WWII Curriculum – Day 6
WORLD WAR II CURRICULUM:
Lesson Plan – Day Six
Phase Four (1945):
The period of history in Europe and the world as the conflict became a death struggle for both Germany and Japan as the Allied forces entered and conquered the homelands and brought final defeat.
The Student will learn facts and comprehend the events pertaining to:
- The final Allied advance in Germany by Russians in the east and the Anglo-Americans in the west
- The effect of the Holocaust on the Allied forces
- The conclusion of the war in Europe – V.E. Day
- The advance of the American forces across the pacific on two broad fronts
- The significance of the U.S. submarine forces in cutting off the Japanese supplies to their forces and in isolating Japan from much need resources
- The utilization of new long range bombers (B-29) to reduce the Japanese capability to wage war
- The determination of the Japanese forces to resist as the American forces approached Japan
- The American occupation of the Japanese home islands
- The conclusion of the war in the Pacific – V.J. Day
Duration of instruction time required:
- 45 – 50 minutes
- World or American History Textbook
- Map of Europe
- Map of Asia
Supplemental materials (included):
- Photograph of American Soldiers passing through the Siegfried Line in 1945 (National Archives NARA file # 111-SC-208-YE-193)
When the Anglo-Americans armies were final able to breach the Siegfried Line there were no real fixed fortifications that could hold up their advance. The only real obstacle for the Allies now was the Rhine River. The Americans in particular had been hung-up on the Siegfried Line and the bunker complexes for nearly six months and felt that by finally entering Germany they were going to soon end the war.
Question for the Students: Once Germany was entered by the advancing Allies in the west, do you think that the resistance of the German military would either increase or decrease? Answer: Studies have indicated that in some areas the Germans fought that much harder, while in other areas their resistance began to crumble very quickly. After the Anglo-American armies crossed the Rhine in March 1945, most German resistance to their advance was weak.
- Letter from General George Patton to the personnel of the 3rd Army and 19th Tactical Air Command, 23 March 1945
General Patton was a shrewd leader of men in combat. As the war reached the final months, he wanted to ensure that his troops understood the significance of their actions and accomplishments. At the same time he wanted them to understand that the war was not yet over.
Question for the Students: Do you think that General Patton was a good motivator of his personnel? Answer: General Patton was very controversial in his methods to motivate his troops. During the war many of his soldiers resented his directives, but he had their respect because he usually led from the front. At the end of the war and after Patton’s death more soldiers changed their attitudes toward Patton and would reflect proudly that they had served under old “Blood and Guts” in the 3rd Army.
- Allied propaganda leaflet encouraging the Germans to surrender in the closing days of the war
In the final months of the war some elements of the German military continued to resist the Allied advance. This particular leaflet highlights the futility of any further resistance and the fact that the Allied armies to both the East and West were close to conquering all of Germany.
Question for the Students: Do you think that these leaflets would have had an effect on your morale? Answer: The Germans knew that the end of the war was approaching. However, they were still being exhorted to resist with the hopes of some sort of negotiated settlement. Most Germans by March 1945 just wanted the war to end.
- Stars & Stripes Newspaper (Paris Edition), May 4, 1945
By the 4th of May it was clear to the world that Hitler was dead and that the war was all but over. In Italy Mussolini had been killed by Italian partisans as he tried to reach Switzerland with his mistress. People were unsure of what would happen next.
Question for the Students: What do you think would be the first priority of the Allied forces that are now occupying Germany? Answer: Student answers may vary, but some should consider establishing order, preventing looting, disarming the military, ensuring some type of food distribution for the people to avoid starvation and providing immediate to the victims from the concentration camps.
- Photograph of the unconditional surrender by Field Marshall Keitel in Berlin (National Archives NARA file # 111-SC-206292)
The unconditional surrender to the Anglo-American forces took place in Reims, France in the early morning hours of 7 May 1945. The Russians now occupying Berlin wanted their own ceremony marking the unconditional surrender of Germany. The Russian ceremony was held on the 8th of May 1945 in the Berlin suburb of Karlshorst.
Question for the Students: Why do you think that the Russians wanted their own ceremony? Was this a forerunner of what would develop into the “Cold War”?
Answer: The Russians had borne the bulk of the fighting against the Germans for four years and in the end lost nearly 20 million people to the war. Stalin was suspicious of the west and staged the ceremony to ensure that everyone understood that it was the Russians who won the “Great Patriotic War”.
- Stars & Stripes Newspaper (Paris Edition), July 27, 1945
The Potsdam Conference began on 17 July 1945 with a goal of working out the arrangements and policy that would govern the four zones of occupation for Germany and Austria. The Potsdam Conference later issued the ultimatum to the Japan that if they did not surrender they would face destruction of their nation. Additionally, Winston Churchill had been replaced as the Prime Minister of England.
Question for the Students: With the war over in Europe do think that the Potsdam Conference was focused more on the political future of the world rather than developing a final strategy for the elimination of Japan from the war? Answer: At Potsdam the discussion revolved in part about how occupied Germany was to be administered, with major differences between the American and Soviet approaches being evident. It was here that President Truman “officially” informed Stalin about the Atomic Bomb and its intended use.
- Stars & Stripes Newspaper (Paris Edition), September 1, 1945
After the agreement by the Japanese government of the surrender terms, it would be several weeks before American forces began to occupy Japan.
Question for the Students: What do you think would be the attitude of the Japanese people to the Americans? Answer: The Japanese people had been indoctrinated culturally that surrender was dishonorable. They did not know what to expect from the Americans because of propaganda which characterized the U.S. in a poor light.
