Military history

THE COLLAPSE OF THE GERMAN ARMIES

The end came quickly for the Third Reich in the spring of 1945.

The death throes began in March. By February, with the Ruhr largely in ruins and Upper Silesia lost, coal production was down to one fifth of what it had been the year before and very little of this could be moved because of the dislocation of rail and water transport by Anglo–American bombing. The Fuehrer conferences became dominated by talk of the coal shortage, Doenitz complaining that many of his ships had to lie idle because of lack of fuel and Speer explaining patiently that the power plants and armament factories were in a similar situation for the same reason. The loss of the Rumanian and Hungarian oil fields and the bombing of the synthetic-oil plants in Germany caused such an acute shortage of gasoline that a good part of the desperately needed fighter planes had to be grounded and were destroyed on the fields by Allied air attacks. Many panzer divisions could not move for lack of fuel for their tanks.

The hopes in the promised “miracle weapons,” which had for a time sustained not only the masses of the people and the soldiers but even such hardheaded generals as Guderian, were finally abandoned. The launching sites for the V-l flying bombs and the V-2 rockets directed against Britainwere almost entirely lost when Eisenhower’s forces reconquered the French and Belgian coasts, though a few remained in Holland. Nearly eight thousand of the two V bombs were hurled against Antwerp and other military targets after the British-American armies reached the German frontier, but the damage they did was negligible.

Hitler and Goering had counted on the new jet fighters driving the Allied air forces from the skies, and well they might have—for the Germans succeeded in producing more than a thousand of them—had the Anglo–American flyers, who lacked this plane, not taken successful counteraction. The conventional Allied fighter was no match for the German jet in the air, but few ever got off the ground. The refineries producing the special fuel for them were bombed and destroyed and the extended runways which had to be constructed for them were easily detected by Allied pilots, who destroyed the jets on the ground.

Grand Admiral Doenitz had promised the Fuehrer that the new electro-U-boats would provide a miracle at sea, once more wreaking havoc on the British-American lifelines in the North Atlantic. But by the middle of February 1945 only two of the 126 new craft commissioned had put to sea.

As for the German atom bomb project, which had given London and Washington much worry, it had made little progress due to Hitler’s lack of interest in it and Himmler’s practice of arresting the atom scientists for suspected disloyalty or pulling them off to work on some of his pet nonsensical “scientific” experiments which he deemed more important. Before the end of 1944 the American and British governments had learned, to their great relief, that the Germans would not have an atom bomb in this war.*

   On February 8 Eisenhower’s armies, now eighty-five divisions strong, began to close in on the Rhine. They had expected that the Germans would fight only a delaying action and, conserving their strength, retire behind the formidable water barrier of the wide and swift-flowing river. Rundstedt counseled this. But here, as elsewhere throughout the years of his defeats, Hitler would not listen to a withdrawal. It would merely mean, he told Rundstedt, “moving the catastrophe from one place to another.” So the German armies, at Hitler’s insistence, stood and fought—but not for long. By the end of the month the British and Americans had reached the Rhine at several places north of Duesseldorf, and a fortnight later they had firm possession of the left bank from the Moselle River northward. The Germans had lost another 350,000 men killed, wounded or captured (the prisoners numbered 293,000) and most of their arms and equipment.

Hitler was in a fine fury. He sacked Rundstedt for the last time on March 10, replacing him with Field Marshal Kesselring, who had held out so stubbornly and long in Italy. Already in February the Fuehrer, in a fit of rage, had considered denouncing the Geneva Convention in order, he said at a conference on the nineteenth, “to make the enemy realize that we are determined to fight for our existence with all the means at our disposal.” He had been urged to take this step by Dr. Goebbels, the bloodthirsty noncombatant, who suggested that all captured airmen be shot summarily in reprisal for their terrible bombing of the German cities. When some of the officers present raised legal objections Hitler retorted angrily:

To hell with that! … If I make it clear that I show no consideration for prisoners but that I treat enemy prisoners without any consideration for their rights, regardless of reprisals, then quite a few [Germans] will think twice before they desert.17

This was one of the first indications to his followers that Hitler, his mission as world conqueror having failed, was determined to go down, like Wotan at Valhalla, in a holocaust of blood—not only the enemy’s but that of his own people. At the close of the discussion he asked Admiral Doenitz “to consider the pros and cons of this step and to report as soon as possible.”

