January 27, 2024

1943. The Babyn Yar Massacres

Babyn Yar
"In liberated Kyiv, Jewish prisoners of war held in a prison camp across the road. From left to right: Efim Vilkis, 33, Leonid Ostrovsky, 31, and Vladimir Davidoff, 28. (Photo by A. Ioselevich / No. 8718, Siberia Photo Service)."*
The Babyn Yar (Babi Yar) ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine is the site of some of the largest massacres of the Holocaust and World War II. The first and largest was carried out in September 1941 over a 36-hour period during which German forces murdered 33,771 Jews. Over 100,000 more Jews, Romanis, Ukrainians, and Soviet prisoners of war were murdered there over the next two years until the Soviets retook Kyiv in late 1943.

Bill Downs wrote an article for Newsweek in 1943 titled "Blood at Babii Yar – Kiev's Atrocity Story," in which he recounted the second visit to the site taken by a group of American, British, and Soviet reporters. New York Times correspondent Bill Lawrence was in the same press party, and wrote an article titled "50,000 Kiev Jews Reportedly Killed." The two accounts are featured below.

From Newsweek, December 6, 1943, p. 22:

BLOOD AT BABII YAR – KIEV'S ATROCITY STORY

The following story was cabled by Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS Moscow correspondent:
The first foreign witnesses this week returned to Moscow from what are probably the most terrible two acres on eartha series of desolate ravines in the Lukyanovka district three miles northwest of Kiev. The name Babii Yar is going to stink in history. It is the name of the main ravine where the Russians estimate between 50,000 to 80,000 people were killed and buried during the 25 months of the German occupation. From what I saw, I am convinced that one of the most horrible tragedies in this Nazi era occurred there between September 1941 and November 1943.

The press party was led by the Ukrainian author and poet, Nikola Bazhan. The Ukrainian Atrocities Commission called three witnesses to meet us at the ravine. They were Efim Vilkis, 33, Leonid Ostrovsky, 31, and Vladimir Davidoff, 28all Jewish prisoners of war held in a prison camp across the road. Vilkis did most of the talking, interrupted occasionally by the other two. The first act in the tragedy took place in September 1941, a few weeks after the Germans captured Kiev. One day they ordered all Jews to report at the Lukyanovka district and bring their valuables with them. Thousands of men, women, and children marched out to Lukyanovka, thinking they probably would be evacuated. Instead, Nazi SS troops led them to Babii Yar.

At the wide shallow ravine, their valuables and part of their clothing were removed and heaped into a big pile. Then groups of these people were led into a neighboring deep ravine where they were machine-gunned. When bodies covered the ground in more or less of a layer, SS men scraped sand down from the ravine walls to cover them. Then the shooting would continue. The Nazis, we were told, worked three days doing the job. However, even more incredible were the actions taken by the Nazis between Aug. 19 and Sept. 28 last. Vilkis said that in the middle of August the SS mobilized a party of 100 Russian war prisoners, who were taken to the ravines.

On Aug. 19 these men were ordered to disinter all the bodies in the ravine. The Germans meanwhile took a party to a nearby Jewish cemetery whence marble headstones were brought to Babii Yar to form the foundation of a huge funeral pyre. Atop the stones were piled a layer of wood and then a layer of bodies, and so on until the pyre was as high as a two-story house.

Vilkis said that approximately 1,500 bodies were burned in each operation of the furnace and each funeral pyre took two nights and one day to burn completely.

The cremation went on for 40 days, and then the prisoners, who by this time included 341 men, were ordered to build another furnace. Since this was the last furnace and there were no more bodies, the prisoners decided it was for them. They made a break but only a dozen out of more than 200 survived the bullets of the Nazi Tommy guns.

As substantiating evidence, while walking over the mass graves, I saw bits of hair, bones, and a crushed skull with bits of flesh and hair still attached. Walking down the ravine, I constantly came across shoes, spectacle cases, and in one place found gold bridgework.

The most persistent question that presents itself is why the Nazis took such pains to cover this tragedy. Previously, the Germans made little effort to conceal their pogroms in any occupied territory. If in their retreat they intend to try to cover their crimes, this represents a new and significant policy which presupposes the possibility of defeat. The United Nations declaration regarding war criminals, which closely paralleled Soviet announcements on war crimes, thus can be said to have had its first real effect.
"'Babi Yar,' where the Germans carried out mass executions. (Photograph by A. Ioselevich / No. 8717 Siberia Photo Service)"* [The photograph is of the press party being taken through the site].

Kiev: 

The Russians took great care not to damage Kiev, their most beautiful city. That was one reason why the first break-through bridge was built dozens of miles upriver. By outflanking them from the northwest, they forced the German withdrawal. There was no fighting in Kiev and the Germans for the first time did not have time to do their usual job of complete demolition.

Yet practically one-fourth of the city has been destroyed, either by Red Army scorched-earth actions or by the Germans. The city's main street, the Kreshchatik, is completely in ruins. However, there are many blocks of apartments and buildings intact. The Germans had a complete municipal organization ready to take over the city at the time the Reds retook it. The plans even included renaming streets such as Doctor Todt Strasse and Horst Wessel Strasse.

The Soviet government reached a new high in efficiency in reestablishing Kiev's municipal government. Before Kiev was taken, food stores and sanitation squads established a dump as close as possible to the city. They then quickly moved in. City and regional Soviets were established shortly after the reoccupation. Bakeries were set up and banks opened.

Today Kiev looks like an ancient city suddenly occupied by pioneers. It is not uncommon to see workmen packing pistols, and you get used to seeing women, some in fur coats and stylish hats, with rifles slung across their backs. But it is a city of old women and children. The strong and healthy have been exported as slave labor to Germany.
Bill Lawrence's Account

From The New York Times, November 29, 1943, p. 3:

50,000 KIEV JEWS REPORTED KILLED
⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯
Soviet Atrocity Group Hears Nazis Machine-Gunned Victims in Sept., 1941
⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯
BODIES LATER BURNED
⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯
Prisoners of War Forced to Build Pyres Were Shot to Destroy All Evidence
⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯
By W. H. LAWRENCE

KIEV, Russia, Oct. 22 (Delayed) — Kiev authorities asserted today that the Germans had machine-gunned from 50,000 to 80,000 of Kiev's Jewish men, women and children in late September, 1941 and, two years later—when Kiev's recapture by the Red Army seemed imminent—had forced Russian prisoners of war to burn all the bodies, completely destroying all the evidence of the crime.

This was the story told to the Kiev Atrocity Commission and to a group of British, American and Russian newspaper correspondents after having visited bleak Babi Yar, a deep ravine northwest of Kiev, where the massacre was alleged to have occurred. The story was told by three Russian soldiers, who said they had participated in the burning of the corpses and had escaped from the Germans, and by Paul F. Aloshin, chief architect of Kiev. No witnesses to the shooting appeared before the atrocity commission or talked with the correspondents.

On the basis of what we saw, it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth or falsity of the story told to us. It is the contention of the authorities in Kiev that the Germans, with characteristic thoroughness, not only burned the bodies and clothing, but also crumbled the bones, and shot and burned the bodies of all prisoners of war participating in the burning, except for a handful that escaped, so that the evidence of their atrocity could not be available for the outside world.

Remaining Evidence Is Scanty

If this was the Germans' intent, they succeeded well, for there is little evidence in the ravine to prove or disprove the story. We did see a few isolated bones, including a skull and some matted hair, a shoulder bone and an arm, a gold tooth bridgework and some spots on the ground which we were told had been made by the blood of prisoners shot by the Germans after the burning of the bodies of Jewish victims had been completed. There were spectacle cases, handbags and other evidences of things left in Babi Yar. Freshly excavated earth in the floor of the ravine left no doubt that something had happened there.

Before the war, Kiev had a Jewish population of more than 100,000 in a total population of more than a million persons. Among the estimated 70,000 total population of Kiev today, there are said to be very few Jews.