Instruction evaluation (included):
- Ten question multiple choice quiz
- Answer sheet
Topics to be covered:
1. End of the War in Europe
- Anglo-American advance through Western Germany
- American – Russian meeting on the Elbe River
- Revelations of the Holocaust
- Soviet advance through Germany
- Capture of Berlin
- Unconditional Surrender
- 7 May 1945 – Reims, France
- 8 May 1945 – Berlin, Germany
2. The Final Campaigns in Asia
- Strategic Bombing Campaign in the Pacific
- The Islands
- The Battle for Iwo Jima
- The Battle of the Philippines
- The Battle for the Japanese Home Islands
- Kamikaze Attacks
- Planning for the Invasion of Japan
- “Operation Olympic”
- Decision to use the “Atomic Bomb”
- Truman’s Rationale
- Hiroshima – Enola Gay (6 August 1945)
- Nagasaki – Bock’s Car (9 August 1945)
- Russia enters the Pacific War
- USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945
End of the War in Europe
Anglo-American Advance through Western Germany
After dealing with the threat of the German Ardennes Counter-Offensive, the Allied armies began to again look eastward and to a deeper tactical penetration into the Third Reich. The German military machine had exhausted its resources in the failed Ardennes operations and was now depleted in weapons, equipment and personnel. The ability of the German military to defend Germany was now greatly weakened. As Eisenhower continued to regroup and rebuild his armies after the Ardennes he was able to constitute 71 divisions by January 1945 with the expectation he would have 85 divisions available by the early spring. His expanding forces would then consist of 61 American, 16 British and eight French divisions. Of these divisions, 23 were armored and five were airborne.
The Allied disposition of these forces was such that they were broken out along a front that ran for nearly 250 miles. This front ran from the Netherlands and the Maas River near Nijmegen in the north along the Roer River down to Strasbourg and the Rhine River in the south. Germany was now facing three Allied Army Groups, the 21st under the command of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, the 12th Army Group under the command of Lt. General Omar Bradley and the 6th Army Group under Lt. General Jacob Devers.
The 21st Army Group had been led by Montgomery since the D-Days landings and had moved across the coastal areas of France, Belgium and had attempted to enter Holland through Operation Market Garden. The 12th Army Group had been under the command of Bradley since the Normandy landings and contained the 3rd Army under General Patton. It was Bradley’s 12th Army Group that had borne the brunt of the fighting at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and January 1945. The 12th had been in place along the border of Germany since September 1944 where it encountered the Siegfried Line as it began an assault on Aachen and the Hurtgen Forest. The 6th Army Group had arrived along the French – German border by way of the Anvil-Dragoon operation that had landed Allied forces along the southern coast of France. The 21st Army Group was a combination of British, Canadian and at times American forces, the 12h Army Group was composed of American forces while the 6th was a combination of American and French forces.
Up to this point in the war General Eisenhower had been pursuing his “Broad Front Strategy”. It was his goal to maintain an even movement and momentum against the Germans which helped to ensure that there was no possibility of flanking movements against his armies. He felt that this would hopefully speed the end of the war. In this strategy, Eisenhower further believed that he could control where to place pressure on the German defenses as the situation dictated and as the opportunity arose he would be able to exploit any breakthrough. Additionally, he did not think that the Allies could logistically support the British suggestion of a single thrust attack with his extended supply lines. Until the capture of the Belgian port of Antwerp in November, 1944 Eisenhower would have this logistical concern. The Broad Front Strategy did not always sit well with Montgomery, and he let his American counterparts know what he felt about it. Montgomery and the British war leadership favored a single, heavily armored thrust through the portion of northwestern Germany that lay along the Rhine River above the industrial area of the Ruhr. This would lead to the open and relatively flat north German plain and on to Berlin. Additionally, because of the terrain armored and mechanized units could be favorably employed. In some respects this plan bore a resemblance to the ill fated Market-Garden operation of September 1944. Additionally, the British plan was intended to capture the German port cities of Hamburg and Bremen for what has been stated as political reasons, which are to keep them from falling into the hands of the Russians. Eisenhower stated that he intended to pursue a strategy that had a military objective, not post-war political goals.
Once the Anglo-American armies had breached the West Wall and its Siegfried Line defenses the only major obstacle that remained that could possibly hinder eastward operations towards Berlin was the Rhine River. See included photograph of Americans Soldiers at the Siegfried Line Always a formidable barrier since ancient Roman times, this would be the last obstacle to the heartland of Germany.
The Rhineland campaign can be characterized as a two prong thrust complimented by the largest Allied airborne operation of World War II. The Rhineland campaign strategy of Eisenhower deferred in some degree to the British proposed plan for the 21st Army Group to thrust in northwest Germany with a supporting action by the two other Army Groups to the south. Eisenhower’s strategic plan was to be accomplished in three phases. The first called for the clearing of German resistance west of the Rhine River. The second phase would be to seize bridgeheads over the Rhine at critical points along the Rhine River and the third phase called for Montgomery to break out along the north German plain. Eisenhower’s other two Army Groups were allowed to pursue the strategy of an “aggressive defense” which was later interpreted to mean being able to conduct limited offensives. In this fashion Eisenhower actually used a combination of strategies that he felt offered the best opportunities in his situation.
