Twelve minutes after midnight on 1 January 1945, a German flying bomb fell on Antwerp, killing thirty-seven civilians. Later that day, almost a thousand German fighters attacked Allied airfields throughout northern France, Belgium and western Holland. As many as 156 Allied aircraft were destroyed, many of them on the ground, but 277 German planes were also lost, a formidable toll. This was the attack which the Germans had planned to make when the Ardennes offensive began, but which had been delayed by the bad weather.
Neither the flying bomb, nor German air attacks, could any longer weaken the Allied supremacy. On that first day of 1945, in the Ardennes, the Americans, attacking the ‘Bulge’ in a fierce drive from the south, pushed the Germans out of Moircy, Tenneville and Chenogne. In Alsace, a German offensive by the Nineteenth Army was thrown back, with the virtual destruction of the Army which had launched it. On the Eastern Front, from Memel on the Baltic to Lake Balaton in the Hungarian plain, just over three million German soldiers faced six million Russians. Against an additional two and a half million German soldiers in reserve, the Russians could pit a further five and a half million men. Against the 4,000 German tanks, the Russians had 12,900. The disparity in combat aircraft was even greater, 1,960 German planes as against 15,540 Russian aircraft. Hitler, all too aware on January 1 of this enormous disparity of forces, was under considerable pressure to agree to withdraw his most experienced SS division from the Eifel mountains south of Aachen, and to transfer them to the Eastern Front. This would clearly end any chance of maintaining the Ardennes offensive, even in a limited form.
That night, German ‘Blitz’ jet bombers launched their first night attack, when four of them attacked military targets in the Brussels area. But, despite their considerable advantage of speed, there were too few of them to make any change in the balance of air power, now resting securely and massively with the Allies.
In the Far East, New Year’s Day 1945 saw a human tragedy for the Allies along the Burma—Thailand railway when, in a raid on Nong Pladuk, ninety-five Allied prisoners-of-war were accidentally killed by Allied bombers hitting at Japanese petrol, ammunition and supply trains in the railway sidings. Unknown to the Allies, these prisoners-of-war had been left at Nong Pladuk to repair the track.
Off Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands, aircraft from a fast American aircraft-carrier task force commanded by Vice-Admiral Mitscher, began, on January 3, a sustained two-day attack against Japanese ships and aircraft; twelve Japanese ships were sunk, and 110 aircraft shot down, for the loss of eighteen American planes. But in yet another suicide attack, by a Japanese kamikaze pilot off Luzon on January 3, the escort carrier Ommaney Bay was sunk, and ninety-three American sailors killed. During the ten day battle, an Australian heavy cruiser, the Australia, was hit by kamikaze pilots on two separate days; although she did not sink, forty-four of her crew were killed. Kamikaze pilots also killed twenty-two sailors on the American escort carrier Manila Bay, forty-five on the battleship California and thirty on the battleship New Mexico, including General Lumsden, Churchill’s personal liaison officer with General MacArthur.
By the end of the tenth day of sustained kamikaze attack, 53 American ships had been hit, out of a total force of 164, and 625 sailors killed.
In the Ardennes, the German forces were being pushed steadily backward. They were further weakened on January 4 by Hitler’s final decision to send the 6th SS Panzer Division to the Eastern Front. But for the Americans the battle was nevertheless a hard one: ‘The 11th Armoured Division is very green’, General Patton wrote in his diary on 4 January, ‘and took unnecessary losses to no effect’. There were also, Patton added, ‘some unfortunate incidents in the shooting of prisoners (I hope we can conceal this)’.
In Germany, the execution of Germans opposed to Hitler’s regime continued. On January 4, at Sachsenhausen, the SS executed Fritz Elsas, who in 1931 had been Mayor of Berlin, and who was a friend of Karl Goerdeler. A day later, Julius Leber was executed at the Plötzensee Prison in Berlin; a leading Social Democrat, the conspirators had chosen him to be Minister of the Interior once Hitler was overthrown.
