The Generals

14 Jul


During the Second World War, there were myriad generals. In the early years, many came and go as the Allies perfected themselves to overcome the well-trained and experienced armies of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Each general possessed different qualities, and many, like Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud or George Patton and Bernard Montgomery, despised one another and attempted to outmaneuver their rival, on and off the battlefield. Who is your favorite general of the war and why?

Dwight Eisenhower: a lieutenant colonel before the outbreak of the war, he had never commanded troops in the field until the Second World War, having been placed in a training capacity during the First World War. In North Africa, he proved easily overwhelmed and spent a great deal of his time tending to political matters, namely attempting to appease both sides of the French military, Free and Vichy. Yet the ice water bath that had been the failure to take Tunis in November 1942 and the defeat at Kasserine in February 1943 had been a drastic wake up call, summoning Eisenhower to delegate lesser matters to lesser generals. Total war had initially overwhelmed Eisenhower, yet North Africa had, just like it had been for the entire U.S. Army and for the British earlier in the war, been an exercise in tuning one’s mind to the necessities of defeating the German military. Eisenhower had fallen, but picked himself up and dusted himself off and made himself capable of winning the bloodiest war in world history. 

Bernard Montgomery: a desk jockey whose first taste of combat had been the disastrous reversal at Dunkirk when he had assumed command of the 3rd Infantry Division, Montgomery became an asset to the Allies as the war progressed. When Rommel lunged at Kasserine in early 1943, Montgomery had been the only Allied general to defeat the seemingly invincible, indefatigable Desert Fox, a reputation he would milk throughout the war. Eisenhower stated he could stand any Allied general but Montgomery, and although the British juggernaut proved in several scenarios an occasional tactical ineptitude, namely in proposing the suicidal Operation Market Garden, he also proved time and again his ability to overwhelm and overcome German defenders. Montgomery skyrocketed through the ranks, moving from the 3rd Infantry to assume command of the 8th Army in Egypt in August 1942, and later the 21st Army Group the next year. His campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany gained him fame in the newspapers and respect amongst the German camp, although his overcautious attitude and meticulousness gained him the hatred of American generals and infamy among American troops.

George Patton: an old warhorse with cavalry and armored combat deeply ingrained in his military doctrine, Patton’s unorthodox style of fighting mixed with severe discipline, which earned him the abhorrence of his men when he assumed command of the II Corps in Tunisia in March 1943, earned the general renown during the war. Although his style of combat often encompassed a large amount of casualties, he soon earned the respect and admiration of his men, and his reputation among the German High Command earned him both respect and fear. From the landings in North Africa in 1942 to his steamroll across southern Germany in 1945, Patton demonstrated an obsessive need to destroy any German military unit he came across, yet could this passion be hatred for the Germans or it could be fuel for his reputation? Throughout the war, Patton proved time and again his willingness to stray from carefully laid plans in order to gain fame, and this willingness often manifested himself in a rivalry with Montgomery. In one of the war’s most interesting chapters, Patton split his troops off from Montgomery’s during the landings in Sicily and raced across the island to Palermo before spinning around and taking Messina before the British victor of El Alamein could reach it. In another turn of events, Patton crossed the Rhine into southern Germany the night before Montgomery launched Operation Plunder, making Patton the first Allied general to set foot in the Third Reich.

Omar Bradley: a cunning, quiet, severe Missourian with a careful eye and an unbiased tongue, Bradley had arrived in the spring of 1943 to North Africa as an observer to help Eisenhower overhaul the convoluted and awkward command structure in Tunisia. Bradley would go on to serve under Patton before taking over his command in 1943 after Patton struck two shell-shocked soldiers in Sicily. Bradley’s cunning and tactical ability aided in the drafting of Operation Overlord, and by the end of the war the quiet observer of North Africa had become a quiet, reasoned, and logical commander of the 12th Army Group, poised to throw itself across the Rhine into Germany. Although not quite as fierce as Patton’s, Bradley too had a rivalry with Montgomery, more playful than serious, and Bradley’s rivalry aided in allowing Patton to cross the Rhine first. Bradley would continue on as a career general, rising to the rank of General of the Armies, possessing five stars on his shoulders, a rank achieved only by five others. 

Harold Alexander: a British nobleman and gentleman who had arrived to succeed Claude Auchinleck as commander, Middle East Command, in August 1942, Alexander became acquainted with the beleaguered, flustered, and disorganized Americans in February 1943, entering their camp in a flurry of confusion due to awkward command structures and the German counterattack at Kasserine. Having aided in Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein, Alexander took command of the 18th Army Group, assuming command of all Allied troops in Tunisia, turning around their failures and seizing Tunis in May 1943. Alexander aided in the planning of Operations Husky and Avalanche, and in 1944 rose to become commander-in-chief of all Allied troops in the Mediterranean theater, a position he would hold until the end of the war. His tactical brilliance and ability, although not entirely on par with other generals such as Patton, Harmon, Rommel, von Manstein, Hodges, Devers, or Bradley, should not be underwritten. His ability to command aided in the June 1944 fall of Rome, although Mark Clark’s 5th Army had the opportunity to destroy the German 10th Army and did not take it. Alexander helped push the German military ever north, and although by 1944 the Italian campaign had almost garnered the reputation of a sideshow in comparison to the Allied landings in Normandy, Alexander’s campaign pinned down massive amounts of German troops in heavy fighting, allowing for the Allied armies to reach the Rhine.

There are numerous other Allied generals, including John Lucas, Lloyd Fredendall, Lucian Truscott, Henri Giraud, Charles de Gaulle, Alphonse Juin, Courtney Hodges, Jacob Devers, Alexander Patch, Kenneth Anderson, Vyvyan Evelegh, Frederick Browning, Matthew Ridgeway, Miles Dempsey, Harry Crerar, Louis-Maria Koeltz, Neil Ritchie, Brian Horrocks, and William Simpson among copious others. So, the question remains, who is your favorite general of the Second World War and why? 

