Western Approaches

August 1944–March 1945

When Herr Hitler escaped his bomb on July 20th he described his survival as providential; I think that from a purely military point of view we can all agree with him, for certainly it would be most unfortunate if the Allies were to be deprived, in the closing phases of the struggle, of that form of warlike genius by which Corporal Schickelgruber has so notably contributed to our victory.

Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, 28 September 19441

It took eleven months from D-Day for the Western Allies to force the Germans to surrender in the west, fighting against often fanatical resistance and at least on one occasion – the Ardennes offensive – having to face a convincing, formidable counter-attack. Yet any thinking German knew that the war was lost from about the time of the destruction of Army Group Centre in the east and the fall of Paris in the west. Some of the German generals themselves had indicated the way they thought the war was progressing, by launching the Bomb Plot, which they had shown little inclination to do when Germany was winning the war. It was the news of a large Allied invasion of the south of France on 15 August 1944, Operation Anvil, with 86,000 troops going ashore on the first day alone, that had persuaded Field Marshal von Kluge to withdraw from the Falaise pocket. While talk of secret super-weapons sometimes now enthused the ordinary soldier, the officer corps generally knew better than to trust to it; indeed a belief in the Führer and ultimate victory seems to have been held in the German armed forces in directly inverse proportion to seniority, except for a very few fanatically Nazi generals such as Walther Model, Ferdinand Schörner and Lothar Rendulic.

The Nazis’ argument that they had to fight on to prevent Soviet barbarity being unleashed on their wives and daughters was true as far as it went, but it only went as far as the east. In attempting to explain why the High Command nonetheless kept on fighting so hard on both fronts after Overlord, Max Hastings argues that whether they were SS officers, Prussian aristocrats, career soldiers or mere functionaries, the German generals ‘abandoned coherent thought about the future and merely performed the immediate military functions that were so familiar to them’.2 It was certainly a great deal easier than acting for themselves, at least once the Bomb Plot had brought suspicion upon them all, just as the Plot’s failure seemed to underline the Führer’s indestructibility. They also knew how heavily implicated they were in the crimes of the Nazi regime.

The extent to which the German generals knew about and collaborated in war crimes, particularly on the Eastern Front, was revealed by a massive clandestine operation undertaken by the British Secret Intelligence Service between 1942 and 1945. A section of SIS called MI19 secretly recorded no fewer than 64,427 conversations between captured German generals and other senior officers, all without their knowledge, indeed without their ever suspecting anything. These explain what the German High Command privately thought of the war, Hitler, the Nazis and each other. They also comprehensively explode the post-war claim of senior Wehrmacht officers that they did not know what was happening to the Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, mentally disabled and other so-calledUntermenschen, crimes which they exclusively blamed on the SS.

The Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC) was based in Trent Park, a magnificent estate once owned by the Sassoon family near Cockfosters in north London. Captured German senior officers were brought there for internment, including General Wilhelm von Thoma, who had been captured at El Alamein, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, who had been ‘bagged’ in Tunisia, and General Dietrich von Choltitz from Paris. It was a huge top-secret operation, numbering several hundred stenographers, transcribers, interpreters and recording technicians, not to mention stool-pigeons and agents provocateurs whose job it was to stimulate conversations among the captive generals, brigadiers and colonels.3

Everything was done to get the Germans to speak to each other in one of the twelve rooms in the common areas of the house that were expertly wired for sound. Luftwaffe commanders were mixed with Wehrmacht generals; newspapers and radios passed on snippets of news from the front; occasionally Lord Aberfaldy – a CSDIC agent posing as the Park’s welfare officer – would bring up subjects British intelligence hoped might provoke debate once he had left the room. The astonishing success of the operation can be measured in the sheer number as well as the extreme candour of the conversations that ensued. Of course British intelligence hoped to discover operational secrets by this eavesdropping, believing that it might yield results that face-to-face interrogations would not, but they also heard evidence of sustained atrocities, especially in the east. Although most of the generals at Trent Park were captured in North Africa, Italy and France, it became clear that they knew perfectly well what was happening throughout the Third Reich and its occupied territories.

No fewer than 10,191 German and 567 Italian prisoners passed through Trent Park and its two related listening centres. Some of the conversations originally recorded on gramophone discs covered only half a page in transcribed length – the longest was twenty-one pages – but out of their own mouths these officers were condemned. Even Choltitz, who has had the reputation of being a ‘good’ German since refusing to carry out Hitler’s orders to destroy Paris, was implicated in killing Jews in the Crimea.4 A few generals come out acceptably well, though far from heroic. In January 1943 Thoma, who commanded a Panzer division in Russia before being captured in Africa, said to the pro-Nazi General Ludwig Crüwell, who had been shot down behind British lines, ‘I am actually ashamed to be an officer.’ He related how he had spoken to Franz Halder about the atrocities, only to be told, ‘That’s a political matter, that’s nothing to do with me.’ So he put it in writing to Army Commander-in-Chief General Walther von Brauchitsch, who said, ‘Do you want me to take it further? Listen, if you want me to take it further anything might happen.’ Thoma said of those who believed the Führer was ignorant of what was happening: ‘Of course he knows all about it. Secretly he’s delighted. Of course, people can’t make a row, they would simply be arrested and beaten if they did.’5 That would not have happened if they had simply resigned their commissions, however, which is not something Thoma or any of the others did.

The truth about what was happening to Poles, Russians and especially Jews was common currency in the ‘private’ conversations at Trent Park. In December 1944, to take one of any number of examples, Lieutenant-General Heinrich Kittel, the former commander of the 462nd Volksgrenadier Division, told Major-General Paul von Felbert, the former commandant of Feldkommandantur (military administration unit) 560: ‘The things I’ve experienced! In Latvia, near Dvinsk, there were mass executions of Jews carried out by the SS. There were about fifteen SS men and perhaps sixty Latvians, who are known to be the most brutal people in the world. I was lying in bed early one Sunday morning when I kept on hearing two salvoes followed by small arms fire.’ On investigating, Kittel found ‘men, women and children – they were counted off and stripped naked. The executioners first laid all the clothes in one pile. Then twenty women had to take up their position – naked – on the edge of the trench, they were shot and fell down into it.’ ‘How was it done?’ asked Felbert. ‘They faced the trench and then twenty Latvians came up behind and simply fired once through the back of their heads, and they fell down forwards into the trench like ninepins.’6

Kittel gave an order forbidding such executions ‘outside, where people can look on. If you shoot people in the wood or somewhere where no one can see,’ he told the SS, ‘that’s your own affair. But I absolutely forbid another day’s shooting here. We draw our drinking water from deep springs; we’re getting nothing but corpse water there.’ ‘What did they do to the children?’ asked Felbert. Kittel – who, the report states, sounded ‘very excited’ – answered: ‘They seized 3-year-old children by the hair, held them up and shot them with a pistol and then threw them in. I saw that for myself. One could watch it.’ Another general, Lieutenant-General Hans Schaefer, commander of the 244th Infantry Division, asked Kittel: ‘Did they weep? Have the people any idea what’s in store for them?’ ‘They know perfectly well,’ replied Kittel; ‘they are apathetic. I’m not sensitive myself, but such things turn my stomach.’ Later on, however, he mused: ‘If one were to destroy all the Jews of the world simultaneously there wouldn’t remain a single accuser,’ and ‘Those Jews are the pest of the east!’ ‘What happened to the young, pretty girls?’ asked Felbert when the conversation turned to the concentration camps. ‘Were they formed into a harem?’ ‘I didn’t bother about that,’ Kittel answered. ‘I only found that they did become more reasonable… The women question is a very shady chapter. You’ve no idea what mean and stupid things are done.’7 In another conversation later that same day, Kittel told Schaefer about Auschwitz: ‘In Upper Silesia they simply slaughtered the people systematically. They were gassed in a big hall. There’s the greatest secrecy about all those things.’ Later still he said: ‘I’m going to hold my tongue about what I do know of these things.’ He little suspected that his every word was in fact being recorded, transcribed and translated.