Since December 16, the front line in Poland had been static, with Warsaw still behind the German lines. On January 5, in anticipation of an imminent Russian forward thrust into Poland, the Soviet Government announced that it now recognized the pro-Soviet Lublin Committee as the Provisional Government of Poland. This excluded, as it was intended to, the Polish leaders then in London—and with a Government-in-exile of their own since October 1939—from any say in the post-war government of their State. ‘Naturally’, Churchill telegraphed to Stalin that day, ‘I and my War Cabinet colleagues are distressed at the course events are taking.’ There was little, if anything, however, that Churchill could do, to alter the reality which Stalin and his armies had created on the ground. That same day, in Washington, President Roosevelt issued a directive which recognized the wider aspects of that reality. ‘Russia’, he wrote, ‘continues to be a major factor in achieving the defeat of Germany. We must, therefore, continue to support the USSR by providing the maximum amount of supplies which can be delivered to her ports. I consider this a matter of utmost importance, second only to the operational requirements in the Pacific and the Atlantic’.
On January 6, German SS troops launched an attack on the Americans still trapped in Bastogne, but were driven off. In the Pacific, despite the death of more than 150 men, killed by kamikaze attacks that day off Luzon, no ships were sunk. On board the troop transport Callaway, where twenty-nine crewmen were killed in one such attack, the 1,188 troops on board were unharmed. On board one of the escort vessels, the destroyer Walke, the ship’s commander, George F. Davis, continued to control operations after he had been covered in petrol during a kamikaze attack and was turned into a human torch. In terrible pain, he directed both the fire fighters, and the guns which managed to shoot down a second kamikaze before it could hit the ship. Davis died a few hours later. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour. On board the cruiser Louisville, thirty-one sailors were killed in a kamikaze attack that same day. Here again, the ship’s captain, Admiral Ted Chandler, although hideously burned, continued to direct the fire-fighting. He died on the following day.
In the United States, James B. Conant, the man whom Roosevelt had put in charge of the ‘Manhattan Project’ in 1942, noted that the dropping of an atomic bomb would be possible that year, and wondered ‘whether the month will be July, August or September’.
Shortly after nine o’clock on the morning of January 9, more than sixty thousand American troops began their landing on Luzon. As they did so, the Japanese launched a new form of suicide attack, an explosive boat piloted by the equivalent of the airborne kamikaze. In the first of these attacks, the light cruiser Columbia was hit, and twenty-four crewmen killed. A second kamikaze pilot then succeeded in hitting the battleship Mississippi, killing twenty-five of her crew. On the battleship Colorado, eighteen crewmen were killed when the ship was mistaken for an enemy vessel by another American ship. But these, though tragic episodes in the lives of individuals, were minor incidents in the battle itself, and by nightfall the Americans had secured a bridgehead seventeen miles long and four miles deep. On the following day, those who had landed were greeted by runners from one of the American officers, Captain Ray Hunt, who, for more than two years, having escaped from the death march on Bataan, had maintained a substantial Filipino guerrilla force behind Japanese lines. Henceforth, Hunt and his men were able to provide regular information about Japanese troop movements and preparations.
On January 12, three days after the American landings on Luzon, the Red Army, already fighting in the streets of Budapest, reopened its offensive in central Poland. In all, 180 Soviet divisions were in action. Hitler could only match them with seventy-five; thirty more German divisions were trapped in the Memel and Kurland pockets, with a further twenty-eight embattled in Hungary. In an attempt to redress the balance as far as he could, Hitler ordered the immediate transfer of sixteen more German divisions, and considerable quantities of artillery, from the Western to the Eastern Front.
As Hitler awaited news of the next Soviet offensive, his judges in Berlin were bringing to trial the twenty-seven-year-old Gertrud Seele, a nurse and public health worker who had expressed her loathing of Nazism during a conversation at a private party. It subsequently emerged that she had helped individual Jews to escape persecution. Found guilty of being ‘a recognized enemy of the State’, Gertrud Seele was executed at Plötzensee Prison on January 12.
