The Second World War waged for almost 11 months after D-Day. As German troops, equipment, ground vehicles and planes were rapidly on the wane despite putting up intermittent shows of force for the remainder of the war, the much stronger and strategically acute Allied forces – under the confident command of Eisenhower, Churchill and Stalin – were well on the way to a resounding victory.
There were many vital engagements – both large and small – which led to eventual victory for the Allies, but here are ten of the most important events from D-Day to VE Day which helped finally end Nazi resistance in Europe.
AUGUST 1944 – THE LIBERATION OF PARIS
The Allies knew that wresting control of Paris from the Germans – who had held the city since June 1940 – would have hugely symbolic importance. On August 23, 1944, Free French forces attacked the German garrison, armed with the knowledge that General George Patton’s US Third Army was right behind them.
Led by Captain Raymond Dronne, General Leclerc’s 2nd French Armoured Division barged into Paris and seized control of the Hôtel de Ville just before midnight on August 24th. The following morning they, alongside the US 4th Infantry Division, entered the city centre. In the preceding 36 hours the Germans had set fire to the Grand Palais and were still shooting at French fighters from their defensive positions, often hitting civilians in the crossfire who had taken to the streets.
It’s estimated that over 500 Resistance fighters and around 125 civilians died in the Battle for Paris, as the French captured the remaining German snipers and infantrymen. Such was their hatred of the Nazis, it was reported that at times even those Germans who surrendered were often shot with machine guns as they were led off. That hatred was also vented upon French Nazi collaborators, with many being killed on capture. Very few lasted long enough to stand trial.
In a radio address to the nation on August 25, 1944, General Charles de Gaulle, who had been exiled to London, said ‘I wish simply from the bottom of my heart to say to you: Vive Paris!’ He went on to say ‘we are here in Paris – Paris which stood erect and rose in order to free herself. Paris oppressed, downtrodden and martyred but still Paris – free now, freed by the hands of Frenchmen, the capital of Fighting France, France the great eternal’.
DECEMBER 1944 – THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE
After D-Day, and with German troops and equipment severely debilitated, Adolf Hitler launched a final, massive counteroffensive in the Ardennes – a huge forested region encompassing Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Germany. The idea was to split the Allies with a ‘blitzkrieg’ down to the strategically important harbour town of Antwerp in Belgium.
The main target of the plan was to divide the Allied line down the middle, giving the Germans time to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, forcing them to negotiate a peace treaty which would have been weighted in Germany’s favour. The führer could then focus his sole attention on defeating the Soviets on the Eastern Front and the war would be won by the Third Reich.
Called the Ardennes Counteroffensive by the Allies, the Bataille des Ardennes by the French and Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (‘Operation Watch on the Rhine’) by the Germans, it soon became known as The Battle of the Bulge by the press corps, because the Allied front line bulged inwards on news maps.
The speed of the attack, which included almost a quarter of a million German troops and hundreds and hundreds of tanks piercing through the freezing forests, came as a shock to the Allies, largely due to poor reconnaissance and an element of overconfidence. The initial German attack was extremely successful, as they killed, wounded or captured nearly 100,000 GIs – still the biggest single-battle loss in US history.
German advances were stemmed at St. Vith, Elsenborn Ridge, Houffalize and Bastogne (famously defended by the US 101st Airborne Division). And while the Allies lost huge troop numbers, so did the Germans, to the tune of up to 100,000 men.
Alongside the increasingly effective counter-attacks on the ground, the Allies staged wave after wave of air attacks against a severely depleted Luftwaffe. These factors ultimately proved decisive, forcing a widespread German retreat.
Hitler’s risky counteroffensive in the Ardennes – while having limited initial success – turned into a crushing defeat, one from which it proved virtually impossible to recover.
JANUARY 1945 – THE LIBERATION OF AUSCHWITZ
Known as the largest mass murder site in the history of humanity, ‘Konzentrationslager Auschwitz’ was a series of concentration camps (sometimes known as death camps or extermination camps): Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau, Auschwitz III – Monowitz and 45 satellite camps.
Over a million Jews from all over Europe were killed there, along with 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet POWs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the disabled and other groups considered undesirable by the Nazis. They were murdered either in gas chambers, individual and mass executions, by forced labour, disease, starvation or as a result of Mengele’s infamous ‘experiments’.
