May 7, 2021

1951. Downs Reflects on the Korean War, One Year Later

The Situation in Korea
"An American mortar crew fires on North Korean positions at Chochiwon," July 11, 1950 (source)
From the Congressional Record, submitted by Rep. Paul Kilday on July 10, 1951:

Bill Downs

CBS News

July 8, 1951

A year ago today I was one of the most frightened men in the world. The Korean war was less than 2 weeks old. CBS had just rushed me to the Far East, and I was spending my first day at the fighting front near Chochiwon.

I've spent a lot of time covering a lot of different kinds of armies, and a reporter learns that fear is as much a part of war as is noise.

But just 365 days ago today, it seemed different. And when I say I was one of the most frightened men in the world, I mean I had a lot of company.

The United States Army in Korea at that time consisted of one regiment. Its only friends, the South Korean troops, had broken. Our GIs at the time were outnumbered 100 to 1. And there seemed to be nothing that anyone could do about it.

The American soldier of that day were kids who had joined the Army for the soft touch. They were soft and badly trained. Someday there will be an investigation as to why they were allowed to sit on occupation duty in Japan and grow all the wrong calluses in the wrong places. Many of them didn't even know the importance of digging in. They knew more about comic books and Japanese women than they did about their own weapons. Many of the early American casualties can be laid directly to neglect of the men by the officers who were supposed to have trained them in Japan.

I had a chance to think these things over under fire, a year ago today, in a Korean ditch nuzzling an odiferous Korean rice paddy. And as I said, I was extremely frightened and filled with despair. At that time I would not have given a plugged nickel for our chances of staying on the peninsula.

You know the rest of the story. I have gone into this because in weighing the results of the past year's fighting at this time of imminent cease-fire, it is well to remember the deplorable state of readiness in which the United States found itself when the Communists marched in Korea.

In the 12 ensuing months, the revival of American power has been miraculous. It is something you have to remind yourself to remember.

And it may be that historians will some day record that Josef Stalin made his greatest strategical mistake when he sent his North Korean puppets across the thirty-eighth parallel and thus aroused the American military and industrial giant into action.

There has been much argument as to whether the Korean campaign has been worth the cost in blood to the United States. I admit that I was one of those who in the early days did not think it was. Korea was of no military value to us; it looked like we were headed for a disastrous defeat; we were forced into battle at the time and place of the enemy's choosing. And no one here at home, including some Congressmen, seemed to care.

Events have changed my mind. Fourteen other United Nations joined us in the fighting. Their contribution was token, but it was there. The Communists have paid a tremendous price for their adventure. The free world has proved that a deliberate breach of the peace can be disastrously costly.

And most important, the United States is becoming strong. Strong enough to prove that the ideal of freedom backed by strength can defend itself against totalitarianism.

You will not hear much argument about whether or not the United Nations achieved a military or diplomatic victory in Korea.

What we have really won is a measure of future security for the kind of world we stand for. The dangers still exist, but the men who fought and died in Korea have given us these priceless things, the time and ability to defend ourselves.

We will betray the trust of the men who died in Korea only if we waste this time or dissipate this ability through petty partisan politics at home or a relaxation of our vigilance at other danger areas around the world.

April 12, 2021

1944. "The Battle of Nijmegen Bridge" by Bill Downs

The Battle of Nijmegen
"Cromwell tanks of 2nd Welsh Guards crossing the bridge at Nijmegen, 21 September 1944" (source)
This report by Bill Downs on September 24, 1944 was published in the BBC's The Listener magazine on September 28, 1944. As an eyewitness, Downs described the Nijmegen bridge assault as "a single, isolated battle that ranks in magnificence and courage with Guam, Tarawa, Omaha Beach."

From The Listener, September 28, 1944:
The Battle of Nijmegen Bridge

By BILL DOWNS

The story of the battle of Nijmegen bridge should be told to the blowing of bugles and the beating of drums for the men whose bravery made the capture of this crossing over the Waal River possible. You know about the Nijmegen bridge. It's been called the gateway into northern Germany. It stretches half-a-mile over the wide tidal river and its flood land. And without the bridge intact the Allied airborne and ground operation northward through Holland could only be fifty per cent successful.

The Nijmegen bridge was built so it could be blown, and blown quickly. Its huge arching span is constructed in one piece. Only two strong charges of explosives would drop the whole thing into the river. Special cavities for these dynamite charges were built into the brick by the engineers that designed it. The bridge was the biggest single objective of the airborne invasion and its capture intact is a credit to all the American and British fighting men.

American airborne patrols reached the area at the southern end of the bridge on Sunday night, September 17th, shortly after they landed, but at that time they were not in enough strength to do anything about it. On Monday the paratroops and glider forces were too busy beating off the German counter-attacks to co-ordinate an assault on the bridge. By this time the armour of the British Second Army was on its way northwards from the Escaut Canal. Then on Tuesday the British tanks arrived on the outskirts of Nijmegen and an attack was commenced, but still the Germans held on strongly in the fortification and houses on the south end of the bridge. American airborne infantry and British tanks were only 300 yards from the bridge in the streets of Nijmegen, but they couldn't get to it.

