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Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945by Max Hastings
Time of Hope
Allies of a Kind
The first of September 1944 marked the fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, outbreak of the Second World War. The struggle had already continued for nine months longer than the earlier conflict, once called the Great War. The 1914-18 conflict cost the lives of a mere nine million people. Its successor would account for at least five times that number, the overwhelming majority of whom died in the Soviet Union or in China (where their passing remained largely unremarked by Westerners, then or since).
The British people somewhat flattered themselves about their own role. France, Britain and the dominion were the only belligerents voluntarily to have entered the conflict against totalitarianism as a matter of principle in support of Polish freedom, rather than as victims of aggression or in hopes of booty. Churchill's brilliant defiance in 1940 mitigated Hitler's triumph in western Europe that year. Without his genius, it is likely that Britain would have sued for peace. At no time after June 1940 was there a possibility that British arms could defeat Germany, or even play the principal part in doing so. Yet it was characteristic of British self-indulgence that, when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, some thoughtful people recoiled in disgust from the notion of fighting alongside the bloodstained Soviets, even though their participation opened up the first, perhaps only realistic, prospect of overcoming Hitler.
In Evelyn Waugh's great novel Sword of Honour, the British officer Guy Crouchback embraces war in 1939 as a crusade against the modern world in arms. His faith is lost, however, when he finds his country allied with the Russians. That was fiction, yet in cool reality the head of the British Army, Sir John Dill, said in 1941 that he considered the Russians "so foul that he hated the idea of any close association with them." Dill's successor as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, initially regarded the Soviets with both moral and military contempt. Churchill's government embarked upon a huge propaganda campaign, to convince the British people that "Uncle Joe" Stalin and his nation were worthy friends of freedom. This was so successful that in 1945 it proved a painful task to shatter public delusions, to break the news that perhaps the Soviet Union was not quite such a good thing after all.
Yet if the accession of the Soviet Union as an ally prompted equivocal sentiments, that of the United States provided cause for unstinting celebration. "So we had won after all!" Winston Churchill exulted, on hearing news of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Between that date and May 1945, the United States devoted 85 per cent of its entire war effort to the struggle against Germany. Yet, paradoxically, few Americans ever felt deep animosity towards the Germans, of the kind which they cherished towards the "yellow barbarians" who had attacked them at Pearl Harbor. "I didn't work up a great hate of the Germans," said Nicholas Kafkalas, a twenty-four-year-old captain commanding an armoured infantry company of 10th Armored Division in north-west Europe. "They were pretty good soldiers. A lot of Americans felt less engaged against the Germans than against the Japanese." By the autumn of 1944, largely armed and equipped by the industrial might of the United States, the Allies were in no doubt of victory. But the gratitude of the weary, battered, hungry British people was mingled with resentment as they watched Americans in their tens of thousands, brash and fresh, clean and rich, pour off the ships on their way to join Eisenhower's armies. The New World's soldiers came to harvest the fruits of victory without, as the British saw it, having endured their share of the Old World's pain.
A thirty-two-year-old academic serving as a combat historian with the U.S. Army in September 1944 read British newspapers. He noted the fears these expressed, that the Americans would claim to have won the war on their own. "Unfortunately [for the British], nothing can stop our people from claiming the victory," Forrest Pogue wrote presciently.
They believe the British slow, they over-emphasize their [own] total contribution. The British will never get full credit for their part in winning the war, since their greatest glory was holding on in the 1939-42 period. This was negative type of fighting, and will fade . . . Russia will be played down, perhaps, in later years at home . . . Hers was the positive sacrifice that broke Germany and made the landing [in Normandy] possible. However, ours was the voice and the helping hand that encouraged England to keep fighting, that replaced the terrific loss of matériel suffered by the Russians.
All this was true.
