World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 2: Almanac, UXL, 2000.
The Two-Front War
In the last year of the war in Europe, two powerful forces closed in on Germany from the east and west. One was the Red Army, the army of the Soviet Union (present-day Russia, one of the eastern Allies). The other was the combined army of the western Allies, the United States and Britain. (The Allies were the countries fighting against Germany, the leading Axis power.) Germany had to defend first one and then the other of these fronts.
For a while, Germany could shift troops and resources from one front (or combat zone, the area where two opposing armies are in contact) to the other, depending on where the greatest danger lay. But the Allied bombing of the railroad system in Germany and German-controlled Europe made maneuvering like this difficult. More significantly, too many German soldiers died or were captured, and too many tanks, planes, and cannons were destroyed: Germany couldn’t replace all of them. In the long run, Germany was not strong enough to defend itself against all its enemies, and eventually it was crushed between them.
The Western Front
On June 6, 1944, American and British troops landed in Normandy, on the northwest coast of France. The Allies had been eager to begin this invasion ever since the United States entered the war in 1941, but they waited until the armies were fully prepared and they had enough supplies to be fairly sure it would be successful. In two weeks, the Allied force in Normandy had grown to 600,000 troops. The German army fought desperately to keep the Allies from breaking out of Normandy and moving east across France and Belgium toward Germany.
The Eastern Front
At the same time, on the other side of Europe, the Germans faced the Red Army along a front that stretched 2,000 miles from north to south. For three years, ever since the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Red Army had fought massive battles against the Germans. In the largest and bloodiest campaigns of World War II, the Soviets succeeded in driving the invaders back toward the western border of their country. (The German invasion of the Soviet Union is described in Chapter 3 and the Red Army’s first major victories are described in Chapter 9.)
The Soviet leaders had promised the British and Americans that the Red Army would begin a major offensive immediately after the invasion of western Europe. That would prevent the Germans from shifting troops, tanks, and planes to Normandy from Russia. Just two weeks after D-Day, the Soviets kept their promise.
Operation Bagration: The Liberation of White Russia
The Soviets chose the central part of the eastern front for this new offensive, where large Soviet and German armies faced each other on the western edge of Soviet territory in White Russia or Belorussia (today the independent country of Belarus). This region belonged to Poland before 1939 but became Russian territory early in the war. The German army in White Russia was organized as Army Group Center and had 37 divisions. (A full-strength division is usually around 15,000 men, although Soviet divisions were usually smaller and many German divisions were below full strength because of losses in previous battles.) Unknown to the Germans, there was a massive buildup of Red Army forces in White Russia. They had 166 divisions with 2,700 tanks, far outnumbering the Germans. Forty-five hundred planes waited close by. For several days before the attack, Soviet partisans blew up railroad tracks and other targets in German-controlled territory.
On June 22, 1944, the third anniversary of the German invasion, the Red Army began its attack along an 800-mile section of the front. The operation was code-named Bagration, after a Russian general killed fighting French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Within days they surrounded and destroyed the German Ninth Army. The rest of the German forces retreated rapidly. In the first week of the Soviet attack, 200,000 Germans were killed, wounded, or captured. Nine hundred German tanks were destroyed.
On July 3, the Red Army pushed the Germans west and entered Minsk, the capital of White Russia. A few days later, about 60,000 men of the German Fourth Army were taken prisoner, after tens of thousands of its soldiers had been killed. Northwest of Minsk, on July 10, Soviet forces freed Vilna, which had been part of Poland at the start of World War II. After Poland was defeated by the Germans in 1939, Vilna became the capital of Lithuania. Farther south, they reached the Polish city of Lublin on July 23 and captured Lvov, another formerly Polish city, on July 27.
The Red Army had now won back almost all the territory that had been part of the Soviet Union when the Germans invaded. In one area, the Soviet forces were on the border of East Prussia, part of Germany. In the center of the front, leading units of the Red Army reached the river Vistula in two widely separated areas. On the other side of the Vistula, between these units, was Warsaw, the capital of Poland.
The Red Army Stops
Now, at the beginning of August, the great Soviet offensive came to a halt. The Soviets had pushed the Germans 300 miles west in six weeks—in some places they had moved more than 400 miles. Army Group Center and 30 German divisions had been destroyed. More than 300,000 German soldiers had been killed, wounded, or captured in White Russia alone.