Aside 2 Mar


Why did Hitler choose to fight on to the bitter end? By January 1944, it was clear the Allies were on the cusp of victory. It was zugzwang, the proverbial move in chess where an opponent realizes they will inevitably be checkmated and can chose to either capitulate or fight on to their imminent destruction. So why did Hitler choose the latter? And why did the German people choose to fight with him? Even in April 1945, as the Allies grew closer and closer to Berlin, average Germans were still unquestioningly carrying out Hitler’s edicts. Was it a form of Stockholm Syndrome? Was it misplaced loyalty? Was it perpetuated by German commanders who did not wish to mirror the humiliation of the First World War? Was it fear of the alternatives to Nazism? Or was it perpetuated by Allied demands of unconditional surrender? Hitler had promised a thousand year Reich to his people, but as 1944 drew to a close that dream became ever fleeting. Why do you think the people of the Third Reich chose to aid their veritable captors in the defense of Hitler’s dying dream? 

The United States’ Situation Before and After War

30 Jan


During the Second World War, the largest and bloodiest war fought in the history of the world, the war led to the deaths of between 70 and 100 million people. Unfortunately, casualty estimates from the war vary significantly from country to country, and many are based entirely on speculation from first hand accounts. Considering that high explosives can completely nullify a person, that helps not, or the fact that United States military labels individuals as “missing in action” until their body can be found. Although noble, this does not aid in effective casualty numbers regarding the largest calamity in history. Regardless, the average comes out to roughly 27,600 deaths per day, which boils down to 1,150 per hour, 19 per minute, which amounts to one death every three seconds. The statistic, when looked at from such a personal angle, is horrifying. Many people fail to comprehend the magnitude of so many deaths. Josef Stalin once said, “One death is tragic, one million is a statistic”. And, for a person who literally liquidated his entire politburo and army high command in the 1930’s (a tragic mistake in hindsight), he was surprisingly accurate.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared to almost leap at the opportunity to go to war. Prior to the attack, George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, had issued a telegram warning all United States military bases, whether Navy or Army (the United States Air Force did not become its own branch until 1947), that a Japanese attack would come along the West Coast. When or where it would fall was anybody’s guess, but surprisingly enough, Pearl Harbor had not been labeled a high risk concern. Even when a midget submarine was able to slip through the antisubmarine net ringing the shallow harbor and trail in the wake of United States Navy tug (it would later be fired upon and rammed by the destroyer USS Ward, the first shots of America’s entry into World War II), or when a lowly private manning a primitive radar station outside the harbor spotted the incoming Japanese aircraft and was told not to worry, the United States simply shrugged off the incoming threat. American involvement in the war had gradually been increasing into the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, and as the clock ticked down to the attack on Pearl Harbor the graph representing American involvement looked more exponential and less logarithmic. This amount of American involvement was precisely what prompted Japanese intervention. 1939’s so-called “cash-and-carry” agreement between the United States and Great Britain signed into law that American tanks and weapons would be purchased by the British government with cash, and subsequently carried aboard British ships back to the United Kingdom. As interventionism was still a major part of American foreign policy in the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, spearheaded by one of America’s premier icons, pilot Charles Lindbergh, the United States was gradually being sucked into the war, just as the vortex had managed to swallow whole the United States in the previous war. This idea of isolationism, a byproduct of the postwar 1920’s (which led the United States to veto American participation in the international League of Nations, the brainchild of president Woodrow Wilson), led the United States to not immediately leap the precipice into immediate armed support of Great Britain, after 1940 the soul ally capable of contesting Nazi Germany left in Europe. Even the antiwar sentiment bred by 1928’s Kellogg-Briand Pact, or the mid-1930’s Nye Committee in the United States Congress, American involvement was becoming inevitable. The close ties between the United States and Britain forged in iron in the previous war appeared unbreakable. In 1940, President Roosevelt signed into law a program known as “battleships for bases”, where the United States would hand the British 50 mothballed destroyers and cruisers whose keels had been laid during or before the previous war in exchange for the use of British bases in the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Southeast Asia. The program was another step toward a joint Anglo-American collaboration toward the defeat of Nazi Germany, a defeat that was to be total after Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to unconditional surrender at Casablanca three years later. That same agreement forged at Casablanca would be one of the driving impetuses behind Nazi Germany’s suicidal continuation of the war into the spring of 1945. In 1941, the Lend-Lease Act was signed into law, the final piece of the grand puzzle of Anglo-American unity. The agreement stated that the British, and the Chinese and Soviets, would essentially take American materiel and promise to pay at a later date, and that the United States would begin utilizing their own ships to transport the goods in order to circumvent the roving U-boat wolf packs prowling the North Atlantic, as the United States was still technically neutral. The last payment of Lend-Lease was made in December of 2006. In all, Lend-Lease was the driving impetus behind the largely impractical arctic convoys, and would cost the United States well over $40 billion. In August of 1941, a formal agreement was made in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, aboard the British cruiser HMS Prince of Wales. This “Atlantic Charter” set forth the goals of the Allied powers, President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called “four freedoms”, to a life equipped with the freedom of worship, speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. His “freedoms” closely mirrored the Fourteen Points Woodrow Wilson had forged twenty years earlier to avert war, the same points that become the masthead of the League of Nations.