Doenitz came back with his answer on the following day and it was typical of the man.

The disadvantages would outweigh the advantages … It would be better in any case to keep up outside appearances and carry out the measures believed necessary without announcing them beforehand.18

Hitler reluctantly agreed and while, as we have seen,* there was no general massacre of captured flyers or of other prisoners of war (except the Russians) several were done to death and the civil population was incited to lynch Allied air crews who parachuted to the ground. One captive French general, Mesny, was deliberately murdered on the orders of Hitler, and a good many Allied POWs perished when they were forced to make long marches without food or water on roads strafed by British, American and Russian flyers as the Germans herded them toward the interior of the country to prevent them from being liberated by the advancing Allied armies.

Hitler’s concern to make German soldiers “think twice before they desert” was not ungrounded. In the West the number of deserters, or at least of those who gave themselves up as quickly as possible in the wake of the British-American advances, became staggering. On February 12 Keitelissued an order “in the name of the Fuehrer” stating that any soldier “who deceitfully obtains leave papers, or who travels with false papers, will … be punished by death.” And on March 5 General Blaskowitz, commanding Army Group H in the West, issued this order:

All soldiers … encountered away from their units … and who announce they are stragglers looking for their units will be summarily tried and shot.

On April 12 Himmler added his bit by decreeing that any commander who failed to hold a town or an important communications center “is punishable by death.” The order was already being carried out in the case of the unfortunate commanders at one of the Rhine bridges.

On the early afternoon of March 7, a spearhead of the U.S. 9th Armored Division reached the heights above the town of Remagen, twenty-five miles down the Rhine from Koblenz. To the amazement of the American tank crews they saw that the Ludendorff railroad bridge across the river was still intact. They raced down the slopes to the water front. Engineers frantically cut every demolition wire they could find. A platoon of infantry raced across the bridge. As they were approaching the east bank a charge went off and then another. The bridge shook but held. Feeble German forces on the far shore were quickly driven back. Tanks sped over the span. By dusk the Americans had a strong bridgehead on the east bank of the Rhine. The last great natural barrier in Western Germany had been crossed.*

A few days later, on the night of March 22, Patton’s Third Army, after overrunning the Saar-Palatinate triangle in a brilliant operation carried out in conjunction with the U.S. Seventh and French First armies, made another crossing of the Rhine at Oppenheim, south of Mainz. By March 25 the Anglo–American armies were in possession of the entire west bank of the river and across it in two places with strong bridgeheads. In six weeks Hitler had lost more than one third of his forces in the West and most of the arms for half a million men.

At 2:30 A.M. on March 24, he called a war conference at his headquarters in Berlin to consider what to do.

HITLER: I consider the second bridgehead at Oppenheim as the greatest danger.

HEWEL [Foreign Office representative]: The Rhine isn’t so very wide there.

HITLER: A good two hundred fifty meters. On a river barrier only one man has to be asleep and a terrible misfortune can happen.

The Supreme Commander wanted to know if there was “no brigade or something like that which could be sent there.” An adjutant answered:

At the present time no unit is available to be sent to Oppenheim. There are only five tank destroyers in the camp at Senne, which will be ready today or tomorrow. They could be put into the battle in the next few days …19

In the next few days! At that very moment Patton had a bridgehead at Oppenheim seven miles wide and six miles deep and his tanks were heading eastward toward Frankfurt. It is a measure of the plight of the once mighty German Army whose vaunted panzer corps had raced through Europe in the earlier years that at this moment of crisis the Supreme Commander should be concerned with scraping up five broken-down tank destroyers which could only be “put into battle in the next few days” to stem the advance of a powerful enemy armored army.*

With the Americans across the Rhine by the third week of March and a mighty Allied army of British, Canadians and Americans under Montgomery poised to cross the Lower Rhine and head both into the North German plain and into the Ruhr—which they did, beginning on the night of March 23—Hitler’s vengeance turned from the advancing enemy to his own people. They had sustained him through the greatest victories in German history. Now in the winter of defeat he thought them no longer worthy of his greatness.