There will always be some degree of controversy over Eisenhower’s choice of objectives at this stage of the war. The British, under the instance of Churchill, were focused on capturing Berlin ahead of the Russians in order to use it as a bargaining wedge in the postwar conferences. They recognized that Stalin had postwar objectives for Eastern Europe. On the other hand Eisenhower felt that he, as a soldier, should be dealing only with military aspects and getting the war over as soon as possible. He recognized the large number causalities that would occur in attempting to capture the heavily defended city of Berlin. He felt that this was a needless waste of Allied lives and that the Russians were much closer to Berlin that any of his armies. His predictions bore him out as the Russians suffered very heavy losses when they took Berlin in April 1945.
As the Anglo-American armies began their final assault on the Reich on the 8th of February 1945 they immediately ran into two problems that were not expected. To the north, the Germans had destroyed the dykes along the Dutch-German border and the Waal, Maas and Rhine Rivers now flooded the countryside. This created a landscape that significantly delayed the advance and in so doing funneled the attackers in a six mile wide corridor. This did not leave much room to maneuver a heavily armored force. In the Eifel Region the retreating German army had destroyed the discharge values of the Schwammenauel Dam which in turn flooded the Roer River valley. These two actions would serve to disrupt and slow down the Allied timetable for moving toward the Rhine. It would take nearly two weeks of wet, muddy fighting, but elements of Montgomery’s 21st Army group would eventually seize the German cities of Cleves and Goch and expand a breakthrough that would lead to the Rhine River. To the south, Lt. General Simpson’s 9th Army (on loan from Bradley) would breach the Roer River which would bring them to the banks of the Rhine River, joining Montgomery’s 2nd Army in a pincer movement across from the east bank Rhine city of Wessel. To the south Lt. General Courtney Hodge’s 1st Army, after pushing through light resistance, would reach the skeletal remains of the Rhine city of Cologne. Fighting in Cologne would be difficult because the defenders hid in the rubble and ruins that were created by the Allied bombing campaign. Many British and American soldiers would later comment how they had been completely in awe of the amount of destruction that they saw. Cologne was the first German city that the Allies captured that had been the target of repeated raids over the course of three years.
An even more significant event occurred that only happens in the unplanned fortunes of war. Montgomery’s forces to the north were not yet able to cross the Rhine and move to the north German Plain. That would eventually happen on 23rd of March. On the 7th of March, elements of the 9th Armored Division, part of the 1st Army, had discovered an intact railway bridge that crossed the Rhine at Remagen. As these soldiers watched, the Germans were making feverish attempts to destroy the bridge. After two explosions, the bridge was still standing although it had suffered some structural damage. With Eisenhower’s approval, Bradley pushed across the bridge nearly five complete divisions in order to establish a very firm footing on the east bank of the Rhine. Montgomery was pleased with the good fortune, as it would serve to divert some German units from the area he would be soon attacking. After ten days the Remagen Bridge fell into the Rhine. To the south of Remagen, General Patton’s 3rd Army had quickly breached the Siegfried Line, roared through Luxembourg and entered Germany on a front that included the wooded Eifel region, the wine growing region of the Mosel River and to the east were on the outskirts of the historic Rhine city of Mainz. (See included Patton letter to his personnel, 23 March 1945) To the south of Patton, Lt. General Patch’s 7th Army crossed into the southern German border of the Rhineland-Palatinate and moved quickly to the vicinity of the Rhine city of Worms.
As Eisenhower noted that the clearance of the German troops west of the Rhine was going much better than he had anticipated, he decided to make modifications to the overall operational concept. The 12th Army Group had made very rapid gains and was now at the banks of the Rhine River. Rather than halt the momentum of these forces Eisenhower authorized Bradley to cross the Rhine and continue the pursuit of the retreating Germans. With this action in progress Montgomery would launch his on 21st Army Group to the north and the Germans would be hit very hard and would not be able to mount determined resistance. Efforts were made again to induce the Germans to cease fighting and encourage them to lay down their weapons and surrender. Leaflet drops were made over enemy lines by both aircraft and artillery shells all along the Rhine River that explained the situation of the Anglo-American forces in the west and the Russian forces in the east and how the Third Reich was quickly shrinking. (See included Allied situation propaganda leaflet dated 28 March 1945)
With three Army Groups in place the barrier of the Rhine was about to be breached in force. On the 23rd of March 1945 Montgomery’s 21st Army Group crossed the Rhine at Rees, Xanten and Rheinberg. Bradley’s 12th Army Group expanded from their bridgehead at Remagen and Patton’s 3rd Army and Patch’s 7th Army crossed the Rhine meeting little real defensive opposition. This led to a massive advance of the American mechanized forces that would see gains of nearly 200 miles in only a matter of days. Once the initial assault forces had crossed the lower Rhine region in Northwest Germany, Montgomery launched what would prove to be the largest one-day airborne operation of World War II. Code named “Operation Varsity”, the American 17th and the British 6th Airborne Divisions were made up of 22,000 paratroopers who would land behind the German lines and link up with the Rhine assault forces. This would ensure the success of the bridgehead and would force the German defenders to withdraw. Operation Varsity was the last airborne operation of World War II in Europe.
