Western Offensive

Western Offensive

In 1939, a group of senior German Army officers, including Erich von Manstein and Franz Halder, devised a plan to inflict a major defeat on the French Army in northern France. The Manstein Plan, as it became known, included a attack through southern Belgium that avoided the Maginot Line. The ultimate objective was to reach the Channel coast and to force the French government to surrender.

Adolf Hitler gave his approval to the Manstein Plan on 17th February, 1940, but it was not activated until the 10th May, when the Luftwaffe bombed Dutch and Belgian airfields and the German Army captured Moerdijk and Rotterdam. Fedor von Bock and the 9th Panzer Division, using its Blitzkreig strategy, advanced quickly into the Netherlands. Belgium was also invaded and the French 7th Army moved forward to help support the Dutch and Belgian forces.

The 7th Panzer Division under Erwin Rommel and the 19th Corps commanded by Heinz Guderian and the 6th and 8th Panzers led by Gerd von Rundstedt, went through the heavily wooded and semi-mountainous area of the Ardennes, an area, north of the Maginot Line. The French military had wrongly believed that the Ardennes was impassable to tanks. Seven panzer divisions reached the Meuse River at Dinant on 12th May and the following day the French government was forced to abandon Paris.

The defence of Netherlands collapsed under threat of massive area bombing on 14th May. Queen Wilhelmina, along with members of her family and the government, escaped to London.

German forces led by Paul von Kliest, Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt advanced towards the Channel. Except for a counterattack by 4th Armoured Division led by Charles De Gaulle, at Montcornet (17th May) and Laon (27th-29th May) the German forces encountered very little resistance.

In Belgium the German Army captured Leige and Maastricht and the home army was forced back from the Dyle River to the River Lys. On 28th May, the Belgian government surrendered unconditionally. Leopold III was arrested and interned outside Brussels but most members of his government managed to escape to England.

Winston Churchill now ordered the implementation of Operation Dynamo, a plan to evacuate of troops and equipment from the French port of Dunkirk, that had been drawn up by General John Gort, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Between 27th May and 4th June, 1940, a total of 693 ships brought back 338,226 people back to Britain. Of these 140,000 were members of the French Army. All heavy equipment was abandoned and left in France.

General Maxime Weygand, the Supreme Allied Commander, tried to hold the line along the Somme and the Aisne. Now clearly outnumbered, the French Army was forced to withdraw to the Loire. The Germans occupied Paris on 14th June and two days later, Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister, was replaced by Henri-Philippe Petain, who quickly accepted German peace terms.

Under the terms of the armistice northern France and the regions north of Vichy came under German occupation. The French government, led by Henri-Philippe Petain, moved to Vichy and remained at liberty along with the French Navy and an army of 100,000 men.

During the defence of France nearly 2 million French soldiers were taken prisoner. An estimated 390,000 soldiers were killed defending France whereas around 35,000 German soldiers had lost their lives during the invasion.

On January 10th a major detailed by me as liaison officer to the and Air Fleet flew from Munster to Bonn to discuss some unimportant details of the plan with the Air Force. He carried with him, however, the complete operational plan for the attack in the West. In icy weather and a strong wind he lost his way over the frozen and snow-covered Rhine, and flew into Belgium, where he had to make a forced landing. He was unable to burn completely the vital document. Important parts of it fell into the hands of the Belgians, and consequently the outline of the whole German plan for the Western offensive. The German Air Attaché in the Hague reported that on the same evening the King of the Belgians had a long telephone conversation with the Queen of Holland.

It was interesting to watch the reactions of this incident on Germany's leading men. While Goering was in a rage. Hitler remained quite calm and self-possessed. At first he wanted to strike immediately, but fortunately refrained and decided to drop the original operational plan entire. This was replaced by the Manstein plan.

Manstein asked me if tank movements would be possible through the Ardennes in the direction of Sedan. He explained his plan of breaking through the extension of the Maginot Line near Sedan, in order to avoid the old-fashioned Schliefien plan, familiar to the enemy and likely to be expected once more. I knew the terrain from World War I, and, after studying the map, confirmed his view. Manstein then convinced General von Rundstedt and a memorandum was sent to O.K.H. (on December 4th). O.K.H. refused to accept Manstein's idea. But the latter succeeded in bringing his idea to Hitler's knowledge.

On February 7th, a war-game took place at Coblenz under the direction of General Halder, in order to discuss the Manstein plan. My proposal to attack as soon as possible over the Meuse with the panzer corps alone, and without waiting for the infantry, was heavily criticized by Halder. He judged an organized attack over the Meuse impossible before the 9th or loth day of the campaign.

A second war-game at General List's headquarters (12th Army) had the same negative results. General List examined the question of stopping the panzers after the arrival on the Meuse and waiting for the infantry to cross the river. General von Wietersheim (XIV Corps) and I protested against this solution. But in the end General von Rundstedt laid down that the panzer divisions should only gain bridge-heads over the Meuse and that no further aims should be aspired to. That was on March 6th. It became clear that General von Rundstedt had no clear conception of the capability of panzer forces. Manstein was needed there!

Churchill stumped up and down Reynaud's bedroom. There was "the great probability that Hitler will rule the world," he said. We must think together of how to strike and strike again, no matter what the cost nor how long the trials ahead." He faced the French Premier and then sat down heavily. His changing moods raced like clouds across his baby face. He was in turn sulky, tearful, and violent. None of it did any good. Reynaud in reply chanted the pace of Hitler's victories: Poland in twenty-six days, Norway in twenty-eight days, Denmark in twenty-four hours, Holland in five days, and Luxembourg in twelve hours. He turned sad luminous eyes on Churchill. "Belgium is finished. Now France."

Three, six, nine, oh, behind them still more, and further to the right, aircraft and still more aircraft, a quick look in the binoculars - Stukas! And what we are about to see during the next twenty minutes is one of the most powerful impressions of this war. Squadron upon squadron rise to a great height, break into line ahead and there, there the first machines hurtle perpendicularly down, followed by the second, third - ten, twelve aeroplanes are there. Simultaneously, like some bird of prey, they fall upon their victim and release their load of bombs on the target.

Each time the explosion is overwhelming, the noise deafening. Everything becomes blended together; along with the howling sirens of the Stukas in their dives, the bombs whistle and crack and burst. A huge blow of annihilation strikes the enemy, and still more squadrons arrive, rise to a great height, and then come down on the same target. We stand and watch what is happening as if hypnotized.

The way to the west was now open. The moon was up and for the time being we could expect no real darkness. I had already given orders, in the plan for the breakthrough, for the leading tanks to scatter the road and verges with machine and anti-tank gunfire at intervals during the drive to Avesnes, which I hoped would prevent the enemy from laying mines.

The tanks now rolled in a long column through the line of fortifications and on towards the first houses, which had been set alight by our fire. Occasionally an enemy machine-gun or antitank gun fired, but none of their shots came anywhere near us.

Troops lay bivouacked beside the road, military vehicles stood parked in farmyards and in some places on the road itself. Civilians and French troops, their faces distorted with terror, lay huddled in the ditches, alongside hedges and in every hollow beside the road. We passed refugee columns, the carts abandoned by their owners, who had fled in panic into the fields.

On we went, at a steady speed, toward our objective. Every so often a quick glance at the map by a shaded light and a short wireless message to Divisional HQ to report the position and thus the success of 25th Panzer Regiment. Every so often a look out of the hatch to assure myself that there was still no resistance and the contact was being maintained to the rear. The flat countryside lay spread out around us under the cold light of the moon.

We were through the Maginot Line! It was hardly conceivable. Twenty-two years before we had stood for four and a half years before this selfsame enemy and had won victory after victory and yet finally lost the war. And now we had broken through the renowned Maginot Line and were driving deep into enemy territory.

Along the Meuse there was a moderate amount of fortification, in the way of pillboxes, but these were not properly armed. If the French troops here had been adequately equipped with anti-tank guns we should certainly have noticed it, as the majority of our tanks were of the early Mark I type, and thus very vulnerable! The French divisions in the sector were poorly armed, and of low quality. Their troops, as we repeatedly found, gave up the fight very soon after being subjected to air bombing or gunfire.

In the late afternoon of the i4th May I was called upon to lead two squadrons of Blenheims in an attack against the German bridgehead at Sedan. The French had asked the R.A.F. for a supreme effort at Sedan where their army was massing for a counter-attack against the Germans in an attempt to restore the catastrophic situation in that area. In the afternoon the remaining Battle and Blenheim squadrons based in France had been thrown into the attack with disastrous results: forty out of a total of seventy-one aircraft taking part were destroyed, mostly by enemy fighters.

I would remind the Air Council that the last estimate which they made as to the force necessary to defend this country was fifty-two squadrons, and my strength has now been reduced to the equivalent of thirty-six squadrons.

I must therefore request that as a matter of paramount urgency the Air Ministry will consider and decide what level of strength is to be left to the Fighter Command for the defence of this country, and will assure me that when the level has been reached, not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent the appeals for help may be.

I believe that if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the Fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organized to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.

About half-past seven in the morning of the 15th (May 1940) I was woken up with the news that Paul Reynaud was on the telephone at my bedside. He spoke in English, and evidently under stress. "We have been defeated." As I did not immediately respond he said again: "We are beaten; we have lost the battle." I said: "Surely it can't have happened so soon?" But he replied: "The front is broken near Sedan."

At Charleville, on 24 May, when the B.E.F. was absolutely ripe for the plucking, Hitler informed his astonished generals that Britain was 'indispensable' to the world and that he had therefore resolved to respect her integrity and, if possible, ally himself with her. Perhaps a less fanciful explanation of Hitler's attitude is supplied by Ribbentrop's representative at the Fuhrer's headquarters, who has left on record the comment: "Hitler personally intervened to allow the British to escape. He was convinced that to destroy their army would be to force them to fight to the bitter end."

On the military side the facts are clearer. On 23 May Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, commanding Army Group A, halted

General Guderian's XIX Army Corps when two of its panzer divisions were heading for Dunkirk, not twenty miles distant and with little or no opposition ahead. The British counter-attack at Arras on 21 May, though undertaken by no more than two mixed columns, each comprising a tank battalion, an infantry battalion, a field battery, an anti-tank battery, and a machine-gun company, had caused him some concern. He therefore called the halt in order to "allow the situation to clarify itself and keep our forces concentrated". The panzers had just reached the Channel, and the success of this British counterattack engendered the fear of a larger operation that would cut them off from their supporting infantry. The next morning he received a visit from the Fuhrer, who confirmed the stop order. The panzers were not to be risked in a possibly flooded area but preserved for future operations-presumably against the French Army. On the other hand, the Luftwaffe's 'field of action' was not to be restricted.

Actually, on the available evidence, there can be little doubt that it was at the particular instance of the Luftwaffe's commander-in-chief, Field-Marshal Goering, that in the upshot the B.E.F. Was "left to the Luftwaffe". Guderian was to write, bitterly, of the first day of the evacuation, 26 May: "We watched the Luftwaffe attack. We saw also the armada of great and little ships, by means of which the British were evacuating their forces." Guderian's bitterness was shared by the whole of the German Army High Command.

For four days and four nights I have shared the appalling hardship of 5,000,000 French refugees who are now fleeing down all the roads of France leading to the south. My story is the typical story of nine-tenths of these refugees.

I left Paris Monday night, June 10, in a big car which was to take me, my sister, Irene Tomara, and a Canadian doctor, William Douglas, who has been working with the American and civilian refugees. We loaded our car with whatever we could carry. We had enough gasoline to take us at least to Bordeaux. It was quite dark when we left. All days cars had been going toward the southern gates of Paris. Just as we departed dark clouds rose above the town, obscuring the rising crescent of the moon. I thought at first it was a storm. Then I understood it was a smoke screen the French had laid down to save the city from bombing.

We drove across the Seine bridge and in complete darkness past the Montparnasse station, in which a desperate crowd was camping. We found the so-called Italian Gate and drove past it, risking all the time the chance of being hit by trucks. But all went well for about fifteen miles. Then, as we started up the first hill, the gears of our car refused to work and the car would not move.

We managed to pull off the road and park. We were in a small suburb of Paris. As nothing could be done during the dark hours, we rolled into our sleeping bags in a ditch alongside the road and tried to sleep. But cars roared by us incessantly. Then came an air-raid alarm. Then the cars started again.

When dawn came we tried to get the car going. It would not start. We waited for hours for a mechanic, while cars passed at the rate of twenty a minute. Then we learned there were no mechanics. They had all been called into the army. But the driver of a truck stopped and inspected the car. He said it could not be repaired on the road.

We tried to buy a little truck that could take our luggage. Finally the gendarmes on the road took pity on us and stopped a military truck, asking its driver to tow us. Fortunately we had a chain. We started off at noon on the road to Fontainebleau. At that time the road was a dense stream of army and factory trucks carrying big machines. We drove all day, and at 8 p.m. got into Fontainebleau.

In Fontainebleau we located a garage. The mechanic looked at the car and said it could not be repaired in less than two days. "We have no men to repair it, anyway," the manager of the garage said. "We work only for the army." We passed the night at a hotel and in the morning started to look for a truck that could tow us. Douglas found a youngster who had a country truck, but no gasoline. He was going back to Paris. We promised him gasoline and he said he would take us to Orleans and then drive to Paris.

We were abandoning our car, which was worth at least 40,000 francs (approximately $875), but money had ceased to have significance. We reloaded our bags on the truck, which had no top, and sat on them. It was 5 p.m. We drove five miles without difficulty and then got into a stream of refugees and army cars. Refugees blocked the road by trying to get past the main line of cars, thus interfering with oncoming traffic.

At 10 p.m. we had driven less than fifteen miles from Fontainebleau. The boy driving our car was in despair. He wanted to turn back to Paris, but we would not let him. We saw thousands of cars by the roadsides, without gasoline or broken down.

We drove on in the night. Presently the road cleared, but we were off our route. Soldiers had detoured traffic to permit movement of military cars. We were driving south instead of toward Orleans. In a small village we turned off and started at a good speed through the dead of night, with lights turned off. It was fantastic. The clouds parted and the moon came up. The country seemed phantom-like. There were piles of stones in front of each village we passed, and peasants with rifles guarded these barricades. They looked at our papers and let us pass.

We arrived before the Orleans station at 3 a.m. on Thursday. After three nights and two days we had made only seventy miles. The scene near the station was appalling. People lay on the floor inside and the town square was filled. We piled our baggage and waited until daylight.

There was nothing to eat in the town, no rooms in the hotels, no cars for sale or hire, no gasoline anywhere. Yet a steady stream of refugees was coming in, men, women and children, all desperate, not knowing where to go or how.

I walked around and found a truck that was fairly empty. I talked to the driver, offering him money to take me to Tours. He would take us near Tours. For food, we had only a little wine, some stale bread and a can of ham.

The scene of the refugees around the station was the most horrible I had ever seen, worse than the refugees in Poland. Fortunately, there was no bombing. Had there been any attacks it would have been too ghastly for words. Children were crying. There was no milk, no bread. Yet social workers were doing their best and groups were led away all the time, but new ones continued to arrive.

All morning we sought means of transportation. There was none. I decided to go to Tours. I started to walk in the rain with my typewriter and sleeping bag, at last getting a lift in a car which moved slowly through a mob of refugees moving in the opposite direction. In Tours, I learned that the government had left. Also gone were most newspapermen, but a press wireless operator and the French censor were still there.

As I finish this story there is a German air raid. The sound of bombs is terrific. I hope the German bombers have not hit at the road which leads to the south, for there refugees are packed in fleeing crowds.

The catastrophe that has befallen France has no parallel in human history. Nobody knows how or when it will end. Like the other refugees, and there are millions of us, I do not know tonight when I shall sleep in a bed again, or how I shall get out of this town.

The claim that the German Army is "invincible" is a myth invented by the Nazi rulers. The easy victories of 1939 and 1940, on which the German militarists now preen themselves, were won not so much by their own forces as by base treachery in the countries against which they fought.

It is common knowledge that some members of the former French government were connected with German agents and deliberately led their army and people to defeat.

In the main drive against the Allies in Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg on May 10, 1940, the Germans used 107 infantry and 10 tank divisions, while the Allies used 63 infantry divisions, 4 light mechanized and 6 cavalry divisions. These Allies belonged to four different armies - the French, British, Belgian and Dutch - which actually were not under one command. Moreover, some of these armies were disunited by deep-rooted political friction and conflicting opinions on operations and strategy.

Battle of the Bulge

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Battle of the Bulge, also called Battle of the Ardennes, (December 16, 1944–January 16, 1945), the last major German offensive on the Western Front during World War II—an unsuccessful attempt to push the Allies back from German home territory. The name Battle of the Bulge was appropriated from Winston Churchill’s optimistic description in May 1940 of the resistance that he mistakenly supposed was being offered to the Germans’ breakthrough in that area just before the Anglo-French collapse the Germans were in fact overwhelmingly successful. The “bulge” refers to the wedge that the Germans drove into the Allied lines.

Who won the Battle of the Bulge?

The Allies won the Battle of the Bulge, resulting in significantly higher casualties on the German side despite their surprise attack on Allied forces. Losing 120,000 people and military supplies, German forces were dealt an irreparable blow, while Allied forces suffered only 75,000 casualties.

When did the Battle of the Bulge happen?

The Battle of the Bulge started on December 16, 1944, when German forces launched a surprise attack on Allied forces in the forested Ardennes region in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. The battle lasted until January 16, 1945, after the Allied counteroffensive forced German troops to withdraw.

Where did the Battle of the Bulge get its name?

The “bulge” in Battle of the Bulge refers to the shape, as depicted on maps, created by German troops that had wedged westward in the Ardennes through the Allies’ front line. The term was coined by Larry Newman, an American war correspondent.

What were the U.S. contributions to the Battle of the Bulge?

In a speech on January 18, 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that the Battle of the Bulge was “undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war.” He was alluding to key strategic moves made by U.S. forces and to the tens of thousands of casualties U.S. troops suffered during the battle.

What was the significance of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II?

The Battle of the Bulge marked the last German offense on the Western Front. The catastrophic losses on the German side prevented Germany from resisting the advance of Allied forces following the Normandy Invasion. Less than four months after the end of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany surrendered to Allied forces.

After their invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the Allies moved across northern France into Belgium during the summer but lost momentum in the autumn. Apart from an abortive thrust to Arnhem, Netherlands, the efforts of the Allied armies in western Europe during September and October 1944 amounted to little more than a process of nibbling. Meanwhile, the German defense was being continuously strengthened with such reserves as could be relocated from elsewhere and with the freshly raised forces of the Volkssturm (“home guard”). German numbers were also bolstered by those troops who had managed to withdraw from France. A general offensive launched in mid-November by all six Allied armies on the Western Front brought disappointingly small results at heavy cost continued efforts merely exhausted the attacking troops.