As American began to step gingerly toward war, the idea of American isolationism stood. Even on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, American citizens were heckling newsreels or newspapers showing Roosevelt. American intervention, however tentative in the late 1930’s, was becoming more vocal, and was no longer limited to the Atlantic by 1941. That summer, the United States approached the League of Nations, and demand they levy embargoes on crude oil and scrap metal against the Empire of Japan, which had been waging a largely genocidal campaign against China since 1937. The League, an entirely powerless organization (which was demonstrated when Japan simply quit the League in 1933 following the publication of the Lytton Report condemning the invasion of Manchuria, or when Italy did the same when the League condemned its invasion of Abyssinia in 1936), agreed with Roosevelt’s course of action. The embargoes were levied, and teeth was given to the League’s actions with the deployment of the United States Pacific Fleet, whose anchorage was and still is at Pearl Harbor, to the Sea of Japan. American and Japanese relations gradually began to falter throughout the year, especially when the Dutch joined the crude oil embargo. Their partnership meant the Dutch East Indies would no longer be supplying the Empire with oil, and Java was almost like Japan’s version of OPEC. The embargo, and the Dutch agreement to join, meant Japan was limited to an eighteen month supply of crude oil to wage war in China, and abroad. The Japanese, who had gone through a sort of renaissance in the early 1930’s (renaissance being used loosely. It was more of a military coup than a renaissance), were also pursuing an idea known as the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”, which dictated that all of the Far East would be placed under a Japanese sphere of influence, and would ultimately answer to Tokyo. The plan was more philosophical than realistic, as the Kwantung Army had become bogged down in costly anti-guerrilla attrition warfare in China, and the Philippines, an American possession, stood like a brick wall before the resources of Southeast Asia. President Franklin Roosevelt had also stated his desire to commission 150 new warships before 1942. Roosevelt’s statement was more than likely designed to worry the United States’ rivals than actually possessing any realistic backing, as the United States had slipped into a recession in 1937 due to the backlash of the New Deal, which, economically, had achieved very little. And Roosevelt’s statement had fostered fear in his enemies, and like a cornered fox, Japan was preparing to fight back. The Imperial Japanese Navy staff, which was generally at odds with the Army general staff, commissioned Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a seasoned veteran who had lost two fingers on his left hand during the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait, to plan the best course of action for war with the United States. The Navy staff reminded him that, if surprise were utilized effectively, the Japanese military would have to conquer all of Southeast Asia within six months before the United States possessed the offensive capability to fight back. And surprisingly enough, that model was stunningly accurate. Although there were intermittent raids in early 1942 directed at Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands executed by Admiral William Halsey, these were designed primarily to elicit a positive response from the American populace and trick them into believing the United States was doing something to vindicate Pearl Harbor.

As the Empire of Japan prepared itself for war with the United States, so too did the United States prepare itself for war with Japan. The United States, since the 1920’s, had known it would inevitably go to war with Tokyo. Washington had known that any direct threat in the postwar world would come from the Far East, as Japan gradually spread its sphere of influence like a veil over East Asia, however forcefully. Yet the United States new as well that Germany could not be ignored, and as the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s showed, Germany was still a threat to the United States, and the Western World. The War Department, which would later become known as the Department of Defense (and which did not have its own building until the Pentagon was built on a mud flat along the Potomac in 1943), had constructed a plan known as Rainbow 5, which stated that in the event of war with the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany simultaneously, which was becoming a possibility by 1940, the United States would hold Japan at bay in the Far East, while defeating Germany in Europe. Once Germany’s defeat could be achieved, the United States would turn offensive action toward Japan. On paper, the plan was strategically sound, and combined with the military-industrial capabilities of the Empire of Japan it made the accurate assumption that Japan would be almost incapable of waging offensive war into 1943. But in practice, would be prove untenable. The lack of American offensive action by the summer of 1942 in both Europe and the Pacific had caused many American generals to become anxious. Even Dwight Eisenhower, a member of the Army’s general staff in Washington, was quoted as saying “get it over with”. This anxiety and desire to just go to war created two fronts for the United States during the war. In  Europe, the United States had drafted a plan known as Roundup, designed to expedite an invasion of France by the summer of 1942. The plan was for an amphibious landing to strike at Calais, just twenty miles across the English Channel from Dover, and drive the nearly 600 mile distance to Berlin across largely flat terrain, the same inspiration for 1944’s Operation Market Garden. On paper, and in practice, the idea would have been suicide. The Wehrmacht in France in 1942 outnumbered the combined Anglo-American forces nearly ten to one, and in the air nearly six to one. A smaller plan, known as Sledgehammer, was devised as a sort of small scale amphibious landing meant to distract the German military from combat in Russia in order to keep as much pressure off Stalin as possible, but Sledgehammer, too, was entirely unrealistic, and displayed for the British Imperial General Staff America’s complete ineptitude regarding the situation unfurling in Europe. Britain’s answer to the American debacle came in the form of Operation Gymnast, later known as Torch: the American landings in Algeria and Tunisia. America was immensely reluctant to bow to the will of the British regarding offensive action in Africa, as they believed they would be fueling British desires for postwar colonization, yet they conceded. They had to. Without the British, the Americans could achieve nothing. Even with the British, the Americans’ first engagement against a German foe was a defeat.

In 1940, the United States’ situation on the world stage, militarily, was dire. The United States Army numbered just over 100,000 men, 14,000 of which were officers, many of whom could not even read a map. The United States Army was ranked seventeenth largest in the world behind Romania. In 1939, the United States Army had manufactured six medium tanks. The following year, the German Wehrmacht had invaded France equipped with nearly 3,000. Even in 1941 there remained in the Army command die hard advocates of the use of horses in combat, and the last true cavalry unit in American history was forced to kill their horses to avert starvation on Bataan (Bataan, too, fostered the first surrender by American Marines in history). In 1940, prior to the passage of the Selective Service and Training Act (the first peacetime draft in American history which bolstered the United States Army to nearly a million and a half men, still smaller than Japan’s Kwantung Army in China), the United States Army was able to field five infantry and armored divisions. That same year, Germany invaded France with 136. The United States Army Air Force consisted of around 50,000 personnel and about 2,100 aircraft, and the United States Navy possessed only three fleet carriers, two of which had been laid down two decades earlier. The Empire of Japan possessed eight. Many of the United States’ coastal guns had not been fired in nearly twenty years, and the Army did not possess enough antiaircraft guns to protect a single city from attack, not even Washington, D.C., or New York City. The average age of a United States Army major was 48, while the average age of a National Guard lieutenant was 40. In 1940, the War Department had been allotted $9 billion for funding as war with Japan was becoming inevitable. Yet by 1945, America’s dire situation had been completely flipped around. During almost every war America becomes involved in, it initially is shown as an underdog, beaten, battered, and bruised. Yet in these dark times for the United States, it almost seems a miracle that military geniuses seem to pour out from the woodwork, and although it is true America’s military hierarchy during the War was diluted with its share of incompetents, but the ability of the United States to rebound from Pearl Harbor and end up dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 proved if it fell, America would go down swinging.