This is the story as we heard it. Mr. Aloshin, who was the correspondents' guide on our first day in Kiev, took us out to Babi Yar and told us how on Sept. 28, 1941—nine days after the German Army took Kiev—all Jews in the city were ordered to report to the Lukyanovka district, bringing with them their most valuable possessions. Mr. Aloshin said the Jews went expecting that they were to be evacuated. Instead, they were met by German troops, who ordered them into the ravine, where they were directed to give up their valuables. Part of their clothing also was removed. Then, according to the city architect, they were placed on a platform, machine-gunned and thrown into the ravine.

Mr. Aloshin said that war prisoners were required to bury the bodies. Some of the victims were only wounded, but were buried anyway. The job of shooting and burying the Jews took several days, he said.

Eyewitnesses Tell Story

Mr. Aloshin said the story had been told to him by a German architect, who boasted of the deed, but, said Mr. Aloshin, when Kiev's recapture by the Red Army became imminent, the Germans decided to remove the evidences of their crimes because of the lessons learned by the Russian discoveries of the Stalingrad and Kharkov atrocities, and they ordered the bodies burned.

Correspondents who heard Mr. Aloshin's story requested Soviet authorities to provide them with eyewitnesses to some of the crimes charged against the Germans. Accordingly, on the following day, in company of Mikola Bojan, Ukrainian poet and Vice Commissar of the Ukrainian Soviet, the correspondents were again taken back to Babi Yar, where the atrocity commission was meeting, and where they heard the stories of Efim Vilkis, 33; Leonid Ostrovsky, 31; and Vladimir Davidoff, 28, who said they were Soviet soldiers who had been captured by the Germans and forced to take part in the disinterment and burning, and who were among the handful of prisoners who escaped.

The principal witness was Vilkis, an Odessa-born Jew who before the war was a freight loader in Kiev. He was a prisoner in the German concentration camp just across the road from Babi Yar, and he told how on Aug. 14, 1943, all prisoners were lined up and 100 selected by the German authorities for an undisclosed task.

Vilkis said these prisoners were taken under heavy guard across the road to Babi Yar. He said they thought they were there to be killed by the Germans. These prisoners were shackled together and told to remove their shoes and hats and strip themselves to the waist.

Then, Vilkis said, they were put under the command of S. S. troops headed by a major general and told to start digging in the ravine. This digging continued for several days, he said, without uncovering anything. Then, Vilkis continued, a German officer who had participated in the original shooting came to the scene and told the commanding officers that they were digging in the wrong place. He directed new digging operations at another place in the ravine and soon they began uncovering bodies.

Ostrovsky and Davidoff listened intently to Vilkis' story, interrupting occasionally to offer corroboration or to provide additional details. The three showed correspondents wounds on their legs caused by leg shackles.

Vilkis said that as the work of uncovering the bodies continued, other prisoners were sent to a near-by Jewish cemetery, where marble grave markers were removed and brought to Babi Yar, where they formed crude stoves. The prisoners then carried the bodies of the Jewish men, women and children and laid them on the marble foundations. More than 100 bodies comprised each layer. On each layer the prisoners were forced to place wood, and then another layer of bodies. When the first stove was filled, gasoline was poured and a fire started, but did not burn well because of lack of draft.

Vilkis said the Germans then sent another group of prisoners back to the cemetery, where the iron railing around the graves was removed to make grates. In the second attempt, the bodies were placed farther apart, and the burning was successful.

Each pyre took two nights and one day to burn.

He said the work of destroying the bodies continued from Aug. 19 to Sept. 28.

During the burning, he said prisoners who became sick or went mad were executed by the Germans in the presence of other prisoners. He said that every day three to five prisoners were shot.

When the work of burning the corpses was completed, they knew then that the Germans intended to kill them and burn their bodies so that there would be no witnesses to the atrocity.

Vilkis said that he and a group of other prisoners had decided to escape. He said that in going through the clothing of disinterred Jews, they had found a few keys, including one that a prisoner who had been a locksmith was able to use to open the door of their dugout. The prisoners loosed their shackles, and on the night of Sept. 28 they decided to make a break for freedom.

By this time the number of prisoners working had been increased to about 300. As they dashed out of their dugouts, German sentries armed with machine guns poured bullets into the groups.

Vilkis said that only a very few had escaped, but he did not know the exact number. He said that he, Ostrovsky and Davidoff found shelter near a cement factory near by, where they remained in hiding until the Red Army took the city Nov. 6.
Members of the press party some time later in Rzhev being led by Soviet officials, 1943.
The Press Party's Reactions

Unlike some of their counterparts on other fronts during the course of World War II, Moscow-based foreign correspondents were not allowed near the front lines; their movement was restricted and their reports were subjected to heavy censorship. Reporters relied frequently on government news sources for important military updates and information, and press trips around Moscow and surrounding areas were directed by watchful state officials.

As the Soviets made major territorial gains in 1943, foreign correspondents were able to visit liberated cities, concentration camps, and massacre sites and see the devastation firsthand—but censorship continued to pose a major challenge. Downs wrote in 1951:

During my stay in the Soviet Union, the government had the excuse of military security to fall back on. However, it is my belief that fear and suspicion are as much a part of the Russian censorship policy as security. There is another quality that is embraced in censorship policy too. This is pride. For example, we had many long arguments with the censors concerning the reporting of military casualties. The government wanted absolutely no mention of them. Our argument was that the world—and particularly Russia's allies—should know the sacrifices the nation was making in fighting the war. But the attitude of the censor was that a Russian killed in battle somehow reflected on the national honor. There was a constant watch on copy to stop anything—be it a humorous story or what—that might possibly reflect on the Russian "honor."

Although the trips to the retaken areas remained as they were before—carefully orchestrated guided tours—they afforded reporters an opportunity to see for themselves the actual scale of the Holocaust, to speak to survivors and witnesses, and to inform readers and listeners at home and abroad exactly what had taken place.

The press party visited Babyn Yar shortly after the area's liberation. According to Deborah Lipstadt (1993), some of the correspondents were skeptical about the death toll, while others questioned whether the murders took place at all. Several considered the overwhelming scale of the massacres to be implausible. Joan Peterson (2011) addresses the reactions of Downs and Lawrence specifically:

. . . Both men were part of a group of British, U.S., and Russian newspaper reporters who, along with the Kiev Atrocity Commission, heard the account from three Russian prisoners of war who had been forced to participate in the corpse burning in 1943 and later managed to escape from the Germans. The articles differ in tone. Lawrence's is guarded. Given the paucity of evidence after the destruction of the corpses, he stated, "On the basis of what we saw, it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth or falsity of the story told to us." Downs, however, wrote, "From what I saw, I am convinced that one of the most horrible tragedies in this era of Nazi era atrocities occurred there." Both men were taken to the ravine where they related slightly different versions of the few scattered bones, shoes, spectacle cases, and bridgework that they observed. Spots of blood on the ground were explained as made by the prisoners who had been shot after they completed their grisly task. (Only a dozen or so prisoners managed to escape out of the 200-300 prisoners forced to do this work.) Where Lawrence used terms such as "isolated" and "scanty," Downs said, "As substantiating evidence, . . . I saw bits of hair, bones, and a crushed skill with bits of flesh and hair still attached. Walking down the ravine, I constantly came across shoes, spectacle cases, and in one place found gold bridgework." Lawrence, however, added, "Freshly excavated earth in the floor of the ravine left no doubt that something had happened there."
.    .    . 
Successive writers would draw from the words used in both depictions. Lawrence described the site as "Bleak Babi Yar." Downs called the site "probably the most terrible two acres on earth," "a series of desolate ravines," and he said that "the name Babi Yar is going to stink in history." Downs used the word "tragedy" three times. It can be surmised that Lawrence's account contains a measure of disbelief at the magnitude of the action; Downs' one of shock and distress. Both responses are consistent with how many people first absorbed reports of Nazi atrocities. 