In mid-December Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, had at his disposal 48 divisions distributed along a 600-mile (nearly 1,000-km) front between the North Sea and Switzerland. For the site of their counteroffensive, the Germans chose the hilly and wooded country of the Ardennes. Because it was generally regarded as difficult country, a large-scale offensive there was likely to be unexpected. At the same time, the thick woods provided concealment for the massing of forces, whereas the high ground offered a drier surface for the maneuvers of tanks. An awkward feature from an offensive point of view, however, was the fact that the high ground was intersected with deep valleys where the through roads became bottlenecks where a tank advance was liable to be blocked. The aims of the German counteroffensive were far-reaching: to break through to Antwerp, Belgium, by an indirect move, to cut off the British army group from American forces as well as from its supplies, and then to crush the isolated British. Overall command of the offensive was given to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt.


On 1 September 1939, World War II began with the German invasion of Poland. In response, Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September. The next few months in the war were marked by the Phoney War.

Phoney War Edit

The Phoney War was an early phase of World War II marked by a few military operations in Continental Europe in the months following the German invasion of Poland and preceding the Battle of France. Although the great powers of Europe had declared war on one another, neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground. This was also the period in which the United Kingdom and France did not supply significant aid to Poland, despite their pledged alliance.

The French forces launched a small offensive, the Saar Offensive against Germany in the Saar region but halted their advance and returned. While most of the German Army was fighting against Poland, a much smaller German force manned the Siegfried Line, their fortified defensive line along the French border. At the Maginot Line on the other side of the border, French troops stood facing them, whilst the British Expeditionary Force and other elements of the French Army created a defensive line along the Belgian border. There were only some local, minor skirmishes. The British Royal Air Force dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and the first Canadian troops stepped ashore in Britain, while Western Europe was in a strange calm for seven months.

In their hurry to re-arm, Britain and France had both begun to buy large numbers of weapons from manufacturers in the United States at the outbreak of hostilities, supplementing their own production. The non-belligerent United States contributed to the Western Allies by discounted sales of military equipment and supplies. German efforts to interdict the Allies' trans-Atlantic trade at sea ignited the Battle of the Atlantic.

Operation Weserübung Edit

While the Western Front remained quiet in April 1940, the fighting between the Allies and the Germans began in earnest with the Norwegian Campaign when the Germans launched Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. In doing so, the Germans beat the Allies to the punch the Allies had been planning an amphibious landing in which they could begin to surround Germany, cutting off her supply of raw materials from Sweden. However, when the Allies made a counter-landing in Norway following the German invasion, the Germans repulsed them and defeated the Norwegian armed forces, driving the latter into exile. The Kriegsmarine, nonetheless, suffered very heavy losses during the two months of fighting required to seize all of mainland Norway.

Battles for Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and France Edit

In May 1940, the Germans launched the Battle of France. The Western Allies (primarily the French, Belgian and British land forces) soon collapsed under the onslaught of the so-called "blitzkrieg" strategy. The majority of the British and elements of the French forces escaped at Dunkirk. With the fighting ended, the Germans began to consider ways of resolving the question of how to deal with Britain. If the British refused to agree to a peace treaty, one option was to invade. However, Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine, had suffered serious losses in Norway, and in order to even consider an amphibious landing, Germany's Air Force (the Luftwaffe) had to first gain air superiority or air supremacy.

With the Luftwaffe unable to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the invasion of Great Britain could no longer be thought of as an option. While the majority of the German army was mustered for the invasion of the Soviet Union, construction began on the Atlantic Wall – a series of defensive fortifications along the French coast of the English Channel. These were built in anticipation of an Allied invasion of France.

Because of the massive logistical obstacles a cross-channel invasion would face, the Allied high command decided to conduct a practice attack against the French coast. On 19 August 1942, the Allies began the Dieppe Raid, an attack on Dieppe, France. Most of the troops were Canadian, with some British contingents and a small American and Free French presence along with British and Polish naval support. The raid was a disaster, almost two-thirds of the attacking force became casualties. However, much was learned as a result of the operation – these lessons would be put to good use in the subsequent invasion.

For almost two years, there was no land-fighting on the Western Front with the exception of commando raids and the guerrilla actions of the resistance aided by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Office of Strategic Services (OSS). However, in the meantime, the Allies took the war to Germany, with a strategic bombing campaign the US Eighth Air Force bombing Germany by day and RAF Bomber Command bombing by night. The bulk of the Allied armies were occupied in the Mediterranean, seeking to clear the sea lanes to the Indian Ocean and capture the Foggia Airfield Complex.

Two early British raids for which battle honours were awarded were Operation Collar in Boulogne (24 June 1940) and Operation Ambassador in Guernsey (14–15 July 1940). The raids for which the British awarded the "North-West Europe Campaign of 1942" battle honour were: Operation Biting – Bruneval (27–28 February 1942), St Nazaire (27–28 March 1942), Operation Myrmidon – Bayonne (5 April 1942), Operation Abercrombie – Hardelot (21–22 April 1942), Dieppe (19 August 1942) and Operation Frankton – Gironde (7–12 December 1942). [30] [31]

A raid on Sark on the night of 3/4 October 1942 is notable because a few days after the incursion the Germans issued a propaganda communiqué implying at least one prisoner had escaped and two were shot while resisting having their hands tied. This instance of tying prisoner's hands contributed to Hitler's decision to issue his Commando Order instructing that all captured Commandos or Commando-type personnel were to be executed as a matter of procedure.

By the summer of 1944, when an expectation of an Allied invasion was freely admitted by German commanders, the disposition of troops facing it came under the command of OB West (HQ in Paris). In turn, it commanded three groups: the Wehrmacht Netherlands Command (Wehrmachtbefehlshaber Niederlande) or WBN, covering the Dutch and Belgian coasts and Army Group B, covering the coast of northern France with the German 15th Army (HQ in Tourcoing), in the area north of the Seine the 7th Army, (HQ in Le Mans), between the Seine and the Loire defending the English Channel and the Atlantic coast, and Army Group G with responsibility for the Bay of Biscay coast and Vichy France, with its 1st Army, (HQ in Bordeaux), responsible for the Atlantic coast between the Loire and the Spanish border and the 19th Army, (HQ in Avignon), responsible for the Mediterranean coast.

It was not possible to predict where the Allies might choose to launch their invasion. The chance of an amphibious landing necessitated the substantial dispersal of the German mobile reserves, which contained the majority of their panzer troops. Each army group was allocated its mobile reserves. Army Group B had the 2nd Panzer Division in northern France, 116th Panzer Division in the Paris area, and the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy. Army Group G, considering the possibility of an invasion on the Atlantic coast, had dispersed its mobile reserves, locating the 11th Panzer Division in Gironde, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich refitting around the southern French town of Montauban, and the 9th Panzer Division stationed in the Rhone delta area.

The OKW retained a substantial reserve of such mobile divisions also, but these were dispersed over a large area: the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was still Netherlands, the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend and the Panzer-Lehr Division were located in the Paris–Orleans area, since the Normandy coastal defence sectors or (Küstenverteitigungsabschnitte – KVA) were considered the most likely areas for an invasion. The 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen was located just south of the Loire in the vicinity of Tours.

The Concept Of The West Today

Regions generally considered to be part of the Western World - USA, Canada European countries, Australia, and New Zealand.

In the contemporary world, the West can mean different things, depending on perspective. If, for example, the West is defined by a certain set of values, then it is possible to argue that all the countries of the world that share so-called Western values belong to the West, even if they are geographically not part of the West. Thus, Japan could be considered part of the West because it maintains a Western-style democracy, even though it is located in the Far East. At the same time, Cuba still clings to communism, and it is argued by many that the ruling regime of Cuba does not hold so-called Western values, even though it is geographically in the Western Hemisphere. Therefore, in this context, the term “The West”, or “The Western World” does not hold a geographic connotation.

Defining the West in a cultural context, however, would be different. For instance, the West in the 18 th and 19 th centuries was largely defined as Western Europe and its colonies. Yet, the music of Tchaikovsky, who hailed from Russia, would generally be considered Western-style music, even if Russia has historically and politically not been considered part of the West. Thus, what constitutes the West from a cultural standpoint is different from the West in the perspective of politics or history.

To make a long story short, the terms “The West” and “The Western World” have definitions that are fluid definitions that depend on the time period and on the perspective from which someone chooses to view the world.

What if: Suppose France Had Not Fallen in 1940?

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940. It ended just six weeks later on June 25, when the French government capitulated to Nazi Germany after a disastrous, humiliating defeat. By that time, Belgium, the Netherlands, and tiny Luxembourg had also fallen to the Germans, leaving Adolf Hitler in complete mastery of Western Europe.

Although shocking at the time, the fall of France has since come to be seen as the inevitable result of a supine French high command and a French republic demoralized by the political infighting of the 1930s. The famed French historian Marc Bloch, who served as a reserve officer in 1940, summed up the debacle in the title of his war memoir: Strange Defeat.

But as Harvard professor Ernest R. May persuasively argued not long ago, the events of May–June 1940 might better be summarized by the title Strange Victory. Although conceding that German air and armored doctrine was better than that of the Allies, he noted that the Allies actually had more aircraft, more and heavier tanks, and more infantry than did their adversary. Far from defeatist, Maurice Gamelin, the French commander in chief, greeted the May offensive with an almost jaunty confidence, while many of Hitler’s senior field marshals feared the worst. As for the notion of some national French malaise, May considers it the worst kind of hindsight. At the time, the French were quite willing to fight (and during the battle France lost 240,000 dead to prove it), whereas international observers in Berlin—and Hitler’s own Gestapo— noted that most Germans greeted the outbreak of war with disquiet.

Key to the German triumph was a fateful decision to thrust into France in a go for-broke armored offensive through Belgium’s Ardennes forest, followed by an audacious crossing of the Meuse River near the French border town of Sedan. The French troops defending this region were second-rate, outnumbered, and outclassed. The best Allied divisions—as the Germans anticipated—had responded to the German offensive by driving rap idly into Belgium, hoping to establish a strong defensive line east of Brussels, and sending their very best mechanized forces on a lightning run toward Breda in the Netherlands. The Allies adopted this strategy, known as Plan D, because they felt certain the main German thrust would come there—across the Belgian plain—as had been the case in 1914.

It took the Allied high command four fateful days to discover their error, and by then it was too late. German armored columns slashed their way to the English Channel by May 21 the best Allied troops were hopelessly cut off in Belgium. A few hundred thousand would escape in the famous Dunkirk evacuation the rest would perish or sit out the war in German POW camps.

This “strange defeat” destroyed France as a great power and left Great Britain to face Germany alone for the next year, until Hitler launched his massive attack on the Soviet Union. Yet it requires only a minimal rewrite of history to convert defeat into respectable defense, even out right victory. Until January 1940, Case Yellow, the German operational plan for a western offensive, contemplated a primary attack against Belgium and Holland. The objective was not to defeat France in a bold stroke, but to establish forward airfields for what would presumably be a protracted war against Britain and France. In other words, the German high command proposed to do exactly what the Allies expected.

Everything changed because on the evening of January 9, one Luftwaffe major named Helmuth Reinberger accepted a generous offer made by another, Erich Hoenmanns. Reinberger’s assignment was to convey details of the most recent revision of the German plan to 1st Air Corps headquarters in Cologne. He planned to go by train, but Hoenmanns said he would be delighted to fly Reinberger in his Messerschmitt Me 108 Taifun, an advanced four-seat touring aircraft. During the next-morning flight the Taifun’s Argus V-8 engine developed mechanical trouble, and Hoenmanns decided to make an emergency landing. A heavy mist obscured the terrain, but Hoenmanns descended until he could make out the broad ribbon of the Rhine River and landed safely on what he sup posed was German soil.

He was disastrously mistaken. The broad ribbon turned out to be the Meuse River, and the Taifun was on Belgian soil, near the town of Mechelen. Belgian soldiers quickly appeared to investigate. Reinberger desperately tried to burn the plans entrusted to him, but the Belgians captured most of the documents intact. Belgian intelligence soon confirmed that they were genuine. The conservative version of Case Yellow had to be scrapped. But for the incident near Mechelen, it is almost certainly the plan that would have been implemented.

Such an offensive would have run into the best Allied divisions, which had more tanks than the Germans. They were better tanks too, with larger main guns and heavier armor. Two tank battles that did occur in May 1940 (Hainaut, Belgium, and Arras, France) suggest that the Germans would have suffered heavier losses than the Allies. The likely result for the Germans would have been, at worst, an outright defeat and, at best, an offensive that achieved its limited objective but at such heavy cost as to preclude a follow up offensive into France.

Either way, the French Third Republic would have survived intact. A quick col lapse of Nazi Germany would have been the likely sequel to German defeat, and even a successful initial German occupation of Belgium and the Netherlands would have left Germany facing a strategically tenuous situation. First, the French army, the British Expeditionary Force, and surviving Belgian (and perhaps Dutch) forces would have tied down most German forces in a replay of the 1914–1918 western front. Second, German submarine bases would have been confined to the Norwegian fjords without access to the French ports, their ability to depredate Atlantic shipping would have been greatly curtailed.

Third, Italy—which, in direct response to the unexpected German success, leapt into the war on June 10, 1940—would likely have continued its neutrality. Fourth, both the French and British armed forces would have grown stronger over time (especially the French air force, which had excellent aircraft but was caught in the middle of an organizational transition at the time of the German attack). Finally, an invasion of the Soviet Union would have been out of the question for Germany, and Stalin almost certainly would eventually have ignored the August 1939 German–Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression—just as Hitler eventually did—and attacked Nazi Germany.

Had France held, it is difficult to imagine any subsequent scenario sufficiently plausible to restore the trajectory of events back toward an early French defeat: if France did not fall in 1940, it quite likely would not have fallen at all. And Germany would have suffered an early defeat, perhaps in 1940, certainly no later than 1942. A sputtering Argus V-8 engine may well have been the unlikely pivot on which the whole history of the Second World War turned.

Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

The German Spring Offensive of 1918

In the spring of 1918, Luderndorff ordered a massive German attack on the Western Front. The Spring Offensive was Germany’s attempt to end World War One. With 500,000 troops added to Germany’s strength from the Russian Front, Luderndorff was confident of success:

“ We must strike at the earliest moment before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British.”

Hindenburg and Luderndorff

By the spring of 1918, the Allies knew that there would be a major German attack – they just did not know where it would come. The British reinforced their positions near the coast while the French strengthened their positions to the south of the British. However, this left a weakness in the British line to the west of Cambrai. Here the British trench system had not been completed and those that had been dug were inadequate. Sir Hubert Gough, who commanded the Fifth Army in this area, was well aware of his predicament and more conscious of the fact that he had few reserves to call on if the Germans did attack the sector where the Fifth Army was stationed. German reconnaissance had made them aware that the area was less well defended.

On March 21st, 1918, Luderndorff launched the offensive. In just five hours, the Germans fired one million artillery shells at the British lines held by the Fifth Army – over 3000 shells fired every minute. The artillery bombardment was followed by an attack by elite storm troopers. These soldiers travelled lightly and were skilled in fast, hard-hitting attacks before moving on to their next target. Unlike soldiers burdened with weighty kit etc, the storm troopers carried little except weaponry (such as flame throwers) that could cause much panic, as proved to be the case in this attack.

By the end of the first day of the attack, 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner and the Germans had made great advances through the lines of the Fifth Army. Senior British military commanders lost control of the situation. They had spent three years used to static warfare and suddenly they had to cope with a German onslaught. Gough ordered the Fifth Army to withdraw. The German attack was the biggest breakthrough in three years of warfare on the Western Front. Ironically, the British gave up to the Germans the Somme region – where so many British and German soldiers had been killed in the battle of 1916.

The German advance also put Paris in the firing line. The Germans had built the world’s largest artillery gun. Three Krupps cannons were moved to the front line and used to shell Paris. Paris was 120 kilometres from the front line but a shell from the huge guns only took just over 200 seconds to reach the city and 183 huge shells landed on the capital of France causing many Parisians to leave the city.

The first few days of the attack were such an overwhelming success, that William II declared March 24th to be a national holiday. Many in Germany assumed that the war was all but over.

However, the Germans experienced one major problem. Their advance had been a major success. But their troops deliberately carried few things except weapons to assist their mobility. The speed of their advance put their supply lines under huge strain. The supply units of the storm troopers simply could not keep up with them and those leading the attack became short of vital supplies that were stuck well back from their positions.

“We are going like Hell – on and on, day and night. Our baggage is somewhere in the rear and we don’t expect to see it again.” Captain Rudolf Binding.

In particular, the German 18th Army had been spectacularly successful. It had advanced to Amiens and threatened the city. However, rather than use the 18th Army to assist other units moving forward so that the Germans could consolidate their advance, Luderndorff ordered the 18th Army to advance on Amiens as he believed the fall of the city would be a devastating blow to the Allies. In this Luderndorff was correct. Amiens was the major rail centre for the Allies in the region and its loss would have been a disaster. However, many believed that the 18th Army could have been more positively used if it had supported other units of the German army as they advanced and then moved on to Amiens. The 18th Army found that it ran out of supplies as it advanced. Horses, that should have been used in the advance on Amiens, were killed for their meat. Therefore, the mobility of the 18th Army was reduced and the loss of such transport was to be vital.

As the Germans advanced to Amiens, they went via Albert. Here the German troops found shops filled with all types of food. Such was their hunger and desperation for food that looting took place and the discipline that had started with the attack on March 21st soon disappeared. The advance all but stopped in Albert and the attack on Amiens imploded. Luderndorff could not have planned for this and he did not know what to do. Senior German officers based with Luderndorff feared that he was at a point of exhaustion and they feared for his mental health.

Though the German attack had been spectacular in terms of land conquered, it had also been expensive in terms of men lost. Between March and April, the Germans suffered 230,000 casualties. The German Army simply could not sustain such casualties.

At this time, American troops poured into the Western Front. By the end of March, 250,000 American troops had joined the conflict – Luderndorff’s worst planned for scenario. However, the impact of the Americans was hindered by the fact that the American General Pershing would not allow his troops to be commanded by either French or British officers.

“Pershing – obstinate and stupid. Ridiculous.” Douglas Haig

However, despite such difficulties (overcome when Foch was made generalissimo of the Western Front) the end was in sight for the Germans even if Hindenburg did not agree.

“While it may be the case that things have not gone so well for you, you are talking of a front of twelve miles. I have reports from all along the front and morale is high while other reports say that the enemy’s morale is poor.” Hindenburg

Neither Hindenburg or Luderndorff could face the inevitable. By June 1918, the German Army had been severely weakened by the large number of casualties it had suffered. Then on July 15th 1918, Luderndorff ordered the last offensive by the German Army in World War One. It was a disaster. The Germans advanced two miles into land held by the Allies but their losses were huge. The French Army let the Germans advance knowing that their supply lines were stretched to the limit. Then the French hit back on the Marne and a massive French counter-attack took place. Between March and July 1918, the Germans lost one million men.


Early Middle Ages: 500–1000 Edit

While the Roman Empire and Christian religion survived in an increasingly Hellenised form in the Byzantine Empire centered at Constantinople in the East, Western civilization suffered a collapse of literacy and organization following the fall of Rome in AD 476. Gradually however, the Christian religion re-asserted its influence over Western Europe.

