38

D-Day

JUNE 1944

By dawn on June 6, eighteen thousand British and American parachutists were on the ground in Normandy, capturing essential bridges and disrupting German lines of communication. At 6.30 that morning the first troops landed, Americans, coming ashore at ‘Utah’ beach with amphibious tanks. Less than an hour later, at 7.25, the first British soldiers were ashore at ‘Gold’ and ‘Sword’ beaches, followed, at ‘Juno’ beach, by 2,400 Canadians, supported by seventy-six of the amphibious tanks. At 10.15 that morning the news of these landings was brought to Rommel, who was still in Germany. He at once flew back to France, instructed by Hitler to drive the invaders ‘back into the sea’ by midnight.

By midnight, 155,000 Allied troops were already ashore. Only at ‘Omaha’ beach had the German defenders been able to pin down the American assaulting force of nearly 35,000 men to a perimeter no more than a mile deep. At all the other landing grounds, much greater progress inland had been made. Hitler, convinced that the Normandy landing was not the ‘real’ Second Front, hesitated to commit his full resources to the bridgehead. That day, German naval units were warned to be prepared for surprise attacks elsewhere; this message was decrypted by the British that evening, giving the Allied commanders some assurance that even on June 7, D-Day plus one, the full force of the German military might would not be thrown against them.

The Allied casualties on D-Day itself had been relatively low; 355 Canadians had been killed in action or died of wounds, as compared with more than nine hundred Canadian dead at Dieppe in 1942. Both the Americans and the British each lost more than a thousand men killed during the first day of battle. That same day, in the Mediterranean, the Germans on Crete took four hundred Greek hostages, three hundred Italian prisoners-of-war and 260 Jews by boat a hundred miles out to sea, where the boat was scuttled. None of the captives survived.

On June 7, as the Allies consolidated their positions on the Normandy beach-head, and sought to enlarge them, the German Air Force High Command was still warning its units in western Europe that further landings could be expected either for a thrust towards Belgium, or in Norway, or near Lorient on the French Atlantic coast, or on the western coast of the Cotentin peninsula.

The Normandy landings, June 6 1944

During the second day’s fighting in Normandy, on June 7, a German Waffen SS unit captured thirty-four Canadian soldiers near the villages of Buron and Authie. Most of the Canadians were wounded, some of them badly so. All thirty-four were then shot or bayoneted to death. A local stonemason, Constance Raymond Guilbert, later recalled seeing one of the wounded Canadians, who was lying under a tree, move his arm and leg a little. ‘One of the German soldiers took a bayonet and hit him, opening his head….’ Forty-three more Canadian prisoners-of-war were killed in the following forty-eight hours. One of them, Rifleman D. S. Gould, still wearing his Red Cross armband, was a stretcher-bearer. ‘What should we do with these prisoners?’ the SS commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Meyer, had asked. ‘They only eat up our rations.’

***

It was on June 7 that British Intelligence decrypted the German Air Force Enigma message, sent to the First Parachute Army at Nancy, about the growing shortage of aircraft fuel. On the following day the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, informed Churchill that he regarded this ‘as one of the most important pieces of information which we have yet received’. In the light of it, there seemed ‘little doubt’, in Portal’s view and that of the War Cabinet’s Joint Intelligence Committee, that Britain’s strategic bomber offensive should be ‘turned over to synthetic oil plants as soon as Overlord can spare them’.

Churchill noted on Portal’s suggestion: ‘Good’. That same day, the head of the American bomber forces, General Spaatz, directed that the German oil plants should be first priority targets for the United States Strategic Air Forces.

Henceforth, the installations for the most crucial element in Germany’s ability to make war—fuel oil—were to be bombed with mounting force and effectiveness, a sustained aerial bombardment which was to be as instrumental in the defeat of Germany as the amphibious landings in Normandy. Four days after Portal’s letter to Churchill, a British night bombing raid on the German oil installations at Gelsenskirchen was so effective that the plant was put out of action for several months, and five thousand tons of stored oil destroyed.

