Nazi Germany in an Allied Vise
In the last months of the war in Europe, well-coordinated attacks doomed Hitler
THE last chapter of World War II in Europe was a remarkable achievement in strategic cooperation among Allies.Skip to next paragraph
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In the larger sense, there was really one continuous great battle that began on Jan. 11, 1945, when Stalin launched his final offensive in the East. It ended on April 30 when, with Russian troops inside Berlin, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker under his chancellery.
From Jan. 11 to April 30, the allied armies of the West under Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and those of the East under Marshals Ivan Konev and Georgi Zhukov coordinated their battle plans so well that Hitler had to fight both at once.
Hitler had been at his headquarters on the western front when the Russian offensive began. By Jan. 15 the Russians had advanced so far, and so fast, that Hitler headed back to Berlin. As the train approached the city an aide allegedly remarked that, ''We'll soon be able to take the street car from the eastern to the western front.'' During the next six weeks, Hitler pulled more than 40 of his divisions off the west front and moved them to the east, too late to stem the Russian tide, too soon to save the west.
General Eisenhower's armies on the western front were able to take advantage of any weakening of the German forces in the Rhineland.
For example: On Feb. 8, Marshal Konev broke out of a bridgehead over the Oder at Steinau. On the same day, Eisenhower opened an offensive between the Meuse and Rhine. On Feb. 23, Eisenhower opened another attack across the Roer. On Feb. 24, the Russians drove into Pomerania. Meanwhile, the Canadians advanced toward the Rhine from Achen.
Such effective coordination by the Allies, far removed from one another and in this case on opposite sides of a common enemy, has few precedents in history.
When Hitler pulled divisions off his western front in late January and February, he made it inevitable that Eisenhower would cross the Rhine and strike at the Ruhr, an area vital to Hitler's war machine.
By late February, most resistance west of the Rhine had collapsed, and Eisenhower's columns were reaching the river and looking for bridges. Most had been blown up, but not the one at Remagen, Germany. There, on March 7, a patrol from the US 9th Armored Division found the bridge intact and rushed over it as German engineers were beginning to blow it up. The bridge was weakened but still usable for several days, during which enough Americans got across to secure a bridgehead. By March 22, the US Third Army began crossing at Oppenheim. Two days later, on March 24, the British were across at Wesel.
With the western Allies across the Rhine and the eastern Allies massed on the Oder, the end was inevitable. Hitler's main sources of fuel for his tanks and planes were either gone or in danger. There was not enough high-octane gasoline to keep the Luftwaffe effective. Supply lines to the front were under constant attack from allied air forces that now dominated the air over all of Germany.
Yet the German Army fought on for another two months.
We all know about the Japanese kamikazes -- suicide bombers whose pilots crashed their planes on the decks of American warships. In early April, 184 German fighter pilots volunteered to fly their planes on similar suicide missions. They went into battle over Hanover, Germany, on April 7, and flew into a formation of US bombers. Of the German planes, 133 were lost; 51 American bombers failed to return from that mission.
There were some favorable events for Hitler. In February, Stalin's tank losses were 4,600, double his monthly production. In March, German jet fighter planes began arriving -- the first such fighters to take the air in World War II. A submarine capable of crossing the Atlantic while submerged sailed for the US. And while German civilians were quick to hoist white flags in the western Rhineland, most German soldiers remained in their units and many fought extremely well. The German Army did not collapse; it was overwhelmed.
By March, Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had sent messengers to Switzerland and Spain to try to talk peace terms with Office of Strategic Services chief Alan Dulles or US Ambassador Robert Murphy. But in his bunker, Hitler still planned counter strokes. He was not ready to give up until almost the last day.
Meanwhile the Allies had written into the history book a remarkable example of the successful coordination of military effort. Previously the classic example of such allied coordination was in 1704, when the Duke of Marlborough led a combined English-Dutch army up the Rhine from the Netherlands and across to the upper Danube to meet at the village of Blenheim an imperial Austrian Army commanded by Prince Eugene of Savoy.
The coordination between Marlborough and Eugene was perfect, both in strategy and in execution. Probably the finest army King Louis XIV of France had ever sent into the field was routed. Le roi-soleil never recovered from the defeat at Blenheim.
Another equally remarkable case of successful coordination of Allies came in 1781 when a French fleet under Adm. Comte de Rochambeau covered the flank of Gen. George Washington on his march to Yorktown, Va., where Lord Cornwallis found himself bottled up between French warships in the harbor and a combined American-French land army. The battle there ended British resistance to American independence.
Soviet-US coordination in 1945 was bigger, vastly, than the two classic precedents. In skill and execution the three stand out equally as supreme achievements in bringing allied forces together on a single battlefield and winning so successfully and so decisively that it virtually ended a war.
*The first two articles in this series ran Jan. 30 and Feb. 13. Former Monitor writer Joseph C. Harsch covered World War II from Washington, D.C., the Pacific, and Europe.