Tag Archives: WW2

A new novel! Can a woman be a frontline war correspondent?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War. It was ‘recent history’ for me as a child, and the Sunday afternoon movie on TV was often about the conflict which ended just 12 years before I was born. My love of history led to me studying the war at A level, and I again found myself delving into the political, military and personal aspects of conflict which are always so intricately entwined.

More recently, I came across the story of the renowned correspondent, Clare Hollingworth, which led me to reading the book ‘The Women Who Wrote the War’ by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. I was fascinated by the stories of these brave women, and thought that writing a novel from the perspective of a female correspondent would be a really interesting angle. (You can find my previous article on women war correspondents here.)  

In No Job for a Woman, the first novel in my new series, Jenny McLeod is a fictional character whose experiences are not too dissimilar to those of the small number of very determined women who went to the frontline to report the Second World War. It wasn’t easy for them. They had to overcome the arrogance and feeling of entitlement shown by their male counterparts like Ernest Hemingway, while battling a great deal of prejudice from the military who didn’t want women on the battle field. The British, in particular, didn’t want women there at all and wouldn’t give accreditation to female journalists until towards the end of the war. I have taken a little artistic license here as my correspondent, Jenny, becomes involved with the Desert Rats at a much earlier date.

Being a reporter becomes her identity for Jenny, it is all she knows how to do, all she feels comfortable doing. After the end of the war, she still feels the need to let the world know what is happening in conflict zones which is why she continues reporting in 1945 and beyond, from the independence struggles of Israel and India, to the Korean War.

But the books in this series are not just a list of battles, they are a family saga spanning decades. And Jenny finds that she must fight harder than a man just to be treated as an equal. With personal as well as military battles to be fought there was really only one choice of title for my new series – The Wars of Jenny McLeod.

Book one, No Job for a Woman, is now available on Amazon.

Women on the frontline – the female war correspondents of the Second World War

Mary Welch, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller, Tania Long. 1943

During the Second World War a number of women reporters covered, and even broke, some of the most important stories of the conflict. These women not only showed extraordinary courage in the face of fire, but also had to face many challenges just to be able to report from the frontline. At that time, journalism was a male dominated profession, and there was a feeling of arrogance and entitlement from many of the male correspondents, such as Ernest Hemingway, as well as a great deal of prejudice from the military who most definitely did not want women on the battlefield.

The women who chose to report from an active war zone had to overcome the ban on females on the frontline which was in place at the beginning of the war. In fact, the British army refused to give accreditation to women journalists until towards the end of the war, arguing that women, as the weaker sex, should not be put into dangerous situations. There was also a worry that women might cause ‘sexual unrest’ amongst the soldiers, or cause men on active duty to behave in a chivalrous way by looking after the women rather than concentrating on fighting the enemy. Bizarrely, one of the main arguments was that women could not report from the front because they couldn’t use the same latrines as the men!

Ruth Cowan, Sonia Tomara, Rosette Hargrove, Betty Knox, Iris Carpenter, Erika Mann. 1944

When America entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the authorities there proved to be much more open to women correspondents and allowed women closer to the action than the British did, although they were still reluctant to have them on the frontline. Some British women took advantage of this and got themselves accredited to an American newspaper to enable them to go to active war zones. Once there, they would find any loopholes they could, or find officers sympathetic to their point of view to help them; they were willing to do almost anything to get closer to the frontline.

The response to female war correspondents was mixed. Male journalists often felt the women had an advantage because they could use their ‘feminine wiles’ to flirt with officers and men to get a story which might be unavailable to themselves. The soldiers on the ground, however, enjoyed having the women there, often keen to have a journalist with them who would be able to tell their story if they were killed in action. They also liked having the women around because they were starved of female company – many did not see wives or girlfriends for long years on end during the conflict. For their part, the attitude of the women correspondents towards the fighting men was mixed, some had affairs with soldiers whilst others had a more ‘motherly relationship’ with the troops they met.

A number of women, reporting from all theatres of the war, became household names. Amongst them were…

Clare Hollingworth

Englishwoman, Clare Hollingworth, had only been a journalist for a week when she was sent to Poland in 1939 to monitor the border and report any troop activity. Within days, she got two exclusive scoops. First of all, at the end of August, she crossed illegally into Germany where she saw nine panzer divisions hidden away awaiting the order to attack. On her return to Poland, Hollingworth heard planes and tanks on 1st September and was therefore the first to report both the likely and the actual start of the invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War Two. (You can find out more about Clare Hollingworth in my article here).

Lee Miller

Lee Miller was a very different person. She began her career as a model for Vogue in the 1920’s before becoming a photographer herself, and she was in London at the start of the Blitz in 1940. Feeling that the fashion world was too superficial at such a time in history she went out into the streets and began to take photographs documenting the terrible devastation caused by the bombings. Miller was fascinated by the juxtaposition of horror and beauty that she saw in the changing shape of the city, and felt that this was what she wanted to do with her life. As time went by she began to write the stories to accompany her photographs, and by 1942 was an accredited war correspondent for Vogue which printed her war stories alongside their fashion sections. Miller photographed women at war – from nurses and charity workers to WRENS – as well as reporting from the front line. She was caught up in the fighting in St Malo, France, during its liberation in August 1944, where she described the ‘sordid destruction’ of the once beautiful town, and wrote of the awfulness of being in contact with dead bodies. Miller went on to cover the re-taking of the continent, from the Liberation of Paris to the push through Germany and the horror of the concentration camps. The articles she wrote and the accompanying photographs were both powerful and haunting.

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with General Yu Hanmou, Chongqing, China, 1941

Another famous correspondent was Martha Gellhorn, who was married to Ernest Hemingway. Women were forbidden to go to France with the troops for the D Day landings, but Gellhorn desperately wanted to be there, so she stowed away in a hospital ship and landed on Omaha Beach where she helped medical teams to rescue wounded soldiers. She was later stripped of her correspondent’s badge over this incident.

Sigrid Schultz

Not all of the women who reported from dangerous situations were on the physical frontline. Sigrid Schultz was born in Chicago, with German and Norwegian parents. She was Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune in Berlin before the war and saw it as her duty to keep the world informed about how Hitler and his Nazis were changing Germany. Schultz had to tread a very fine line between telling the truth and her own personal safety; she even suffered death threats for her reporting in the American press. Schultz’s courage was truly remarkable as she knew how dangerous it would be for her if the Germans found out that her mother was a Jew.