On June 8, British troops from Gold Beach reached the American troops on Omaha beach at Colleville-sur-Mer. Above the battlefield, the Germans had less than a hundred operational aircraft. On the ground, crucial secret orders were being decrypted; one, on June 8, enabled the British to pinpoint the exact location of the headquarters of Panzer Group West. Two days later the headquarters, at La Caine, was bombed so severely, and so many staff officers—seventeen in all—killed, that the heavy counter-attack being planned for the following day had to be put off for twenty-four hours.

‘“Overlord” is a source of joy to us all’, Stalin telegraphed to Churchill on June 8; and he promised to launch Russia’s own summer offensive shortly, in accordance with the agreement at Teheran at the end of 1943, whereby the Soviet Union would bring its own forces into action along the whole Eastern Front once the western Allies were ashore, thus preventing the Germans from transferring extra forces to Normandy, just when such a transfer would be most needed.

For the Russians, the human cost of the war had already become almost unbearable, with an estimated ninety per cent of all young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one already killed in action. With concern for the future, on June 8 the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet adopted a decree ‘On mothers of large families and motherhood care’. Mothers of more than ten children were to receive a new title, ‘Heroine Mother’. Special family allowances would be given to large families. Even unmarried mothers would receive benefits.

On June 9, in the town of Tulle, in the Corrèze, the SS Das Reich Division carried out a widespread reprisal against civilians in the town, for acts of sabotage committed against the Division by French Resistance fighters nearby. A woman from Tulle later recalled: ‘I came home from shopping on 9 June 1944 to find my husband and my son hanging from the balcony of our house. They were just two of a hundred men seized at random and killed in cold blood by the German SS. The children and the wives were forced to watch while they strung them up to the lamp-posts and balconies outside their own homes. What else is there for me to say?’

***

It was on June 9 that Stalin informed Churchill: ‘Tomorrow, June 10, we begin the first round on the Leningrad Front.’ The artillery preliminaries had already begun, 240 Soviet guns bombarding the Finnish defences to the north-west of the city. The Germans were already in action against the Russians in Roumania, and against the Western Allies in Italy and Normandy. But they remained convinced that a further Western assault was imminent, and that Normandy was a diversion. At 10.30 on the evening of June 9, German Intelligence chiefs received, and at once passed on to Hitler, a message from Juan Pujol Garcia in Britain, their trusted agent ‘Arabel’, that, after ‘consultation on 8th June in London with my agents Donny, Dick and Dorick’, he was of the opinion that the Normandy landings were ‘a diversionary manoeuvre designed to draw off enemy reserves in order to make a decisive attack in another place’.

This report, Hitler was told by German Intelligence, ‘confirms the view already held by us that a further attack is to be expected in another place’. That other place, Intelligence felt, was possibly Belgium. Britain’s agent ‘Garbo’ had thus successfully maintained the Fortitude deception three full days beyond the Normandy landings. Just over three years had passed since Garcia had set up his ‘Arabel’ network, with at various times twenty-seven spurious agents working under him. The three agents mentioned by him on June 9 each had a carefully built up history: ‘Donny’, recruited in December 1943, was an ex-seaman and leader of the World Aryan Order; ‘Dick’, recruited in February 1944, was ‘an Indian fanatic’; and ‘Dorick’, also recruited in February 1944, was a civilian living at the North Sea port of Harwich.

At German Army Headquarters in Zossen, it was likewise felt that Normandy was only a diversion. ‘The main thrust’, Colonel Alexis von Roenne, Chief of the Army General Staff’s Intelligence Division, informed General Jodl on June 9, ‘must be expected at any moment in the Pas de Calais.’ That same day, the German Admiral commanding in the Atlantic suggested to Admiral Dönitz that the ‘hesitant and slow’ progress of the Allied landings in Normandy might indicate ‘an intended second landing at another point’. This message was decrypted in Britain on June 10. Not only was deception continuing to keep a protective shield over the Allied armies, but the fact that the deception was working was known to the Allied commanders.