By 1945, the size of the United States Army had jumped to almost 17 million personnel. The United States Army Air Force alone consisted of almost three million personnel and was equipped with around 80,000 aircraft. By war’s end, the United States Army Air Force had dropped almost three and a half million tons of munitions on Germany in an effort to pound it into submission by targeting its industrial heart, flying by day. The United States prided itself, however disappointingly misguided that pride was, on the Norden bombsight, which, they bragged, could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel”. Initially, the sight was an horrendous disappointment, yet gradually improved, and by 1943 became a mainstay aboard USAAF bombers flying out of England, and later Italy. The USAAF’s obsession with precision bombing compelled them to strike German industrial targets, such as ball bearing plants, oil refineries, and tank and aircraft factories by day, leading the 8th Air Force alone to sustain 60 percent casualties during the war. The risk of being killed on a single raid ranged between 70 and 80 percent for a USAAF air crewman, and a bomber crew needed to complete 25 raids in order to receive honorable discharges. In the Pacific, that number was increased to 35, only because after 1944 the Imperial Japanese Air Force, aside from scattered airfields at Iwo Jima or Formosa, was virtually nonexistent. As the United States pursued precision bombing, the British RAF pursued terror bombing, striking German civilian targets by night, bombing residential areas utilizing a highly potent combination of high explosives and incendiaries to wreak havoc. The United States broke Germany’s capacity to wage war, while the RAF broke their will. By 1945, the United States Pacific Fleet consisted of 40 fleet and escort aircraft carriers, while the Imperial Japanese Navy possessed just one, which was not even serviceable, as construction had stalled due to the pressures of the war on Japan’s horribly limited industry. And aside from vindicating the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, forever incorrectly remembered in the annals of history as a nefarious deed, although it was driven by necessity and Japan’s hand was technically forced by the United States’ political and economic aggression. The United States had taken revenge on the Empire with such victories as Midway, the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, Guadalcanal, Saipan, Peleliu, and Bougainville. MacArthur’s triumphant march ashore at Leyte, along with Philippine president Sergio Osmena, marked the vindication of not only the humiliating loss of the Philippines three years earlier, yet also of MacArthur’s career. Three years earlier, he had reluctantly fled the islands to Australia, a decision he never fully came to terms with, and one which had almost permanently marred his name. His disgruntled and disavowed men sentenced to death at places such as Bataan and Corregidor had bestowed upon him the spiteful nickname “Dugout Doug”. Yet as the United States slowly crept closer to the Japanese Home Islands, and as Japan become more and more desperate, MacArthur’s reputation gradually changed as well, from hated traitor to celebrated victor. In 1945, the United States had gone from a military hierarchy plagued with scandal to fostering such generals who would survive with an aura of legend as Dwight Eisenhower, Lucian Truscott, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, Alexander Vandegrift, Alexander Patch, Jacob Devers, Courtney Hodges, Henry “Hap” Arnold, and Omar Bradley. The War Department had gone from spending its meager $9 billion allowance to spending nearly 40 percent of the United States’ GDP by 1945, amounting to around $300 billion. By 1945, the United States had gone from having just six medium tanks six years earlier to being capable of fielding nearly 70,000 Sherman tanks alone. In 1940, budgetary concerns had forced the War Department to train men with broomsticks as substitutes for rifles, stovepipes as substitutes for mortar tubes, and drainpipes as mock rocket launchers, yet by 1945 the United States had manufactured six million M1 Garand semiautomatic rifles alone, and the size of the United States Army had jumped from five to nearly 100 infantry, armored, airborne, and marine divisions. The United States had entered the European theater prepared to take the war straight into the heart of the Third Reich, yet their strategy of immediate aggression had been eclipsed by the British desire, and more realistic approach, to strike at the limbs of the massive Reich before attempting to strike at the core. By 1945, it was the English who had become eclipsed, as American industrial might had gradually begun to outnumber the size of the British Army, and the United States began to take the responsibility of planning major operations, such as Operation Overlord or Avalanche, although there were major exceptions, such as Operations Husky, Market Garden, and Plunder. In the Pacific, the United States had entered as the underdog, with men wading ashore on Guadalcanal equipped with bolt-action relics of the previous war, yet by 1945 it had steamrolled over Japan’s ten million man army and was in the process of knocking on Japan’s door, landing, in April, on the first piece of soil that was, geographically, part of Japan. In 1939, German nuclear physicist Albert Einstein had sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, informing him of Nazi Germany’s desire to create a weapon capable of utilizing the energy release from splitting the atom through nuclear fission, a concept that had been proposed only a few years earlier by Enrico Fermi, to annihilate an entire city. The letter prompted Roosevelt to design a program capable of beating Germany to the proverbial punch, and so the Manhattan Project was created. Headed by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (not Einstein. Einstein actually had nothing to do with the Project. He only sent Roosevelt the letter that prompted him to create the Project), by July 1945 the first successful atomic bomb was detonated outside Los Alamos, New Mexico. Just under a month later, two of the test bomb’s siblings were to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war in a flash that was both brighter and hotter than the surface of the sun, and ushering in a new age: the age of splitting the atom.

The war’s end in Europe was fraught with chaos. Germany was committing almost total self-destruction as the Red Army raped, looted, and burned its way across the eastern expanses of the Reich, and as generals were literally stripping entire armies off the Eastern Front and fleeing westward to surrender to Britain and the United States rather than the vindictive Russians. Even in the last, fiery days of the Reich, Germans, from the lowest factory workers to the highest generals, believed the war could still be won. Whether it be some form of far gone Stockholm syndrome or an individual’s extreme capability to convince his or herself that a lie is truth, the Germans believed the war could be won. German generals were even attempting to convince the United States that if Germany surrendered to the Western Allies, the Allies and Germany could fight against the Red Army as a solid front. The generals of the Third Reich were attempting to exploit a dormant mentality that had rested in the minds of every Allied general but had not been made vocal. As the war progressed, and Stalin’s intentions became known, this latent anti-Communist mentality became more vocal, and by war’s end the United States was frantically attempting to corral as many German scientists as possible. Known then as Operation Overcast, and later Paperclip, the United States rounded up hundreds of Nazi scientists, men equipped with the knowledge that had produced jet engines, ejector seats, assaults rifles, rocket engines, and atomic weaponry. What was shown by the United States’ efforts to beat the Red Army to the bunch demonstrated the war that was to end the Second World War: the Cold War. Germany’s inevitable defeat had rested in the minds of every Allied general and politician in 1941, even if their idea was inherently unrealistic and more of a propaganda coup then reinforced by fact. Yet by 1943, the Allied demand for unconditional surrender at Casablanca seemed less unrealistic. The Allied landings on Sicily, and later Italy, and also the dramatic reversals at Stalingrad and Kursk during that year proved Germany’s inability to stem the rising Allied tide. Strategic momentum had permanently shifted to the Allies, and would not be surrendered. Yet by 1945 conflicting interests regarding the postwar world had bred anti-Communist sentiment in the United States, sentiment that had risen in the 1920’s but had gradually subsided, and anti-Capitalist sentiment in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s interests had become known at Yalta in January 1945, and his desires were not conducive to the statutes of the Atlantic Charter, and by 1945 the seeds of the Cold War had been firmly laid, seeds that would germinate and grow well into the 1980’s. This forty year standoff between the Soviet Union and United States, the two greatest military powers following the destruction of Nazi Germany, would be plaid out in proxy wars in such distant locations as Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Afghanistan. It would permanently reshape the foreign policies of both the United States and Russia, and would both destroy and give birth to opportunistic alliances, some of which are still in place today, such as the American alliance with Israel or the Russian alliance with Syria. Many of these exploitative relations still harbor resistant sentiment in certain countries, such as anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan or Iran, or anti-Russian sentiment in China.