It was on January 12, that the United States Office of War Information announced the number of American war dead on all fronts since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and Hitler’s declaration of war against America, three years earlier. A total of 138,393 Americans were known to have been killed on all fronts, at sea, and in the air. A further 73,594 were missing, presumed dead; a total death toll of more than two hundred thousand. Four days later, Churchill announced the British figures for the five years and one month of war up to the end of November 1944; 199,497 United Kingdom military, naval and air force deaths. In addition, 28,040 Canadians, 18,015 Australians, 17,415 Indians, 8,919 New Zealanders and 5,783 South Africans had been killed in action; more than a quarter of a million British and Commonwealth dead.
On the day that these figures were issued, giving in all an Allied death toll of almost half a million, a further 129 American sailors were killed off the Philippines as a result of a kamikaze attack on the troopship Kyle V. Johnson.
However high the cost in human life, the Allies were committed to the unconditional surrender of both Germany and Japan; nor did either adversary show any sign of being willing to give up the fight. Yet it was a fight whose outcome could no longer be in doubt, as two more Allied initiatives were launched on January 14, when, in the Ardennes, the Americans reached Bastogne, freeing those who were trapped, and ending any German hopes of holding even a fragment of the area which had been reoccupied since the start of their counter-offensive a month earlier. That same day, on the Eastern Front, Marshal Zhukov launched the attack which was to drive the Germans from their very first conquest of the war, western Poland. So swift was the Russian advance that by the time Hitler ordered a panzer corps to be brought from East Prussia to Lodz, in order to take part in the defence of Kielce on January 15, Kielce was already in Russian hands.
As the battles raged, the brutalities continued behind the lines. In Cracow, on January 15, as the Red Army approached, the Gestapo shot seventy-nine Poles in an act of terror. In Budapest, in the second week of February, with the city surrounded, Hungarian fascists attacked Jews in hiding or in hospitals and old people’s homes; in one such attack, ninety-two Jews were shot, in another, more than two hundred.
On the evening of January 15, Hitler returned by train from his headquarters at Bad Nauheim, on the Western Front, to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. As the train travelled towards Germany, one of his staff, an SS colonel, remarked in Hitler’s hearing: ‘Berlin will be most practical as our headquarters: we’ll soon be able to take the streetcar from the Eastern to the Western Front!’ Hitler laughed.
That same evening, another train set off on an equally historic journey; a boat train which left Victoria Station in London, bound for the English Channel coast, and Paris. It was the first regular civilian link between the two capitals since May 1940.
Another European capital was about to be liberated in the third week of January; but Warsaw, whose uprising had been crushed three and a half months earlier, was in ruins. No city in Europe had suffered such a combination of human and physical destruction, or been so long under the heel of the conqueror; more than five years. In the towns north and west of Warsaw, last minute slaughter continued. At Mlawa, 320 Poles were shot on January 17, most of them captured Polish partisans, as well as many Soviet prisoners-of-war brought to Mlawa from a nearby camp. That same day, at Chelmno, the SS prepared to murder the surviving members of the Jewish forced-labour squad which, for the previous two and a half months, had been forced to dismantle the crematoria and remove all signs that there had ever been a camp on the site. A hundred Jews had been put to this work. By mid-January only forty-one were still alive. There had been no work that final day, one of the labour squad, Mordechai Zurawski, later recalled, ‘and we were placed in a row; each man had a bottle on his head and they amused themselves shooting at the bottles. When the bottle was hit, the man survived, but if the bullet landed below the mark, he had had it’.
On the night of January 17 the SS entered the barracks at Chelmno and one of them, waving his flashlight, demanded: ‘Five men follow me!’ Five people were taken out, Zurawski later recalled, ‘and we heard five shots’. Then someone else came in and shouted, ‘Five more—out!’ More shots; then a third group of five was taken out. Further shots, then a fourth group was called, among them Zurawski. ‘The SS man came in,’ he recalled. ‘I hid behind the door—I had a knife in my hand; I jumped on the SS man and stabbed him. I broke his flashlight and stabbed right and left, and I escaped.’
Running from the camp, Zurawski was shot in the foot. But he managed to reach the safety of the dense woods.