The following February, Major-General Johannes Bruhn, commander of the 533rd Volksgrenadier Division, discussed the Holocaust with Felbert, saying: ‘I must assume, after all I have read about the Führer, that he knew all about it.’ ‘Of course he knew all about it,’ replied Felbert. ‘He’s the man who is responsible. He even discussed it with Himmler.’ ‘Yes,’ said Bruhn, ‘that man doesn’t care a hoot if your relatives are annihilated.’ ‘That man doesn’t care a damn,’ agreed Felbert. They saw the Holocaust, therefore, primarily in terms of the retribution the Allies would visit on the Fatherland once it was uncovered. In March 1945 Bruhn, one of the very few generals to emerge with credit from these conversations, said he believed that Germany did not deserve victory any longer, ‘after the amount of human blood we’ve shed knowingly and as a result of our delusions and blood lust. We’ve deserved our fate.’8 In reply, Lieutenant-General Fritz von Broich said: ‘We shot women as if they had been cattle. There was a large quarry where 10,000 men, women and children were shot. They were still lying in the quarry. We drove out on purpose to see it. It was the most bestial thing I ever saw.’ It was then that Choltitz spoke of the time he was in the Crimea and was told by the CO of the airfield from where he was flying to Berlin, ‘Good Lord, I’m not supposed to tell, but they’ve been shooting Jews here for days now.’ Choltitz estimated that 36,000 Jews were shot in Sevastopol alone.

‘Let me tell you,’ General Count Edwin von Rothkirch und Trach told General Bernhard Ramcke on 13 March 1945, ‘the gassings are by no means the worst.’ ‘What happened?’ asked Ramcke. ‘To start with people dug their own graves, then the firing squad arrived with tommy-guns and shot them down. Many of them weren’t dead and a layer of earth was shovelled in between. They had packers there who packed the bodies in, because they fell in too soon. The SS did that. I knew an SS leader there quite well and he said: “Would you like to photograph a shooting? They are always shot in the morning, but if you like we still have some and we can shoot them in the afternoon some time.” ’ Three days later at Trent Park, Colonel Dr Friedrich von der Heydte told Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth about the Theresianstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia: ‘Half a million people have been put to death there for certain. I know that all the Jews from Bavaria were taken there. Yet the camp never became over-crowded. They gassed mental defectives too.’ ‘Yes, I know,’ replied Wildermuth. ‘I got to know that for a fact in the case of Nuremberg; my brother is a doctor at an institution there. The people knew where they were being taken.’9 ‘We must uphold the principle of only having carried out orders,’ suggested Lieutenant-General Ferdinand Heim on another occasion. ‘We must stick to that principle if we are to create a more or less effective defence.’

As the war progressed, the Trent Park internees divided between true Nazis, who still practised the Heil Hitler salute, and the anti- or at least non-Nazis. The Nazis’ fanaticism was undimmed by the way the war was going. ‘What do I care about Good Friday?’ asked Major-General Wilhelm Ullersperger, who had been captured during the Ardennes offensive. ‘Because a filthy Jew was hanged umpteen years ago?’ Major-General Walther Bruns recalled the attitude of the members of the firing squad who killed thousands of Jews in Riga: ‘All those cynical remarks! If only I had seen those tommy-gunners, who were relieved every hour because of over-exertion, carry out their task with distaste, but not with nasty remarks like: “Here comes a Jewish beauty!” I can still see it all in my memory; a pretty woman in a flame-coloured chemise. Talk about keeping the race pure. At Riga they first slept with them and then shot them to prevent them from talking.’ Meanwhile, Colonel Erwin Josting of the Luftwaffe recalled an Austrian friend being asked by a lieutenant: ‘ “Would you like to watch? An amusing show is going on down here; umpteen Jews are being killed off.” The barn was bunged full of women and children. Petrol was poured over them and they were burned alive. You can’t imagine what their screams were like.’10

Of course once in captivity in Nuremberg and subsequently in their autobiographies in the 1950s and 1960s, the generals both blamed Hitler for everything and used the now notorious excuse that they were only obeying orders. ‘It is interesting but it was tragic,’ Kleist told the US Army psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn in June 1946, in a statement typical of the entire officer corps. ‘If you receive a military order you must obey. That is where the big difference between a military and a political order comes in. One can sabotage a political order but to disobey a military command is treason.’11 Kesselring put it equally succinctly when he told Goldensohn, ‘A soldier’s first duty is to obey, otherwise you might as well do away with soldiering… A military leader often faces a situation he has to deal with, but because it was his duty, no court can try him.’ The evidence from Trent Park suggests that the Wehrmacht officer corps fought on with such resilience even after the war seemed certainly lost not just out of the soldierly virtues of loyalty and obedience, but because they hoped against hope to escape judicial retribution afterwards.

On 1 September 1944, Eisenhower took over day-to-day control of all ground forces from Montgomery, much to the latter’s chagrin. Eisenhower’s plan was for a broad advance into Germany, whereas Montgomery wanted a narrow ‘single thrust’ into the heart of the Reich, spearheaded by his 21st Army Group. On the same day that Montgomery put forward this plan, Patton produced one in which his Third Army led the way instead, with characteristic immodesty calling it ‘the best strategicall [sic] idea I’ve ever had’.12Writing twenty years after the war, General Günther Blumentritt, who was commander of the Fifteenth Army from December 1944 onwards, admitted, ‘We had the highest respect for General Patton! He was the American Guderian, an excellent and bold tank corps leader.’13 Omar Bradley, meanwhile, felt that his drive on Frankfurt ought to be the centre of operations. It is sadly impossible to believe that the best demands of grand strategy, rather than their own egos, actuated these soldiers, and Eisenhower had the difficult task of holding the ring between them and imposing his own view. His greatness – doubted by some, like Brooke and Montgomery – stems partly from his success in achieving that.

