40

The battles for Poland and France

SUMMER 1944

On 25 July 1944, the Americans launched Operation Cobra in Normandy. Within a few days, American troops succeeded in breaking out of the Cherbourg peninsula, enabled to do so by a major British assault on the far more heavily defended German positions between Caen and Falaise. That week, behind the German lines in Poland, an experimental V2 rocket failed to explode, was hidden in a river by the Polish underground, salvaged, dismantled, and then flown out of Poland, together with a Polish engineer. The flight was in a Royal Air Force Dakota which made the dangerous journey across German-occupied Hungary from southern Italy, for that sole purpose. Flown back to Britain, the parts of the bomb revealed essential details about the imminent heavy German rocket attack, although there was nothing the British could do to forestall it. The Polish engineer was flown back to Poland. Later he was caught by the Gestapo, and shot.

In the former Polish capital, Warsaw, the presence of Soviet troops west of the River Bug led to a decision, by Poles loyal to the Government-in-exile in London, to try to throw off the German yoke before the Soviets arrived. ‘We are ready to fight for the liberation of Warsaw at any moment,’ the Home Army’s commander, Lieutenant General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, telegraphed to London on July 25, and he added: ‘Be prepared to bomb the aerodromes around Warsaw at our request. I shall announce the moment of the beginning of the fight.’ On the following day, a senior Home Army officer in Warsaw, General Tadeusz Pelczynski, telegraphed to the expectant forces in Warsaw: ‘It might be necessary to begin the battle for Warsaw at any time.’

On July 26, eleven Soviet partisans, led by Captain P. A. Velichko, were parachuted into German-occupied Slovakia, near Ruzomberok, with weapons and radio-transmitters. Their task was to prepare the way for a drop of substantial numbers of partisans and supplies, to create a network of anti-German bases and activity. That day, in Lyon, a bomb was thrown at a restaurant frequented by the Gestapo. No one was seriously hurt. But on the following day five prisoners of the Gestapo, including the Resistance leader Albert Chambonnet, were shot, and their bodies left in the street as a warning. On July 27, as American troops broke out of the Normandy bridgehead, a Special Air Service force parachuted into Mazignen, behind German lines, to disrupt German road communications to the battle zone. That same day, Périers fell at last to American assault. In Italy, the Germans had fallen back as far as Florence. On the Eastern Front, the Red Army entered Dvinsk, Bialystok, Lvov and Stanislawow, driving back the Germans at every point along a five-hundred-mile front.

Over London, two flying bombs on July 28 did considerable damage; the first, at Lewisham, killing fifty-one people, the second, at the corner of Earls Court Road and Knightsbridge, killing forty-five; the first had fallen on a busy shopping centre, the second on a Lyons Corner House tea shop.

In the Pacific, the United States completed its New Guinea campaign with Operation Globetrotter, the capture on July 30 of the town of Sansapor, for the loss of only two American soldiers; yet in once more defending their indefensible positions, 374 Japanese soldiers were killed.

***

As the Anglo-American forces broke out of the Normandy beach-head, opening the road to central France, yet another deportation train left Paris. On it were 1,300 deportees, among them three hundred children and young people under eighteen, including a fifteen-day-old baby boy, deported in the wooden box that had served as his cradle. In Auschwitz itself, towards which this train was bound, July 31 saw the gassing of 750 Gypsy women whose barrack had been reported to Dr Mengele as being infected with lice. Within the next three days, two thousand more Gypsies were killed. The rest, 1,408 in all, were sent westward by train, some to Buchenwald, others to Ravensbrück, to yet more barracks, beatings and slave labour. Some were used for sea-water experiments. Others were sent on, yet again, to Mittlebau-Dora and Flossenbürg, to work in the underground factories of the disintegrating Reich.