A second Jew of the forty-one had also survived. Unknown to Zurawski, in the first group that had been taken out to be shot, one had been gravely wounded, but had not died. His name was Shimon Srebnik. He too was later to give witness to the horrors of Chelmno, first at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961, then, twenty-five years later, in the film Shoa, when he returned to Chelmno to meet again the local Poles, one of whom had given him shelter after his escape.
On January 18, after five days of continuous street-fighting, the German forces trapped inside Budapest could fight on no more; 35,840 had been killed. The remaining 62,000 surrendered. Six of the capital cities into which Hitler’s armies had marched in triumph since September 1939 were now free from German rule: Warsaw, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Athens and now Budapest. Only The Hague, Copenhagen and Oslo still awaited their day of liberation, as did Prague, which German forces had entered in March 1939.
At Auschwitz, the surviving inmates were also awaiting the imminent arrival of the Red Army. But the SS were determined not to allow the liberation of so many thousands of people, all of them emaciated, sick, and struggling to survive. In the barracks at Birkenau, on January 17, there remained 15,058, mostly Jews; at Auschwitz Main Camp, 16,226, mostly Poles brought there after the Warsaw uprising the previous August; at Monowitz, 10,233, Jews, Poles and forced labourers of a dozen nationalities, including British prisoners-of-war; and in the factories of the Auschwitz region, another 16,000 Jews and non-Jews. On January 18 the order was given: immediate evacuation. The captives were sent, on foot, to nearby railway junctions, from which they were taken to a hundred different camps and sub-camps in western Germany, but sometimes by foot for hundreds of miles.
Throughout January 18 and 19 enormous columns, some with as many as 2,500 prisoners, set off on foot, in the freezing weather, westwards towards the cities of Silesia. Anyone who fell, and could not rise again, was shot. The slightest protest was met with savage brutality from the armed guards. The European ‘death marches’ had begun. In one column of eight hundred men, only two hundred survived the eighteen days of marching and savagery. In another column of 2,500, a thousand were shot during the first day’s march.
As the marchers continued westwards on January 19, Allied bombers, in continual search of Germany’s oil reserves, struck once more at the Monowitz synthetic-oil factory. As a result of the bombardment, the 850 sick slave labourers who had been left behind were without water or light. In the week to come, two hundred of them died.
Not only from Auschwitz, but from all the slave-labour camps of Upper Silesia, Jews and non-Jews were being marched away. At the same time, United States bombers continued to strike at the whole region. On January 20 they hit the synthetic-oil plant at Blechhammer, were nearly four thousand Jews worked as slave labourers: all of them former inmates of Auschwitz. During the bombing, the SS abandoned the watch-towers, and forty-two Jews were able to escape through a hole made in the wall by one of the bombs. One of the escapees was shot, but the rest managed to reach the shelter of a nearby wood, from where they were able to make contact with an outlying unit of the advancing Soviet forces.
British prisoners-of-war were also among those who had been taken from their camps and put on to the roads. There, marching as much as twenty miles a day, many collapsed by the wayside, as columns of concentration camp prisoners—and of a new phenomenon, German refugees—crowded the same roads and fought for the same shelter. ‘Marching all night to cross the Oder before bridges blown,’ Sergeant Webster noted on January 20. ‘Intense cold, six refugee children died on route—many falling out of ranks exhausted—frostbite gets a grip’.
At Birkenau, on January 20, the SS blew up two of the three remaining crematoria. That same day, they shot two hundred of the 4,200 Jewish women who had been too sick to leave the camp on foot two days earlier. Day by day, the death marches continued into Silesia, with hundreds being shot each day, as well as those who were too weak even to stand up when morning came. Reaching the large cities, the marchers were then put in trains, and sent to the concentration camps at Gross Rosen, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Nordhausen, Buchenwald and Bergen—Belsen. Often they were forced to travel in open goods wagons. Each nigh the temperature fell far below zero. Of four thousand men sent by train from Gleiwitz to Nordhausen on January 22, six hundred died on the journey. That same day, sixty men and women, who were among the sick Jews who had been left at Birkenau, set off on foot, in search of safety. An hour later a Gestapo unit went after them, and opened fire. Ten managed to find their way back to Birkenau. The rest were killed.