There were a number of major problems with Montgomery’s scheme, which would have needed flank protection from the largely undamaged German Fifteenth Army to the north, and would have required the Scheldt estuary to have been used as a direct supply route, though the Germans continued to hold it until long after the fall of Antwerp in September. Montgomery’s plan to strike off across the North German Plain towards Berlin, crossing important rivers such as the Weser and Elbe in the process, made little military sense considering the level of resistance that the Germans were still offering even comparatively late on in the war. The 1,500 bodies in the British Military Cemetery at Becklingen, between Bergen–Belsen and Soltau, are testament to how hard the fighting was between the Weser and the Elbe as late as April 1945. Moreover, it would have reduced the American forces, especially the Third Army, to the minor role of flank protection. Eisenhower had to ensure a rough equality of glory, in order to keep the Western alliance on track. It is likely that the plan to reduce Patton’s role to mere tactical support of himself was one of the reasons it commended itself to Montgomery, but Eisenhower was later gently to belittle the scheme as a mere ‘pencil thrust’ into Germany.14

Instead, the Supreme Commander adopted the less risky ‘broad front’ approach to the invasion of the Reich, which he believed would ‘bring all our strength against the enemy, all of it mobile, and all of it contributing directly to the complete annihilation of his field forces’.15 Partly because of the efficacy of the V-weapon flying-bomb and rocket campaign against Britain – which could be ended only by occupying the launching sites – the main part was still to be the 21st Army Group’s advance through Belgium north of the Ardennes forest and into the Ruhr, which would also close off Germany’s industrial-production heartland, and thus deny Hitler the wherewithal to carry on the fight.

The 12th Army Group, which had been commanded by Bradley since August and was the largest force ever headed by an American general, was split by Eisenhower. Most of Lieutenant-General Courtney Hodges’ First Army was sent north of the Ardennes to support Montgomery, leaving Patton’s Third Army to march on the Saar, covered to his south by Lieutenant-General Jacob Devers’ 6th Army Group which had made its way up from the Anvil landings in the south of France. Even though Patton had crossed the Marne by 30 August 1944 and was soon able to threaten Metz and the Siegfried Line, lack of petrol along his 400-mile supply lines to Cherbourg – he had only 32,000 gallons but needed 400,000 for his planned advance – held him back, to his intense frustration. Patton’s personality was immense, but his battlefield achievements matched it. ‘I want you men to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,’ he told his troops. ‘He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his country… Thank God that, at least, thirty years from now, when you are sitting around the fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you won’t have to say, “I shovelled shit in Louisiana.” ’16 To the widow of Second Lieutenant Neil N. Clothier, who was shot through the heart at Morville on 16 November leading his platoon towards a German machine-gun position, Patton wrote: ‘I know that nothing I can do can assuage your grief except to point out to you that since all of us must die, there is comfort in the fact that your husband died gloriously doing his duty as a man and a soldier.’17

Brussels fell to the Canadians of the 21st Army Group on 3 September and Antwerp the next day, but here Montgomery made a significant error. Antwerp was next to useless to the Allies until the River Scheldt was free of Germans, but clearing its banks was to cost the Allies – mainly Crerar’s Canadian First Army – as many as 13,000 casualties, because it was not concentrated upon immediately. Allied ships did not reach Antwerp until 28 November 1944. Until that point supplies still had to reach the 21st Army Group via Normandy, an absurdly long route. (Dunkirk wasn’t liberated until 9 May 1945.) For Churchill, who had understood the vital importance of Antwerp in the Great War so clearly that he had led a mission there as first lord of the Admiralty in 1914, and for Brooke, Montgomery, Eisenhower and others so to underestimate the inland port’s strategic value is hard to understand even today.

Clearing the estuary was always going to be tough work; this is John Keegan’s description of a day in the life of Peter White’s platoon in the 4th Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, part of the 52nd Lowland Division whose job it was to open the mouth of the Scheldt in late 1944:

To get up each morning, after a day that had been itself an escape from death, to swallow tinned bacon, hard tack and chlorine-flavoured tea, to plod forward across soaked fields in which every footstep might set off a lethal explosive charge, to lie for hours in freezing water while shells raked the landscape, to rise as darkness fell in the hope of finding a dry spot to shelter for the night after a mouthful of bully beef and hard biscuit.18

By contrast with Antwerp, Churchill’s tardiness over liberating the Channel Islands was understandable – for, as he told the War Cabinet on 26 November, now that it had ‘Come to [the] crunch’ the issue was ‘food’. There were 28,000 Germans stationed there who ‘can’t get away’, whereas ‘if [they came] over here [we would] have to feed them.’19

The food situation in liberated Europe was dire, especially in Holland where the destruction of transport, flooding of several dykes and continued disorganization as a result of continuing operations created fears of mass starvation. As late as 12 March 1945 Churchill had to tell the War Cabinet that ‘Some of the inhabitants will need to take their food intravenously.’ When he had been read a report on how the Americans expected primarily British food reserves to be used in saving Holland, the Prime Minister exploded in anger and launched this (hitherto unpublished) tirade:

The United States are battening on our reserves, accumulated by years of self-denial. I am resisting that: but for an acute emergency we can and should use our reserves… Now is the time to say firmly that the US soldier eats five times what ours does. US civilians are eating as never before. We will never be behindhand with them in sacrifices: but let them cut down themselves before presuming to address us.20

In September 1944 – two months after his sacking – Rundstedt was recalled as commander-in-chief west, a post he was to hold until March 1945 when his urging of Hitler to make peace earned him his third dismissal. Nicknamed der alte Herr (the old gentleman), he was sixty-eight at the time of his final appointment. Watching the Hitler Youth Division retreating over the River Meuse near Yvoir on 4 September, Rundstedt said what many German officers were thinking, but few dared state: ‘It is a pity that this faithful youth is sacrificed in a hopeless situation.’21 A week later, on 11 September, the Allies set foot on German soil for the first time, when American troops crossed the frontier near Trier, yet Hitler still had armies numbering several million men, albeit far too widely dispersed. His West Wall – also known as the Siegfried Line – seemed formidable, and his reappointment of Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west was good for the Wehrmacht’s morale, with Field Marshal Model remaining in charge of Army Group B, Rommel and Kluge both having committed suicide after being tangentially implicated in the Bomb Plot. Later that month, Churchill, by now convinced that Hitler was a hopeless strategist, ridiculed him in the House of Commons:

We must not forget that we owe a great debt to the blunders – the extraordinary blunders – of the Germans. I always hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler, as it seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior to connect him in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher. But there is one respect in which I must draw a parallel. Both these men were temperamentally unable to give up the tiniest scrap of any territory to which the high-water mark of their hectic fortunes had carried them.22

He went on to liken Napoleon’s strategy of 1813–14 to that of Hitler, who ‘has successfully scattered the German armies all over Europe, and by obstination at every point from Stalingrad and Tunis down to the present moment, he has stripped himself of the power to concentrate in main strength for the final struggle’. Yet even while the House of Commons was laughing at the Führer’s strategic blunderings, Hitler was planning for a concentration of German force in the Ardennes such as would once again astonish the world – but for the last time.