“If the German people were to be defeated in the struggle,” Hitler had told the gauleiters in a speech in August 1944, “it must have been too weak: it had failed to prove its mettle before history and was destined only to destruction.”20

He was fast becoming a physical wreck and this helped to poison his view. The strain of conducting the war, the shock of defeats, the unhealthy life without fresh air and exercise in the underground headquarters bunkers which he rarely left, his giving way to ever more frequent temper tantrums and, not the least, the poisonous drugs he took daily on the advice of his quack physician, Dr. Morell, had undermined his health even before the July 20, 1944, bombing. The explosion on that day had broken the tympanic membranes of both ears, which contributed to his spells of dizziness. After the bombing his doctors advised an extended vacation, but he refused. “If I leave East Prussia,” he told Keitel, “it will fall. As long as I am here, it will hold.”

In September 1944 he suffered a breakdown and had to take to bed, but he recovered in November when he returned to Berlin. But he never recovered control of his terrible temper. More and more, as the news from the fronts in 1945 grew worse, he gave way to hysterical rage. It was invariably accompanied by a trembling of his hands and feet which he could not control. General Guderian has given several descriptions of him at these moments. At the end of January, when the Russians had reached the Oder only a hundred miles from Berlin and the General Staff Chief started to demand the evacuation by sea of several German divisions cut off in the Baltic area, Hitler turned on him.

He stood in front of me shaking his fists, so that my good Chief of Staff, Thomale, felt constrained to seize me by the skirt of my jacket and pull me backward lest I be the victim of a physical assault.

A few days later, on February 13, 1945, the two men got into another row over the Russian situation that lasted, Guderian says, for two hours.

His fists raised, his cheeks flushed with rage, his whole body trembling, the man stood there in front of me, beside himself with fury and having lost all self-control. After each outburst Hitler would stride up and down the carpet edge, then suddenly stop immediately before me and hurl his next accusation in my face. He was almost screaming, his eyes seemed to pop out of his head and the veins stood out in his temples.21

It was in this state of mind and health that the German Fuehrer made one of the last momentous decisions of his life. On March 19 he issued a general order that all military, industrial, transportation and communication installations as well as all stores in Germany must be destroyed in order to prevent them from falling intact into the hands of the enemy. The measures were to be carried out by the military with the help of the Nazi gauleiters and “commissars for defense.” “All directives opposing this,” the order concluded, “are invalid.”22

Germany was to be made one vast wasteland. Nothing was to be left with which the German people might somehow survive their defeat.

Albert Speer, the outspoken Minister for Armament and War Production, had anticipated the barbarous directive from previous meetings with Hitler and on March 15 had drawn up a memorandum in which he strenuously opposed such a criminal step and reiterated his contention that the war was already lost. He presented it to the Fuehrer personally on the evening of March 18.

In four to eight weeks [Speer wrote] the final collapse of the German economy must be expected with certainty … After that collapse the war cannot be continued even militarily … We must do everything to maintain, even if only in a most primitive manner, a basis for the existence of the nation to the last … We have no right at this stage of the war to carry out demolitions which might affect the life of the people. If our enemies wish to destroy this nation, which has fought with unique bravery, then this historical shame shall rest exclusively upon them. We have the duty of leaving to the nation every possibility of insuring its reconstruction in the distant future …23

But Hitler, his own personal fate sealed, was not interested in the continued existence of the German people, for whom he had always professed such boundless love. He told Speer:

If the war is lost, the nation will also perish. This fate is inevitable. There is no necessity to take into consideration the basis which the people will need to continue a most primitive existence. On the contrary, it will be better to destroy these things ourselves because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one and the future will belong solely to the stronger eastern nation [Russia]. Besides, those who will remain after the battle are only the inferior ones, for the good ones have been killed.