To Montgomery’s southern flank was the industrial heart of Germany, the Ruhr River Valley. This area still held significant numbers of German soldiers and was still heavily defended as it had been throughout the war. Many of the industrial plants were ringed with the fearsome German 88mm anti-aircraft gun which the Allies learned was very lethal against armored forces. Rather than risk unnecessary losses, plans dictated that elements of the 9th Army would advance parallel with the Lippe River in a flanking movement, thereby avoiding the confining hills and woods of the Ruhr. The lead element of this force was the US 2nd Armored Division which was able to make rapid progress, advancing 50 miles in a matter of days. To the south of the Ruhr was the 1st Army under Lt. General Hodges. After the breakout of the Rhine bridgehead, elements of the 3rd Armored Division moved along the Sieg River and within days had units 60 miles to the front. Recognizing the significance of the situation, Bradley ordered the 1st Army to move to the northwest and ordered the 9th Army to move to the southeast. By executing this plan the entire Ruhr was now encircled by a double pincer movement that culminated when the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions met at Lippstadt. Bradley directed that each Army leave several Corps units behind to “mop-up” the Ruhr while the remainder of the Army Groups would continue their push eastward. This mopping up operation began on the 1st of April and by the 18th of April the Allied armies now had another 325,000 prisoners of war (POW). This was a greater number of POW’s than what the Russians had captured at Stalingrad in February 1943. Because of this large of number of prisoners, the Allies literally had to create makeshift POW camps by fencing farmers open fields with barbed wire. This would contribute to the logistical strain that was being placed on the advancing Allied forces.
With the rapid advance now of all Anglo-American forces on a broad front Eisenhower directed that Montgomery turn his 21st Army Group to the north and seize all the areas that led up to the Danish border. This adjustment included having the 3rd and 7th Armies now move eastward in the quickest possible manner to link up with the advancing Russian forces. This action would then split the German defenders in two, thus leading to an easier conquest of smaller forces. This change in plan angered Montgomery and some of the American field commanders who saw the chance to capture Berlin prior to the Russians. Eisenhower recognized this as a needless task. Earlier at Yalta the postwar zones of occupation for Germany had already been decided and capturing any additional ground would not change the political outcome. Further, Eisenhower recognized that the Russians were now on the Oder and Nesse Rivers, only 40 miles outside of Berlin while his closest unit was still over 100 miles away. Another concern in Eisenhower’s mind was the need to come up with an easily recognizable boundary where his forces could halt and wait for the Russians. The boundary that was agreed on between the Soviets and the Americans was the Elbe-Mulde River line. By the 25th of April a small American patrol had encountered a lone Russian cavalryman on the outskirts of the village of Leckwitz and the next day the “link-up” was accomplished amid festivities at Torgau on the Elbe River.
Recognizing the significant gains made against limited German defenses, Generals Patton and Patch were directed by Bradley to move their forces through southeastern Germany and into Austria. In these concluding operations, the only real struggle would be for the Nazi Party citadel showplace of Nuremberg. Sadly this once beautiful medieval city had been pounded by allied bombing raids and now in the course of five days it would be reduced to even more rubble. In the planning for these final operations of the war, fears had been discussed among the American generals that the Germans would prepare for a final defense in what would be called the “Alpine Redoubt”. By moving forces quickly into the area it was hoped that a link-up could be accomplished with the American 5th Army forces moving up from Italy the Alpine Redoubt could be eliminated. This was accomplished by the 4th of May when forces from both armies met in southern Austria at the Brenner Pass. (See included Stars and Stripes Paris Edition, 4 May 1945) Earlier the swift American capture of Hitler’s mountaintop retreat at Berchtesgaden was celebrated by victorious G.I.’s when they realized that they had no further objectives to take because it turned out there was no Alpine Redoubt to worry about.
As the Allied forces overran the central Germany a curious discovery was made on the 6th of April 1945 by elements of the 90th Infantry Division at the town of Merkers. Days earlier, the Americans had heard rumors about gold being stored nearby in some of the mines belonging to the Wintershal AG’s Kaiseroda potassium mine. Comments made by a women to an American Military Policeman led to the discovery in a mine that contained literally the treasure of the Third Reich”. With the Russians approaching in the east, a decision was made in Berlin to move all the transportable wealth of the government to a secure location in the west. By the end of March 1945, the Merkers mines now contained priceless art treasures from the German state museums as well as many of the looted treasures from the major cities of Europe. Additionally it turned out that the mine, as well as other surrounding mines, contained the wealth of the Reichsbank in the form of hundreds of millions of printed currency notes as well as currencies from England, France, Norway, and the United States. What was most remarkable was the quantity of gold that was found in the mine. As listed in the subsequent inventory reports prepared by the American forces they initially discovered “8,198 bars of gold bullion; 55 boxes of crated gold bullion; hundreds of bags of gold items; over 1,300 bags of gold Reichsmarks, British gold pounds, and French gold francs; 711 bags of American twenty-dollar gold pieces; hundreds of bags of gold and silver coins; hundreds of bags of foreign currency; 9 bags of valuable coins; 2,380 bags and 1,300 boxes of Reichsmarks (2.76 billion Reichsmarks); 20 silver bars; 40 bags containing silver bars; 63 boxes and 55 bags of silver plate; 1 bag containing six platinum bars; and 110 bags from various countries”. In addition to this incredible find the Americans discovered what would turn out to the looted wealth of the victims of the Holocaust. Since early 1942, the SS, under the direction of its head Heinrich Himmler, had been taking many of the valuables confiscated from the concentration camp inmates and storing them in the Reichsbank. When those assets were moved to Merkers a carefully inventory and accounting was made which documented the ownership of the SS. Within days of the announcement of this discovery Allied officials began to secure the mine, inventory the contents and move it to secure facilities. Within several days Eisenhower had cabled to General Marshall that the rough estimate of the value of the recovered assets was over $500,000,000. By mid-April the contents of the Merkers mine had been taken to the Reichsbank facilities in Frankfurt for safe keeping. When the war ended a month later efforts were then begun to ensure that the looted precious metals, art works and currencies would be returned to the rightful owners and their national governments. The items that had been identified as being from the Holocaust victims would eventually be used to provide compensation through various organizations to the survivors of the concentration camps.
