans in the south were driven steadily back, and with such force, that within a month they had been forced back across the Southern Bug, the Dniester and the Pruth. The former Roumanian city of Czernowitz—once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was now under the control of the Red Army, its German masters driven southward. Of the German conquests of the summer of 1941 in southern Russia, stretching from the Pruth to the Don, only Odessa and the Crimea remained under German occupation. Hitler’s dream of a colonial empire, with its Russian slaves, its motorways and its German settlers was over; now there remained little more than the nightmare of continual battle, devastation, retreat and retribution.
On the night of March 6, in preparation for the Normandy landings, now only three months away at the most, 263 British bombers dropped more than a thousand tons of bombs on the railway centre at Trappes, to the south-west of Paris. Tracks, engine sheds, engines and railway wagons were so badly damaged that the centre was unable to function for more than a month. During that month, eight other rail centres were attacked with similar effect.
The prospect of a third battleground in Europe did not deter the continued killing of Jews; on March 7, at Auschwitz, 3,860 Czech and Slovak Jews, including hundreds of children, brought to the camp some months earlier from the Theresienstadt ghetto and put in a special barrack, were taken to the undressing room next to one of the four gas chambers. Realizing that they were about to be killed, those among them who were strong enough, after the terrible privations of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, tried to resist, attacking the SS guards with their bare hands. All but thirty-seven were killed; those thirty-seven included eleven pairs of twins, kept alive on the orders of Dr Mengele, so that he could perform medical experiments on them.
Also on March 7, Hitler received a report from Poznan, from Artur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Warthegau, informing him that not only had a million Germans been settled in the region and seven hundred thousand Poles been forced to leave it, but that the number of Jews in the Warthegau was ‘down to a very insignificant remnant’. In Warsaw that day, thirty-eight Jews, in hiding since the destruction of the ghetto nearly a year earlier, had been betrayed; seized in their hiding place in ‘Aryan’ Warsaw, they were taken away and killed. Among them was the historian Emanuel Ringelblum, his wife and son.
In the Pacific, March 8 marked the start of a massive Japanese counter-attack on Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands, designed to drive the Americans from their positions around Empress Augusta Bay, which they had secured four months earlier. In three days of violent fighting, the Americans drove off their attackers. A further Japanese thrust on the following day was likewise repulsed. In four days, five thousand Japanese were killed, for the deaths of less than three hundred Americans. Once more, fanaticism in attack had served only to prolong and intensify the conflict, ensuring that, wherever the opposing forces met, men would die in their thousands, on remote islands far from either homeland.
In the lands under German rule, perversity and killing knew no pause. On March 9, Professor Hallervorden, a German neurologist, wrote to Professor Nitsche, who was in charge of the euthanasia programme: ‘Dear Colleague, I have received 697 brains in all, including those which I took out myself in Brandenburg. Those from Dosen’—a mental hospital near Leipzig—‘are included in this figure. The greater proportion of them have already been studied, but whether I will be able to make a histological study of them all, only time will tell.’ Professor Hallervorden’s method’ was to remove the victims’ brains immediately after they were killed. ‘There was wonderful material among those brains,’ he later told his American interrogators, ‘beautiful mental defectives, malformations and early infantile diseases.’
After the war, Professor Hallervorden continued to use these brains in his researches, publishing the results of one particular case in 1949. Part of his collection later went to the University of Frankfurt.
Plans for mass killing were also being discussed that week, as part of the preparations for Operation Margaret, the imminent German military occupation of Hungary. On March 10, Adolf Eichmann and his principal subordinates met at Mauthausen concentration camp to work out a programme for the deportation of three quarters of a million Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz.
The German plan to occupy Hungary arose from the imminent arrival of the Red Army on Hungary’s eastern border. A British plan was also being prepared at that time, Operation Chicken, to set up an evasion line through Hungary to Yugoslavia, for Allied airmen now being shot down deeper inside Europe than before, as the bombing itself went deeper. To establish this line, twenty-five Allied agents were parachuted into Yugoslavia, the first group of them on March 15, at Metlika, and made their way toward the Hungarian border. Most of these agents were Jewish volunteers from Palestine, among them the twenty-two-year-old Hannah Szenes, who had emigrated from Hungary to Palestine in September 1939. Code-named ‘Minnie’, she arrived at the Hungarian border four days after landing at Metlika. Her arrival coincided by tragic chance with the German occupation. On crossing the border she was immediately arrested, and later, after being imprisoned in Budapest, she was taken out of her cell and shot.
