May 13, 1943: The North African Campaign ends.
The North African Campaign of World War II began on June 10, 1940, when Italy officially declared war on Great Britain and France, after which forces of the British Army stationed in Egypt (which had been occupied by the British since 1882 and would remain occupied until the 1950s) captured an Italian fort in Libya (an Italian colony), initiating the conflict. Of the nations fighting on both the Allied and Axis sides, many had colonial interests in North Africa and in the territories surrounding, some dating back to the period of imperialist frenzy known as the Scramble for Africa, and the strategic Suez Canal zone, not to mention vast oil resources, was located in this area. Fighting in North Africa primarily took place in the Libyan Desert, in French North Africa, and in Tunisia. Three of the war’s most iconic military leaders commanded forces in North Africa - Bernard Montgomery, Erwin Rommel, and George S. Patton.
Although initially outnumbering the British by a wide margin, Italian military leaders were extremely aware of the fact that they were engaging a modern European enemy using tanks and guns that had been used to subjugate local populations (in addition, Allied codebreaking played a major role in destroying Axis supply lines). After their utter defeat by Allied forces in Operation Compass, which also ended in the destruction of the eastern half of Italy’s African armies, Rommel and the Afrika Korps entered the conflict in February of 1941. Allied and Axis forces pushed each other back and forth across North Africa until a decisive Allied victory at the Second Battle of El-Alamein stopped the Axis advance into Egypt, marking a major turning point in the war in North Africa. The North Africa Campaign came to an end when the remainder of Axis forces, surrounded by the British Army and trapped on the coast in Tunisia, surrendered on May 13, 1943.
Their defeat in North Africa led to the Invasion of Sicily - the penetration of Europe by the Allies through its “soft underbelly”.
Russian soldiers and a civilian attempt to move a bronze eagle that had previously been installed above a doorway of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, 1945.
May 2, 1945: Berlin falls to Soviet forces.
The next day, General Wilding, the commander of the German troops in Berlin, finally surrendered the entire city to the Soviet army. There was no radio or newspaper, so vans with loudspeakers drove through the streets ordering us to cease all resistance. Suddenly, the shooting and bombing stopped and the unreal silence meant that one ordeal was over for us and another was about to begin. Our nightmare had become a reality. The entire three hundred square miles of what was left of Berlin were now completely under control of the Red Army. The last days of savage house to house fighting and street battles had been a human slaughter, with no prisoners being taken on either side. These final days were hell. Our last remaining and exhausted troops, primarily children and old men, stumbled into imprisonment. We were a city in ruins; almost no house remained intact.
Eyewitness account of the end of the Battle of Berlin
April 29, 1946: The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal convenes.
Officially called the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), the Tokyo Trials took place nearly eight months after the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, which marked the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan to the Allied nations. The IMTFE was modeled after the Nuremberg Trials (which set precedents for most later trials involving international criminal law) and, like the Nuremberg Trials, ended in death sentences and life imprisonment for dozens of its twenty-eight main defendants - a group filled with infamous faces, like that of Hideki Tōjō, general, party leader, and prime minister; Kenji Doihara, who played an instrumental role in the Japanese invasion and destabilization of Manchuria and later other parts of China; Iwane Matsui, commander of expeditionary forces in China, deemed responsible by the tribunal for the Nanking Massacre; and many others. Emperor Hirohito and the entirety of the imperial family (including Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, a commander at Nanking) were not prosecuted by the tribunal.
Eleven men representing eleven different nations served on the IMTFE’s panel of judges, all of them top justices, attorneys, or professors from various Allied nations. The Indian representative Justice Radhabinod Pal famously dissented and, while acknowledging the brutality of certain events (the Nanking Massacre specifically), argued for the exoneration of all indictees, since other trials would cover these acts - as Class B and C crimes. Pal also questioned the legitimacy of the entire proceeding and condemned the United States’ use of atomic weapons against Japan, as well as the fact that this, which he regarded as one of the war’s worst crimes, would go unpunished.
Class A crimes (as opposed to“Class B” and “Class C” crimes - war crimes and crimes against humanity) were defined as crimes against peace, and were therefore reserved for political and military officials who had played parts in the planning and instigation of war; twenty-eight were ultimately charged with Class A crimes and six were hanged for them at Sugamo Prison in December 1948, a month after the trials adjourned. Unlike the Nuremberg Trial executions, where the corpses of the hanged had been photographed and published, no photographers were allowed at the executions.
April 27, 1945: Benito Mussolini is captured.
On this day in 1945, Italy’s former father of fascism, who had adopted the title Il Duce and a dictatorship over his country from the late 1920s until 1943, was captured by Italian communist partisans, along with his mistress Clara Petacci.
In mid-1943, Mussolini was ousted by the Grand Council of Fascism during the eventually successful Allied invasion of Sicily, but he remained in power through the intervention of his German allies, who rescued him and set up under his name a new puppet regime headquartered in Salò, in northern Italy. By this time, Mussolini, his health in a poor state and his characteristic confidence blighted by constant failure, was no longer the bombastic leader who had once marched on Rome, by his own admittance - in an early 1945 interview, he said most uncharacteristically:
I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce … I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.
Allied forces liberated Rome in July 1944, while partisan resistance fought Axis forces from within the country. Amidst this fighting and German retreat, Mussolini, his mistress, and officials of his puppet government made an escape attempt to Switzerland, and then to Spain, but were stopped by communist partisans and then executed the next day in a village in northern Italy. Their bodies were brought to Milan and dumped in the Piazzale Loreto, where civilians hung them upside down on meathooks - and stoned them, shot at them, and spat on them.
Other links: mutilated corpses of Mussolini and Petacci (graphic)
April 11, 1945: Buchenwald concentration camp is liberated.
Buchenwald was established in 1937 near Weimar, making it one of the earliest concentration camps constructed within German borders. During its years of operation, Buchenwald served primarily as a source of slave laborers – political prisoners, Poles , Jews, Romani, criminals, prisoners of war, etc. – who worked to support German factories and production, and who died in massive numbers from their working and living conditions, although Buchenwald and camps like it were technically not considered “extermination camps” (these camps, equipped with gas chambers and crematoriums, were mostly located in Poland). Buchenwald was also made notorious by the brutality of its guards and overseers, most famously Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, who allegedly collected the tattoooed skins of camp prisoners. Tens of thousands of prisoners died at Buchenwald and in its subcamps by the time of its liberation by a detachment of American troops, while some 28,000 were evacuated and forced on a death march just days before the troops arrived.
Margaret Bourke-White, a war correspondent who was present at Buchenwald around the time of its liberation, wrote in her 1946 memoir Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly on the German citizens from nearby Weimar who were made to walk through the camp and look upon the atrocities committed by their countrymen:
This whiteness had the fragile translucence of snow, and I wished that under the bright April sun which shone from a clean blue sky it would all simply melt away. I longed for it to disappear, because while it was there I was reminded that men actually had done this thing — men with arms and legs and eyes and hearts not so very unlike our own. And it made me ashamed to be a member of the human race.
The several hundred other spectators who filed through the Buchenwald courtyard on that sunny April afternoon were equally unwilling to admit association with the human beings who had perpetrated these horrors. But their reluctance had a certain tinge of self-interest; for these were the citizens of Weimar, eager to plead their ignorance of the outrages.
When US forces arrived at Buchenwald, the 21,000 prisoners who had been left behind had taken control of the camp after their SS guards fled, aware of the inevitable arrival of Allied forces.
LIFE Behind the Picture: The Liberation of Buchenwald, April 1945 (graphic images)