***

On July 29, in central Poland, units of the Red Army crossed the River Vistula, capturing the town of Sandomierz. That day, with Soviet tanks already at Wolomin, twelve miles east of Warsaw, Radio Moscow broadcast to the people of the Polish capital: ‘the hour of action has already arrived’. On July 31, Soviet forces entered Radzymin, to the north-west of Warsaw, and Otwock to the south-east. The battle was so close that it could be heard in Warsaw. But with German reinforcements being hurried across the Vistula, on August 1, the Soviet commander, Major-General Radzievskii, realizing that his tank forces were considerably outnumbered, ordered a defensive line to be held between Kobylka and Milosna. That day, inside Warsaw, members of the Polish Home Army, members of the Communist-led People’s Army, and armed civilians of no political persuasion, in all 42,500 men and women, seized two-thirds of the city from the Germans. For three days they awaited a German counter-attack, confident that they could hold it off, and achieve the liberation of their capital city before the Red Army could cross the Vistula.

As Warsaw rose in revolt, the Germans were everywhere in retreat: in Normandy, on August 1 the Americans entered Vire. On the Eastern Front, the Russians entered Kovno. But the Germans were determined to crush the insurgents in Warsaw. ‘Destroy tens of thousands,’ was Himmler’s order to General Geibel on August 1. His order was obeyed, with brutal savagery. Entering a hospital on Plocka Street, the Germans killed the head doctor, then ordered the patients to leave the building. All the patients were then shot.

The Warsaw uprising, July–October 1944

On the other side of the world, on Tinian Island in the Pacific, August 1 saw a collective act of self destruction. As one American soldier later wrote, it was after the fighting had ceased that, as Marines ‘watched in amazement’, a Japanese soldier ‘leaped off the plain into the sea, a sheer drop of more than a hundred feet. In a few minutes another jumped. For half an hour the suicide leaps of the soldiers continued.’ The American soldier’s account went on: ‘In the caves overhead an intermittent puff of grey smoke from hand grenades told of other Japs who preferred that form of suicide. The drama was coming to its destructive conclusion. Several soldiers had succeeded in gathering a group of thirty-five or forty civilians around them. The Marines looked on helplessly as two of the soldiers tied the group together with a long rope. Suddenly a puff of smoke from a grenade went up from among the tightly packed group. This was only the beginning. The grenade had been used to detonate a larger charge of high explosives. A terrific blast shook the ground. The bodies of the victims were thrown twenty-five feet in the air. Their arms, legs, and hands were scattered across the plain. The remaining soldiers committed suicide with hand grenades’.

Only after this massacre did the surviving civilians make for the American lines. Within two weeks, 13,262 had surrendered. ‘We had literally saved these people from their own protectors,’ the soldier reflected.

***

On August 2, as the Allies advanced northward in Italy, the Germans deported 222 Italian Jews from Verona to Auschwitz. That day, in London, Churchill told the House of Commons that 4,735 people had been killed by the flying bombs. In Warsaw, the commander of the Polish resistance forces, General Bor-Komorowski, sent an assault group to capture Okecie airport, through which he hoped to obtain arms and ammunition from the West. The attackers were mown down by German machine-gun fire. Two days later, the German forces went over to the offensive. As well as SS troops, commanded by Hitler’s most ruthless anti-partisan general, von dem Bach Zelewski, the German troops included the Kaminski Brigade of Russian prisoners-of-war who had thrown in their lot with the Germans, and the Dirlewanger Brigade of German former criminals, who had been offered their release from prison if they agreed to fight. The fighting was savage, from the first days; it was to last for two months.

That August 4, the insurgents in Warsaw appealed for Allied help. ‘At urgent request of Polish Underground Army,’ Churchill telegraphed to Stalin, ‘we are dropping, subject to weather, about sixty tons of equipment and ammunition into the south-west quarter of Warsaw, where it is said a Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say that they appeal for Russian aid, which seems to be very near. They are being attacked by one and a half German divisions. This may be of help to your operation’.

Stalin replied at once, an answer, Churchill later described it, ‘both prompt and grim’. The Soviet Union would not help the insurgents. ‘I think that the information that has been communicated to you by the Poles’, Stalin declared, ‘is greatly exaggerated and does not inspire confidence.’ Stalin went on to tell Churchill: ‘The Home Army of the Poles consists of a few detachments, which they incorrectly call divisions. They have neither artillery nor aircraft nor tanks. I cannot imagine how such detachments can capture Warsaw, for the defence of which the Germans have produced four tank divisions, among them the Hermann Goering Division.’