In Italy, the Allies tried once again, on March 15, to capture Monte Cassino. The infantry attack was preceded by one of the heaviest aerial bombardments of the war on a single building, 992 tons of bombs in three and a half hours; but many of the bombs fell, not on the monastery, but several miles away, killing 96 Allied soldiers, and 140 Italian civilians. The air strike was followed by an artillery bombardment of 195,000 rounds, yet again one of the heaviest attacks on a single building. But in the bitter hand to hand fighting that followed, in which British, Maori, Indian and Gurkha troops were the main Allied participants, the Germans could still not be dislodged. Their tenacity in defence amazed even their adversaries. ‘I doubt if there are any other troops in the world’, General Alexander told Churchill, ‘who would have stood up to it’—the artillery barrage—‘and then gone on fighting with the ferocity they have.’
By the end of the battle, with Monte Cassino still in German hands, 863 New Zealanders and more than a thousand Indians had been killed. Both Anzio and Rome were still beyond the reach of Alexander’s army.
Against the German forces on the Dalmatian coast, a combined British, South African, American and Yugoslav partisan operation was launched on March 17, when a raid was carried out on Solta island. At the same time, German units in the port of Split and on the Metkovic—Mostar road were attacked from the air. Also on March 17, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army entered Dubno, a road and rail junction twenty-five miles inside Poland’s pre-war borders, and only 170 miles from the eastern border of Hungary. On the following day, Hitler summoned the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, to Klessheim Castle, south of Salzburg. There, Horthy was forced to accept Hitler’s terms: a new government headed by Dome Sztojay—a former Hungarian chargé d’affaires in Berlin, the entry of German troops into Hungary, German control of Hungary’s oil and other raw materials—including the oil wells at Nagykanizsa—and the deportation to Auschwitz of Hungary’s three quarters of a million Jews, who had up until then survived four and a half years of war unharassed and unharmed, apart from the deportation of nearly twenty thousand to slave-labour and eventual execution of Kamenets Podolsk in the autumn of 1941, and a further ten thousand, at Hitler’s insistence, to the copper mines at Bor, one of Germany’s essential raw material sources.
In the early hours of March 19, German troops entered Hungary. Horthy returned to Hungary several hours later, to be received at his residence in Budapest by a German guard of honour.
At Anzio, on March 17, more than fifty men were drowned when the ship they were unloading was hit by German shell-fire. On the following day, in the Indian Ocean, a Japanese submarine sank the British cargo ship Nancy Moller.
Her crew took to two lifeboats and got safely away from the sinking ship. A few minutes later, the submarine rammed the lifeboats, smashing both of them to pieces. The survivors were then machine-gunned as they swam in the sea or clung to life rafts. Of the sixty-nine crewmen, only sixteen survived.
Also on March 18, off Okinawa, Japanese aircraft severely damaged the American warship Franklin; several hundred of those on board were drowned.
In Russia, as the Red Army continued its advance in the south, taking Vinnitsa, on the Southern Bug, on March 20, and crossing the Dniester north of Kishinev, there was particular cause for celebration that day when the regular ‘Red Arrow’ express train resumed services between Moscow and Leningrad. Two days later, over the Baltic, a Soviet Air Force major, Victor Kashtankin, attacking a German naval task force, and finding his plane on fire, drove it at full throttle towards the deck of one of the German ships. His last words, carried over the plane radio to his divisional headquarters, were: ‘Dying is simple. We must win.’ For his final act, Kashtankin was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union.
On the day of Kashtankin’s heroic deed, a revolt broke out against dire odds in a slave labour camp at Koldyczewo, in German-occupied White Russia. The revolt was led by a Jew, Shlomo Kushnir. During the revolt, ten Nazi guards were killed, and hundreds of labourers reached the forests, and the partisans. Kushnir and twenty-five others were caught: Kushnir committed suicide before he could be tortured and shot. On the following day, in the Bialystok region, a Soviet partisan group, led by a Jew, Sergeant Andrei Tsymbal, with a large number of Jewish fighters under him, destroyed a German military train carrying armoured cars to the Eastern Front.