Part of the reason for the end of the Soviet advance was that German resistance became tougher. By retreating, the Germans had a chance to catch their breath, regroup, and defend positions, such as river crossings, that gave them an advantage. In addition, German reinforcements, including three armored (tank) divisions, arrived to help hold these positions.
Another possible reason for the Soviet slow down was that their forces had moved forward so quickly that it had become difficult to supply them. A modern army depends on huge quantities of fuel, ammunition, and food. Now supplies had to be brought a longer distance, over roads and railroads that had been badly damaged or destroyed. It was a common pattern in World War II for a powerful offensive—whether German or Allied—to slow down and then stop because it had been so successful that it had outrun its supply lines.
Many military historians think this is exactly what happened in Operation Bagration. However, the reason the Soviet army stopped on the Vistula is one of the most debated topics in World War II military history. Many people believed at the time, and still believe, that the offensive was not stalled because of a lack of supplies. Instead, they think the Soviet government purposely stopped the offensive because of political disputes it had with Poland. For as the Red Army waited on the Vistula, the people of Warsaw rose up in armed rebellion against the Germans.
Poland and the Soviet Union
Warsaw, which the Germans had bombed into surrender in September 1939, suffered under German occupation longer than any other capital city of Europe. (An occupation is when foreign military forces are stationed in a country to control it.) The Germans had treated the Polish people much more harshly than it treated people of western Europe. Poland lost a higher percentage of its people in the war than any other country. A very large underground movement (a network of secret organizations opposed to the Germans) had grown up in Poland. One part of this underground movement was the Home Army, also called the AK, which stands for Armai Krajowa. The Home Army was the armed military branch of the Polish underground. It was loyal to the Polish government that had escaped from Warsaw to London in 1939. Britain and the United States considered this government-in-exile the legal representative of the Polish people. (See Chapter 9.)
The London Poles, as members of the government-in-exile were often called, were very suspicious of the Soviet Union. The most important issue between the Soviet and Polish governments concerned Poland’s borders. The Soviets wanted the eastern parts of prewar Poland—the White Russian region just freed from the Germans in Operation Bagration—to remain part of the Soviet Union. Most of the people in this region were not Polish. The Soviet Union had taken this area from Poland in September 1939 as part of a deal with Nazi Germany. In effect, the Soviet Union had helped Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler eliminate Poland as an independent country. That deal, known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, added to the Polish distrust and anger toward the Soviets.
Another major difference concerned the kind of government Poland would have after the war. The London Poles were strongly opposed to communism, while the Soviet Union was officially a communist country. (Communism is a political and economic system based on government control of the production and distribution of goods and the abolition of private ownership of factories, banks, and most other businesses.) The London Poles were afraid the Soviets would use the Red Army to impose a communist government on Poland. These fears increased at the end of July 1944, when a Polish Committee of National Liberation, dominated by Polish communists, was created in the newly freed city of Lublin. With Soviet support, this committee soon claimed that it, and not the London Poles, ought to be the legitimate Polish government.
Late in July, the Lublin radio called on the Polish underground to rise up against the Germans, promising that the Red Army would soon arrive. In fact, those in Warsaw could clearly hear the Soviet artillery across the Vistula. The London Poles came to agree that the Home Army should begin a general uprising. One reason for this decision was fear that if the Home Army did nothing, the Soviets and the Lublin committee would accuse them of being a phony resistance movement, or even—as the Soviet leaders sometimes already claimed—that the Home Army was really pro-German.
The London Poles also hoped to obtain great advantages from a successful uprising. Many of the men and women of the Home Army were pleading for a chance to fight the hated Germans. If Polish forces played a major role in driving the Germans from their country, it would restore the pride of the Poles who had been severely defeated by the Germans. Most important, it would also leave the Home Army a powerful military force, in control of Warsaw and independent of the Red Army. The Home Army could then guard Poland’s political and territorial interests against the Soviets.
The Warsaw Uprising
The commander of the Home Army ordered the uprising to begin on August 1, 1944. About 20,000 fighters, armed with rifles and submachine guns, took control of half of Warsaw. They carried enough ammunition for about one week of fighting. It turned out they had to fight for two months.
