Saturday, April 06, 2013

Ruth Mitchell - a surviving witness to the Nazi bombing of Belgrade April 6, 1941, that fateful Sunday morning...

"...Outside my windows, the dark-browed Serbian peasants, the men in somber black, the women in their bright embroidered clothes, passed unhurriedly but more silently, more grimly than usual to the early Sunday market. I watched them thoughtfully as I began to pour my tea and turned the short-wave radio knob...

...I heard no sound but the jingling of milk carts in the streets and the shuffling of peasant feet. But it was coming, this raucously heralded doom.

...Bomb after bomb exploded all round us, some not more than twenty yards away. The effect was almost inconceivable. It wasn’t the noise or even so much the concussion; it was the perfectly appalling wind that was most terrifying. It drove like something solid through the house. Every door that was latched simply burst off its hinges, every pane of glass flew into splinters. The curtains stood straight out into the room and fell back in ribbons. With a weird, smooth sound like the tearing of silk, the neighboring houses began to collapse...

...Again the bombs were falling, thick and fast, and on and on. Now far, then near, the Stukas shrieked and stooped...

I ran to a smashed window. There in the street among piles of stones men and women lay still in strange, contorted attitudes. I had a surge of uncontrollable wild fury…There were two unexploded incendiary bombs imbedded in the pavement just outside my windows.

The bodies were already being carried across the piles of masonry by people, many of whom were themselves covered with blood...

...In one small second those heavy granite walls had been blown about the neighborhood in fragments. All the interior lay wrecked and naked to the eye, and the elevator, halfway up, hung loose, ridiculously helpless.

Cars lay overturned and flattened, and blood was everywhere. I heard afterwards that three hundred and sixty policemen waiting there in reserve had been killed by one of the first bombs...

...Soon I had to walk in the middle of the street, the heat too great on each side. Not a soul was doing anything to stop it, no one even turned to look. There was nothing that could be done. The water works had been the first German target: ‘Burn, Belgrade, burn!’

The Axis attacked Belgrade in waves of air strikes or bombing sorties at intervals of two to four hours, each wave consisting of 150 warplanes. The first assaults were saturation attacks. Over 500 sorties were flown. The Stuka dive bombers attacked government buildings, communications facilities, and military headquarters, and control and command centers. The military command in Belgrade lost communications links to the field armies dispersed in Yugoslavia. Axis medium bombers attacked and destroyed residential areas, killing Serbian civilians in their houses or tenement buildings, while others died in the air-raid shelters which were unable to withstand the bombardment. A Yugoslav lieutenant, who piloted a Messerschmitt Me-109, recalled the Axis aerial assault on Belgrade: 'I never saw so many aircraft together in my life, not even in a photo or in the cinema.'...

...Hurrying through a narrow choked passage, I came upon a sight I wish I might never have seen, for it will haunt me while I live.

The Germans, with their careful maps, had gone especially for the air-raid shelters (very few in this "open" city) ---and especially for those meant for school children. Here in a little park one of these had received a direct hit. The hole was enormously deep. Trees uprooted lay tumbled as in the old game of spillikins.

And in their branches were parts of human bodies, arms, legs, heads---so small, so small---which other humans, their mothers and fathers, dazedly heavy and fumbling of movement, were slowly trying to collect.

Most horror photographs---though none, even in color, could reproduce the gory shambles of this scene---showed weeping, despairing relatives. Here there were none---no tears and no despair. Only stunned movement, pitifully hopeless, slow...

...We were without lights, but the house was on a little hillside with a free view over Belgrade. And Belgrade was burning.

As night came down the sight was weird and terrible.

The great city along the Danube seemed to be one blazing bonfire. Great tongues of flame would burst up suddenly, glare fiercely for a while, and slowly sink away. Sullenly the heavy clouds of smoke rolled upwards, billowing, writhing, twisting away into the sky, reflecting on their black bellies the angry glare that must have been visible for hundreds of miles across the huge river and the limitless flat plain.

Germany had lit the great beacon of her ‘civilizing mission’ in the Balkans.

Watching the winged fiends of this holocaust, it seemed to me that they had burst up from the infernal regions of ancient myth. Through and above the clouds of fire they darted unceasingly, those messengers from hell, swooping and diving, skimming away and back again. And still with demonic diligence and glee they rained destruction on destruction upon the pitifully supine city.

The Serbs had dared to dream of liberty. Now their murdered capital flamed, a dying signal to the liberty-loving peoples of the earth. But none could raise a hand to help. There was grandeur in the great city's loneliness, grandeur in the unchecked flaming of its heart, grandeur even in its utter helplessness.

I walked up and down, up and down the little bricked path of the garden, alone in the darkness and silence-dark but for the glare from the burning capital, silent but for the sound of bursting bombs. I was full to the brim and running over with fury. I swore to myself that while there was breath in my body I would fight to save what those monsters of cruelty would leave of a people whose dream they could never understand."

Ruth Mitchell
Sister of US aviation pioneer Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell


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