After the Fall of Rome, the papacy served as a source of authority and continuity. In the absence of a magister militum living in Rome, even the control of military matters fell to the pope. Gregory the Great (c 540–604) administered the church with strict reform. A trained Roman lawyer and administrator, and a monk, he represents the shift from the classical to the medieval outlook and was a father of many of the structures of the later Roman Catholic Church. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he looked upon Church and State as co-operating to form a united whole, which acted in two distinct spheres, ecclesiastical and secular, but by the time of his death, the papacy was the great power in Italy: [10]

Pope Gregory the Great made himself in Italy a power stronger than emperor or exarch, and established a political influence which dominated the peninsula for centuries. From this time forth the varied populations of Italy looked to the pope for guidance, and Rome as the papal capital continued to be the center of the Christian world.

According to tradition, it was a Romanized Briton, Saint Patrick who introduced Christianity to Ireland around the 5th century. Roman legions had never conquered Ireland, and as the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Christianity managed to survive there. Monks sought out refuge at the far fringes of the known world: like Cornwall, Ireland, or the Hebrides. Disciplined scholarship carried on in isolated outposts like Skellig Michael in Ireland, where literate monks became some of the last preservers in Western Europe of the poetic and philosophical works of Western antiquity. [11]

By around 800 they were producing illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. The missions of Gaelic monasteries led by monks like St Columba spread Christianity back into Western Europe during the Middle Ages, establishing monasteries initially in northern Britain, then through Anglo-Saxon England and the Frankish Empire during the Middle Ages. Thomas Cahill, in his 1995 book How the Irish Saved Civilization, credited Irish Monks with having "saved" Western Civilization during this period. [12] According to art historian Kenneth Clark, for some five centuries after the fall of Rome, virtually all men of intellect joined the Church and practically nobody in western Europe outside of monastic settlements had the ability to read or write. [11]

Around AD 500, Clovis I, the King of the Franks, became a Christian and united Gaul under his rule. Later in the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire restored its rule in much of Italy and Spain. Missionaries sent from Ireland by the Pope helped to convert England to Christianity in the 6th century as well, restoring that faith as the dominant in Western Europe.

Muhammed, the founder and Prophet of Islam was born in Mecca in AD 570. Working as a trader he encountered the ideas of Christianity and Judaism on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire, and around 610 began preaching of a new monotheistic religion, Islam, and in 622 became the civil and spiritual leader of Medina, soon after conquering Mecca in 630. Dying in 632, Muhammed's new creed conquered first the Arabian tribes, then the great Byzantine cities of Damascus in 635 and Jerusalem in 636. A multiethnic Islamic empire was established across the formerly Roman Middle East and North Africa. By the early 8th century, Iberia and Sicily had fallen to the Muslims. By the 9th century, Malta, Cyprus, and Crete had fallen – and for a time the region of Septimania. [13]

Only in 732 was the Muslim advance into Europe stopped by the Frankish leader Charles Martel, saving Gaul and the rest of the West from conquest by Islam. From this time, the "West" became synonymous with Christendom, the territory ruled by Christian powers, as Oriental Christianity fell to dhimmi status under the Muslim Caliphates. The cause to liberate the "Holy Land" remained a major focus throughout medieval history, fueling many consecutive crusades, only the first of which was successful (although it resulted in many atrocities, in Europe as well as elsewhere).

Charlemagne ("Charles the Great" in English) became king of the Franks. He conquered Gaul (modern day France), northern Spain, Saxony, and northern and central Italy. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor. Under his rule, his subjects in non-Christian lands like Germany converted to Christianity.

After his reign, the empire he created broke apart into the kingdom of France (from Francia meaning "land of the Franks"), Holy Roman Empire and the kingdom in between (containing modern day Switzerland, northern-Italy, Eastern France and the low-countries).

Starting in the late 8th century, the Vikings began seaborne attacks on the towns and villages of Europe. Eventually, they turned from raiding to conquest, and conquered Ireland, most of England, and northern France (Normandy). These conquests were not long-lasting, however. In 954 Alfred the Great drove the Vikings out of England, which he united under his rule, and Viking rule in Ireland ended as well. In Normandy the Vikings adopted French culture and language, became Christians and were absorbed into the native population.

By the beginning of the 11th century Scandinavia was divided into three kingdoms, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, all of which were Christian and part of Western civilization. Norse explorers reached Iceland, Greenland, and even North America, however only Iceland was permanently settled by the Norse. A period of warm temperatures from around 1000–1200 enabled the establishment of a Norse outpost in Greenland in 985, which survived for some 400 years as the most westerly outpost of Christendom. From here, Norseman attempted their short-lived European colony in North America, five centuries before Columbus. [13]

In the 10th century another marauding group of warriors swept through Europe, the Magyars. They eventually settled in what is today Hungary, converted to Christianity and became the ancestors of the Hungarian people.

A West Slavic people, the Poles, formed a unified state by the 10th century and having adopted Christianity also in the 10th century [14] [15] but with pagan rising in the 11th century.

By the start of the second millennium AD, the West had become divided linguistically into three major groups. The Romance languages, based on Latin, the language of the Romans, the Germanic languages, and the Celtic languages. The most widely spoken Romance languages were French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Four widely spoken Germanic languages were English, German, Dutch, and Danish. Irish and Scots Gaelic were two widely spoken Celtic languages in the British Isles.

High Middle Ages: 1000–1300 Edit

Art historian Kenneth Clark wrote that Western Europe's first "great age of civilisation" was ready to begin around the year 1000. From 1100, he wrote: "every branch of life – action, philosophy, organisation, technology [experienced an] extraordinary outpouring of energy, an intensification of existence". Upon this period rests the foundations of many of Europe's subsequent achievements. By Clark's account, the Catholic Church was very powerful, essentially internationalist and democratic in its structures and run by monastic organisations generally following the Rule of Saint Benedict. Men of intelligence usually joined religious orders and those of intellectual, administrative or diplomatic skill could advance beyond the usual restraints of society – leading churchmen from faraway lands were accepted in local bishoprics, linking European thought across wide distances. Complexes like the Abbey of Cluny became vibrant centres with dependencies spread throughout Europe. Ordinary people also treked vast distances on pilgrimages to express their piety and pray at the site of holy relics. Monumental abbeys and cathedrals were constructed and decorated with sculptures, hangings, mosaics and works belonging to one of the greatest epochs of art and providing stark contrast to the monotonous and cramped conditions of ordinary living. Abbot Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis is considered an influential early patron of Gothic architecture and believed that love of beauty brought people closer to God: "The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material". Clark calls this "the intellectual background of all the sublime works of art of the next century and in fact has remained the basis of our belief of the value of art until today". [11]

By the year 1000 feudalism had become the dominant social, economic and political system. At the top of society was the monarch, who gave land to nobles in exchange for loyalty. The nobles gave land to vassals, who served as knights to defend their monarch or noble. Under the vassals were the peasants or serfs. The feudal system thrived as long as peasants needed protection by the nobility from invasions originating inside and outside of Europe. So as the 11th century progressed, the feudal system declined along with the threat of invasion. [ citation needed ]

In 1054, after centuries of strained relations, the Great Schism occurred over differences in doctrine, splitting the Christian world between the Catholic Church, centered in Rome and dominant in the West, and the Orthodox Church, centered in Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. The last pagan land in Europe was converted to Christianity with the conversion of the Baltic peoples in the High Middle Ages, bringing them into Western civilization as well. [ citation needed ]

As the Medieval period progressed, the aristocratic military ideal of Chivalry and institution of knighthood based around courtesy and service to others became culturally important. Large Gothic cathedrals of extraordinary artistic and architectural intricacy were constructed throughout Europe, including Canterbury Cathedral in England, Cologne Cathedral in Germany and Chartres Cathedral in France (called the "epitome of the first great awakening in European civilisation" by Kenneth Clark [11] ). The period produced ever more extravagant art and architecture, but also the virtuous simplicity of such as St Francis of Assisi (expressed in the Prayer of St Francis) and the epic poetry of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. As the Church grew more powerful and wealthy, many sought reform. The Dominican and Franciscan Orders were founded, which emphasized poverty and spirituality. [ citation needed ]

Women were in many respects excluded from political and mercantile life, however, leading churchwomen were an exception. Medieval abbesses and female superiors of monastic houses were powerful figures whose influence could rival that of male bishops and abbots: "They treated with kings, bishops, and the greatest lords on terms of perfect equality. . . they were present at all great religious and national solemnities, at the dedication of churches, and even, like the queens, took part in the deliberation of the national assemblies. ". [16] The increasing popularity of devotion to the Virgin Mary (the mother of Jesus) secured maternal virtue as a central cultural theme of Catholic Europe. Kenneth Clark wrote that the 'Cult of the Virgin' in the early 12th century "had taught a race of tough and ruthless barbarians the virtues of tenderness and compassion". [11]

In 1095, Pope Urban II called for a Crusade to re-conquer the Holy Land from Muslim rule, when the Seljuk Turks prevented Christians from visiting the holy sites there. For centuries prior to the emergence of Islam, Asia Minor and much of the Mid East had been a part of the Roman and later Byzantine Empires. The Crusades were originally launched in response to a call from the Byzantine Emperor for help to fight the expansion of the Turks into Anatolia. The First Crusade succeeded in its task, but at a serious cost on the home front, and the crusaders established rule over the Holy Land. However, Muslim forces reconquered the land by the 13th century, and subsequent crusades were not very successful. The specific crusades to restore Christian control of the Holy Land were fought over a period of nearly 200 years, between 1095 and 1291. Other campaigns in Spain and Portugal (the Reconquista), and Northern Crusades continued into the 15th century. The Crusades had major far-reaching political, economic, and social impacts on Europe. They further served to alienate Eastern and Western Christendom from each other and ultimately failed to prevent the march of the Turks into Europe through the Balkans and the Caucasus. [ citation needed ]

After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the classical Greek texts were translated into Arabic and preserved in the medieval Islamic world, from where the Greek classics along with Arabic science and philosophy were transmitted to Western Europe and translated into Latin during the Renaissance of the 12th century and 13th century. [17] [18] [19]

Cathedral schools began in the Early Middle Ages as centers of advanced education, some of them ultimately evolving into medieval universities. During the High Middle Ages, Chartres Cathedral operated the famous and influential Chartres Cathedral School. The medieval universities of Western Christendom were well-integrated across all of Western Europe, encouraged freedom of enquiry and produced a great variety of fine scholars and natural philosophers, including Robert Grosseteste of the University of Oxford, an early expositor of a systematic method of scientific experimentation [20] and Saint Albert the Great, a pioneer of biological field research [21] The Italian University of Bologna is considered the oldest continually operating university. [ citation needed ]

Philosophy in the High Middle Ages focused on religious topics. Christian Platonism, which modified Plato's idea of the separation between the ideal world of the forms and the imperfect world of their physical manifestations to the Christian division between the imperfect body and the higher soul was at first the dominant school of thought. However, in the 12th century the works of Aristotle were reintroduced to the West, which resulted in a new school of inquiry known as scholasticism, which emphasized scientific observation. Two important philosophers of this period were Saint Anselm and Saint Thomas Aquinas, both of whom were concerned with proving God's existence through philosophical means. The Summa Theologica by Aquinas was one of the most influential documents in medieval philosophy and Thomism continues to be studied today in philosophy classes. Theologian Peter Abelard wrote in 1122 "I must understand in order that I may believe. by doubting we come to questioning, and by questioning we perceive the truth". [11]

In Normandy, the Vikings adopted French culture and language, mixed with the native population of mostly Frankish and Gallo-Roman stock and became known as the Normans. They played a major political, military, and cultural role in medieval Europe and even the Near East. They were famed for their martial spirit and Christian piety. They quickly adopted the Romance language of the land they settled in, their dialect becoming known as Norman, an important literary language. The Duchy of Normandy, which they formed by treaty with the French crown, was one of the great large fiefs of medieval France. The Normans are famed both for their culture, such as their unique Romanesque architecture, and their musical traditions, as well as for their military accomplishments and innovations. Norman adventurers established a kingdom in Sicily and southern Italy by conquest, and a Norman expedition on behalf of their duke led to the Norman Conquest of England. Norman influence spread from these new centres to the Crusader States in the Near East, to Scotland and Wales in Great Britain, and to Ireland. [ citation needed ]

Relations between the major powers in Western society: the nobility, monarchy and clergy, sometimes produced conflict. If a monarch attempted to challenge church power, condemnation from the church could mean a total loss of support among the nobles, peasants, and other monarchs. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, one of the most powerful men of the 11th century, stood three days bare-headed in the snow at Canossa in 1077, in order to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII. As monarchies centralized their power as the Middle Ages progressed, nobles tried to maintain their own authority. The sophisticated Court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was based in Sicily, where Norman, Byzantine, and Islamic civilization had intermingled. His realm stretched through Southern Italy, through Germany and in 1229, he crowned himself King of Jerusalem. His reign saw tension and rivalry with the Papacy over control of Northern Italy. [22] A patron of education, Frederick founded the University of Naples. [ citation needed ]

Plantagenet kings first ruled the Kingdom of England in the 12th century. Henry V left his mark with a famous victory against larger numbers at the Battle of Agincourt, while Richard the Lionheart, who had earlier distinguished himself in the Third Crusade, was later romanticised as an iconic figure in English folklore. A distinctive English culture emerged under the Plantagenets, encouraged by some of the monarchs who were patrons of the "father of English poetry", Geoffrey Chaucer. The Gothic architecture style was popular during the time, with buildings such as Westminster Abbey remodelled in that style. King John's sealing of the Magna Carta was influential in the development of common law and constitutional law. The 1215 Charter required the King to proclaim certain liberties, and accept that his will was not arbitrary — for example by explicitly accepting that no "freeman" (non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right which is still in existence today. Political institutions such as the Parliament of England and the Model Parliament originate from the Plantagenet period, as do educational institutions including the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. [ citation needed ]

From the 12th century onward inventiveness had re-asserted itself outside of the Viking north and the Islamic south of Europe. Universities flourished, mining of coal commenced, and crucial technological advances such as the lock, which enabled sail ships to reach the thriving Belgian city of Bruges via canals, and the deep sea ship guided by magnetic compass and rudder were invented. [13]

Western Offensive - History

By William E. Welsh

The portion of the Siegfried Line guarding the Saar industrial region of Germany proved a sinister gateway into western Germany for Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army in late 1944. By the time Patton’s troops arrived at the fortified line, the German engineers had improved it to the point that it was the strongest section of the entire 390-mile fortified zone. Advancing from the west in late November, Patton’s troops first encountered antitank ditches and “dragon’s teeth.” The “teeth,” which were concrete foundations containing four or five rows of concrete pimples, deterred tanks and vehicles from accompanying infantry into the maze of pillboxes and bunkers that lay beyond. Patton would not be deterred, however, and the Saar Offensive was set to commence.

Patton’s First Offensive in Lorraine: Disaster at Fort Driant

Fearing a French attack through that sector, German leader Adolf Hitler had visited Saarbrücken, one of the cities that would be integrated into what the Germans preferred to call the West Wall, in October 1938 to announce the pending construction of the Aachen-Saar section. Twice in a five-year period, with the initial effort in 1939 and 1940, and then a second effort in 1943 and 1944, when the Germans sensed that a full-scale Allied advance into Germany was inevitable, laborers toiled to make this particular section of the West Wall formidable enough to give the Allies pause before entering it.

Patton’s 250,000-strong Third Army accepted the challenge with confidence his troops had arrived in the French province of Lorraine on August 31. For nearly a month, “Old Blood and Guts” struggled to get his troops across the Moselle River. After a five-day lull in which it waited for gasoline shipments, Patton’s army launched its first full-scale offensive into Lorraine on September 5. The offensive’s main objective was to get Third Army’s two corps across the river in force.

Major General Manton Eddy’s XII Corps, on Patton’s right flank, managed to secure a bridgehead east of Nancy after a month of hard fighting. However, Maj. Gen. Walton Walker’s XX Corps found it impossible to establish a sizable bridgehead near Metz, because of the punishing long-range artillery from outlying enemy-occupied forts that disrupted his troops’ attempts.

Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy (left), commanding U.S. XII Corps, talks strategy with Third Army commander Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., during the drive into the West Wall, December 1944.

Owing to a more protracted fuel shortage in October, Patton was forced to undertake small, isolated battles to correct his lines. Never willing to assume a purely defensive stance, Patton received permission from 12th Army Group commander Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley to chip away at the German lines in front of him where he saw fit. When troops from Maj. Gen. Leroy Irwin’s 5th Infantry Division suffered a particularly bloody repulse at Fort Driant during one of these limited attacks, Patton realized he must conduct a large-scale encirclement of Metz in his next full-scale offensive to avoid similar disasters that were bound to occur trying to clear the Metz forts one by one.

Advance on Metz: Patton’s Second Offensive

Third Army’s second major offensive in Lorraine began on November 8. At times, it seemed that Patton’s army had moved no faster than a man on crutches throughout the muddy countryside of Lorraine. Heavy rains had restricted the armor to roadways and mud-filled foxholes almost as soon as they were dug, making life miserable for the riflemen. As a result of the latter, non-combat casualties related to trench foot were recorded by the thousands and soldiers suffering from the condition had to be withdrawn from the front lines.

Third Army’s initial objectives for the new offensive were to strangle the German garrison at Metz on the left flank and push the Germans farther back toward the West Wall on the right flank. When Third Army completed its encirclement of Metz on November 19, leaving only mop-up operations inside the pocket, Patton’s corps and division commanders set about reorganizing their units for a final push to the West Wall.

The fortified city of Metz, near the corner of where France, Germany, and Luxembourg come together, was a vital objective for the U.S. Third Army. To take it, Patton committed his entire force.

Behind the front line, Patton gave orders for the 5th Infantry Division to besiege five forts inside the pocket whose garrisons refused to surrender. As for his other eight divisions, their new objective was to carve a corridor through the West Wall that would allow Third Army to push on to the Rhine River. It was a lofty objective, considering that the closest of Patton’s units were still more than a hundred miles from the fabled river.

Meanwhile, the German First Army under General of Panzer Troops Otto von Knobelsdorff slowly withdrew toward the West Wall. In the north, as a result of heavy fighting for Metz, the units on First Army’s right flank were highly disorganized. However, they had a shorter distance to retreat to the safety of the West Wall than those in southern Lorraine. Third Army’s reorganization for the second phase of the offensive lasted six days and its troops did not resume their march east on a broad front until November 25.

Much to Patton’s displeasure, Knobelsdorff’s First Army slipped east in good order. “Regrouping is a curse of war and a great boon to the enemy,” the American general said of the situation.

Two months earlier, units belonging to Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’s First Army had breached the West Wall in two places: Aachen and just north of Trier. With troops bogged down by the strongly defended pillboxes, American casualties soared. All implications were that Patton’s troops would find the going equally rough.