Female reporters often appeared more subjective in their reporting than the men, trying to give a deeper feeling for time and place in their descriptions of the conflict. They offered a different perspective to the usual military accounts, often writing their reports from the point of view of the soldiers rather than the officers who were the usual sources of information, trying to focus on the individual rather than divisions or brigades. The women were sometimes criticised for this, but felt that their more emotional response was an integral part of the story which would enable readers back home to share more fully in what it was like to be on the frontline with troops, what it was that their men-folk were experiencing so far from home.

But, no matter their style of writing, all correspondents had to report in a way that helped to keep up British morale and so were unable to report some stories and experiences, sometimes the censorship was official but often it was self-censorship as they tried to get the difficult balance between accurate reporting yet hiding some of the more unpleasant aspects of life and death on the frontline. It was not until after the war, when they could write a memoir without any censorship, that many of these women were finally able to talk more openly about what they had seen and experienced.

Ruth Cowan

As has been seen, it was not easy for women to get a job as a war correspondent as they had to overcome many difficulties and prejudices, yet some still felt drawn to this line of work. What drove them was a desire to be treated as equals, to show that they were capable of coping with the same difficult conditions as the men, be that in the deserts of North Africa and jungles of the Far East or the freezing temperatures of the winter war in Finland. They also had a desire to be involved in major world events. Many of the women spoke of having a real sense of purpose, of living in the moment which was not available to them in civilian life. This feeling of being part of something important which gave meaning to their own lives made it difficult for the women who reported the war to adapt back to civilian life at the end of the conflict – just as it was for the soldiers themselves. There was a cost in all of this for the correspondents; many suffered what is now known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which not a diagnosed condition in the 1940’s).   Later in life, Lee Miller said that she never got over what she had seen and photographed in Dachau.

The Second World War was an historic period which marked a turning point for women reporting from warzones. For some, reporting from the front was all there was for them, a feeling of home and belonging which meant that some, like Clare Hollingworth, continued to report from war zones after the end of the Second World War. As war now rages in Europe once more, we daily see on our TV screens a new generation of women reporting from the front line, who stand on the shoulders of those who went before. Experienced correspondents such as Lyse Doucet, Orla Guerin, Yalda Hakim, and Sarah Rainsford are reporting from Ukraine alongside new young women, at least one of whom has paid the ultimate price for bringing the news to us.

Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra Kuvshynova (left) and Irish camera operator Pierre Zakrzewski (right) were killed in Horenka, Ukraine, while working with Fox News. (Photo: Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News)

Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova, died on 14th March 2022 while serving as a consultant for Fox News during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She was killed alongside Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski when their vehicle was struck by incoming fire. Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott paid tribute to the young woman, saying “Sasha was just 24 years old and was serving as a consultant for us in Ukraine. She was helping our crews navigate Kyiv and the surrounding area while gathering information and speaking to sources. She was incredibly talented and spent weeks working directly with our entire team there, operating around the clock to make sure the world knew what was happening in her country. Several of our correspondents and producers spent long days with her reporting the news and got to know her personally, describing her as hard-working, funny, kind and brave. Her dream was to connect people around the world and tell their stories and she fulfilled that through her journalism.”

Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova, like so many other women before her, showed true courage in reporting major conflicts to the world.

Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova

Captain Arthur Sandeman and the last British cavalry charge, 18th March 1942

Eighty years ago, the last ever British cavalry charge took place just outside the town of Toungoo. Toungoo is an important crossroads city midway between Rangoon and Mandalay in Myanmar (known as Burma during the Second World War). In 1940, the British Royal Air Force built an airfield to the north of Toungoo, and for six months from late 1941 to early 1942, this was used as a support base and training facility for the Flying Tigers (the 1st American Volunteer Group). After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the Japanese invaded Burma in an effort to push out the British, seize the natural resources of the country, and try to open a back door route into India. Toungoo was on their main route, and it was vital for British success that this position should be held.

The city was defended by the Chinese 200th Division, who were allies of the British. Also in the area was an element of cavalry with the British Frontier Force, a unit popular with the less well-off Indian Army cavalry officers. The unit was made up of 100 Burmese conscripts from the Pyawbwe Reserver Battalion, which was normally stationed near their home town in the centre of Burma. They were led by Indian Sikh officers under the command of Captain Arthur Sandeman, who had been seconded to the BFF from the Central India Horse.

11th SIKHS IN ACTION ON THE BURMA FRONT. (IND 3647) © IWM.

On 18th March 1942, Sandeman’s unit were conducting reconnaissance in the area when he saw some Asian soldiers building a fortification on a nearby hill. He knew that the Chinese were busy setting up their defences around Toungoo and so initially took little notice of this group. Unfortunately, they were part of the Japanese 55th Division, and immediately opened fire on the cavalry with their machine-guns. Sandeman was out in the open and many of his men were killed in this initial attack. As they were out in the open, with no cover, there appeared to be only one course of action available to him – he ordered the bugler to sound the ‘charge’, drew his sabre, and led the remainder of his men in a direct attack on the gun emplacements. The horses had no chance against machine guns, and every one of Sandeman’s men died before reaching the Japanese lines. Sandeman died with them, sabre in hand.

The Battle of Toungoo began in earnest a few days later with almost constant bombing raids by the Japanese. The Chinese put up a heroic defence, with slow and brutal fighting house-by-house, but were eventually forced to withdraw.

Horses continued to be used by the British to transport supplies during the Burma campaign, and in other theatres of war, but never again took part in an action against the enemy. Sandeman had led what was the last cavalry charge by British forces during a war.

Captain Arthur Sandeman is remembered in the Royal Memorial Chapel at Sandhurst. His name also appears on the Rangoon Memorial, along with the names of the men who died with him. The Memorial stands in the centre of the largest war cemetery in Myanmar. It is surrounded by the graves of more than 6,000 men, the names of many more are carved on the memorial itself.

1939 – 1945

HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF TWENTY-SEVEN THOUSAND

SOLDIERS OF MANY RACES UNITED IN SERVICE TO THE BRITISH CROWN

WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN BURMA AND ASSAM BUT TO WHOM THE

FORTUNE OF WAR DENIED THE CUSTOMARY RITES ACCORDED

TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH

Rangoon Memorial

Also engraved on the rotunda in English, Burmese, Hindi, Urdu and Gurmukhi is the additional inscription

THEY DIED FOR ALL FREE MEN

You can find out more about cavalry during the Second World War here

Recommended Read – Island Song by Madeleine Bunting

In 1940, Helene, young, naive, and recently married, waves goodbye to her husband, who has enlisted in the British army. Her home, Guernsey, is soon invaded by the Germans, leaving her exposed to the hardships of occupation. Forty years later, her daughter, Roz, begins a search for the truth about her father, and stumbles into the secret history of her mother’s life.