Montgomery’s bold scheme to use the British 1st and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to try to capture the bridges over the great rivers of the Maas (Meuse), Waal (Rhine) and Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine), and thereby help the land forces to encircle the Ruhr to the north, came to grief in mid-September 1944 in and around the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. Despite heroism of the highest order, mistakes were made in the planning stages – principally by Lieutenant-General F. A. M. ‘Boy’ Browning, on the intelligence side – which meant it was doomed before it began. It was the largest airborne assault in history, but intelligence that should have warned the 1st Airborne Division of two Panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem was given insufficient weight, and it therefore did not take enough anti-tank weaponry to the drop-zones.23 Operation Market, the airborne assault of Friday, 17 September, was initially successful, but the simultaneous ground attack by General Dempsey’s British Second Army and XXX Corps, codenamed Operation Garden, reached Eindhoven on the 18th and Nijmegen on the 19th but could not break through determined German resistance in time to relieve the paratroopers at Arnhem. Montgomery’s orders to Dempsey to be ‘rapid and violent, without regard to what is happening on the flanks’, seems not to have been taken sufficiently to heart.24 XXX Corps suffered 1,500 casualties compared with five times that number of Britons and Poles at Arnhem, who were massacred on the Lower Rhine by tank, mortar and artillery fire, with their food and ammunition exhausted. Treacherous flying conditions prevented reinforcement or resupply by air, and on the night of 25 September around 3,910 of the 11,920 men of the 1st Airborne Division and Polish Independent Brigade Group managed to withdraw to the south side of the river, the rest being either killed, wounded or captured.25 The 1st Airborne Division’s casualty figures were twice as high as the combined totals of the 82nd and the 101st Divisions. It was, nonetheless, to be the British Army’s last defeat.

What became known jointly as Operation Market Garden used up scarce Allied resources, manpower and petrol at precisely the moment that Patton was nearing the Rhine without insuperable opposition. Once the Allied armies stalled for lack of supplies, however, they would be unable to cross the borders of the Reich for another six months. The Germans meanwhile used the breathing space bought by their temporary victory in Holland to rush defenders to the Siegfried Line, which had previously been under-defended. Between late September and mid-November, Eisenhower’s forces found themselves fighting determined German counter-attacks in the Vosges, Moselle and the Scheldt and at Metz and Aachen. Hoping to cross the Rhine before the onset of winter, which in 1944/5 was abnormally cold, Eisenhower unleashed a massive assault on 16 November, supported by the heaviest aerial bombing of the entire war so far, with 2,807 planes dropping 10,097 bombs in Operation Queen. Even then, the US First and Ninth Armies managed to move forward only a few miles, up to but not across the Roer river.

Hopes that the war might be over in 1944, which had been surprisingly widespread earlier in the campaign – Admiral Ramsay wagered Montgomery £5 on it – were comprehensively extinguished just before dawn on Saturday, 16 December 1944, when Field Marshal von Rundstedt unleashed the greatest surprise attack of the war since Pearl Harbor. In Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist), seventeen divisions – five Panzer and twelve mechanized infantry – threw themselves forward in a desperate bid to reach first the River Meuse and then the Channel itself. Instead of soft autumnal mists, it was to be winter fog, snow, sleet and heavy rain that wrecked the Allies’ aerial observation, denying any advance warning of the attack. Similarly, Ultra was of little help in the early stages, since all German radio traffic had been strictly verboten and orders were only passed to corps commanders by messenger a few days before the attack.

Suddenly on 16 December no fewer than three German armies comprising 200,000 men spewed forth from the mountains and forests of the Ardennes. Rundstedt and Model had opposed the operation as too ambitious for the Wehrmacht’s resources at that stage, but Hitler believed that he could split the Allied armies north and south of the Ardennes, protect the Ruhr, recapture Antwerp, reach the Channel and, he hoped, re-create the victory of 1940, and all from the same starting point. ‘The morale of the troops taking part was astonishingly high at the start of the offensive,’ recalled Rundstedt later. ‘They really believed victory was possible. Unlike the higher commanders, who knew the facts.’26 The highest commander of them all, however, believed that the Ardennes offensive might be the longed-for Entscheidungsschlacht (decisive battle) as prescribed by Clausewitz.

The German disagreements over the Ardennes offensive were really three-fold, and more complex than Rundstedt and others made out after the war. Guderian, who was charged with opposing the Red Army’s coming winter offensive in the east, did not want any offensive in the west, but rather the reinforcing of the Eastern Front, including Hungary. Rundstedt, Model, Manteuffel and other generals in the west wanted a limited Ardennes offensive that knocked the Allies off balance, and gave the Germans the chance to rationalize the Western Front and protect the Ruhr. Meanwhile, Hitler wanted to throw the remainder of Germany’s reserves into a desperate attempt to capture Antwerp and destroy Eisenhower’s force in the west. As usual, Hitler took the most extreme and thus riskiest path, and as always he got his way.

Eisenhower had left the semi-mountainous, heavily wooded Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg relatively undermanned. He cannot be wholly blamed for this, since he was receiving intelligence reports from Bradley stating that a German attack was ‘only a remote possibility’ and one from Montgomery on 15 December saying that the enemy ‘cannot stage major offensive operations’.27 Even on 17 December, after the offensive had actually begun, Major-General Kenneth Strong, the Assistant Chief of Staff (Intelligence) at SHAEF, produced his Weekly Intelligence Summary No. 39 which offered the blithe assessment that ‘The main result must be judged, not by the ground it gains, but by the number of Allied divisions it diverts from the vital sectors of the front.’28For all the débâcle of 1940, the Ardennes seemed uninviting for armour, and important engagements were being fought to the north and south. With Wehrmacht movement restricted to night-time, and the Germans instituting elaborate deception plans, surprise was complete. Although four captured German POWs spoke of a big pre-Christmas offensive, they were not believed by Allied intelligence. Only six American divisions of 83,000 men protected the 60-mile line between Monschau in the north and Echternach in the south, most of them under Major-General Troy Middleton of VIII Corps. They comprised green units such as the 106th Infantry Division that had never seen combat before, and the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions that had been badly mauled in recent fighting and were recuperating.