***

During June 10, there was fighting on six battlefronts: in Normandy, in Italy, on the Leningrad front in Finland, in New Guinea, in Burma and in China, where the Japanese had launched an overland offensive along the River Liuyang, towards Changsha. Tens of thousands of soldiers fought not only far from home, but in diverse causes; among the soldiers fighting alongside German troops in Normandy were Cossack troops from Russia, and Indian troops loyal to Subhas Chandra Bose who were committed to the violent overthrow of British rule in India. Thousands of soldiers were killed each day in these struggles, each so distant from the other, each with its own catalogue of dangers and torments.

In Europe, the additional torments behind the lines knew no pause. On June 10, in German-occupied Poland, more than forty villagers were killed in the tiny hamlet of Pikule as a reprisal for sheltering Polish partisans, three thousand of whom were trying to escape a German force of thirty thousand which had been sent against them, Operation Hurricane. That same day, in the tiny French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, as a reprisal for a Resistance attack on a military formation moving towards the Normandy beachhead, SS troops murdered 642 villagers, including 190 schoolchildren. Only two villagers managed to escape, a woman, Madame Rouffanche, and an eight-year-old boy, Roger Godfrin. Among those killed were several Jews to whom the villagers had given refuge, including the forty-five-year-old Maria Goldman, who had been born in Warsaw, and the eight-year-old Serge Bergman, born in Strasbourg.

That day, at Salon-la-Tour, a British agent, Violette Szabo, who had been dropped into German-occupied France on D-Day, was captured by the Gestapo. Interrogated and tortured, she was then sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.

On the Normandy beachhead, the Allies had consolidated their landings and continued to advance inland. They had done so despite yet another of Hitler’s secret weapons, an unscupperable mine known to the Allies as the ‘Oyster’, and showing a technology far more advanced than the Allied mines. These Oysters had been laid on the Normandy beaches after D-Day, causing grave inconvenience by forcing ships to limit their speed virtually to one mile an hour. The new weapon was defeated because of the sheer numerical and technical superiority of Allied resources, which enabled the losses to be sustained.

On the beach-head itself, the Allied forces met strong opposition, but its organizer knew its limitations. ‘During the day’, Rommel wrote on June 10, ‘practically our entire traffic—on roads, tracks and in open country—is pinned down by powerful fighter-bomber and bomber formations, with the result that the movement of our troops on the battlefield is almost completely paralysed, while the enemy can manoeuvre freely. Every traffic defile in the rear areas is under continual attack and it is very difficult to get essential supplies of ammunition and petrol up to the troops’.

Rommel sought to focus his attacking forces against the American bridgehead in the Carentan—Montebourg area, a move which could prevent the cutting off of the German forces in the Cotentin peninsula. Hitler, however, intervened to veto this plan, and ordered Rommel to attack instead from Caen against the British bridgehead. The British troops, however, were reinforced more quickly than Rommel’s, and were able to advance against him before his own attack was ready.

The Allied D-Day objective—the vital communications centre at Caen through which German reinforcements to the bridgehead would pass—was not taken on that day, however; nor indeed for another two months. The German reinforcements thus brought in were to tie down the Allies in bloody fighting in a region which they had expected to overrun on their first day, and were to prevent them from breaking out.

By the night of June 10, more than 325,000 Allied soldiers were ashore on the Normandy beaches. That night, and on the following night, in a desperate attempt to halt the flow of men and materials, German motor torpedo boats broke into the Utah beach anchorage, sinking the American destroyer Nelson. In the Channel itself, several components of the Mulberry artificial harbour were sunk before they could reach their anchorages. But of the fifteen German motor torpedo boats operational on June 6, nine had been put out of action a week later, a fact known to British Intelligence through the Ultra decrypts.

Also known to British Intelligence, as a result of eavesdropping on the German Ultra messages, was a German plan to launch a motor torpedo boat attack from Le Havre against the invasion fleet; forewarned, 344 British bombers were made ready for a sustained daylight operation against the German torpedo boat pens at Le Havre.

***

On June 11, in Normandy, there was yet another episode when Allied troops, in this instance British, were pushed up against a wall after being captured, and shot. One man, feigning death, was able to escape; it was through him that details of the massacre became known. On June 12, Canadian prisoners-of-war being marched towards Rennes were accidentally strafed by American fighters; fifteen were killed.