At first the Germans used security troops rather than front-line combat soldiers to fight the Poles, but soon they brought in regular army units with tanks and artillery. In slow, bloody, house-to-house fighting, the Germans recaptured large areas of the city and forced the Home Army into a few pockets.
The Home Army’s fighters desperately needed more arms and ammunition. Before long, they and the rest of the population would also need food, as the Germans cut off all supplies into the city. British planes based in England and American bombers from Italy tried to drop supplies by parachute, but many of the supplies fell into German-controlled areas. The planes could not carry heavy loads because of the large amount of fuel needed to fly such long distances. The distance was made twice as long because they had to make a round trip without landing. Despite repeated British and American requests, the Soviet government, in all but one case, refused permission for these planes to land on Soviet territory to refuel.
The official Soviet attitude toward the uprising was very hostile. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, called it a reckless and even criminal adventure—in other words, a stunt that endangered many lives without good reason. These charges are one of the reasons that many people believe the Soviets purposely allowed the Germans to crush the Poles.
On the other hand, at the end of August, the Soviet forces did make serious attempts to break through to Warsaw. Polish units fighting in the Red Army led these attacks and were driven back with heavy casualties. In the middle of September, the Soviets began dropping food and ammunition into Warsaw by plane, sending at least fifty tons. Perhaps, as the French historian Henri Michel has argued in The Second World War, that the Soviets were now willing to help because the Home Army was no longer strong enough to present a challenge to the Soviets but was still large enough to be useful against the Germans.
With the Poles driven into small sections of the city by the Germans, even supply by air became impossible. On October 2, the Home Army surrendered. Ten thousand of its 20,000 fighters had been killed and another 7,000 wounded. But this was only a small part of the cost. More than 200,000 citizens of Warsaw died, many in savage German revenge actions. Ninety percent of the city was destroyed.
The Plot to Kill Hitler
Crushing the Warsaw uprising could not hide the fact that Germany had suffered a series of immense defeats in the middle of 1944. From the beginning of June to mid-September, at least 1 million German soldiers had been killed or captured throughout Europe. These were months of disaster for the German army.
In the middle of this period, on July 20, a group of anti-Hitler Germans, most of them army officers, tried to kill Hitler, take over the government, and end the war. The leaders of the plot, which included some high-ranking generals, believed that killing Hitler was absolutely essential for taking over the government. They were certain that until he was dead, most of the army would follow Hitler’s orders.
Hitler and the Army Officers
It is not surprising that army officers were at the center of the plot. Although they had achieved high rank and great honors under the Nazi government, Germany was a police state, with spies everywhere, and anyone found opposing the government was arrested and sent to a concentration camp (the brutal prison camps run by the SS, the black-uniformed security units of the Nazi Party). Individually, army officers were among the few Germans who still had some freedom to act as they wanted. Most important, as a group they had the power within the military to resist the Nazis if they wanted to.
Some of the officers involved in the plot had secretly opposed Hitler and the Nazis for a long time. Some of them had been horrified by the crimes committed by the German armed forces, such as the mass shootings of civilians. They blamed Hitler and the Nazis for bringing shame on Germany and its army. Some blamed Hitler for starting the war. Others blamed him only for losing it.
Critics have pointed out that these plotters took action only when it was clear that Germany would lose the war. Many of them, whatever their private beliefs, continued to act with loyalty to Hitler, despite the Nazis’ terrible crimes, as long as he was winning. Many of them wanted Germany to make peace without surrendering. They understood that the Allies would never agree to this while Hitler and the Nazis were in power. But they hoped that a new government, headed by military men, could negotiate an end to the war. Some of them even hoped to make peace with the United States and Britain and continue the war against the Soviet Union.
The plotters had to be very careful in approaching other officers to support the plan. One word to the Gestapo (the secret police), and their lives, and perhaps the lives of their families, would be in danger. Some of the people they spoke to, including important generals, refused to promise their support. But they did not inform the Gestapo either. These generals seemed to take a wait-and-see approach. If Hitler were killed and it looked like the plot to end the war might succeed, they would support it. If it failed, they would not have been involved.
German officers were taught that duty and honor were very important. Every one of them had sworn an oath of obedience to Hitler personally. (This oath is described in a box on p. 18 in Chapter 1.) For many of them, betraying this promise meant losing their honor—or, at least, many claimed this was their reason for not supporting the scheme. In addition, some of them thought that trying to overthrow the government while their country was at war amounted to treason. The fairly small number of officers at the center of the plot, however, had come to believe that Hitler and the Nazis, not the Allies, were Germany’s real enemies.
