1944 through the eyes of an Englishman

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The BEV Retrospective - 1944.

1944 was an eventful year. It would demonstrate that Hitler had bitten of more than he could chew.

In January, General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in England in his capacity as the allied Commander in Chief in Europe. The Soviet armies entered Poland at about the same time. At the end of the month they relieved the besieged city of Leningrad.

Allied forces had made progress in Italy. Now, in an attempt to leapfrog a tough battle with the Germans at the Gustav line, south of Rome and close to the town of Casino, allied forces landed at Anzio Beach. The fighting both at Anzio and at Casino was brutal. It was not until May 23 that the allied troops broke through there, and the troops at the Anzio beachhead succeeded in breaking out in their support. On June 5th, the allies entered Rome.


US forces landing at Omaha beach.


Situation at the Falaise Pocket.
The next day saw the largest seaborne invasion in military history. The D-Day landings - Operation Overlord - involved 6000 ships and 13000 aircraft. A German officer who was present is said to have remarked, in disbelief, "It's impossible ... there can't be that many ships in the world."

On the day, around 150,000 troops were landed either from ships or from the air. The US troops landing at Omaha Beach took the greatest punishment, suffering around 2,000 casualties in a small area over a short period. This was vividly portrayed in recent times by the "Saving Private Ryan" film.

Omaha beach was certainly not a good place to be, but in historical terms you could have found a lot worse. Allied casualties in Operation Diadem before the capture of Rome just days before had been around 3,500 per day over a 12 day period. Soviet losses in the defence of Moscow, and subsequent counter-attacks between October 1941 and January 1942 were on the order of 8,000 per day. At Waterloo, the British and allies suffered 15,000 casualties in a day. And, on the first day of the Somme battle during WW1, British losses were some 57,000.

The Germans were wrong-footed, and failed to drive the invaders back into the sea as required by Herr Hitler. The Normandy bridgehead was established. A painful slugging match ensued for the Americans in the Normandy bocage. One german tank carefully positioned at an intersection could bog their advance down for a day. Various novel techniques were invented for fighting in this terrain.

The British and Canadians were also frustrated around Caen for some time, particularly by dug-in Tiger tanks. But on August 7th the allies broke out from their slowly extending area of control.

Then though, the result was spectacular and decisive. A German counter attack at Mortain having failed, 50,000 German troops of the Wermacht 7th army were encircled in the Falaise Pocket on August 21st, and by August 25th, allied troops were in Paris.

On the eastern front, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, which cleared German forces out of Belorussia and part of eastern Poland, stopping short of Warsaw.

The Russians deployed about 1.7 million men, 24,000 guns and mortars, 4,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, and over 6,000 aircraft. To illustrate the dire situation that now faced Germany, these were opposed by 800,000 men, 9,500 guns and mortars, 550 tanks and 840 aircraft.

The battle was an illustration of the Soviet theory of the operational art. The levels of coordination between their forces, and deception of the enemy forces meant that the Germans never had any clear idea of what was going on.

By the end of August the operation had fulfilled its objectives and thrown bridgeheads across the River Vistula in Poland. This was the greatest Soviet WW2 victory in terms of numbers. The German Army Group Centre was essentially destroyed - a loss from which the Wehrmacht could not recover.


V1 in flight.
In that summer, the German war machine began launching V1 missiles at the major ports in the Netherlands, and at London.

The V1 was a small unmanned aircraft powered by a pulse-jet engine, with a range of about 250km, and carrying a high explosive warhead of 850kg. They were known by the British populace as 'Doodlebugs' or 'Buzz Bombs' on account of the characteristic noise of the engine. These were alarming devices. They had a primitive guidance system to control direction and range, and when they reached their set range, the engine would cut out. On the ground you then had ten to fifteen seconds to take cover before the considerable explosion on their impact.

About 70 a day were landing on London. Some were intercepted by tuned up fighter aircraft, but the eventual defence was a radar system used for anti-aircraft gun control, and the use of the proximity fuse, both of which became available at about the same time. The British intelligence services also contributed to a reduction of the number of V1 bombs that reached London. They contrived reports showing that most of them were landing in North London so the Germans 'corrected' their ranging somewhat with the result that many of them fell short.
By September, the allied advance in Europe deprived the enemy of launch sites that were within range.

The allied armies advancing from the Normandy breakout rapidly outran their supplies, and had enormous logistical problems. The only supply ports available were that at Cherbourg and the temporary - Mulberry - harbours that had been constructed at the invasion beaches. It reached the point where for each drum of fuel that arrived at the front line, five drums were spent on the transport.

Various allied commanders came up with competing plans whereby certain directions of attack would receive priority in resources to keep the invasion moving. In September, the allies agreed upon and launched operation "Market Garden" in the Netherlands.

This operation was designed to capture a number of major river and canal crossings, the most crucial of which was the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem, using US and British airborne troops. The bridges would then be used for a rapid advance of a British army group intending to cross the Rhine, and subsequently to attack through the industrial Ruhr area into Germany.

Initially this operation was quite successful, and the airborne troops gained strong footholds on or close to the areas they were supposed to occupy in the largest airborne operation in history. But the Germans reacted with typical Wehrmacht speed and resourcefulness, and consequently the advance of the ground troops was too slow. The weather also turned against the operation.