Knowing the Soviets were on their way, Heinrich Himmler ordered the gassing be stopped – not just at Auschwitz but across the Reich – and Crematorium I was turned into a shelter from air raids.
Groups made up of prisoners known as ‘Sonderkommandos’ were ordered to destroy the evidence, including the mass graves, and the Waffen-SS destroyed all written records as well as burning down buildings. Himmler, chillingly, also instructed his commanders to ‘[make] sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy.’
Ten days before the Soviets arrived, 58,000 were evacuated to a town 35 miles away. Around 15,000 died on the ‘Death March’ with a further 20,000 making it to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen.
On arrival at Auschwitz, the Soviets found just 7,500 emaciated men and women and only 600 out of 1.1m corpses. Other grisly finds included 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 dresses and 7.7 tons of human hair.
FEBRUARY 1945 – THE YALTA CONFERENCE
From the 4th to the 11th of February, 1945, with the Second World War coming to its bloody conclusion, the Allies were turning their attention to the future. The shape of the geo-political map of the world needed to be addressed.
In the Livadia Palace near the town of Yalta in the Crimea, President Roosevelt, Prime Minster Churchill and Premier Stalin met for the second of three meetings (the first in Tehran in 1943 and the third to follow in Potsdam in July 1945) to discuss Europe’s post-war reorganisation.
The first item on the agenda was to demand Germany’s unconditional surrender and start planning for the future of a post-war Europe, as well as discussing the dismemberment of Germany. Stalin agreed to free elections in Poland (never fulfilling that particular promise) as well as to enter the war on the Pacific front against Japan in return for Russian land lost to Japan in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War.
Despite lofty ideals, the broken promises of Yalta ranked among the earliest indicators that the post-war world may not be all that had once been hoped. On March 1, 1945, Roosevelt famously said to Congress that ‘I come from the Crimea with a firm belief that we have made a start on the road to a world of peace’, but three weeks later the American Ambassador to the USSR, Averell Harriman, said ‘we must come clearly to realise that the Soviet program is the establishment of totalitarianism, ending personal liberty and democracy as we know it’. Roosevelt agreed. They had been hoodwinked by Stalin.
The Cold War had begun in earnest, even while the previous war was still raging.
FEBRUARY 1945 – THE BOMBING OF DRESDEN
The bombing of the eastern German city of Dresden has long been the subject of controversy. It was a beautiful city famous for its architecture and culture (known as the ‘Florence of the Elbe’) but, between February 13th and February 15th, 1945, it was targeted by over 700 RAF and over 500 USAF heavy bombers, which dropped nearly 4,000 tonnes of high explosives and incendiary devices on the city.
While it has long been claimed that Dresden had little or nothing to do with the business of war, a vital aspect of the Allied war in the air was what is known as ‘area’ or saturation’ bombing, that is bombing entire areas regardless of their strategic or military importance.
The Allies claimed that destroying the city through bombings and the resulting outrageously fierce fires would kill the German economy, disrupt vital lines of communication and force an immediate surrender.
Refugees from the east had settled in Dresden believing the city would be spared and, with the last German troops trying in vain the defend Berlin to the north, Dresden was a sitting duck.
Since there were so many refugees in the city unaccounted for, numbers of those killed are impossible to quantify. Estimates have varied from as little as 8,000 to as many as 200,000, with a figure of around 25,000 being generally accepted. After the war, the city was so badly damaged it was flattened, save for a few buildings which were painstakingly repaired, such as the Zwinger Palace, the Dresden State Opera House, and a number of beautiful historic churches.
Kurt Vonnegut, an American author who was a POW in Dresden during the bombings said of the city post-attack ‘it looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground’.
You can watch our interview with ex-POW Victor Gregg, who was at Dresden at the time of the bombing, at our VE Day videos page.
MARCH 1945 – CROSSING THE RHINE
In order to get to Berlin, the Allies needed to cross the Rhine, a 760-mile long river that flows through Switzerland, France and Germany before discharging into the North Sea in the Netherlands.
Getting across the Rhine was the last major obstacle in the way of the full-on race to the German capital. By this time the Nazi military machine was severely depleted, but they still managed to mount a last, desperate attempt at resistance. A fierce defence of the Rhine was expected.