The attack took place through knee-high snow, with searchlights bouncing beams off the clouds to create artificial illumination for the troops. Thirty-two English-speaking German soldiers under the Austrian-born Colonel Otto Skorzeny were dressed in American uniforms in order to increase the confusion behind the lines. Two of the best German generals, Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef (‘Sepp’) Dietrich and General der Panzertruppen Baron Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel, led the attacks in the north and centre respectively, with the Seventh Army providing flank protection to the south. Yet even seventeen divisions would not be enough to dislodge the vast numbers of Allied troops who had landed in north-west Europe since D-Day. ‘He was incapable of realising that he no longer commanded the army which he had had in 1939 or 1940,’ Manteuffel later complained of Hitler.29

Both the US 106th and 28th Divisions were wrecked by the German attack – some units broke and ran to the rear – but the US V Corps in the north and 4th Division in the south managed to hold on to their positions, squeezing the German thrust into a 40-mile-wide and 55-mile-deep protuberance in the Allied line whose shape on the map gave the engagement its name: the battle of the Bulge. The Sixth SS Panzer Army failed to make much progress against the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions of Gerow’s V Corps in the north, and came close but never made it to a giant fuel dump near the town of Spa. They did, however, commit the war’s worst atrocity against American troops in the west when they machine-gunned eighty-six unarmed prisoners in a field near Malmédy, a day after executing fifteen others. The SS officer responsible, SS-General Wilhelm Mohnke, was never prosecuted for the crime, despite having also been involved in two other such massacres in cold blood earlier in the war.30

In the centre, Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army surrounded the 106th Division in front of St Vith, and forced its 8,000 men to surrender on 19 December – the largest capitulation of American troops since the Civil War. St Vith itself was defended by the 7th Armored until 21 December, when it fell to Manteuffel. Although the Americans were thinly spread, and caught by surprise, isolated pockets of troops held out for long enough to cause Herbstnebel to stumble, and to give time for Eisenhower to organize a massive counter-attack. By midnight on the second day, 60,000 men and 11,000 vehicles were being sent as reinforcements, and over the following eight days a further 180,000 men were moved to contain the threat.31 Because the 12th Army Group had been geographically split to the north and south, on 20 December Eisenhower gave Bradley’s US First and Ninth Armies to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, in the former’s case for four weeks and in the latter’s until the Rhine crossing. It was a sensible move that nonetheless created lasting resentment. ‘General Eisenhower acknowledges that the great German offensive which started on December 16 is a greater one than his own,’ blared out German loudspeakers to troops of the US 310th Infantry Regiment. ‘How would you like to die for Christmas?’

With Ultra starting to become available again after the assault, confirming the Meuse as the German target, the Supreme Commander could make his dispositions accordingly, and prevent his front being split in two. It fell to Patton’s Third Army in the south to break through General der Panzertruppen Erich Brandenberger’s Seventh Army. ‘Sir, this is Patton talking,’ the general peremptorily told Almighty God in the chapel of the Fondation Pescatore in Luxembourg on 23 December. ‘You have just got to make up Your mind whose side You’re on. You must come to my assistance, so that I might dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to Your Prince of Peace.’32 Either through divine intervention or human agency, the 101st Airborne Division had already arrived in the nick of time at the town of Bastogne, only hours before the Germans reached its vital crossroads. With 18,000 Americans completely surrounded there on 20 December, the commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, General Heinrich von Lüttwitz, gave Brigadier-General Anthony C. McAuliffe, a veteran of Overlord and Market Garden who was acting commander of the division, the opportunity to surrender. McAuliffe’s single-word reply – ‘Nuts!’ – was a slang term that the Germans nonetheless understood perfectly well. Christmas Day thus saw a massed German attack on Bastogne, which had to hold out until the US Third Army could come to its rescue from the south. ‘A clear, cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans,’ joked Patton, ‘which is a bit queer, seeing whose birthday it is.’

On 22 and 23 December he had succeeded in turning the Third Army a full 90 degrees from driving eastwards towards the Saar to pushing northwards along a 25-mile front over narrow, icy roads in mid-winter straight up the Bulge’s southern flank. ‘Brad,’ the ever quotable Patton had said to his commander, ‘the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meat-grinder. And this time I’ve got hold of the handle.’33 Even Bradley had to admit in his memoirs that Patton’s ‘difficult manoeuvre’ had been ‘One of the most brilliant performances by any commander on either side of World War II’.34 Less brilliant was the laxity of Patton’s radio and telephone communications staff, which allowed Model to know American intentions and objectives.

After surviving a spirited German attack that broke through the defensive perimeter on Christmas Day, Bastogne was relieved by Patton’s 4th Armored Division on Boxing Day. By then Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army had started to run short of fuel, and although its 2nd Panzer Division got to within 5 miles of the town of Dinant on the Meuse, Dietrich had not committed his mechanized infantry reserves in support of Manteuffel, ‘because such a manoeuvre was not in Hitler’s orders and he had been instructed to obey his instructions to the letter’.35 It was true: contrary to Model’s advice, Hitler had insisted that Dietrich, described by one historian as ‘Hitler’s SS pet’, should deliver the decisive blow, even though he had not got a quarter as far as Manteuffel.36 By then the Germans had run out of yet another precious resource – time – as better weather allowed the Allies to harry their Panzer columns from the air, with 15,000 sorties flown in the first four days after the skies had cleared. When being debriefed by Allied interviewers, Rundstedt put the defeat down to three factors: ‘First, the unheard-of superiority of your air force, which made all movement in daytime impossible. Second, the lack of motor fuel – oil and gas – so that the Panzers and even the Luftwaffe were unable to move. Third, the systematic destruction of all railway communications so that it was impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine.’37 All three of these factors involved air power to a greater or lesser extent.

The great offensive petered out by 8 January 1945, with the US First and Third Armies linking up on the 16th and the German order to retreat finally being given on the 22nd. By 28 January there was no longer a bulge in the Allied line, but instead a large one developing in the Germans’. ‘I strongly object to the fact that this stupid operation in the Ardennes is sometimes called the “Rundstedt Offensive”,’ Rundstedt complained after the war. ‘This is a complete misnomer. I had nothing to do with it. It came to me as an order complete to the last detail. Hitler had even written on the plan in his own handwriting “Not to be Altered”.’38 Rundstedt said he felt it should instead be called ‘the Hitler Offensive’.39 In fact, neither man’s name was to be appended.

‘I salute the brave fighting man of America; I never want to fight alongside better soldiers,’ Montgomery told a press conference at his Zonhoven headquarters on 7 January. ‘I have tried to feel I am almost an American soldier myself so that I might take no unsuitable action to offend them in any way.’40 This encomium made no mention of his fellow generals, however, and his press conference served to inflame tensions among the Anglo-American High Command. Patton and Montgomery had long mutually loathed one another – Patton called Monty ‘that cocky little limey fart’, Monty thought Patton a ‘foulmouthed lover of war’ – and as the United States overhauled Great Britain in almost every aspect of the war effort, Montgomery found himself unable to face the new situation, and became progressively more anti-American as the United States’ preponderance became more evident. So when on 7 January SHAEF lifted the censorship restrictions it had imposed nearly three weeks before, Montgomery gave his extensive press briefing to a select group of war correspondents. It was a disgraceful performance by anyone’s estimation, including that of his personal staff who were shocked by his ineptitude, or some thought his malice. ‘General Eisenhower placed me in command of the whole northern front,’ boasted Monty. ‘I employed the whole available power of the British group of armies. You have this picture of British troops fighting on both sides of American forces who had suffered a hard blow. This is a fine Allied picture.’ Although he spoke of the average GIs being ‘jolly brave’ in what with studied insouciance he called ‘an interesting little battle’, he claimed he had entered the engagement ‘with a bang’, and left the impression that he had effectively rescued the American generals from defeat.