On the Indian border on June 12, a Gurkha soldier, Ganju Lama, the son of a priest, sent on a tank-hunting mission against the Japanese forces besieging Imphal, knocked out two tanks with his anti-tank gun. Wounded in both arms and the leg, but still able to throw his grenades, Ganju Lama called out: ‘Give me some grenades’, and then killed the surviving Japanese crewmen. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

***

In the early hours of June 13, the Germans at last launched their long-awaited and—by those who knew that it was in preparation—much-feared ‘secret weapon’, a small, pilotless, jet-propelled plane, carrying a ton of explosives that detonated on contact. Known to the Germans as the VI, ‘Vergeltung’ or ‘Reprisal’ I, and by the British as the ‘flying bomb’, its first efforts were dismal. Of the ten that were fired, from Watten, near the Channel Coast, five crash landed almost immediately in the vicinity of the launch site. One ‘went missing’, probably crashing in the Channel. Four reached England. Only one caused any casualties: six people killed in London, at Bethnal Green.

The Germans had intended to mount a bombing offensive at the same time as the first flying bombs were launched, to add to the alarm and terror. By a coincidence, the bomber force involved was destroyed on the ground on the afternoon of June 12 when Allied bombers, on a systematic raid of German airfields, bombed their airfield at Beauvais.

By another chance, June 13 was the day on which an experimental V2 rocket, fired from the Baltic test site at Peenemünde, fell, not in the Baltic Sea as intended, to sink without trace, but at Backebo in Sweden. Two British officers examined the rocket in Stockholm. It was an advanced type, designed to answer to a controller, and with a device which would have prevented outside interference. Fortunately for the Allies, the rocket was never used.

In Italy, on June 13, Italian partisans blew up road bridges used by German military traffic between La Spezia and Reggio Emilia; this was known in London four days later, as a result of a decrypted German signal. In Thessaly, Greek partisans were in action against the Germans on June 14, as they tried to deny the Germans the use of the Greek harvest; among the partisans was Leon Sakkis, a Greek Jew, killed by machine gun fire as he tried to help a wounded colleague.

***

As the Normandy battle entered its eleventh day, two German armoured divisions remained in the South of France. The Ultra eavesdroppers at Bletchley scrutinized their decrypts to see if they would be ordered to move north. But the decrypts made it clear, as the War Cabinet’s Joint Intelligence Committee reported in London in June 14, that the Germans still feared ‘subsidiary operations’ not only in the South of France, but in the Pas de Calais, south-west France and Norway, with the Dutch—Belgian coast, to the east of the Pas-de-Calais, still seen as the intended landing place of the main invasion force.

Determined to forestall the planned German motor torpedo boat attacks on Allied supply ships crossing the English Channel to the Normandy beaches, the British air raid was carried out on June 14 against the torpedo boat pens at Le Havre. The raid was led by Leonard Cheshire, who had already received the Victoria Cross for his outstanding leadership in many earlier raids. Not only did Cheshire and his fellow pilots destroy the pens, but of the sixteen torpedo boats then at Le Havre, only a single one remained serviceable.

***

In the Pacific war, June 14 saw the first American ‘Super-Fortress’ raid on the Japanese mainland, when sixty of these new heavy bombers, based on the Chinese city of Chengtu, attacked the iron and steel works at Yawata, on Honshu Island. Not very much material damage was done, but the announcement of the raid in Washington gave a boost to American morale.

In Europe, June 14 saw an episode in the partisan war in Italy, when two Italian partisans, helping two British soldiers to blow up a bridge at Norcia, were surprised by a German patrol. The two British soldiers escaped. One of the partisans, Sergio Forti, a twenty-four-year-old Jew from Trieste, then persuaded the Germans to let the other partisan go off in order to ‘bring in’ the British. As prearranged, neither the partisan nor the British came back. Forti was tortured and killed that same day; he was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of the Resistance.