Written with emotional acuity and passionate intensity, Island Song speaks of the moral complexities of war-time allegiances, the psychological toll of living with the enemy and the messy reality of human relationships in a tightly knit community. As Roz discovers, truth is hard to pin down, and so are the rights and wrongs of those struggling to survive in the most difficult of circumstances.

Ms Bunting has created an interesting blend of the past and present which shines a light on just how difficult it was for the residents of the Channel Islands to live under German occupation, the only part of the British Isles to fall into German hands. Roz’s search for the truth about her father is interwoven with the search for art treasure plundered by the Nazi’s, therefore creating a mystery to be unravelled at the same time as a quest for identity.

The author has clearly researched life on the islands during the Second World War – the hunger and fear, the plight of the Russian deportees sent to work on the island’s defences, the feeling of isolation. Alongside this the reader is reminded that nothing is ever black and white, especially not in wartime. Some women had relationships with the occupiers – maybe because they were truly in love, maybe to receive extra rations, maybe to save a loved one from deportation – but whatever the reason they were all vilified at the end of the war. Island Song brings this dichotomy clearly into the light; when reading the experiences of Helene, Roz’s mother, it is easy to see that people often had few choices, that they made the best they could out of a very difficult situation, and the ramifications of those experiences coloured and shaped the rest of their lives. It was not only those who fought the enemy face to face who had to deal with trauma and psychological problems as they moved from war to peace.

The descriptions of the island of Guernsey in Island Song are fascinating, giving the reader a real feeling of the place and its central role in the lives of the islanders. The sounds and scents of the island are brought to life and become a counter-point for the pain and hardship of occupation. Alongside this we meet a German whose background and motivations are not made clear until the final chapter of the book, leading the reader to questions their own views and prejudices of ‘the enemy’, who may well be just another person doing their best to survive.

Is you enjoy historical fiction rooted in fact, or an unconventional love story, then you will probably enjoy Island Song.

Island Song can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Madeleine Bunting here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

80 years since the first use of an ejector seat from a jet plane

As well as being a time of terrible destruction, wars are also a time of rapid innovation. An example of this occurred on 13th January 1942.

The ejector seat is designed to enable a pilot or aircrew to exit a plane in an emergency – an explosive charge propels the seat out of the aircraft, and the pilot with it. Everyone knows about ejector seats and how they work, but do you know how long they have been in use?

The first attempt to create an ‘assisted escape’ for a pilot happened as early as 1910 when Everard Calthrop, who also invented an early version of the parachute, patented a bungee-assisted seat which used compressed air to eject the pilot, but not his seat. The first design with a detachable seat was invented in the late 1920’s by Romanian Anastase Dragomir. It was first tested successfully at Paris-Orly airport on 25th August 1929.

But none of these systems was in use by the military at the beginning of the Second World War, and the pilot’s only means of escape was to jump clear of a plane (bail out). Sometimes this was difficult because the pilot was injured, or the escape route wasn’t clear; and with the advent of the jet engine the g-forces were too great for a bail out. Clearly a better way of escape from an incapacitated aircraft was needed.

Heinkel He 280

Heinkel and SAAB both worked independently on the project, using compressed air to eject the seat and pilot. The first system was used in a prototype jet-engined fighter – the Heinkel He 280 – in 1940, but it was not actually used in action until 1942. On 13th January of that year a German test pilot, Helmut Schenk, found the controls of his plane had iced up and were inoperable. He was flying a He 280 which was being used to test new jets for the Fieseler Fi 103, so the original jets had been removed and his He 280 was towed aloft during a heavy snow storm. When Schenk realised at 2,400m that he had no control over the aircraft, he made history when he jettisoned the towline and pressed the ejection button.

Still from film of the test flight in which Schenk made the first emergency use of an ejector seat

After Schenk’s emergency use of the system the first operational ejector seats were installed into the Heinkel He 219 Uhn night fighter later that same year. The system was crude, with the seat sliding along rails as it was ejected, but it worked. The innovation saved the lives of many German pilots; at the same time, the pilots of Allied jet planes were either unable to exit the plane or were likely to be killed while trying to escape. By 1944 bizarre reports were being received by the British Air Ministry of sightings of the pilots of German jets being fired into the sky as their planes crashed. It was the capture and investigation of seats from crashed Heinkels which led the Allies to develop their own ejector seats.

SIGSALY – the birth of digital technology during the Second World War

Even before the United States entered the Second World War the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was constantly in touch with President Roosevelt. These communications were often sent via text message over a secure teletype system, by courier, or by diplomatic cable; but another, less safe, means of communication was also used – the telephone.

Scrambler phone © cryptomuseum.com

As well as censors monitoring all important transatlantic phone calls (including Churchill’s) an A-3 scrambling system was used in the early years of the war, but it was well known that these telephone calls could be intercepted and codes broken by an ordinary oscilloscope, (after the war it was found that a German listening post on the Dutch coast had complete transcripts of some phone calls, including ones between the Prime Minister and President). The Allied powers knew that a new and much more secure method of vocal communication was needed to help maintain communications secrets.

In the early years of the Twentieth Century, digital technology was in its infancy, being more theoretical than practical, and so Bell Laboratories began work on turning voice signals into digital data as early as 1936; research into a viable system, code-named ‘Project X’, began in 1940. This was cutting-edge technology and many patents were filed secretly – some only being disclosed in the late 1970’s. The pace of research increased when America entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Britain sent Alan Turing from Bletchley Park to evaluate the prototype before six terminals were built. The project was code-named SIGSALY (SIG indicating its link to the Army Signal Corps), although those who operated them called the prototypes ‘Green Hornets’ because anyone trying to intercept the call would only hear a buzzing sound.

SIGSALY © cryptomuseum.com

The US Army formed the 805th Signal Service Company to operate SIGSALY, many of the technicians had worked for Bell Systems before the war. The system was operated for around eight hours every day, the other sixteen hours were needed for the complex testing and maintenance of the new technology.

The first transatlantic test took place in November 1942 using a One-Time Pad encryption. This meant that the voice was broken-down, digitally coded and mixed with an element from a random key-stream held on a record (the same as a music disc), this mixed sound was transmitted then re-assembled into speech at the other end, although it was difficult to recognise the voice of the speaker. Identical discs were held and used at each end so that the random sound could be matched-up and cancelled out; as each disc could only hold twelve minutes of data there were always two set up ready for use to allow for long conversations. Keeping the discs running at each end meant that if there was a short interruption in transmission the conversation could be picked up again immediately contact was restored. These discs were only used once before being destroyed so each phone call had a unique pattern which made it impossible for the enemy to de-code. The initial vinyl discs were replaced by acetate-coated aluminium records in 1943.