Tuesday night was the strangest. The American troops took machine guns to the top of the houses and sprayed the approaches and the entrance to the bridges with bullets. All night they shot at anything that moved. Perhaps it was this constant fire that kept the Germans from blowing the bridge then. But still the shuddering blast that would signal the end of the bridge did not come. And when morning arrived a new plan was devised. It was dangerous and daring and risky. The commanders who laid it out knew this; and the men who were to carry it out knew it too. Thinking a frontal assault on the bridge from the south was impossible, American infantry were to fight their way westwards down the west bank of the Waal River and cross in broad daylight to fight their way back up the river bank, and attack the bridge from the north.

On Wednesday morning the infantry made their way westward through the town and got to the industrial outskirts along the river bank near the mouth of a big canal. Some British tanks went with them to give them protection in the street fighting and to act as artillery when the crossings were to be made. Accompanying this task force were trucks carrying twenty-six assault boats brought along by the British armoured units in case of such an emergency. Most of the men who were there to make the crossing had never handled an assault boat before. There was a lot of argument as to who would handle the paddles and preference was given to the men who had at least rowed a boat. Everything was going well. The Germans were supposed to be completely surprised by the audacity of the move.

But late in the morning the impossible happened. Two men showed themselves on a river bank and were fired at by the enemy. No Americans were supposed to be in that part of the town. The 88 mm. shells began plastering the area. The gaff was blown. Reconnaissance spotted batches of German troops being transferred to the opposite bank. A few hours later, machine guns were dug into the marshes on the far side—the plan had been discovered. The task force was under shell-fire, and several hundred Germans with machine guns were sitting on the opposite bank waiting for the crossing. This was about noon.

There was a quick conference. It was decided that the original plan would proceed, but this time the men crossing the river would have the help of heavy bombers: Lancasters and Stirlings flying in daylight a few miles from the German border to drop their bombs on the opposite bank in tactical support of the men from the assault boats.

Working under enemy shell-fire, the assault boats were assembled. When they were put into the water, another difficulty arose. The tide was moving out with a downstream current of eight miles an hour. Some of the boats drifted 300 yards down river before they were retrieved and brought back. Meanwhile machine guns spluttered on the opposite bank and German artillery kept smashing the embarkation area regularly.

At last everything was ready. The bombers went in but didn't drop their bombs close enough to knock out the machine guns. Twenty-six assault boats were in the water. They would carry ten men each: 260 men would make the first assault. Waiting for them on the other bank were some 400 to 600 Germans. The shelling continued. Every man took a deep breath and climbed in. Someone made a wisecrack about the airborne navy and someone else said they preferred airborne submarines to this job. And off across the river they started. At the same time behind them, the British tanks fired their heavy guns, and our own heavy machine guns fired into the opposite bank giving the little fleet as much cover as possible.

And over on the other side of the river the enemy tracers shrieked at the boats. The fire at first was erratic, but as the boats approached the northern bank the tracers began to spread on to the boats. Men slumped in their seats—other men could be seen shifting a body to take over the paddling. One man rose up in his seat and fell overboard. There was no thought of turning back. The paddling continued clumsily and erratically, but it continued. One of the boats had so many holes in it that the men were baling out with their tin helmets—it was almost splintered when it reached the other side.

The fighting, though, had only just begun. The hundred or so men who had arrived on the opposite side fought their way forward with bayonet and grenade, going from one machine gun nest to the other until they had established a bridgehead only a few yards deep and several hundred feet wide. The thirteen boats had hardly left for the return trip for the reinforcements, when the men on the north bank saw specks in the water. The men on the opposite bank, seeing the casualties suffered in the landing under fire, were not waiting for the boats. Some of them had stripped off their equipment, and taking a bandolier of ammunition, were swimming the river with their rifles on their backs. And thus it went—the thirteen little boats going time after time across the river under fire; the men on the bridgehead digging in and firing as rapidly as possible, routing out the German machine gun nests by hand while British tanks fired for all they were worth. After an hour and a half of concentrated hell, the infantry were over. They held a bridgehead several hundred yards wide and one hundred yards deep. At that time, one officer counted 138 Germans dead in a space of sixty yards of that bloody beachhead.

There was a welcome pause as the men consolidated and rested in their foxholes. Some had thrown the German bodies out of the Nazi machine gun nests and were using these to stiffen their defences. The plan was to turn eastwards and assault the northern end of the bridge. But on the left flank of that minute bridgehead was another menace—for there on the high ground overlooking the bridge and firing at us with some 88 mm. guns, was an ancient fort. It is called Hatz van Holland and was supposed to have been used centuries ago by Charlemagne as a fortress. The Germans had been using the fort as an anti-aircraft gun position to defend Nijmegen, and now they turned the ack-ack guns downward to bear on the bridge and the airborne bridgehead across the Waal. While these guns were firing at the back, the troops could not fight their way to the northern end of the bridge. A detail was formed to attack the Hatz van Holland and put its guns out of action.

That, as warriors centuries ago found out, was extremely difficult because the Hatz van Holland was surrounded by a moat. This moat had a few feet of water in it—black dirty water, covered with a layer of bright green slime. Also, the attacking party would have to advance under point blank 88 mm. fire. But anyhow the party set out. They crawled towards the high ground and the 88s banged away at them. And then they came to a zone where there were no 88 shells. It was found out that the other 88 guns were so installed that the guns could not reach downward that far. The German gun-crews discovered this too late and rushed to put up a rifle and machine gun defence along the moat.