On March 23, the German authorities in Greece began the deportation to Auschwitz of more than four thousand Greek Jews, seized in towns and villages throughout Greece. But for every Jew caught and taken away, another was able to find shelter and safety with local peasants, or to join the Greek partisans. The largest number taken to their deaths were the 1,687 Jews of Yanina. In Rome, on March 23, Italian partisans threw a bomb at an SS unit; thirty-three of them were killed. In reprisal, 335 Italians were taken on the following day to the Ardeatine caves and shot; 253 were Catholics and 70 were Jews. The remaining twelve victims were never identified.
On the night of March 24, as part of the continuing British air raids over Berlin, 811 bombers struck at the German capital; seventy-two of them were shot down or crashed, and 392 aircrew killed, the largest death toll of any of the nineteen raids on Berlin. Less than eighty Berliners died that night, though much damage was done, including direct hits on the Swedish Embassy, three breweries, a butter warehouse, five hospitals, a gasworks and Himmler’s personal bunker. Himmler himself, however, was unhurt.
Even as British bombers were over Berlin, seventy-nine Allied prisoners-of-war, all airmen, escaped through a tunnel from their prisoner-of-war camp at Sagan. Three of the escapees, a Dutch pilot, Flight Lieutenant van der Stok, and two Norwegians, Sergeant Bergsland and Second Lieutenant Miller, managed to reach Stettin, go by boat to Sweden and thus return to Britain. All the rest were captured, three close to the exit of the tunnel, and one, Roger Bushell, as far west as Saarbrücken.
Hitler learned of the escape on the morning after the Berlin air raid. He was outraged at the thought of so many aircrew on their way back to Britain, and to their bombers, telling Himmler: ‘You are not to let the escaped airmen out of your control!’
Fifty of the escaped airmen, handed over to the SS after their recapture instead of to the German Air Force, were shot—without trial.
German fury was also evident on March 25, when eight thousand German soldiers, supported by two air squadrons, launched an attack on 450 members of the French Resistance on the Plateau des Glières, high above Annecy; more than four hundred of the Resistance fighters were killed.
On the Eastern Front, on March 25, the Germans were driven from Proskurov, less than fifty miles from Eastern Galicia; that day, Field Marshal von Manstein asked Hitler’s permission to retreat further westward. He was at once dismissed from command of Army Group South, and retired to his estate. On the following day, Russian troops reached the River Pruth on a fifty-six mile front. The Red Army had advanced more than nine hundred miles in the past year. Its advances, Churchill told his listeners in a broadcast on March 26, ‘constitute the greatest cause of Hitler’s undoing’.
In Paris, March 27 saw a meeting of two German officers who were so disturbed at Hitler’s leadership as to be determined, despite the risks, to discuss the need for his overthrow. One of the two, Ernst Junger, noted in his diary how the other, Caesar von Hofacker, ‘was not at his ease in my workroom and begged me to accompany him to the Avenue Kléber so that he could speak freely. While we were pacing up and down between the Trocadero and the Étoile, he confided a number of details coming from men he could trust.’
As conspirators talked, neither military setbacks nor civil tyranny abated. At the front, on March 27, the Red Army entered Kamenets-Podolsk, on the border of Eastern Galicia. To protect the southern flank of Greater Germany, the German Army, already in occupation of Hungary, moved into Roumania. All military energies had now to be put into the protection of the borders of Greater Germany. But even as Soviet troops overran the sites of previous mass murder, the killings continued. That same March 27, in the Kovno ghetto, two hundred miles behind the front line, all surviving Jewish children below the age of fourteen were seized by the SS, thrown into trucks and driven off to their deaths. Thirty-seven Jewish policemen, among them the commander of the Jewish ghetto police and his two deputies, refused to take part in this round-up of children. They were killed on the spot.
The ‘children’s action’ in Kovno took two days to complete. Several thousand children were rounded up, driven off in trucks and shot. Only a tiny fragment survived, among them the five-year-old Zahar Kaplanas. This young boy was saved by a non-Jew, a Lithuanian, who smuggled him out of the ghetto in a sack.