Whereupon the Supreme Warlord promulgated his infamous “scorched earth” directive the next day. It was followed on March 23 by an equally monstrous order by Martin Bormann, the Fuehrer’s secretary, a molelike man who had now gained a position at court second to none among the Nazi satraps. Speer described it on the stand at Nuremberg.

The Bormann decree aimed at bringing the population to the center of the Reich from both East and West, and the foreign workers and prisoners of war were to be included. These millions of people were to be sent upon their trek on foot. No provisions for their existence had been made, nor could it be carried out in view of the situation. It would have resulted in an unimaginable hunger catastrophe.

And had all the other orders of Hitler and Bormann—there were a number of supplementary directives—been carried out, millions of Germans who had escaped with their lives up to then might well have died. Speer tried to summarize for the Nuremberg court the various “scorched earth” orders. To be destroyed, he said, were

all industrial plants, all important electrical facilities, water works, gas works, food stores and clothing stores; all bridges, all railway and communication installations, all waterways, all ships, all freight cars and all locomotives.

That the German people were spared this final catastrophe was due to—aside from the rapid advances of the Allied troops, which made the carrying out of such a gigantic demolition impossible—the superhuman efforts of Speer and a number of Army officers who, in direct disobedience(finally!) of Hitler’s orders, raced about the country to make sure that vital communications, plants and stores were not blown up by zealously obedient Army officers and party hacks.

   The end now approached for the German Army.

While Field Marshal Montgomery’s British-Canadian armies, after their crossing of the Lower Rhine the last week of March, pushed northeast for BremenHamburg and the Baltic at Luebeck, General Simpson’s U.S. Ninth Army and General Hodges’ U.S. First Army advanced rapidly past the Ruhr, the Ninth Army on its northern perimeter, the First Army to the south. On April 1 they linked up at Lippstadt. Field Marshal Model’s Army Group B, consisting of the Fifteenth and the Fifth Panzer armies—some twenty-one divisions—was trapped in the ruins of Germany’s greatest industrial area. It held out for eighteen days, surrendering on April 18. Another 325,000 Germans, including thirty generals, were captured, but Model was not among them. Rather than become a prisoner he shot himself.

The encirclement of Model’s armies in the Ruhr had torn the German front in the West wide open, leaving a gap two hundred miles wide through which the divisions of the U.S. Ninth and First armies not needed to contain the Ruhr now burst toward the Elbe River in the heart of Germany. The road to Berlin lay open, for between these two American armies and the German capital there were only a few scattered, disorganized German divisions. On the evening of April 11, after advancing some sixty miles since daybreak, a spearhead of the U.S. Ninth Army reached the Elbe River near Magdeburg, and on the next day threw a bridgehead over it. The Americans were only sixty miles from Berlin.

Eisenhower’s purpose now was to split Germany in two by joining up with the Russians on the Elbe between Magdeburg and Dresden. Though bitterly criticized by Churchill and the British military chiefs for not beating the Russians to Berlin, as he easily could have done, Eisenhower and his staff at SHAEF were obsessed at this moment with the urgency of heading southeast after the junction with the Russians in order to capture the so-called National Redoubt, where it was believed Hitler was gathering his remaining forces to make a last stand in the almost impenetrable Alpine mountains of southern Bavaria and western Austria.

The “National Redoubt” was a phantom. It never existed except in the propaganda blasts of Dr. Goebbels and in the cautious minds at Eisenhower’s headquarters which had fallen for them. As early as March 11, SHAEF intelligence had warned Eisenhower that the Nazis were planning to make an impregnable fortress in the mountains and that Hitler himself would command its defenses from his retreat at Berchtesgaden. The icy mountain crags were “practically impenetrable,” it said.