By late March, 1945, the Allies had gathered a million soldiers, 4,000 pieces of artillery and a quarter of a million tonnes of supplies. However, before the river crossing itself, the Allies sprung a surprise on the German defenders by dropping thousands of airborne troops behind enemy lines to devastate the German artillery.
After the first bridgeheads were established, it took just nine hours to bridge the river, and the Allies crossed at the town of Remagen, south of Koblenz. It was here that the Germans had failed to blow up a railway bridge in time to stop the Americans from seizing it and using it to cross into Germany’s heartland, and Hitler ordered the execution of eight army officers who had been deemed responsible.
Mistakes in the field became punishable by death as Hitler grew more and more desperate. The war was almost over.
APRIL 1945 – THE SOVIETS TAKE BERLIN
A few short weeks before Germany’s unconditional surrender, the Soviet Red Army captured Berlin and flew their flag over the Reichstag. It was the last major offensive of the Second World War.
The Soviets had been advancing through the east for months and, by March 1945, they were approaching the German capital. The Soviets had won battles in Seelow Heights and Halbe and had managed to surround the city, before Marshall Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front began shelling the city centre while Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukranian Front attacked the city from the south and east.
The Germans were fighting with a rag-tag army made up of the few remaining exhausted and badly-equipped Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS divisions, as well as Volkssturm (a Nazi Party militia), the police and Hitler Youth. These cobbled-together forces were no match for the Red Army. The Soviets ripped through the city with relative ease, engaging in close-quarters combat in the city centre, in the streets, and through buildings.
The Soviets entered the Reichstag on the evening of April 30th, the same day that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. By May 2nd, the Soviets had the city under full control, Hitler was dead, and the war was effectively over.
APRIL 1945 – HITLER’S SUICIDE
At the start of 1945, the German war machine was crumbling. They had lost massive numbers of troops, planes and ground vehicles on the Eastern Front to the Soviet Red Army and on the Western Front to the British and Americans. The Allies were homing in on victory.
On January 16, 1945, Hitler retreated to the Führerbunker near the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, a subterranean complex where the last, desperate days of the Third Reich were orchestrated. He was joined by Eva Braun, Martin Bormann, the head of the Parteikanzlei (the Nazi Party Chancellery)- and Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, along with his wife Magda and their six children.
By the time of Hitler’s 56th birthday on April 20, 1945, reports suggested he was anxious, depressed and in a permanent state of unease. He spent the day giving Iron Crosses to the young boys of the Hitler Youth while his beloved city of Berlin was about to be decimated by the Soviets. He remained in denial of the dire situation in which he found himself, and ordered Waffen-SS-General Felix Steiner to attack the northern flank of the Soviets while the Ninth Army was to attack to the north. Both orders were ignored.
At the same time Hermann Göring, who had asked to be named Hitler’s successor, was relieved of command, stripped of all powers and expelled from the Party. Albert Speer came to the Führerbunker to tell Hitler that the Führer’s ‘scorched earth’ order, an order to literally destroy everything that may be useful to an enemy – in this case, the Third Reich infrastructure – had also been ignored.
Lastly, Heinrich Himmler, the man most directly responsible for the atrocities in the Holocaust, made a secret offer to the Allies for a conditional German surrender. When Hitler found out, he was apoplectic with rage and ordered Himmler shot. An outcast, Himmler committed suicide after being detained by the British at a checkpoint.
At midnight on the 29th April, Hitler and Eva Braun married in a map room of the Führerbunker and soon after, he and his secretary Traudi Junge went to another room where he dictated his last will and testament.
The following day, Hitler and his wife had lunch, said goodbye to Bormann and Goebbels, and retired to his private study.
What was said between the two will remain the stuff of conjecture, but what we do know is that Eva Braun killed herself with a cyanide pill and Hitler shot himself in the head with his own Walther PPK 7.65 pistol.
‘That was a direct hit. The Führer is dead now,’ said Goebbels. In accordance with Hitler’s instructions, both bodies were taken up into the garden of the Reich Chancellery, doused in petrol and burned.
The most evil, hated man in the history of the world was dead, and the terrible conflict he inflicted on the world was almost over. Just a few days later, the Germans surrendered unconditionally – and all across Europe people celebrated VE Day. Victory had come at last.