The Red Army now thrust forward in the south across the frontier of Greater Germany, occupying Kolomyja on March 29. On the following day, Soviet forces reached to within sixteen miles of the Hungarian frontier. That night, Churchill left London by train for Yorkshire, for a visit to British troops preparing for the cross-Channel invasion. As his train travelled northward, eight hundred British bombers carried out Operation Grayling, a night raid over Nuremberg; but ninety-five were shot down or crashed on landing and 545 aircrew were killed, the largest death toll of aircrew on any Allied raid over Germany. The Germans lost 110 civilian and nineteen Air Force dead; fifty-nine foreign slave labourers were also killed. Three airmen had died for every person on the ground. Hardly any damage was done to Nuremberg’s war industries, though 256 buildings were damaged, and several thousand citizens made homeless.
On the return flight from Nuremberg, Pilot Officer Cyril Barton sought in vain to bring his badly damaged Halifax bomber back to its airfield. Crossing the Durham coast at Ryhope, Barton skillfully avoided hitting four rows of miners’ cottages. His plane finally crashed in the yard of a coal mine, killing one miner. Barton himself was also killed. For his exceptional skill and courage in avoiding the miners’ cottages he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the only one awarded to a Halifax crew member throughout the war.
At the same time as the Nuremberg raid, and using it as cover, a British bomber flew to Belgium on a resistance mission. During the flight it was shot down, and five of the ten people on board were killed. One of the dead was a Belgian Resistance leader, Robert Deprez. Three of the survivors were captured and sent to prisoner-of-war camp. Two others, the pilot and co-pilot, were sheltered by Belgian families in the village of Zelzate, on the Belgian—Dutch border, where forty-seven other Allied airmen were already in hiding, waiting the opportunity to join an escape line. Jews, too, were being taken to safety by the escape lines, one of which, run by John Weidner, a Dutch Seventh-Day Adventist, passed on his escapees from Holland to Switzerland. As many as 150 people helped Weidner to operate his line; forty of them were arrested by the Gestapo and killed, including his own sister Gabrielle.
In the Far East, the Japanese, advancing on March 30 across the Indian border, began the siege of Imphal. The garrison, supplied by air, held out; by the time the siege was lifted three months later, thirteen thousand Japanese soldiers had been killed. An even larger number of German soldiers were killed, in a far shorter time, when, on April 1, they were surrounded in the East Galician town of Skala; in the course of a nine-day battle, twenty-six thousand were killed.
That same April 1, sixteen members of various Polish resistance groups were hanged in Suwalki, including a fourteen-year-old boy. On the following day, in France, as a reprisal for the derailment of a German troop train at the village of Ascq, near Lille, in which no one was killed, eighty-six villagers were taken from their homes and shot. One of the victims, Lucien Albert, was a former prisoner-of-war who, a month earlier, had been allowed by the Germans to return home because of illness. Another victim was Abbé Henri Gilleron, shot down outside his church; his curate, Abbé Maurice Cousin, was beaten to death in the street outside.
Three weeks after the reprisal massacre at Ascq, an informer, who has never been identified, gave the Gestapo the names of eight local civilians; six of them were found guilty of the sabotage and shot.
In Operation Tungsten, on April 3, British carrier-borne aircraft struck at the German battleship Tirpitz—now recovering from the damage inflicted six months earlier by British midget submarines—at Kaafjord, its Norwegian haven; 128 German sailors were killed, but the Tirpitz remained afloat. It was, however, too badly damaged to put to sea again under her own steam.
On April 4, a South African Air Force reconnaissance plane, coming from Foggia in southern Italy, flew, at 26,000 feet, over the IG Farben synthetic oil and rubber plant at Monowitz. This plant was a known factor in the German war effort, and one of the potential Allied bombing targets in East Upper Silesia. The technique of aerial photography then in use involved the pilot turning on his camera shortly before reaching the site to be photographed, and turning it off when he judged that he had flown past his objective.
Monowitz lay two and a half miles east of Auschwitz. The pilot turned on the camera when he was approaching his target, and turned it off some six kilometres later. The result: twenty exposures, on three of which Auschwitz itself appeared for the first time.
The Intelligence personnel who developed and studied the photographs of April 4 at the Royal Air Force station at Medmenham, in the Thames Valley west of London, were looking for specific industrial installations. These were quickly identified, including ‘a power station, carbide plant, synthetic rubber plant and synthetic oil (Bergius) plant’. Each of these plants was then analysed in detail. The oil-production method was seen to be similar to that already in use at Blechhammer—South, one of the existing high priority bombing targets.