But the Americans by this time had faced so much that a few machine guns were nothing. They made a stand-up attack, shouting like Indians, and, with tommy-guns blazing, knocked out the historic Hatz van Holland. A few Americans with blood in their eyes left seventy-five Germans dead in that moat. The remaining troops fought their way up the river all right. They captured the northern end of the railroad bridge and worked their way to the junction of the railroad highway from the main bridge. The entire German position on the northern side of the river was cut off. There was bitter bayonet fighting and Americans died, but more Germans died. And finally, British tanks made their way across the bridge and it was ours.

British tanks and airborne American infantry had begun their frontal assault on the southern end of the bridge at the same time as the river crossing was started. They had to make their way down streets alive with Germans. And this is how it was done. The tanks went down the streets firing at targets of opportunity, which means any German or German tank or vehicles that appeared. And the Americans went through the houses on either side of the street. Yes, literally through the houses—for instead of going along the outside of the houses and risking cross-fire from the Germans within, the American troops blew holes through the sides of the houses with bazookas. That was how they made their way through the strong defence area built to protect the bridge—blowing a hole with a bazooka into a house, clearing it of Germans and going on.

Meanwhile, the tanks had discovered that sitting on one street corner was a German Tiger tank waiting for them to make their appearance. It was out of sight and protected by the houses, but one of the Sherman tanks mounting a big 17-pounder gun decided to have a shot anyway. It aimed its armour-piercing shell in the general direction of the tank. There was a great boom: the shell plunged through twelve houses and came out with a great crash, taking a large section of the last house with it. The Tiger, seeing this destruction, decided he did not like the neighbourhood so well and retreated.

At the southern end of the bridge were stationed four self-propelled German guns guarding the streets leading to the bridge area. There was nothing to do but rush them. So the tanks lined up four abreast around the corner of the wide main street leading to the bridge and, at a signal, all roared into the street firing their mortars, their heavy guns and even machine guns. The assault was so sudden and heavy that three of the self-propelled guns were knocked out before they could bring fire to bear. The fourth gun ran to safety. Between the two—the American airborne troops and the British tankmen—the south end of the bridge was seized. At first only tanks could get across the bridge because a half-dozen fanatical Germans remained high in the girders of the bridge sniping. These were soon cleaned up. Today the Nijmegen bridge is in our hands intact—a monument to the gallantry of the Americans who crossed the river and the British and airborne troops who stormed it from the south.

March 16, 2021

1945. Edward R. Murrow's Account of Buchenwald

"If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I am not in the least sorry."


Edward R. Murrow

CBS News

April 15, 1945

Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you had been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio.
For I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. And it was built to last.

As we approached it, we saw about a hundred men in civilian clothes with rifles advancing in open order across the field. There were a few shots. We stopped to inquire. We're told that some of the prisoners have a couple of SS men cornered in there. We drove on, reached the main gate. The prisoners crowded up behind the wire. We entered. And now, let me tell this in the first person, for I was the least important person there, as you can hear.

There surged around me an evil-smelling horde. Men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death had already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over that mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were plowing.

A German, Fritz Kirchheimer, came up and said, "May I show you around the camp? I've been here ten years."

An Englishman stood to attention saying, "May I introduce myself? Delighted to see you. And can you tell me when some of our blokes will be along?" I told him "Soon," and asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovakians. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled eighty horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description.

When I reached the center of the barracks, a man came up and said, "You remember me, I am Petr Zenkl, onetime mayor of Prague." I remembered him, but did not recognize him. He asked about Beneš and Jan Masaryk. I asked how many men had died in that building during the last month. They called the doctor. We inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book, nothing more—nothing of who had been where, what they had done or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died there was a cross. I counted them. They totaled 242—242 out of 1,200 in one month.

As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from the men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand-clapping of babies, they were so weak. The doctor's name was Paul Heller. He had been there since '38. As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others—they must have been over sixty—were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it but will not describe it.

In another part of the camp they showed me the children—hundreds of them. Some were only six. One rolled up his sleeve, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. D-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die.

An elderly man standing beside me said, "The children—enemies of the state." I could see their ribs through their thin shirts. The old man said, "I am Professor Charles Richet, of the Sorbonne." The children clung to my hands and stared. We crossed to the courtyard. Men kept coming up to me to speak to me and to touch me—professors from Poland, doctors from Vienna, men from all Europe. Men from the countries that made America.

We went to the hospital. It was full. The doctor told me that two hundred had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said, "Tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue, and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult." Dr. Heller pulled back the blankets from a man's feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move.

As we left the hospital I drew out a leather billfold, hoping that I had some money which would help those who lived to get home. Professor Richet from the Sorbonne said, "I should be careful of my wallet if I were you. You know there are criminals in this camp, too." A small man tottered up, saying, "May I feel the leather, please? You see, I used to make good things of leather in Vienna." Another man said, "My name is Walter Roeder. For many years I lived in Joliet. Came back to Germany for a visit and Hitler grabbed me."

I asked to see the kitchen. It was clean. The German in charge had been a Communist, had been at Buchenwald for nine years, had a picture of his daughter in Hamburg. Hadn't seen her for almost twelve years—and if I got to Hamburg, would I look her up? He showed me the daily ration: one piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every 24 hours. He had a chart on the wall—very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each ten men who died. He had to account for the rations, and he added, "We're very efficient here."

We went again into the courtyard, and as we walked, we talked. The two doctors, the Frenchman and the Czech, agreed that about six thousand had died during March. Kirchheimer, the German, added that back in the winter of 1939, when the Poles began to arrive without winter clothing, they died at the rate of approximately 900 a day. Five different men asserted that Buchenwald was the best concentration camp in Germany. They had had some experience in the others.