World War II was a political and military game changer not just for the United States, although the war permanently removed the isolated nation from the murky shadows of the world stage, expunged its pariah status, and gave it the title of “super power”.

Aside 31 Dec

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2013 was a great year for all of you out there! 2014 will be filled with a whole slew of upcoming articles, including articles about the Devil’s Brigade, code breaking, a completion of the series over the Eastern Front, and many more! To continuous readers, thank you and keep reading! And to new readers, welcome aboard! Have a great 2014 and keep learning!

The Death of Hitler’s Dream: From Stalingrad to Cherkassy: 1942-1944

14 Dec


It has been fourteen months since the fateful German invasion of June 1941. Millions of Soviet and German troops have perished in brutal combat. Soviet resistance, at first nearly nonexistent, has stiffened. An audacious December 1941 counterattack mounted on the Moscow outskirts has pushed the Wehrmacht from the Soviet capital, yet German resistance, ripe with the spring thaw, has surrounded an entire Soviet army and decimated it in the thick, remote forests near Leningrad. The January 1942 death of Wilhelm von Reichenau has annihilated the morale of the 6th Army, yet his replacement, the former deputy chief of the German General Staff Friedrich Paulus, will surge new life into an army destroyed by a staggering loss they will not fully recover. By the summer of 1942, with the front near Moscow and within the wilderness of the north stabilized, the south of the immense Soviet Union, a battlefield of massive, desolate steppes coated in shrubs charred by the inexorable sun, will come to shape the next two years of combat in the Soviet Union, and shape the remainder of the war in Europe. The fates of two colossal armies will be decided, not on the open field of battle, but at a massive metropolis upon the river Volga, the final piece to an enormous German puzzle that would open the oil rich fields of the Caucasus to their use. This piece, resting atop the waters of the Volga and staring out into the bleak Kazakh steppe, will seal the fate of an army and the victory of another. There, at Stalingrad.

As the boiling summer of 1942 came to a close, all appeared within Germany’s grasp. The inexorable Nazi jackboot stood atop enemies from France and the Low Countries to Stalingrad, nearly 2,100 miles away. From North Cape, Norway, to the Qattara Depression in Egypt, the Third Reich was awe-inspiring in its size, being rivaled only by the great empires of the Caesars, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Alexander the Great. Yet there was a fatal flaw, a chink in the proverbial Nazi mail. And it was, ironically, the very leader of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler. The unexpected Russian counterattack, launched in the bitter deadlock of the impregnable Russian winter just 24 hours prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had thrown the initiative grasped by the German military so early in the war to the Russians, who had decimated the hard-fought German positions outside the beleaguered Soviet capital. The inherent lack of resourcefulness in the German military command in the East, manifested in their poor ability to mount an organized counterattack, had prompted der Fuehrer to take direct command of the Wehrmacht on December 21st, 1941, a decision that would lead to the death of Nazi Germany. Hitler had only been a corporal in the First World War, and loyal though he was, receiving the Iron Cross, First and Second Class, he was woefully unfit for military command. And in the spring of 1942, he ordered his most audacious plan to date: a daring assault that would drive from Kursk and Kharkov, seized in the whirlwind opening days of Barbarossa, and push south, toward Grozny and Baku, in the regions of Chechnya and Azerbaijan respectively. These areas were two of the largest petroleum producers in the world, and could feed oil, the lifeblood of the German military, into her armored arteries, and breathe new life into the war effort, throwing the overwhelmed Red Army across the Volga, and into Asian Russia. Yet the plan, known simply as Fall Blau, Case Blue, would become tragically skewed.

As German forces forded the rivers Donets and Don, the Fuehrer, fickle as ever, shifted his strategy to encompass the thriving university town of Stalingrad, not only housing the massive engineering academy, yet also a tractor factory that had been converted to construct tanks, such as the ruthless T-34, the only Allied tank capable of holding its own against a heavily armed and armored German Panzer. In doing so, he ordered Paulus’s 6th Army, spearheading Case Blue, to seize the city alone, shifting Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, giving unto the foot-borne 6th Army speed and mobility, southward toward the Caucasus. The removal of the 4th Panzer Army had cut into the speed of the 6th Army’s advance like a knife, sawing it apart. In the summer heat, exacerbated by the inherent lack of shade on the arid steppe, the infantry were forced to march toward Stalingrad, with little armored support available. It was hell on earth, a veritable cauldron, yet in a similar, stunning demonstration of Hitler’s fickleness, he shifted the 4th Panzer Army back from the Caucasus to support Paulus’s advance, draining the Army of its fuel surplus in doing so. Yet by late August, German forces were upon the metropolis. And in a matter of six long, frigid months, the war would be decided in the confines of a city ravaged by war.