The bridge at Arnhem turned out to be the 'bridge too far'. The war in the Netherlands turned into a slugging match for the Canadian First Army, which finally managed to clear the Scheldt estuary and thus open Antwerp to cargo ships by November. This considerably improved the supply situation. One serious adverse consequence of Market Garden though was that US forces were pulled northward to support the attacking British army group, leaving one US army group dangerously extended in the region of the Ardennes.

Battle of the Bulge.
The Germans launched their final offensive on the western front against this area on 16 December. By this time, their defensive front was considerably reduced, and the area of coverage was well served by telegraph and telephone lines. Consequently the allies were significantly deprived of the information they usually got from the British code breakers via intercepts of enemy radio transmissions.

The offensive was planned in great secrecy, with the assistance of foggy autumn weather, and caught the US troops in the Ardennes sector completely by surprise. For the first seven days, the German attack and advance was quite rapid, and the weather protected their forces from the allied air forces.

Nonetheless, their progress was not compatible with their objectives - the recapture of Brussels and Antwerp. The offensive was too little, too late. A large intrusion - the bulge - was made into the allied lines, but on the 23rd, the weather cleared, and the allied counter attack began with full air support. By mid January the Germans were back where they started, but they had lost all of their reserves.

In the Pacific, the Americans captured the Marshall Islands and Guam. In October, attempting to prevent the Americans from taking the Philippine island of Leyte, the Japanese navy sent out the largest fleet it could muster. The largest naval battle of WW2 ensued, and the Japanese were defeated by the US 3rd and 7th fleets. As a result, the Japanese would not be capable of mounting large naval actions for the rest of the war.

Technology.

In April, scientists at Los Alamos received their first sample of reactor-bred Plutonium from the Hanford reactor. It was quickly discovered that the spontaneous fission rate of Plutonium was such that a chain reaction would start before the two masses collided in a gun-type bomb. The reaction would then vapourize the whole thing, and the bomb would 'fizzle'.

Work on the alternative implosion design had already been in progress, but now, the entire organization at Los Alamos was revamped to make this the primary line of development. As a result, an explosive lens assembly designed to focus a shock wave toward its centre was tested in December.

IBM had been working on a general-purpose programmable computer design since 1939, and now the Harvard Mark 1 was completed and moved to Harvard University. It was an electro-mechanical, decimal computer, using storage wheels, rotary switches, and electromagnetic relays. Programming was via a punched paper tape. Once again it was not a complete general purpose computer in the current sense.


V2 missile launch.
Over the same time period, the Germans under Wernher von Braun had been working on rocket-propelled ballistic missiles, culminating in the A4 missile, better known as the V2. This was the precursor of subsequent ICBMs and space launch vehicles

The V2 was a liquid-fuelled rocket (alcohol and liquid oxygen), with a range of about 300km, that carried a high explosive warhead weighing about a ton. Its trajectory brought it down onto its target from a height of many miles at three to four times the speed of sound. Consequently its victims got absolutely no warning, and there was no defence against it.

At first, Churchill and the war cabinet, who knew about it, didn't say anything, because they did not want to give the enemy any indication of their degree of success. There were just these random unexplained large explosions in the target area. Eventually the Nazis announced the weapon, and Churchill then announced to parliament that England had been under rocket attack "for the last few weeks".

About 1300 V2s were launched against England before their launch sites were destroyed or forced out of range by the allied advance.
Politics.

Politics was still low-profile in the face of the war. However, a meeting of representatives from all the allied countries was held at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire to discuss international monetary systems that would need to be in place after the war.

The meeting resulted in the signing of agreements establishing the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In November, there was an election in the USA where Roosevelt became the only US President to serve four terms.

As a part of their general advance, the Soviets took over several of the states on the east shore of the Baltic sea.
Life.

I was of course at this point - now two years old - still unconcious of what was going on around me.

Clearly by now, the British populace was feeling somewhat more upbeat about the outcome of the war, but it wasn't over yet, and there were still a lot of fingers crossed that significant others would make it through OK to the end.

In other respects it got worse. Goods were in even shorter supply, and life was pretty Spartan. It was not clear that improvements in that direction would be quick in coming.

Entertainment.

Notable movies of the year from the US were "Laura" - a classic whodunit; "National Velvet" - a story of a girl, played by Liz Taylor, and her horse; "To Have and Have Not" - Bogard does Hemingway; and "Meet Me in St Louis" - a nostalgic story of American family life.

In the UK, Lawrence Olivier starred in a film adaptation of Shakespear's Henry V that features a pretty stirring depiction of the battle of Agincourt, with some stirring music by William Walton.

David Lean directed "This happy breed" (the title being a quote from Shakespear's Richard II). The film was about pre-war Britain, with hints as to what should happen post-war.

Popular music in this year is still somewhat inscrutable from this distance in time. Bing Crosby was still very much in evidence with "Swinging on a Star", and the sentimental "Long Ago and Far Away". The latter was recorded by a number of artists at the same time, and I'd guess that everyone had their favourite version. Here's one from the Geraldo band:




Twighlight Time by Les Brown was used as a signoff record by many radio stations starting in this year.

A German song - Lily Marlene - had been a favourite of troops on both sides in Europe for some time. In this year, Anne Shelton recorded an English version.
Index.

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