That night, thirteen British bombers flew from Foggia in southern Italy to central Poland, which lay at the extreme limit of their range. Five out of the thirteen failed to return. Two of the planes reached as far as Warsaw, where they dropped twenty-four containers of arms and ammunition. Twelve of the containers fell into the hands of the insurgents; twelve fell into German controlled parts of the city.

It was on that same August 4, in Amsterdam, that Anne Frank and her family, German Jewish refugees in hiding for more than two years, were betrayed to the Gestapo, seized and deported. In Australia, on the following morning, a thousand Japanese prisoners-of-war in Cowra camp, west of Sydney, staged a mass breakout. Two Australian privates, Benjamin Hardy and Ralph Jones, who tried to hold the Japanese back with their machine gun, were overwhelmed and killed; both were subsequently awarded a posthumous George Cross. In the ensuing chase, 183 Japanese were killed, and a further twenty-nine committed suicide.

***

In Warsaw, on August 5, German bombers flew, shortly after dawn, over the suburb of Wola, dropping high-explosive and incendiary bombs. Later that day, the Polish insurgents liberated a German forced labour camp on Gesiowka Street, near the ruins of the former ghetto, freeing 348 Jews who were working there clearing the vast mounds of rubble. These liberated prisoners included Greek, Belgian, French, Roumanian and Hungarian, as well as Polish, Jews. One of the prisoners at Gesiowka, Hans Robert Martin Korn, was one of the eight Jews deported in the summer of 1942 from Finland to Auschwitz. German born, he had been a volunteer in the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union in October 1939. He did not survive the events of 1944.

All of the Jews released from the Gesiowka camp joined the Warsaw uprising. Those who were technicians, like Korn, formed a special platoon for the repair of captured German tanks. The first of these Jews to fall in battle was David Edelman, a deportee from France to Auschwitz.

By August 5, more than fifteen thousand Polish civilians had been murdered by German troops in Warsaw. At 5.30 that evening, General von dem Bach Zelewski gave the order for the execution of women and children to stop. But the killing continued of all Polish men who were captured, without anyone bothering to find out whether they were insurgents or not. Nor did either the Cossacks or the criminals in the Kaminski and Dirlewanger Brigades pay any attention to von dem Bach Zelewski’s order: by rape, murder, torture and fire, they made their way through the suburbs of Wola and Ochota, killing in three days of slaughter a further thirty thousand civilians, including hundreds of patients in each of the hospitals in their path.

***

On August 6, less than eighty miles south-west of Warsaw, the Germans began the deportation of the remaining 70,000 Jews from the Lodz ghetto; all of them were sent to Auschwitz, where more than half of those deported were taken straight to the gas chambers and killed.

That same day, in northern France, Hitler ordered a counter-attack against the base of the Cherbourg peninsula, determined to reach Avranches and cut off the American armies already moving southward out of the bridgehead. But a determined American defence at Mortain blunted the impetus of the attack, which within forty-eight hours was halted more than ten miles short of its objective. In the air, three hundred German fighters were in action on the first day of the counter-attack, against more than a thousand Allied aircraft; by August 8, only 110 were still in action.

For Hitler, August 8 marked the first of what were to be many days of vengeance for the bomb plot, when eight German Army officers were hanged at the Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. The method of their execution was designed to create shock and fear; each of them was placed underneath a meathook on the ceiling and then, with a running noose—not of rope but of wire—around the hook and around his neck, was pulled slowly up, and strangled. Among those executed that day was General Erich Hoepner, who had been dismissed in 1941 for carrying out a withdrawal on the Russian front in defiance of Hitler’s orders, and Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, a cousin of Count von Stauffenberg and one of the founders of the Kreisau Circle. Also hanged on August 8 was the sixty-three-year-old Field Marshal, Erwin von Witzleben, whom the conspirators had chosen to be Commander-in-Chief of the German Army once Hitler had been overthrown. ‘I believe I have gone some way’, he wrote to his wife in a final letter, ‘to atone for the guilt which is our heritage.’