As these death marches continued, under SS guard and gun, the Red Army was advancing steadily towards Auschwitz and Chelmno. On the night of January 19, Soviet forces entered Cracow. That same day, Lodz fell to General Chuikov’s Army. On the Western Front, on January 20, the German armies had been pushed back to the starting point of their Ardennes offensive; 15,600 American soldiers had been killed in the battle, but so also had 25,000 Germans. A further 75,000 Germans had been taken prisoner.
On January 22, the Red Army entered East Prussia in force. In Czechoslovakia, Soviet troops had broken through the Carpathians, and advanced northwards from Hungary, to take Bardejov, Presov and Kosice. On January 21, in East Prussia, German troops evacuated Tannenberg, the site of Germany’s greatest victory over Russia in the First World War; as they left, they disinterred the remains of Field Marshal Hindenburg and his wife, who were buried there, and took their bodies back to Berlin.
While the Red Army swept all before it in East Prussia, more than two million German civilians took to the roads, fleeing westward. Even as the war of armies continued, the flight of refugees had become a flood.
On January 22, Hitler ordered the evacuation of Memel by sea. There was to be no order to the besieged city to fight to the death. That same day, north-west of Oppeln, the Red Army crossed the River Oder, seizing a bridgehead on the western bank. The Soviet forces in Silesia were now less than 250 miles from Berlin. That night, further north, units of the Red Army, pushing through the 1939 Polish frontier town of Rawicz, reached the village of Göben, on the eastern bank of the Oder, a mere 150 miles from Berlin.
In Berlin, the trials and execution continued of those who had been arrested at the time of the July Plot. On January 23, Count Helmuth von Moltke, the former legal adviser to the German High Command, was hanged at Plötzensee Prison. The founder and leader of the Kreisau Circle, which had first met in his family home at Kreisau, in Silesia, Moltke was thirty-seven years old at the time of his execution; an eye-witness of his last moments described him as ‘steadfast and calm’.
There were two other executions at Plötzensee Prison on January 23: Nikolaus Gross, who had been an active anti-Nazi in trade union and Catholic workingmen’s associations, and Erwin Planck, son of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Planck, and a former Under Secretary at the Reich Chancellery before Hitler came to power. He was fifty-one years old.
On the battlefield, on January 23, the German Fourth Army, which had guarded the frontiers of East Prussia, withdrew from the fortress of Lötzen. Hitler was furious, dismissing the Army’s commander, General Hossbach, and all his staff, as well as the Army Group commander, General Hans Reinhart. But dismissals could not hold the Red Army at bay. With Lötzen lost, Soviet troops swept into nearby Rastenburg, overrunning Hitler’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’, scene of his exhilaration during the spectacular advances of July 1941, and of the Bomb Plot in July 1944. Now it was but one more ruin in the lost and abandoned territories which had been German for centuries. On January 26, when the Red Army reached the Prussian coast at Elbing, more than half a million German soldiers were cut off, and East Prussia severed from Germany.
In the Pacific, on January 24, as the battle for Luzon continued, British aircraft launched Operation Meridian, against the Japanese oil refineries at Palembang, on Sumatra. From these refineries came three-quarters of the aviation fuel needed by the Japanese Air Force. Five days later, a second strike completed the damage begun by the first, reducing the output of the refineries by three-quarters. In northern Burma, a combined Chinese and American force was overrunning the last Japanese positions on the Burma Road.
As German forces continued to fall back on the Eastern Front, more and more concentration camps and slave-labour camps were evacuated. Again and again, those who were too sick to leave, or who stumbled or fell on the march, were shot. On January 25, the SS ordered the evacuation of Stutthof, where 70,000 inmates had been murdered since September 1939. On the day of the evacuation, there were 25,000 prisoners in the camp; at least 12,000 were killed as the evacuation began. Once on the march, those unfit to continue were shown no mercy; at Nawcz, 538 prisoners who had typhus were murdered.