Deborah Lipstadt is highly critical of the reporting by Lawrence and Toronto Star correspondent Jerome Davis in particular:

By this point the Nazi threat to "exterminate" the Jews should have been understood as a literal one. There was little reason, in light of the abundance of evidence, to deny that multitudes were being murdered as part of a planned program of annihilation. But despite all the detail there was a feeling among some correspondents, New York Times reporter Bill Lawrence most prominent among them, that the reports that Hitler and his followers had conducted a systematic extermination campaign were untrue. Lawrence did not doubt that Hitler had "treated the Jews badly, forcing many of them to flee to the sanctuaries of the West"; but even in October 1943—ten months after the Allied declaration confirming the Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews and six months after Bermuda—he could not believe that the Nazis had murdered "millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies. . . . and those who might be mentally retarded."

His skepticism permeated his story on Babi Yar. Though he acknowledged that there were no more Jews in Kiev, their whereabouts he simply dismissed as a "mystery." Lawrence's report surely left even the least skeptical reader unconvinced of the Babi Yar slayings.

.    .    . 

Equally skeptical about the reports of mass murder was Jerome Davis of Hearst's International News Service and the Toronto Star. Neither Lawrence nor Davis seemed able to accept the idea of a massacre, much less of a Final Solution.

Davis's and Lawrence's doubts would have been more understandable had their colleagues who visited the site with them manifested the same suspicions. But they drew markedly different conclusions. Bill Downs, who was Moscow correspondent for CBS and Newsweek, was convinced that one of the "most horrible tragedies in this Nazi era of atrocities occurred there." Henry Shapiro of United Press, Maurice Hindus, a special correspondent for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and Paul Winterton of the BBC all described the flesh, human bones, hair, shoes, glass cases, and even gold bridgework they found in the dirt. Lawrence and Davis, who saw the same things the other reporters found, could not believe that they represented the remains of thousands. Though neither Lawrence nor Davis suggested it, it was obvious that they both believed that these items could have been placed in the sand by those who wished the reporters to believe that such things had happened there. 

.    .    . 

Despite subsequent reports further confirming the disappearance of the Jews from cities and towns throughout Europe, Lawrence maintained his "built in skepticism" for a long time. If someone such as Lawrence, a seasoned reporter for the most important and influential American newspaper and one who had the chance to visit the site and talk with witnesses, remained so riddled with doubt, it is not surprising that the American public, which depended on the press to bring it the news, tenaciously clung to its skepticism. As we shall see, Lawrence was far from alone. In fact many of those in the highest and most powerful echelons of his profession maintained their skepticism for another year and a half.

Lipstadt notes that The New York Times ran the story on page three, while other newspapers ran it on page one. She also notes that the New York Journal-American ran the United Press story by Henry Shapiro under the headline "100,000 Kiev Civilians Killed by Nazis: Wholesale Massacre Revealed."

In the book Buried by the Times (2005), Laurel Leff writes:

Lawrence later wrote that he had doubted that "50,000 Jewish people had been murdered here," and got into "furious arguments" about how to report the story with CBS's Bill Downs, "who believed it all." . . . Lawrence was at the height of his frustration with the Moscow assignment. He had been begging his editors to transfer him for months. Just before he went to Babi Yar, he noted other Moscow correspondents' willingness to print unverified assertions and then to retract the claim in a subsequent story. "But, meanwhile, the damage of false reporting had been done," he wrote to [Edwin L.] James.

Lawrence reflected in 1972 that "Babi Yar was the first site of an alleged atrocity that I had ever visited, and my skeptical mind simply rejected claims that more than 50,000 Jewish people had been murdered here."

He recounted one instance in which reporters and foreign dignitaries were taken in January 1944 to the site of the Katyn massacre, where 22,000 Polish officers and prisoners of war were murdered in a series of mass executions. Soviet authorities blamed the Germans, who had discovered the site a year earlier and sought to use it for their own propaganda purposes. It took decades before the Russian government admitted that the NKVD had committed the executions in 1940. However, in a report in April 1943, Downs relayed the Soviet denial published in Pravda after the Germans uncovered the site. He described the German announcement as "the latest gory German propaganda," and said that "the German story of this crime has too many holes in it to be believed."

Lawrence wrote that he ultimately concluded that the Germans had committed the atrocities at Katyn, but said that the evidence was contradictory. The manner of execution pointed toward the Soviets, but the postmortem handling of the victims was characteristic of the Nazis in 1941—the year that the murders had taken place, according to Soviet officials who denied responsibility.

Lawrence wrote that "all my skepticism about war crimes and atrocities vanished" after visiting the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp that had been operated in Poland by the Nazis until its liberation in July 1944. He described, in graphic detail, what he called "the most terrible place on the face of the earth" in an article published on August 30, 1944 titled "Nazi Mass Killing Laid Bare in Camp." He wrote:

This is a place that must be seen to be believed. I have been present at numerous atrocity investigations in the Soviet Union, but never have I been confronted with such complete evidence, clearly establishing every allegation made by those investigating German crimes.

After inspection of Maidanek, I am now prepared to believe any story of German atrocities, no matter how savage, cruel and depraved.

Many news outlets were deeply insufficient in their reporting on the atrocities against Jews. Lipstadt writes that "as late as 1944 eyewitness accounts, particularly those of survivors, were not considered irrefutable evidence even if they came from independent sources and corroborated one another. The press often categorized them as prejudiced or exaggerated." She quotes Kenneth McCaleb, the war editor of the New York Daily Mirror, who said that foreigners were seen as having an "axe to grind" against the Germans.

Downs' Experience

Bill Downs, for his part, was greatly affected by what he had seen in the year he spent in Moscow. Cloud and Olson (1996) write that Downs told friends upon his return home that "coming back . . . is something like stepping out of a St. Valentine's Day massacre into a Sunday school classroom." They quote a letter to his parents in which he said that "I've seen more bodies than I care to remember." In a 1946 manuscript, Downs wrote:

When I returned to the United States from Soviet Russia early in 1944 I recounted what I had seen at Babi Yar. It received mixed reaction. People would look at me curiously. Obviously I had been taken in by Russian propaganda. My friends expressed pity. Others called me a liar. In fact, one fanatic wrote me a post card charging me with being a Russian agent and threatening my life.

This was, you remember, before we had landed in France. It was before we had uncovered the horror and brutality of Buchenwald, Belsen, and Dachau. But we saw what we saw. And I suppose skepticism over facts so horrible, details so stomach-wrenching, was not an unnatural reaction to the sheltered, inexperienced minds at home.

.    .    . 

The story of Babi Yar is an important story. A story which the world should remember in the coming days as our statesmen attempt to lay the foundations of peace. The mortar for this foundation is mixed with the blood of millions of people—American soldiers and the soldiers of a dozen other of our Allies. The blood let at Babi Yar also is in this foundation.

While accompanying the British Second Army on its advance toward Germany, Downs lamented the doubt and indifference in another letter to his parents dated October 21, 1944:
We are beginning to run into the old atrocity stories again. I tried to tell them in Russia, but no one paid any attention. Now we are finding the same Nazi prisons, the same torture weaponswith some improvementsand the same sad stories of persecution, execution and privation by Hitler's bad boys. I don't suppose anyone will believe these stories either, although we collect and print enough evidence to hang the whole German army.
It seems that the Presbyterian mind of the average American cannot accept the fact that any group of people can coolly sit down and decide to torture thousands of people. And if torture isn't enough, then to kill them as calmly as an ordinary person would swat a fly. This refusal to believe these facts is probably the greatest weapon the Nazis have . . . and it will operate in the post-war judgment of the Germans, wait and see. All of us more or less normal people will throw up our hands in horror even at the prosecution of the guiltybecause there are so many guilty that we again will think that we are carrying on a pogrom when actually it is only making the Nazis pay for their crimes.

Unless it can be brought home as to what the Germans have done in Europethe cruelty and ruthlessness and bestial killings and emasculations and dismemberment that has gone onwell, I'm afraid that we'll be too soft on them.

His disillusionment had only hardened by the end of the war. Cloud and Olson recount that, after visiting Auschwitz in 1945, Downs told friends he felt like shooting the first German he saw, and later said: "By the time the war ended, all our idealism was gone. . . . Our crusade had been won, but our white horses had been shot out from under us."

Several memorials have been erected in the decades since the Babyn Yar massacres, including one dedicated in 1991 to the Jewish victims fifty years after the first killings took place.