One of the leaders of the group was Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a colonel who had been badly wounded in North Africa, losing a hand, several fingers of his other hand, and an eye. He was now on the staff of the Replacement Army in Berlin, the German capital. The Replacement Army (Ersatzheer in German) was the organization that drafted and trained new soldiers to replace combat losses. Stauffenberg prepared a plan for the Replacement Army to take over emergency powers in major German cities. His excuse was that they would use this plan if there were an uprising by the millions of foreign laborers who had been forced to work in Germany. In fact, he intended to use the plan to take over the government after Hitler had been killed.
Stauffenberg also had regular personal access to Hitler, who was very concerned with finding replacements for the army’s losses. On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg was at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia for a meeting. (Hitler had several headquarters outside Berlin during the war.) Stauffenberg entered the wooden building, almost a hut, where Hitler and two dozen others were gathered around an oak table, looking at maps. Stauffenberg placed his briefcase under the table and then left, explaining that he needed to phone Berlin.
Within minutes, a tremendous blast shook the area, as the time bomb that Stauffenberg had placed in his briefcase exploded. The walls and roof of the building were destroyed, and fire and smoke were pouring out. In the confusion, Stauffenberg got to the airstrip for the three-hour flight to Berlin. He thought the next part of the plan would have already begun.
The commander of regular army troops in Berlin, the Berlin chief of police, and some top leaders of the Replacement Army were all part of the plot. They should have taken over the radio station and the Gestapo headquarters, disarmed SS units in the city, and arrested top Nazi leaders. The same should have been done throughout Germany and in the rest of German-occupied Europe. But except in Paris, where the German military governor of France had arrested all SS and security police forces in the city, none of these thing had been done.
The reason for the failure was simple. Hitler was not dead. He had survived Stauffenberg’s bomb with only minor injuries. It’s possible that the briefcase was moved farther from Hitler or that the heavy oak table over which he was leaning had protected most of his body from the blast.
Although a member of the plot cut off communications from Hitler’s headquarters for a while, they were soon restored. Orders from the plotters in Berlin were canceled by loyal officers, but for a while army units in Berlin and other cities did not know whom to obey. But Hitler’s voice on the radio convinced them to remain true to the Nazi government. Some of the leaders of the plot, including Stauffenberg, were quickly arrested and shot. Like many other officers, the general who had them shot had known about the plot and had taken a wait-and-see attitude. Now he wanted to cover his tracks by shooting the plotters before the Gestapo could question them. Despite this, he too was later arrested by the Gestapo and shot.
The Gestapo began its work immediately and continued almost until the war was over. Using torture to obtain information, they hunted down officers and civilians who had participated or known about the plot. About 5,000 people were executed and several thousand more were sent to concentration camps. A few, such as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Germany’s most popular war hero, were given a choice between committing suicide or facing arrest and trial. To protect his family, Rommel—one of those who knew about the plot but probably did not participate—killed himself. The Nazis told the German people that Rommel died of a heart attack. He was given a hero’s funeral and praised as a loyal supporter of Hitler.
Others were not treated so gently. After torture by the Gestapo, those leaders of the plot who had not been shot were immediately tried before a special Nazi People’s Court. Then they were hanged with piano wire from meat hooks to make their deaths more painful. On Hitler’s orders, these trials and hangings were filmed. He’d watch the film that night.
After the failure of the July plot, as it is usually called, the Nazis kept closer control over the army and its officers. To prove their loyalty, some officers participated in military Courts of Honor that expelled the plotters from the army. Then they could be turned over to the People’s Court to be tried—and hanged—as civilians. The stiff-armed Nazi salute, with its barked “Heil Hitler” (“hail Hitler”), replaced the normal military salute.
The results of July 20, 1944, also had an impact on military events. German generals were more afraid to retreat, fearing that Hitler would see it as proof of disloyalty. And Hitler, even more than before, distrusted the military advice of his generals. All these developments made it more likely that the German army would continue to fight even though there was no chance of victory and the only result was to increase the destruction of Germany and the suffering of the German people.