The city of Stalingrad was one wholly unprepared for the arrival of the Wehrmacht. The 62nd Army of Vasily Chuikov, resting on the opposing bank of the river Volga on the Asiatic steppe, was ill-equipped, and what little equipment it possessed was woefully inadequate to waging war against the coming German menace. As the Wehrmacht arrived, thousands of the city’s inhabitants, fearful of the unspeakable German retribution, poured across the Volga to Asia. The Red Army was forced to cease evacuations due to the glaring fact that the sheer volume of civilian evacuations was making the passage of Russian troops to the ravaged city impossible, leaving many to their doom, which came on the eve of the first German incursions into the city. Fighting on the steppe had been disorganized and sporadic, save for a token few patches of resistance, such as Voronezh, yet as German forces reached Stalingrad, resistance stiffened. It was the city that bore the General Secretary’s name, and the Red Army would not simply allow it to fall. This mentality, combined with a July 1942 directive from Stalin himself condemning those who retreated–a common theme within the Red Army in the early stages of the war–as defeatists, cowards, and traitors, and that those caught in the act of attempting to do so were to be shot on site, fueled a zealous, if not forced, zeal within the Red Army to resist the German assault. The Red Army would fight, and they would fight to the death, whether it was by the Wehrmacht or by their own hand. On the eve of the first German incursion, a massive assault fell upon the city, but not from the ground. It fell from the air, in the form of Stuka dive-bombers and high explosives munitions. The assault was designed to shatter the spirit of the city’s inhabitants, as well as that of its defenders, and destroy their makeshift fortifications, smoothing the assault of the 6th Army into the city. It was similar in effect to, and orchestrated by the very same man as, the 1936 bombing of Guernica, Spain. The city was almost totally annihilated, and with the majority of Soviet forces on the Asiatic steppe across the Volga, evacuation of the civilian population was impossible. Troops of the 62nd Army had to be brought across the river by boats, the very same avenue that civilians had to utilize to escape the path of German onslaught. They were caught in a veritable crossfire. By early September, the 6th Army had forced its way through the already battered Soviet troops still defending the western bank of the Volga and were now poised to throw any Soviet river crossing back onto the Asiatic steppe. Where the Wehrmacht had training and superior fire power, the Red Army had strength in numbers, and on top of that a lesson Hitler had still failed to learn: the Russian winter defeats all enemies. When the Russian troops landed on the western bank of the Volga, the supply shortage brought on by the horrendous Soviet economy meant that only every other man would get a rifle, and every other man a five-round ammunition clip. The Red Army’s overwhelming size had begun to push the Wehrmacht back into the confines of the city, now a massive pile of rubble disguised as ruined apartment complexes and department stores, a once thriving university town now reduced to ash. As winter set in, the two giants of the 62nd Army and the 6th Army traded blows with one another, the frontline evaporating almost entirely as the soldiers of each corps took refuge wherever they could. The fighting was brutal, often hand-to-hand, and the city became a sniper’s paradise, giving birth to the legend of Vasily Zaytsev, an illiterate farmer’s son from the Urals who engaged in a harrowing three-day sniper battle through the destroyed city, only to discover that his query was but a teenager. The close quarters of the destroyed city meant that the battle would have to be decided almost entirely by infantry, as armored support could not move between buildings erected so closely together. Certain buildings of strategic importance could change hands almost twenty times in a matter of a few days, some changing hands that many times in the same day. The railway station changed hands thirteen times, while Mamayev Kurgan, the summit in the city’s center, changed hands eight times. Ample supplies on both sides were short. Food was a scarce commodity, and amid the crossfire hid the Soviet civilians who had failed to escape. From the the courageous, albeit suicidal, Soviet charge across Red Square on the opening days of the 62nd Army’s counterattack to the battles for Pavlov’s House, the Soviet valiance during the battle was offset by the sheer fact that they could not seem to rout the dug in 6th Army, which by November controlled ninety percent of the city. The Red Army had been forced into two tiny pockets, and the might of Paulus’s army was bearing down on them as the first frost of winter came. Yet the Red Army had an ace in the hole: the overstretched German forces near Stalingrad and the Caucasus. The rapidity of the German advance in the summer of 1942 had stretched the might of Army Group South far beyond its proper operational capacity, and spread its units out over a massive distance, placing considerable gaps in the German lines. This situation was further aggravated when Hitler ordered several armored divisions to be redeployed to Western Europe and North Africa to counter the success of Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein and the recent American landings in Algeria and Morocco. Army Group South had to resort to plugging the gaps in their line with green, untested Romanian troops, with the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies supporting Paulus’s flanks. Along with these glaring issues, the 6th Army had advanced beyond the operation length of its supply lines, and with winter setting in, the German troops did not possess ample winter clothing, a similar problem that had faced the men of Army Group Center outside Moscow in December 1941. Frostbite and hypothermia were becoming common, along with the onset of malnutrition. Disease spread easily among men whose immune systems had been almost completely shot from fatigue. On November 19th, 1942, Vasily Chuikov exploited the problems of the 6th Army, which were obvious not only to Paulus yet also to him, and launched Operation Uranus, the plan to encircle and destroy the 6th Army in Stalingrad.

