Until 1942, the vast majority of resistance to German forces on the ground in Europe came from Soviet Russia. By this stage of the war, Stalin was heaping more and more pressure upon Churchill and Roosevelt to open up a western front and take some of the pressure off the brutal fight in the east.
During a meeting between the three leaders in Tehran, in November 1943, Roosevelt agreed to set a date for a massive invasion of Western Europe – the likes of which the world had never seen.
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
May 1944 was the date. In the months leading up to it, the Allies started gathering massive numbers of men, ships and equipment in the south of England. The Germans knew an invasion was coming; they just weren’t sure when, or crucially, where. Since the Nazis didn’t know where the invasion would land, they built the Atlantic Wall in a bid to fortify the entire French coastline.
As spring 1944 approached, it was clear the Atlantic Wall wouldn’t be finished before the summer. To this end, the Germans laid a million landmines, miles of barbed wire and jagged undersea obstructions to debilitate any seaborne invasion.
Field Marshall Erwin Rommel assumed the invasion would land at Calais, as it’sthe closest point to the UK mainland and troops had started gathering across the channel. However, these were simply elements of a campaign of misinformation designed to spread the Germans out across northern France as thinly as possible. Fifteen German infantry divisions were waiting around Calais while a far smaller number were at Normandy, around 200 miles to the west.
May came and went relatively quietly on the Western Front but, at the beginning of June, the French region of Normandy became the focus of the most famous operation of them all: D-Day, the invasion of France. On June 6, 1944, American forces landed at Utah and Omaha beaches; the British at Sword and Gold beaches; and the Canadians at Juno beach. The liberation of Europe had begun.
The numbers make for staggering reading: 12,000 planes, 5,000 ships and 160,000 men crossed the Channel that day, in what was (and remains) the largest seaborne invasion in the history of warfare, and the beginning of the end for the Nazi war machine.
Operation Overlord, as the Normandy landings were known, was a brutal and bloody campaign. Both sides lost huge numbers of soldiers. The British suffered heavily on the eastern flank, but that allowed the Americans to carry out a ‘smash-and-grab’ breakout to the west. The road to Paris, and into Germany, was now open.
FROM THE BEACHES TO THE CAPITAL
A bonus of the Allied run to the west was that Hitler had expressly ordered his commanders not to make any tactical withdrawals, even though many of them thought it was the best option. When the Allies steamed west, they were able to swing round and trap the German forces, inflicting massive losses on them in the Battle of the Falaise pocket and effectively ending the wider Battle of Normandy. The German army retreated, and the victory was quickly followed by the liberation of Paris in August 1944.
As the Allied troops advanced, the French Resistance staged a general uprising in Paris which proved to be a serious challenge for the German occupiers. Their position became untenable once the military forces of the Free French also entered the city, alongside American army units. The German commander, Dietrich von Choltitz, ignored a direct order from Hitler stating that Paris should be destroyed. Instead, hesurrendered to the commander of the Free French 2nd Armoured Division, General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque.
THE LOW COUNTRIES
The liberation of Belgium, and parts of Luxembourg and the Netherlands, came soon after that of France. It also came as a blessed relief to the south-east quarter of England because, without control over the Benelux coast, the Germans were denied sites from where to launch their devastating V-1 and V-2 rockets.
As a final act of defiance, the Wehrmacht made special efforts to destroy as many of the port facilities in these countries as possible, which stretched Allied supply lines as they moved across France.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR
The small town of Arnhem in the Netherlands, south-west of Amsterdam and close to the German border, was a key chokepoint in the race to Berlin. In August 1944, Field Marshal Montgomery hatched an audacious plan to capture a series of bridges over major Dutch rivers in an airborne raid, enabling the ground troops to charge into Germany.