The Last Months of 1944
Even while the Germans were crushing the people of Warsaw, the Allies were making tremendous gains in western Europe. Breaking out of Normandy and destroying huge German forces, the Allied tanks raced across France, freeing Paris late in August; reaching Brussels, the capital of Belgium, on September 3; and reaching the Belgian port of Antwerp, the largest in Europe, on September 4. From Switzerland almost to the North Sea, the Allied armies were approaching the borders of Germany.
The Allies now faced two major obstacles. One was a line of defensive positions built before the war and recently strengthened, which the Germans called the West wall. The Allies called it the Siegfried line. Although not a wall, this series of protected cannons, machine-gun emplacements, and tank barriers would severely slow the Allied advance. The second obstacle was the Rhine River, which separated the Allied armies from the heart of Germany.
Supply difficulties played an even greater role in slowing down the Allies. Much of their gasoline and other needs had to be brought all the way from Normandy by truck because the Allied air forces had done such a good job of destroying the French railroad system (to cripple Germany’s defense of the Atlantic shore). The problem became worse as the armies advanced farther from Normandy. The port of Antwerp, in Belgium, was much closer to the fighting, but the Allies could not use it because the Germans still controlled the mouth of the river that separates Antwerp from the sea.
The United States Army organized a system of high-speed, one-way highways to bring supplies to the front from Normandy. The most famous was called the Red Ball Express. Although this system worked better than anyone had expected, it still could not meet the Allied armies’ needs.
The supply problem led to arguments and rivalries between General Bernard Montgomery, whose British and Canadian troops were on the northern end of the front, and General George S. Patton, whose American Third Army was farther south. Each believed that his forces could break through into Germany and end the war quickly if they had enough fuel and other supplies. But that would mean sending most of the supplies to one army and leaving the rest of the Allied forces without enough resources to resist the Germans.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American general who was supreme commander of the Allied forces in western Europe, refused to give either Montgomery or Patton all the supplies at the expense of the other. Instead, he decided that the Allies would enter Germany all along a broad front and would not concentrate all their strength in one area. Many military historians have criticized Eisenhower for this decision, saying it was based on political considerations of keeping both the British and Americans happy. Others have defended Eisenhower, pointing out that the Germans could have attacked whichever Allied force was deprived of supplies.
The Last German Attack: The Battle of the Bulge
The Germans soon proved that they could still mount one more large offensive. Near the center of the front was the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg. It was thinly defended by four American divisions because the Allies were sure the Germans would not attack in this area. The Ardennes was heavily forested, with steep hills and narrow roads, and the Americans did not think it was suitable for tanks. This belief is remarkable because it is exactly what the French thought in 1940. But the German tanks had smashed into France through the Ardennes and destroyed the French and British armies. Four-and-a-half years later, the Americans would make the same mistake.
The Ardennes offensive (soon called the Battle of the Bulge by the Americans because the German attack created a large bulge in the American lines) was Hitler’s idea, not that of the German generals. He sent Germany’s last available tank divisions to the area. The German generals worried that these divisions would be needed if the Soviets attacked in the east. Further, they could see some of the plan’s weaknesses from the beginning. For example, they could not stockpile enough gasoline to ensure that their tanks would have fuel for more than a few days. Instead, they had to rely on capturing the large quantities of fuel that the Americans had collected nearby.
At first Hitler’s plan was a success. The narrow roads and thick forests prevented Allied airplanes from seeing the German tanks being brought forward for the attack. In addition, the Germans purposely planned the offensive to take place in poor weather so that Allied planes, which had complete control of the skies, could not fly.
When the Germans attacked through the fog on December 16, 1944, they completely surprised the outnumbered Americans and made rapid progress, taking a substantial number of prisoners. But very soon the resistance of the GIs (ordinary American soldiers, nicknamed GI by the initials stamped on all their equipment and clothing, which stood for “government issue”) began to slow the German attack. The town of Bastogne, even though it was surrounded by the Germans, refused to surrender.
After some confusion on the part of the American commanders, the Allies rushed several divisions to reinforce the Ardennes area. As the weather cleared, the Allied air forces began to pound the German tanks. The German advance slowed and then stopped. Strong Allied forces attacked the bulge from both north and south, wearing down the Germans until they retreated to their original positions. The Allies could afford to lose men and equipment; the Germans could not.