In the early morning hours of November 19th, the Red Army north of the city launched their assault, throwing armored spearheads at the inexperienced Romanian troops. The Romanians were able, for the most part, to hold off the Soviet assault, yet the following day a second assault opened to the south, and by day’s end, the 3rd and 4th Romanian armies had abandoned their positions to the overwhelming might of the Red Army. Chuikov had exploited the weakness of Paulus’s flanks, and, having routed them, began to throw the arms of his double envelopment around the entirety of the 6th Army. Paulus, too distracted with events unfolding inside the city itself, was unable to redeploy infantry and armor soon enough to counter the Soviet pincers, which linked at Kalach in the evening of November 22nd, 1942, encircling almost 300,000 men. The success of Chuikov’s double envelopment closely mirrored Hannibal’s success at Cannae, and the German inability to act in time allowed for the Soviet troops to dig themselves into defensive positions and await a German counterattack they knew would soon come. Against myriad calls to order an evacuation and have Erich von Manstein, in command of Wehrmacht units at Sevastopol, launch a counterattack to free the 6th Army, Hitler chose rather to leave Paulus’s army in Stalingrad and resupply it by air, a decision that would come with disastrous results. Hermann Goering, the Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe warned Hitler of the gamble he was taking, yet Hitler refused to listen. With the Afrika Korps crumbling away due to supply problems outside El Alamein against the strength of Montgomery’s Operation Supercharge and the American landings at Oran, Algiers, and Casablanca, Hitler was surrounded by failures. 1942 would prove not only the extent of the the Third Reich’s hold on Europe, yet also the depth of its failure to hold what it had taken. On December 12th, 1942, an audacious plan to free the 6th Army from the clutches of the Red Army was launched. Erich von Manstein, in command of what was known as Unternehmen Winter Sturm, Operation Winter Storm, had been promised four armored divisions for the relief of Stalingrad, yet was only given Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, which would be forced to launch an assault against Rodion Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army alone. The situation around Stalingrad had rapidly spiraled out of control, and the German High Command was unwilling to redeploy too many armored or infantry divisions to assist in Manstein’s counterattack, for fear that weakening an sectors could be exploited by the enigmatic Soviets, who, for most of November, the Germans thought they were beating. Manstein’s attack initially made excellent ground, aided by the powerful weapon of surprise. The Red Army had not anticipated a German armored counterattack, and the Russians had actually been in the stages of planning the crushing blow that was to be delivered unto Army Group South: Operation Little Saturn. Initially dreamt as being an assault that would use Chuikov’s position near Stalingrad as a springboard, Little Saturn was planned to seize all of the Ukraine, yet had been rewritten by Stalin to advance to Kharkov and Rostov and hold, a far more realistic plan. Yet Winter Storm had thrown the time table for Little Saturn into complete disarray. The 4th Panzer Army was become nearer and nearer to Stalingrad everyday, and the Soviets needed to act fast. After amending Little Saturn once more, the plan was put into effect on December 16th. Launched by a spearhead of three Soviet armies south of Stalingrad, with the aim of encircling German forces in the Caucasus, Little Saturn also forced Manstein to withdraw the 4th Panzer Army just short of Stalingrad. The speed and surprise of the Soviet assault threatened to encircle Manstein’s relief force, and with Hoth’s panzers already low on fuel, Manstein had no choice but to recall them back into friendly territory, abandoning Paulus’s last hope of rescue. By January 1943, the final elements of the 6th Army had been forced into the steppe west of Stalingrad, and the airborne resupply of the army had ceased. Increased resistance from the Soviet Red Air Force had cost the Luftwaffe far too many aircraft, and with the constantly shifting frontline many of the supplies dropped had fallen into Russian hands. Little Saturn had been halted short of its objectives by the resistance of Army Group South, which had seen its advance coming, but Little Saturn had still forced Army Group South further away from Stalingrad and had destroyed the Italian 8th Army near Millerovo. By mid-January 1943, Paulus had informed Hitler of his desire to surrender rather than face annihilation. The Fuehrer replied that surrender had never been an option, and the primary reason Hitler had kept the 6th Army in Stalingrad was so that the beleaguered German troops there could die a soldier’s death rather than humiliate the Third Reich with surrender. Hitler then promptly promoted Paulus to the rank of field marshal, yet the promotion was to aid Hitler’s point of no surrender: no German field marshal had ever surrendered. All had instead opted for suicide. Hitler had made his point clear, yet Paulus refused to listen. On January 31st, 1943, Paulus took his staff and marched into Soviet lines, effectively surrendering the 6th Army to the Soviet 62nd Army. Two days later, the remaining German forces who resisted the Red Army were captured or killed, effectively ending the battle of Stalingrad. Strategic initiative had now shifted entirely into Soviet hands, and for the remainder of the war it would remain there. Stalingrad had not only seen the death of the 6th Army, but the death of the Third Reich. In two years, the Red Army would be upon the German capital, the black heart of the Reich, to wreak a terrible vengeance.

The disastrous reversal at Stalingrad had cost the Wehrmacht the last of its momentum. Offensive capabilities had effectively been handed over to the Red Army, who soon reversed the advances of the German military in the south. For the next full year, 1943, all major Wehrmacht defeats or advances would be decided in the Ukraine, from Kursk and Kharkov to Cherkassy. These defeats would permanently seal the German defeat in the Soviet Union and open the window for the Russian advance into Eastern Europe. 1942 had essentially been the year of Allied victories across the board. In North Africa, the stunning victories scored by Rommel at El Agheila, Tobruk, and Gazala had been reversed at El Alamein by the cunning of a previously desk-bound general, Bernard Montgomery, and the first American offensive was underway in Morocco and Algeria: Operation Torch. The Americans had initially planned on landing troops in occupied France, yet after the disastrous Canadian landings at Dieppe, this overambitious goal was proved impossible. The Afrika Korps had been locked in a vice by two armies who were now bearing down upon it from two directions at once, yet Rommel’s constant overtures for men and supplies fell on deaf ears, both to the Commando Supremo in Rome and to the Wolfsschanze in Rastenburg. Hitler’s undivided attention had sucked him into the Russian vortex, and he had essentially abandoned Rommel and his panzers to the gross ineptitude of the fractious and disorganized Italian command structure. At its head sat Mussolini, who was too engrossed in his own image to sacrifice any marginal supplies to aid in Rommel’s campaign, which, in 1942, had been designed to serve Mussolini’s glory. The Italians had not even instituted fuel rationing, which at this point was commonplace all over Europe, and even in the United States, which had just entered the war only a few months before. Three other major Allied victories had occurred in the summer and fall of 1942, the first being the American stalemate following the four day engagement off the coast of New Guinea in the Coral Sea. Although both sides claimed victory, the battle had essentially ended in an unclear result, yet it was a moral victory for the United States Navy when they sank their first Japanese aircraft carrier and thwarted Japanese landings near Port Moresby. The second came when American admiral Frank Fletcher lured the Imperial Japanese Navy into a trap at Midway Atoll, leading to the loss of four of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s premier, irreplaceable aircraft carriers. The third blow arrived in late summer of 1942, when American Marines under Alexander Vandegrift landed at Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, and thwarted the Japanese construction of an airfield that could block the lines of shipping and communication to Australia. Although hard fought and only taken after months of bitter combat in the steamy jungles, the battle of Guadalcanal proved the first American land victory over the Japanese, and demonstrated the steady shifting of the tide in the Americans’ direction. The victories scored by the Axis in 1940 and 1941 over Europe, North Africa, China, and Southeast Asia were beginning to reverse, primarily due not only to inspiration following minor victories that proved the enemy was not invincible, but also due to better understanding of hackneyed and sometimes overused enemy tactics, such as the Blitzkrieg, which was far beyond its expiration date on the European battlefield. It had succeeded against the Polish, French, and English, and initially against the Russians, but its repeated use allowed the Allies to become more acquainted with it, and, just like a disease, they found their respective cures to this land and airborne malady.