Saying that Montgomery was ‘all-out, right-down-to-the-toes mad’, Bradley told Eisenhower that he could not serve with him, but would prefer to transfer back to the United States. Patton immediately made the same declaration. Then Bradley started courting the press himself, and he and Patton subsequently leaked to the American press information damaging to Montgomery. In the words of one of Bradley’s (many) press officers, the ex-editor Ralph Ingersoll, Bradley, Hodges and Lieutenant-General William Simpson of Ninth Army began ‘to make and carry out plans without the assistance of the official channels, on a new basis openly discussed only among themselves. In order to do this they had to conceal their plans from the British and almost literally outwit Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters, half of which was British.’41 The British and American generals in the west from 1943 to 1945 did indeed have a special relationship: it was especially dreadful.

Montgomery certainly ought to have paid full tribute to Patton’s achievement in staving in the southern flank of the Ardennes offensive, but Patton was not a wholly attractive man. The obverse side of his intense racial pride in himself was his anti-Semitism, and his belief in the Bolshevist-Zionist conspiracy was in no way lessened after the liberation of the concentration camps. By the end of his career, the US Army had placed a psychiatrist on his staff to keep an eye on him, and were monitoring his phone calls. He was to die in his sleep on 21 December 1945, twelve days after fracturing his neck in a collision with a truck near Mannheim, in which no one was speeding. ‘The God of War, whom Patton worshipped so devotedly, clearly has a wry sense of humour,’ wrote one reviewer of his biography, and Patton himself acknowledged beforehand that it was ‘a helluva way to die’.42 Perhaps the Almighty had not appreciated Patton’s impertinence in being told to make up His mind and take sides in the struggle between civilization and barbarism.

The battle of the Bulge cost the Germans 98,024 battlefield casualties, including over 12,000 killed, but also 700 tanks and assault guns and 1,600 combat aircraft, against Allied (the great majority American) casualties of 80,987, including 10,276 killed, but a slightly larger number of tanks and tank-destroyers lost.43 The great difference was that in matériel the Allies could make up these large losses, whereas the Germans no longer could. The effect on Allied morale was powerful. ‘The Germans were going to be defeated,’ concluded a British tank commander who had fought in the battle, ‘and not only in their Ardennes adventure but in their whole mad attempt to dominate the world.’44 The time-frame was another matter: on 6 February Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks wagered Montgomery £10 ‘that the German war will be over by 1 May 1945’. He lost by a week.

Hitler had been warned by Rundstedt and Model that the offensive would achieve only a drastic weakening of the Reich’s power to resist the Russians on the Eastern Front, without any concomitant advantage in the west. Nonetheless, he was willing to gamble all, as so often before in his career. The hopes of many Germans that the Red Army could be kept back were thus sacrificed for an offensive in the west, against an enemy far less vicious and rapacious than the one bearing down on the Heimat (homeland) from the east. ‘Only Hitler’s personal folly maintained the Ardennes battle,’ records Max Hastings, ‘encouraged by Jodl, who persuaded him that maintaining pressure in the west was dislocating the Anglo-Americans’ offensive plans.’45 So it was, but only at a greater cost to Germany’s defensive plans, and Hitler was never able to undertake a major offensive again.

It was unusual for Hitler to have been influenced by Jodl, the Chief of the Operations Staff of OKW throughout the war, whose attitude towards his Führer can be gleaned from his speech about the coming victory to Gauleiters in Munich in November 1943, when he said: ‘My most profound confidence is based on the fact that at the head of Germany there stands a man who by his entire development, his desires, and striving can only have been destined by Fate to lead our people into a brighter future.’46 At Nuremberg Göring told Leon Goldensohn that he thought Wilhelm Keitel should not even be on trial because ‘although he was a field marshal, [he] was a small person who did whatever Hitler instructed’.47 Head of the OKW throughout the war, Keitel, in the estimation of the British post-war historian of the German High Command, John Wheeler-Bennett, had ‘ambition but no talent, loyalty but no character, a certain native shrewdness and charm, but neither intelligence nor personality’.48 He was far more sycophantic – Hitler called him ‘as loyal as a dog’ – even than Jodl. Yet he certainly did deserve his Nuremberg punishment: he presided over the so-called Court of Honour that condemned the July Plotters to death; he signed the order to shoot all Soviet commissars on capture, as well as the notorious Nacht und Nebel (night and fog) Decree of 7 December 1941 by which more than 8,000 non-German civilians were kidnapped and executed; he encouraged the lynching of Allied airmen by civilians; and gave the order of 16 December 1942 that in the east and the Balkans ‘Any consideration for the partisans is a crime against the German people.’49 Keitel nonetheless resented his nickname, Hitler’s Lakaitel, taken from the word Lackai (lackey).

‘Why did the generals who have been so ready to term me a complaisant and incompetent yes-man fail to secure my removal?’ Keitel wrote in his self-pitying memoirs before he was hanged at Nuremberg. ‘Was that all that difficult? No, that wasn’t it; the truth was that nobody would have been ready to replace me, because each one knew that he would end up as much of a wreck as I.’ There is some justification to this; certainly Kleist felt that because ‘Hitler wanted a weak general in that powerful position in order to have complete control of him,’ other generals could not have borne the job. ‘If I had held Keitel’s position under Hitler,’ Kleist later claimed, ‘I wouldn’t have lasted two weeks.’50 Yet had Keitel and Jodl shown more backbone with the Führer, as Guderian did, they might have been able to instil a sense of proportion into his strategy, but Keitel’s attitude was summed up in his remark to his Nuremberg psychiatrist in May 1946, when he said: ‘It isn’t right to be obedient only when things go well; it is much harder to be a good, obedient soldier when things go badly and times are hard. Obedience and faith at such time is a virtue.’51 Hitler had plenty of people still willing to give him obedience and faith, the human nullity Wilhelm Keitel at their head, when what he most needed were constructive criticism and sound advice.

Late in 1942 Hitler decided that every word spoken at his military conferences needed to be preserved for posterity. He accordingly ordered six (and eventually eight) of Germany’s parliamentary stenographers, who had been idle since the Reichstag was mothballed that April, to take down in shorthand and then transcribe everything that was uttered at these meetings. If the Germans had won the war, this book would today be the equivalent of Nazi holy writ. Verbatim, unvarnished and contemporary, the pure raw material of history, they reveal the Führer as a painstaking, calculating, inquisitive dictator, with a phenomenally good memory and a great interest in the mechanics of armaments, and even as rather a good listener. At least three-quarters of the meetings were taken up with the answers given to his incisive questioning by such senior Reich figures as Rundstedt, Rommel, Guderian, Keitel and Jodl, Zeitzler, Dönitz, Göring and Goebbels.

Because the verbatim reports open on 1 December 1942, with the battle of Stalingrad effectively lost, and end on 27 April 1945, three days before Hitler’s suicide, the picture is one of Germany in retreat and eventual defeat, although it is impossible to tell from the Führer’s remarks exactly when it dawned upon him that he would lose the war, and with it his own life. It possibly came at the end of the battle of the Bulge at the close of 1944, for on 10 January 1945 he had the following conversation with Göring over the problems with the production of secret weaponry:

HITLER: It is said that if Hannibal, instead of the seven or thirteen elephants he had left as he crossed the Alps… had had fifty or 250, it would have been more than enough to conquer Italy.