Both the synthetic oil and rubber plants at Monowitz were clearly in ‘partial production’ already, and, while work was still in progress to complete both plants, they were already producing the oil and rubber on which, because the Russian advance was now threatening all Germany’s sources of natural petroleum, the German war machine depended. Monowitz would soon be capable of producing synthetic oil on a scale similar to the largest of the plants elsewhere.
The Monowitz interpretation report of April 4 was sent to both American and Royal Air Force Intelligence. With so much relevant and important detail visible in the factory zone, the interpreters found no need to comment on the row upon row of huts at Auschwitz; huts which resembled hundreds of other barracks, army camps, prisoner-of-war camps and labour camps in the Silesian region. Nor did these first photographs include the gas chambers and crematoria, and the far more extensive hutted area, of the Birkenau section of Auschwitz, where at that moment some 52,000 Jews were being held captive, in addition to the 15,000 Jews in barracks at Monowitz itself. It was not for another seven weeks, until May 31, that Birkenau itself was to be photographed from the air.
At Birkenau itself, the process of gassing continued without respite. On April 4, the day on which its huts were so nearly photographed, a train reached the camp from Trieste. Of its 132 deportees, most of them Italian Jews, 29 were sent to the barracks, registered and tattooed, while the remaining 103 were gassed.
In India, April 4 saw the unexpected arrival of Japanese troops at Kohima, where the local garrison of 1,500 held on tenaciously to as much of the town as possible, before being relieved two and a half weeks later. To help the defenders, before reinforcements could arrive by land, British bombers from bases in Assam flew more than two thousand sorties against the Japanese besiegers, whose losses were in the thousands.
As the Kohima battle began, the British public were told of the scale of the war casualties so far. It was Churchill who gave the figures, in the House of Commons: 120,958 British soldiers, sailors and airmen had been killed, as had 49,730 civilians in German bombing raids, and 26,317 merchant seamen, killed at sea. In addition, the British Commonwealth deaths were made known: 12,298 Australian servicemen, 9,209 Canadians, 5,912 Indians, 5,622 New Zealanders and 3,107 South Africans, a total British and Commonwealth death toll, in just over four and a half years of more than 232,000.
On April 5, death lay in wait for both soldiers and Jews. The soldiers were six British commandos, who set off that day for the German-occupied Alimnia Island, in the Aegean Sea. Intercepted by a German patrol boat and taken prisoner, they were first interrogated and then sent for ‘special treatment’. Also designated for ‘special treatment’ on April 5 were 559 Jews deported from northern Italy to Auschwitz, including several small children, among them the five-year-old Rosetta Scaramella, born in Venice, and the three-year-old Roberto Zarfatti, born in Rome.
In France, even children being cared for in remote villages were found and taken away. On April 6, German soldiers and French Milice drove from Lyon to the remote and tiny village of Izieu, where it was alleged that Jewish children were being hidden in a school run by a Jew, Miron Zlatin. There were forty-three Jewish children in the village; all were taken away, together with the ten adults—five men and five women—who were looking after them. Zlatin and two of the children were deported to the Estonian city of Tallinn, where they were shot; the others were sent to Auschwitz, where all but one, a young woman helper, Lea Feldbaum, were gassed.
As the Izieu round-up was taking place, Hitler, at Berchtesgaden, was agreeing to send 2,500 SS men, of the 2nd Panzer Division, from the Eastern Front to southern France. ‘In this uneasy period of waiting for invasion and retribution, and also for a change of fortunes in the East’ a Security Service ‘Report from the Reich’ noted that day, ‘many are wondering what would happen if we could not hold out. People are asking themselves whether the many severe sacrifices and hardships which the war demands, and will continue to demand, are worth it.’ The people of Germany, the report concluded, ‘are gradually beginning to long for peace’.
The British effort to sustain and stimulate the French Resistance was continuous; on April 6 a French-Canadian from Montreal, Jean-Paul Archambault, was parachuted into France near Lyon. As an agent of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, SOE, he helped to form three groups of local saboteurs; one, in the Bourges area, consisted of 250 men.
For Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander, and for Montgomery, as Commander-in-Chief, whatever disruption could be made to the movement of German troops and supplies in France gave a welcome added element of strength.