In Poland, as the Warsaw insurgents continued their fight, five German armoured divisions blocked the Soviet forces within striking distance of the capital, three at the Praga suburb on the eastern side of the Vistula, and two around the Russian troops which had crossed the Vistula thirty miles south of the capital, near Gora Kalwaria. That day, the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff rejected an appeal from Warsaw for the despatch of a Polish Parachute Brigade by air to the city.

Polish tank crews were in action in Normandy on August 8, when, together with Canadians, they launched Operation Totalize, striking along the Caen—Falaise road at the SS armoured forces which had so effectively kept in the beachhead. That day, the commander of the SS division’s armoured regiment, SS Major Max Wünsche, who had recently been decorated with the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross, was captured, and SS Captain Michael Wittman killed. Wittman, who held the higher decoration of Oak Leaves with Swords, had been credited with the destruction of 138 Allied tanks and 132 anti-tank guns in less than two years.

As the German forces began to withdraw, British Intelligence followed their plans and orders through Ultra, decrypting the German’s own most secret messages and then acting to disrupt the moves as they were being carried out. It was still, of course, the Allied soldiers and airmen who had to go into battle in order to reap the fruits of Ultra; on August 9, in an attack on a German anti-aircraft battery near Ste Marguerite-de-Viette, Flight Sergeant Reginald Thursby was shot down behind the German lines. He had become a pilot only after the Normandy landings; it was his sixteenth sortie. In Britain, his fiancée Doreen Young learned only that he was ‘reported missing’. Like thousands of others who received similar messages about their children, husbands or friends, she could only live in hope that he might still be alive, either a prisoner-of-war or an evader. But it was not to be. Thursby had been killed.

***

At six o’clock on the evening of August 9, Hitler personally ordered the renewal of the German attack on Mortain. His signal, sent by Ultra, was decrypted at Bletchley shortly before four in the morning of August 10, giving more than twenty-four hours’ warning of the impending attack. The Germans therefore withdrew, not amid secrecy, but carnage, their way back from Mortain becoming known to the Canadians who pursued them as ‘Dead Horse Alley’. At the height of the battle, one Canadian officer, Major David Currie, finding that all the officers under him had been either killed or wounded, took personal command of all his tanks and their hundred and fifty crewmen. After three days of combat at St Lambert-sur-Dives, he and his small force of 175 men had destroyed seven German tanks, killed or wounded eight hundred Germans, and taken more than a thousand prisoners. ‘When his force was finally relieved,’ read Currie’s citation for the Victoria Cross, ‘and he was satisfied that the handover was complete, he fell asleep on his feet and collapsed.’

To the south and west of the Falaise pocket, the Americans had swept the Germans to the Atlantic coast, and were advancing towards the River Loire. On August 10, in Paris, now less than 140 miles from the nearest Allied armies, a strike by railwaymen paralysed all German troop and supply movements in and out of the capital.

On August 12, American forces occupied Mortain; the German attempt to hold back the Allied advance in Normandy was over. That same day, a French military unit reached Alençon, 112 miles from Paris. That morning, in London, Churchill received the copy of an appeal sent by the Poles in Warsaw to the Allies. It was their tenth day of fighting against the Germans. ‘We are conducting a bloody fight,’ the message read. ‘The town is cut by three routes.’ Each route was ‘strongly held’ by German tanks, and the buildings along them ‘burned out’. Two German armoured trains on the city’s periphery, and artillery from the Praga suburb on the east bank of the Vistula, ‘fire continuously on the town, and are supported by air forces’.

The Polish message noted that only one ‘small drop’ had come from the Allies. ‘On the German—Russian front silence since the 3rd. We are therefore without any material or moral support….’ The message continued: ‘The soldiers and the population of the capital look hopelessly at the skies, expecting help from the Allies. On the background of smoke they see only German aircraft. They are surprised, feel deeply depressed, and begin to revile.’