Menorah monument in Kyiv, Ukraine dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Babyn Yar massacres (source)
Notes

* The first two photographs are from Bill Downs' personal papers. The Russian-language captions were taken from notes taped to the back of each photo. The English captions include more detail and are thus not intended to be direct translations. The original captions are below.
First photo:

Оставшиеся в живых свидетели массовых казней десятков тысяч мирных жителей, совершенных немцами в окрестности Киева "Бабий яр". На снимке /слева направо/ Вилкис, Островский и давыдовю.
 

Фото А. Иоселевич
№ 8717 Сибфотосарвис

Second photo:

"Бабий яр", где проводились немцами массовые расстрелы мирых жителей.

Фото А. Иоселевич
№ 8717 Сибфотосарвис
This post was originally published in 2013. It previously included Lawrence's account as told in his memoir, rather than the Times article. That excerpt can be read here.

References
 
Cloud, Stanley; Olson, Lynne. The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), pp. 195-196, 235.

Downs, Bill. "Blood at Babii Yar: Kiev's Atrocity Story," Newsweek, December 6, 1943, p. 22. Accessible at: https://archive.org/details/sim_newsweek-us_1943-12-06_22_23/page/22/mode/1up.
 
Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to his parents, April 8, 1943. William R. Downs Papers, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University Library, Washington, D.C.

Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to his parents, October 21, 1944. William R. Downs Papers.
 
Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to John Desmond, December 26, 1951. William R. Downs Papers.

Lawrence, Bill. "50,000 Kiev Jews Reportedly Killed," The New York Times, November 29, 1943, p. 3. Accessible at: https://www.nytimes.com/1943/11/29/archives/50000-kiev-jews-reported-killed-soviet-atrocity-group-hears-nazis.html.

Lawrence, Bill. "Nazi Mass Killing Laid Bare in Camp," The New York Times, August 30, 1944, pp. 1, 9. Accessible at: https://www.nytimes.com/1944/08/30/archives/nazi-mass-killing-laid-bare-in-camp-victims-put-at-1500000-in-huge.html.

Lawrence, Bill. Six Presidents, Too Many Wars. (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972), pp. 91-100. Accessible at: https://archive.org/details/sixpresidentstoo00lawr.

Leff, Laurel. Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 172.

Lipstadt, Deborah E. Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945. (New York: Free Press, 1985), pp. 244-248. Accessible at: https://archive.org/details/beyondbeliefthea00lips.

Peterson, Joan. "Iterations of Babi Yar." Journal of Ecumenical Studies. September 22, 2011. The Free Library. Accessible at: https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Iterations+of+Babi+Yar.-a0278400312.

January 26, 2024

"The Last Flower" by James Thurber

The Last Flower

This anti-war parable by James Thurber was published in November 1939, two months after the start of World War II. Click on the images to enlarge.

January 24, 2024

1943. The Aftermath in Stalingrad

Reporters Visit Stalingrad After the German Surrender
Soviet soldiers on the roof of a factory shop in Stalingrad in 1942 (Photo by Arkady Shaikhetsource)
Bill Downs first arrived in the Soviet Union to cover the Eastern Front on December 25, 1942. He and other foreign correspondents were taken to see Stalingrad shortly after the German surrender there in February 1943.

During their long journey, the group came across Axis commanders in Soviet captivity, including Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, whose 6th Army had just been encircled and defeated. The press group then entered the city, where they passed bodies strewn along the streets and came across the wreckage at Mamayev Kurgan, the site of some of the worst fighting of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Recalling the experience, Downs said: "There are sights and sounds and smells in and around Stalingrad that make you want to weep, and make you want to shout and make you just plain sick to your stomach."

This text has been adapted from a script cabled to CBS in New York. The passages in parentheses were censored by Soviet officials for military security or propaganda reasons.
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

February 8, 1943

The Foreign Office press department summoned the foreign press corps with a mysterious 6 p.m. phone call. They informed us we were leaving for Stalingrad at 8 a.m. the next morning. The trip was extremely hush-hush, although it had been announced that fighting had ceased in Stalingrad the day before. We were warned to dress warmly and take five days' worth of food.

I rushed back to the hotel and collected hard boiled eggs, a slab of smoked fish, sugar, two loaves of bread, and most important of all, a liter of vodka, which is Russia's most important personal antifreeze.

The next morning I dressed with three pairs of wool socks under fur boots, two pairs of wool underwear, a wool shirt, two sweaters, a ski jacket, a fur hat, and a fur coat—and I was among the lightest dressed in the party. Someone told me it was a mild winter.

The five hour plane trip in a comfortable Douglas transport was spent recalling hundreds of stories of Stalingrad's four and a half months of concentrated hell, which was worse than Coventry's, Rotterdam's, Warsaw's, or London's—anything Hitler had been able to do to cities opposing him.

The Douglas landed at an obscure little airfield 50 miles north of Stalingrad on steppes which looked like the Texas panhandle or Dakota plains buttered with about three feet of snow. The biting northwest wind of the Kalmyk Steppe made me look down at my legs to see whether I was not wearing a bathing suit.

The airfield was a former fighter-bomber base located in the area where the northern arm of the Red Army's tremendous encirclement of west Stalingrad started. We sheltered in a group of a half dozen peasant farmhouses which formed a tractor station for the surrounding wheat country.

We wondered how in the hell the Russians were able to concentrate an offensive army in these treeless, hill-less steppes without German reconnaissance discovering their striking power. That's mystery number one—or mistake number one—which was one of the major factors for the German defeat at Stalingrad.

At nightfall we headed southward to another peasant farm village where we were liberally fed and tried to warm our freezing hands and feet, to the amusement of Red Army men and women who were interested in foreigners.

We traveled by bus some 60 miles to a point 35 miles directly west of Stalingrad, where the next day we were taken to the headquarters of the commander of the Stalingrad front, Colonel General Konstantin Rokossovsky, who now takes a place as one of the great generals of history. Rokossovsky passed us en route to Moscow, where he went to the Kremlin to be awarded the Order of Suvorov for Stalingrad. We herded into a small peasant house where chairs were lined up like in a classroom, with desks in the corner and a map on the wall.

In walked a medium-sized Red Army general, his breast lined with several medals, dressed in a simple uniform on which the Red Army's new epaulets had yet to be sewn. He is Lieutenant General Mikhail Malinin, chief of staff for the Stalingrad front and one of the men responsible for putting into operation plans for the encirclement of the German 6th Army.

Malinin looked 35, square-faced with hair in a short pompadour which stuck up like a schoolboy's. The only sign of age was the sprinkling of gray hairs around the temples. He picked up a stick with which to point to the map. He looked as out of place standing at the front of that schoolroom as a schoolteacher would have looked in a front-line Stalingrad trench.

Malinin started speaking slowly and deliberately and explained that he wanted to outline briefly the details of the Red Army's encirclement movement where it started.

"Hitler sent his best troops—the German 6th Army—against Stalingrad, containing his crack infantry, tank, and motorized divisions," he said. Continuing in the same matter-of-fact tone, he said that as German forces moved toward the Volga, they created for themselves a sort of second front on the northern flank, "and the task of the defenders was not to give up the city."
Red Army soldiers on the Stalingrad front patrol the snow-covered steppes (source)
Malinin has been in three wars—in addition to the Russian Civil War and the Finnish War, he fought on the Moscow and Smolensk fronts in this war. He formerly was on the faculty of a Red Army military school.

(Malinin said that "Russian resistance forced the Germans to continually send up reinforcements. During the month of October and the first part of November was the fiercest fighting. The Germans continued to pour in huge reinforcements. But by the middle of November there was a certain equilibrium of strength. The Soviet High Command took advantage of its own forces at this time and ordered an offensive aimed at destroying both the Stalingrad and Don front troops of the enemy.")

(This certain equilibrium which Malinin referred to represented the greatest fighting retreat in the history of warfare. It was one place where the Red Army for the first time definitely stopped an Axis advance on the southern sector of the Russian front since the Axis invaded Kiev eighteen months earlier.)