Not resistance, but bewilderment, was in the minds of the 1,800 Jews of Corfu on June 14, as they were deported by ship to mainland Greece, then taken by truck across Thessaly to Larissa, then on by sealed train through Salonica, northwards, more than seven hundred miles, to Auschwitz. They had been told that they were to be ‘resettled’ in Poland. On reaching Auschwitz, 1,600 were sent at once to the gas chambers, two hundred to the barracks.

Hitler’s war against the Jews was to continue, even as his war against the Allies reached its most critical stage. Three groups of armies were now on soil once controlled by Germany: in Eastern Galicia, where the Red Army awaited its order to renew the offensive; in Italy, where the Americans had reached the River Ombrone; and in Normandy, where the Cotentin peninsula was in imminent danger of being overrun. But Hitler’s ability to take the initiative had not entirely been lost. On June 15, the German ‘Ski’ site commander, Colonel Wachtel, launched a second flying bomb raid on Britain. This came much closer to the scale and impact that had been intended. In all, 244 missiles were fired from Watten that day. Forty-five of them crash landed immediately after being launched, destroying nine of the launch sites, and killing ten French civilians. Of the missiles which reached Britain, twelve were shot down by anti-aircraft fire and eight by fighters. But seventy-three flying bombs reached London, killing more than fifty civilians. To deny the Germans statistical evidence of the effect and location of the hits, the British Government ordered that the number of newspaper obituary notices for people killed by enemy action should be limited to three ‘from the same postal district’ on any one day.

***

On June 15, in the Pacific, the Americans began Operation Forager, against the Marianas Islands. On Saipan Island, twenty thousand American soldiers came ashore, meeting the same Japanese refusal to surrender that they had come to know, and to fear, on almost every island. Robert Sherrod, correspondent of Time, wrote of one episode, typical of many, when a Japanese sniper, found under some logs, came out into the open waving a bayonet. ‘An American tossed a grenade and it knocked the Jap down’, Sherrod wrote. ‘He struggled up, pointed his bayonet into his stomach and tried to cut himself open in approved hara-kiri fashion. The disemboweling never came off. Someone shot the Jap with a carbine. But, like all Japs, he took a lot of killing. Even after four bullets had thudded into his body he rose to one knee. Then the American shot him through the head and the Jap was dead.’

In the three-week battle for Saipan, twenty thousand Japanese and 3,426 Americans were killed. Then, on July 9, three days after the suicide of the Japanese commander, Lieutenant-General Yoshitsugu Saito, a further seven thousand Japanese committed suicide. On Guam, 2,124 Americans were to be killed, and on Tinian, 290; few Japanese survived on either island, several thousand being killed in battle, and several thousand more either dying in deliberately suicidal ‘banzai’ charges, or committing suicide.

Similar Japanese fanaticism was being shown at Imphal and Kohima, inside the Indian frontier; there, in three and a half months, 2,700 British and Indian troops were killed, for the loss of thirty thousand Japanese.

***

Behind German lines, on June 16, the Jews working as slave labourers for the German war production in the Lodz ghetto were asked to volunteer for ‘labour outside the ghetto’. They were needed, so the Germans themselves said, for ‘the clearing away of debris in cities that have been bombed’. The first three thousand would go to Munich. Those who volunteered for this work could ‘collect their rations immediately, without waiting their turn’. The three thousand left the ghetto, but ‘Munich’ was a deception. They were taken to Chelmno, where, in gas chambers built on the site of the former death camp, all of them were gassed.

In German-occupied France, two Jews were shot on June 16: Marc Bloch, the historian, who had been active in the resistance, and Jean Zay, a former Minister of Education in pre-war France. These killings came as the Allies launched Operation Gain, a parachute landing near Orléans, by a British Special Air Service unit, to cut the railway lines along which the Germans were now sending reinforcements to Normandy. But even with the need to reinforce Normandy, the German High Command still believed that the Normandy landings were only a diversion. Early that week there were fears in Berlin of a landing on the west coast of Denmark, and on June 16, the German Naval Group West reported strong indications of an imminent Allied invasion against Holland and Belgium. These indications, including the jamming of radar, and air activity, were deliberate, the last brilliant efforts of the Fortitude deception. On June 17, as Hitler travelled to Soissons to see his commanders, Juan Pujol Garcia, his best agent in Britain, ‘Arabel’, was awarded the Iron Cross.