The Ardennes offensive has often been described as Hitler’s last gamble. He knew that if he lost, as he did, he would use up almost all of Germany’s remaining offensive ability. Its best additional armored divisions would not be available against the Soviets, even for defensive purposes, as well.
But even a German victory in the Ardennes would not have changed the course of the war. Hitler hoped to recapture the port of Antwerp to disrupt Allied supplies and perhaps even drive the British army back to the sea. Something like this had happened after the Ardennes breakthrough in 1940. But this plan was completely unrealistic. Now, at the end of 1944, the Germans no longer had the resources to turn a victory in the Ardennes into a victory in western Europe. The Battle of the Bulge may have temporarily slowed the progress of the western Allies, but it helped ensure that when the next big Allied offensive finally came, there would be nothing to stop it.
From Warsaw to Germany
For many months, the great majority of new German divisions had gone to the western front. The German army in Poland received few new tanks or planes. This area had been comparatively quiet since the end of the great Soviet offensive in August 1944. In their positions east of the Vistula River, however, the Soviets had prepared for their next major attack. Almost 2 million tons of supplies were gathered, along with more than 6,000 tanks and 32,000 pieces of artillery (cannons).
The attack began on January 12, 1945, along a 30-mile-section of the front. Over the next few days, Soviet forces on either side of this sector joined in. Soon, 180 Soviet divisions were attacking along a battlefront 200 miles long. They had twice as many troops as the Germans, four times as many tanks, seven times as much artillery, and six times as many planes. The German defenses collapsed.
On January 17, the Red Army entered Warsaw, occupied by the Germans for 64 months. Two days later they were in Lodz, and a week later around Breslau (Wroclaw) on the river Oder, 180 miles from where they had started. In the center of the front, the Soviet forces were commanded by Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who had defeated the Germans near Moscow in the winter of 1941-42 and crushed them at Stalingrad a year later. (The battle of Moscow is described in Chapter 3 and Stalingrad in Chapter 10.) Now Zhukov’s armies drove the Germans back 220 miles in five weeks, until they stood 100 miles from Berlin. Some other Soviet units were only 50 miles from the suburbs of the German capital.
German Civilians and the Red Army
As the Soviet offensive swept across the German province of East Prussia, the civilian population was swept by panic. Two million people abandoned their homes and fled west, trying to escape the Red Army.
Many Germans believed that the Red Army would slaughter them in revenge for what Germany had done in Russia. German forces had murdered millions of Russian civilians. Three million Soviet soldiers had been shot or had starved or frozen to death after being captured by the Germans.
The Germans’ fears turned out to be accurate. Some units of the Red Army, usually carefully disciplined, turned into murderous gangs once they entered German territory. They set entire villages on fire, as the Germans had done to Russian villages. They raped thousands of German women and girls. They shot whole families, especially if the Soviet soldiers saw some Nazi symbol or a picture of Hitler in their house.
The refugees clogged the roads. Thousands of people died in the winter cold, crushed by advancing tanks, blown up by artillery shells, machine-gunned by troops rushing by on trucks. Some units of the German army fought with great heroism to hold off the Soviets long enough to allow columns of refugees to escape.
Apart from its human cost, the Red Army’s rampage in East Prussia also had military and political effects. From then until the end of the war, it was clear that the German army would fight harder in the east than in the west. German troops were much more willing to surrender to the Americans or British than to the Soviets.
In the middle of February 1945, the Soviet advance came to a halt. The Red Army had outrun its supplies again, which were stockpiled behind the Vistula. In addition, the German retreat narrowed the front from north to south. It was easier for the remaining German troops to defend the shorter front. But the area they were defending was also shrinking in another way, which showed that defeat would come soon: the Red Army was now only 400 miles from the Americans and British.
During their advance, Red Army troops freed the Auschwitz concentration camp on January 27, 1945. Only about 6,000 prisoners were still there, many near death from disease and starvation. A week earlier, the Nazi guards had forced 60,000 others on a death march, in subzero weather, to other concentration camps farther west. Before that, more than 1 million men, women, and children, most of them Jews, had been murdered at Auschwitz.