Malinin then explained the great pincer movement (which launched simultaneously on November 19 one hundred miles northwest and some distance southeast of Stalingrad. This blow was so well-timed that in the first four days the northern and southern forces each advanced 55 miles on schedule, and the threat of encirclement became evident.)

Malinin said "the German High Command apparently was unconcerned because they evidently planned to bring up a powerful group of reinforcements from Kotelnikovo anyway. However, the genius of this plan directed by Joseph Stalin foresaw this and even predicted that the Germans would attempt to relieve the group. Thus the Red Army prepared for it. The Germans did just what we thought they would do. They were engaged and routed at Kotelnikovo. We captured the original Paulus order to commanders not to receive Red Army emissaries who advanced under white flag to present an ultimatum. This order specified that this peace delegation was to be fired upon—the exact translation read 'to see emissaries off the premises with fire.'"

Malinin said that American and British equipment played very little part in the Battle of Stalingrad. "We had a small number of British tanks—Churchill tanks—but not enough to take into consideration when reckoning the entire offensive. Where they were used, they stood up well under test. No American tanks or planes were used in the battle. There were some American Dodge trucks, but they don't shoot."

The interviews ended and we filed out of headquarters feeling like we had just taken a college examination for a master's degree in history.

However, the Red Army moves fast, and they took us to a nearby village with a dozen or so scattered unpainted houses around which they posted heavy guard. The conducting Red Army colonel motioned us inside one house. There we found four German generals sitting around a table looking at each other, one in a sweater and the other three in full regalia. In the next room were four others standing and looking out the window, and sitting in the corner looking despondent was woebegone General [Romulus] Dimitriu, the onetime glorified Romanian general.

The Germans in the first room got politely to their feet, smiling sheepishly. These men were Hitler's super-generals, leading super-Aryans against an inferior tribe. The only sign of their "super-ness" now were the magnificent decorations of iron crosses displayed on their uniforms like pictures on a gallery wall.

The German generals of the first group included [Otto] Renoldi, Schlömer, Deboi, and Von Daniels. All fought in the last war and are damn proud of it. We were whisked through the room and had little chance to question them, but when they heard we were American correspondents, Schlömer and Renoldi began long conversations about how they like cigarettes of the American type and had used up their ration of Russian cigarettes. Not a single reporter responded to their hint to give them a smoke. I believe if anyone had, he would have been tackled by the entire press corps when we got outside. These generals were getting a Red Army officer's rations according to the Hague Convention, which is too much considering the kind of rats they are.

In the next room Von Drebber, who looks more like a college professor than a military man, dominated the group which included such nasty types as [Hans] Wulz, who is a small, bald-headed, potbellied Prussian who only managed to squeeze out an unenthusiastic "Heil."

Von Drebber, six feet four inches tall, was asked what primary factors led to his defeat. He drew himself up and politely replied: "The Russians struck from the north and south—we were simply sitting in the middle. We were surrounded, cut off with no munitions and no food."

We tried again asking why they didn't try to break out of encirclement. Von Drebber said: "At one time we could have broken the ring—but you will have to ask Marshal Paulus about questions of strategy."

He was asked if he had Hitler's permission to surrender. Von Drebber said: "I was ordered by Paulus to hold until I pushed back to a certain line. When I reached that line I surrendered."
Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, commander of the Wehrmacht 6th Army, and his adjutant Wilhelm Adam (left) are escorted to the Soviet 64th Army headquarters following the German surrender at Stalingrad, January 31, 1943 (source)
Then we asked Wulz, who is an artillery general, how Russian artillery compared to German artillery. He made a whining, inconsequential answer that "every army has good and bad guns, good and bad artillery—that's how it is with the Russian and German armies."

Schlömer, who was stationed in another house, said however: "The Red Army fought well everywhere we met them."

But the most revealing statements came from Von Arnim and [Fritz] Roske. Roske was asked how the Russians broke them down. Von Arnim interrupted: "That question is badly put. You should ask how we managed to hold out under such conditions."

Roske ignored Von Arnim's remark with a brief statement: "Hunger, cold, and lack of munitions."

However, the Russian colonel was anxious to show us the Red Army's prize exhibit and rushed us to a small farmhouse sitting apart from the others. We gathered outside around the doorway while a grinning Mongolian soldier—definitely non-Aryan—looked down on us.

The door opened and out came Paulus, poker-faced except for a tic which spasmodically twitched from eye to mouth on the right side of his face. He is 53 but looked 65, his face lined and yellowish—almost the same yellowish color of the frozen corpses of men he left lying in gutters in Stalingrad.

Accompanying him was his personal aide, Colonel Adam, a flat-faced Teuton who looked like a slightly overweight ball of concentrated Nazism, and Paulus' chief of staff, General Schmidt, who looked like he'd be happier running a Berlin butcher shop. All men were dressed in fur caps pulled down over their ears against the subzero cold. Paulus answered only two questions, which he appeared to do with effort. He said his first name was Friedrich and that he is 53.

The standing and gazing captured Nazis in those overheated peasant houses, as well as that bare peasant yard where Paulus was held, gave the same feeling one gets when looking in a snake pit at a zoo. But the obvious comparison that strikes when looking at German officers and German soldiers is that the officers are always well-clad while the soldiers are just the opposite. And standing there in that obscure peasant village, these much decorated gold-braided groups of Nazi bigwigs reminded you of a flock of sad-eyed peacocks standing with distaste in a hen run.

The conducting colonel loaded us into drafty buses for a 60 mile trip to Stalingrad. By nightfall the temperature dropped to 40 below, and we started out on a twelve hour, all night trip through snow to Stalingrad.

We would have made the trip sooner when we ran into a Russian supply column moving westward from Stalingrad toward new battlefields. There was a long black line of soldiers, horses, mobile kitchens, guns, and cars. It was an unbelievable sight out there in the steppes to come upon so many people slowly moving along the snow-choked road. But the most unbelievable of all was the sight of camels pulling sledges in three feet of snow.

As we made our way slowly along the road against traffic, a curious Red Army man came up to our bus, looked in, grinned and asked: "Deutschen Soldaten?"

When we explained we were Americans he immediately called all his comrades and soon there was a great crowd around our bus. We passed out cigarettes and someone made a speech with the general theme of friendship between the Soviet Union and the United States. Russians will make a speech at the drop of the hat, but it gave you a warm feeling overcoming even the steppe temperatures to get such a demonstration of friendship at two o'clock in the morning in the swirling snow and wind 30 miles east of Stalingrad on the world's bloodiest battlefield.

We arrived in Stalingrad at about 4 a.m. The driver seemed anxious to get there. We drove around for two hours. The only thing in sight were the dark ruins where we spotted fires which sentries cluttered around to keep warm.

Our driver finally pulled up to one of these fires, and when he got out he was crying. Our interpreter explained that the driver had once lived in Stalingrad and had not been back to the city since the battle. "He can't find any street that he knows," the interpreter explained. "He hasn't yet recognized a house."

This is because there were no houses. The streets were just auto tracks over ruins up and down through bombshell holes. This was the Red October factory district, parts of which changed hands a half dozen times during the fighting.

As the sun came up the scene of devastation was so great it made a lump in your throat. This was the worker's factory district's small homes. These homes were absolutely flat. Not even a gracious blanket of snow could cover the destruction they suffered.

Characteristic of all bombings I have seen in Britain, one of the most indestructible items of furniture in any home is the iron bedstead. It is the same in Stalingrad. The grave of every home is marked by charred headpieces of beds sticking up like tombstones over what was a peaceful home. Occasionally one could mark where a street once existed by looking closely at poles sticking six or seven feet out of the ground. These once were telephone poles which stuck ten to twelve feet up. Now they looked like blasted trees.

Sentries told us that, believe it or not, some civilians holed up in their basements and stuck through the whole bombardment. These included some women who did washing and cooking for the Red Army.