One girl, Sara Matuson, who had escaped from this death march, was saved near Marienburg, when a British prisoner-of-war, Stan Wells, found her freezing and starving in the barn where he was working. Wells and his nine fellow British prisoners-of-war took turns to feed her and to care for her. As the march itself continued, Sara Matuson’s mother and sister were among the thousands who died. Her father had been murdered in the Siauliai ghetto soon after the German invasion of Russia.
‘God punish Germany’, Wells wrote in his diary on January 26, and he went on: ‘Never again will I help a German, never again will I speak well or defend them in speech! I have seen today the filthiest foulest and most cruel sight of my life. God damn Germany with an everlasting punishment. At 9 a.m. this morning a column straggled down the road towards Danzig—a column far beyond the words of which I am capable to describe. I was struck dumb with a miserable rage a blind coldness which nearly resulted in my being shot. Never in my life have I been so devoid of fear of opening my mouth. They came straggling through the bitter cold, about 300 of them, limping, dragging footsteps, slipping and falling, to rise and stagger under the blows of the guards—SS swine. Crying loudly for bread, screaming for food, 300 matted haired, filthy objects that had once been—Jewesses! A rush into a nearby house for bread resulted in one being clubbed down with a rifle butt, but even as she fell in a desperate movement she shoved the bread she’d got into her blouse.’
On January 25, in the sick bay at Auschwitz, the SS shot 350 Jews: 150 men and two hundred women. On the following day, the last of the camp’s five gas chambers and crematoria was blown up. The SS then left. Behind them was a pitiful remnant of the sick and dying. One of those who remained, an Italian Jew, Primo Levi, later a Nobel Laureate, recalled: ‘We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to its conclusion by the Germans in defeat.’
On January 26, at Ravensbrück, the SS shot Violette Szabo, the British agent who had been caught after she had parachuted into France. That same day, on French soil near Colmar, the last German resistance was being overcome; among the American soldiers who fought and were wounded that day was a twenty-year-old Lieutenant, Audie Murphy. It was an action which won him the Congressional Medal of Honour. Murphy, who was later to re-enact his own exploits in the film To Hell and Back, subsequently featured on the cover of Life magazine as the ‘most decorated soldier’.
Undecorated, and unsung, on the night of January 26 a friend of Primo Levi, a Hungarian Jew by the name of Somogyi, died in the barracks at Auschwitz. On the following morning, Levi and another of his friends were carrying his body away from the barrack on a stretcher. ‘He was very light,’ Levy later recalled. ‘We overturned the stretcher on the grey snow’. As they did so, the Russians arrived.
Entering Auschwitz, the Soviet troops found 648 corpses and more than seven thousand starving and skeletal survivors: 5,800 Jews at Auschwitz—Birkenau, 1,200 Poles in Auschwitz Main Camp and 650 slave labourers of many nationalities at Monowitz. The liberators also found the charred ruins of twenty-nine enormous storehouses, which the SS had set on fire before leaving. But six storehouses had escaped destruction; in them were 836,255 women’s dresses, 348,000 sets of men’s suits, and thirty-eight thousand pairs of men’s shoes.
Even in defeat, the German Army continued to resist ferociously, and at times to counter-attack; that same January 27, in East Prussia, eight German divisions halted the advance of the Soviet troops near Marienburg. In Hungary, too, a German counter-attack had retaken Szekesfehervar. But the Red Army was strong enough to encircle towns, besieging the Germans inside them, and then to move on. Both Poznan and Torun were encircled on January 27, as Soviet troops advanced towards the 1939 German—Polish border. Two days later, the frontier was crossed, and two Pomeranian towns, Schönlanke and Woldenberg, fell to the Russians. But Küstrin, on the east bank of the Oder, only forty-eight miles from Berlin, held out against repeated Soviet attacks.
In a desperate attempt to hold the eastern frontier of Germany, Hitler appointed Himmler to command the recently created Vistula Army Group. It was ill-named; the Vistula itself was almost entirely overrun. But around Breslau, a massive German plan of defence was in place.
On the Western Front, three American divisions launched an attack on the Siegfried Line on January 30. That day, in Kiel harbour, a Soviet submarine sank the German transport ship Wilhelm Gustloff, which was bringing eight thousand soldiers and refugees from East Prussia. More than six thousand of them were drowned, the worst single maritime disaster of the Second World War.