The British 1st Airborne Division (ably assisted by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade) were tasked with taking the most northerly bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The American 82nd Airborne Division were to take the crossings at Grave and Nijmegen, and the 101st, the bridges at Son and Veghel. Once these bridges were under Allied control, the ground troops – the British XXX Corps, led by the Guards Armoured Division – could march onward into northern Germany. The plan was to get to Berlin by December 1944 – beating the Soviets there by weeks – and ultimately to end the war.
On September 17, 1944, Operation Market Garden – the largest airborne operation in the history of warfare – was launched. Five thousand planes dropped tens of thousands of paras with the brief to capture the bridges and hold out until they could be relieved by ground forces.
However, all did not go to plan. The British forces landed miles away from their primary target, and ran into trouble in the form of the German 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer Divisions. The XXX Corps couldn’t relieve the airborne troops quickly enough due to the German demolition of a bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal and, after four days of intense fighting, the paras at Arnhem were overwhelmed and trapped. Neither the Poles nor the advancing XXX Corps could reinforce them and, after five more days, the decimated airborne troops were hastily evacuated.
The German resistance was much stronger than had been originally anticipated and, coupled with overstretched equipment and supplies, the Allies were overrun. The Rhine would be crossed six months later, but the abject failure of Operation Market Garden meant that the war would continue to rumble on.
HITLER ROLLS THE DICE
During this time, the Soviet Red Army was on its way to Berlin. Hitler remained convinced the Nazis would defeat the Allies and made it abundantly clear that he would fight on indefinitely, but the High Command of the Wehrmacht weren’t convinced. There were grave concerns. Germany couldn’t keep fighting the whole world.
As the Allies advanced in December 1944, Hitler tried to divide the marauding armies in northwest Europe with a counteroffensive in the heavily-forested Ardennes region, which covers parts of Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Germany. The principal goal was to capture the strategically important harbour in Antwerp, in what has become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Poor aerial reconnaissance coupled with Allied overconfidence, and a preoccupation with their own objectives, caught them off guard. A brutal campaign played out in the Ardennes region. On the Allied side, it was the Americans who bore the brunt – incurring their heaviest losses of the war.
The most significant element of the Ardennes Counteroffensive was the Battle of Bastogne, a small town near the Belgian border with Luxembourg. All seven of the main roads through the Ardennes converged at Bastogne, so control of the town was vital. The Axis advance lasted a week over Christmas 1944, and the Americans suffered heavy casualties. The 101st Airborne Division and the 10th Armoured Division became increasingly encircled, before reinforcements eventually arrived and the German attack was finally halted.
The failed offensive proved hugely costly to the Wehrmacht, with massive losses to their armoured forces, personnel and even to the Luftwaffe. Ultimately these were losses the Germans simply couldn’t replace.
Hitler’s risky counteroffensive in the Ardennes turned into a crushing defeat. The Germans were now severely weakened, and began a long and almost entirely unstoppable retreat.
UNCOVERING THE HORRORS
At the start of 1945, with the German armed forces now a shadow of their former selves, the Soviets, British, Americans, Canadians and Free French were in a race to Berlin.
With victory in sight, there was still work to be done. As the Allies advanced, the true horrors of the Nazi regime were becoming increasingly clear. While Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka concentration camps were liberated by the Red Army soon after D-Day, Auschwitz in south western Poland wasn’t liberated by the Soviets until January 1945. It was here that the true horrors of the Holocaust were uncovered.
When he knew the Soviets were coming, Heinrich Himmler ordered the evacuation of all camps, with the directive to camp commanders to ‘[make] sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy’.
On January 17, 1945, around 58,000 prisoners were evacuated from Auschwitz, most on foot, towards Wodzisław Śląski, a town 35 miles away. Almost 15,000 died on the ‘Death March’, and 20,000 made it to Bergen-Belsen. When the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, they found about 7,500 prisoners left. The Germans had killed 1.1m people there.
In the months to come, the Allies liberated the remaining camps including Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Dachau, Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen, but the primary focus was getting to Berlin and once and for all ending the war in Europe.