***

Hitler’s visit to Soissons, his first return to France since he had travelled there in triumph four years earlier, led to a clear order: ‘The fortress Cherbourg is to be held at all costs.’ At the same time, the German Fifteenth Army, then at the Pas-de-Calais, was not to be moved to Normandy, but was to stay near Calais, to await the still expected ‘main’ invasion.

On June 17, Free French Forces carried out Operation Brassard, capturing the Italian island of Elba. That same day, General de Gaulle made a one day visit to the Normandy beach-head, his first visit to French soil for four years. In the Normandy battle zone, at the village of Mouen, seven Canadian soldiers, taken prisoner by the SS troops opposing them, were interrogated for several hours, marched to the outskirts of the village, and shot.

***

Over Britain, a third flying bomb attack was launched on June 17. At St John’s Hill, near Clapham Junction, twenty-four shoppers and passers-by were killed. At St Mary Abbots Hospital, Kensington, thirteen patients, most of them children, and five members of the staff, were killed. These figures were kept secret for the next three months. One flying bomb, going wildly off course, and turning southward, fell near Hitler’s headquarters in Soissons.

Rommel saw considerable advantage in the flying bombs. ‘The long-range action’, he wrote to his wife on Sunday June 18, ‘has brought us a lot of relief.’ That Sunday, in London, a flying bomb hit the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks, killing 121 of the congregation: fifty-eight civilians and sixty-three servicemen. A second flying bomb, falling that same morning in Battersea, killed nineteen civilians, while a third, falling in Putney, killed twenty-eight. This brought the flying bomb deaths in the three days of attacks so far to more than two hundred and fifty.

Behind the German lines in Poland, the Germans launched a second Operation Hurricane on June 18, against Polish partisans, killing seven hundred partisans in a six day sweep in the region of Osuchy, near Lublin. In China, on June 18, Japanese forces captured Changsha, the first success of the Japanese Operation Ichigo, against the towns being used by the Americans to launch their air attacks on Japan itself.

On June 19, off the north-western coast of New Guinea, General Eichelberger launched an American attack against the defenders of Biak Island, who, since the American landings three weeks earlier, had resisted all attempts to dislodge them. The Japanese, defeated in open battle, retreated to caves, where they could only be destroyed by flame-throwers. By the end of the struggle, there were 5,093 Japanese dead on the island, killed for the loss of 524 Americans.

As Eichelberger’s troops renewed their assault on Biak on June 19, two new Japanese carrier-borne aircraft, ‘Jill’ and ‘Judy’, led an attack on American naval forces protecting the landing force on Saipan Island, in the Marianas. But, despite the increased range of ‘Jill’ and the faster speed of ‘Judy’, 346 Japanese aircraft were shot down, for the loss of only thirty American aircraft. In the ensuing naval battle, three of the nine Japanese aircraft-carriers involved, TaihoShokaku and Hiyo, were sunk, and four thousand Japanese sailors drowned.

***

On the afternoon of June 6, the 2nd SS Panzer Division, equipped with the latest German heavy tanks, had been ordered to move from Toulouse, where it was based, to Normandy. But what should have been a three-day journey, reaching the still-struggling Allied forces on June 9 or 10, took seventeen days. The extra two weeks, which relieved the Normandy bridgehead of a major danger, had been forced upon the Division, in part, by the successful Allied destruction of all the bridges on the Loire between Orléans and the sea. The Division, however, as a veteran of the Russian front, had its own bridging train, and ought to have been able to cross all the rivers in its path without undue delay. Its efforts were frustrated, nevertheless, by repeated acts of sabotage along its road. First, the British agent George Starr, alias ‘Hilaire’, was so successful in blowing up the petrol dumps on which the Division’s tank transporters depended that it had to abandon its road journey and go by rail. Then it was the turn of another British agent, Baron Philippe de Gunzbourg—‘Edgar’—and those under his command, to blow up the railway bridges between Bergerac and Périgueux, forcing the Division further east, where another Special Operations Executive circuit, led by Jacques Poitier—‘Nestor’—set up a series of ambushes around Brive and Tulle. All this exceptional effort was combined with the continuing Allied air attack on the Division, as its own top-secret Ultra signals, many of them about its urgent need for fuel, alerted the Allies to its whereabouts and movements. On June 15 it was at Champsecret, still twenty miles from the Normandy bridgehead. Not until June 18 had the Division reached its reserve positions in the area of Torigni, Canisy and Tessy.