The Saar Offensive: Patton Invades

Third Army’s first order of business following the fall of Metz was to get its forces to the Saar River and probe for crossing points along a 30-mile stretch––from Saarburg in the north to Saarbrücken in the south. Once the best crossing points were determined, the army would cross the river in force to establish two bridgeheads, one to support each division.

Because the section of the West Wall protecting the Saar ran from southeast to northwest, Walker’s XX Corps on the left flank was much closer to the fortified zone than Eddy’s XII Corps on the right flank. Indeed, the lead elements of Maj. Gen. William Morris’s 10th Armored Division on XX Corps’ left flank already were facing after the capture of Metz, an east-west extension of the West Wall known as the Orscholz Switch Line (or Siegfried Switch). The switch was designed to prevent an enemy from racing north up through the triangle formed by the junction of the Moselle and Saar Rivers and, in so doing, outflank the double portion of the West Wall farther south.

South of the 10th Armored, Maj. Gen. James Van Fleet’s 90th Infantry Division advanced in XX Corps’ center, while Maj. Gen. Harry Twaddle’s 95th Infantry Division pressed forward on the corps’ right flank. Patton initially hoped that Morris would be able to cross the Saar River at Saarburg, which lay within the Moselle-Saar Triangle. If that effort failed, the main effort would shift south where Twaddle was to hurdle the Saar at the road and rail hub of Saarlautern and then turn north to clear a crossing point for Van Fleet’s division.

Owing to the collapse of the German line around Metz and to the shorter distance to the West Wall in their sector, Walker’s troops faced less resistance from enemy forces in front of them than that experienced by Eddy’s division on the right flank.

For the Saar Offensive, Eddy’s five divisions would probe for crossings of the Saar at two key points. On Eddy’s left flank, abutting XX Corps, the 35th and 80th Infantry Divisions backed by the 6th Armored Division would advance on Sarreguemines, while on Eddy’s right flank, adjacent to Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers’s Sixth Army Group, the 26th Infantry Division and 4th Armored Division would push toward Sarre-Union.

The German First army

Knobelsdorff’s German First Army fell back in front of the weight of Third Army toward the West Wall. Keeping a close eye on Knobelsdorff, and frequently intervening in the direction of First Army’s divisions, was Army Group G commander General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck. A member of the Nazi Party faithful and a decorated veteran of desperate battles on the Eastern Front, Balck instilled those under him a renewed sense of hope and confidence during the waning of the Third Reich.

After the fall of Metz, Knobelsdorff issued orders for German forces along the Maginot Line––the French fortified position facing Germany––to fall back to the Saar Heights. From there, the Germans might slow the Allied advance just enough to give those units on Knobelsdorff’s right flank sufficient time to entrench themselves in the Wall’s prepared positions.

The German First Army comprised three corps. First Army’s right flank, in the north, was held by General of Infantry Walter Hörnlein’s 82nd Corps. His right flank, within the Siegfried Switch, was anchored by General-Lieutenant Kurt Pflieger’s 416th Division, which had escaped the Metz fighting largely intact. In contrast, Colonel Karl Britzelmayr’s 19th Volksgrenadier Division, which held Hörnlein’s left flank at Merzig, had lost nearly 90 percent of its combat strength in the first half of November and had only 630 men left.

To ensure that the Americans would not punch right through the 19th Volksgrenadier, Balck received permission from Commander in Chief West Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt to commit the 21st Panzer and 25th Panzer Grenadier Divisions, both previously part of First Army but by then part of the German Army’s reserve, to the Merzig sector to buttress Britzelmayr’s infantry.

General-Lieutenant of the Waffen-SS Max Simon’s 13th SS Corps headquarters was responsible for First Army’s center at the West Wall above and below the key crossing of Saarlautern. Simon’s command consisted of remnants of General-Major Kurt Mühlen’s 559th Volksgrenadier Division and the 48th Division, both of which had seen hard fighting in early November and together numbered only 360 men after the fall of Metz. They were bundled into a kampfgruppe under Mühlen’s direction at Saarlautern. Simon also had remnants of the decimated 347th Division. Perhaps his strongest unit was General-Major August Wellm’s 36th Volksgrenadier Division. The reduced remnants of the once formidable 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division held the ground farther south.

The last of the three corps in First Army was General of Infantry Gustav Höhne’s 89th Corps, posted on First Army’s left flank. It comprised the 361st Volksgrenadier Division and General-Lieutenant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzer Division, a unit that had distinguished itself throughout the fighting in Lorraine.

Probing Attacks on the German Flank

Although the second phase of Patton’s November offensive would not be in full swing until November 25, there were significant actions on the flanks of each army as armored divisions probed the German defenses. On Third Army’s left flank, the 10th Armored Division’s Combat Command A, led by Brig. Gen. Kenneth Althaus, reached the Siegfried Switch on November 20. The Siegfried Switch was manned by two rifle battalions and one machine-gun battalion belonging to Pflieger’s 416th Division.

Like other sections of the West Wall, the Siegfried Switch featured antitank ditches and dragon’s teeth as forward defenses. Behind these obstructions were various strongpoints, ranging from small pillboxes with several firing slits to large, multilevel bunkers. Althaus deployed his command along a six-mile front. On the left was Lt. Col. Miles Standish’s Task Force, and on the right was Lt. Col. Thomas Chamberlain’s task force.

Members of a U.S. Army engineer unit stand on “dragon’s teeth” antitank obstacles in a portion of the West Wall during the Saar Offensive.

Standish had orders to strike toward Tettingen, while Chamberlain advanced on Orscholz. With field howitzers blazing to pin the Germans in their positions, CCA’s armored columns rolled forward on November 21 against the outerworks of the Siegfried Switch. Both commanders subdivided their commands into two columns for the attack. Chamberlain’s right column, advancing on Orscholz, would have the most success that day. It fought its way to within nearly a mile of Orscholz until a hail of German mortar and artillery fire broke up the attack and forced the Americans to withdraw. Elsewhere, the attackers made no progress. Efforts to bridge the tank ditches or blow up the dragon’s teeth on the first day of fighting were disrupted by intense fire from enemy forces in pillboxes just behind the obstructions.

The two armored task forces regrouped after the first day’s fighting and renewed their attack on November 22 with limited success. The increased tenacity with which the Germans defended their positions on the second day was due in part to the arrival of the 21st Panzer Division.

Three Days of Combat For the 358th

After two days of unsuccessful fighting in which the Americans were able to penetrate the switch only to a distance of a half mile, Morris instructed the 358th Infantry Regiment of Van Fleet’s 90th Infantry Division, on loan to 10th Armored, to attack in the center of the switch the following morning. Colonel C.H. Clarke, the regimental commander, had orders to attack with his three battalions toward the towns of Müzingen and Sinz, which lay on the far side of the switch. Once the towns were in American hands, Morris planned to commit his armor to exploit the breach and race north through the Moselle-Saar Triangle.

On the first day of its attack, the 358th made good progress. A heavy fog that morning gave cover to the advancing Americans but also grounded tactical air support. Clarke sent his 1st and 2nd Battalions along a hogback ridge on the right flank while his 3rd Battalion pushed forward alone on the left flank. Because the town of Tettingen was protected by pillboxes that blocked all avenues of approach, 3rd Battalion skirted it to the east. Elements of the 3rd Battalion then attacked Tettingen from the rear, while other parts advanced on Butzdorf farther north. By day’s end, Clarke and his men were able to report steady progress, and a large number of prisoners from the pillboxes and trenches had been captured.

The following day, Clarke’s riflemen on the right flank ran into heavy resistance outside Oberleuken, a village that had to be secured as part of the advance on Müzingen. From a massive bunker outside Oberleuken, enemy machine guns raked the American ranks. While the 2nd Battalion engaged the Germans in the bunker, the 1st Battalion outflanked the bunker and entered Oberleuken, where the two sides fought house to house. On the left flank, the German infantry, armed with flamethrowers, counterattacked Clarke’s 3rd Battalion.

A woman (left) looks on as U.S. soldiers march through Puttelange, France, in late November 1944.

Despite tenacious resistance, Clarke’s 3rd Battalion was able to enter Butzdorf, a village on the path to Sinz. When German infantry, backed by tanks, counterattacked into Butzdorf, the men of Company K, 3rd Battalion, took cover in the cellars of the village in the late afternoon. Throughout the night, soldiers of the 21st Panzer Division methodically went from house to house using tank and bazooka fire against the entrenched Americans.

On the third day of fighting, the fog cleared and P-47 Thunderbolts shot across the sky, dropping napalm and fragmentation bombs on German staging areas in Müzingen and Sinz. A relief column backed by M4 Sherman tanks extracted 36 survivors of Company K from Butzdorf on the left flank, but by then the Germans had infiltrated behind 3rd Battalion’s lines into the village of Tettingen, and the Americans shelled the Germans with artillery and committed tanks to the battle to cover a general withdrawal on the left flank.

Heavy Casualties of the Third Army

Although Clarke’s 2nd Battalion was able to advance beyond Oberleuken, it suffered heavy casualties attempting to capture high ground south of Müzingen and also had to break off its advance. Clarke’s rifle battalions were able to penetrate the Siegfried Switch more deeply than Morris’s armored infantry, but they failed to clear a corridor that would allow the armor to break out into the Moselle-Saar Triangle.

Third Army suffered heavy losses at the Siegfried Switch. In particular, Clarke’s regiment suffered 60 percent casualties during three days of fighting at that position. Realizing that Morris did not have sufficient infantry resources to sustain a protracted fight at the switch, Patton ordered him to break off the action on November 26. Leaving the 3rd Cavalry Group behind to screen Third Army’s left flank, Morris redirected his armored columns toward the Merzig-Saarlautern section of the West Wall.

Panzer Lehr vs the 4th Armored Division

Eddy’s XII Corps was able to resume its advance east after the capture of Metz more quickly than Walker’s XX Corps because it did not have to mop up pockets of the enemy behind its lines. The Germans in front of Eddy’s corps still held key towns such as Falquemont and Dieuze that had to be secured before a general advance to the West Wall could begin. Once these objectives were captured, Patton told Eddy to rest his infantry while the armor probed enemy defenses for soft spots to exploit.

Although Eddy benefited from having two armored divisions under his command, he did not get along well with 4th Armored Division commander Maj. Gen. John Wood. The well-respected tank leader believed Eddy’s habit of sending the armor ahead of the infantry resulted in higher casualties for his command. Because of this, Wood and Eddy had clashed over the matter on several occasions. It was clear to both Patton and Eddy that something would have to be done to ensure Wood’s compliance with orders.

What that solution would be had not yet been decided when Eddy ordered Wood to capture the key town of Sarre-Union as a staging area for an attack against the West Wall on Third Army’s extreme right flank. When Eddy ordered Wood to drive his tanks northeast toward the objective, the feisty tank commander secured permission from an adjoining unit, Maj. Gen. Wade Haislip’s XV Corps, which lay outside Third Army’s area of operations, to take a more daring route to his objective that would turn the German right flank along the Saar River. Although the move was a sound one, Wood made the request without Eddy’s knowledge.

An American soldier of the 4th Armored Division inspects one of three German panzers of the 11th Panzer Division knocked out during fighting near Guébling, France, about 30 miles southeast of Metz, on November 14, 1944.

On November 24, the tanks and armored infantry of Wood’s Combat Command B overran the 361st Volksgrenadier Division guarding two key crossings of the Saar River south of Sarre-Union. Not far behind the 361st Division were German tank columns belonging to the veteran Panzer Lehr Division led by General-Lieutenant Fritz Bayerlein. CCB’s tank column clashed with Bayerlein’s panzer grenadiers at the village of Barendorf that afternoon, and it was clear that the following day would produce a major engagement between well-matched opponents.

CCB’s thrust upset Bayerlein’s attack against XV Corps. Rather than being able to strike Haislip’s units with two armored columns, Bayerlein was forced to redirect his western column to face Wood’s tanks and infantry at Barendorf. With a heavy mist concealing his advance on the morning of November 25, Bayerlein’s panzers counterattacked Wood’s CCB. Using the terrain to their advantage, CCB’s tank crews were able to inflict heavy losses on Panzer Lehr, forcing it to assume a defensive position after a long day of fighting.

For four more days the two sides sparred along the east bank of the Saar until Panzer Lehr suffered enough casualties for Balck to pull the division out of line and replace it with the 25th Panzergrenadier Division. By that point, Wood’s CCB had advanced to within about five miles of Sarre-Union.

Taking the Saar Heights

To the north, Twaddle’s 95th Infantry Division crossed into Germany on November 25 and prepared to attack enemy positions on the Saar Heights. The Germans were determined to make the Americans pay a heavy price for capturing the Saar Heights and shifted elements of the 21st Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions to the escarpment to greet the Americans with cold steel. The fighting was fierce throughout the day on November 29, with the Germans launching as many as 10 counterattacks against the Americans in an effort to keep them from clearing the heights and reaching the Saar River.

When elements of the 95th’s 377th Infantry Regiment secured the village of St. Barbara on the left flank, they set up a section of 57mm antitank guns on the eastern edge of the village in expectation of a German counterattack. They didn’t have long to wait. A kampfgruppe from the 21st Panzer Division slammed into the gun positions, captured two of the antitank guns, and forced the surviving Americans to seek cover in the village until reinforcements arrived. On the right flank, the 378th Infantry Regiment reached the village of Berus but a counterattack by a kampfgruppe from Panzer Lehr was so ferocious that the Americans fell back more than two miles to the village of Merten.

The fighting for the Saar Heights lasted 48 hours, with the Germans finally breaking off the action on the night of November 30 and pulling back to Saarlautern. To the north, Van Fleet’s 90th Infantry and Morris’s 10th Armored Divisions encountered far less resistance, and by November 30 both had closed up to the Saar.

The Battle For Sarre-Union

As Walker’s infantry in the north reached the Saar, Eddy ordered Maj. Gen. Willard Paul, commanding the 26th Infantry Division, to send his 101st Infantry Regiment to assist Wood’s 4th Armored Division in an all-out assault on Sarre-Union. The plan of attack was for Wood’s Combat Command B to attack from the east while the infantry attacked from the south. Soldiers of the 25th Panzergrenadier Division were entrenched on high ground north and east of the town, which they felt offered a better defensive position than the town itself. From there, the grenadiers would have a perfect staging area for counterattacking the Americans and could draw on the assistance of kampfgruppen from the 11th Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions.

On November 30, the 101st Infantry Regiment marched east, leapfrogged the Saar, and took up a position south of the town. The next day, American armor and infantry advanced simultaneously on Sarre-Union. Two rifle companies from the 101st were able to reach the town and take cover in its buildings. Several attempts to storm the heights north of the town were easily repulsed by heavy machine-gun fire and pretargeted mortar barrages. Unfortunately for the infantry, they were unable to receive armor support because Wood’s CCB had become engaged in a tank fight with a kampfgruppe from Panzer Lehr for a key position known as Hill 318 several miles east of the town.

The fighting at Sarre-Union was desultory the following day. But on December 3, a kampfgruppe from Wietersheim’s 11th Panzer Division rumbled toward Sarre-Union from the heights to the north, overrunning a five-gun antitank battery and forcing the American riflemen to take cover in cellars of the town’s buildings. While the riflemen hunkered down, American 105mm howitzers south of town poured more than 400 rounds on the German armor and half-tracks, forcing the Germans to retreat. To ensure that the Americans could hold Sarre-Union against any future counterattacks, Paul inserted a fresh regiment—the 104th—into the town to bolster his position.

General Wood Relieved

Although Patton admired the 4th Armored Division’s headstrong commander for his aggressiveness, he at last agreed with Eddy that Wood’s disruptive behavior could no longer be tolerated. “On the second [of December], it became evident that General Wood had to be sent home for a rest,” Patton wrote in his memoirs. The following day, Patton relieved Wood of his duties in the field and replaced him with Third Army’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Gaffey.

The Germans holding First Army’s left flank subsequently retreated north to new positions in the Maginot Line bunkers at Rohrbach-les-Bitche, where they awaited the inevitable follow-up attack by the Americans. Wood’s CCA would bear the brunt of the fighting over the next five days until such point as the entire 4th Armored Division was ordered to the rear to rest and refit. Its place in the line was taken on December 8 by Maj. Gen. R. Allen’s 12th Armored Division, which had been loaned to Patton from Haislip’s XV Corps.

Patton had granted permission for Eddy’s infantry divisions to rest on November 22 before resuming their advance toward the West Wall. Despite heavy fighting on Eddy’s extreme left flank, Maj. Gen. Horace McBride’s 80th Division had still not secured the town of Falquemont, where the two sides had been sparring for 10 days. In 48 hours of heavy fighting beginning November 25, McBride’s men finally secured the towns of Falquemont and St. Avold and cleared Germans from Maginot Line pillboxes. When the Germans inside the pillboxes refused to surrender, tank destroyers were brought forward to fire at point-blank range and kill the defenders.

American troops of XII Corps move through the rubble of St. Avold, a key communications center of the German 19th Army. The town was captured by Third Army units on November 27, 1944.

After the three divisions on Eddy’s left flank—the 35th and 80th Infantry and 6th Armored Divisions—corrected their line, they began a concentrated push toward Sarreguemines. Using their artillery to maximum effect, the infantry drove remnants of the 36 Volksgrenadier and 17th SS Panzer Divisions before them as they pushed toward the West Wall. By December 7, both the 35th Infantry and 6th Armored were in position to attack German forces in Sarreguemines, a key town 10 miles south of the West Wall fortifications.

The following day, two regiments of Maj. Gen. Paul Baade’s 35th Infantry Division (the “Santa Fe” Division) crossed the Saar to establish a bridgehead on its eastern bank. The 320th Infantry Regiment crossed in assault boats, while the 134th used a semi-demolished railroad bridge south of Sarreguemines to effect its crossing.

A counterattack that afternoon by a kampfgruppe from Wietersheim’s 11th Panzer Division was smashed in 15 minutes by guns from nine field artillery battalions before it could inflict any substantial losses on Baade’s infantry.

Fighting For Habkirchen

To Baade’s south, Paul’s 26th Infantry Division fought its way through the Maginot Line where the Germans had retreated following the fall of Sarre-Union. As Paul’s 104th Infantry emerged from the Maginot Line on December 10, it tied in with Allen’s 12th Armored, which had forced the Germans from Rohrbach-les-Bitche to the east. By this time, Eddy’s infantry and Allen’s armor had crossed the border and were fighting the Germans on their own soil.

The American drive was marked by fits and starts. Once across the Saar, the advance of Eddy’s infantry divisions was slowed considerably in the following days by German artillery in superb positions on the east bank of the Blies River, a right tributary of the Saar, which constituted yet another barrier in Eddy’s march to the West Wall.

The intensity of the fighting on Third Army’s right flank was best exemplified by a grinding, three-day battle that Baade’s 35th Division fought trying to establish a bridgehead at the town of Habkirchen on the east bank of the Blies. When Baade’s engineers succeeded in laying a Bailey bridge across the Blies at that location on December 15, the division’s armored support was finally able to drive the Germans from the town.