THE BOMBING OF GERMAN CITIES
At the start of the war, strategic bombing raids targeting German cities, industry and infrastructure were deemed unjustifiable by the British hierarchy. However, when the Germans hit London (unintentionally and against strict orders) in August 1940 in the Battle of Britain, Churchill ordered a bombing raid on Berlin. Given the fact that night sorties weren’t as accurate as they could have been, collateral damage was essentially assured (and an unfortunate by-product of wars fought in the air).
By 1942, RAF Bomber Command – under the leadership of Sir Arthur Travers ‘Bomber’ Harris – had started to focus attentions on attacking German cities to crack morale, disrupt communications networks and generally cause as much destruction as possible. Known as ‘area’ or ‘saturation’ bombing, Bomber Harris deemednecessary the ‘de-housing’ of the German workforce. In fact, it was thought by some that sending out a thousand planes every night would both render a land invasion of Europe unnecessary and precipitate the end of the war.
In one single night in May 1942, Cologne was subjected to 2,000 tonnes of bombs by 1,046 planes, demolishing 13,000 homes and killing tens of thousands of civilians.
Operation Gomorrah in June 1943 killed 40,000 and reduced half of Hamburg to rubble; in December 1944 Frankfurt, Hanau and Giesson were pummelled by 1,600 USAF bombers; and a month later, the cities of Berlin, Cologne, Hamm, Munich, Bochum and Stuttgart suffered to the tune of 40,000 tonnes of bombs dropped by the British and American air forces.
Perhaps the most infamous of all area bombing raids was the bombing of Dresden on February 13th to 15th 1945. Twelve hundred heavy bombers dropped 4,000 tonnes of explosives and incendiary devices designed to create vicious, intensely hot firestorms. Around 25,000 are thought to have died including an indeterminate number of refugees who had fled to Dresden from other areas, believing it had no military or strategic importance and would therefore be spared the blanket coverage of the Allied war machine.
Allied air forces (as well as the Luftwaffe) paid a heavy price for these raids, and it often succeeded in only galvanising civilian morale. However, the Germans did have to devote more manpower to national defences – manpower they could scarcely afford – which went some way to hasten the Soviet advances on Berlin and the final push to victory.
‘In the burning and devastated cities, we daily experienced the direct impact of war. It spurred us to do our utmost… the bombing and the hardships that resulted from them [did not] weaken the morale of the populace’ Albert Speer, Reich Minister for Weapons, Munitions, and Armaments
ENDGAME: THE RACE TO BERLIN
By Spring 1945 the Germans were almost finished, save for a last, desperate attempt to stop the Allies from crossing the Rhine at Rees and Wesel on March 23, 1945. It was Field Marshall Montgomery’s last set-piece battle of the war, and the gathered Allied forces – a million men, 4,000 artillery pieces and 250,000 tonnes of supplies and armaments – were far too much for the decimated Germans.
To compound matters, while the Germans were waiting for a massive river crossing, thousands of airborne troops landed behind their lines and attacked the Germans from the rear. With their backs turned, the Allies established the first bridgeheads and then took just nine hours to bridge the river. They crossed at Remagen, south of Bonn.
By the end of March, the Soviets were well on their way to Vienna while the Allies pushed into western Germany. Just weeks later, the Soviets had taken Berlin. The Americans linked up with the Soviets on the River Elbe on the 25th April and, four days later, the Germans surrendered in Italy. One day after that, the Soviet flag was flying over the Reichstag and the war was over.
During this time, the American President Roosevelt passed away and was succeeded by Harry S. Truman; Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini was executed by Italian partisans; and Hitler, along with Eva Braun, committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, to be replaced by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz.
Unconditional German surrender came on May 7, 1945, and the Instrument of Surrender was signed at a schoolhouse in Reims in France at 2.41am. It took a day or so to ensure everything was as it should be, and VE Day was proclaimed on May 8, 1945. The war in Europe was finally over.