Double turntable for SIGSALY discs © cryptomuseum.com

Each SIGSALY machine was huge, it needed 30,000watts to power the equipment which took up about 2,500 square feet and weighed 55 tons. These colossuses produced a huge amount of heat and had to be air-conditioned. Each terminal cost US$ 1 million in 1943, with twelve set up in various parts of the world this was a massive investment.

The first SIGSALY machine was set up in the Pentagon with a second in a basement of Selfridges department store on Oxford Street, London; these locations were chosen as they had space for the massive installations, and the deep Selfridges basement was safe from bombing. The US SIGSALY was linked via an extension line to the White House, while the British end was linked to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet War Rooms, and the US Embassy. The first discussions between the two nations took place on 15th July 1943 and are believed to have been about the Allied invasion of Sicily earlier that week; it is likely that the forthcoming invasion of Italy, planned for a few months later, was also discussed.

© cryptomuseum.com

Security measures were needed to protect the confidentiality of calls so the cables between SIGSALY and its extensions were enclosed in pipes which were further protected by gas pressure and microswitches. Any tampering would cause the gas pressure to drop and an alarm would automatically be sounded. The whole system was Top Secret, with fewer than twenty-five of Britain’s most senior leaders knowing of its existence. As the war progressed and the Allies moved eastwards through Europe, SIGSALY terminals followed; one was set up in Paris, another in Frankfurt, and finally one in Berlin after Germany surrendered. The system was also used in the Pacific theatre, one was even on board a ship which was part of MacArthur’s Pacific Fleet. All in all, the twelve sites transmitted more than three thousand teleconferences during the latter years of the war, the majority of them amongst military commanders for planning purposes. Churchill also used SIGSALY in April 1945 to call President Truman after Roosevelt’s death; the two leaders then held a conference two weeks later in which they discussed tentative German surrender offers – that call was the longest ever made via SIGSALY at a little over two hours in length.

An early SIGSALY in operation, 1943

Any SIGSALY terminal could contact any of the other eleven; if distances were too great they could also be used to relay conversations, for example Washington was used to relay messages between London and Brisbane. The twelve locations were:

  1. The Pentagon in Washington
  2. Selfridges in London 
  3. A second in Washington for dedicated use in the Pacific  
  4. Pacific, on-board ship with the Pacific Fleet
  5. Oakland in California
  6. Fort Shafter in Hawaii
  7. Brisbane
  8. Algiers
  9. Paris after the liberation of France
  10. Frankfurt after VE Day
  11. Berlin after VE Day
  12. Tokyo after VJ Day

After the war the SIGSALY system was removed from service, it remained secret for another thirty years and was only disclosed two years after the codebreaking work at Bletchley Park in England was de-classified. Despite the secrecy Bell Laboratories won several awards, including Best Signal Processing Technology in 1946. Of course, as the work was still classified guests at the ceremony had to accept on trust that the award was justified!

SIGSALY was a vital part of the communication system during the Second World War, and a key part of the development of technologies we use today. So, next time you rely on digital encryption to protect your messages and data on social media don’t forget that, as the United States National Security Agency has said, “Today digital technology is the backbone of the information industry…. But the pioneering work for many of these capabilities was performed early in World War II.”

“I knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not have abandoned me!”

Operation Eiche – the mission Winston Churchill described as “one of great daring“.

1943 was a bad year for the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. His hopes of holding North Africa had been dashed, his decision to send Italian troops to help Hitler fight the Russians on the Easter Front was a disaster, and the Allies had landed in Sicily leaving Italy vulnerable in the south. To cap it all, the Allies bombed Rome on 19th July, damaging two of Rome’s airports as well as reducing parts of the ancient Basilica of Saint Lawrence to rubble.

Although Mussolini was a dictator he did not hold the supreme power that his friend, Adolf Hitler, had in Germany. Italy still had a king and a council with the power to remove Mussolini, and by July 1943 they had had enough. On 24th July the Grand Council passed a vote of no-confidence in their leader; Il Duce was summoned to the palace the next day, where King Victor Emmanuel told him that he was to be replaced by Marshal Badoglio. Mussolini must have been stunned when the king told him that ‘Italy has gone to bits. The soldiers don’t want to fight any more. At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.’  The dictator, who had been in power since 1922, was further stunned to find himself immediately arrested on the orders of the monarch.

From left to right Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano, as they prepare to sign the Munich Agreement, 1938

The fall of Mussolini was also a shock to Hitler, who was afraid that Italy would now change sides and support the Allies against him. The only solution was to annex Italian territory and rescue Mussolini. This would not prove as easy as he might have thought as the Italians constantly kept their prisoner on the move, so Hitler appointed Kurt Student to plan a rescue attempt – codenamed Operation Eiche – whilst Hauptsurmfuhrer Otto Skorzeny was sent to Italy to find out where Mussolini was being held. Hitler made the importance of the mission very clear when he told Skorzeny ‘Mussolini, my friend and our loyal comrade in arms, was betrayed yesterday by his king and arrested by his own countrymen. I cannot and will not leave Italy’s greatest son in the lurch. To me the Duce is the incarnation of the ancient grandeur of Rome. Italy under the new government will desert us! I will keep faith with my old ally and dear friend; he must be rescued promptly or he will be handed over to the Allies.’

Hotel Campo Imperatore, 1943

Skorzeny had been wounded by shrapnel in the back of the head in 1942; when he recovered from his injury he was assigned a job on Hitler’s staff where he was developing commando warfare. In early September, with the use of intercepted radio transmissions, he finally discovered that the deposed dictator was being held in the Hotel Campo, a ski resort in the Apennine Mountains of southern Italy. Unfortunately for Skorzeny, any rescue attempt had to be briefly put on hold as Italy capitulated to the Allies on 8th September and German focus was on taking control of parts of Italy; but the mission could not be delayed for too long in case Mussolini was handed over to the enemy by the Italian government, so planning went ahead, and the rescue attempt took place on 12th September, led by Major Mors.

Mors’s plan was for 12 gliders transporting 3 platoons of Luftwaffe airborne troops and 1 platoon of SS men to land in an open area close to the hotel; at the same time, troops in 20 vehicles would take on the 100 guards at the lower cable-car station and so completely cut off the hotel higher up the mountain. The lower operation went smoothly, and was completed at 14.00 as the gliders (reduced from 12 to 10) came in to land 5 minutes later. To their dismay, the ‘open field’ which had been observed in reconnaissance photographs turned out to be a stretch of steep and rocky ground, causing one of the gliders to crash.