On April 7, a further German sweep against French Resistance fighters was launched in the hills around Gex and Oyonnax, in the Jura mountains. Code-named Operation Spring, it involved six German regiments, and also a regiment of Cossacks—Soviet citizens who, having been taken prisoner-of-war in south Russia 1941 and 1942, had volunteered to fight for the Germans. On the first day of the sweep, five members of the Resistance were killed and thirteen captured. That same week, in northern France, near Angers, German agents captured twenty Frenchmen who, a month earlier, had pieced together for the British a detailed fifty-five foot map of the German defences in the Cotentin peninsula, on the eastern edge of which a part of the cross-Channel invasion was to take place. All twenty were executed once the invasion began.
On the Eastern Front, the Russians now prepared to drive the German Army from the Crimea, the last of Russia’s inter-war territory still under German rule. The attack, under the overall command of Marshal Tolbukhin, began on the morning of April 8. Within four days, two German defensive lines had been broken, and German and Roumanian troops quickly put to flight. Only Sevastopol, the fortress which the Russians had themselves defended with such tenacity in 1942, held out against its would-be liberators. April 8, the first day of the Crimean offensive, was also the first day of Operation Gardening, when three American and nineteen British bombers, flying low along the river Danube near Belgrade, dropped forty mines in the river. Within ten days, the total number of mines dropped had risen to 177, their purpose being to disrupt the barge traffic bringing Roumanian oil from the oil wells at Ploesti, to Germany. This disruption was to be achieved with conspicuous success.
On April 10, American bombers began a series of attacks on German shore batteries along the Normandy coast, in preparation for the cross-Channel landings. They also bombed anti-aircraft batteries between Rouen and Dunkirk, to ensure that the deception of a landing in the Pas de Calais should be maintained. Indeed, in order to maintain this deception, it had been laid down that two batteries had to be bombed elsewhere for every battery bombed in the actual assault area. Also bombed that week, on April 11, in a precision raid, was a five-storey building in The Hague which contained the principal Gestapo records about their captive Dutch population; six British aircraft of No. 613 Squadron, led by Wing-Commander R. N. Bateson, approaching the building at only fifty feet, destroyed almost all of the Gestapo’s card-index system. During the raid, sixty-one Dutch officials were killed; it had been impossible to warn them without endangering the plan. But the lives of many more Dutch patriots were saved by the destruction of the files through which those active in the Resistance were being monitored and tracked down.
On the day of this British air raid on The Hague, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl in nearby Amsterdam, Anne Frank, a refugee from Germany now in hiding in Holland with her parents and her sister, wrote in her diary: ‘Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different to all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up to now?’, and she went on to answer her own question with the words: ‘It is God that has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again.’
Four months after writing these words, Anne Frank and her family were betrayed, and then deported; she was to die in Belsen concentration camp, together with her sister Margot, early in 1945, at about the same time that her mother died in Auschwitz. Her father alone survived.
Behind the lines on the Eastern Front, mid-April marked the beginning of another German anti-partisan sweep, between Lepel and Borisov, and Lepel and Polotsk, where SS troops, advancing village by village, destroyed everything in their path. According to the Germans’ own estimates, seven thousand Soviet partisans were killed. Many of those killed were ordinary villagers.
This anti-partisan sweep did not go unopposed; as it proceeded, Soviet aircraft flew over the region, attacking the partisan hunters. Even after this major sweep, within a few weeks, railway demolitions by partisans throughout the region had regained their former intensity. Further north, on April 15, sixty Jewish slave labourers, who for several months had been forced to dig up and burn the corpses of Jews who had been murdered at Ponar, outside Vilna, in the summer and autumn of 1941, rose up in desperate revolt; only fifteen managed to break out to the woods, and to join the Soviet partisans; the rest were killed. Further south, across the former Polish border, April 15 saw the capture by the Red Army of Tarnopol, one of the principal cities of Eastern Galicia.
In the Pacific, on April 15, the United States began the planning stage of Operation Wedlock, against the Kurile Islands of northern Japan. Like Operations Jael and Fortitude in Europe, it was a totally spurious plan, devised to deceive the Japanese into diverting men and resources away from the actual operation being planned against the Marianas Islands.
