September 30, 2022

1943. Ukrainians Persevere in the Wake of Destruction

A "Desert of Destitution"
"Residents of the liberated city of Stalino (Donetsk) read 'TASS Windows,'" September 1943 (source)
(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports.)
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

September 6, 1943

The Russians tonight hold two-thirds of the Donbass and are moving westward at the rate of fifteen miles a day—so fast that the Soviet Union's richest coal country should very soon be completely in the hands of the Red Army.

The coal capital of Stalino is the only major Donbass city still held by the Germans, and the Red Army is only four miles east of there. Tonight's communiqué announces the capture of four big railroad and coal centers in the Donbass network, leaving only the western fringe of this vulnerable fuel basin in German hands.

The other big victory announced by the Soviet high command is the capture of the railroad junction of Konotop in the northern Ukraine. Konotop is 128 miles on the railroad east of Kiev. Now the Russians are advancing on an even bigger railroad junction: Bakhmach, seventeen miles west of Kharkov. Five railroads run into Bakhmach. It is the first station on the eastern edge of the Kiev railroad network.

We can assume that the Germans are firing and blowing up every building and mine pit and peasant's cottage in the path of their western retreat. The Ukraine tonight is scorched earth wherever the Nazis pass.

I saw examples of this earth scorching when I was in the Ukraine the day before yesterday traveling along the path of the German retreat from Belgorod to Kharkov.

The damage is so extensive that the occasional house that was new—unburned, without shell holes and not charred by fire—such scattered houses seemed almost to be showplaces. They stood out like the pyramids in a desert of destitution.

The most indestructible thing about a Ukrainian cottage is its big peasant stove. They are immense things as high as the house itself—sort of an enclosed indoor fireplace. Today their chimneys finger the horizon like the skeletons of peacetime.

But the people come back. They always come back, no matter how badly their homes are wrecked. Tonight they are sleeping in nearby haystacks, or in dugouts in the ground, or on the ground itself. They'll get up at dawn and start rebuilding the stove—and eventually build a house around it. The Ukraine has been kicked around and shot up and burned, but it is far from dead.

Now there is a rush to get the houses built before winter. Neighbors are helping neighbors. Not everyone is going to have a warm house by the time the first snow falls, but there will be enough shelter for the people who are left—the people who were not sent to Germany—to give the Ukraine a new lease on life.

It badly needs it.

September 23, 2022

1943. "Davies in Sovietland"

Ambassador Joseph E. Davies Visits the Soviet Union
US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies stands alongside Joseph Stalin and Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in May 1943 (source)
From Newsweek, May 31, 1943, pp. 50-52:

Davies in Sovietland

The arrival of former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies in Moscow was an event of importance in the Soviet capital last week. In the following dispatch Newsweek's Moscow correspondent, Bill Downs, gives the unofficial side of how Davies was received.

Joseph Davies arrived in a big cargo plane at the Moscow airdrome. He came with the cold spring rain which was out of season compared with the warmth of his greeting. When Davies poked out his head Admiral Standley shouted up the doorway: "Hello, Joe." Davies replied: "Hello Admiral. God bless you."

He climbed down the awkward ladder immediately and shook hands with the embassy officials and with fat V. G. Dekanozoff, who was Molotoff's representative and who could pass for one of the seven dwarfs—but not Dopey, for he is one of the smartest men in the Foreign Commissariat.

There was a great deal of good-humored lining up for the Soviet Film News photographers who were sent to make this the biggest greeting of any foreigner since Wendell Willkie. American and Soviet flags flying side by side at the entrances to the airport hangars stiffened in the breeze as the party drove off to the luxurious Soviet guest house at No. 8 Ostrovsky Street, where Willkie also had been billeted.

Davies agreed to meet the correspondents in a half hour. To do this he made a special trip to Ambassador Standley's residence, settled down in a chair in the library, and proceeded not to answer the questions. He explained that he had nothing to add to the President's statement concerning his mission.

Davies agreed to talk off the record—but did not say anything to throw light on his mission. Instead he dwelled mostly on his impressions of his trip from America to Russia. Then he went into an emotional talk about his visit to Stalingrad. He said: "I watched the reactions of the crew of my plane. No one said much; then someone said: 'Those dirty sons of bitches, I could tear them apart with my own hands.' That is how we all felt."

Davies next explained how, wearing a top hat and striped trousers and other diplomatic paraphernalia, he had once laid a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Belgium and how an Ambassador uncovers and lays the wreath on the tomb, steps backward, and bows his head about two minutes. He went on: "I followed that protocol at Stalingrad. It was very impressive. When I bowed my head before the common grave across the street from Marshal Paulus's headquarters, a curious crowd that gathered also bared its head. The silence lasted longer than two minutes, and it was very impressive."