What these people suffered cannot even be imagined. When they were without food, they were forced to forage and risk bombshells. Horse meat was considered a delicacy, and sometimes bread. But they stuck through it, although many are not there to tell their story.
Soldiers of the Soviet 62nd Army walk past dugouts constructed on the banks of the Volga, 1942 (source)
At daybreak we were directed to the headquarters of the 62nd Army, which is credited for saving the city of Stalingrad. The headquarters is built into the side of a western bluff on the Volga near the bottom of a hundred foot high clay cliff. We were led up this cliff to dugouts—zemlyankas—small timber-roofed caves dug into the side of the cliff from where the Red Army held the Germans from establishing themselves on the bank of Russia's greatest river. Just three days earlier the Germans had been only 300 yards away from my zemlyanka. But I slept well—they are now fighting on a line 200 miles away.

Rising above the Volga bluff is Stalingrad's famous Hill 102, Mamayev Kurgan, which the Germans held and placed heavy artillery. The hill commands a view of the entire city as well as the Volga, over which the Red Army's vital supply lines are held. The summit of Mamayev Kurgan is only about a quarter mile from the Volga, and between it and the river are the Red October and Red Barricades factories. Beyond these plants is the high Volga bank wherein zemlyankas are located. This is where some of the bitterest fighting occurred.

We walked single file along a narrow path through the factory. There was little need to remind us the factory was mined, as every minute or so there was a shattering explosion of rock wreckage in a nearby district which Red Army sappers were de-mining.

The Red October factory once made steel for tractors and farm implements. With the war it switched over to tank armaments. After the Battle of Stalingrad the whole plant is now simply a junk heap. The Germans took almost the entire building after it was mercilessly shelled and bombed flat. The only portions of the factory still standing are extremely heavy girders which once held cranes. All other buildings are flat. There literally was not a piece of sheet iron roofing or shovel or piece of metal sticking four inches above ground which didn't have bullet shrapnel or fragment holes through it.

It was in this factory that we saw our first German dead. They were lying at the bottom of a large bomb crater with only their bare feet sticking up. Most of Red October's bodies had been cleaned up earlier.

The de-mined path through the factory led across wreckage and craters. We passed a German dugout in perfectly good condition, clean and well-kept. Beside it stood a sentry, and a sign on the door warned: "Keep Away—This Booby Trap."

The path ended at the most forward-line trenches the Germans held at the factory. These lines are on a small hill facing another factory building which still had two walls standing. The Russians held positions in the factory building which I paced, measuring twelve yards. It was here that some brilliant conversations between warring men occurred. This Russian factory position once manufactured consumer goods. Red Army men did their fighting here among dishpans, skillets, and shovels that littered the floor.
Soviet soldiers fighting in the destroyed Red October factory during the Battle of Stalingrad, January 1943 (source)
The only ordinary looking battlefield we saw was Mamayev Kurgan. This hill is terraced in a series of five foot shelves, and there was a recently planted apple orchard with young saplings about four feet high. There is absolutely no cover, and looking down it from German gun positions are trenches. It appeared that a single squad of machine gunners could hold against advancing infantry forces indefinitely.

Correspondents had trouble even walking over the slick snow uphill in broad daylight. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for the Soviet soldiers who only a few weeks earlier negotiated slopes under a hail of bullets, artillery shrapnel, and dive bombers. The only statement on the subject I could get from a former Red Army man was a private who grimly admitted: "It was tough."

But once they took positions atop the first ridge a really tough job still awaited. The Germans for weeks held two almost impregnable fortresses atop the hill. They were two circular water tanks about ten feet apart. The tanks were about 50 feet in diameter, dug 30 feet into the ground with about 15 feet of reinforced concrete surfaces sticking above ground. Around the tops these Germans threw earth embankment, forming a shell-proof, bomb-proof position virtually impregnable—until the Red Army decided to take it.

The battlefield before these two fortresses was like any battlefield of the First World War. There were wrecked tanks, smashed Russian and German helmets, empty shell case remnants, and smashed guns. There were bodies which had not yet been cleaned up. There were pieces of mortars, bombs, grenades, and strips of machine gun bullets.

The Russians finally took position by digging trenches up to the fortresses and then launching an infantry assault from there. Tanks were no good, only bayonets, grenades, and Tommy guns were effective in the final clean-out.
The southern part of the eastern slope of the hill Mamayev Kurgan in Stalingrad in 1943 right after the battle. A destroyed Renault UE Chenillette, a French armored carrier used by the Wehrmacht, sits in the foreground (source)
But the greatest shock came when we entered the city of Stalingrad proper. The way Stalingrad is laid out is strip factory districts stretching northward along the Volga, with worker's districts connected by bus and streetcar lines. These settlements were marked by wreckage. Streetcars which ran between community centers now stood burned out, wrecked on what was left of their tracks. Store shops along Communist Street—which is the main highway connecting these settlements—now only had a few walls left. About every quarter mile on Communist Street the Germans built barricades eight feet high, consisting of two fences built five feet apart and filled in with dirt bricks and rubble from nearby houses.

As we approached the city center with its modern buildings, there were more and more signs of increased fighting. Around the ground floor windows, many of which were sandbagged with apertures for machine guns, there were countless chinks made by bullets or holes made by shells.

As we neared the town square called "Heroes of the Revolution" we could see bodies in doorways or behind barricades or lying on sidewalks. Fragments of letters and photographs from home, all written in German, littered streets—letters from Berlin and Hamburg starting out with "Mein Lieber Karl," or Heinrich or Heinz.

There was not a single manhole in Stalingrad's streets with a cover. Germans and Russians not only used the city's basements, housetops, and alleys for battlegrounds, but the sewers as well. Snipers were known to crawl through sewers and come out behind German positions to create panic.

You could almost arm a full division with equipment lying about Stalingrad's ruined streets. Grenades clutter gutters. Full machine gun belts lie across sidewalks, and mortars are a dime a dozen.

Veterans of the Stalingrad fight said it was not uncommon to find Russian and German soldiers locked in each other's death grip during the height of the fighting. That was the way these two armies locked in the city of Stalingrad fought until the Red Army proved itself more powerful and skilled and brought the Wehrmacht to its knees.

Returning to my zemlyanka after this trip through Stalingrad, I went to the headquarters kitchen to ask for a drink of water. The Red Army girl dipped some out of a bucket with a tin cup. The water was cold and clean and good, and I told her so: "Your vodka and wine are great but nothing is better than this water."

She threw back her head and replied: "It ought to be. It's Volga water. It's got Russian blood in it."

January 19, 2024

1945. Three Accounts of the Allied Crossing of the Rhine

War Correspondents Describe the Crossing of the Rhine
"C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine," March 24, 1945 (source)
Bill Downs recounted these events in two separate broadcasts on March 24 and March 25.

From Newsweek, April 2, 1945, pp. 28-29:

Fighting Fronts: The Shattered Rhine and the Shattered Armies

Three Newsweek correspondents covered the crossing of the Rhine: Al Newman with the British Second Army; John Terrell with the 30th Division of the American Ninth Army; and Bill Downs of Newsweek and CBS, who flew with the fighters escorting the airborne troops. Here are their stories. 

Newman: Monty's Assault Ran Through a Barrage

It is 10 o'clock at night in the ancient Rhine town of Xanten, but in the towerless, battered church there is no clock to strike the hour. Tiny pinpricks of light and phosphorescent buttons mark a tortuous path through the ruined city. Long white fingers of light pointing horizontally eastward from the belt of searchlights 5 miles back of the Rhine zebra-stripe the heavens. This artificial moonlight augments a three-quarter moon in a cloudless sky. It is a soft spring night.

Since 6 p.m. a tremendous bombardment has thundered, blasted, and flashed in the flat country behind Xanten. In the marshaling areas around this town, where nearly 2,000 years ago Roman legionnaires stood guard against frequent raids across the river by barbarous German tribes, the Scots are now collecting for an assault in the other direction. In other sections, Buffaloes and Ducks await the word, for it is the night of March 23—an historic night for the Empire forces as well as for the American Ninth Army to the south.

Hell in a Dream World: By midnight the whole countryside reeks of cordite, which mingles with a slight ground fog. The increasing traffic through Xanten has so stirred up the fine, powdery dust of rubble that I move in a dream world of ghastly white moonlight fog, peopled with Roman ghosts and wraithlike Scotsmen possessing burrs rough enough to sharpen a knife on and flat tin helmets with gardens of camouflage rags atop them. Finally when sanity seems to totter, the bombardment slackens at 12:30.

