Grace and perseverance

Easter in World War II

U.S. soldiers painting a bomb addressed to Adolph Hitler in Italy

During this hopeful time of the year, we would like to wish a peaceful and blessed Easter to all of our readers and subscribers. Easter is a period of renewal, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ in Christian faith. In this article we'll take a look at a few of the events that occurred at Easter throughout the war, some of them very much related to the Christian religious traditions.

U.S. troops take communion on Bougainville Island in the Pacific, Easter Sunday 1944
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In 1941, more than half a year before the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was indulging in its traditional Easter festivities, but was already unwittingly falling under the shadow of war. A newsreel from the period reveals that some Easter egg decorators created Hitler eggs, painted to resemble the Führer.

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A Hitler egg from 1941

Coinciding with Easter 1941, the traditional National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.  gained as-yet-unrecognized ominous overtones. Though this might no longer be common knowledge, the tradition started in 1910, when the Japanese government gave a gift of 2,000 cherry trees to the American capital as a sign of friendship. In a coincidental twist that might appear as accidental foreshadowing of how the two nations would become bitter enemies less than three decades later, the trees turned out to be infected by an arboreal disease, and had to be burned on arrival to avoid infecting U.S. agriculture. The Japanese offered a second gift of 3,020 trees as replacement, which were planted in 1912.

A German Easter greetings propaganda poster

The specter of war was much more obvious in other parts of the world. In Britain, a newsreel on how Easter changed "due to that nasty piece of work from Germany" showed children and even elderly ladies enjoying the new craze: carrot-on-a-stick. With sugar strictly rationed, ice cream was no longer available, and carrot-on-a-stick, which was exactly what it sounds like, was offered as a substitute. The use of carrot, easily grown in Britain and available in large quantities, was also presented as a sweetener for other foodstuffs.

The Easter 1941 footage of British carrot-on-a-stick

Meanwhile, in Africa, the same Easter of 1941 showed the testing of Allied forces resolve. The city of Tobruk in Libya, captured by the British from the Italians the previous January, the Australian, British and Indian defenders were awaiting the arrival of Rommel's dreaded Afrika Korps. Outnumbered, poorly equipped and using the defensive installations originally built by the Italians, the defenders first met the German onslaught on Good Friday, the April 11 that year.

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Australian soldiers manning an anti-aircraft gun at Tobruk

Over the next couple of days, the spirited defense, which sometimes went as far as bayonet charges against numerically superior enemies, managed to blunt the first attack. The Afrika Korps, which expected the city's defenders to evacuate and give up the city, had their noses bloodied. Though Tobruk came under a 241-day siege, the defenders proved to the world that the German war machine was not invincible, providing a glimmer of hope of a tide turning in the war.

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A German tank crossing a makeshift causeway built by sappers across a British anti-tank ditch during the Easter attack on Tobruk

In Britain, the Railway Executive Committee was a government body which controlled Britain's railways in times of war. During WWII, its headquarters was in the London Underground in the unused Down Street station converted into an underground bunker which was temporarily used by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his cabinet, too. The Railway Executive Committee launched information campaigns to remind people not to make unnecessary journeys, especially at holiday times, so the railways could be used for the movement of troops, equipment and supplies. Below, you will see a poster discouraging citizens from traveling at Easter.

A British wartime poster encouraging not to travel at Easter 

In December 1942, the United States War Production Board banned the manufacture of chocolate novelties, including Easter bunnies. There were two main reasons for this. Firstly, the Board wanted that children can also show their sacrifice and contribution to the war effort. Secondly, cocoa and sugar were imported, so any available stocks had to be used wisely amid the German and Japanese attacks on convoys and foreign markets. The ban had little impact in 1943 since there were enough stockpiles for Easter that year. By 1944 and 1945, supplies ran out, and manufacturers had to come up with substitutes. Instead of chocolate bunnies, children received bunnies made of soap, wood or wax. Another problem was the shortage of confectioners since many of them joined companies involved in the war production
Another initiative related to wartime rationing was to fight the growing scarcity of meat. Thus, the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of Interior published Recipes for Cooking Domestic Rabbit Meat in 1943 as part of a government initiative to encourage the home breeding and eating of rabbits.

A cook book, an initiative to fight the growing scarcity of meat

Easter Sunday 1944, falling on April 9, found Allied troops locked in a stalemate with the Germans in Italy during the Battle of Anzio. In the middle of the 136-day battle, Easter Sunday offered a moment of respite for the combatants in one particular sector of the front. In a gesture echoing the Christmas Truce of World War I, the two sides agreed to a one-hour ceasefire. American soldiers left their foxholes and gathered for Mass. Loudspeakers were set up along the sector specifically for the event, broadcasting the proceedings both to U.S. troops too far to attend in person, and to the Germans.

Easter Sunday Mass on the front during the ceasefire

On April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday brought a moment of respite again. On the very same day, U.S. forces were commencing the invasion of Okinawa. The 180,000 Marines and soldiers descending on the island after a heavy bombardment of the shore were in low spirits. Both enlisted men and their commanding officers expected the landing to be much bloodier than D-Day was. When the first wave hit the shore in the north of the island, however, the Japanese weren't there. Reinforcements, tanks and supplies could be brought ashore effortlessly, and the Japanese airfields were rapidly secured.

Soldiers and Marines coming ashore on Okinawa

Unknown to the Americans, the Japanese defense force held back, waiting to attack the invaders in the rough, more defensible terrain further inland. The fight for the island was going to be fierce and bloody; but both attackers and defenders received a moment of grace, sparing uncountable men who otherwise would have been killed on the first day of the battle.


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