Revelations of the Holocaust
As the Allied forces advanced across Western Europe in the fall of 1944 elements of the 1st French Army entered the French province of Alsace. To the south of the city of Strassbourg, in the Vosges Mountains, these soldiers arrived at the French border town of Natzweiler. As they moved through the town on the 23rd of November 1944, they came across the deserted concentration camp that was known as “Natzweiler – Struthof”. This was the only concentration camp that was established by the Third Reich in France and was used to quarry granite for the Nazi building programs. Natzweiler was one of the smaller camps within the system that was administered by the SS. With the rapid advance across France the SS authorities became concerned about the possibility of their discovery by the Allies and decided to evacuate the inmates to other camps. By late September 1944 the majority of the prisoners had been moved to other camps such as Dachau. When the French began to examine the Natzweiler camp, the full scope and evidence of the atrocities of the Holocaust was not immediately understood. The nature and existence of concentration camps was well known to the Allies. As early as 1938, Life magazine had published articles which highlighted Dachau. By 1942 a few escapees from Auschwitz had made their way to England and informed the allies of the horrors of the specific death camps. This was later broadcast over the BBC news. Various discussions were even held with regards to bombing some of the rail lines that led to these death camps like Auschwitz in order to prevent the widespread murder of the Jews of Europe. But these camps and their level of depravity had as yet, not fully been comprehended by the western Allies.
Earlier on the 23rd of July 1944, elements of the Red Army liberated the concentration camp at Majdanek, outside of Lublin in Eastern Poland. This was the first camp that was liberated by any of the Allied forces in either eastern or western Europe. Because of the rapid advance of the Russians the Germans did not have the time to destroy the camp. Within a month Russian authorities were documenting what they had discovered and were preparing a museum on the site. Majdanek was not a camp that was exclusively used to kill people, it had served as a Russian POW camp and a work camp that supported a nearby munitions factory. Nonetheless it had murdered nearly 59,000 Jews in three short years. On the 27th of January 1945, the Soviet Army arrived outside Krakow, Poland and had overrun the Auschwitz – Birkenau concentration camp complex. Auschwitz was actually divided into three sub-camp organizations with camp II being the death camp that would account for over one million deaths. The Russians by now had begun to fully recognize the horror of the death camps that they were now discovering. In contrast to treatment received from the British and American forces it has been stated by some of the inmates, such as the Italian Jew Primo Levi, that the Russians simply “liberated” the camps and left the inmates on their own to return to their homes. In contrast the “liberating” Anglo-American armies provided food and medical care to the prisoners as well as initially restraining them in the camps in order to adequately take care of them.
Word of the Russian revelations was slow to get out the Anglo-American forces in the west for a variety of reasons, although rumors of these discoveries had been circulated for several years. It was not until the 4th of April 1945 that these military leaders and the ordinary soldier fully understood and comprehended the depth of the depravations of the German “Final Solution”. The term “Final Solution” had been earlier coined by Himmler’s Deputy, Reinhard Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference in the suburbs of Berlin in January, 1942 to mean the organized and systematic destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. Some debate still exists about how much knowledge the Allied military leadership had of the Holocaust, but it is for the most part quite clear that the individual soldier lacked a basic knowledge of the German killing system. On the 4th of April 1945, elements of the 4th Armored Division and the 89th Infantry Division entered the central German town of Ohrdruf. The concentration camp that was discovered here was the first camp to be entered by the western Allies in Germany which bore stark evidence of the Holocaust. Ohrdruf was a sub-camp of the infamous camp known as Buchenwald that was 30 miles to the northeast. The shocked American soldiers found stacks of bodies, walking skeletons and ovens still packed with bones and partially decomposed corpses. So astounded at this discovery and the ones made over the next week, word was sent to General Patton of the discovery who in turn sent word of the discoveries to Generals Eisenhower and Bradley. On the 12th of April, after touring the mines at Merkers Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton arrived at Ohrdruf. Walking around the camp and interviewing former inmates they very quickly gained an understanding of the depth of the German Holocaust. Eisenhower later stated he wanted to be a firsthand witness to these camps so no one would ever try to tell him these events did not occur. In one area of the camp, Patton was so overcome by what he had witnessed that he vomited. General Eisenhower directed that the Allied news media be immediately brought to the camp in order to document what they saw. Later Eisenhower would cable to General Marshall with the suggestion that the editors of all the major news organizations in the United States be notified with a request to have them dispatch personnel to document these discoveries. In his cable Eisenhower informed General Marshall that what had been discovered should be made an official record so that in the future there can be no doubt that these events occurred. He even asked that congressional delegations that had been in the European theater for visits be brought to these camps. The photographs and newsreels that were subsequently made were later incorporated into a movie that was used at the International Military Tribunal in Nurnberg where the German leaders were tried for Crimes against humanity.
As more of the camps were overrun, Allied military personnel directed that local German residents be brought in to view the camps and in some cases thousands of Germans were brought in to help clean up the camps and bury the dead. In the city of Ohrdruf the mayor and his wife committed suicide after being brought to the camp. On 14th of April members of the 102d Infantry Division discovered the bodies of 1,016 murdered slave laborers, prisoners of war and political prisoners outside the small town of Gardelegen. Their deaths occurred on the 13th of April 1945. Major General Keating, the Commander of the 102nd directed that local citizens bury the dead in mass graves. Shortly thereafter when General Eisenhower learned of the deaths he directed that 1,000 townspeople from Gardelegen be tasked to each bury a single individual body and that the entire town was to be made responsible for the care of the cemetery. Each selected townsman was to have his own name engraved on the tombstone as a reminder for the upkeep grave.