Mussolini leaving the hotel

But this crash did not hold up the operation and, within minutes of landing, the Italians’ radio equipment had been put out of action; the guards (100 men at the hotel) appeared confused and did nothing to oppose the attacking Germans – after all, the commando forces had recently been their allies, and the prisoner they were holding was their former commander-in-chief. Skorzeny quickly took advantage of their confusion and raced to Mussolini’s room where he declared “Duce, the Führer sent me to free you”, to which Mussolini replied “I knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not have abandoned me!”

Whilst there had been a short fire-fight when the Germans took the lower cable-car station, the entire operation at the Hotel Campo itself was conducted without a shot being fired. Photographs were taken of a smiling Mussolini with his rescuers, and even some of the Italians who should have been guarding him grinneded happily as they had their photographs taken with their attackers. Il Duce was now the guest of the Germans, and his extraction was imminent.

Mussolini rescued by German troops from his prison in Campo Imperatore on 12 September 1943

A Fieseler Fi 156 Short-Take-Off-and-Landing plane survived a tricky landing on the rocky strip to pick up its passenger. On take-off there was a frightening moment as the nose of the overloaded Fieseler dipped and the plane plunged down towards the valley floor, but the pilot was finally able to regain control and the deposed dictator began his flight to freedom, changing planes at Pratica di Mare before continuing on to Germany via Vienna. As the plane disappeared into the distance, the gliders which had been used in the raid were destroyed and the German troops took the cable-car down the mountain where they made good their escape.

The plane which flew the rescued Mussolini to safety.

Mussolini arrived at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters, near Rastenburg, on 15th September. The Fuhrer was shocked to see how much weight his old friend had lost since their last meeting, but was glad that his fellow fascist leader was safe. Eleven days later Hitler set up Mussolini as leader of the Salo Republic in northern Italy, but the writing was on the wall for the man who was now hated by the people he once led. On 27th April 1945 Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were captured by Italian partisans as they tried to escape from the advancing Allies. The following day he was executed by a firing squad and his body, with that of his mistress and their supporters, was hung by the feet from the roof of an Esso petrol station in Milan.

From left to right, the bodies of Bombacci, Mussolini, Petacci, Pavolini and Starace in Piazzale Loreto, 1945.

The popular leader who had led Italy to war, and later been rescued in what Churchill described as a mission of “great daring”, had finally received what the majority of Italian people felt were his just deserts.

Windtalkers – the Navajo Code Talkers of the Second World War

In the United States 14th August is National Code Talkers Day. The Code Talkers were Native Americans who used their tribal languages to send coded communications on the battlefield during the Second World War. Many people have heard of the Diné (Navajo) Code Talkers and their contribution in the Pacific Theatre during World War 2, but they were not the only ones. Men from the Cherokee and Comanche nations also utilised their native languages in Europe and the Pacific; but what will surprise many is that the Choctaw Telephone Squad and other native units had already been used to send messages during the First World War.

Choctaw soldiers training to send coded radio and telephone transmissions during World War I

These early Code Talkers were few in number, and it wasn’t until the Second World War that the US military initiated a specific policy to recruit and train Native American speakers to work in communications. I am sure that the irony of this situation was not lost on the men who were now seen as so important, yet the vital skill they possessed – to speak in their own native language – was something that had been frowned on in the past; indeed many of the men who were recruited had been forced to attend religious or government-run boarding schools set up to try to assimilate the Native peoples, and they would have been severely punished for using their traditional languages when attending those schools.

Despite requests from Winston Churchill that America should come into the war on the side of Britain and her Allies, the United States remained aloof until 7th December 1941 when the Japanese attacked the American Fleet as it lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor. The following day President Roosevelt said that 7th December 1941 was “a date which will live in infamy”, and America declared war on Japan. Britain also declared war on Japan, but it was not until Germany declared war on America on the 11th that Churchill finally had his wish and the United States came into the European war in support of the Allies.

A memorandum from Marine Corps Major General Clayton B. Vogel recommending the enlistment of 200 Navajo code talkers http://www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

During the early part of the war in the Pacific, Japan was able to break every military code in use by the Americans. This could not be allowed to continue and so the search was on for an unbreakable code. Philip Johnston, a veteran of the First World War who had grown up on the Navajo Nation where his father was a missionary, suggested to Major Jones at Camp Elliott in San Diego that as the Navajo language was unknown among other tribes and the wider American population there would be no chance of the Japanese breaking a code which utilised it. Major Jones was sceptical – until Johnston spoke a few words of Navajo and the go ahead was given for a trial. On 28th February 1942 four Navajo speakers sent and received coded messages; on 6th March Major General Vogel ordered the recruiting of 200 Navajo speakers to the Marines. On May 5 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits began their basic training, unaware that there was an ulterior motive to their recruitment; once this basic training had been completed they underwent an intensive course in message transmission, and began (in a locked and guarded room) to develop a code which it was hoped the Japanese could not break.

Carl Nelson Gorman, one of the original 29 Navajo code talkers, tracks enemy movements on Saipan. 1944 http://www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

Two types of code were developed by this first group of Code Talkers. The first, Type 1, was made up of 26 Navajo words which could be used to represent letters of the English alphabet and would allow them to spell out words e.g. the Navajo for ‘ant’ is wo-la-chee, and this was used for the letter ‘a’ in the English alphabet. By the end of the war this alphabet had been expanded to 44 so that the most frequently used letters could be represented by more than one word and so make the code even more difficult to break. Type 2 code was made up of words which could be directly translated from English to Navajo; this Type 2 code also had an initial list of 211 military terms which did not exist in Navajo (the list was later increased to 411). For example, there is no word for ‘submarine’ in Navajo and so the term besh-lo (iron fish) was created, as was Toh-Dineh-ih (sea force) for ships. This system made it possible for Code Talkers to translate three lines of English in 20 seconds, a task which would have taken around 30 minutes using existing code-breaking machines. This meant that help could be asked for and received in real time without any delays; when they were eventually deployed on the front line the fast, secure and error-free communication which Code Talkers were able to send by telephone and radio undoubtedly went on to save countless lives.

Most Code Talkers were assigned to a military unit in pairs; during battle one would operate the radio whilst the other sent in Navajo, and translated received messages into English. They took part in every major operation conducted by the Marines in the Pacific, which gave the US forces a distinct advantage over the Japanese.

http://www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

The first test of the code in battle was on 7th August 1942 when 15 Navajo Code Talkers landed at Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division; Commander General Vandegrift sent a report back to the US saying that the Navajo code was an amazing success – “The enemy never understood it. We don’t understand it either, but it works. Send us some more Navajos.