GÖRING: But we did finally bring out the jets; we brought them out. And they must come in masses, so we keep the advantage…

HITLER: The V-1 can’t decide the war, unfortunately.

GÖRING:… Just as an initially unpromising project can finally succeed, the bomber will come, too, if it is also—

HITLER: But that’s still just a fantasy!


HITLER: Göring, the gun is there, the other is still a fantasy!52

The use of a surname between people on close terms is a sure sign of intended emphasis. Hitler knew what was coming.

Although there were often up to twenty-five people in the room during these Führer-conferences, Hitler usually had only two or three interlocutors. There is no noticeable sycophancy in their answers to his ceaselessly probing questions. Gun calibres, oilfields, plastic versus metal mines, Panzer driver training, encirclement strategies: little escaped his attention. ‘Can’t we make a special supply of flame-throwers for the west?’ he asked just before D-Day. ‘Flame-throwers are the best for defence. It’s a terrible weapon.’ He then made a telephone call to order a trebling of the monthly flame-throwing production, ending the conversation: ‘Thank you very much. Heil! Happy holidays.’ There are several moments of unintended humour – ‘One always counts on the decency of others. We are so decent,’ Hitler said – but the atmosphere was uniformly businesslike, even towards the very end. There was of course no mention of the Holocaust in front of the stenographers. Other things were not transcribed, such as his paeans about his German shepherd dog Blondi and his constant asking of the time – Hitler never wore a watch – but otherwise his every word was taken down. He only really started rambling incoherently towards the end, as the Red Army advanced on his bunker and he took refuge in nostalgia,Schadenfreude, accusations of betrayal (many of them perfectly justified) and blind optimism.

It was after a Führer-conference in February 1945 that Albert Speer tried to explain to Dönitz how the war was certainly lost, with the maps there showing ‘a catastrophic picture of innumerable breakthroughs and encirclements’, but Dönitz merely replied, ‘with unwonted curtness’, that he was only there to represent the Navy and ‘The rest is none of my business. The Führer must know what he is doing.’53 Speer believed that had Göring, Keitel, Jodl, Dönitz, Guderian and himself presented the Führer with an ultimatum, and demanded to know his plans for ending the war, then ‘Hitler would have had to have declared himself.’54 Yet that was never going to happen, because they suspected – half of that group correctly – that there was soon to be only a rope at the end of it. When Speer approached Göring at Karinhall soon after he had spoken to Dönitz, the Reichsmarschall readily admitted that the Reich was doomed, but said that he had ‘much closer ties with Hitler; many years of common experiences and struggles had bound them together – and he could no longer break loose’.

Hitler knew too: on 2 March 1945, criticizing a proposal by Rundstedt to move men south from the sector occupied by the 21st Army Group, he perceptively pointed out: ‘It just means moving the catastrophe from one place to another.’55 When five days later an armoured unit under Brigadier-General William M. Hoge from the 9th Armored Division of Hodge’s US First Army captured the Ludendorff railway bridge over the Rhine at Remagen intact, and Eisenhower established a bridgehead on the east of the Rhine, Hitler’s response was to sack Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west and replace him with Kesselring. Few chalices could have been more heavily poisoned than that appointment at that time, with American troops swarming over the bridge into Germany, and Patton crossing on 22 March, and telegraphing Bradley to say ‘For God’s sake tell the world we’re across… I want the world to know 3rd Army made it before Monty.’56 Montgomery’s crossing of the Rhine the next day, codenamed Operation Plunder, was watched by Churchill and Brooke and established a 6-mile-deep bridgehead within forty-eight hours. When 325,000 men of Army Group B were caught in the Ruhr pocket and forced to surrender, Field Marshal Walther Model dissolved his army group and escaped into a forest. Having recently learnt that he was to be indicted for war crimes involving the deaths of 577,000 people in Latvian concentration camps, and after hearing an insanely optimistic radio broadcast by Goebbels on the Führer’s birthday, he shot himself on 21 April.

A few days earlier, Churchill had proposed a triple proclamation from the Big Three ‘giving warning to Germany not to go on resisting. If [the Germans] carry on resistance past sowing time then [there] will be famine in Germany next winter… we take no responsibility for feeding Germany.’57 As usual Churchill was advocating the most extreme measures, but like several others he put forward this was not adopted. Despite the Allies encountering some fierce resistance from fanatical units, but not the supposedkamikaze ‘Werewolf battalions’ that were threatened by Goebbels’ propaganda machine, the outcome of the war in the west was not in doubt in the minds of rational Germans. For the more optimistic of Hitler’s subjects, however, propaganda about his so-called wonder weapons kept the faith alive, but on Thursday, 29 March 1945, six days after Montgomery’s Second Army and the US Ninth Army had crossed the Rhine, anti-aircraft gunners in Suffolk shot down the last of the V-1 flying bombs launched against Britain in the Second World War. Called the Vergeltungswaffe-Ein by the Germans, meaning (Vengeance Weapon-1), they were nicknamed doodlebugs or buzz bombs by the Britons whom they were intended to kill, maim and terrify.

The V-1, for which Hitler announced high hopes on its inception on Christmas Eve 1943, was certainly an horrific weapon. Powered by a pulse-jet mechanism using petrol and compressed air, it was 25 feet 4 inches long with a 16-foot wingspan, and it weighed 4,750 pounds. Its warhead was made up of 1,874 pounds of Amatol explosive, a fearsome mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate. Launched up 125-foot concrete ramps stationed right across Occupied France, from Watten in the north to Houppeville to the south, they flew at up to 360mph, which was slow enough to have a proportionately greater surface-blast effect for its warhead size than its equally fiendish sister weapon the V-2 rocket bomb (known to the Germans as the A-4). ‘The English will only stop when their towns are destroyed,’ Hitler told a Führer-conference in July 1943, ‘nothing else will do it… He’ll stop when his towns are destroyed, that much is clear. I can only win the war by destroying more on the enemy’s side than he does on ours – by inflicting on his the horror of war. It has always been that way and it’s the same in the air.’58 With the Luftwaffe unable to escort bombers over England due to British fighter protection, the V-1 was a sign of Hitler’s desperation rather than his strength.

As the V-1’s maximum range was 130 miles, London and south-east England were its main targets, and they suffered heavily. Flown by autopilot from a preset compass, the flying bomb contained in its nose propeller a log which measured the distance flown. Once it reached the correct range, the elevators in the wings were fully deflected and it dived, cutting out the engine as it did so. Part of the terror that V-1s inspired came from the sinister way that the noise of their propulsion suddenly stopped at this preset moment, meaning that they were about to fall on the people below. To hear the noise continue meant that the V-1 would carry on flying overhead, but to hear it stop brought the certainty of an imminent, devastating explosion. It is estimated that about 80 per cent of V-1s landed within an 8-mile radius of their targets.