Dr. Heller, the Czech, asked if I would care to see the crematorium. He said it wouldn't be very interesting because the Germans had run out of coke some days ago, and had taken to dumping the bodies into a great hole nearby. Professor Richet said perhaps I would care to see the small courtyard. I said yes. He turned and told the children to stay behind.

As we walked across the square, I noticed that the professor had a hole in his left shoe and a toe sticking out of the right one. He followed my eyes and said, "I regret that I am so little presentable, but what can one do?" At that point, another Frenchman came up to announce that three of his fellow countrymen outside had killed three SS men and taken one prisoner.

We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall was about eight feet high. It adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little. All except two were naked. I tried to count them as best I could, and arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than five hundred men and boys lay there in two neat piles.

There was a German trailer which must have contained another fifty, but it wasn't possible to count them. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation—they had not been executed. But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last twelve years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than 20,000 in the camp. There had been as many as 60,000. Where are they now?

As I left that camp, a Frenchman who used to work for Havas in Paris came up to me and said, "You will write something about this, perhaps?" And he added, "To write about this, you must have been here at least two years, and after that...you don't want to write any more."

I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words. Dead men are plentiful in war, but the living dead, more than 20,000 of them in one camp . . . and the country round about was pleasing to the eye. And the Germans were well-fed and well-dressed. American trucks were rolling towards the rear filled with prisoners. Soon they would be eating American rations, as much for a meal as the men at Buchenwald received in four days.

If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I am not in the least sorry. I was there on Thursday, and many men in many tongues blessed the name of Roosevelt. For long years his name has meant the full measure of their hope. These men, who had kept close company with death for many years, did not know that Mr. Roosevelt would, within hours, join their comrades who had laid their lives on the scales of freedom.

Back in '41, Mr. Churchill said to me with tears in his eyes, "One day the world and history will recognize and acknowledge what it owes to your president." I saw and heard the first installment of that at Buchenwald on Thursday. It came from men from all over Europe. Their faces, with more flesh on them, might have been found anywhere at home. To them, the name Roosevelt was a symbol, a code word for a lot of guys named Joe who are somewhere out in the blue, with the armor, heading east. At Buchenwald, they spoke of the President just before he died. If there be a better epitaph, history does not record it.

Note: Some of the names as transcribed are from Murrow's notes on Buchenwald.

February 9, 2021

1947. Omaha Beach, Three Years Later

Returning to Omaha Beach
"Normandy, June, 1947: Three years after the World War II D-Day invasion that led to the liberation of Europe from the Nazis, rusting landing craft and other remnants of war litter Omaha Beach, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war" (source)
From the "Special Issue: A Report to America Two Years After V-Day," This Week magazine, August 10, 1947, pp. 20-21:
OMAHA BEACH

By BILL DOWNS

The scene of the Normandy landings is lonely and eerie—three years later

What does a soldier feel when he walks back through the battlefield and finds grass growing in the foxholes and butterflies flitting over the pillboxes? Correspondent Bill Downs, who landed on the Normandy beachhead with the British on D-Day, 1944, went back to find out. He took along a portable recorder.

The result is something new in reporting. For this is no straight account of events and people. Bill Downs looked inwardly and reported the thoughts that marched through his mind—as he walked alone through Omaha Beach. This is how he put them down on the recording tape:

I'm on Omaha Beach, where, not very many months ago, I saw bodies stacked like cordwood—American bodies. Behind me lie the remains of the Mulberry Docks, the improvised harbor that meant so much on D-Day plus. The sea is very quiet today. Battered ghost ships ride low in the surf. This morning—when the sun was just coming out—the moisture on the beach came up in small clouds of steam.

I'm standing at the entrance of an American assault boat. There are about 50 here—some holed by shells, some by collisions. They're old and rusted, down at the stern, half-buried in sand.

Directly in front of me, over the open landing ramp, I can see the rise of treacherous ground the Germans held for so many hours while American troops fought their way up inch by inch. But now this rise is green and has a sort of military smallpox where naval bombardment drove the Germans back and enabled our troops to land.

It gives you an eerie, unreal feeling to be here, to see these sunken ships of the Mulberry harbor; and you wonder if perhaps sailors don't come back sometimes, and maybe soldiers, too, to man these assault boats of that exciting hour.

I walked practically the entire distance of Omaha Beach this morning, starting with the south end, where there are a half-dozen German pillboxes. In one there's a destroyed 88-millimeter gun which, even in destruction, still looks plenty tough.

All along, the hillside by the beach is marked by shellholes. Grass is beginning to grow back into them. Walking alone—there's no one around—you can find old "C" and "K" ration cans rusting in piles, shell casings, an occasional canteen or canteen cup—usually with a bullet hole through it.

Every day except Sunday, German prisoners come down and dig up the mines. Most of them have been dug up successfully, and there have been few casualties—postwar casualties—on the beach itself. Occasionally, from over the horizon, you can hear the far rumble of an explosion—fortifications or recovered mines being blown up inland by German prisoners. Over the high hill that faces the beach you can see smashed pillboxes with the steel rods that reinforced the concrete forming a pattern of deadly lace against the sky.

Two Frenchmen are riding along the beach now. It's Sunday, and the French tourists come up here quite often. The beach used to be a vacation place, and you can still see the wreckage of some summer homes. They are now roofless, shattered and windowless. They give you a sort of blank, stark stare, as if they have not yet recovered from what they saw on that fateful June 6, 1944.