Winston Churchill, whose irrational stubbornness in 1940 had averted Hitler's triumph, enjoyed the years of victory much less than he had expected. Like his people he was weary, as well a man of sixty-nine might be. He suffered increasing ill-health. He was made wretched by consciousness of his shrinking power in the Grand Alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. He was haunted by apprehension that Hitler's tyranny in eastern Europe would be supplanted by that of Stalin. In 1940, Britain's prime minister had been warlord of the sole bastion of resistance to the Nazis. In 1942, even if the Soviets treated him with the morbid suspicion due to an old imperialist and adversary of revolution, the Americans deferred to his greatness and to his nation's experience of war. From 1943 onwards, however, Churchill's influence upon the Grand Alliance dwindled almost to vanishing point. The Soviet Union displayed the icy arrogance it considered appropriate, as paymaster of the vast blood sacrifice necessary to bring Hitler's empire to bay. The United States made plain its intention to determine strategy in the west and invade Normandy in summer 1944-Operation Overlord-as its forces waxed in might while those of Britain waned.
"Up till Overlord," wrote Churchill's private secretary when it was all over, "he saw himself as the supreme authority to whom all military decisions were referred. Now, he is by force of circumstances little more than a spectator." Churchill himself acknowledged this: "Up to July 1944 England had a considerable say in things; after that I was conscious that it was America who made the big decisions." In 1944, the United States produced as many weapons as all the Axis powers together-40 per cent of the entire armaments employed by all the combatants on every front in the Second World War. Tensions grew between Britain's prime minister and America's president: "Roosevelt envied Churchill's genius, and Churchill increasingly envied Roosevelt's power," in the words of the historian John Grigg. The warmth of public exchanges between the two men masked a private coolness, and especially the consequences of Roosevelt's impatience with Churchill, which became ever more marked in the last months of the war.
While Roosevelt's life reflected the highest ideals, he was a much less sentimental and more ruthless man than Churchill. Roosevelt possessed, claims his most recent biographer, "a more perceptive and less romantic view of the world than Churchill." This proposition is justified insofar as Roosevelt recognized that the days of empires were done, while Churchill's heart refused to accept the signals of his brain that it was so. Yet any claim of Roosevelt's superior wisdom becomes hard to sustain convincingly in the light of the president's failure to perceive, as Churchill perceived, the depth of evil which Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union represented. It may be true that the Western allies lacked the military power to prevent the Soviet rape of eastern Europe, but posterity is entitled to wish that Roosevelt had allowed himself to appear less indifferent to it.
The British considered that neither the president nor the U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, for all his greatness as lead manager of America's war effort, exercised the mastery of strategy that was needed to finish the war quickly. "As [Roosevelt's] grip slackened during the last year of his life," argues one of the best historians of Anglo-American relations at this period, ". . . the President became in some ways a liability in terms of the effective conduct of United States and Allied business . . . his refusal to face the facts concerning his own state of health . . . suggest, not so much heroism, as is usually argued, but irresponsibility and an undue belief in his own indispensability, if not a love of power." Even if this verdict is too harsh and ignores the likelihood that an elected replacement president in January 1945 would have been less impressive than Harry S. Truman, it is hard to dispute the assertion that Roosevelt's judgement was flawed, his grasp upon events visibly slipping, from his 1944 re-election campaign until his death in April the following year.
Yet American vision about the most important strategic decision of the western war, the assault on the continent, had proved superior to that of the British. As late as the winter of 1943-44, Churchill continued to fight a rearguard action for his cherished Mediterranean strategy. He pursued the chimera of penetrating Germany through Italy and Yugoslavia. He remained instinctively anxious to defer an invasion of north-west Europe, which he feared could become a bloodbath reminiscent of the First World War. Painful experience of the limitations of Allied forces against those of the Wehrmacht, the greatest fighting machine the world had ever seen, dogged his consciousness. The prime minister always acknowledged that a confrontation in France must come sooner or later. But he remained uncharacteristically dilatory about its timing. General* Sir John Kennedy, Britain's Director of Military Operations, wrote after the war that he doubted whether the invasion of Normandy would have taken place before 1945 but for the insistence of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff: "American opinion on the landing in France in 1944 was, without a shadow of doubt, 'harder' than ours." Franklin Roosevelt could claim personal credit for insisting that D-Day should take place when it did. Marshall, likewise, declared with some justice that one of his own principal wartime achievements was to resist Churchill's follies.
