Wednesday, May 11, 2011

End of the War in Europe

The Allied forces, under the command of Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been planning for an invasion of France since 1943.  The Germans, having been expecting this invasion, began to build a series of strong fortifications along the French coast, called the Atlantic Wall.  The planned Allied invasion was given the code name Operation Overlord and by early 1944, the Allied forces had begun training.  Additionally, as part of the invasion plan, the Allies instituted a massive campaign to disperse false information to the Germans with the intention of diverting German attention away from the intended landing target.   As part of this effort, the Allies utilized German spies in Britain who were serving as double agents. These spies convinced the Germans that the invasion would take place near Calais, the point where the English Channel was narrowest.  The planned site for the invasion, in fact, was Normandy.  The deception that insued was rather elaborate.  The Allies code named the plan Operation Fortitude.  To facilitate this deception, additional buildings were constructed and dummy vehicles and landing craft were placed around possible embarkation points.

The D-Day invasion was launched June 6, 1944.  Overnight, Allied airborne troops had been dispersed via parachute and glider just inland of the Normandy coast and were ordered to damage German fortified coastal defenses. Meanwhile, a huge expeditionary force of Allied ships was travelling across the English Channel to land onto 5 separate beaches (Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, Sword).  The initial invasion brought 150,000 Allied soldiers to the French shore with an additional 2 million plus entering France via the Normandy beaches over the following weeks.  Normandy is the largest seaborne invasion in history. Opposing the invaders were thousands of German troops manning the fortifications above the beaches.

The first day of the invasion was costly for the Allies in terms of casualties despite the fact that the Germans were vastly outnumbered and rapidly overwhelmed by the incoming forces. The Germans, however, continued to believe that an invasion on a larger scale was imminent, at Calais.  As a result, the Germans withheld reserve forces in the area from moving against the Normandy invaders.  Once the Allied forces broke out of the Normandy coast and moved into inland France, the task became more ardent, due to two German defense posts at Cherbourg and Caen. The Allies were unable to advance inland in significant numbers until after the German forts were defeated by July 28, 1944. 

A second Allied invasion of France took place in the South, beginning on August 15, 1944  Code named Operation Dragoon, the invasion moved along the Mediterranean coast in the south and then rapidly spread northward into France. Due to the success of Operation Dragoon, the Allies were now able to approach Paris from two directions. By mid-August 1944, most of northwestern France was under Allied control, and from there, the Allied advance moved rapidly. Hitler ordered the evacuation of southern France, and German troops also began the process of evacuating Paris itself. At almost the same time, Soviet troops invading from the other front first crossed Germany’s eastern border.  Even as it became inevitable that France would fall to the Allies, the Nazi war machine continued deporting French Jews to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. On August 25, Allied forces entered Paris, by which point all remaining German troops had either evacuated or been taken prisoner.

September 1944 saw Germany dangerously close to defeat, despite the fact that the war would continue for seven more months.   Allied troops overran most of France, pushed deep into Belgium, and were on the verge of entering the Netherlands during September 1944. After the success of Operation Overlord, the Allies had the ability to launch bomber raids from France, Italy, and Britain, which vastly expanded the range and duration of aerial attacks inside Germany. Simultaneously, the Soviets were closing in from the east: although Warsaw was still under German control, the Red Army had taken much of eastern Poland. The Soviets also had advanced into Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. By the autumn of 1944, Germany was surrounded on all sides. Allied air strikes on German industrial facilities, particularly oil reserves, prevented the Luftwaffe from posing the serious threat that it once had. This gap in Germany’s defense left the country very vulnerable to attack. On October 18, Hitler ordered the conscription of all healthy German men aged sixteen to sixty in order to defend the country from an obviously imminent invasion. Hitler intended for the country to fight to the last man. During the second half of 1944, the Nazi empire gradually imploded as it was invaded from the east, west, and south. German supplies and manufacturing dwindled on a daily basis. The Luftwaffe had some of the best military aircraft in the world but lacked fuel to fly them and parts to maintain them.

