Meanwhile, throughout France, the resistance continued to play their part – aiding the Allies wherever possible. Reprisals were often swift and brutal. On the 10 June, SS soldiers of the Der Führer regiment entered the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane, near the city of Limoges in central France, and murdered almost every inhabitant – 642 civilians, including 205 children. (When Rommel heard of the atrocity, he sought, unsuccessfully, Hitler’s permission to punish the perpetrators. Following the war, a new village bearing the same name was built while the original village remains as a memorial. Adolf Diekmann, who led the massacre, was killed in action nearly three weeks later.)
Canadian troops in action during the Battle of Caen.
In Normandy, thrice the British, led by Montgomery, tried to capture Caen in operations named after English racecourses – Epsom, Charnwood and Goodwood – each attempt more ferocious than the last. Progress was slow, the fighting intense. Caen had been Montgomery’s objective within the first twenty-four hours following D-Day. In the event, it took five weeks, until 9 July, by which time the town was flattened and 6,000 civilians had been killed.
Eisenhower’s deputies felt that Montgomery was being overcautious, and conspired to have him replaced. Churchill too was having his doubts about the hero of El Alamein. Eisenhower almost agreed with them. But Monty had a plan, and in executing it he refused to budge, even if it took time to come to fruition. He intended to draw the bulk of the Germans to the east of the bridgehead to allow the Americans to break out from the west which, indeed, they eventually did.
On 25 July, while the Germans were preoccupied to the east of the Allies’ bridgehead, US general, Omar Bradley, launched Operation Cobra. Bradley’s troops captured the town of Saint Lô, leaving it 95 per cent flattened, and from there advanced to Avranches at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula. From Avranches, the advance was able to drive west and south, into Brittany, and eastwards.
A German counterattack launched on 7 August floundered – again in large part because the Allies had intercepted German communications and were ready for the coming onslaught. Allied air supremacy again played a major part. The counterattack having failed, Hitler ordered the withdrawal of his troops from Normandy. As Kluge tried to retreat, Allied forces approaching from different directions squeezed his forces around the town of Falaise. The fighting around Falaise was intense. Eisenhower, on visiting the town following its capture, compared it to a scene of Hell as envisaged by Dante: ‘It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.’ Such was the extent of ‘decaying flesh’, both civilian and military, and the fear of disease, the Allies declared the area an ‘unhealthy zone’.
By now Hitler had replaced Kluge with Field Marshal Walter Model.
The Allies had closed the gap at the ‘Falaise Pocket’ by 20 August. Up to 15,000 German troops had been killed at Falaise, and another 50,000 taken prisoner, but still nearly 50,000 had managed to escape eastward towards Belgium.
Meanwhile, on 15 August, a secondary Allied attack, Operation Dragoon, landed in the south of France and rapidly advanced northwards.
General Charles de Gaulle and entourage set off from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs Elysees to Notre Dame for a service of thanksgiving following the city’s liberation, 26 August 1944.
The German army in France was now shattered, and the Allies rapidly advanced southwards from the Cotentin Peninsula. With the enemy about to enter Paris, Hitler ordered his commander there, Major-General Dietrich von Choltitz, to destroy much of the city. Choltitz refused and surrendered as, on 25 August, the French general, Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, led the Allies into the city. They were ecstatically welcomed and the witch-hunt for collaborators began immediately.
The following day, De Gaulle made his triumphant return to Paris.
On 1 September, Canadian troops captured Dieppe, just over two years after their failed attempt in August 1942. On the 3rd, British troops entered Brussels to an equally joyous reception and, two days later, liberated Antwerp. On the 10th, US troops liberated Luxembourg.
On 17 September, Montgomery launched Operation Market Garden, the biggest airborne operation in history. Its objective was to cut through the Siegfried Line, Germany’s line of defences on the Dutch–German border. In doing so Monty planned to capture the bridges over the River Rhine, near the town of Arnhem, thereby opening the road to Berlin. Faulty radio transmitters severed communication between the British troops, and determined resistance by the Germans doomed the operation to failure. Any hopes of finishing the war by Christmas 1944 were now dashed. Instead, seven months of hard fighting were still to come.
On 16 December 1944, Hitler launched a last-ditch and ultimately doomed counteroffensive through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. The Battle of the Bulge, as it became known, held up the Allied advance by about six weeks. From the end of January 1945, German forces were on constant retreat as the Allies pressed forward.
With the Soviet Union’s Red Army approaching from the east and the US and its allies from the west, it was not so much a case of if Germany could be defeated, but when. The aerial bombardment of German cities continued – Dresden, for example, was flattened in February 1945. The full extent of Nazi horror was exposed as, one by one, the death camps were liberated. Still Hitler refused to surrender. On 30 April, with Soviet troops fighting within yards of his bunker beneath the German Reichstag, he committed suicide. On 7 May, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Western Allies, and, the following day, to the Soviet Union. The war in Europe was over.
The war in the Pacific continued for another three months. With the USA bombing Japanese cities at will, Japan’s situation was hopeless. Unable to secure Japan’s surrender, the USA dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Two days later, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. The following day, 9 August, the USA dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. Finally, on 2 September, Japan surrendered. After six years and a day, the Second World War had come to an end.