After three years, you find yourself forgetting entire towns which lie inland, back on the beach. Trips that in your memory took about 10 minutes really take a half-hour or longer. Airfields that used to be there are now only wheat fields, and cattle graze on the site of your Command Post.

Almost every farmer has taken advantage of the material left behind by the armies to patch up his place. It seems to be a kind of poetic justice, remembering how our tanks knocked down fences and the corners of houses trying to get through the narrow lanes.

Incidentally, the Normandy cattle are back on their four feet. There are as many cattle now, the farmers tell us, as there were before the war, and there is no sign of those bloated things with legs in the air that populated the fields when we were there.

On the beach, the only things you hear are the singing of the birds—and you probably didn't have time to hear them when you landed, even during lulls when the artillery was quiet. And there are butterflies hovering over the pillboxes and the good, clean smell of plowed earth in the air. But you want to talk about the smell of the swollen cattle, the grim song of the flying shells, and the noise and confusion that goes with an amphibious operation.

But there's no one to talk to because you're here alone.

Maybe you plan to bring the wife and kids and try to show them the exact place where you landed. And the rim of the white, sea-washed stones that saved your life—you show them that. And maybe you try to point out the "88" position that was giving you most of the trouble.

But the explaining and the pointing out has no real meaning for anyone but yourself—and the memory is so deep inside that it needs blasting to bring it out.

I was sent by This Week and CBS to go back over this ground. There was nothing I wanted more—all those exciting, glorious days when you lived by the hour, when every story was worth doing because men were writing that story in their blood for an honest cause.

If you were in on the D-Day landings, I don't think you'd like coming back to beaches like Omaha. There's something grim and ghoulish about it. You stand and you look at the foxholes where men hid desperately. Then you go to the graveyard and read all those names—the Smiths and the Joneses and the McCloskys and the Weinsteins—and it just makes you plain mad. You think how quickly people forget, how you forgot—until you came back.

You look at these shells and this beach, this silence, and you wonder what it was all about. You wonder if you and the rest of the world will remember the terrible sights and sounds of that day three years ago—and try to make its sacrifices worthwhile.

January 14, 2021

1943. The Kuban Bridgehead

The Battle for the Kuban Bridgehead
Soviet soldiers stage a counterattack in the Kuban region, June 1943 (source)
The text in parentheses did not pass Soviet censors for military security or propaganda reasons.

(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports.)
Bitter Hand-to-Hand Fighting in the Trenches
April 17, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 17, 1943

This morning's communiqué again said there were "no essential changes" on the 1,200 mile Russian battle-line (where seven million men are waiting for the opportunity to be at each other's throats.)

But from the Kuban today comes a story that graphically illustrates just what "no essential changes" means to the men in the front line.

To the men in the Kuban, this statement also means that there has been "no change" in the deep mud, the heavy spring rains (and the almost impossible roads) that have bogged their offensive. It means that there has been "no change" in the enemy's determination to hold on to their Kuban bridgehead.

And it also means that there is "no change" in the Russian determination to blast the Germans across the Kerch Strait as soon as possible.

That process is already underway.

Yesterday on the lower Kuban valley, Russian artillery and aircraft opened a dawn bombardment on strong German positions. At daylight, Soviet infantry started their advance (through ravines and brush and over hillocks.) They were forced to ground by a counter-barrage from the Germans. It took forty minutes of inching forward through the mud on their stomachs before the Russian soldiers reached the first German lines. Then there was a period of furious and bitter hand-to-hand fighting before all the Germans were bayonetted out of their trenches.

But this was an important height. And before the Red Army could dig in, the Germans counterattacked. Fresh Nazi forces were brought in from neighboring units. At about noon, a group of fifty tanks—and that was the size of the average tank attack at Stalingrad—were thrown into the battle. German Tommy gunners followed behind.

The Russian command immediately sandwiched antitank gun and rifle troops into the infantry. Troops were issued with the deadly antitank fire bottles.

But the tank force was a heavy one and succeeded in gaining some ground. However, in doing so the tanks became separated from their Tommy gunners. Their position was exceedingly vulnerable, and the German tanks were ordered to retire.

The Russians again advanced.

In all, the Germans made ten unsuccessful counterattacks yesterday on one narrow sector. In some places, hand-to-hand trench battles lasted for an hour and a half—which means an hour and a half of stabbing, shooting, gouging, throttling, kicking, and kneeling. These German bodies were counted on the battlefield after the battle was over.

As I said, the communiqué announced "there were no essential changes on the front."
________________________________
German Reinforcements Arrive
April 20, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 20, 1943

The battle for Hitler's half-acre in the Northern Caucasus still rages in the lower Kuban today. Last night the Germans tried something new in the way of attacks. They threw in tanks during a night battle. This is, of course, a very dangerous maneuver—a fact which the German command found out. Although the Nazi forces were greatly superior in numbers in this attack, the Germans failed to make any progress. They created a wedge in the Russian lines but couldn't hold it. A Red Army counterattack pushed the Germans back to their original positions, and four of those tanks were knocked out before morning.

The past few days of fighting in the Kuban has revealed some interesting facts. It is now evident that the German command has succeeded in getting big reinforcements into their foothold in the Northern Caucasus. It also is evident that Hitler intends to defend his "half-acre" of the Kuban to the last man.