Chester Nez, one of the original 29 Navajo code talkers. http://www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

During the month-long battle for Iwo Jima, the Code Talkers sent and received more than 800 error-free messages. 5th Marine Division signal officer Major Connor said that, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

Code talkers with a Marine signal unit on Bougainville. Front row, left to right: Privates Earl Johnny, Kee Etsicitty, John V. Goodluck, and Private First Class David Jordan. Back row: Privates Jack C. Morgan, George H. Kirk, Tom H. Jones, and Corporal Henry Bake, Jr. December, 1943. http://www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

By the end of the war approximately 400 Navajo Code Talkers had been sent to the front line, 13 were killed in action; (this was higher than in other units as approximately 3.25% Code Talkers were killed in action as opposed to approximately 2.54% of US forces as a whole). The actions which Code Talkers took part in included Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Peleliu; they were also present on Utah Beach during the D Day invasion of Europe; their code remained unbroken to the end of the war.

The use of Native American languages by the US military was seen as so vital that it was not de-classified until 1968 which meant that Code Talkers were not able to tell their families and communities about the contribution of their native language to the ultimate Allied victory. Even when the work of the Code Talkers was de-classified and President Reagan declared 14th August as National Code Talkers Day in 1982, very few people were aware of this and little recognition was given. It was not until 2000 that the Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act was signed into law, and in 2001 that the first group of 29 Navajo Code Talkers were finally awarded Congressional Gold Medals, all other Code Talkers received Congressional Silver Medals.

Corporal Oscar Ithma, Private First Class Jack Nez, and Private First Class Carl Gorman on Saipan http://www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

If you have not seen Windtalkers – a movie about the Navajo Code Talkers staring Adam Beach, Roger Willie, Nicholas Cage and Peter Stormare – it is certainly worth watching to gain an understanding of what it was like for the Native Americans recruited to this task.

Navajo code talkers Cpl. Henry Bake, Jr. and PFC George H. Kirk transmit messages during combat on Bougainville. 1943. http://www.rarehistoricalphotos.com

If you would like to know more about the Navajo Code Talkers please follow the links to a couple of short videos. Navajo Code Talkers and National Navajo Code Talkers Day

The Navajo Code Talker Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona

Code talkers are honored on the reverse of the 2016 Sacagawea dollar.

How a symbol of good fortune came to symbolize hate…

There is no symbol in history which has such diametrically opposed meanings as the swastika. Many people know it only as a symbol of Nazi Germany, but its origins lie much further back in history – it has been used for millennia, and is older even than the well known ancient Egyptian symbol of the ankh. The symbol’s history can be traced back to the early Indus Valley Civilization some 5,000 years ago, the word swastika itself comes from the Sanskrit ‘svastika’ meaning ‘good fortune’.

Ankh

No one knows the true origins of this cross with its arms at right angles (sometimes with a dot in each of the four quadrants), but many historians believe it represents the movement of the sun across the sky.

The swastika was also used in many other cultures beside that which emerged in the Indus Valley. It appears frequently on coins from ancient Mesopotamia, and was known in pre-Christian European cultures where archaeologists have found the symbol on a number of artifacts.

Later in history, the swastika was called the ‘gammadion’ in Byzantine and early Christian art; in Scandinavia it was the symbol of Thor’s hammer.

Thor’s hammer

By the Middle Ages, although it was not frequently used, the swastika was well known throughout the world. In England it was called the ‘fylfot’, in Germany the ‘hakenkreuz’, the Greeks called it ‘tetraskelion’, the Chinese named it ‘wan’; it also appears in artifacts from the Mayan peoples in Central and South America, and was used by native American peoples, particularly the Navajo.

Navajo use of the swastika

For 5,000 years the swastika symbolized power, the sun, life, good luck and strength; even as late as the early 20th century it was used throughout the world as a decoration on buildings, coins, and even cigarette cases; during its early days the Finnish Air Force used the symbol, and the US 45th Infantry Division wore a swastika on their shoulder patches during the First World War.

US 45th Infantry Division shoulder patch

So, what happened to change of meaning of such an ancient and benign symbol?

Europeans in the 19th century were fascinated by the ancient civilizations of India and the Near East. One of the great archaeologists of the time was Heinrich Schliemann, who spent years searching for the historical site of the city of Troy; when he found it he also found ancient carvings of the swastika. Historians were surprised to find the symbol was very similar to others which had been found on German pottery and began to speculate that there was once a vast Aryan culture which spanned Europe and Asia. It was not long, however, before nationalists began to claim that Aryanism was not about a common culture but that the Aryans were a superior race, and that Germans were their descendants. After German unification in 1841 German nationalists began to see themselves as the descendants of this ancient master race – the Aryans – and adopted the swastika as their symbol. By the early 20th century the majority of nationalistic societies in Germany were using it, so when Hitler decided that his fledgling Nazi Party needed a symbol of its own he adopted the swastika, and it became the official emblem of the party in the form we now know in 1920 – a red flag with a white circle, and the black swastika in its centre. Hitler described his new flag in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ as “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic.” Hitler’s words were the first time that this ancient symbol of good luck was linked with anti-Semitism and death. In September 1935 Hitler went one step further and made the swastika the national flag of Germany. It was a powerful symbol utilizing the colours of Imperial Germany with an identification as ‘the master race’ intended to instill pride in the German people, and fear into Jews and other enemies of Nazi Germany.

At a rally, members of the Hitler Youth parade in the formation of a swastika to honor the Unknown Soldier. Germany, August 27, 1933.

At the same time that the swastika became Germany’s national flag the German government passed the Nuremberg Race Laws, including the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which further discriminated against Jews. Part of the reason for the enacting of these laws was the way in which the Nazi party, and the swastika, were being seen abroad. On 26th July 1935 the SS Bremen, a German passenger liner which was docked in New York, was the focus of a protest against increasing anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin, and the swastika was taken from the ship and thrown into the river. Although the police arrested a number of the demonstrators Germany issued a formal protest to the Americans, and when the courts freed the majority of the defendants Hitler passed the Reich Flag Law. In these laws, sexual relations and marriage were forbidden between Germans ‘or those of kindred blood’ and Jews, and Jews were banned from using the new national flag or even displaying the nation colours.

