This week in the War, 19–25 April 1943: The Warsaw ghetto uprising

Jewish civilians in the Warsaw ghetto, May 1943 [Public domain]

Jewish civilians in the Warsaw ghetto, May 1943 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 19 April 1943, the eve of Passover, German troops entered the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. Many Jews had already been taken from the ghetto and deported to the east, supposedly to work camps. But by April 1943, the Jews remaining in the ghetto had finally realized that the deportations were to extermination camps, and they decided to resist.

Armed with Molotov cocktails and a few handguns plus some weapons captured from the Germans, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto put up a fierce resistance. The Germans sent in crack troops, equipped with artillery and armour.

Resistance continued well into May, although the end was inevitable. Over 10,000 Jews died in the fighting. The remaining inhabitants of the ghetto, some 50,000, were captured and deported to extermination camps such as Treblinka.

The photograph above is one of the most famous pictures of World War II. It was taken by the Germans and originally used for propaganda purposes. Notice that the soldiers have eagles on their left sleeves, clear indication that the troops are SS.

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This week in the War, 12–18 April 1943: Murder in Katyn forest

Memorial to the Katyn Forest massacre, Gunnersbury, UK [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, author: Jake from Manchester]

Memorial to the Katyn Forest massacre, Gunnersbury, UK [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, author: Jake from Manchester]

This week in the war, on 13 April 1943, Radio Berlin announced a grisly discovery in Katyn forest, close to Smolensk. Upwards of 3,000 Polish officers were found buried in layers in a number of mass graves. The officers had been captured by the Soviets during their invasion of Poland in 1939. (One of the German officers who made the discovery was an army intelligence officer named Colonel von Gersdorff—the same man who, a few weeks earlier, had attempted to blow up Hitler.)

The Germans were quick to blame the Soviets for the massacre and invited international observers and forensic experts to inspect the site. The Soviets were equally quick to blame the Nazis. Britain and the USA, being unwilling to offend their Soviet allies, concurred with the Soviet view. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt was willing to accept evidence to the contrary.

Letters, postcards, newspaper clippings and other items found on the bodies in the Katyn forest confirmed that the murders took place in the spring of 1940, well before the German army had arrived in the region.

Over 20,000 Polish military officers, police officers and intellectuals were murdered in 1940 at camps and prisons in Russia.

It was not until 2010 that the Russian Dumas (parliament) officially admitted that the Stalinist regime was to blame and that Stalin had personally ordered the executions.

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This week in the War, 5–11 April 1943: Hitler and Mussolini meet in Salzburg

Mussolini/Hitler postage stamp from Libya, issued 1941 [Public domain]

Mussolini/Hitler postage stamp from Libya, issued 1941 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 7 April 1943, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini met in Salzburg to discuss the military situation.

Axis forces had suffered major defeats and were on the defensive both in Tunisia in North Africa following the Battle of El Alamein, and in Russia after the surrender of Paulus’ army at Stalingrad.

Mussolini asked the Fuehrer to sue for peace with the Russians, thereby freeing up forces that could be transferred to southern Europe and North Africa. The Duce realized that Italy was about to lose its empire in Africa and probably the war.

Sherman tanks of the British Eight Army's 9th Lancers advance through the Gabes gap, Tunisia, 7 April 1943 [Public domain, IWM]

Sherman tanks of the British Eight Army’s 9th Lancers advance through the Gabes gap, Tunisia, 7 April 1943 [Public domain, IWM]

Hitler wasn’t interested in peace. He spoke enthusiastically about future victories and swore that North Africa would be held. He vowed that Tunis, in particular, would be defended just as Verdun had been resolutely defended by the French in World War I.

Ironically, on that same day, 7 April 1943, the American First Army’s II Corps advancing east from Gafsa linked up with the British Eighth Army’s X Corps moving northwest from Gabes. The Americans and British in Tunisia had joined forces. Their march would continue and the capital, Tunis, would be their prize.

 

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This week in the War, 29 March–4 April 1943: Rationing in the USA

US Office of War Information poster [Public domain]

US Office of War Information poster [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 29 March 1943, the United States introduced rationing for meat items such as beef, pork and mutton; and also cheese. Poultry remained exempt.

Sugar and coffee had been rationed since 1942, as had tires and gasoline. Measures to conserve the latter two items included the imposition of a national speed limit of 35 miles per hour.

A sticker with the letter A, B, C, T or (rarely) X had to be fixed to the inside of the windshield to indicate ones priority in buying gasoline.

A = Low priority, inessential to the war effort. Only 4 gallons of gas per week were allowed.

Stamps from US Government ration book, 1943 [Public domain, author: Bill Faulk]

Stamps from US Government ration book, 1943 [Public domain, author: Bill Faulk]

B = Essential to the war effort. (Workers in factories, for example.) Up to 8 gallons per week were allowed.

C = Doctors, ministers, mail carriers, etc.

