THE WAR CAME HOME to Germany.
Scarcely had Hitler recovered from the shock of the July 20 bombing when he was faced with the loss of France and Belgium and of the great conquests in the East. Enemy troops in overwhelming numbers were converging on the Reich.
By the middle of August 1944, the Russian summer offensives, beginning June 10 and unrolling one after another, had brought the Red Army to the border of East Prussia, bottled up fifty German divisions in the Baltic region, penetrated to Vyborg in Finland, destroyed Army Group Centerand brought an advance on this front of four hundred miles in six weeks to the Vistula opposite Warsaw, while in the south a new attack which began on August 20 resulted in the conquest of Rumania by the end of the month and with it the Ploesti oil fields, the only major source of natural oil for the German armies. On August 26 Bulgaria formally withdrew from the war and the Germans began to hastily clear out of that country. In September Finland gave up and turned on the German troops which refused to evacuate its territory.
In the West, France was liberated quickly. In General Patton, the commander of the newly formed U.S. Third Army, the Americans had found a tank general with the dash and flair of Rommel in Africa. After the capture of Avranches on July 30, he had left Brittany to wither on the vine and begun a great sweep around the German armies in Normandy, moving southeast to Orleans on the Loire and then due east toward the Seine south of Paris. By August 23 the Seine was reached southeast and northwest of the capital, and two days later the great city, the glory of France, was liberated after four years of German occupation when General Jacques Leclerc’s French 2nd Armored Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division broke into it and found that French resistance units were largely in control. They also found the Seine bridges, many of them works of art, intact.*
The remnants of the German armies in France were now in full retreat. Montgomery, the victor over Rommel in North Africa, who on September 1 was made a field marshal, drove his Canadian First Army and British Second Army two hundred miles in four days—from the lower Seine past the storied battle sites of 1914–18 and 1940 into Belgium. Brussels fell to him on September 3 and Antwerp the next day. So swift was the advance that the Germans did not have time to destroy the harbor facilities at Antwerp. This was a great stroke of fortune for the Allies, for this port, as soon as its approaches were cleared, was destined to become the principal supply base of the Anglo–American armies.
Farther south of the British-Canadian forces, the U.S. First Army, under General Courtney H. Hodges, advanced with equal speed into southeastern Belgium, reaching the Meuse River, from which the devastating German breakthrough had begun in May 1940, and capturing the fortresses ofNamur and Liege, where the Germans had no time to organize a defense. Farther south still, Patton’s Third Army had taken Verdun, surrounded Metz, reached the Moselle River and linked up at the Belfort Gap with the Franco-American Seventh Army, which under the command of General Alexander Patch had landed on the Riviera in southern France on August 15 and pushed rapidly up the Rhone Valley.
By the end of August the German armies in the West had lost 500,000 men, half of them as prisoners, and almost all of their tanks, artillery and trucks. There was very little left to defend the Fatherland. The much-publicized Siegfried Line was virtually unmanned and without guns. Most of the German generals in the West believed that the end had come. “There were no longer any ground forces in existence, to say nothing of air forces,” says Speidel.1 “As far as I was concerned,” Rundstedt, who was reinstated on September 4 as Commander in Chief in the West, told Allied interrogators after the war, “the war was ended in September.”2
But not for Adolf Hitler. On the last day of August he lectured some of his generals at headquarters, attempting to inject new iron into their veins and at the same time hold out hope.
If necessary we’ll fight on the Rhine. It doesn’t make any difference. Under all circumstances we will continue this battle until, as Frederick the Great said, one of our damned enemies gets too tired to fight any more. We’ll fight until we get a peace which secures the life of the German nation for the next fifty or a hundred years and which, above all, does not besmirch our honor a second time, as happened in 1918 … I live only for the purpose of leading this fight because I know that if there is not an iron will behind it, this battle cannot be won.
After excoriating the General Staff for its lack of iron will, Hitler revealed to his generals some of the reasons for his stubborn hopes.