Though the Commandos crossed north of Wesel at 10 p.m., H Hour for us and for the Highlanders opposite Rees is 2 a.m. At 1:30 there's no incoming fire. Intense light-caliber covering fire abruptly begins. Streams of red tracers chase each other overhead and the din is positively inhuman as the heavy stuff comes awake again.

The deserted moonlit road from there to the river bloods over redly with the reflection of each tracer. The Scotties have done well by it despite the fact that it is not the main avenue of assault, for they've equipped its shoulders with foxholes every 15 yards and the fields beside it with slit trenches every 50. Progress through this hell of flickering death, replete with sound effects, crashes, whispers, screams, yowls, and whines, is a jack-in-the-box proposition, for now somewhere in the pandemonium is the sharp roar of a big incoming shell.

Two hundred yards ahead lies the river bank and it begins to take a real pounding from the Germans. The Nazi 105s star out the white flash of their deadly shrapnel pattern as they land one after another. Then they start to walk back toward your correspondent, and the earth of the slit trench feels cool and moist.

Fortunately the shells are just 200 yards too far south, for the line of gigantic dim shapes at that distance on my left as I face the river marks the final assembly of infantry-laden Buffaloes. At precisely 2 a.m. they growl forward and the modern Scots go into battle with squealing iron treads replacing skirling bagpipes.

At 2:10, four squat shapes appear on the water front where the Buffaloes are crawling down the shallow bank and then four brilliant searchlights mounted on tanks blaze out over the water. Through their glare one cannot see the waterborne amphibians and neither presumably can the Boche. They also serve as guide lines on the confusing river and illuminate the far bank for assault. The searchlights draw more fire but inaccurate fire—most of it around my slit trench. One shell crashes less than 25 yards away, and an iron rain patters into the surrounding earth. The shelling is so close that no scream but rather an instinctive sense warns one of the projectile a second before it hits. For 30 minutes it is a definite pindown during which only fools would leave cover. Yet through it all and for the balance of the night the line of crawling, snorting behemoths 200 yards to the left keeps moving to the water like a thirsty herd.

Terrell: The Toughest and Gentlest Go First

H Hour was 2 a.m., March 24.

Ten hours earlier I reached the extreme left flank of the Ninth Army, taking refuge in a partially wrecked building on the river bank. Artillery batteries both up and down the river were firing spasmodically. The late afternoon sun was brilliant. The river was 1,700 feet of wide blue water, the banks green with spring grass and flowers. Occasionally, as if aggravated by our constant shelling, a Jerry threw some 88s back. Cattle grazed placidly on a dike as shells from both sides swished above them. Suddenly there was a loud crack and a cow vanished in thin air.

My place of observation was formerly a high-class country inn with a beautiful river terrace. It was named, of all things, The Watch on the Rhine. I found prewar pictures of the place in what was left of the bar, showing couples dining in the sunset and dancing under the stars while excursion boats passed.

Just Before the Battle: As dusk settled over the river and the tree-fringed fields reaching away on either bank, our artillery fire began to increase. The moon was bright, and a peculiar, bluish light outlined the great trees along the lane leading into the inn and etched in sharp relief the shattered gables of the main building and stables. No man would be invisible on the river this night.

I had been lying on the floor in the first floor room while Nazi shells landed in the dooryard, but when they stopped I went into an immense, cavernous cellar opening out toward the dairy barn. The cellar had suddenly been filled with assault troops and more were filing in from the shadow of the hedgerow. Their cigarettes burned holes in the pitch-blackness of the cellar. These were the first American assault wave.

These men believed this was the last big push of the war. Most of them were under 25. They wore life preservers and carried rations, a heavy load of ammunition, grenades, a rifle, wire cutters, and long knives. They were both the toughest and the gentlest men I ever met. As the minutes ticked off their voices became even quieter, but the language more and more vicious and filthy. Oaths and foul names were snarled in the darkness.

Suspecting our location, a Nazi tank destroyer gun had opened up on us. A shell struck behind my parked jeep, dropping two men with minor wounds. The artillery roar was incessant. Tanks now began moving into position along the river bank. Assault troops had brought up both storm and assault boats to a jump-off place just behind a 10-foot dike along the west bank of the river. Now they began to drag them out.

The men took up the boats and moved off silently toward the river, looking like gigantic, shadowy centipedes carved out of moonlight. They vanished into the bluish mist and more came to take their places, then went silently off like dark ghosts into the frightful, roaring night.

'We Have Landed': There is no way to describe the noise of the artillery barrage which opened at 1 o'clock. The earth shook and the sky roared and belched.

At H Hour minus three minutes I crawled to the edge of the building beside a walkie-talkie. Then suddenly a voice came out. It was a first lieutenant in the first storm boat. They had started across. Just a few seconds less than five minutes later a voice came again saying: "We have landed and are organizing."

No longer was the Rhine a barrier.

Downs: Some Paratroops Walked to Death on Flak

It was the kind of spring day when most of the guys would have liked to do some plowing, or play tennis, or go fishing. A German wren sat in a German tree and sang the same song you could here in the States. Overhead there seemed to be more planes than there were wrens in all the world.

Capt. Tommy de Graffenreid, from Memphis, said: "OK, come on." We drove to a specially fitted two-place Thunderbolt, where I was lucky enough to ride pick-a-back with the 373rd Fighter Bomber Squadron, which was assigned to form the aerial spearhead for the biggest and best bridgehead we had yet established across the Rhine.

When we got over the bridgehead we went down to a thousand feet. On the west bank of the Rhine there was yellow smoke—this to guide the airborne army due in a few minutes.

We dropped down to within a few hundred feet and flew down the Rhine. In the water below were scores of barges. Some special seagoing tanks could be seen making their way catercornered across the Rhine against the current. Occasionally there was the puff of an enemy artillery shell.

The Geese Fly East: Then we saw them—hundreds of planes flying like a flock of geese trying a new formation. The men dropped from only 600 feet, but it seemed an eternity that they were in the air.

The Germans were waiting. Light and heavy flak began bursting among these hundreds of parachutes. Big black smudges nudged and buffeted the parachutes. Light flak burst with a whitish intensity all around. De Graffenreid said: "It's so thick you could walk on it."

That's exactly what the first waves of paratroopers did—walk on it. Casualties must have been heavy.

The parachutes continued to come. We saw two men whose parachutes got tangled. Tommy muttered to himself over the intercom: "Break it up, break it up, please break it up." But they never got untangled, and fell to the ground with what appeared to be the gentleness of leaves. But even from there we could tell they were dead.

Any German flak man who had hunted ducks must have been struck with the similarity of the shooting in this airborne operation to that in some Bavarian duck blind.

Yet the men of the troop carrier command flew in without deviation from their formations.

January 18, 2024

1943. "Moscow's Mood"

Moscow Watches the Allied Victories in North Africa
"A Churchill tank and other vehicles parade through Tunis, 8 May 1943" (source)

From Newsweek, May 3, 1943, pp. 24-25:

Moscow's Mood

Hardy Moscow families had their first taste of American ham last week. In stores throughout the city, eager housewives lined up to buy their 2-pound share of the rare luxury. In the evening, movie-goers saw the arrival of other Lend-Lease supplies in the Russian picture "Iran," which shows American supplies being delivered in Iranian ports for transshipment to Russia. Other crowds, in six of Moscow's largest movie theaters, watched the Eighth Army in "Desert Victory."

All this added up to about the friendliest atmosphere toward the Allies since the start of the war. Newsweek's Moscow correspondent Bill Downs cabled a description of this new mood:

"Mounting enthusiasm has followed every step Rommel's forces have taken backward toward the sea. Russia's stolid citizens did not exactly dance in the streets, but they have other ways of showing their gratitude. British and American correspondents here all speak of greater cordiality shown by their friends. My personal experience, for example, is that the harried and overworked officials of Radio Moscow, who are usually as pokerfaced and uncommunicative as they are efficient, now sometimes smile and comment: 'Things going nicely in North Africa, aren't they?'