By mid-December, the 26th Infantry had suffered so many losses that Eddy decided to send it to the rear to rest, refit, and absorb replacements. Taking the place of the 26th was Maj. Gen. Frank Cullin’s fresh 87th Infantry Division, which had moved up the front line from Metz. Cullin’s regiments would eventually reach the outerworks of the West Wall on December 16.

High Rate of Attrition For Patton’s Infantry

A problem that would plague Third Army throughout its attempts to penetrate the West Wall in December was the shockingly high rate of attrition in trained riflemen it was suffering. Because the riflemen bore the brunt of the fortress fighting at Metz and continued to do so at the West Wall, casualties soared in the infantry ranks. Many of Walker’s infantry battalions were at 55 percent combat strength by early December, and Eddy’s infantry was no better off.

Patton reported that Third Army was short 11,000 riflemen by the time he reached the outerworks of the West Wall in the Merzig-Saarlautern section. To compensate, Patton twice drafted 5 percent of the manpower from his corps and divisional staffs to serve as replacement riflemen for the front lines. The December 6 and December 15 drafts produced about 6,500 new riflemen however, they were of poor quality because they lacked sufficient training. These troops were parceled out to the 26th Infantry Division of Eddy’s XII Corps, and also to the 90th and 95th Infantry Divisions of Walker’s XX Corps.

Taking the Bridge at Saarlautern

Third Army’s most determined attempt to breach the West Wall occurred on Walker’s right flank. By the end of November, Twaddle’s 95th Division had cleared German resistance from the Saar Heights and stood poised to descend into the Saar Valley where its commander planned to send his men into the sprawling city of Saarlautern.

Fortunately for Twaddle’s men, the western portion of Saarlautern lay outside the West Wall fortifications. This meant that they would be able to clear the city’s west side and establish themselves a base from which to try to push their way into the eastern edge of the town, which the Germans had incorporated into the fortified zone, and also to launch attacks against other nearby suburbs also integrated into the West Wall. Twaddle’s 378th and 379th Regiments reached the Saar River on December 1 and scouted potential crossings. While they scouted the river, wave upon wave of B-24 Liberators pounded German defenses on the eastern side of town.

German troops manning a 3.7cm Flak 36/37 anti-aircraft gun in the Saarland are on the alert for an American aerial assault, December 1944.

The following day, an American reconnaissance plane found an intact bridge over the Saar and radioed the information to the ground commanders. Twaddle immediately ordered Colonel Robert Bacon to send a battalion of his 379th Regiment across the river in assault boats to seize the far end of the bridge. As this was taking place, another battalion fought its way to the close end of the structure and captured it. As soon as the bridge was in American hands, Bacon sent a company of tank destroyers across the bridge to expand the bridgehead and brace for an inevitable counterattack.

In a desperate attempt to damage the bridge and prevent further crossings, the Germans loaded several tanks with explosives and rolled them toward the bridge. These efforts failed and the Americans were able to clear the Germans from two nearby bunkers overlooking the bridge.

The German Defenders Reorganize

The outerworks of the West Wall that Twaddle’s division encountered at Saarlautern consisted of mines and multiple rows of barbed wire, in some places to a depth of a mile, and pillboxes clustered together to provide mutual fire support. South of the city, the outerworks were flush against the Saar, but in the vicinity of the captured bridge the fortified zone began about three-quarters of a mile back from the river.

Five miles behind the river was a second fortified line to which the Germans might withdraw if the first line was breached. Although the West Wall had substantial limitations—poor communications infrastructure, shortage of anti-aircraft guns, and small mounts that could not handle guns larger than 75mm—these shortcomings were offset by the frequent fog and low clouds that made it difficult for the Americans to conduct aerial reconnaissance and provide regular air support.

On December 3, Twaddle continued to funnel more infantry battalions into the narrow bridgehead he had established in western Saarlautern. He also ordered the 3rd Battalion, 378th Infantry to cross the Saar below the main city and begin attacking German positions in Ensdorf, a suburb of Saarlautern.

Following a lull in the fighting, the Germans counterattacked the Saarlautern bridgehead with a meager force of two infantry companies and a handful of tanks the following day. The attack was easily repulsed with the assistance of tank destroyers inside the bridgehead and heavy guns on the opposite bank of the Saar. Enraged that the Americans had gained a foothold in Saarlautern, Balck sacked Knobelsdorff the same day, replacing him with General of Infantry Hans Obsterfelder, who was deemed a better defensive tactician than his predecessor.

As for Balck, he was in the midst of a protracted struggle with Rundstedt for control of key armor and artillery assets being used by First Army to prevent Patton from breaking through the West Wall. At the beginning of December, Rundstedt had ordered Balck to transfer Panzer Lehr, 11th Panzer Division, and 401st and 404th Volksartillerie Corps to Army Group B defending the Ruhr industrial area. The two commanders eventually reached a compromise on December 5 in which Balck agreed to transfer Panzer Lehr and the 401st to Army Group B, but retain the 11th Panzer and 404th for First Army’s defense of the West Wall in the Saar sector.

The Fortifications of Saarlautern

Twaddle’s men quickly became bogged down in Saarlautern. As they pushed their way toward the eastern suburbs of the city, the infantry battalions ran into thick clusters of pillboxes. Progress under these circumstances was measured not in fractions of miles advanced, but rather in a small number of pillboxes cleared each day.

The task facing Twaddle’s 94th Division was a substantial one. The Germans had fortified all three eastern suburbs of the city: Ensdorf to the south, Fraulautern to the east, and Saarlautern-Roden to the north. The divisional commander sent one of his regiments into each of the three suburbs. By December 7, Twaddle had managed to get two armored battalions—the 778th Tank Battalion and the 607th Tank Destroyer Battalion—across the Saar to support the infantry in the bridgehead on the east bank.

The pillboxes, which were the central feature of the West Wall defenses, were placed to cover key roads and were also constructed in empty spaces between buildings or homes in urban areas. The typical pillbox was manned by a machine-gun team, which received supporting fire from riflemen stationed nearby. Patton’s men used everything they had––including bazookas, flamethrowers, and demolition charges––to knock out the crews inside the pillboxes.

Infantrymen and a Sherman tank cautiously advance down a walled lane near Metz, November 1944, as German troops pull back.

The Germans launched frequent counterattacks and also infiltrated behind American lines into pillboxes already cleared. Patton’s men quickly learned to weld shut the doors to prevent the enemy from reoccupying the pillboxes. Although the German units in the Saarlautern sector conducted piecemeal attacks against the Americans, they nevertheless retained their morale and only small numbers surrendered.

The 378th Infantry would have the most difficult time of the 95th’s regiments. Each time the engineers attempted to throw a pontoon bridge across the Saar opposite Ensdorf, German artillery destroyed it before vehicles and supplies could be brought across. Nevertheless, the riflemen were able to work their way beyond the barbed wire and begin clearing the suburb one block at a time. To the north of Ensdorf, the 377th Infantry was able to clear and secure half of Fraulautern after three days of intense fighting once the tanks and tank destroyers reached the east bank on December 7. Despite such success, however, the Germans were able to hold the shoreline along the Saar between Fraulautern and Ensdorf, thereby prohibiting the linking of the Saarlautern and Ensdorf bridgeheads.

With the 95th engaged in brutal urban fighting for control of Saarlautern’s suburbs, Patton toured the main city on December 14 to see firsthand the nature of the fighting at the West Wall. The general noted on his tour that the houses in the city were constructed at their base with thick concrete that enabled the Germans to easily transform them into strongpoints. “Nearly all of the houses I inspected on either side of the river in Saarlautern were actually forts,” Patton wrote in his memoirs.

A Mile-Long Front

North of Fraulautern, the 379th fought desperately to secure a foothold in Saarlautern-Roden, managing to clear about a half of that suburb before the 379th and the 377th were relieved by elements of Irwin’s 5th Infantry Division moving up to the front lines on December 17. Patton chose to leave the 378th in place at Ensdorf until it could secure a pontoon bridge that would make relieving the regiment a more practical undertaking. After more than two weeks of hard fighting in Saarlautern and its suburbs, Twaddle’s division reported capturing nearly 150 pillboxes and 1,250 defended buildings.

A short distance north of Saarlautern, Van Fleet’s 90th Infantry Division was making preparations as early as December 2 to cross the Saar near the towns of Pachten and Dillingen. Pachten bordered the Saar on its east bank, and Dillingen was located a short distance to the southeast.

Walker’s original plans for establishing a bridgehead for his corps on the east bank of the Saar called for Twaddle’s division to swing north and clear the east bank of the Saar so that Van Fleet’s division could cross unopposed, but the strength and depth of the West Wall outerworks above and below Saarlautern made it impossible for a rapid advance in either direction.

While the 95th Division to the south was expanding the Saarlautern bridgehead in preparation for an attack on the city’s three suburbs, Van Fleet on December 6 began sending across elements of his 357th and 358th Infantry Regiments to establish their own bridgehead on the east side of the Saar. On the right flank, elements of the 358th managed to slip past several pillboxes guarding the approaches to Pachten and reached the western end of the town.

On the left, the 357th attacked toward the Huttenwald, a forested ridge, in a move designed to block enemy forces moving south to reinforce Pachten and Dillingen. Engineers toiled through the night to build pontoon bridges, but the muddy conditions prevented them from anchoring the structures on the banks.

The many rivers and streams in Lorraine kept the combat engineer battalions busy building bridges. Here tanks of the 15th Tank Battalion, 6th Armored Division, cross a pontoon bridge over the Seille River at Port-sur-Seille, between Metz and Nancy.

Fearing an American breakthrough, Balck planned to reinforce the southern end of the Merzig-Saarlautern section of the West Wall with the 719th Infantry Division, a fresh division just moved in from Holland, and elements of the 11th Panzer Division to contain Van Fleet’s bridgehead on the east bank of the Saar. The 719th, although not a first-rate division, had a large complement of organic artillery and was backed by elements of Wietersheim’s 11th Panzer Division.

On the second day of Van Fleet’s offensive, elements of the 719th backed by a small number of Panzer Mark IVs counterattacked the 3rd Battalion, 358th Infantry in Pachten, slowing the regiment’s advance. While Van Fleet’s long-range guns pounded the Germans in the town, the 1st Battalion, 358th Infantry crossed the Saar opposite Dillingen and began assaulting enemy positions there. By the end of the second day, the 90th Division’s front stretched for more than a mile—from Dillingen in the south to the Huttenwald in the north. To maintain the expanding front, Van Fleet was forced to commit his reserve regiment, the 359th, to the expanding battle.

Putting Pressure on the 358th at Pachten

The cold, wet spell that had plagued Third Army throughout its time in Lorraine continued as the Americans tried valiantly to break through German positions at the West Wall. Van Fleet’s riflemen shivered day and night in foxholes and slit trenches half-filled with water on the east bank of the Saar as they beat back one counterattack after another by German units determined to throw them back across the river.

On Van Fleet’s exposed left flank, about 600 soldiers from the vanguard of the 719th Division, backed by a dozen tanks, crashed into the front lines of the 357th Regiment on December 8. American artillery firing from the safety of the west bank eventually broke up the attack, but not before a platoon from the 357th had been overrun and annihilated.

On the southern end of the bridgehead, a kampfgruppe from 21st Panzer attacked the forward positions of the 358th Infantry at Pachten, putting pressure on both ends of Van Fleet’s battle line.

For the next several days the situation grew increasingly grim for Van Fleet’s division, despite the commitment of his reserve regiment. During the early hours of December 9, the 359th landed in assault boats on the east bank and turned south to throw its weight against Germans occupying the salient that divided the two isolated bridgeheads established by the forces already engaged.

Unknown to the Americans, additional elements of the German 719th Division were being fed into the Huttenwald, and the 719th began setting up dozens of long-range guns to hammer the Americans on the east bank of the Saar. By midday, the Germans were pouring heavy artillery and mortar fire into the ranks of both the 357th and 359th from the high ground of the Huttenwald. As if that weren’t bad enough, German troops in two large concrete bunkers inside the salient dividing Van Fleet’s two bridgeheads continued to hold out, despite repeated attempts by soldiers of the 359th Infantry to neutralize them.

Making the situation even more miserable, the weather deteriorated on December 10. The precipitation alternated between rain and snow, precluding any possibility of air support to the troops inside Van Fleet’s beleaguered bridgeheads. With all of the 719th Infantry now having arrived at the battlefront, the Germans began attacking along the entire length of the American line. Unlike the Americans, who had only established footbridges and had to ferry across vehicles and antitank guns, the German infantry had at their disposal nearly 100 artillery pieces of various caliber and also armored support.

The Americans weathered strong attacks throughout the day, and on the following day Van Fleet ordered his regiments to pull back from exposed positions. On December 12, Van Fleet’s troops finally were able to open a corridor linking the northern and southern bridgeheads at Pachten-Dillingen when riflemen from the 359th cleared and captured one of the bunkers that had proved so resistant to American artillery fire and talked the defenders of five adjacent pillboxes into surrendering.

That same day, the 90th Division’s engineers were able to ferry across a company of tanks and a company of tank destroyers to strengthen the 357th Infantry and enable it to engage the Germans on more equal terms.

Planning a New Offensive

The initiative in the Pachten-Dillingen sector swung back to the Americans on December 15. On that date, the 358th and 359th Infantry Regiments launched a coordinated attack against Dillingen following a bombardment with phosphorus rounds from 4.2-inch chemical mortars designed to burn the enemy out. With the support of some of the tanks and tank destroyers transferred from the left flank, the American infantry was able to break the German main line around the city and begin the slow work of isolating and destroying individual pillboxes. German resistance in the sector waned considerably when Balck received orders to transfer more units, the 404th Volksartillerie and the 21st Panzer Division, to other parts of the Western Front.

When it became evident in early December that Walker’s infantry had little prospect of rapid success in the Merzig-Saarlautern section of the West Wall, Patton began to consider alternate tactics. The cornerstone of his new plan was a massive aerial bombardment that would soften up the enemy for a fresh offensive slated for December 19.

German troops occupy muddy trenches on the Saar front in anticipation of Patton’s attacks, December 1944.

To plot the air strikes, Patton met with Maj. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, commander of the IX Air Force, on December 6. A sense of urgency surrounded the planning for the new offensive because Patton feared his resources might be transferred to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group for another attempt to cross the Rhine in the north. “While my attack was going forward by short leaps, it was not very brilliant, and I felt that if I failed to break through after the air blitz, I would have to go on the defensive and lose several divisions,” Patton noted in his memoirs.

“What the Hell, We’ll Still be Killing Krauts.”

The plans for a new offensive that would capitalize on air strikes to help breach the West Wall in the Saar were shelved permanently when the Germans struck the thinly defended VIII Corps sector of Lt. Gen. William Simpson’s Ninth Army, which was adjacent to Third Army’s left flank, in the Ardennes on the morning of December 16. It would become known in the West as the Battle of the Bulge.

Three weeks earlier, Patton had fretted that the static front held by Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps was an open invitation to the Germans to attack. “The First Army is making a terrible mistake in leaving the VIII Corps static, as it is highly probable the Germans are building up east of them,” Patton wrote in his diary on November 25.

It took a commander with a keen mind like Patton’s to foresee threats to adjacent forces, and the prescient Patton had detailed his staff four days before the German attack to sketch plans for a counterattack north by Third Army should the Germans punch through Middleton’s line. These plans would prove invaluable to the Allies in countering the German thrust through the lightly defended Ardennes in the second half of December.

In response to the German attack into the Ardennes on December 16, Bradley’s 12th Army Group chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Leven Allen, phoned Patton that night and conveyed orders for Patton to send Morris’s 10th Armored Division north from its position opposite Merzig to help contain the breakthrough. “I protested very strongly,” Patton wrote. He told Allen that Third Army had paid a high price for its gains in the Merzig-Saarlautern sector and that withdrawing key forces would be tantamount to relinquishing the initiative to the Germans. Nevertheless, he complied with the order.

Within 48 hours of the German attack, Patton drove north to Luxembourg to confer in person with Bradley about how to strike back at German forces in the Ardennes. The commander of the 12th Army Group bluntly told Patton that he would have to transfer half of his command north as soon as practical. Finally appreciating the severity of the situation and resigned to going on the defensive in Lorraine, Patton said, “What the hell, we’ll still be killing Krauts.”

The End of the Third Army’s Saar Offensive

Having already drawn up plans for just such a situation, Patton told Bradley that in addition to the 10th Armored, he could have three more divisions––the 4th Armored, 26th Infantry, and 80th Infantry––all moving north within the next 24 hours. Rather than place them under the command of Eddy and his war-weary staff, Patton planned to put them under the direction of Maj. Gen. John Milliken and his III Corps headquarters staff, which had joined Third Army in October but had not yet played an active role in the fighting in Lorraine.

On December 19, Eisenhower arrived to consult with Bradley and Patton on the situation. Eisenhower wanted Patton to commit six divisions, but Patton said that he would lose the element of surprise if he waited for two more divisions to reach the point of attack. Patton stated that he could counterattack as soon as December 22 if he were allowed to do so with the smaller force of four divisions. Ike understood the logic, and Patton proceeded to Luxembourg to establish a new headquarters from which to direct his forces.

The withdrawal of the bulk of Eddy’s XII Corps from the West Wall in the Saarbrücken sector necessitated a redrawing of the boundary between Bradley’s 12th Army Group and Devers’s Sixth Army Group. Eisenhower and the two army group commanders involved agreed that Walker’s XX Corps would remain for a time in the Merzig-Saarlautern sector, but Devers would extend his army group’s northern boundary to a point midway between Saarlautern and Saarbrücken. Rather than leave Third Army overextended, Walker’s troops abandoned their bridgeheads in the vicinity of Saarlautern and withdrew to the safety of the west bank. With those developments, Third Army’s involvement in the Saar Offensive drew to a close.

What Caused the Third Army’s Sluggishness in Lorraine?

A number of factors contributed to Third Army’s protracted battle in Lorraine. One factor was that Patton had, from the outset, misjudged the enemy’s morale, which remained strong despite obvious shortcomings in manpower, training, and war-fighting equipment.

Another factor was Patton’s persistence in spreading out his forces—both in trying to cross the Moselle River in September and also in trying to punch through the West Wall in December—in hopes of finding a hole or weak spot in the enemy line. Instead, he should have concentrated his divisions in one powerful column to overwhelm the Germans in a specific location. Still another factor was the acute shortage of riflemen as Third Army’s infantry had to carry the weight of the battle on its shoulders both in reducing the Metz forts and also in attempting to clear the outerworks of the West Wall.

One factor completely beyond Patton’s control was the dismal weather. Exceptionally heavy rains over the three and a half months that Third Army fought in Lorraine produced flooded rivers, soggy terrain, and record numbers of trench foot cases among the infantry in their wet, freezing foxholes. Largely restricted to roads, the armor was unable to exploit opportunities that arose.

Lorraine was certainly not the high point of Patton’s career, for he relished the swift advance and despised costly set-piece battles. The proof is in the numbers. It took Patton’s troops more than three months to advance 60 miles at the cost of 50,000 troops.