This last-ditch defense of the Kuban bridgehead is no accident of German strategy. The Nazis are putting a lot of men and planes and equipment into this front. They know that, if they lose control of the Kerch Strait, the entire Nazi position south of the Donets River will be threatened by an assault on the Crimea.

The German attacks in the Kuban during the past few days have been exceedingly strong. According to the Russian communiqués, the Germans have spent 6,300 men in "killed" alone during the fighting Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. There has been no indication here as to which direction the Germans are attacking, but one thing is for sure: these attacks cannot be considered an offensive. The German and Romanian troops now fighting in the Kuban have no goal before them. This is no march to Baku or Maykop.

It is a case of "hit them before they hit you." You must remember that the Soviet command has not been idle during the spring bog-down in the Kuban. Russian reinforcements have also been thrown into this sector.

Now it only remains for the full weight of these opposing reinforced armies to clash. This clash, which appears to be imminent, should finally decide the fate of the Kuban.
Soviet sailors look at a German poster in liberated Novorossiysk with an inscription saying that every civilian located within the area will be shot, 1943 (Photo by Alexei Mezhuyev – source)
The Nazi Onslaught
April 21, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 21, 1943

German and Romanian troops are still pounding away at the Russian positions in the Kuban this morning. Various Red Army units on this front report that the Nazi troops launch as many as ten attacks a day on a single sector. When they fail to gain their objective, they keep up attacks throughout the night.

It was that way last night. The final German attacks were beaten off towards dawn. This morning's communiqué says the Russians are still trying to add up enemy losses, but according to preliminary data, one infantry battalion was wiped out and six tanks destroyed.

This morning's communiqué also revealed an interesting detail about this fighting in the Kuban. There has been no indication as to the exact sector where the main battles are now taking place. However, the communiqué said that two enemy torpedo boats were sunk by Red Army fire. Since Hitler's march into the Caucasus last summer, the port of Novorossiysk has been used as an Axis naval base. The Red Army has always held positions near Novorossiysk, and was last reported to hold the southern and eastern outskirts of the city.
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"Let the Hitlerians Cheer"
May 2, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 2, 1943

Bitter fighting has broken out again in the Kuban. It is not clear who is doing the attacking or which army is on the move. The communiqué last night said Soviet forces warded off German counterattacks, which could mean that the Red Army has taken the initiative and is attacking. (Last night six German tanks, some guns and mortars, and one infantry battalion were wiped out.)

This morning's Pravda echoes the good will expressed in Joseph Stalin's Order of the Day. The newspaper says "Let the Hitlerians cheer the German fools about the invincibility of the European fortress. The Hitlerian command fears like fire operations of our allies on the European continent." It adds that the heavy bombing of Germany and Italy by the Anglo-American air forces is "the threshold of a new stage in the course of the war."

(These sort of comments make good reading to the Americans here in Russia.)
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Rough Terrain Near the Kuban Bridgehead
May 5, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 5, 1943

There as yet has been no official Soviet reaction to the news that former Ambassador Joseph Davies is coming to Moscow as a personal representative of President Roosevelt. However, Davies probably rates more personal esteem from the Russians than any other American who has served in this country. His contacts with high government officials are known to be the best. And if he brings a message from President Roosevelt inviting Joseph Stalin to a personal conference, you can be sure that such a request would get utmost consideration in Davies' hands.

The first full-scale spring fighting of 1943 appears to be underway in the Kuban. Up to now, the Russians have referred to this battle as "very serious." The Soviet high command is making no premature claims. And here's some of the reasons why this Kuban warfare is being treated so conservatively.

In the first place, the Germans have built up a strong system of fortifications around the Kuban bridgehead and have had all winter to reinforce them. The terrain in this section of Russia is particularly adaptable to defensive action. The battlefield is composed of low hills and heights alternating with swamps and valleys. Around these swamps in particular grow bushes and groves of trees. And most difficult of all are the ravines and small streams.

Russian soldiers say that it is almost impossible to walk 150 yards through this wooded, hilly battlefield without running on to two or three small streams or a ravine or two. And the Germans are using every advantage that the lay of the land gives them.

On one height captured by the Red Army, they found eighteen antitank guns, thirty-seven machine guns, three mortar batteries, as well as rifle opposition. The Germans are usually dug in deeply, and many times the only way to oust them from such positions is to literally cut them out with bayonets. There is a lot of hand-to-hand fighting going on in the Kuban.

The fighting is just as bitter in the air. For the past several weeks, the German air force has been attempting to paralyze the Russian ground forces so that the Axis troops could further improve their positions. That is the reason that the Luftwaffe a couple of weeks ago switched its attack from rear bases to the Russian front line.

But to do this, the Germans had to bring Focke-Wulf 190s and Stuka dive bombers from other sectors of the Russian front. These reinforcements weren't very effective against the Soviet air defenses. Fifty-five German planes were shot down on this front yesterday. The Russians lost eleven. Such tremendous German losses have enabled the Soviet air forces to take the initiative, and that's what's happening now. Russian fighters, Sturmoviks, and some American storming planes are now concentrating on blasting the enemy clear out of the North Caucasus.
Soviet soldiers armed with a PTRD-41 antitank rifle near Novorossiysk, 1943 (Photo by Victor Temin – source)
Red Army Offensive
May 7, 1943
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 7, 1943

Fighting in the Kuban slackened off a little bit last night. This morning's communiqué says that the battles are still underway, and that the Red Army is still moving. (Last night, Soviet artillery destroyed two German tanks and smashed twenty artillery batteries, as well as some thirty machine gun points.) The Germans still continue to absorb heavy losses in manpower.