The use of the swastika as the national flag of Germany ended in May 1945 with the nation’s surrender at the end of the war. The Allied governments, who controlled the defeated nation, banned all Nazi organisations and their symbols – to use the swastika became a criminal act. Today the public display of Nazi symbols, including the swastika, is banned in Germany and many other European countries. It is not, however, against the law to display Nazi symbols and propaganda in the United States which has a strong tradition protecting the freedom of speech. In neo-Nazi groups throughout the world the swastika is still the most popular symbol.

National Socialist Movement USA (from Southern Poverty Law Centre website)

So, what does the swastika mean to people today? If you are Buddhist or Hindu you will still use it as a religious symbol of good luck, but the majority of the world is unaware of this and only see it as a symbol of hate. How can one differentiate between the two? Well, if you look closely you will see that the arms of the cross in the Nazi symbol radiate clockwise, whilst the symbol of eastern religions usually radiates anti-clockwise, although both are known in Hinduism – the left-hand/anti-clockwise is more technically known as the sauvastika and has always meant the opposite to the swastika – the right-handed standing for the good whilst the left-handed symbolises night, magical practices and Kali, the terrifying Hindu goddess; it is probably not surprising that Hitler chose the sauvastika version to represent the Nazi party.

Buddha with swastika

The right-hand/clock-wise symbol is the one you will see whilst travelling in the Far East. It must be a great sadness to Hindus to hear people calling the swastika a symbol of hate when, for them, it is the most widely used auspicious symbol in their religion, as it also is for Jains and Buddhists. For Jains it is the emblem of their Seventh Saint, as well as the four arms of the swastika symbolizing the four possibilities for re-birth, depending on how you live this life – birth in the animal or plant world, on Earth, in hell, or in the world of spirits. For Buddhists, the swastika symbolizes the footprints or feet of the Buddha; it is often found at the beginning and end of religious inscriptions, and it was via Buddhism that the swastika found its way to Japan and China where it symbolizes long life and prosperity.

Ganesh with swastika on palm

If you travel in India you will see the swastika, which is one of the 108 symbols of Vishnu, wherever you look – they are used on the opening pages of account books, during marriage services, on cars and lorries, on the walls of temples houses and other buildings, and even on clothing. In many pictures and statues gods and goddesses are shown with a swastika on the palm of the hand, and it is considered to be a very auspicious sign if a person has the shape of a swastika in the lines of their palm, the swastika might be worn as jewellery. It is even used as a girl’s name.

So, whenever you see a swastika take a moment to look closely at it and its context. Is it being used as a sign of hate? Or as an ancient symbol of good fortune?

Hitler’s biggest mistake – Operation Barbarossa

Eighty years ago, on 22nd June 1941, Germany launched a massive attack against the Soviet Union, code named Operation Barbarossa. Hitler believed that this attack would play a key part in the eventual outcome of the war. He was right, but not in the way he thought…

In Mein Kampf, published in 1925, Hitler said that if Germany was to be secure for future generations she needed Lebensraum (living space), and that he intended to provide this by invading the Soviet Union. Racial policies developed by Nazi Germany described the population of the Soviet Union (along with the rest of Eastern Europe) as non-Aryan untermenschen (sub-humans) ruled by Jewish Bolsheviks, it was therefore Hitler’s plan to kill, enslave, or deport the Slavic and Russian populations and replace them with Germanic peoples. Despite this plan for the east, Hitler wanted the early aggressive focus of his war to be on western Europe and so, in August 1939, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in which the countries agreed that they would not take military action against each other for ten years and, secretly, also agreed to divide eastern Europe between themselves including the partition of Poland. Stalin was willing to sign the Pact because he had conducted a number of purges in the army in the late 1930’s in which three-quarters of his senior officers had been shot or imprisoned leading to a drop in efficiency and morale in what had been the largest and one of the most technologically advanced armies in the world. The Pact would give him time to reorganise. The world was stunned to hear of the agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany. How could two such diametrically opposed countries reach such an agreement? And what did it mean for the rest of the world? The answer to that was swift in coming when Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939.

After Hitler’s swift victory in Poland the USSR annexed the eastern part of the country and, reassured by this, Stalin entered into a trade deal with Hitler in which the Soviets would provide raw materials (oil, wheat etc.) to Germany in return for military equipment and trade goods. Stalin was convinced that his military strength was far superior to Germany’s and so felt secure in the Pact, particularly as Hitler appeared to have his attention firmly focussed on the west.

The geopolitical disposition of Europe in 1941, immediately before the start of Operation Barbarossa. The grey area represents Nazi Germany, its allies, and countries under its firm control.

By the middle of 1940, with tensions between Germany and the USSR rising in the Balkans, Hitler decided that once his victories in the west were complete, he would turn east to defeat bolshevism. He couldn’t invade Russian with pro-British Yugoslavia and Greece presenting a threat to his south so, on April 6th 1941, Germany invaded the Balkans. Victory was swift with Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, falling on 12th April, and Athens also captured in less than three weeks. With his southern flank now safe the way was clear for Hitler to initiate Operation Barbarossa – his attack on Russia. Hitler believed that pushing into Russia along a line from Archangel in the north to Astrakhan in the south would create a buffer to protect Germany from Soviet bombers whilst also providing forced labour as there was a shortage of workers in agriculture and industry in Germany. Hitler believed that victory against the USSR would be swift and that Britain would then seek peace; if Churchill did not, then Hitler would be able to call on the vast resources of the Soviet Union to defeat the British Empire.

(© IWM HU 5086) German horse-drawn transport crossing a pontoon bridge over the river Dnieper at Smolensk. The infantry divisions were dependent on horses to pull their artillery and supplies, and some 700,000 were used in Operation ‘Barbarossa’. 

Hitler did not like the first plan drawn up for the push eastward so a new plan, named Operation Barbarossa, was put together. Many high-ranking Germans thought that an invasion of the USSR would create an economic burden on the Reich rather than being a benefit, but Hitler would not listen and the attack was launched on 22nd June 1941. At that time Russia had military strength in the region of 5.5 million men with a reserve force of 14 million in the process of being mobilized. This was a vast number, but units were dispersed and transportation lacking; on the positive side, the Soviets had 33,000 artillery pieces which far outnumbered the German resources. With 20,000 tanks Russia also outnumbered Germany’s 6,000; though not as modern or powerful as the German panzers they were still a formidable force. Yet Hitler was convinced that his superior weaponry and speed would defeat the Russians before their massive numbers could overwhelm his troops.

©IWM German PZKPFW 38(T) TANK Many of these Czech-built light tanks were used by the Germans during Barbarossa. The armoured divisions were well trained and led, but lacked the resources and reserves for a sustained campaign.