On June 19, a British bombing raid on Watten destroyed a large number of flying bombs as they were being prepared for launching. Three days later, American bombers were equally effective against a suspected flying bomb supply railhead at Nucourt, fifteen miles north-west of Paris. But the flying bombs were now reaching Britain every day; in the twenty-four hours up to six in the morning on June 20, twenty-six flying bombs had reached London, and a further twenty-seven had been shot down.

For two weeks, the Allied air forces had patrolled the Channel and struck at the VI launch sites, averting two dangers: the arrival of German submarines off Normandy, and the bombardment of the embarkation points by flying bombs.

By midnight on June 20, half a million Allied soldiers were ashore in Normandy; in the first two weeks of fighting, four thousand had been killed. From German-occupied France, news reached London that the French Resistance forces had declared a ‘general uprising’; Churchill at once instructed the Special Operations Executive—SOE—to fly in whatever was needed in the way of arms and ammunition ‘to prevent the collapse of the movement and to extend it’.

***

Behind the German lines on the Eastern Front, on the night of June 19, more than ten thousand demolition charges laid by Soviet partisans damaged beyond immediate repair the whole German rail network west of Minsk. On the next two nights, a further forty thousand charges blew up the railway lines between Vitebsk and Orsha, and Polotsk and Molodechno. The essential lines for German reinforcements, linking Minsk with Brest-Litovsk and Pinsk, were also attacked, while 140,000 Soviet partisans, west of Vitebsk and south of Polotsk, attacked German military formations.

All this was but a prelude to the morning of June 22, when the Red Army opened its summer offensive. Code-named Operation Bagration, after the tsarist General, it began on the third anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, with a force larger than that of Hitler’s in 1941. In all, 1,700,000 Soviet troops took part, supported by 2,715 tanks, 1,355 self-propelled guns, 24,000 artillery pieces and 2,306 rocket launchers, sustained in the air by six thousand aircraft, and on the ground by 70,000 lorries and up to a hundred supply trains a day. In one week, the two-hundred-mile-long German front was broken, and the Germans driven back towards Bobruisk, Stolbtsy, Minsk and Grodno, their hold on western Russia broken for ever. In one week, 38,000 German troops had been killed and 116,000 taken prisoner. The Germans also lost two thousand tanks, ten thousand heavy guns, and 57,000 vehicles. German Army Group North, on which so much depended, was broken into two segments, one retreating towards the Baltic States, the other towards East Prussia.

On the first day of the Soviet offensive, a group of German socialists and Army officers, members of the clandestine Kreisau Circle, decided to make contact with the German Communists, whom hitherto they had shunned. Count Claus von Stauffenberg approved of these contacts, which were initiated by the former Social Democratic politician and teacher, Adolf Reichwein, and the Social Democrat leader Julius Leber. As a result of their discussions, it became clear that the German ‘masses’ were not ready for action against Hitler; if such action was to be taken, it would have to be through the agency of senior Army officers. Count von Stauffenberg agreed. Nine days later, he was appointed Chief of Staff to General Fromm, the Commander of the Reserve Army, who was also privy to the conspiracy. Von Stauffenberg’s new appointment gave him access to Hitler’s headquarters at both Rastenburg and Berchtesgaden. But Reichwein and Leber, betrayed by one of the three Communists whom they had met on June 22, were arrested.

***

Behind the German lines in Italy, near Arezzo, on June 24, Italian partisans took on German forces, attacking units on their way to the front line further south. In fierce reprisals, more than a hundred partisans were killed. In Britain, the flying bombs had revived the terrors of the Blitz; on June 24, fifty-one soldiers were killed when a flying bomb, shot down by anti-aircraft guns at Newlands in Kent while on its way to London, fell on their barracks and exploded.