Churchill at once sent on this message to Stalin, several of whose operational airfields were within only ten or twelve minutes’ flight from Warsaw. ‘They implore machine guns and ammunition,’ Churchill telegraphed. ‘Can you not give them some further help, as the distance from Italy is so very great?’

Determined to help the Polish insurgents, Churchill personally authorized the despatch two nights later of twenty bombers from their base at Foggia in southern Italy, each carrying twelve containers of arms and ammunition. In fact, twenty-eight bombers set out, of which fourteen reached Warsaw. Of those fourteen, three were shot down by German anti-aircraft fire. Of more than thirty-five tons of supplies, less than five tons reached the insurgents; but for them, every ton was a means of continuing the fight for another day.

***

The German armies, battling in Warsaw, on the Eastern Front, in Italy and in Normandy, had also to fight an increasingly active war behind the lines. The response continued to be brutal; on August 12, in the French mountain village of Sospel, fifteen members of the Maquis, captured in an SS sweep, were tortured and then shot. Throughout France, village memorials and wayside markers record these moments of cruel revenge. But the Resistance was determined to give the Allied forces whatever help it could.

In Normandy, the ebb and flow of battle had given way to a flood; on August 13 American forces reached the River Loire at Nantes. That same day, French parachutists, carrying out Operation Barker, landed at Salornay, to disrupt the German retreat.

As the Germans struggled, in chaos, inside the Falaise pocket, Hitler ordered them to fight on. And so they did, day after day, to the bitter end.

On August 14, the Allies launched Operation Tractable, the drive into Falaise itself, and simultaneously a westward thrust towards Paris. On the previous evening a Canadian officer, losing his way, had driven into the German lines and been killed. On his body the Germans found plans of the Tractable attack. As a result, they were able to stiffen their defences. The Allies also suffered when, by accident, a preliminary bombing raid against the German forward positions fell instead on the Allied lines, killing sixty-five Canadian and Polish troops. But the offensive, once launched, could not be held back. Within four days, Allied soldiers stood on the banks of the River Seine, at Mantes, thirty miles from the centre of Paris. But inside the Falaise pocket the German defenders continued to fight against the remorselessly closing gap.

As this drive towards Paris began, Allied air, sea and land forces launched Operation Dragoon, landing 94,000 men and 11,000 vehicles between Toulon and Cannes on the Mediterranean coast of France in a single day. Within twenty-four hours these troops had pushed nearly twenty miles inland. That day, in Paris, amid the excitement of the news of this fresh landing, the city’s police force, hitherto a reluctant arm of German civic control, agreed to put aside its uniforms, keep its arms and join the active resistance on the streets. But the revenge of the occupier was still not ended. That day, five French prisoners, among them de Gaulle’s clandestine military representative in Paris, Colonel André Rondenay, were taken by the Gestapo to the village of Domont, twelve miles north of Paris, and shot. Their killers then returned to Paris for an ‘executioners’ banquet’, of champagne.

There was yet another execution that August 15, this one in Berlin, when Count von Helldorf, the former Chief of Police in the German capital, was hanged for his part in the plot against Hitler.

***

For the Poles still struggling in Warsaw, the American landing in the South of France was another blow. ‘In view of the unfeasibility of day operations to Warsaw,’ the Joint Staff Mission in Washington reported to London on August 15, ‘and the commitment of all available XVth Air Force resources to “Dragoon”,’ the American chiefs of Staff were of the opinion that the ‘best solution’ with regard to ‘acceptance of responsibility for helping the Poles in Warsaw’ was that it should be undertaken by Stalin. As far as the efforts by the Western Allies were concerned, the American Chiefs of Staff could recommend only ‘the minimum night effort’ of the special operations unit of the Anglo-American air force.

The battle in France, summer and autumn 1944

Thus Operation Dragoon, the diversion of troops to which had earlier undermined British plans to pursue a more vigorous military campaign against the German armies in Italy, now also took its toll of Warsaw.