Operation Wedlock involved a fictional force of American and Canadian troops, complete with their own supplies, signals and staging posts. As well as giving the actual staging post and communications centre in Hawaii the appearance of an integral part of the Kurile Island attack, a largely phantom Ninth Fleet was also created, and began sending and receiving messages from the very real Third and Fifth Fleets, as well as carrying out entirely fictitious practice manoeuvres. To add to the credibility of the deception, American bombers were instructed to bomb Japanese military, air and naval installations on the Kurile Islands ‘every day, weather permitting’.
On April 16, on the Eastern Front, Soviet forces entered the Black Sea coastal resort of Yalta. On the following day, in Britain, to protect the secrecy of the preparations for the cross-Channel landings, all foreign diplomats were forbidden to send or receive any uncensored message, or to leave Britain. That day, Grand Admiral Dönitz issued a proclamation to Germany’s armed forces, warning that a large-scale landing could come at any moment: ‘Throw yourself recklessly into the fight,’ he declared, and went on to warn: ‘Any man who fails to do so will be destroyed in shame and ignominy.’ Far worse than ‘shame and ignominy’ was meted out in Germany that April 17 to a Catholic priest, Max Josef Metzger, who had written privately to a fellow clergyman about the need for a new government. Found guilty of ‘assisting the enemy’, he was executed in Brandenburg.
In the Pacific, April 18 marked the beginning of Operation Stamina, an air lift to the British and Indian troops besieged in Imphal. By the end of the month, 1,479 men and 1,929 tons of supplies had been flown in by air. By the end of June, 12,561 men and 18,824 tons had been delivered, and, on the return flights, 13,000 wounded men and 43,000 non-combatants flown out of the Japanese trap. On April 19th, British, American and French warships bombarded Japanese positions at Sabang, in the Dutch East Indies; a warning to the Japanese that they no longer had naval mastery in the Indian Ocean.
Hitler, too, received a setback that week, when the Turkish Government declared on April 20—Hitler’s fifty-fifth birthday—that it would no longer send chrome to Germany. The Soviet reconquest of the Crimea made it dangerous for Turkey to continue with her absolute neutrality; now, more than a year after Churchill had gone specially to Adana in southern Turkey to try to persuade the Turks to enter the war, it was announced that Turkey was no longer a neutral, but a ‘pro-Allied’ nations—though not a belligerent.
As of April 1944, Germany’s stocks of chrome were sufficient for no more than a year and a half’s further production of the high grade steel needed for the manufacture of tanks. Yet Hitler had hopes that new tanks, faster and more powerful, some of which were demonstrated to him on April 20 at Klessheim Castle, could halt the Soviet thrust on the Eastern Front, and check any cross-Channel invasion at the shore. Perhaps he never saw the Security Police ‘Report from the Reich’ of April 20, in which it was stated that ‘developments in the East and the continually deferred hope of “a saving miracle” are gradually producing signs of weariness among the people’. He certainly had no inkling that one of his own most top secret Ultra messages, setting out the Western itinerary of General Guderian as Inspector General of Panzer Troops, had not only enabled the German tank commanders to prepare for the visit, but gave British Intelligence, who also read it, a clear picture of the location and distribution of Germany’s armoured forces, less than two months before the Normandy landing was due to take place.
The first lap of Guderian’s itinerary was the tank headquarters at Mailly-le-Camp, near Reims; even as Guderian moved on to his next stop, at Amiens, British bombers struck at Mailly-le-Camp, killing as many as a hundred soldiers, and injuring many more. But it was not always the Germans who suffered from the intensification of Allied bombing over France that month; when, on April 21, a heavy night raid over Paris struck at the marshalling yards of St Denis and the Gare de la Chapelle, 640 Parisians were killed.
France, 1 February–5 June 1944
The growing number of German divisions known through Ultra to be in north-western France was now causing alarm among the Allied leaders. But Intelligence was also able to show that their actual strength was not excessive, and that the scale of German strength needed to postpone or cancel D-Day would not be reached. Guderian’s journey had helped to confirm this.
On April 22, in the Pacific, the Americans launched Operation Persecution, landing 84,000 men in a twin assault on Hollandia and Aitape, on the northern coast of New Guinea. The Japanese, whose total strength did not exceed 15,000, many of them administrative troops, ought, if logic ruled, to have abandoned the fight. Instead, they prolonged the battle for more than three months. But it was at a terrible cost even by European standards: 12,811 Japanese dead, for the loss of 527 American lives.