T = Truckers. (Gasoline was unlimited.)

X = Members of Congress.

 

 

 

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This week in the War, 22–28 March 1943: The bazooka

US soldier holding a bazooka, 1943 [Public domain, wiki]

US soldier holding a bazooka, 1943 [Public domain, wiki]

The iconic hardware of World War II, items that took on a larger-than-life persona and captured the public’s attention both during and after the war included the Spitfire, the Jeep, even Germany’s MP-40 machine pistol.

This week in the war, on 27 March 1943, the US War Department added another such item to the list by revealing a new weapon: the bazooka.

Named after the musical instrument, the bazooka was designed as a portable anti-tank weapon. Unlike the PIAT, which was the nearest British equivalent and which fired its projectiles by means of a powerful spring (!),  the bazooka was essentially a tubular rocket-launcher. Once loaded into the tube, the rocket was ignited electrically and then propelled itself forward at high velocity. The bazooka could knock out most enemy tanks within a range of 100 yards.

German soldier aims 'Raketenpanzerbuchse', 1944 [Bundesarchiv Bild 101l-671-7482-08A, author: Lysiak]

German soldier aims ‘Raketenpanzerbuchse’, 1944 [Bundesarchiv Bild 101l-671-7482-08A, author: Lysiak]

Almost half a million bazookas were manufactured during the course of the war. The Germans captured some during the North Africa campaign and copied the design for their own Raketenpanzerbüchse.

 

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This week in the War, 15–21 March 1943: Trying to kill Hitler

Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff [Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-130-51]

Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff [Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-130-51]

This week in the war, on 21 March 1943, Wehrmacht colonel, Rudolf Christoph von Gersdorff attempted to blow himself up beside Hitler, and alongside Goering, Himmler and Doenitz, too. It was not the first attempt on the Fuehrer’s life, and it would not be the last.

As part of Heroes Memorial Day, Hitler had planned to inspect a collection of captured Soviet weapons that were on display on Unter den Linden at the Zeughaus—–the old armory built by Frederick III and now the present-day location of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.

Only eight days before, a bomb contained in two bottles of Cointreau had been smuggled on to Hitler’s plane but failed to explode. It was thought afterwards that the cold weather was responsible for the explosive not igniting. (Hitler was flying to the Wolf’s Lair near Rastenburg. The two army officers, Major-General Henning von Tresckow and Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, escaped detection.)

Given that the attempt to blow up Hitler’s plane had failed, von Gersdorff’s decided upon a suicide mission. He obtained explosives from von Schlabrendorff—again with British fuses, like the Cointreau bomb. British fuses acted silently. German fuses hissed.

Ceremonies at the Zeughaus began at 1.00pm and Hitler made a brief speech. Von Gersdorff’s pockets were stuffed with high explosive and, because he had been given the official task of explaining the exhibits, he could be as close to Hitler as he chose. Von Gersdorff activated the fuses. He and Germany’s Fuehrer had exactly ten minutes to live.

But it was not to be. As if he’d had a premonition warning him of danger, Hitler rushed through the halls and exited the building without seeing any of the displays. With barely a minute to spare, von Gersdorff found a toilet and hastily defused his bomb.

Against all odds, von Gersdorff survived the afternoon of 21 March 1943 and went on to survive the war. (He played a role in another high profile incident while in Russia with Army Group Centre, namely the discovery of the graves of thousands of Polish army officers who had been murdered by the Soviets and buried in the Katyn Forest.)

Modern-day view of the Zeughaus, which currently houses the Deutsches Historisches Museum [Public domain, author: El Dirko]

Modern-day view of the Zeughaus, which currently houses the Deutsches Historisches Museum [Public domain, author: El Dirko]

Von Gersdorff’s plot was followed in little over a year by a more well known though equally unsuccessful plot against Hitler: the 20 July 1944 bomb plot that was spearheaded by Wehrmacht colonel, Claus von Stauffenberg.

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This week in the War, 8–14 March 1943: Italian workers stage a strike at the Fiat factories in Turin

Italian WWII poster encouraging citizens to work and fight for their country [Public domain, wiki]

Italian WWII poster encouraging citizens to work and fight for their country [Public domain, wiki]

This week in the war, 12 March 1943, tens of thousands of workers at the Fiat factories in the Italian industrial city of Turin went on strike. Other Italian workers followed their lead and war production across northern Italy ground almost to a standstill. These were the first protests to be staged against the Mussolini regime.

The poor provision of air-raid shelters in the face of the repeated bombing of Turin and other industrial centres, as well as ports, plus food shortages and the recent defeats in North Africa were all instrumental in causing the Italian population to lose confidence in the regime that had taken them to war in 1940. It was a war that many Italians had not wanted.

Hitler response was one of outrage. He could not understand the Italian authorities’ reluctance to deal with the strikers with the utmost harshness. Hitler would not tolerate any hold up in the war effort of his ally.

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