Nevertheless, during the static slugfest, Patton’s Third Army wore down the enemy, which suffered 180,000 casualties trying to prevent one of the most aggressive Allied commanders from achieving a breakthrough on the southern end of the Western Front. Unable to maneuver around the enemy’s main force, Patton’s Third Army had no choice but to trade punches with the German First Army until the German counterattack in the Ardennes put an end to the fighting in Lorraine.

This is Part Three of a Three Part look at Patton’s Lorraine Campaign. Click here for parts One and Two.

Western Offensive - History

By David H. Lippman

“It is very difficult to be an openly declared, courageous Nazi today, and to express one’s faith freely,” read the editorial in the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper, which further added, “We have no illusions now.” The official newspaper of the Nazi Party had good reason to sound a fearful note. As dawn broke on March 25, 1945, the British 21st Army Group had hacked a 30-mile-long and seven-mile deep bridgehead over the Rhine River. Operations Plunder and Varsity, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s massive set-piece Rhine crossing, had succeeded perfectly at a small cost in Allied casualties: 3,968 for the British 2nd Army and 2,813 for the U.S. 9th Army. In turn, some 16,000 Germans had been taken prisoner. Now, with Germany’s last major barrier breached, there was little to stop Monty’s 20 divisions and 1,600 tanks from fulfilling the Western Allied invasion of Germany, driving deep into the Nazi homeland and the Netherlands. (Read more about the events and battles that shaped the European Theater inside the pages of WWII History magazine.)

Even so, the drive would not be easy. First, all the bridges across the Rhine had been blown, and British and American engineers had to replace them with Bailey bridges. Up and down the Wesel bridgehead, sappers and engineers were hard at work. Bulldozers carved out approaches to the riverbank while engineers scrambled with wrenches and iron bars to finish two Bailey bridges. Buffalo amphibious vehicles shuttled back and forth across the river, hauling supplies and troops.

The Soldiers That Crossed the Rhine

British Major Roland Ward helped develop a system using wire ropes to winch tank carriers across the Rhine. The raft was composed of five large pontoons, about 25 feet long and five feet wide, connected with steel panels, with ramps at each end. One raft broke from its moorings. Major Ward commandeered a motorboat to take him out to the raft.

“I jumped on board and found the crew were petrified. Their motors wouldn’t hold, they were drifting down the lines and the next stop was the German lines, you see. The officer, I think, had lost his head a bit. The anchor didn’t seem to hold and the motors didn’t work, but by a bit of luck someone had brought out a rope from the far side and he joined it up to a bulldozer. I thought, if he pulls too hard he’ll break it. So I said, ‘You can direct the motors by signaling with a whistle and your arms.’ There was no radio or anything like that. They engaged the motors so that the rope pulled slowly. When we were halfway across, the Warrant Officer, who had kept his head, said to me, ‘There is the end of the anchor cable. What shall I do?’ I could see what he meant. I said, ‘Let it go.’ And that was it, because the raft swung round and we came in perfectly,” he recalled.

Lieutenant Tom Flanagan of the 4th King’s Own Scottish Borderers, part of the 52nd Lowland Division, crossed the Rhine that night over “Sussex Bridge.” He recalled, “Our trucks were driven without lights except for the glow-light which shone on the white painted rear axle to enable following trucks to keep in touch in convoy. The narrowness of the Bailey bridge was made plain for the drivers by small lamps fixed to the sides of the girders placed every few yards along the way.

“As we drove up the ramp and onto the bridge I could hardly make out the swift flowing black depths of the river below nor could I hear anything but the noise from the engine of my Bedford Troop Carrier on which I rested my right arm, it being an overhead drive vehicle, as it ground its way along in low gear. Seated in the back, my HQ section, silent now as we slowly made our way, rocking up and down as the pontoons holding the structure moved with the weight of the lorry, into the cleared area of the west bank of the Rhine. Our packs strapped to our backs thrust us into an uncomfortable position in our seats and our steel helmets created an unaccustomed weight on our heads.”

Crossing the Rhine, Corporal Dai Evans of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled, “Each of us was given a number of rubberized linen bags, shaped rather like long sausages with tapes fastened to their ends. These were lifebelts. Inflated by mouth, then tied around our bodies, they were supposed to give us a chance if we were dumped into the river. There were no instructions as to how to wear them but someone had worked out that if tied around the waist they would very likely turn us over in the water due to the weight of our equipment. It was decided it would be better to fasten them under the armpits, tying the tapes to our epaulettes to prevent them slipping down. We were given enough for each of our men to wear and instructed to tell them that if by any chance they were pitched into the river they were not to struggle but to get rid of all the equipment they could, letting the lifebelt support them. As the Rhine was a very fast-flowing river they were on no account to fight it but to let it carry them downstream while they swam towards the bank. Rescue teams with boats were stationed further down to pick up anyone in the water.”

“We Have Won the Battle of the Rhine”

So the Allied armies crossed the Rhine. The 11th Hussars led the famed 7th “Desert Rats” Armored Division across the Rhine on March 27. Colonel W. Wainmann, commanding the “Cherry Pickers,” threw away the regiment’s map-sheets as an indication that the 11th Hussars would never retrace their steps.

The 1st Royal Tank Regiment captured Heiden against light opposition, taking 18 guns and their crews, 10 trucks, and 60 prisoners on the 26th. Next day they had a harder time, losing a tank. As the rest of the vehicles tried to cross a stream by a flimsy wooden bridge, the bridge collapsed under the weight. Staff Sergeant Major Leonard Dauncey earned a Military Medal by organizing a party of men to build a ford or causeway. For three hours, under mortar and sniper fire that wounded three men, Dauncey and his crew finally succeeded and C Squadron got across the stream, amid rain.

The 11th Armored Division drove across the Rhine in heavy rain and entered the small town of Velen, where the local hotel served the advancing 8th Rifle Brigade and 3rd Royal Tank Regiment fresh bacon and eggs. Trooper Ernie Hamilton of the 15/19th Hussars collected nylon ropes used by the glider troopers, which were ideal for towing out tanks that got bogged down.

“We have won the Battle of the Rhine,” Montgomery told his Army commanders in a new directive on March 28. The Allied plan called for the 21st Army Group’s two armies, 1st Canadian and 2nd British, to advance at a high rate of speed to clear the North German Plain, seize the North Sea ports of Bremen, Emden, and Hamburg, and cut off the German defenders in the Netherlands. The U.S. 9th Army would be taken from Monty’s forces and used to help surround the industrialized Ruhr district.

Most importantly, the Allied plan did not call for the Anglo-American armies to take Berlin. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, in one of his most controversial decisions, had ceded that to the advancing Soviet Red Army. Historians would endlessly debate the wisdom of that order.

Regardless of the decision’s wisdom, 21st Army Group still had to drive across northern Germany, and the Nazis would have something to say about that.

An Army of Boys and Old Men

The problem for the Germans was simply that there was not much left. Six years of World War II had drained the German Army’s strength. All the Germans had to throw against Monty’s advancing troops were training establishments, battered parachute regiments, and the Volkssturm, consisting of old men and Hitler Youth armed with one-shot Panzerfaust rocket launchers. A senior German officer, seeing the youngsters tramping along with their Panzerfausts, asked, “What will they do after they fire them? Use the launchers as clubs?”

Even so, the Panzerfaust was a superb anti-tank weapon, and the Hitler Youth made up in determination and loyalty what they lacked in tactical skill. The Germans were fighting for their homes now, and the advancing British and Canadian troops could not count on a friendly reception when they entered towns and cities.

The Canadian 1st Army could count on a friendlier reception, as it was tasked with liberating the Netherlands. Ironically, it would face some of the fiercest resistance of the final campaign.

The Canadians were ordered to drive north between the Rhine and the Dutch-German border to cut off the considerable Nazi defenses in the Netherlands. The Allied high command feared that the Germans might open the dikes in Holland to the sea and flood vast sections of the country, which was also suffering through the “Hunger Winter” of short rations and desperation.

A Three Days’ Fight For Emmerich

The first task was to clear the city of Emmerich to enable the Canadians to open a maintenance route over the Rhine. The 3rd Canadian Division’s 7th Brigade was assigned to take the city. It faced elements of the 6th Parachute and 346th Infantry Divisions. The fighting was vicious, and the city was heavily bombed and shelled. Backed by British Crocodile flamethrowing tanks, the Canadians found tough going.

“Enemy defenses consisted mainly of fortified houses and tanks and as each house and building had to be searched progress was slow,” the 7th Brigade’s war diary reported. “Our tanks in support found it almost impossible to maneuver due to well-sited road blocks and rubble.”

In three days of fighting, the Canadians took Emmerich, suffering 173 casualties, including 44 killed. The 8th Brigade, coming up behind, then took the Hoch Elten feature, a hilltop that overlooked Emmerich. That enabled the Royal Canadian Engineers to start throwing a Class 40 Bailey bridge across the Rhine at noon on March 31. At 8 pm the following night, the 1,373-foot Melville Bridge, named for a former chief engineer of 1st Canadian Army, was open for business. The Canadians also built the longest Bailey bridge in the entire European campaign, the 1,814-foot Blackfriars Bridge.

During the spring of 1945, the forces of the Allied 21st Army Group launched a decisive offensive against weakening German resistance, capturing thousands of prisoners and occupying much of northern Germany.

The force behind the Blackfriars Bridge was the 30th Canadian Engineers Field Company under Lieutenant William Fernley Brundrit. When construction began on March 26, Brundrit “worked unceasingly without regard for shelling, eating and sleeping aiding in construction and in arranging for the large quantities of stores and equipment to arrive at the job, at the right time and place. When the bridge was completed … he fell asleep in his vehicle, completely exhausted.” His feat earned him a Military Cross.

With the bridges in business, the 1st Canadian Army took back control of 2nd Canadian Corps, and for the first time both of Canada’s corps were fighting side by side, with 1st Corps brought up from Italy in Operation Goldflake.

Backed by two more bridges, the 2nd Canadian Corps thundered across the Rhine at Emmerich with the 4th Canadian Armored Division and 1st Polish Armored Division in the lead. The first objective was the Twenthe Canal, held by the German 6th Parachute Division and some additional units.

The 4th Infantry Brigade hit the defense line in a night attack on April 2-3, crossing the river in storm boats, taking the Germans by surprise. Canadian troops captured German engineers who had been busy preparing positions for infantry who arrived too late to oppose the canal crossing. The Germans counterattacked, but 4th Brigade fended them off with light losses. The 4th Brigade’s war diary commented, “The enemy tactics appear almost juvenile at times—he is doing everything the book says as usual, but his training here shows that the caliber of troops opposing us is not what it used to be. Each enemy attack suffered very heavy casualties and usually a number of POWs were taken—grubby, dirty, slender youths, boys, and old men.”

Taking Zutphen

The Canadian advance up the Ijssel River continued, with the 3rd Canadian and 1st Canadian Divisions leading the way. The objectives were the towns of Zutphen and Deventer and their bridges. The 3rd Division closed in on Zutphen, defended by 361st Infantry Division with a parachute training battalion under command. The German troops included numerous teenagers, brought up in the Hitler Youth, who fought hard. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada built a bridge with 4.2-inch mortar boxes reinforced with timber and ballast, and it proved strong enough to carry the supporting tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment across the Ijssel.

Zutphen was liberated by the North Shore Regiment and Le Regiment Chaudiere, which found, “For the first time there was evidence that the enemy’s attitude was gradually changing and although he fought well at times, the old tenacity was lacking,” according to 8th Brigade’s “Lessons Learned” report.

The 7th Brigade attacked Deventer from the east, and after a hard struggle entered the Dutch city. Once the Germans were down to their last defense line—an antitank ditch—they began to crumble. The Canadian advance cleared Deventer speedily with help from the Dutch Underground.

Operation Cannonshot

Operation Cannonshot was launched by the 1st Canadian Division halfway between Zutphen and Deventer to clear a route from Arnhem to Zutphen. Two veteran Canadian regiments, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, crossed the river in Buffaloes, surprising the German defenders. The Seaforths found no opposition while the Princess Pats secured their ground after knocking out a French tank the Germans were using.

Five companies of engineers threw bridges across the Ijssel. On April 12, the 1st Canadian Brigade passed through the bridgehead and headed west toward Apeldoorn. The 48th Highlanders of Canada suffered a great loss. Their commanding officer, Lt. Col. D.A. McKenzie, was killed by a shell. At 6 am on the 13th, the 1st Division reverted to 1st Canadian Corps and headed for Apeldoorn and Arnhem.

Meanwhile, the 2nd Canadian Corps continued its advance from Twente, racing up the Dutch-German border. On April 6, the 6th Infantry Brigade reached the Schipbeek Canal about eight miles east of Deventer. The Germans blew the only bridge in the area, but the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada crossed the damaged structure anyway and set up a bridgehead on the opposite bank.

With the advance moving forward briskly, the Allies threw in paratroops behind German lines to cause more chaos among the defenders. The 2nd and 3rd French Regiments de Chasseurs Parachutistes’ 700 French SAS men were to harass the Germans and provide guides and information for the advancing Canadian 1st Army. Operation Amherst scattered French SAS teams behind German lines, and they captured 200 and killed 150 Germans, preventing the destruction of numerous bridges.

2,400 POWs in Groningen

The 2nd Corps now moved on Groningen, near the North Sea. The fast-moving Canadians took a canal bridge intact west of Beilen on April 12 and took the town by surprise from the rear after two hours of fighting, seized Assen on April 13, and penetrated Groningen’s southwestern suburbs on the same day. Everywhere Dutch civilians danced in the streets and cheered their liberators.

Groningen was defended by miscellaneous German troops, including Dutch renegade SS men, who fought with the courage of men who knew they would face treason trials if captured. The Canadians fought hand-to-hand against the Germans, clearing out every room of four-story apartments. German troops deployed machine guns in basements, and Dutch SS men in civilian clothes sniped at the Canadian troops.

On the evening of April 14, the Essex Scottish found a bridge intact across a large canal in the southern part of the city, and the 5th Brigade moved across rapidly. “In spite of the severe fighting … great crowds of civilians thronged the streets—apparently more excited than frightened by the sound of nearby rifle and machine-gun fire,” reported the 2nd Division’s war diary. Because of the civilians, 2nd Division held back its artillery and air strikes, accepting the possibility of delay and additional casualties.

Two members of a Hitler Youth infantry unit trained to attack Allied armored formations stand with their hands up as a British soldier guards them with his Sten gun. The young Nazis were captured while riding bicycles with their Panzerfaust antitank weapons attached. British soldiers were surprised by the youth of many of these combatants.

The German commander and his staff surrendered Groningen on the 16th, but stubborn elements of the garrison held out a little longer. At the city’s eastern edge, the Germans had raised a lift-bridge over the Van Starkenborgh Canal, and the mechanism to lower it was on the wrong side. Dutch civilians, one of whom was the bridge tender, offered to help. Accompanied by the Cameron Highlanders of Canada, the Dutch crossed the canal under fire on a ladder. The bridge tender was wounded, but he lowered the bridge. German resistance then collapsed.

The Canadians took 209 casualties at Groningen but captured approximately 2,400 POWs. In the course of their advance from the Rhine to the North Sea, the 3rd Canadian Division had fought forward 115 miles in 26 days, built 36 bridges, and captured 4,500 prisoners.

Setting Friesoythe Ablaze

Meanwhile, the 2nd Corps’ two armored divisions also rumbled ahead, northeastward to the Ems River. The 4th Armored Brigade made an assault crossing at Meppen, taking one casualty and quickly overrunning the town. Among the POWs captured were 17-year-olds with six to eight weeks of military experience.

After the 4th Armored crossed the Ems, German defenses began to weaken. A divisional staff officer said, “The enemy was, perhaps, never entirely out of control, but he appeared to be seriously disorganized. For the first time we began to meet the passive opposition of demolitions and mines rather more often than the active opposition of ground troops.” The Canadians were slowed more by boggy terrain than German defenses.

But at the town of Sogel, the Germans fought back with several counterattacks. The Lake Superior Regiment and Lincoln and Welland Regiment chased off the Germans but came under sniper fire from civilians. The Canadians retaliated by bulldozing a number of houses in the center of town.

Another town faced bulldozing when the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada attacked and took Friesoythe. Their commander, Lt. Col. F.E. Wigle, was killed by a sniper. Rumors swirled that the sniper was in civilian clothes, and Friesoythe was ordered burned—whether by division or brigade headquarters is not known. Canadian Wasp flamethrowers trundled up and down the streets of the town, wrecking its center. There was no investigation by Canadian authorities.

Operation Destroyer

Now the Canadians headed for their next objective, the city of Oldenburg, across the Kusten Canal. On April 16, the 10th Brigade attacked by boat across the canal. German defenders came from the 2nd Parachute Corps and a marine regiment. Covered by the New Brunswick Rangers’ machine guns, the Canadians had their objectives in hand by dawn. The Germans counterattacked with infantry and a single self-propelled gun, which was beaten back. Engineers threw Algonquin Bridge over the canal under appalling conditions, and the British Columbia Regiment crossed immediately.

While the 2nd Corps fanned out across northwest Germany, the 1st Corps prepared to attack into the Netherlands. The first task, to clear out Arnhem and Oosterbeek, was assigned to Maj. Gen. S.B. Rawlins’ 49th West Riding Division and Maj. Gen. Bert Hoffmeister’s 5th Canadian Armored Division. Operation Destroyer kicked off on April 2 with the 49th crossing the Rhine west of Arnhem. Resistance was slight despite German propaganda communiqués referring to “fierce fighting” in the Arnhem sector. The first outfit across the Neder Rijn was the same battalion that had crossed the Seine and the Dutch frontier first, the Hallamshire Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment.

Operation Quick Anger: Taking Arnhem

By April 5, “The Island,” the section of land between Nijmegen and Arnhem, scene of fierce fighting during Operation Market-Garden in the fall, was in British hands, and Operation Quick Anger, the attack on Arnhem, followed next. The 2nd Gloucesters manhandled their assault boats over the dike in front of the river to attack Scheisprong Fort, suffering 32 casualties, but took 60 German prisoners.

After liberating the concentration camp at Belsen, British soldiers force SS guards to carry the emaciated bodies of the dead to a common grave for burial. Belsen was the scene of unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis against Jews and other prisoners.

The 2nd Essex followed and found the remains of the British defense of the Oosterbeek perimeter as they advanced. Lieutenant A.A. Vince of the 2nd Essex recalled, “We saw the evidence of the tragedy of September 1944, the broken guns and equipment, the little shallow slits the Airborne had dug in a few seconds and from which they had fought for days. We saw the little white crosses in corners of Dutch gardens, often with an inscription such as ’31 Unknown British Soldiers.’ On top of the cross would be a weather-stained Red Beret placed there by the Germans as a tribute to the cream of fighting men.”

The first battalion into Arnhem was the 2nd South Wales Borderers, which found the city badly wrecked from the 1944 and 1945 battles.