In western Europe, it was French civilians who had begun to suffer, as Allied bombers carried out the ‘Transportation’ plan for the destruction of German railway yards and junctions throughout the Normandy, Seine and Pas de Calais regions; on April 24, four hundred people were killed during an American daylight raid on the railway yards at Rouen, when many bombs fell on the centre of the town. That same day, two South African Air Force pilots, Lieutenant Charles Barry and Lieutenant I. McIntyre, flying an aerial reconnaissance mission from southern Italy deep across eastern Roumania, photographed German and Roumanian Army defences in the Galatz Gap between Focsani and Galatz. So clearly did the photographs reveal the nature and scale of the defences which would confront the Red Army about to attack the Gap, that they were flown to Russia by special courier.
On April 25, an American bomber was shot down over northern Italy. One of its crewmen, Lieutenant Charles F. Kingsman, was injured when he landed by parachute. An Italian family hid him; while in hiding, he gave secret lessons to Italian partisans in how to use and maintain the machine guns which they had collected from other crashed Allied aircraft. Also behind the lines, in German-occupied Crete, plans were being made by British Special Operations to kidnap the German General commanding the island, General Heinrich Kreipe. One British agent, Major Patrick Leigh-Fermor, was parachuted into Crete; another, Captain Stanley Moss, with two Greek partisans, was brought ashore by boat. Helped also by three Greek partisans on the island, the agents ambushed and captured the General on the morning of April 26, as he was driving from his headquarters at Arhanes to his villa on the road to Heraklion. General Kreipe’s captors then crossed Crete on foot with him, and, after a seventeen day trek covering seventy-five miles, brought him to a remote beach near Rodakino. He was then taken by boat across the Mediterranean to Mersa Matruh, flown to Cairo, thence to Gibraltar and on to London. After interrogation, he was sent by ship across the Atlantic and by train across Canada, to a prisoner-of-war camp near Calgary. For their remarkable exploit, Major Leigh-Fermor and Captain Moss were awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
There were no immediate reprisals following General Kreipe’s capture; the British made it clear that this would affect the General’s safety. Four months after his capture, however, German military units in Crete destroyed the town of Anoya and the village of Kedrous, killing more than five hundred of their inhabitants.
In Britain, during March and April 1944, the preparations for the cross-Channel invasion had reached the stage of practice landings on various beaches in southern England. One such practice, Exercise Tiger, was carried out at Slapton Sands, near Dartmouth, between April 26 and 28. The mass of Allied shipping assembled to make the simulated assault was observed by seven German torpedo boats on a routine patrol from Cherbourg, whereupon two Tank Landing Ships were torpedoed and sunk, one other badly damaged, and 639 American soldiers killed. Many of them were specialist engineers who could not easily be replaced.
For mounting the attack on the Slapton forces, the German commander of the naval patrol, Captain Peterson, was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross which he had won in 1940.
Ten of the American officers drowned off Slapton Sands on April 28 were in possession of secret information relevant to the actual cross-Channel invasion; information given under the code name ‘Bigot’ only to those who needed to know it. In order to ensure that none of the ten had been picked up at sea by the Germans, a vast search was carried out, and all the corpses which could be recovered were carefully examined. Although more than a hundred bodies were never recovered, those of each of the ten Bigot officers were found. The cross-Channel secrets were safe.
In the Pacific, on April 28, in their second attack on the island of Truk in ten weeks, thirty American aircraft were shot down, but twenty-five of their pilots were saved. With the almost total destruction of Japanese fuel and ammunition depots on the atoll, any possible flank attack on the American forces in north-western New Guinea was removed.
On the last day of April 1944, more than two hundred Jews were gassed at Auschwitz; they were originally from Poland, but had been sent to Vittel, in France, supposedly as the first stage in being allowed to proceed, with South American passports, to Lisbon, and on to safety. Instead, after being held at Vittel for several months, they were deported back eastward and killed; among them was the poet Yitzhak Katznelson, author of songs and poems which, reflecting youthful pleasures and the joys of life, had been particularly popular among Polish Jewish children before the war. He was gassed at Auschwitz with his eighteen-year-old son. His wife, and his two younger sons, had been deported from Warsaw to Treblinka more than a year and a half earlier. Thus perished, amid separation, deception and horror, yet another talented family among the millions of victims of the Second World War.