Then Davies remarked: "I made a few extemporaneous remarks there." A correspondent asked: "Do you remember what you said?" Davies answered: "Not exactly, but my secretary happened to be there and made a stenographic report of what I said." There was a pause and Davies continued: "I wonder if I have a copy with me." After another pause for rummaging in his pockets he said: "Here it is." And out came five typewritten copies of his speech which were passed around.

However, all is not sweetness and light for Joe Davies's second mission to Moscow. The crew of his Army plane now are interested only in "getting him home." These men say they are thinking of writing a book called "Second Mission to Moscow." They all agree it would make fantastic reading. Davies is not well and brought with him a physician, Dr. Arthur F. Chace of New York, one of the world's outstanding authorities on internal medicine and president of the American Academy of Medicine.

However, Davies's trip augurs well and portends success. The Russians at least know where they stand with him. They operate on a principle which he himself quotes, saying that the Russian officials told him: "If you find any faults with us, you tell us—if you find something good, you tell the world."

September 15, 2022

1944. Entering Caen After the Allied Bombing and Liberation

"Why Did You Bomb Us?"
"A British soldier carries a little girl through the devastation of Caen, 10 July 1944" (source)

Below are brief accounts from Bill Downs and war correspondent Al Newman, both of whom entered Caen shortly after Allied forces took the city. More reports from Downs in July 1944 are featured here. From Newsweek, July 24, 1944, pp. 29-31:

Why Did You Bomb Us?

Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS correspondent, was among the first few reporters to enter Caen after the British captured it. He cabled the following eyewitness story of the broken city, which once had 50,000 inhabitants.

A British colonel poked his head into a trench and said: "So you want to go into Caen?" We poked our heads out of the trench, looked at each other, and said with some doubt: "Yes."

"Well, go ahead," the colonel said. "But at your own risk." Continuing that kind of talk is bad for morale so we climbed into our jeep and headed for a mile of highway under German shell and mortar fire. No one liked the idea too much, but we had been waiting four hours to go ahead.

The jeep picked up speed. After the first quarter of a mile we relaxed—a little.

Down the hill was Caen proper. We came to an area which had received part of the 2,000 tons of bombs dropped by the RAF two days before. It looked as if someone had picked up the whole area, dropped it, and then come along with a gigantic finger and poked holes in the ground. White limestone dust covered everything, even the leaves still remaining on the shattered trees. Someone might have played a bad joke with dirt whitewash. We walked down the hill past the ruins of houses with their curtains flapping lifelessly from shattered windows. Parked beside a filling station with three leaning pumps was the remainder of a car. It looked like an oversize pepper shaker, there were so many holes in it.

This street once had been the beautiful approach to Caen. Ancient trees lined both sides of the avenue. In peacetime it was called the "Rue de la Délivrande."

The following day we were able to drive in from the west. There it was the same old story of destruction on the outskirts with damage tapering off as you reached the center of the city.

All Caen civilians who wish are being evacuated to camps near the beaches. Many of them since the invasion have lived in the Lycée Malherbe, the boys' school in the center of the city run by priests of the Church of St. Etienne. For weeks families slept on straw on the floor. There was no water, no light. But the Germans respected the asylum of the church and didn't bother the people. All in all, about 6,000 stayed here.

It was a different story for those who chose to live in their homes. German restrictions tightened when the Allies invaded. Then, following the big RAF bombing, SS troops ran wild through the town, beating civilians, breaking into stores and homes, and taking what they wanted. Liquor was their first demand.

What Price Deliverance: The people cannot understand the reason for this terrific bombing that preceded the final attack. "We waited four years for you to come," they say. "Then two days before you liberated us you bombed us." There has been no count of civilian casualties from this raid but preliminary estimates say that they may reach 2,000, maybe more.

The military argument for this tremendous attack is that the day after it was made the Germans began pulling men and equipment out of the Caen defenses. How many Germans would have defended the city and whether it would have been fought for house by house are questions that cannot be answered now. Many correspondents here have taken the line that such bombing is actually unnecessary, harmful to the Allied cause, and militarily useless. My belief is that it is impossible to tell in the case of Caen. The fact remains that Caen has been liberated.

Another Newsweek correspondent, Al Newman, arrived in Caen on Bastille Day, four days after Downs' visit. Newman sent this contrasting description of the town:

Before the cathedral, the Place du Lycée boiled with people. It took no second glance to tell that this wasn't a Bastille Day celebration but a panicky, tearful throng of refugees waiting for trucks to carry them to Bayeux. The dimly lit nave of the cathedral was thickly spread with straw, and hundreds, looking grim, scared and hopeless, lay there.

In the adjacent Lycée Malherbe, where more refugees huddled, relief workers buzzed from group to group. There were French Wacs brought from England for just such emergencies and local civilian Red Cross workers. American civil affairs officers answered questions, took notes, and shepherded refugees into trucks, saw to meals and supervised burial of the dead in mass graves behind the Lycée.

That was Caen's Quatorze Juillet observance.