The liberation of these camps provided a new source of concern for the Allies. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of German POW’s that had to be sheltered and fed, there were now an equal number of ex-camp inmates that had to be protected. In the majority of the camps there was always the threat of diseases and epidemics particularly typhus. Because of this the Anglo-American forces instituted a policy where inmates would remain in the camps in a state of quarantine until they could be disinfected and fed an adequate diet that would save their lives. Earlier, some liberated inmates had eaten Allied rations that were so rich for their emaciated bodies that they then died. Orders were given to ensure that people were to be gradually nourished back to health. For the future these former inmates would come to be known as “Displaced Persons” or DP’s and it would years before many of them would, if ever, return home to the lives that they had left behind.
Soviet Advance through Germany
By the 15th of April 1945 the Russians had consolidated all of their gains along a 900 mile front that stretched from the Baltic Sea at the Oder River to the Adriatic Sea near Trieste. On the morning of the 16th of April the Russians launched their final attack against the crumbling Third Reich. Between Marshall’s Zhukov and Konev were 17 armies that totaled in excess of one and a quarter million soldiers. Facing them were remnants of two German armies that at best totaled 400,000. The opening artillery barrages from Zhukov’s 17,000 pieces of artillery, rocket launchers and mortars that were nearly aligned wheel to wheel along a front that stretched for ninety miles could be heard all the way to Berlin. To the south on a front that stretched for 240 miles Konev launched his attack on the final frontiers of Germany. Although he had fewer forces available to him and a wider battlefront to cover Konev would make the greatest progress on the first day of the battle. This would be with his breakthrough of the German lines between Forst and Muskau on the Niesse River. This Russian penetration would soon threaten the German rear area with flanking movements and possible encirclement.
When Zhukov launched his attack on the 16th of April he was storming perhaps the strongest part of the German defensive lines. The area was called the Seelow Heights and it stretched for nearly 28 miles of terrain that overlooked the Oder River. Zhukov’s forces would have to fight a German position that had the tactical advantages of better observation and more efficient fields of fire. The first day and subsequently the second did not go well for Zhukov’s forces. So much so that Stalin called him and chided him for his failure to take even the first days’ objectives after two days of battle. Zhukov was furious and committed even more of his forces to the battle. The result for him was nothing less than chaos as the tanks, vehicles and soldiers became hopelessly mired in mud, shell holes and traffic jams. The German defenders felt that they had halted the Soviet Juggernaut. This was a premature judgment because by the end of the first day they would suffer the loss of 30% of their forces. The Russians could fight a battle of attrition while the Germans could not.
In the early months of 1945 Stalin had been concerned and focused on the capture of Berlin before the western Anglo-American armies. He became aware that Churchill and the British had the desire of capturing the capital of Germany and gain the associated prestige that would come from that victory. As the battle in the west raged Stalin knew that since the breakout from the Rhine River his western Allies were making great progress in their drive eastward. Politically speaking, Stalin had plans for all the ground that the mighty Soviets armies conquered. These areas would eventually be added to the greater sphere of Russian influence after the war. For Stalin, capturing Berlin would be a very reassuring bargaining chip at what would be the Potsdam Conference talks. Even though the postwar borders and zones of occupation for Germany had already been recognized at Yalta, there was still some thought by both Churchill and Stalin that there could be changes. For the British this was nearly the same goal as Stalin. However Churchill wanted to hold the ground captured by the Anglo-Americans in the proposed Soviet zone of occupation until the Russians would do what the British and Americans wanted with regards to the future of Western Europe. In the United States President Roosevelt was in such declining health that he would not factor into these postwar discussions. When Eisenhower realized the significant gains that Bradley’s 12th Army Group led by Patton’s 3rd Army he was determined to take military advantage of the situation. This led to the issuance of a change in the strategic direction of the Anglo-American armies. Montgomery’s 21st Army Group would focus on the northern port cities and cut off the German forces from any reinforcements. Eisenhower realized that the capture of Berlin would cost needless casualties and would not necessarily contribute militarily to the defeat of Germany. This change was transmitted to Major General John Deane, head of the U.S. Military Mission in Moscow, to pass on to Stalin. On the 31st of March Stalin was briefed that Eisenhower had changed his plans and was now focused on dividing Germany with a link-up of forces to the south of Berlin, and that Berlin would no longer be an objective. Stalin initially agreed with Eisenhower’s decision and pledged that his forces would attack to the south and would meet in central Germany. However, Stalin was a very distrustful and suspicious man. Within a day he met with his top level military advisors and announced that the western Allies were planning an attack on Berlin. This then would then add fuel to Stalin’s desire to capture Berlin as soon as possible at what ever cost was necessary. Further, Zhukov has been suggested as having been Stalin’s most favored general. This did not sit as well with Konev who had been Zhukov’s rival for many years and neither had a good relationship with the other. In that meeting Stalin drew a line westward separating the armies of both of these generals, placing Konev’s northern boundary 45 miles south of Berlin. Thus Zhukov was given the “honor” of capturing Berlin by Stalin prior to the start of the final offensive operations.