In France, on June 25, American troops reached the suburbs of Cherbourg. The German commander of the fortress, General Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, appealed to Rommel to be allowed to surrender. ‘Among the troops defending the town’, von Schlieben explained, ‘there are two thousand wounded who cannot be treated,’ and he went on to ask: ‘Is the sacrifice of the others still necessary?’ Rommel replied: ‘In accordance with the Führer’s orders, you are to hold out to the last round.’ That day, more than a hundred German fighters flew from their bases in France to support von Schlieben’s defence; all were beaten back, whereupon Allied warships, now masters of the Channel, began to bombard von Schlieben’s positions from the sea.

The Red Army offensive, June–August 1944

Field Marshal von Rundstedt was still not convinced that Normandy was more than a diversion. On June 25, in his weekly situation report, he referred to the non-existent First United States Army Group, which, he believed, was in Britain ready to embark. This force, in his view, was even larger than Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, and might be used at any moment for landings between the right bank of the Somme and the mouth of the Seine, to encircle and capture Le Havre. With this fear in mind, von Rundstedt kept in the Pas-de-Calais area many thousands of German soldiers who might otherwise have tipped the balance in Normandy.

On June 26 the German naval commander at Cherbourg, Admiral Hennecke, ordered the total destruction of all port facilities; for this act, Hitler awarded him the Knight’s Cross to add to his Iron Cross. That day, on the Eastern Front, after an aerial attack by seven hundred bombers, the Red Army entered Vitebsk; the bodies of six thousand German soldiers were found in the streets. The German forces at Vitebsk, like those at Cherbourg, had been ordered by Hitler to fight to the last; but after the fight came defeat. In Germany, that day, Professor Walther Arndt, a physician and zoologist, was executed; his crime was to have remarked, after a particularly heavy Allied bombing raid: ‘This is the end of the Third Reich, and the guilty can now be brought to punishment.’

The ‘guilty’ still had work to do; on June 26, from Fossoli and Verona, 485 Jews were sent to Auschwitz; four days later, 1,153 Jews were deported from Paris. At the beginning of the month, 496 had been deported from Holland, while from Hungary a total of 381,000 Jews had reached Auschwitz in six weeks, and more than a quarter of a million of them gassed.

It was to alert the world to these killings that four Jews had managed to escape from Auschwitz, with extraordinary luck and courage, and had brought news of its gas chambers to Jews in Slovakia. They, in turn, had managed to get the news to neutral Switzerland, from where the terrible details had been sent, on June 24, to both Washington and London, with an appeal that the Allies should bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz. The names of twenty stations on those lines was included in the appeal. On June 26, the revelations about the mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz were being studied in London and Washington. When, on the following day, Churchill himself read the report, he wrote, to Anthony Eden: ‘What can be done? What can be said?’ Eden’s answer was the one which had just been put to him by two Zionist leaders, Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok. This was a request for the bombing of the railway lines, as asked for in the telegrams from Switzerland on June 24. Churchill’s reply was sympathetic and immediate. ‘Get anything out of the Air Force you can’, he wrote to Eden, ‘and invoke me if necessary’.

The response to Churchill’s appeal was, however, negative. The British Air Ministry were sceptical of losing British airmen’s lives ‘for no purpose’, as one official noted in the secrecy of his departmental correspondence. The bombing would in any case have to be done in daylight, that is, by the Americans. But, in Washington, the American Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy, rejected four separate appeals to bomb the lines; his instruction on getting each request was, as his deputy noted, ‘to “kill” this’. The deportations continued. But no plans were made to bomb the lines.

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In Burma, on June 26, British, Indian, Gurkha and American troops captured Mogaung. This was the first Japanese-held town in Burma to be wrested back from them. Eight days later, Myitkyina was also captured. On every front—in Burma, in the Pacific, in Italy, in Normandy, and most dramatically of all, in White Russia—the Axis powers were now firmly in retreat.

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