The Western Front: Crossing the Rhine
Back on the western front, the months after the Battle of the Bulge saw a series of Allied operations that cleared all German resistance from the west bank of the Rhine River, the last major obstacle in Germany. After this, the Allies could cross the river along the entire front, as General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces, had wanted. On March 8, 1945, American troops at Remagen, near Bonn, captured the only bridge over the Rhine that the Germans had not yet blown up. Soon, three American divisions had reached the other side of the river. Elsewhere, the crossing was more difficult. The first troops might go across in small boats and then hold the other shore while combat engineers, under German fire, constructed new bridges.
On March 22, troops of General George S. Patton’s Third Army crossed the Rhine. The next day, farther north, British, Canadian, and American troops commanded by General Bernard Montgomery crossed the river in force and began their attack on the Ruhr, Germany’s most important industrial region. Soon the American Seventh Army and the French First Army had crossed the river, their tanks striking into southern Germany.
By April 1, 1945, nine Allied armies with 90 divisions, 25 of them armored, were either across the Rhine or waiting their turn. There were no more natural barriers. From now until Germany surrendered five weeks later, they pushed the retreating Germans ever eastward. Although the Germans often fought hard, there were increasing cases of mass surrenders. As the end of the war approached, German troops sometimes did everything possible to surrender to the British or Americans rather than be captured by the Red Army. German soldiers knew that the Nazis had murdered Soviet prisoners by the millions, and they feared the same treatment if they were captured.
British and Americans troops soon saw examples of Nazi mass murder as well. On April 11, American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. Four days later, the British freed Bergen-Belsen. In these and many other places, the battle-hardened soldiers and officers of the Allied armies came face to face with scenes of human cruelty beyond anything they had experienced on the battlefield. General Patton, seeing Buchenwald, vomited.
The Nazis had continued trying to murder as many of their enemies, especially Jews, as they could, even when the Allied armies were only a few miles away and they had obviously lost the war. One example of this occurred at Dachau, near Munich, the first concentration camp. The Americans reached Dachau on April 29, only ten days before Germany surrendered. Just before the Americans arrived, the SS guards had evacuated the camp. By this time, however, there was no place left to transfer the prisoners. So the Nazis marched 15,000 to 20,000 people aimlessly around the countryside to keep the American troops from freeing them. Exhausted, starving, and sick, many of them died before the GIs could find them.
The Battle of Berlin
The Allied leaders had already decided that when Germany was defeated they would divide that country into different occupation zones. The Soviet zone, in the east, would run roughly to the river Elbe. That put Berlin within the Soviet area and meant that the Red Army would make the final attack against Hitler’s capital. The final push began on April 16, 1945. This last battle of the war against Germany was as large as the other terrible struggles on the eastern front. Two-and-a-half million Soviet soldiers moved against Berlin; a million German troops defended it.
By April 22, the fighting reached the streets of Berlin. Block after block was destroyed and thousands of men died. The Germans fought ferociously. Among them were hard-core veterans of countless battles, as well as men too old and boys too young to fight. Among them also were groups of foreign Nazis, who fought for Germany because they believed in Hitler and his ideas, which had brought so much suffering to the people of Europe and so much destruction to its cities. Now Berlin was the scene of that suffering and destruction.
The remaining civilian population, short of food and water, crowded into cellars as hundreds of thousands of Soviet artillery shells exploded in the city. Fires raged everywhere. Behind the Soviet front-line troops there were thousands more Soviet soldiers, some of them recently freed prisoners of war. They spread terror among the German civilians, killing, looting, and raping. In all, more than 100,000 Berliners died in the battle.
On April 30, as the Red Army reached the government buildings above him, Hitler committed suicide in his underground bunker. (See Box.) The next day, the German military commander of Berlin asked for cease-fire terms from the Soviets. They told him the only terms they would accept were unconditional surrender. The following day, May 2, Berlin surrendered. A quarter of a million soldiers of the Red Army had been killed or wounded.
German troops still controlled sections of the country, and there were German forces in other parts of Europe that the Allies had bypassed in their advance. Fighting continued for several days, some of it extremely bloody. On May 8, 1945, Admiral Karl Dönitz, the man Hitler had appointed to replace him as Führer (leader) of Germany, sent representatives to General Eisenhower’s headquarters at Reims in eastern France. There they signed the unconditional surrender of Germany. The next day, representatives of the German armed forces repeated the signing at Soviet headquarters in Berlin, amid the ruins of the war they had begun.