The front reporter for the army newspaper, Red Star, this morning sent a cheering and optimistic survey of the Kuban fighting. He says that the big Russian attack of the past few days has cost the Germans their main defensive link between the Axis forces at Novorossiysk and those trying to hold northward to the Kuban river. Red Star says that, in addition, the Russian troops have also destroyed the coordination of these German forces (with other Axis points of support) north of the Kuban river.

However, no one here is claiming that the Germans are defeated on the Kuban bridgehead. The Germans are now rushing in reinforcements and reserves to the threatened battlefields. But the Red Army still has the initiative here, and it looks like the Russians are going to keep it for a long time.
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Germans Entrenched
May 9, 1943
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 9, 1943

Fighting in the Kuban is increasing in intensity with every passing day. Front dispatches say that the Red Army continues to widen the gap in German defenses that were smashed northeast of Novorossiysk. However, the Russian troops have run on to a new line of Nazi fortifications. (They are fortifications built this winter and are the most permanent type, with reinforced concrete pillboxes dug into the sides of mountains and deep trenches and gun positions established in the foothills of the northern Caucasian Mountains.)

The Germans have a defense in depth established here, and they have built a system of defenses which in may ways resembles the Mannerheim Line on the Karelian Peninsula—but the Red Army, you remember, knows something about this type of defense. And today down in the Kuban, the Red Army is still on the move forward.

(Both the Russians and the Germans are rushing reinforcements into this front, and right now the battle hinges on which side succeeds in getting there first with the most.)

The Russian press today continues to eulogize the Allied victory in North Africa. But the newspapers also take occasion to strike a sober note about the battles this summer. The ousting of the Germans and Italians from Africa is everywhere accepted as the last step before an Anglo-American invasion of Western Europe.

But today's Pravda has something to say about the coming battles in Russia, which makes sense also when applied to the fighting that British and American troops will have to do when this second front is opened.

Pravda says: "The Soviet people, from the bottom of their hearts, wish the Allies further fighting successes against our common enemy. Hitlerian Germany is shaken and passing through a crisis—but still is not crushed. We have to face hard and heavy fighting which will require not a few victims and enormous willpower and iron tenacity."

Continuing on the same tone, Pravda warns that it "is possible in some sectors our units will have to go on the defensive. But whatever might be the situation on this or that sector, we must not for a minute lose our willpower to victory."

With the Red Army reinforced for the summer fighting and with both the Germans and Russians waiting for the command to go over the top, this kind of talk is not only reasonable, but necessary.

The price of victory is going to be heavy—heavier than any price the Russians have paid in their two year fighting against the Germans. And far heavier than America's initial losses in North Africa.
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Continued Axis Resistance
May 12, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 12, 1943

The Red Army is still slugging away at the Kuban at the second German defense line northeast of Novorossiysk. The Russians admit that the Axis forces in this sector are putting up a phenomenal fight, even though they are outgunned and their aircraft have not been able to stop the Soviet bombers and Sturmoviks from blasting at their positions.

However, as usual, it's the Red Army infantry that has to do the dirty work. And today there is the usual job of clearing minefields, blasting barbed wire, and scouting that precedes every attack in this war.

Then the attack units go in with grenades and bayonets to take just one more pillbox or blindage.

The Russian drive northeast of Novorossiysk has been slowed, but it has not stalled. The Red Army is still moving forward, but it is almost literally a foot-by-foot advance.

Meanwhile the Russian bombing offensive continues to blast the German railroad and highway communications supporting the Central Russian front. The German bombers have not answered these widespread attacks on this sector. Consequently it is difficult to judge whether the Russian bombing is a "softening up" of the German defenses in preparation for a Red Army attack here—or whether the Soviet command has ordered the destruction of German concentrations to hold off a German attack.

No one knows who's going to attack first—or where—on this Russian front. And neither the German high command nor the Kremlin have let any newspapermen into the secret.
A convoy of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet carrying an amphibious assault force en route to a landing site around Novorossiysk, April 24, 1943 (source)
Amphibious Infantry
May 14, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 14, 1943

The Red Army again made local gains in the Kuban last night. Northeast of Novorossiysk, Soviet artillery continued blasting away at the German defenses and the infantry moved in to take one more advantageous height. However, there has been no breakthrough.

We have some new details of the fighting in the Kuban river delta area this morning. This fighting is practically a miniature naval action carried on by land troops. Both the Germans and the Russians have to move their artillery and supplies by boats through the swamps and around small islands. Ambushes established in the high cattails and reeds are common. (A rowboat is liable to carry a machine gun and a skiff an artillery piece. Scouting is done by expert swimmers.) Yesterday the amphibious Red Army infantry sank four cutters and four motorboats carrying Germans and munitions.

The Red Army god another strong warning this morning that they must be ready for major fighting at any moment. The warning came in the army newspaper, Red Star. Remember, Red Star is more than a newspaper, it is the link between the Soviet high command and the ordinary Russian soldier.

This morning's editorial is worth considering, if only for this reason. The newspaper says "the time is near when again battles on a big scale will develop with participation of big masses of troops" and calls on the army to be ready for this activity.

This is the latest of a series of warnings which have appeared regularly in the Russian press for the past two weeks.

Red Star says "it must not be forgotten that the Germans are still able to throw into action strong armored fists." It points out that the German generals still rely on tanks and air forces to carry the weight of their offensives but that every battle as it progresses involves all troops. On the defense, particularly, the newspaper says, does the infantry play a vital role.