In the summer of 1944, American confidence in Overlord was triumphantly vindicated on the battlefield. After ten weeks of bitter fighting in Normandy, German forces collapsed in rout. The broken remnants of Hitler's forces staggered away eastwards, leaving almost all their tanks and guns wrecked upon the battlefield. The Allies had expected to fight river by river and field by field across France. Instead, Paris fell without a fight. In the early days of September, British columns streamed into jubilant Brussels, where they received a far warmer welcome than they had encountered from the French, among whom political and psychological wounds ran deep. "One got the impression that the Belgians felt they had done their bit by eating their way through the war," said Captain Lord Carrington of the Guards Armoured Division, one of many Allied soldiers astonished by the plenty he found in Belgium, after years of privation at home in Britain. Courtney Hodges's U.S. First Army approached the frontiers of Germany. The vanguard of George Patton's U.S. Third Army reached the upper Moselle. Huge expanses of territory lay undefended by the Nazis. A few feeble divisions, supported by mere companies of tanks against the Anglo-American armoured legions, manned the enemy's line. For a few halcyon days, Allied exhilaration and optimism were unbounded.
Meanwhile in the east, the Soviet Operation Bagration boasted triumphs to match those of the Americans and British. Indeed, the Russians' achievement was much greater, since they faced three German divisions for each one deployed in France. Between 4 July and 29 August, the Red Army advanced more than 300 miles westwards from the start line of its northern summer offensive. The fervour of the Russians' loathing for their enemy was intensified by the desert they found in Belorussia as the Germans retreated-crops ploughed into the ground, all livestock gone, a million houses burned, most of the population dead or deported for slave labour. Private Vitold Kubashevsky of 3rd Belorussian Front had already lived through two years of war, but recoiled in horror from what he now saw in Belorussia. Once he and his platoon noticed a stench emerging from a shed beside a church, and entered to find it stacked with the rotting corpses of local peasants. When correspondents reported on a Nazi death camp found at Maidenek in Poland, where the ashes of 200,000 people were still piled in the crematorium, some Western media-including the BBC-refused to publish their dispatches, suspecting a Soviet propaganda ploy. The New York Herald Tribune said: "Maybe we should wait for further corroboration of the horror story . . . Even on top of all we have been taught of the maniacal Nazi ruthlessness, this example sounds inconceivable . . ."
By September, the Red Army had recovered all but a small fragment of the Soviet territories lost since 1941. Stalin's people, who had achieved their decisive victory over Germany at Kursk in July 1943, now stood at the borders of East Prussia, and on the Vistula within a few miles of Warsaw. The Germans clung to a mere foothold in Lithuania. Further south, the Russians had driven deep into Rumania, and held a line close to the capital, Bucharest. Only in the Carpathian Mountains did the Germans retain a narrow strip of Russian soil. German casualties were horrendous. Fifty-seven thousand captives from the Fourth Army were marched through the streets of Moscow on 17 July. Muscovite children jeered and threw stones. A watching six-year-old was so conditioned by propaganda images of the enemy that she noted her own astonishment on seeing that these Germans possessed human faces. She had expected to see the features of wild beasts. Most Russian adults looked on in grim silence. Yet a Western correspondent watching the shuffling parade of Germans was surprised to hear an old Russian woman mutter: "Just like our poor boys . . . driven into the war." Between July and September, Hitler's forces lost 215,000 men killed and 627,000 missing or captured in the east. One hundred and six divisions were shattered. Total German losses on the Eastern Front that summer-more than two million men killed, wounded, captured and missing-dwarfed those of Stalingrad. It was little wonder that Stalin and his marshals were dismissive of Anglo-American successes in France. A recent American study has described Bagration as "the most impressive ground operation of the war." Yet if its gains were awesome, so was its human price. Russia's summer triumphs cost the Red Army 243,508 men killed and 811,603 wounded.
In the second week of August, Marshal Georgi Zhukov-who had brilliantly orchestrated the summer operations of the two Belorussian Fronts-together with Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, his subordinate at 1st Belorussian Front, considered with Stalin the possibilities of an early thrust west across Poland, on an axis which would lead finally to Berlin. This was rejected, chiefly because Rokossovsky's forces were exhausted by their long advance, and also because Stalin perceived opportunities elsewhere. Russia's warlord committed his forces, first, to new operations on the Baltic Front, where some thirty German divisions held out in coastal enclaves, some of which they retained until May 1945; and, second, to a series of major offensives in the Balkans, where several countries lay ripe for Moscow's taking.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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