Major Godfrey Hartland of the 1st/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry recalled, “At first light with the aid of some Canadian tanks we attacked some German positions in the grounds of Sonsbeek Hospital. It was to be our last company attack in Northwest Europe. The company was digging in, having taken the objective, when the customary German counterattack by shell and mortar fire arrived, landing on a section of the right hand platoon. Three were killed and two were wounded. Sad to lose those three splendid young soldiers, Geordie Alcock, M. Durham, and F. Lees, who had fought so many battles with the company only to lose their lives so late in the war.”

The German defenders were mostly Dutch renegades of the SS Landstorm Nederland, who fought with determination. The Germans had evacuated the city’s population.

The 56th Brigade attacked across the Ijssel River in Buffaloes with heavy air and artillery support. Canadian tanks of the Ontario Regiment and British infantry fought through the ruins, losing 62 dead and 134 wounded. More than 1,600 Germans were taken prisoner and twice that number put out of action by the time Arnhem was taken on April 16.

Defenses “At Any Price”

Next up was the capture of Apeldoorn to cut off western Holland from Germany. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Harry Foster, and the 5th Canadian Armored Division were given the job. The Germans delayed the Canadian advance with mines—sometimes naval shells planted in the roads—and snipers.

German defense measures were increasingly desperate. On April 12, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler issued a decree that read, “Towns, which are usually important communications centers, must be defended at any price. The battle commanders appointed for each town are personally held responsible for compliance with this order. Neglect of this duty on the part of the battle commander, or the attempt on the part of any civil servant to induce such neglect, is punishable by death.”

The Canadians moved on Apeldoorn but were reluctant to hurl airpower and artillery into a city filled with refugees and 72,600 inhabitants. The Canadians had 5th Armored swing past Apeldoorn on the left, cutting it off, while the 1st Canadian Division attacked it from the east.

German resistance in the city disintegrated on the night of April 16-17. By noon on the 17th, the 1st Canadian Brigade had taken over the old German headquarters as their own, to wild rejoicing by the citizens. “National colors of the Netherlands were flying in the brilliant sunlight from almost every house and shop,” recorded the 1st Division’s summary of operations. The 1st Division suffered 506 casualties in liberating Apeldoorn, taking 40 German officers and 2,515 enlisted men prisoner.

Drive Into Western Holland

The Canadian 1st Corps now aimed to clear western Holland with Operation Cleanser. The 5th Armored Division moved through “densely wooded sandhills, making observation and mutual support extremely difficult and often impossible. Movement off roads around roadblocks was accomplished only through the sheer weight of the tanks forcing their way through the trees.” But the speed of the Canadian advance caught the Germans off balance. At Deelen, the headquarters staff of the 858th Grenadier Regiment was overrun. The commander conceded that he had been “taken completely by surprise when attacked by tanks and found his dispositions all wrong.”

On April 15, Lord Strathcona’s Horse headed for Otterloo, attacking by night through deep water-filled ditches and low marshy ground. The Germans continued to withdraw, leaving behind demolitions and booby traps. On the night of April 16-17, they counterattacked against the Irish Regiment of Canada and Hoffmeister’s own headquarters with artillery and mortars. All headquarters personnel were soon involved in the battle with Canadian artillery firing over open sites, demolishing a church tower in their efforts to shorten the range. At dawn the headquarters tanks and Irish counterattacked, joined by Wasp flamethrowers. The Germans suffered 300 casualties, with between 75 and 100 killed. The Irish lost 22 men and the 17th Field Regiment 25 and three guns knocked out.

In 10 Days it Will be Death

By the morning of the 17th, the 5th Armored was wrapping up Operation Cleanser, driving all the way to the Ijsselmeer. The division captured 34 German officers and 1,755 other ranks, many of them Dutch “volunteers” who served in the Wehrmacht to avoid conscription as slave laborers. Now the Canadians could assault the Grebbe Line and drive into western Holland.

Standing in the way was a force more powerful than the Wehrmacht’s disintegrating legions, the German Reichskommissar for Holland, the obnoxious and cynical Austrian Artur Seyss-Inquart, who warned that any Allied attack into western Holland would be met by his opening the dikes and the horrendous flooding of the nation’s lands below sea level.

The Netherlands was in terrible condition by this time—the winter of 1944-1945 is forever known in that nation as the “Hunger Winter” because of desperate food shortages. Dutch residents were barely surviving on as little as 500 calories a day. Heating coal and coke were also in short supply, forcing starving and exhausted Dutchmen to chop down forests and cut up furniture to stay warm.

All across the Netherlands, citizens suffered under the German heel. Parents sent their children out to steal women sold themselves to German soldiers for a few cans of soup rich and poor traveled on rickety bicycles or bleeding feet hundreds of miles to barter watches or bed linens with farmers for potatoes or eggs. The “hunger trippers” often had their food confiscated on the way home by equally famished German troops. By April, the average Dutch city dweller’s ration was down to 230 calories per day. Ten-year-old Henry A. van der Zee recalled, “My days were spent, for the most part, in queuing for whatever the ration cards promised us. It was so cold outside that I still remember the tears of pain and misery turning to icicles on my cheeks.”

“It is already famine,” Dutch food officials wired London on April 24. “In 10 days it will be death.”

Seyss-Inquart’s Shrewd Deal With the Allies

Seyss-Inquart showed his power over nature by opening a dike near Den Helder to inundate the country’s newest polder, a 75-square-mile area. He then warned the Canadians that if they attacked over the Grebbe Line he would blow another dike between Rotterdam and Gouda, causing massive flooding all the way north to Amsterdam—effectively destroying western Holland. Furthermore, he had orders to leave Holland a “field of ruins.”

Instead, in January Seyss-Inquart summoned a Dutch government official who had stayed behind under orders, Dr. H.M. Max Hirschfield, to discuss the growing crisis in western Holland and possible solutions. Hirschfeld suggested negotiations. The cynical Seyss-Inquart knew that Germany was doomed but was reluctant to risk his own neck by opening negotiations. He suggested a “basis of agreement” between the German forces and the Allies so that a status quo could be maintained.

During the 21st Army Group drive toward the German city of Bremen, this Sherman tank attempted to cross a stream on an unstable bridge and collapsed it in the process. Armored vehicles that followed were compelled to seek another crossing point.

The Dutch government-in-exile, now back home in the liberated areas of the Netherlands, opened secret talks with Seyss-Inquart. The Dutch proposed that the Canadians stop their advance on the Grebbe Line. In return, the Gestapo would cease executions, decently house political prisoners, and any culprits who carried out attacks on German installations would not receive the death sentence. There would be no further inundations. The Germans would also help facilitate the opening of Rotterdam’s port to barges bearing food and coal from the south.

Seyss-Inquart emphasized that there would be no official surrender, and the occupation would be maintained. Outwardly, the Canadians would merely stop on the Grebbe Line and not attack any farther.

When this plan reached 1st Canadian Army, the Canadians saw advantages to it—a massive assault across the Grebbe Line would take Holland, but at a huge price in both Canadian and Dutch lives. With the war nearly over, it was time to save lives on both sides of the front line.

The higher Allied leadership also agreed, with Winston Churchill fearing operations “would be marked by fighting and inundations and the destruction of the life of Western Holland,” and General Eisenhower writing that “for sheer humanitarian reasons something must be done at once.” Ike agreed to Seyss-Inquart’s proposal, and the 1st Canadian Army ground to a halt on the Grebbe River.

Corporal Chapman’s One-Man Stand

Meanwhile, the British 2nd Army began streaking across the Rhine, heading for the North German ports. The Germans fought for every hamlet and town, usually with small groups of infantry—often Hitler Youth—armed with Panzerfausts, sometimes supported by Tiger tanks.

Despite this, the 2nd Army made a rapid advance toward Bremen. The 12th Corps reached the Ems and turned south to cross the Dortmund-Ems Canal, where the 7th Armored Division took up the fight. The division crossed the Ems on April 3 and captured the town of Ibbenburen after a stiff fight against snipers, many of them officer cadets and noncommissioned officers from the local tactical training school.

Platoon commander Robert Davies of the 2nd Devonshires recalled, “The leading platoon was carried forward on tanks. When we met with resistance we left the vehicles behind and went on with or without tanks, depending on the countryside. We spent a lot of time sitting on the back of the tanks going in, and the only snag was that you could not hear anyone firing at you for the noise of the engines and the tracks. One man was kneeling between my knees, speaking to me, I had my back to the turret, and the next moment he fell dead. When the company went in we followed our own creeping barrage, and when we got to the heights we had to winkle out the [German officer] cadets who were well dug-in. They had been badly shelled but they were really tough. Afterwards, when we were collecting the wounded, I found one boy under a bush, who spoke perfect English, and asked me if the stretcher bearers had gone. I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘In that case I’ll die.’ It was just as well that he did. He was very good-looking but had no arms or legs.”

The Ibbenburen battle was wild. Corporal Edward Chapman of the 3rd Monmouths staged a one-man stand against repeated German counterattacks, driving them back with his Bren gun. Once the attacks were temporarily driven off, Chapman went out alone to recover his wounded company commander, who was, unfortunately, dead. Chapman himself was wounded and refused to be evacuated.

“Throughout the action Corporal Chapman displayed outstanding gallantry and superb courage. Single-handed he repulsed the attacks of well-led, determined troops and gave his battalion time to reorganize on a vital piece of ground overlooking the only bridge across the canal. His magnificent bravery played a very large part in the capture of this vital ridge and in the successful development of subsequent operations,” read his Victoria Cross citation. Chapman survived the ordeal to receive his VC from King George VI in July 1945, and he died in 2002.

“Bash On Regardless”

Attached to the 7th Armored was the 1st Commando Brigade, which attacked and captured Osnabruck on April 4. Commando Bill Sadler recalled, “The brigade entered Osnabruck on the early hours of Sunday morning, suffering some casualties from Spandau fire which produced the usual Commando reaction: ‘Bash on regardless.’ We sprinted across the open ground in groups and the Spandau was knocked out by a well-placed PIAT bomb. We had completed the capture of the town by 10 am, mopping up a few pockets of resistance and taking about 400 prisoners, including some Hungarians. The local Gestapo chief was shot dead in his office by our Field Security Officer, Major Viscount de Jonghe—then we went on to the Weser.”

There were humorous moments in the great advance for the “Desert Rats.” One patrol captured a German staff car, finding inside four high-ranking German officers, complete with maps and documents and a case of cognac. Also, C Squadron of the 11th Hussars captured some Germans, one of which turned out to be 60 years old, wearing carpet slippers, and carrying a walking stick, without which he would have fallen down.

The 8th Corps reached the Weser on April 5. The 7th Armored found the bridges over the river destroyed and had to turn west for Wildeshausen and Delmenhorst to cut off the retreat of the 1st Parachute Army.

Moving through the Dutch town of Ede on April 17, 1945, Sherman tanks of the 5th Canadian Armored Division and infantrymen of the 11th Royal Scots Fusiliers are watched by civilians newly liberated from five years of brutal and oppressive Nazi occupation.

The 11th Armored Division fought hard battles in the Teutoburger Wald against the Clausewitz Panzer Division, made up of training units. The British tanks entered the small town of Tecklenburg to find no white flags flying, unlike in other conquered communities. The Germans fought back with Clausewitz regulars and Volkssturm against the British, who battled down narrow, twisted streets. By nightfall the town was conquered, charred, and burning.

Next up for the 11th Armored was the Rive Weser, where the Germans decided to make a stand on the 5th, blowing bridges in front of the advancing British troops. The 11th Armored faced the 12th SS Panzer Division. The 1st Herefords and 8th Rifle Brigade were sent over the river in assault boats under heavy and light antiaircraft fire. The two battalions hacked out a bridgehead, and Royal Engineers began throwing a Bailey bridge over the Weser.

Death Throes of the Luftwaffe

At this point, the Luftwaffe finally intervened, with Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers and Focke-Wulf FW-190 and Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters all bearing down on the British. A British soldier recalled, “Our own Brens and Brownings chattered constantly against the marauders but they were quite futile, the tracers visibly bouncing off the armored bellies of the Boche planes as they swooped low over the rooftops.”

Another Briton grabbed a Bren gun and fired a stream of bullets into the nose of a diving Heinkel bomber. “I watched the tracer drift almost lazily into its center front. The aircraft veered sharply to port, lost height, drifted over some trees and disappeared.”

Royal Air Force Hawker Tempest fighter bombers arrived at midday on the 6th to fend off the Luftwaffe, but the 12th SS and 100th Pioneer Brigade put up a firm defense. The Herefords set up their headquarters in a farmhouse that had the advantage of having vast quantities of preserves, bottled fruit, and vegetables, plus chianti and hams. The Germans attacked in waves, and the British crushed the attack with barrages of artillery. “That’ll teach the bloody Boche,” said a British officer.

The Luftwaffe would not yield. Its bombers destroyed a Bailey bridge. With the British pinned down by heavy fire and no way to get tanks over, they were forced to withdraw. Luckily, the tough 6th Airborne Division had built a bridge at nearby Petershagen, and the 11th Armored used the airborne division’s bridge to maintain the pace of the offensive.

“No One Wanted to Take Any Risks Anymore”

Next was the Aller River, and the 11th Armored clanked toward it, battling determined Hitler Youth snipers. At Husum, the 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry lost 13 dead and 30 wounded to Hitler Youth, but in turn killed 80 and captured 120. The Inns of Court Regiment moved in to help the 11th Armored.

Peter Reeve of the Inns of Court Regiment recalled, “They were in the throes of a bloody battle with an SS unit who had looted the village and shot several KSLI prisoners in cold blood in the back of the head. We were met by a hail of fire from Schmeissers. An SS officer crouched with his machine gun cradled as we loosed off bursts from the Browning. He went on firing till he was cut almost in half. Late in the evening all opposition ceased—a grisly pile of burned bodies being the only memento.”

The 11th Armored rolled on, liberating POW camps and seizing German ammunition dumps. The division even captured a V-2 rocket-launching site. Bill Close of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment wrote, “No one wanted to take any risks anymore. The men in lead tanks knew they would be the first to get it if they bumped into a last-ditch battle-group. People were reluctant to drive around corners. I gave orders that no chances were to be taken with bazooka merchants.”

The End of the Strategic Bombing Campaign

The British advanced through rich Prussian corn land, with well-stocked farms, a peaceful part of the Reich that had not been touched by war. Still the SS and Hitler Youth fought on. At Steimbke, the British had to launch a setpiece attack into the village. Noel Bell recalled, “The SS fought fanatically and every house had to be cleared individually. Our stretcher-bearers were fired on, which spurred us on even more. No quarter was given or asked and very few SS prisoners lived to tell the tale.”

When the British reached the Aller, they again found all bridges blown, but the 1st Commando Brigade forced a river crossing at Essel. The 11th Armored borrowed another 6th Airborne bridge and drove through heath and pine to capture a Luftwaffe airfield complete with 12 aircraft.

On the night of April 11, the 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry crossed the River Aller to widen the commando bridgehead, and the British were heading for the Elbe.

Germany was now a picture of wrecked towns and villages. On April 16, the Allies called off the strategic bombing campaign against Germany because most targets had been captured and those left were about to be—further bombing would only provide defenders with more rubble.

April 25, 1945: British Sherman tanks and accompanying infantrymen advance along the streets of Bremen, Germany, during the Western Allied invasion of Germany. The port city on the Weser River was a major objective of the final offensive mounted by the Allied 21st Army Group, commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery, in the spring of 1945.

“No Fraternization”

While SS men, paratroopers, and Hitler Youth fought on, the rest of the German Army’s morale had collapsed. The rate of desertion was so high that Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commanding the German forces in the West, used his best men to round up the faint of heart who flooded to the rear whenever a battle started.

“The enormously costly battle of the last half-year and constant retreat and defeat had reduced officers and men to a dangerous state of exhaustion,” he wrote. “Many officers were nervous wrecks, others affected in health, others simply incompetent, while there was a dangerous shortage of junior officers. In the ranks strengths were unsatisfactory, replacements arriving at the front insufficiently trained, with no combat experience, and, anyways, too late. They were accordingly no asset in action. Only where an intelligent commander had a full complement of experienced subalterns and a fair nucleus of elder men did units hold together.”

With much of northern Germany now occupied by advancing British and Canadian forces, the “no fraternization” rule went into effect, barring Allied troops from even giving candy to German urchins. But the Tommies broke it anyway. From meeting children it was a short step to meeting their older sisters or widowed and lonely mothers.

A Hard Day’s Fighting in Winsen

Meanwhile, the advance continued. The 46th Royal Marine Commando attacked a wood near Hademstorf, and the Commandos were astonished to find their opponents to be a German marine division. Unlike the British marines, the German marines were simply sailors released from immobile warships. The British took 60 prisoners.

The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment ran into Tiger tanks trying to contain the British bridgehead over the Aller River. John Langdon, in a Comet tank, saw the Germans coming, and recalled, “About 300 yards away I saw its 88mm gun slowly traversing on us. We fired. Head-on as it was to us we could not hope to knock the tank out. We were outgunned and if I wanted to save my tank and crew there was only one thing to be done.” The Comet was reversed into cover, knocking over 40-foot fir trees. But the next day, in a rematch, the British “brewed up” one Tiger and forced the other to withdraw.

On Friday, April 13, the Germans counterattacked the bridgehead in force, and 300 Germans died on the field. The following day, the Cheshires attacked Winsen, defended by the staff and students of a nearby antitank officers’ training unit equipped with 88mm guns, 75mm self-propelled guns, and piles of Panzerfausts. The Germans bombarded the British with Nebelwerfers, multibarreled rocket mortars, and the offensive was slow going. By 6 pm, the woods were cleared for a cost of three officers and 11 other ranks killed, two officers and 29 other ranks wounded. It was the hardest day’s fighting for the battalion since it landed in Europe.

The Surrender of Belsen Concentration Camp

On the same day, a German staff car with a large white flag carrying two German medical corps officers arrived at the Cheshires’ headquarters. They claimed to have been sent by the commandant of Belsen Concentration Camp with orders to surrender the facility to the nearest British troops.

The 11th Armored Division sent in a detachment, and Major Derrick Sington of the Intelligence Corps became the first Allied soldier to enter the notorious concentration camp. Passing through the main gates, barrack blocks, and huts, he found an inner compound.

Scottish soldiers crowd windows of the upper floors of a building in the city of Bremerhaven, Germany, watching Sherman tanks take part in a victory parade on May 12, 1945. The city sustained heavy damage during the final offensive of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. This painting is by British war artist Edward Payne.

“It reminded me of the entrance to a zoo. We came into a smell of ordure—like the smell of a monkey house. A sad, blue smoke floated like ground mist between the low buildings. I had tried to imagine the interior of a concentration camp, but I had not imagined it like this. Nor had I imagined the strange, simian throng, who crowded the barbed wire fences surrounding their compounds, with their shaven heads and their obscene striped penitentiary suits,” he wrote.

“We had been welcomed before but the half-credulous cheers of these almost lost men, of these clowns in terrible motley, who had once been Polish officers, land workers in the Ukraine, Budapest doctors and students in France, impelled a stronger emotion and I had to fight back my tears.”