On December 16, 1944, the Germans began their last major counteroffensive of the war, as three German armies surged into the Ardennes Forest, dividing the Allied front with the ultimate goal of retaking the Belgian city of Antwerp. This time, Allied intelligence failed to intercept the German plans, and the action was a complete surprise. The Germans launched the attack during a heavy snowstorm that grounded all aircraft, making it difficult for the Allies to evaluate the extent of the attack. Furthermore, the Germans deployed a group of about thirty English-speaking soldiers behind Allied lines, dressed in American uniforms and driving captured American vehicles. These special troops succeeded in creating chaos among the Allied troops by reversing road signs, cutting communications wires, and inciting a panic among Allied troops once they realized that they had been infiltrated.

By December 24, the Germans had penetrated deep into French territory, making a distinct bulge in the front line that lent the Battle of the Bulge its name. German forces surrounded a large contingent of U.S forces in the town of Bastogne and attempted to intimidate them with an invitation of surrender. The offer was refused. As the weather cleared and Allied aircraft could fly again, the Germans were pushed back, and supplies were airdropped to the trapped American troops. In the meantime, other Allied armies were diverted from other areas of France to help. By early January 1945, the Germans were once again in retreat, and on January 16, the soldiers trapped at Bastogne were free, and the “bulge” was no more.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1944, Soviet forces slowly but steadily made their way toward Germany through eastern Europe. The brunt of the assault was concentrated on Poland, where most of the Nazis’ concentration camps were located. By early November 1944, the German S.S. was trying frantically to dismantle these camps and hide evidence of the atrocities that had taken place. The Nazis forced those prisoners who were still living to march on foot westward to Germany. On November 20, Hitler himself retreated, abandoning his staff headquarters at Rastenburg along the Polish-German border and relocating to Berlin.

On February 4, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin came together for a now-famous meeting at Yalta, a resort on the Crimean Peninsula in the USSR. During the meeting, the “Big Three,” as they came to be called, discussed their strategy for the last stages of the war. They agreed that Britain and the United States would provide bomber support for Soviet troops fighting along the eastern front. The three leaders also spoke about the issue of how Europe would be divided after the war, with particular concern regarding the situation in Poland, which was by this point controlled entirely by the Soviet Union. With considerable difficulty, Roosevelt and Churchill managed to pressure Stalin into holding democratic elections in Poland. However, these turned out to be heavily rigged in favor of a pro-Soviet Communist government. Meanwhile, the Red Army had moved deep into Hungary and, by early December, had taken most of the country except for the area immediately around Budapest. U.S. and British aircraft provided support as the Soviets advanced into German territory, making devastating bombing attacks on the cities of Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin. Dresden, in particular, was almost completely destroyed.

By late March 1945, the Red Army had secured all of eastern Europe. It continued its advance into Austria, capturing the capital of Vienna on April 13. By this time, the Allied forces coming from France had crossed the Rhine River and were moving swiftly toward Berlin from the west. The Allies decided to let Soviet forces enter Berlin first, while British and U.S. forces concentrated on other areas to the north and south.

In April 1945, the Soviets began their final offensive against the Germans. Over the coming days, more than 3,000 tanks crossed the Neisse River, assaulting Berlin’s outer defenses while Allied aircraft bombed the city from above. On April 20, Hitler spent his birthday in an underground bunker and soon resigned to kill himself when the city fell. Although imminent defeat was obvious, Hitler not only refused to allow his troops to surrender but also insisted that the conscripted civilian army was to defend Berlin to the last man.

On April 25, the Allied armies advancing from east and west met for the first time, when a small group of American and Soviet soldiers met at the German village of Stehla. The hugely symbolic meeting was marked by celebrations in both Moscow and New York. On April 28, the former dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, under arrest since his ouster nearly two years before, was executed by Italian partisans and hung upside down in the center of Milan. Two days later, on April 30, Adolf Hitler killed himself in the bunker in which he had been living since the beginning of the month. Later that evening, the Red Army hung a Soviet flag from the top of the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin. Over the following days, there was a great deal of confusion throughout Germany. Some German forces surrendered, while others continued to fight. Among the remaining leaders, some went into hiding or sought escape abroad. Others followed Hitler’s example and committed suicide.

Early on the morning of May 7, 1945, German officials signed the official surrender . Sporadic fighting continued in the different areas, particularly in Czechoslovakia. On May 8 nearly all remaining German forces surrendered, and that night, additional members of the German high command signed a formal surrender. The Western Allies thus celebrated May 8, 1945, as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). Because some fighting between Soviet and German forces continued into the next day, May 9 became the official Victory Day in the USSR.

No comments:

Post a Comment