The time will come when the tension between the Allies will become so great that the break will occur. All the coalitions in history have disintegrated sooner or later. The only thing is to wait for the right moment, no matter how hard it is.3
Goebbels was assigned the task of organizing “total mobilization,” and Himmler, the new chief of the Replacement Army, went to work to raise twenty-five Volksgrenadier divisions for the defense of the West. Despite all the plans and all the talk in Nazi Germany concerning “total war” the resources of the country had been far from “totally” organized. At Hitler’s insistence the production of civilian goods had been maintained at a surprisingly large figure throughout the war—ostensibly to keep up morale. And he had balked at carrying out the prewar plans to mobilize women for work in the factories. “The sacrifice of our most cherished ideals is too great a price,” he said in March 1943 when Speer wanted to draft women for industry.4 Nazi ideology had taught that the place of the German woman was in the home and not in the factory—and in the home she stayed. In the first four years of the war, when in Great Britain two and a quarter million women had been placed in war production, only 182,000 women were similarly employed in Germany. The number of peacetime domestic servants in Germany remained unchanged at a million and a half during the war.5
Now with the enemy at the gates, the Nazi leaders bestirred themselves. Boys between fifteen and eighteen and men between fifty and sixty were called to the colors. Universities and high schools, offices and factories, were combed for recruits. In September and October 1944 a half-million men were found for the Army. But no provision was made to replace them in the factories and offices by women, and Albert Speer, the Minister for Armament and War Production, protested to Hitler that the drafting of skilled workers was seriously affecting the output of arms.
Not since Napoleonic times had German soldiers been forced to defend the sacred soil of the Fatherland. All the subsequent wars, Prussia’s and Germany’s, had been fought on—and had devastated—the soil of other peoples. A shower of exhortations fell upon the hard-pressed troops.
SOLDIERS OF THE WESTERN FRONT!
… I expect you to defend Germany’s sacred soil … to the very last! …
Heil the Fuehrer!
SOLDIERS OF THE ARMY GROUP.!
… None of us gives up a square foot of German soil while still alive … Whoever retreats without giving battle is a traitor to his people … Soldiers! Our homeland, the lives of our wives and children are at stake! Our Fuehrer and our loved ones have confidence in their soldiers! … Long live our Germany and our beloved Fuehrer!
Nevertheless, with the roof caving in, there were an increasing number of desertions and Himmler took drastic action to discourage them. On September 10 he posted an order:
Certain unreliable elements seem to believe that the war will be over for them as soon as they surrender to the enemy….
Every deserter … will find his just punishment. Furthermore, his ignominious behavior will entail the most severe consequences for his family … They will be summarily shot.
A Colonel Hoffmann-Schonforn of the 18th Grenadier Division proclaimed to his unit:
Traitors from our ranks have deserted to the enemy … These bastards have given away important military secrets … Deceitful Jewish mudslingers taunt you with their pamphlets and try to entice you into becoming bastards also. Let them spew their poison! … As for the contemptible traitors who have forgotten their honor—their families will have to atone for their treason.6
In September what the skeptical German generals called a “miracle” occurred. To Speidel it was “a German variation of the ‘miracle of the Marne’ for the French in 1914. The furious advance of the Allies suddenly subsided.”
Why it subsided has been a subject of dispute to this day among the Allied commanders from General Eisenhower on down; to the German generals it was incomprehensible. By the second week in September American units had reached the German border before Aachen and on the Moselle. Germany lay open to the Allied armies. Early in September Montgomery had urged Eisenhower to allot all of his supplies and reserves to the British and Canadian armies and the U.S. Ninth and First armies for a bold offensive in the north under his command that would penetrate quickly into the Ruhr, deprive the Germans of their main arsenal, open the road to Berlin and end the war. Eisenhower rejected the proposal.* He wanted to advance toward the Rhine on a “broad front.”
But his armies had outrun their supplies. Every ton of gasoline and ammunition had to be brought in over the beaches in Normandy or through the single port of Cherbourg and transported by truck three to four hundred miles to the advancing front. By the second week of September, Eisenhower’s armies were bogging down for lack of supplies. They were also running into unexpected German resistance. By concentrating his available forces at two critical points Rundstedt was able, by the middle of September, to halt at least temporarily Patton’s Third Army on the Moselle and Hodges’ First Army in front of Aachen.
Eisenhower, prodded by Montgomery, had then agreed to a bold plan to seize a bridgehead over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem and thus obtain a position from which the Siegfried Line could be outflanked on the north. The objective fell far short of Montgomery’s dream of racing into the Ruhr and thence to Berlin, but it promised a strategic base for a later try. The attack, led by a massive drop of two American and one British airborne divisions, flying in from bases in Britain, began on September 17, but due to bad weather, to the circumstance that the airborne troops landed right in the midst of two S.S. panzer divisions they did not know were there, and to the lack of adequate land forces pushing up from the south, it failed, and after ten days of savage fighting the Allies withdrew from Arnhem. The British 1st Airborne Division, which had been dropped near the city, lost all but 2,163 of some 9,000 men. To Eisenhower this setback “was ample evidence that much bitter campaigning was to come.”7
Yet he hardly expected the Germans to recover sufficiently to launch the stunning surprise that burst on the Western Front as Christmas approached that winter.