Between 13 June 1944 – a week after D-Day – and 29 March 1945, no fewer than 13,000 V-1 bombs were launched against Britain. Because their cruising altitude of between 3,500 and 4,000 feet was too low for heavy anti-aircraft guns to be able to hit them very often, yet too high for light guns to reach them, it was often the RAF that had to deal with this grave new threat. Radar-guided fighter aircraft tried either to shoot them down or to tip them over by lightly tapping their wings. It took outstanding courage to fly so close to a ton of explosives, yet that was the way it was often done. Barrage balloons were also employed to try to stop them with trailing metal chains.

‘I was eleven or twelve when I had my first experience of a doodlebug raid,’ recalled Thomas Smith, who lived in Russell Gardens in north London during the last two years of the war, along with his mother and eight brothers and sisters. ‘It was 6.30 a.m. on Friday, 13 October 1944. We were all lying in bed, when we heard the flying bomb come over. We knew it could drop anywhere as we could hear it flying over the house. We were terrified. I was sharing a bed with my four brothers and we all huddled together under the bedclothes.’ His father was abroad, serving in the British Army, which was at that time attacking and shutting down launch sites in northern France in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. (This did not end the attacks, however, as some V-1s were launched from modified Heinkel He-111 bombers after the fall of the northern France launch sites.) ‘The bomb missed the house,’ recalled Smith, ‘but it dropped 120 yards away, in Russell Gardens. The force of the bomb caused the roof and ceilings of our house to fall in and the windows were also blown out by the blast. Despite the bomb, my mum still sent me to school.’ They were a tough generation, and the Smith family was fortunate; in all, more than 24,000 Britons were casualties of the Führer’s vicious ‘secret weapon’, with 5,475 of them dying. One of the most nerve-wracking aspects of the campaign for Britons was the way that the attacks came round the clock, allowing for no respite. Whereas the Luftwaffe had long since confined its attacks to night-time, when its bombers could be cloaked in darkness and hidden from RAF fighters, the pilotless bombs came all through the day and night. At one point during the initial assault in July and August 1944 10,000 homes were damaged every day. By late August over 1.5 million children had been evacuated from the south-east.

The huge ground-space that the V-1 could devastate – a single flying bomb might damage an area covering a quarter of a square mile – made it a particularly dangerous weapon, although the defenders quickly adapted. Between June and September 1944, for example, 3,912 were brought down by anti-aircraft fire, RAF fighters and barrage balloons. It soon became clear that Hitler, who had hoped that V-1s might destroy British morale and force the Government to sue for peace, was wrong about the weapon’s potential. He therefore placed hopes in the V-2, which had been devised at the Peenemünde research centre in Pomerania and which comprised ground-breaking rocket technology. It was a supersonic ballistic missile, flying faster than the speed of sound, so the first thing its victims heard was the detonation. No air-raid sirens could be sounded or warnings given, which added to the terror, and there was no possibility of interception because it flew at 3,600mph, ten times faster than the Spitfire.

The gyroscopically stabilized fin guided this huge, 13-ton machine for distances of up to 220 miles. It was originally intended to be loaded with poison gas, and only had its 1-ton high-explosive warhead attached later. Its astonishing speed came from a mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen being pumped into the motor by two centrifugal pumps driven by turbines and heated to 2,700 Celsius. It could fly at a maximum height of 100,000 feet. The V-2 was enormous: 46 feet high, with a diameter of over 5 feet in the middle, and 12 feet down by the fins, it was by far the biggest weapon of its kind. Launched from an upright position from vehicles that simply drove off after firing, it did not even have launch-pad installations – as most V-1s needed – that the Allies could bomb and overrun. (Both V-weapons can be seen today at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, London.)

With production at full capacity in the autumn of 1944, Hitler hoped that London could be bombed into submission before the Allies could reach Germany and destroy the Third Reich. Yet it was largely his own fault that the V-2 came on stream so late. If he had given high priority to it in 1942, its teething problems might have been sorted out in time to mass-produce it in 1943 rather than 1944.59 Of course increased rocket production would have had to take the place of some other weapon programmes, be they for warplanes, tanks or submarines. There were a high proportion of misfires, and half the rockets built were defective, but this might not have been the case if the Führer had supported the project much earlier and more emphatically.

It was at 6.40 p.m. on 8 September 1944 that the first V-2 landed on Britain, fired only five minutes earlier after being unloaded from a converted lorry in a suburban road in The Hague. Staveley Road in Chiswick, west London, was another such quiet residential street before the warhead exploded there, killing three people and injuring six. Where once six suburban houses had stood, there was now only an immense crater. In the beginning, in order to prevent panic, the authorities made no announcement about the V-2, encouraging people to believe that the loud explosion heard across west London had been a ‘gasworks explosion’, but by November it became clear that the Government had to be more honest about the new threat.

Over the five months of the campaign, a total of 1,359 rockets were fired at England, killing 2,754 people and injuring 6,523. In reply to German propaganda claims that London was being ‘devastated’, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons on 10 November 1944 that ‘The damage and casualties have not so far been heavy. There is no need to exaggerate the danger.’ Yet when a single rocket hit the Woolworth’s store in New Cross, south-east London, on 25 November, 160 people were killed and a further 200 injured, and four rockets landing on Croydon, Surrey, on 29 December had rendered as many as 2,000 houses uninhabitable.

‘Things were still falling out of the sky,’ recalled a young girl who survived the New Cross blast,

bits of things and bits of people. A horse’s head was lying in the gutter. There was a pram hood all twisted and bent and there was a little baby’s hand still in its woolly sleeve. Outside the pub there was a crumpled bus, still with rows of people sitting inside, all covered in dust and dead. Where Woolworth’s had been, there was nothing, just an enormous gap covered by clouds of dust. No building, just piles of rubble and bricks, and underneath it all, people screaming.

Over eighty days, 2,300 V-2s destroyed 25,000 homes and killed 5,000 Britons. Antwerp was also heavily hit by V-2s, with more than 30,000 casualties inflicted there. The Germans even had a plan to launch V-2s against America, fired from converted U-boats. The last V-2 rocket to land on Britain was fired from The Hague just like the first; it landed on a block of flats in Whitechapel at 7.21 p.m. on 27 March 1945, killing 134 people. There was no possible defence from them, and they penetrated deep shelters too. As well as killing people when they landed, the V-2s also killed people while they were being made. It is estimated that up to 20,000 people died in the horrific slave-labour conditions while manufacturing the rockets. Life in the factories, which were scattered over the Reich, was appalling: starvation, disease, maltreatment and accidents were rife.

Although the V-weapon flying bombs and rockets were to cause thousands of casualties in Britain, and many more in Holland and Belgium, they could not have changed the balance of the struggle even if they had caused ten times that amount of devastation, because Hitler did not begin firing them until a week after D-Day. By that time the Americans, British and Canadians were ashore and there was no prospect of their coming to terms with Hitler, pretty much however successful the V-weapon campaign. The concentration of technological research, money, raw materials, skilled labour, slave labourers’ lives and general effort that went into creating the V-weapons was thus in no way justified by their results. Good for rhetoric, but short on results, Vengeance weaponry turned out to be yet another error of the Führer’s strategic judgement.

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