Not disaster, but heroism, was the theme of the German film Kolberg, the first showing of which was on January 30. Shot in colour, the most expensive film ever made in Nazi Germany, making use in one scene of 187,000 soldiers specially withdrawn for the purpose from active service, it told of the miraculous triumph of the defenders in the besieged Baltic port of Kolberg in 1807. Copies of the film were sent to German garrisons everywhere. The besieged garrison at La Rochelle, on receiving the film by air, promised ‘to emulate the historic struggle at home, and not to fall short of them in our perseverance and initiative’. Shortly afterwards, La Rochelle fell. So too did the real Kolberg, overrun by the Red Army; but this fact was kept from the German public while the film was still showing.
On Luzon, sixty-five miles behind Japanese lines, January 30 saw a dramatic raid to rescue more than five hundred American prisoners-of-war, captives for the past three years, from a camp at Cabanatuan. A hundred members of the Sixth Ranger Infantry Battalion carried out the raid, which was helped on its course by more than four hundred Filipino guerrillas; in a twenty minute battle, all 225 Japanese soldiers in the camp garrison were killed, and 531 prisoners freed. On the way back to the American lines, one Ranger and twenty-six Filipino guerrillas were killed. In the United States, news of the rescue electrified the nation; for Mrs Caryl Picotte, of Oakland, California, who had been notified two days earlier of the death of her brother in action on Leyte, there was now the news that her husband was among those brought out to safety from Cabanatuan.
In Borneo, the Allied prisoners-of-war were less fortunate than those on Luzon; of two thousand Australian and five hundred British prisoners, only six survived the death marches and mass executions carried out by their guards as the prospect of an Allied invasion loomed.
Throughout the Japanese occupied islands of the Dutch East Indies, conditions in the prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camps worsened during January 1945, as the Japanese, confronted by the prospect of continuing military losses and naval disasters, treated their prisoners with contempt. By the end of January, in the prison camp at Muntok, on Sumatra, seventy-seven Dutch, Australian and British women internees died of starvation and disease. This pattern of deliberate death was repeated throughout hundreds of similar camps.
On the Eastern Front, Soviet tanks crossed the Oder on January 31, seizing a bridgehead at Kienitz, less than fifty miles from Berlin. So unexpected was their crossing that they found German soldiers strolling in the streets, and trains still running on the Kienitz—Berlin line. But so swift, and deep, was the Russians’ own advance that several Red Army brigades had begun to run out of fuel, and even of ammunition.
That day, at a meeting of the British Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, told his Army and Navy colleagues that the Air Staff would shortly be submitting an appreciation ‘of the assistance to the Russian advance which might be effected by the strategic bomber force’. This could be done because the Allied armies in the West were stalled after the Ardennes. Portal also spoke of rearranging the Anglo-American bombing priorities in such a way as to make it possible to attack both Berlin and the German tank factories, ‘in relation to the present Russian offensive’. If the forces employed on bombing German lines of communication in the West could be reduced, Portal added, it would be possible both to attack German tank factories, ‘and, also to make heavy attacks in the four cities, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz’, where the ‘resulting confusion’ was ‘most likely to hamper enemy efforts to transfer forces between the Western and Eastern fronts’.
British bombers were now to be used to help the Red Army.
On January 31, at Ste Marie-aux-Mines, an American private soldier, Eddie E. Slovik, was taken before an American firing squad, and shot for desertion, the first American to suffer this punishment since the American Civil War, and the only American deserter to be executed in the Second World War. Five months earlier, Slovik had left his unit while on active service. Later, he had been arrested in Brussels, and court-martialled. An almost illiterate man, he had written in his confession, with innocent honesty: ‘I’ll run away again if I have to go out there.’
To have stated that he would desert again sealed Slovik’s fate.
In every Army, there were tens of thousands of soldiers for whom the stress of battle proved too much to bear. Hundreds—even thousands—were shot on the battlefield itself, without a court-martial. They too were the victims of war.