In Moscow, the British and American ambassadors had both gone, on August 15, to see the Soviet deputy Foreign Minister, Andrei Vishinsky, to seek Soviet help for the Warsaw uprising. But Vishinsky—as Averell Harriman, the American Ambassador, reported to Washington—‘clung’ to the view that the outbreak in Warsaw ‘was an ill-advised and not a serious matter, and that the future course of the war would not at all be influenced by it’.

On the night of August 15, a further bomber flight left southern Italy for Warsaw. Ten bombers set off; six failed to return. Among those killed were twenty South African aircrew. One, Lieutenant J. J. C. Groenwald, managed to parachute to safety near Kazimierz Wielka; he stayed there for five months, given false papers by the Poles, and living as a worker under the unsuspecting eyes of the German guards.

***

On August 16, Hitler reluctantly accepted that Normandy was lost; angrily, he now replaced Field Marshal von Kluge with Field Marshal Model. But the pace of the Allied advance could not be slowed down. On August 17, the town of Falaise was entered by the Canadians, while American forces entered the port of St Malo, in Brittany. The German commander of St Malo, Colonel von Aulock, had given orders for the port to be held to the last man. Anyone who deserted or surrendered, he declared, ‘is a common dog!’ Hitler, much impressed by von Aulock’s determination not to give up St Malo, awarded him the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross. But so swift was the battle that the award was actually made on August 18, the day after von Aulock’s surrender.

Despite the surrender of St Malo, a young German Lieutenant, Richard Seuss, with 320 men, continued to defend the fortified islet of Cézembre, which lay only four thousand yards offshore. Seuss refused to surrender, despite a leaflet appeal to do so, followed by a heavy American air bombardment in which napalm was used in Europe for the first time. Only after the destruction of his water-distillation plant two weeks later did he raise the white flag.

Surrender and retreat in France did not deter the Germans from their efforts to undermine the morale of France’s ally, Britain. At midday on August 17, a flying bomb fell on Lavender Hill, in the London borough of Battersea, killing fourteen people in a passing bus, and fourteen more in the street and the surrounding buildings. This was only one of more than forty flying bombs which did serious damage in London that month. At Morden Hill, in southeast London, a flying bomb, landing almost exactly where another one had fallen eight hours earlier, killed several rescue workers who were still searching for the victims of the earlier one.

On August 17 Hitler ordered the evacuation of southern France. Two top-secret messages to this effect were decrypted by the British at Bletchley, giving the troops already ashore near Toulon a major advantage, as they learned the exact line to which the Germans were to withdraw; it ran from Sens to Dijon to the Swiss frontier.

At Lyon, now itself within the area which Hitler had decided to abandon, the Gestapo and French Milice took 109 prisoners on August 17 from the Montluc prison to Bron airport, on the outskirts of the city. There, the prisoners were shot. In Paris, that day, the German forces began to pull out: ‘the great flight of the Fritzes’, one Parisian called it. As the Germans left, by train and road, the Gestapo commandeered three railway carriages, on which they deported fifty-one Jews to Auschwitz. One of them, Marcel Bloch-Dassault, a leading French aircraft manufacturer, was then sent to Dachau, and survived the war. Also deported was Armand Kohn, head of the Rothschild hospital, together with his twelve-year-old son Georges-André Kohn, and a twelve-year-old girl, Jacqueline Morgenstern. Both these twelve-year-olds were later sent from Auschwitz to Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, where they were subjected to sadistic medical experiments.

When these deportation carriages reached Morcourt, near St Quentin, fifteen of the fifty-one deportees managed to escape.

It was on the morning of August 17, as the German Army and Gestapo began their flight from Paris, that, on the Eastern Front, two Soviet infantry battalions, commanded by Captain Georgi Gubkin and Captain Pavel Yurgin, reached the border of East Prussia. In front of them were the tiled roofs of a German town, Schirwindt. A small group of men crossed a narrow bridge across the river which marked the border; then, on the far bank, Sergeant Alexander Belov raised the Red Flag. ‘Woe to this land of evil-doers!’ the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg declared in a newspaper article when the German frontier was reached. ‘We say this as we stand on Germany’s threshold—woe to Germany!’

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!