Hitler believed that victory over the USSR would be swift, as had been his victory over western mainland Europe. At 3.15 am 22nd June 1941 more than 3 million German and Axis troops swarmed across a 1,800-mile-long front. The Luftwaffe had total domination of the air and targeted Soviet airfields as the ground attack began. The Germans crossed the River Bug on the border between Russia and Poland and their panzers made rapid progress, reaching more than fifty miles into enemy territory in just two days. The Russian counter-attacks were badly organised and easily defeated, with tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner – Stalin had been caught off guard as he still did not believe that Hitler would invade. With a three-pronged attack – north towards Leningrad, south towards Ukraine, and towards Moscow in the centre – German panzers gained a quick advantage; in the first three days the Soviets lost 3,922 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe lost only 78, and millions of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner. Following the army came the Einsatzgruppen (SS death squads) who began to wipe out civilians, particularly Jews, as well as execute captured enemy officers and many prisoners of war. The ‘Hunger Plan’ was also put into place – creating a food surplus to be sent back to Germany by deliberately starving the conquered populations.

(© IWM HU 8925) Weary German troops of Army Group North, their faces caked in dust, cross a bridge near Jonava in Lithuania. The infantry were expected to cover at least 20 miles per day. However, they still lagged many miles behind the panzer spearheads. 

The vast distances involved in the Soviet Union combined with the difficult terrain meant that the initial swift advance by the Germany forces began to slow; Hitler had also underestimated Soviet troop numbers for, even with the terrible losses they had already suffered, the Russian will to fight a patriotic war of defence was strong. Meanwhile in Britain, Churchill was relieved that the country was no longer standing alone against Hitler’s Reich, and said that any enemy of Nazi Germany was a friend of Britain’s no matter what their political differences in the past. He sent a mission to Moscow to sign a treaty of mutual assistance, although there was little Britain could do to help Russia apart from sending aid by sea.

(© IWM HU 111380) A burning T-34 and other vehicles destroyed in the encirclement battles between Bialystok and Minsk. Soviet tank units were badly handled during ‘Barbarossa’, and the standard of crew training was poor. The first T-34s were also prone to mechanical breakdowns.

It might have been possible for Germany to push on to victory – the Centre Army Group was only 200 miles from Moscow – but Hitler made his first big mistake by delaying the push on the capital in order to reinforce his troops in Ukraine to the south, where Kiev was eventually taken by the end of September. In the north the Germans surrounded Leningrad, although their forces were not strong enough to take the city which was then besieged for 872 days. Conditions in Leningrad were horriffic with very little food getting into the city – over 11,000 people died in November and more than 3,700 died of starvation in a single day in December – but the city refused to surrender.

Hitler’s diversion of troops to the south and failure to continue the push towards Moscow in August meant that rather than completing Operation Barbarossa by the autumn there was still a long way to go when the Russian winter set in.  The Soviets had had time to re-enforce the capital with the civilian population digging defences around the city, but it was the weather, not these defences, which were to lead to disaster for the Germans. On 8th October it began to rain, bogging down the enemy advance in a sea of mud.  A combination of the stiffening of Russian resolve and the rain meant that by the end of October German Army Group Centre was still 50 miles from Moscow.

(© IWM HU 5031) The graves of German dead are marked with a simple cross and their steel helmets. The Germans suffered over 750,000 casualties during Operation ‘Barbarossa’, with some 200,000 men killed. By comparison, 30,000 died during the campaign in the west in 1940.

Because he had been expecting a swift victory Hitler had not equipped his troops for winter weather and the advance slowed. By 4th December the leading units of the Central Army Group were just nine miles from Red Square, but temperatures plunged overnight meaning that weapons froze, tanks would not start, and soldiers suffered from frostbite. Things were so bad that the attack had to be halted on the morning of 5th December with the Germans confident that they would have the final victory in the spring.

Meanwhile Stalin had been anticipating an attack by Japan which had tied up troops in the east of the Soviet Union; when he was assured that no attack was forthcoming more than 30 Divisions began moving west towards the attacking Germans. Half a million soldiers well-equipped and well-trained in winter fighting were soon in the area around Moscow. As the Germans halted their advance on 5th December the Russians launched a savage attack against them and the Germans were forced to fall back before a force they had believed were on the point of defeat. The Russians continued their counter-attack for the next seven days. The German push towards Moscow became a war of attrition on the part of the Soviets, and Hitler’s first defeat of the war.

RIA Novosti archive, image #2564 / Samaryi Guraryi / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, Soviet Ilyushin il-2s flying over German positions near Moscow

Operation Barbarossa inflicted huge casualties on the Soviet Army and there were great territorial gains, but it failed to achieve Hitler’s primary objective – to force the capitulation of the Soviet Union. Hitler blamed the winter weather for this, but the key reason for defeat was that he had assumed Germany would win a quick victory so there was no long-term strategic planning, no preparations for a winter war, and inadequate supply lines. On a more fundamental level, Hitler underestimated the strength of the Russian will to resist when called upon to defend ‘Mother Russia’, in fact his own actions increased the Soviet determination when the treatment of POW’s and the civilian population became known. The failure of Operation Barbarossa was not the end of the fighting in the east, another massive German offensive took place in June 1942, but this met with similar obstacles and similar failure – the prolonged Battle of Stalingrad being a decisive factor.

(© IWM HU 111371) German motorcyclists pass one of the seemingly endless columns of Russian prisoners. Approximately 2.8 million Soviet POWs were killed by the German armed forces and other special units between June 1941 and February 1942, mainly through deliberate starvation and exposure to the elements. It was one of the most shocking acts of human atrocity in history.

During Operation Barbarossa about three million personnel of the Axis powers invaded Russia (in comparison only around 400,000 Allied troops took part on D Day – 156,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy with a further 250,000 in air and sea support), with 600,000 motor vehicles, and 600,000 horses for transport. Not only did the operation open up a new front geographically, but it was also responsible for the Soviet Union joining Britain as an ally. The eastern Front saw some of the world’s largest battles, highest casualties, and most horrific atrocities perpetrated against a civilian population. Approximately 5 million soviet combatants were taken prisoner during the years of Germany’s Russian campaigns, 3.3 million of whom were either shot or starved to death. The civilian population was systematically starved, whilst mass shootings and gassing operations murdered over a million soviet Jews.

© IWM HU 111384  German troops occupy a burning Russian village during Operation Barbarossa, summer 1941.

Far from giving German people the Lebensraum that he had promised, Hitler’s pre-emptive and possibly unnecessary attack on the Soviet Union played a significant part in his losing the war four long years later.