"Other friends who always could be expected sooner or later to make some cracks about the lack of a second front now discuss the Tunisian operations instead. People even know details of the campaign. Since Montgomery broke through the Mareth Line, the back pages of Red Star, Pravda, Izvestia, and other papers, where foreign news is usually printed, have been devoted almost completely to North Africa.

"Military analysts of leading newspapers gave detailed explanations of each stage of the Tunisian battle, fully picturing its difficulties. They all took pains to praise the British Eighth Army—which received ten times more attention than the United States forces in North Africa.

"Seventy-thousand Russian soldiers and civilians saw 'Desert Victory' in the first two days of its showing in Moscow. They came away mightily impressed with the toughness, equipment, and spirit of the Eighth Army. It is noteworthy that entire units of the Red Army marched to the theaters where seats had been reserved for them. A film like 'Desert Victory' is bound to have a beneficial effect on Russia's relations with her Allies. All Americans in Moscow hope the United States can and will send something similar to Russia.

"There was a nationwide surge of optimism and admiration here when the doughboys landed in North Africa—but it gradually waned when the Anglo-American march to the east bogged down and the Eighth Army was held up at the border of Tripolitania. The ballyhoo with which the landings and the Eighth Army drive were heralded abroad was reflected in the Russian press and naturally led the Russians to believe that the Allies would stop at nothing short of a second front. They overrode this disappointment just as they overrode other second-front disappointments, but the bitterness increased.

"However, it is believed that the Allied armies now have the situation in hand and people are looking forward to what military experts tell them will be 'further developments in the military plans of the Anglo-American forces in North Africa'— which to the Russians is a hopefully polite way of saying that the next Anglo-American move to be expected will be the second front."

January 16, 2024

1954. The State of Israel in 1954

A U.S. Reporter's Impressions of the New State of Israel
Divided Jerusalem in the 1960s (source)
This text is from a typewritten draft of a piece (including some notes) which Bill Downs submitted to CBS in 1954:
Bill Downs

CBS Rome

May 14, 1954

This is the last of the background series on the Middle East. Again it should be remembered that this was but a two week trip in one of the most explosive and potentially dangerous areas of the world. The conflict of custom, religion, and time is a strange and bloody piecemeal war. The aura of emotional and intellectual conflict that surrounds the problem makes it most difficult to report objectively.

So this last report is on Israel. This new Zionist nation has been called many things—a "State of mind," or a "nationalized ghetto" by its critics; the most "glorious political experiment since the American Revolution"; the "Ireland of the Middle East"; and the "Indochina of the Levant."

Whatever you call it, flying into the State of Israel for the first time is a notable experience. You fly in from Cyprus with a special separate visa. The Israeli diplomatic service realizes the difficulties that visitors have traveling through the Arab east. For example, before getting the Jordan visa, this reporter had to get an affidavit that he is not Jewish. (The document was a one sentence letter from the PIO official in the US Embassy in Rome. The appropriateness of the Embassy in taking such a step is open to serious question, but the guy was acting quickly as a personal favor and I don't want to get anyone into trouble.)

Also, anyone caught carrying one of these special Israeli visas in the Arab countries is subject to arrest under suspicion of being a spy. Several persons have been picked up, but nothing much has happened to them except the inconvenience of an Arab jail, which is considerable. But the Israeli officials are only concerned with the fact that, after you have been everywhere else, you show up in Israel and take a look. What you see is pretty tremendous. Anyone who remembers Hitler's Belsen or Dachau—who saw the pitiful survivors of one of the most inhuman, deliberate race extermination programs in history—cannot help but be impressed by the fact that a Jewish state actually exists.

As a matter of fact, this reporter was a little proud and muchly pleased that as a Gentile he, for once, was a minority person. So you might say that Israel is not only a nation, but also an experience. This is the impact, despite the fact that you had seen the moral decay and stagnation now extant in the Arab refugee camps where some 800,000 persons have been living for the past five years.

As they say about Everest, Israel is there and apparently just about as permanently. It is no longer an experiment, but is now a cause with a difficult autonomy and a powerful army. The desert is not blooming, and the rocky hills are as barren for the most part as they were in the time of Moses, but terraces are being dug out and trees are being planted. And if there is a portent, the people tell you that already the planting of pine forests is beginning to change the climate.

Still, there is war. Not a night or day passes without some kind of incident. Shots are fired at infiltrating Arabs. An Israeli patrol is shot up. Cars and trucks are sniped at along roads up the Jerusalem corridor, where communications are clearly under observation by both sides. The war is real for the men and women of Israeli communal farms along the border areas who each night shoulder rifles and do guard duty. On the Arab side, a newly organized home guard performs a similar duty. And whether it is in Indochina or Korea or Palestine or Jordan, the tension of the not-quite-hot war is everywhere along the border.

By contrast, cities like Beirut and Tel Aviv in the Bistros flourish. The tourists are gay in bars and night clubs as elaborate as in New York or Paris. Sin and vice have their foothold there too. The irony is that the Arab home guardsman or legionnaire patrols opposite the Jewish farmer and soldier to protect this easier and flamboyant life far behind the lines.

The contrast between the two sides is perhaps best seen in the frontier city of Jerusalem. We are not sure it is typical for the entire struggle.

The Arab side of Jerusalem embraces the Old City, which includes Mount Zion, Calvary, the famous Christian and Moslem shrines, plus the suburban Mount of Olives and the residential section surrounding the Hebrew hospital and university.

The Western Wall of the Old City forms the boundary line, and on the Israel side is the new section including the "Country Club District" and the modern shopping center. A no-man's land, sometimes a half block long, separates the two quarters. Wealthy Jews with whom I have talked resent very much the fact that they are cut off from the ancient and venerated place of worship.

The difference in appearance between the two sides is tremendous. On the Arab side, it is not uncommon to see a Bedouin family with a herd of goats and a train of camels making its way along the walls. There are, of course, many automobiles, jeeps, and trucks. But the ancient ways of the tribes seem to make these later inventions seem superfluous and temporary. On the Jewish side of town, emphasis is on the twentieth century. Jews who themselves were in the night shirt of the Persian fellah a few years ago are now driving trucks or running tractors. Girls from Morocco who would have been subjected to a life of traditional slavery or worse have been mustered into the Israeli army and have emerged as individuals and citizens.

The State of Israel not only has succeeded in a mass movement of populations, but has introduced a modern culture into the land. The interesting thing to watch will be to see how irresistible this culture will be in the long haul. The Egyptian revolution is a sign of the times. The question is: can the Arab states of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and other members of the Arab League make a cultural defense against it?

But the greatest contrast comes in the condition of the children. On the Arab side, where refugees sometimes live in caves (incidentally, a cave in the side of a Palestine hill is not the most uncomfortable place to live; it's dry in winter and cool in summer), the children are neglected, for the most part unwashed, allowed to run free to beg or steal or just wander. They often are dirty, diseased, underfed, and generally neglected. By way of contrast, we saw no child on the Israeli side, including the children of the few remaining Arabs, who did not look well-nourished, healthy, and content. It might be said that the children of the Arab peoples appear to have assumed their ancient burdens at birth, while Israel in the modern manner attempts to give their children a running start on life through food programs, schools, and nurseries before they take on the burden of being Israeli citizens. The Arab states create only Moslems.

The above few paragraphs are an attempt to picture the contrasts between the two sides. No fourteen day wonder, which defines what this reporter is, can completely reach into the roots of the two civilizations. Again, it is oversimplification to say that the twentieth century has arrived with Israel while it is hidden behind a curtain of ignorance and tradition on the Arab side of the line.

In fact, there is developing in the hearty and confident Israeli citizen the same conscious national arrogance against which the Jewish peoples struggled for so many centuries. Talk to a red hot Zionist and you get strangely reminiscent arguments about "the natural untrustworthiness of the Arab;" "the historically proven treason of the Moslem;" "the racial and religious instability of those people who amorally will jump automatically to the strongest side." In other words, say the Jews, "You can't trust an Arab." The words are the same that have echoed tragically in the history of Jewish persecution.

We admit that this is an incomplete analysis of the situation, but it is as best as we could judge it in the short time available.