Here [it continued], defended by nature and by the most efficient secret weapons yet invented, the powers that have hitherto guided Germany will survive to reorganize her resurrection; here armaments will be manufactured in bombproof factories, food and equipment will be stored in vast underground caverns and a specially selected corps of young men will be trained in guerrilla warfare, so that a whole underground army can be fitted and directed to liberate Germany from the occupying forces.24

It would almost seem as though the Allied Supreme Commander’s intelligence staff had been infiltrated by British and American mystery writers. At any rate, this fantastic appreciation was taken seriously at SHAEF, where Eisenhower’s chief of staff, General Bedell Smith, mulled over the dread possibility “of a prolonged campaign in the Alpine area” which would take a heavy toll of American lives and prolong the war indefinitely.*

This was the last time that the resourceful Dr. Goebbels succeeded in influencing the strategic course of the war by propaganda bluff. For though Adolf Hitler at first considered retiring to the Austro-Bavarian mountains near which he was born and in which he had spent most of the private hours of his life, and which he loved and where he had the only home he could call his own—on the Obersalzberg above Berchtesgaden—and there make a last stand, he had hesitated until it was too late.

On April 16, the day American troops reached Nuremberg, the city of the great Nazi Party rallies, Zhukov’s Russian armies broke loose from their bridgeheads over the Oder, and on the afternoon of April 21 they reached the outskirts of Berlin. Vienna had already fallen on April 13. At 4:40 on the afternoon of April 25, patrols of the U.S. 69th Infantry Division met forward elements of the Russian 58th Guards Division at Torgau on the Elbe, some seventy-five miles south of Berlin. North and South Germany were severed. Adolf Hitler was cut off in Berlin. The last days of the Third Reich had come.

* On August 23, according to Speidel, Hitler had ordered all the Paris bridges and other important installations destroyed “even if artistic monuments are destroyed thereby.” Speidel refused to carry out the order, as did General von Choltitz, the new commandant of Greater Paris, who surrendered after a few shots had satisfied his honor. For this Choltitz was tried in absentia for treason in April 1945, but officer friends of his managed to delay the proceedings until the end of the war. Speidel also reveals that as soon as Paris was lost Hitler ordered its destruction by heavy artillery and V-l flying bombs, but this order too he refused to obey. (Speidel, Invasion 1944, pp. 143–45.)

* “I am certain,” Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs (Crusade in Europe, p. 305), “that Field Marshal Montgomery, in the light of later events, would agree that this view was a mistaken one.” But this is far from being the case, as those who have read Montgomery’s memoirs know.

* There was an interesting adornment to the plan called “Operation Greif,” which seems to have been Hitler’s brain child. Its leadership was entrusted by the Fuehrer to Otto Skorzeny, who, following his rescue of Mussolini and his resolute action in Berlin on the night of July 20, 1944, had further distinguished himself in his special field by kidnaping the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, in Budapest in October 1944, when the latter tried to surrender Hungary to the advancing Russians. Skorzeny’s new assignment was to organize a special brigade of two thousand English-speaking German soldiers, put them in American uniforms, and infiltrate them in captured American tanks and jeeps behind the American lines to cut communication wires, kill dispatch riders, misdirect traffic and generally sow confusion. Small units were also to penetrate to the Meuse bridges and try to hold them intact until the main German panzer troops arrived.

* On the sixteenth a German officer carrying several copies of Operation Greif was taken prisoner and the Americans thus learned what was up. But this does not seem to have curbed the initial confusion spread by Skorzeny’s men, some of whom, posing as M.P.s, took up posts at crossroads and misdirected American military traffic. Nor did it prevent First Army’s intelligence office from believing the tall tales of some of the captured Germans in American uniform that more than a few of Skorzeny’s desperadoes were on their way to Paris to assassinate Eisenhower. For several days thousands of American soldiers as far back as Paris were stopped by M.P.s and had to prove their nationality by telling who won the World Series and what the capital of their native state was—though some could not remember or did not know. A good many of the Germans caught in American uniforms were summarily shot and others court-martialed and executed. Skorzeny himself was tried by an American tribunal at Dachau in 1947 but acquitted. Thereafter he moved to Spain and South America, where he soon established a prosperous cement business and composed his memoirs.