Built to hold 8,000 prisoners, Belsen now had more than 56,000 crammed into 80 single-story huts, where they lay on wooden shelves, dead and dying huddled together.

10,000 Bodies

The 11th Armored dashed into the camp, but it was 24 hours before the tankers could take full control of it. Once they did, they found more horror. There were some 10,000 unburied bodies lying about the camp.

The appalling situation soon became the responsibility of the 2nd Army’s Chief Medical Officer, Brigadier Hugh Glyn Hughes, who had worried days before about the possibility of infectious diseases at the camps the Army would be liberating.

“No photograph, no description, could bring home the horrors I saw,” Glyn Hughes said later. “The huts overflowed with inmates in every state of emaciation and disease. They were suffering from starvation, gastroenteritis, typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis. There were dead everywhere, some in the same bunks as the living. Lying in the compounds, in uncovered mass graves, in trenches, in the gutters, by the side of the barbed wire surrounding the camp and by the huts, were some 10,000 more. In my 30 years as a doctor, I had never seen anything like it.”

Hughes moved in field hospitals, but it was not enough. Under British guard, both the SS camp warders and civilians from neighboring communities came in to bury the dead.

The camp’s commandant, the appalling Joseph Kramer, was taken into custody. A furious British soldier told him, “When they hang you, I hope you die slowly.” He was indeed hanged after his war crimes trial.

Another Briton provided a shocking account of the camp for the world. BBC reporter Richard Dimbleby sobbed into his microphone on April 19th: “I picked my way over corpse after corpse in the gloom, until I heard one voice raised above the gentle undulating moaning. I found a girl, she was a living skeleton, impossible to gauge her age for she had practically no hair left, and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet with two holes in it for eyes. She was stretching out her stick of an arm and gasping something, it was ‘English, English, medicine, medicine,’ and she was trying to cry but didn’t have enough strength. And beyond her down the passage and in the hut there were the convulsive movements of dying people too weak to raise themselves from the floor.”

Dimbleby watched a woman, “distraught to the point of madness,” fling herself at a British soldier, begging for milk for her baby.

“She laid the mite on the ground and threw herself at the sentry’s feet and kissed his boots. And when, in his distress he asked her to get up, she put the baby in his arms and ran off crying that she would find milk for it because there was no milk left in her breast. And when the soldier unwrapped the bundle of rags to look at the child, he found that it had been dead for days … this day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”

British half-tracks have yielded a dirt road to advancing Stuart light tanks and other vehicles of the 15th Scottish Division. This photo was taken on April 13, 1945, as the Allies advanced toward the Elbe River, deep inside Germany.

Operation Bremen

The British were in no mood to trifle with the Germans after this shocking discovery and moved briskly to take Hamburg and Bremen.

Bremen was up first. Operation Bremen began on April 13, with the 3rd Infantry Division attacking into the city’s suburbs. Opposing a British division that had landed on Sword Beach on D-Day were an SS training battalion, antiaircraft crews, Volkssturm senior citizens, Bremen police officers, and U-boat and R-boat crews taken from their immobile naval vessels.

The 1st South Lancasters led the 8th Brigade’s attack up a main road, and Bren carrier driver Joe Garner and his pals dismounted from their vehicles and rushed a house. “We managed to kill and wound some of the enemy and take the remainder prisoner. Meanwhile our antitank detachment had arrived and took a position about 20 yards away from the house. I carried out my usual looting recce—looking for Nazi memorabilia—nothing worth bothering with. Going into the cellar, however, we discovered the shivering house owners sheltering therein.”

The brigade drove up the straight road, past objective lines named Penny, Farthing, Dime, and Mark with mixed groups of infantry and Churchill flamethrowing tanks. German troops pinned down the 1st Suffolks until the tanks clattered up and set fire to the defenders’ houses.

For days the 3rd Division battled for the small houses of Bremen’s suburbs, taking casualties that included 2nd East Yorks’ second-in-command, Major C.K. “Banger” King, who had inspired his men on D-Day by reciting Henry V’s classic speech to them. But the Germans could not stop the British advance.

The division’s commander, Maj. Gen. “Bolo” Whistler, wrote in his diary, “We have captured five officers and 1,259 men on April 15th and another 1,800 between 15-19th. We have killed about 200-300 more. Not much shelling from the Boche for which I am truly thankful. Lovely weather! Had a close look at Bremen yesterday. It appears rather undamaged in spite of Bomber Harris and his efforts.”

The Last Victoria Cross in Europe

On April 21, Edward C. Charlton earned the last Victoria Cross won in Europe in World War II. His tank unit had just helped an infantry platoon seize the town of Wistedt, and the Germans put in a counterattack consisting of officer cadets supported by three self-propelled guns. Three of the four Irish Guards tanks were hit, and Charlton’s was disabled by a complete electrical failure before the attack began. Charlton was ordered to dismount the turret machine gun and support the infantry.

Charlton, on his own authority, took the machine gun and advanced in full view of the attacking Germans, firing the weapon from his hip as he did so and inflicting heavy German casualties. The lead German company was halted, and this allowed the rest of the Guards a respite in which to reorganize and retire. Charlton continued his bold attack, even when he was wounded in his left arm.

Advancing near Brelingen, Germany, on April 10, 1945, these British paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division are using handcarts and bicycles to facilitate their forward movement.

Charlton placed the machine gun on a fence, where he launched a further attack before his left arm was hit again by enemy fire, becoming shattered and useless. Charlton, now with just one usable arm, carried on his attack until a further wound and loss of blood resulted in the Guardsman collapsing. His courageous and selfless disregard for his own safety allowed the rest of the Irish Guards troop and infantry to escape. He later died of the wounds.

His Victoria Cross is on display at the Irish Guards Regimental Headquarters at Wellington Barracks in London. He is buried in Becklingen War Cemetery in Germany.

“Only Cowards Surrender”

Bremen fought hard. The defenders had advantages, including low-lying land that was partially flooded, which made it impregnable to a conventional tank and infantry assault. The British called in RAF Bomber Command to plaster the city’s considerable defenses, which ranged from heavy flak guns to Hitler Youth.

One of the defenders, Werner Ellebeck, recalled, “We had military training, although it didn’t always make sense to us. However, one thing we were drilled in very thoroughly was the use of the Panzerfaust—our task was to destroy tanks. We were provided with few other weapons. The order was ‘find them yourselves,’ which we were happy to do. We managed to get hold of a lot of weapons from abandoned camps and flak batteries, so that most of the company possessed Panzerfausts and the rest had a collection of carbines, hand grenades, and a few machine guns. Armed with these, we were filled with great confidence.”

But the civilian population lived in terror in air raid bunkers. “A terrible, claustrophobic squeeze would be an understatement to describe the masses of people herded together in here. These people are unwashed and ungroomed—there is no fresh water—and often the air is barely breathable. Fainting and nausea are common but anything vaguely approaching sanitary conditions is not even talked about anymore. Flu, throat infections, and the like are gaining the upper hand on a daily basis,” wrote Albrecht Mertz.

Outside, diehard Nazis handed out propaganda messages, which included such statements as “The German Volk is determined to fight to the last breath,” and “Only cowards surrender.” Any sign of a white flag would be punished by death.

The RAF hammered Bremen, joined by British artillery. By April 21, there was still no sign of surrender. “A handful of madmen are in charge,” wrote one disillusioned citizen. “Everything is covered in a chalky layer of grayish red … the road is strewn with tree branches and rubble.”

An Ultimatum For Bremen

Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks, commanding 30th Corps, which was attacking Bremen, gave the city’s defenders an opportunity to surrender, hurling an ultimatum in 4,000 artillery shells at the Germans. Still no response. On April 24, Horrocks sent in the 52nd Lowland Division and the 3rd Infantry Division, which crossed the flooded areas on Buffaloes while the RAF and artillery pounded the defenders.

The bombing and shelling had the desired impact. The 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry took 200 prisoners. The Norfolks reported, “The softening-up of Habenhausen had been complete, and those of the enemy who had not made off were only too glad to give up without a fight.… By 6 that evening it was all over, and a few locals, headed by the village policeman, were filling in bomb-craters under the supervision of the Pioneer Officer.”

The main battle would clearly be fought outside the city, and the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles crossed the Weser under full moonlight in Buffaloes, facing heavy antitank and flak gun fire. Corporal D. Lambourn earned a Military Medal by charging a German position and taking it. The Royal Ulster Rifles bagged five officers and 128 other ranks in the assault, and their boss, Lt. Col. J. Drummond, earned a Distinguished Service Order for commanding it.

The 185th Brigade attacked at night as well, relying on Buffaloes to cross the Weser. Marcus Cunliffe recalled, “The noise of [the Buffalo] engines was drowned by the greater thunder of the artillery barrage. To the inhabitants of Bremen crouching in their shelters, it must have all sounded like the final intimation of doom. Crammed into the ‘holds’ of the Buffaloes the Warwicks could only see the sky overhead traversed at five minute intervals by the red trace of three Bofors shells over the objective as a guide to direction.”

Everything went well in the effort to take the causeway over the Weser, and by noon it was in British hands. By now, the German defenses were harsher in their verbiage than in battle—most defending Germans seemed to give up soon after being battered by British shells.

“The Hun Was Utterly Demoralized”

The drive into Bremen continued through the 26th. That day, Brigadier W. Kempster, commanding the 9th Brigade, found “the Hun was utterly demoralized, 2nd RUR just walked on to their objectives and by 9:30 am I reported to Division that we’d done our job—nearly 30 hours in advance of the estimate.”

Raymond Burt of the 22nd Dragoons wrote, “So this was how the city was falling—without fight, in rain, and betrayed by those who had brought it into its present squalor. For all their boasts and threats, the Nazi leaders had gone and the city was abandoned to a few thousand AA gunners and marines and the old men and women and children who waited our arrival in the air raid shelters. The advances into the suburbs were something of a formality. But they were carried out block by block, with care and precision—companies and supporting tanks leapfrogging through one another along the silent and mined streets. It looked formidable enough the road blocks were defensible. Slit-trenches and antitank ditches had been dug across street intersections: enormous land-mines had been laid and wired ready for explosion by the roadsides. The windows of the ruined houses provided the ‘heroic twilight’ of the Nazis and the city of Bremen. But no shot was fired.

“Hitler’s war was running down—it had collapsed into a dreary mopping-up operation which went on because no one in authority had the desire to cry ‘Stop!’”

Taking the Elbe on the Run

With Bremen falling, the next objective was the Elbe River, and Monty prepared a set-piece crossing of it. But Eisenhower wanted the Elbe taken with great speed, to beat the Soviets into Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark, so he ordered Montgomery to take the Elbe on the run and assigned the U.S. 18th Airborne Corps to Monty’s right flank with orders to cross the Elbe at Bleckede.

An amphibious British Buffalo landing craft plies the waters of the Rhine River during operations to reach the eastern bank of the great waterway, March 25, 1945. By the time Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s final offensive commenced, German resistance was crumbling in the West.

The 505th Parachute Regiment, veterans of four drops, was assigned the task, going over by night on April 29 in collapsible wooden boats. Colonel William Ekman’s paratroopers fished the defending and sleepy Germans out of their foxholes with rifles, using flashlights to find them. By dawn, the paratroopers had secured the bridgehead, and engineers threw pontoon bridges across the Elbe to enable 18th Corps’ armor to move across under heavy shellfire. Major General Matthew Ridgway, the 18th Corps commander, inspired the troops by walking out onto the unfinished bridge under the shelling, earning a second Silver Star.

That day, the British also continued their offensive, with the 7th Armored Division heading into the ruined city of Hamburg. General L.O. Lyne, commanding the Desert Rats, sent Maj. Gen. Alwin Woltz, the German commander in Hamburg, a six-point letter demanding the city’s surrender. Negotiations went back and forth and at 7 pm on May 1, a large black Mercedes car with an even larger white flag arrived in the D Company area of the 9th Durham Light Infantry bearing two officers from Woltz’s staff, ready to surrender the city. They were followed by hordes of German troops and civilians, including the champion boxer Max Schmeling.

The Death of Adolf Hitler

That night German radio announced what the British press called the “most dramatic news of the war,” the death of Adolf Hitler. With Hitler’s death, German resistance completely crumbled. The 11th Armored reached Lubeck on the Baltic ahead of the Soviets, and the 6th Airborne achieved Wismar to link up with the Red Army.

With Hitler dead, his successor was Admiral Karl Dönitz in Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein, and his first move was to send a delegation under Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg to Field Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters on the Luneberg Heath to surrender the forces facing the Soviets to Montgomery.

The field marshal would have none of that. After showing the German delegation their positions on his situation map—more accurately than the Germans had previously understood—Monty demanded the surrender of the forces facing him. Friedeburg broke into tears. On May 4, the Germans opposing Montgomery surrendered. The Western Allied invasion of Germany was an official success.

The surrender set off a wave of related ceremonies. Maj. Gen. James Gavin and the 82nd Airborne took the surrender of General Kurt von Tippelskirch’s 21st Army along with 150,000 men on May 2 in a “cold and very proper” ceremony at 82nd headquarters at Ludwigslust.

One critical surrender remained, the Germans in Holland. On April 27, Seyss-Inquart, while refusing to yield, agreed to allow Allied food convoys into the German-occupied areas, and RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth Air Force, freed of having to bomb enemy targets, began dropping millions of rations close to Rotterdam and The Hague in Operation Manna. The massive food deliveries prevented starvation in the Netherlands by a matter of two or three weeks.

British infantrymen of the 3rd Division root out snipers in the city of Lingen, Germany, on April 7, 1945.

An “Improbable Dream”

Now, with the overall surrender in place, the Germans had to yield in accordance with Montgomery’s directive. General Johannes Blaskowitz, commanding German forces in the Netherlands, drove to a battered hotel in Wageningen to surrender to Lt. Gen. Charles Foulkes, who commanded the 1st Canadian Corps, and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. The corps’ war diary recorded, “The terms of surrender were read over by General Foulkes, and Blaskowitz hardly answered a word. Occasionally he would interpose with a demand for more time to carry out the orders given to him, otherwise nothing was said from the German side. They looked like men in a dream, dazed, stupefied and unable to realize that for them their world was utterly finished.”

There was a further surrender at Aurich, where Brigadier Jim Roberts, commanding the Canadian 8th Infantry Brigade, had to assist with the surrender of German forces facing General Guy Simonds’s 2nd Corps. There was no conversation, and General Erich von Straube, nicknamed the “Little Watchmaker,” gave up what was left of his 84th Corps to the dour Simonds.

After the ceremony, Roberts had to drive the Germans back to their headquarters, and for 20 minutes they rode in silence. Then von Straube tried to break the tension, asking Roberts what he did before the war. “Were you a professional soldier?” Straube asked, hoping he had given in to a fellow full-time warrior.

Roberts was stunned and unsettled by being asked about a world at peace, which seemed an “improbable dream.” He only looked at the surface of the question. He said, “No, I wasn’t a professional soldier. Very few Canadians were. In civilian life, I made ice cream.”

Originally Published December 29, 2016. Updated December 14, 2020.

The Eastern Front, 1915

The Russians’ plans for 1915 prescribed the strengthening of their flanks in the north and in Galicia before driving westward again toward Silesia. Their preparations for a blow at East Prussia’s southern frontier were forestalled, as Ludendorff, striking suddenly eastward from East Prussia, enveloped four Russian divisions in the Augustów forests, east of the Masurian Lakes, in the second week of February but in Galicia the winter’s fighting culminated, on March 22, in the fall of Przemyśl to the Russians.

For the Central Powers, the Austrian spokesman, Conrad, primarily required some action to relieve the pressure on his Galician front, and Falkenhayn was willing to help him for that purpose without departing from his own general strategy of attrition—which was already coming into conflict with Ludendorff’s desire for a sustained effort toward decisive victory over Russia. The plan finally adopted, with the aim of smashing the Russian centre in the Dunajec River sector of Galicia by an attack on the 18-mile front from Gorlice to Tuchów (south of Tarnów), was conceived with tactical originality: in order to maintain the momentum of advance, no daily objectives were to be set for individual corps or divisions instead, each should make all possible progress before the Russians could bring their reserves up, on the assumption that the rapid advance of some attacking units would contagiously promote the subsequent advance of others that had at first met more resistance. Late in April, 14 divisions, with 1,500 guns, were quietly concentrated for the stroke against the six Russian divisions present. Mackensen was in command, with Hans von Seeckt, sponsor of the new tactic of infiltration, as his chief of staff.

The Gorlice attack was launched on May 2 and achieved success beyond all expectation. Routed on the Dunajec, the Russians tried to stand on the Wisłoka, then fell back again. By May 14, Mackensen’s forces were on the San, 80 miles from their starting point, and at Jarosław they even forced a crossing of that river. Strengthened with more German troops from France, Mackensen then struck again, taking Przemyśl on June 3 and Lemberg (Lvov) on June 22. The Russian front was now bisected, but Falkenhayn and Conrad had foreseen no such result and had made no preparations to exploit it promptly. Their consequent delays enabled the Russian armies to retreat without breaking up entirely.

Falkenhayn then decided to pursue a new offensive. Mackensen was instructed to veer northward, so as to catch the Russian armies in the Warsaw salient between his forces and Hindenburg’s, which were to drive southeastward from East Prussia. Ludendorff disliked the plan as being too much of a frontal assault: the Russians might be squeezed by the closing-in of the two wings, but their retreat to the east would not be cut off. He once more urged his spring scheme for a wide enveloping maneuver through Kovno (Kaunas) on Vilna (Vilnius) and Minsk, in the north. Falkenhayn opposed this plan, fearing that it would mean more troops and a deeper commitment, and on July 2 the German emperor decided in favour of Falkenhayn’s plan.

The results justified Ludendorff’s reservations. The Russians held Mackensen at Brest-Litovsk and Hindenburg on the Narew River long enough to enable the main body of their troops to escape through the unclosed gap to the east. Though by the end of August all of Poland had been occupied and 750,000 Russians had been taken prisoner in four months of fighting, the Central Powers had missed their opportunity to break Russia’s ability to carry on the war.

Too late, Falkenhayn in September allowed Ludendorff to try what he had been urging much earlier, a wider enveloping movement to the north on the Kovno–Dvinsk–Vilna triangle. The German cavalry, in fact, approached the Minsk railway, far beyond Vilna but the Russians’ power of resistance was too great for Ludendorff’s slender forces, whose supplies moreover began to run out, and by the end of the month his operations were suspended. The crux of this situation was that the Russian armies had been allowed to draw back almost out of the net before the long-delayed Vilna maneuver was attempted. Meanwhile, an Austrian attack eastward from Lutsk (Luck), begun later in September and continued into October, incurred heavy losses for no advantage at all. By October 1915 the Russian retreat, after a nerve-wracking series of escapes from the salients the Germans had systematically created and then sought to cut off, had come to a definite halt along a line running from the Baltic Sea just west of Riga southward to Czernowitz (Chernovtsy) on the Romanian border.

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