Then the editorial went on in the tone of a locker room pep talk just before the big game. "Therefore in the certitude of the victorious issue of future decisive battles we must correlate our forces most carefully in full preparation for these battles. We must prepare to repulse the possible massive blows of enemy tanks and mechanized troops supported by all other kinds of troops."

But Red Star is not spreading gloom. It continues: "Our units possess at the present time all means not only to stop the Fascist tank divisions, but also to deal them a decisive defeat."

The newspaper does not say that the Red Army is going on the defensive. It takes care to declare that, during the winter campaign, the Russian officers and men learned not only how to repulse massive blows, but also how to win victories through the offensive.

The question in balance right now is whether it will be offensive or defensive fighting that Red Star talks about when it speaks of the big-scale battles here in Russia.

We won't have long to wait before finding out.
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More Nazi Counterattacks
May 18, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 18, 1943

The Soviet-German front was comparatively quiet again last night. Down in the Kuban, the Nazi forces have attempted a series of counterattacks but thus far have failed to pull off anything that even looks like an offensive.

Front dispatches say that these German counterattacks, however, are being made with ever increasing forces—both on the sector northeast of Novorossiysk and in the Lower Kuban river area. At Lysychansk, at the eastern end of the Donets river line, the Red Army is digging in after crossing the river and capturing important defensive positions.

(The Germans failed to push the Russians back even though they threw in substantial numbers of tanks and infantry.) Now the fighting as settled down to a 24-hour exchange of artillery, rifle, and machine gun fire. (This sector appears to be the most volatile of any front north of the Kuban. It is likely that we'll be hearing of more fighting in this area.) . . .
"A Soviet Marine leads a blindfolded German POW to internment during the Crimean Offensive," April 1944 (Photograph by Yevgeny Khaldeisource)
The Air War Over Kuban
May 27, 1943
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 27, 1943

Heavy air fighting has again broken out in the Kuban. Northeast of Novorossiysk, the German air command sent masses of fighters, dive bombers, and heavy bombers to strike at the Red Army troops, supplies, and communications. However, the Red Army pilots got over three German planes for every Russian ship lost. At the end of the day's fighting the score was sixty-seven Nazi planes shot down for the loss of twenty Soviet planes.

I talked with a Red Army officer yesterday who had just returned from this Kuban front. He said that, during the heavy air battles over Hitler's Kuban bridgehead a few weeks or so ago, the Germans were making as many as 1,200 sorties a day against one Soviet position on the Novorossiysk salient. The Germans were trying relay bombing from their bases in the Crimea. This officer said that the Germans would concentrate on one or another height held by the Red Army and literally attempt to cover it with bomb craters.

However, he pointed out, bomb craters make pretty good cover for troops undergoing concentrated aerial attack. So in addition to giving the Red Army a pretty bad time, the Germans also compensated by giving the Russian soldiers a certain amount of cover and protection.

At any rate, the Soviet troops still hold that height.
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The Fighting Continues
May 28, 1943

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

May 28, 1943

Active fighting has resumed in the Kuban. With characteristic reticence, the Soviet high command is not saying much about it. We don't even know for sure whether it is the Red Army or Hitler's forces on the attack. Neither last night's nor this morning's communiqué have given us any details of the battle.

Resumption of the Kuban fighting means that the opposing forces have caught their breath, and that the period of reinforcement and resupply that caused the lull on this front has now ended.

In a sense, this battle for the Kuban bridgehead is almost entirely one of supply. And on this front, Hitler has the more difficult position. He must keep his Kuban troops armed and fed by hosts and planes.

The past several days we have heard about the sinking of troops, transports, and landing barges in the Black Sea. The Russian command has placed a large aerial patrol over Hitler's supply points on the Black Sea coast, as well as the Sea of Azov. Russia's Black Sea Fleet, manned by the kind of seamen who fought in the heroic defense of Sebastopol, are also on patrol. Last night, two more of Hitler's landing barges loaded with troops were sunk. Yesterday Soviet planes sank another landing barge and damaged two transports and two other barges.

All in all, during the past three days the Russian Black Sea Fleet and air force has sunk or damaged eight German supply boats attempting to aid the Germans and Romanians in the Kuban sack. In addition, German planes, including some carrying vital supplies to the front, were shot down into the Black Sea and over the battle line yesterday. This makes a total of 131 German planes destroyed in the past two days.

This morning's newspapers also report that the front west of Rostov is livening up. A front dispatch describes the activity as "furious fighting of local significance" where the Red Army, in improving its positions, "deals sensitive blows to the enemy." However, there is no indication that either side has made a serious attempt to capture the initiative on this front.

We are anxiously waiting over here for the first big blow to be struck. I wish I could tell you how and where and when this blow will come. But anything I would say would be pure guesswork.

For the past two weeks I have talked with every Russian and American and British official that I know, trying to get a hint of what's in the air so that I could pass it along to you.

The only thing that I'm told is to expect some of the heaviest fighting that has yet taken place in Russia this summer. And that's all I know about any possible Russian or German offensive.

Former Ambassador Joseph Davies said yesterday that during his talks with Stalin they discussed the military situation. He said he detected a note of confidence, adding that it was not "overconfidence."

I'm afraid that I won't be of much help to anyone who wants to do a little dinner table staff work or work out some subway strategy. We'll simply have to wait and see.