With the failure of Zhukov to make any progress westward and Konev’s success, Stalin decided to increase the rivalry between these two generals. By the third day of the battle Stalin had directed Konev to turn his successful breakthrough to the northwest and flank Berlin from the south. Other elements of Konev’s forces would continue their push to the west where they would eventually link-up officially with the American’s on the 25th of April at Torgau on the Elbe River. When Zhukov learned of the change in the boundaries and the shifting of Konev’s forces he became even more determined to break through the Seelow Heights and move toward Berlin. Finally on the 19th of April after literally hammering and wearing down the German defenders through attrition, Zhukov’s forces broke the German defenses of the Seelow Heights and advanced to Muncheberg, just 20 miles from Berlin. To the north, Zhukov’s forces at Wriezen broke out and began a successful flanking movement around Berlin. By constant attack with fresh troops rotating in to replace those lost in suicidal attacks the Russians were closing the noose on Berlin. By the 24th of April elements of Zhukov’s 8th Guard’s Army and elements of Konev’s 3rd Guards Tank Army would meet outside of Schonefeld in the western suburb of Berlin. The city was now encircled by half of a million Russian combat troops and would fall to the Soviet armies of Stalin in a matter of days.
The battle for Berlin can be characterized as one that was savage and involved desperate house-to-house fighting for every city block. The German defenders would consist of old men, veterans of World War I who were impressed into the “Volksstrum” or home army, and young teenagers who had barely reached adolescence. The artillery bombardment of Berlin had begun on the 21st of April, one day after Hitler’s 56th birthday which would be his last. With the mounting Russian assault on the German capital reaching the height of intensity, Stalin ordered the redrawing of the boundaries between the armies of Zhukov and Konev. The border now fell through the city, but with the main center of government, the unused Reichstag building and Hitler’s “Fuhrerbunker” on Zhukov’s side. The fighting raged on with the piteous German civilian population huddled in what shelter could be found in basements or subway stations. Those leaving their shelters in search of food or water would be caught in artillery barrages or in machine gun duels and quickly die.
By the 26th of April the outer defense lines of Berlin had been breached and the fleeting defenders had set up positions on the final defensive ring in the city that bordered the government district and the Berlin Tiergarten and Zoo. The Tiergarten contained two of the Berlin “Flak Towers” that was used against the Allied air raids and had space to hold thousands of Berliners in safety. Unfortunately for the Germans these 88mm guns could not be depressed sufficiently to help the defenders. The focus of the fighting now centered on the desolate Reichstag building near the historic Brandenburg Gate. German soldiers and small groups of impressed civilians held out in the basement, offices and the upper floors. The Russian soldiers did not know exactly where the Fuhrerbunker was located so this became the final focal point of the Battle for Berlin. Beginning on the morning of the 30th of April the fighting intensified with grenade duals of soldiers hiding between furniture in the same room. By mid-afternoon two Soviet soldiers had managed to hang a Soviet flag from the second floor. As the Russians finally were able to capture and control the 1st and 2nd floors late in the evening, another red banner was attached to a pole and wedged in a hole at the base of the statue of “Germania” on the on the roof of the building. The jubilation of this flag raising was a bit premature as the Germans in the city still continued to fight on in the building. It would be another eight hours before the last of the Germans in the building surrendered.
When the Russians discovered the Fuhrerbunker was only several hundred yards from the Reichstag it was too late. While the fighting was going on for the Reichstag, Hitler had taken his own life. With the Third Reich in its final death agony on the afternoon of the 30th of April Hitler and his new wife, Eva Braun, had taken cyanide to end their lives. Hitler had additionally taken the precaution of putting a bullet into his head as he bit into the cyanide capsule. Their bodies were brought up to a garden in Hitler’s Chancery complex where they were doused with gasoline in a shell hole. As these remains burned Russian shells still continued to fall nearby. The battle raged on.
After the war ended debate was to rage on as to the final disposition of the corpse of Adolph Hitler. Speculation existed that Hitler had not died in Berlin, but had somehow managed to escape. In truth after the final fall of Berlin, the Russian Military Counter-Espionage Department (known as “Smersh” which when translated means “death to spies”), made their way to the newly discovered Fuhrerbunker. They had discovered the bodies in a shell hole and reburied them on the 4th of May, but did not realize they were that of Hitler. A day later they were back at the burial site and dug them up, taking the remains to their newly established headquarters. Within days some survivors of the German staff in Hitler’s bunker were interviewed and the details of Hitler’s final days and hours was revealed. In order to ensure that Hitler was in fact dead, Stalin ordered that confirmation be immediately made on the supposed remains of Hitler’s body. Since artillery shells had still fallen in the area after Hitler’s death there was some concern that the correct set of remains was identified as opposed to those of other individuals who may have died in the vicinity. On the 11th of May, Hitler’s dentist and his assistant confirmed the remains as being that of Hitler. This was easy for them because Hitler had some extensive bridge work done in his mouth because of his bad teeth. These remains were eventually then brought back to Moscow. Those few who were involved in this operation were ordered never to speak of it again. The Russians under Stalin were to later argue that they did not discover the remains of Hitler creating what would become known as “Operation Myth”. This would fuel later debate that Hitler was still alive and would plan to restore the Third Reich to Germany. Was this done deliberately by Stalin as an attempt to create tension within his crumbling alliance with England and the United States? It is very hard to tell. In 1945 a young British officer, Major Hugh Trevor-Roper was ordered to conduct thorough research into the circumstances of the final days of the Third Reich and the reported death of Hitler to determine the exact facts and details. Trevor-Roper was an Oxford trained historian and this would be his greatest work. By 1947 Trevor-Roper had interviewed a number of individuals associated with the final days of Hitler and reviewed a variety of extensive evidence. The results of his efforts were published in his book titled “The Last Days of Hitler” which emphatically stated that Hitler had died in Berlin on the 30th of April 1945. However, it was only after the collapse of Communism in 1989 that the truth came out about the Russian details and evidence concerning the actual death of Hitler. Various parts of Hitler’s skull and his teeth were retained in the Russian Secret State Archive and were only made known to the general public in the early 1990’s.