* For several hours, judging by the length of the stenographic record of this conference, which has survived almost intact. It is Fragment 27 of the Fuehrer conferences. Gilbert gives the entire text in Hitler Directs His War, pp. 158–74.

* Among the American dead were several prisoners shot in cold blood by Colonel Jochen Peiper’s combat group of the 1st S.S. Panzer Division near Malmédy on December 17. According to the evidence presented at Nuremberg 129 American prisoners were massacred; at the subsequent trial of the S.S. officers involved, the figure was reduced to 71. The trial before an American military tribunal at Dachau in the spring of 1946 had a curious denouement. Forty-three S.S. officers, including Peiper, were condemned to death, twenty-three to life imprisonment and eight to shorter sentences. Sepp Dietrich, commander of the Sixth S.S. Panzer Army, which fought in the northern side of the Bulge, received twenty-five years; Kraemer, commander of the 1st S.S. Armored Corps, ten years, and Hermann Priess, commander of the 1st S.S. Panzer Division, eighteen years.

Then a hue and cry arose in the U.S. Senate, especially from the late Senator McCarthy, that the S.S. officers had been treated brutally in order to extort confessions. In March 1948 thirty-one of the death sentences were commuted; in April General Lucius D. Clay reduced the death sentences from twelve to six; and in January 1951, under a general amnesty, John J. McCloy, the American High Commissioner, commuted the remaining death sentences to life imprisonment. At the time of writing all have been released. Almost forgotten in the hubbub over the alleged ill-treatment of the S.S. officers was the indisputable evidence that at least seventy-one unarmed U.S. war prisoners were slain in cold blood on a snowy field near Malmédy on December 17,1944, on the orders—or incitement—of several S.S. officers.

* How they learned is a fascinating story in itself but too long to be set down here. Professor Samuel Goudsmit has told it well in his book Alsos. “Alsos” was the code name of the American scientific mission which he headed and which followed Eisenhower’s armies into Western Europe.

* In Chapter 27, “The New Order.”

* Hitler had eight German officers who commanded the weak forces at the Remagen bridge executed. They were tried by a “Flying Special Tribunal, West,” set up by the Fuehrer and presided over by a fanatical Nazi general by the name of Huebner.

* The transcript of this March 23 Fuehrer conference is the last one which was saved, fairly intact, from the flames. It gives a good picture of the frantic mind of the Fuehrer and his obsession with trivial details at the moment when the walls are caving in. For the best part of an hour he discusses Goebbels’ proposal to use the broad avenue through the Tiergarten in Berlin as an airstrip. He lectures on the weakness of German concrete in the face of bombing. Much of the conference is given over to scraping up troops. One general raises the question of the Indian Legion.

HITLER: The Indian Legion is a joke. There are Indians who can’t kill a louse, who’d rather let themselves be eaten up. They won’t kill an Englishman either. I consider it nonsense to put them opposite the English … If we used Indians to turn prayer mills, or something like that, they would be the most indefatigable soldiers in the world …

And so on far into the night. The meeting broke up at 3:43 A.M.

* “Not until after the campaign ended,” General Omar Bradley later wrote, “were we to learn that this Redoubt existed largely in me imaginations of a few fanatic Nazis. It grew into so exaggerated a scheme that I am astonished we could have believed it as innocently as we did. But while it persisted, this legend of the Redoubt was too ominous a threat to ignore and in consequence it shaped our tactical thinking during the closing weeks of the war.” (Bradley, A Soldier’s Story, p. 536.)

“A great deal has been written about the Alpine Fortress,” Field Marshal Kesselring commented wryly after the war, “mostly nonsense.” (Kesselring, A Soldier’s Record, p. 276.)

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