With the death of Hitler on the 30th of April 1945, the war in Europe would drag on for another week as both the German High Command staff and the Nazi Party continued the struggle. The new leader in the Fuhrerbunker was Dr. Joseph Goebbels. Not sure of what steps to take, he allowed the futile defense of Berlin to continue. He also directed that the current German Army Chief of Staff General Krebs, who had been a military attaché in Moscow and spoke Russian, open up cease-fire talks with the headquarters of General Chuikov. It was his forces who controlled the areas around the government quarter of Berlin. After consulting with Zhukov who called Stalin with the information that Hitler was dead, Chuikov continued to parley with Krebs. In the end there was no mentioned of surrender and Krebs returned to Goebbels without the temporary cease-fire he desired. As the evening of the 1st of May approached Goebbels bade his staff and the bunker personnel good-bye and wife his wife committed suicide. Only a few hours earlier Magda Goebbels had murdered their six children by breaking cyanide capsules in their mouths as they slept a drug induced sleep. To the west, Radio Hamburg announced that Hitler was dead and that Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, Head of the German Navy was now the President of the Third Reich. It would be Karl Donitz who would negotiate the final surrender of the Third Reich to the Allies to the east and west.
In Berlin with the death of Goebbels and the failure of Krebs to obtain a cessation of the fighting it fell to the newly appointed Commandant of Berlin, Lt. General Helmuth Weidling, to end the battle for Berlin. Weidling had earlier been involved in orchestrating the final struggle against the Russians. When Weidling learned of Goebbels death and the departure of key Nazi personnel from Hitler’s bunker he initiated contact with the Russian on the morning of 2 May. In his meeting with Chuikov he clearly announced his intention to halt the fighting and spare any further destruction. He quickly signed the surrender documents and prepared a recording announcing the end of the hostilities in Berlin. This recording was played by Soviet sound trucks, but was not completely accepted by all combatants. Finally, on the 4th of May the fighting ended for the complete control of Berlin. The casualties for the battle for Berlin have never been completely recognized. For the German civilians there were so many people who were moving through Berlin from the east it is difficult to conclude a firm number. It is estimated that nearly 150,000 died from a variety of causes such as heart attacks produced by fear, suicides, allied bombing raids, rampaging Russian soldiers, random artillery shelling or even SS killing squads. The ragtag German military that defended were so disorganized that it is almost impossible to determine how many died in the battle, other than being in horrific numbers for such a small piece of ground. The Soviet forces in the battle for Berlin were estimated to have suffered between 100,000 – 150,000 death and even more wounded. These figures give authenticity to Eisenhower’s decision not to attack Berlin and spare needless Anglo-American deaths.
From Admiral Donitz’s headquarters at Plon, in northern Germany, he quickly consulted with a variety of Nazi and military personnel about the next course of action. The course of action that Admiral Donitz decided on was to attempt to save as many German military personnel from capture by the Russian forces as possible. His goal was to have them surrender to the Anglo-American forces and perhaps continue the struggle against the Soviets with their help. Because of the threat of the advancing British armies of Montgomery he had to relocate his headquarters to a German Naval Training school on the outskirts of Flensburg, near the Danish border. This became the defacto capital of the temporary German government under Donitz. His goal was simple, contact the
Allies in the west in order to discuss surrender terms, stall the discussions and hopefully the German forces to the east could move westward and surrender to either the Americans or British. With that discussions were opened with Eisenhower’s headquarters that was now located in a technical college in Reims, France. After a partial surrender of the German forces in the northern part of the Germany on the 4th of May to Montgomery by Donitz’s representative Admiral Georg von Friedeburg it was decided that any further surrender talks would have to be accomplished at Eisenhower’s headquarters. Still stalling for time von Friedeburg discussed surrender terms with Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Lt. General Bedell Smith. At that time the Germans learned that they must surrender concurrently all their forces or the allies would continue their attacks. On the 6th of May, General Alfred Jodl arrived at Reims with more instructions for Donitz about any surrender. Coming to the point, General Smith told the German representatives that they should sign or the war would continue. Finally, with Donitz’s authorization, at 02:41 on the morning of the 7th of May the terms of the unconditional surrender of the German government and military forces was complete. However, at the time of the signing the surrender document was not the one that had been earlier agreed to by the Allies. A new draft had been prepared to include the French and stated that the surrender applied to the forces now facing the Russians. Stalin was not happy with this and demanded another surrender ceremony. On the 8th of May at 11:30 in the evening, another the unconditional surrender of Germany was signed in a former German Army Officer’s Club in the Karlshorst suburb of Berlin by German Field Marshall Wilheim Keitel in the presence of Soviet Marshall Zhukov. See included photograph of Field Marshall Keitel in Berlin To Stalin the surrender at Reims was merely a pre-conditional document and the signing in Berlin was the formal surrender. To Churchill and Eisenhower, the signing in Berlin was considered to be a formal ratification of the Reims surrender. The war in Europe was finally over. Because of a news leak of the Reims surrender ceremony prior to the Berlin ceremony, it was subsequently announced in England the war was ended on the 7th. Subsequently, the 8th of May 1945 officially became known as “V-E Day” or Victory in Europe Day. Since the Russians had the Germans sign a surrender document on the 8th in Berlin, they made the announcement to the world that the war had ended on the 8th. To the Russians, the 9th of May would be known as “V-E Day”. The war was now over, but cracks in the Allied Coalition were now becoming wider.