The defeat at Stalingrad laid the framework for the Soviet advance to the city of Kharkov, which was taken shortly after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. The loss of both Stalingrad and Kharkov was far too much for Hitler to bear, and shortly thereafter he flew to the headquarters of Army Group South and met with Erich von Manstein to assess the situation. The Soviets had overrun Kharkov, which had been taken and held throughout 1941-42, and were steamrolling rapidly over German resistance toward Army Group South’s headquarters. Von Manstein had a plan in the works, and in late February the plan materialized. Designed as a striking blow against the Soviet flanks, it would fall against the Soviet spearhead, commanded by Marian Popov, after it overextended itself. Once it had done so, the Fourth Panzer Army under Hermann Hoth would cut off the spearhead and advance on Kharkov. At the same time the Soviet offensive was underway, a second was being launched against the joint between Army Groups South and Center, the assault being under the command of Konstantin Rokossovsky. And von Manstein’s plan was wildly successful. The Soviets, overextended and exhausted by their stunning victories, were cut off. Their supply lines were destroyed by the rapid German advance, and the stunning blow that hit them in the March snow decimated their offensive capabilities and rendered their assault worthless. Reinforcements were cut to pieces by German air superiority, and by mid-March Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had retaken Kharkov, and the Soviet frontline had been forced back several hundred miles. Fifty two Soviet infantry and armored divisions had been completely destroyed. The stunning success of von Manstein’s assault, completed in the third week of March after an advance from Poltava to Kharkov completed just before the arrival of the vaunted rasputitsa, the spring thaw, scored a major German victory, but simultaneously created an overwhelming problem. Centered on the city of Kursk was a massive Soviet salient left behind by the shattering speed of the German advance. The salient dug deep into the German front line, and presented a major difficulty. If exploited, the Soviets could rip Army Group South in two and separate it from Army Group Center. And the Soviets possessed one thing the Germans did not: ample man power. German casualties were, by this stage of the war, becoming harder to replace, whereas the Soviets possessed no shortage of men to fight the Germans, as is clearly demonstrated by their overwhelming amount of casualties following the war. Hitler had ceded operational control of combat on the Eastern Front to the High Command, whose power he had stripped in December 1941 following the setback at Moscow. If the Kursk salient could be removed, the front lines from 1941 and 1942, prior to Operation Blue, that had been controlled by the Wehrmacht could be restored, and if a large enough defeat was incurred by the Soviets, a potential peace settlement could be reached. Yet Hitler’s dreams were far fetched when compared with the brutal reality of the situation. The Soviets were conscripting men from the provinces they reoccupied, and thus had a steady supply of man power. Simultaneously, they were constantly bolstering the strength of the Kursk salient, but in the spring of 1943 a plan had arrived known as Unternehmen Zitadelle, Operation Citadel, and if successful, Hitler’s aims in the East could be reached, and he could turn his attention to the West, where the Allies were preparing to land men on the island of Sicily in Operation Husky. But if Citadel failed, the offensive momentum in the East would permanently fall into Soviet hands, never to return, and the German military would enter a long, agonizingly painful retreat from the vast steppes of Russia. Hitler’s offensive was a fifty-fifty shot, and in one of the largest gambles of the war, comparable to Operation Market Garden and the battle of Midway, he took it. But like Market Garden and unlike Midway, his gamble failed.

The objective was simple: two armies would drive north from Orel and south from Belgorod and sever the head of the Soviet salient. On paper, it seemed deceptively simple. In practice, it proved obviously impossible. The German military possessed around nine hundred thousand men for Citadel, whereas the Red Army possessed upwards of two million men, and that number only continued to grow. On top of that, the Germans possessed nearly three thousand tanks, while the Soviets possessed almost five and a half thousand. The odds were definitely in the Soviets’ favor, and during the week long offensive, that daunting statistic began to show. Both the High Command and Stavka had realized that the dynamic front in the south along the Ukrainian frontier was where the war would be decided, and the success or failure of Citadel would ultimately determine the stance of the Wehrmacht in the southern Soviet Union. The line near the Orel salient had remained relatively static, but Hitler was nevertheless fearful. In the months it took for Hitler to finally make a decision, months where the Wehrmacht lost North Africa and was forced onto a defensive footing in Sicily after being pinched in Tunisia by British and America pincers, the Red Army had steadily reinforced the Orel salient near Kursk and Prokhorovka with more firepower than had ever been amassed in single area in history. Even when the assault’s planning had been made by the most gifted tactical mind of the Twentieth Century, Erich von Manstein, and Hitler had reinstated Heinz Guderian to a relatively respectable position, the odds still remained against a German victory. Hitler had given strategic authority to the High Command, but the decision for or against was agonizingly slow. Infighting was common, and in the summer of 1943 the Third Reich’s situation was becoming horrifying precarious. Decisions coming from Rastenburg were horrifically ignorant, as Hitler knew little of what the situation was on the frontline, and his bias toward eliminating the Soviet Union had been one of the prime culprits for the loss of North Africa. And by July 1943, a decision had finally come. Operation Citadel would go forward. But unbeknownst to the High Command, they had just sent two armies worth of men to their graves, for they had been tricked. Just like the British Double Cross system used prior to the Normandy landings, the Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence circle, had been fed misinformation by a Soviet spy network–Lucy–that operated in neutral Switzerland. The Germans had been duped.

On July 5, 1943, just five days prior to the Allied assault on Sicily, Operation Husky, the curtain rose on Operation Citadel. The German 9th Army had orders to advance from Maloarkhangelsk to Kursk, but just five miles into its advance was stopped short by lands riddled with Soviet minefields. The 9th Army continued repeatedly to attempt to find a way through, but each time drew back a bloody stump. The ground was so laden with minefields that their armor could not advance, which angered most primarily because the plateau ahead of them was the last patch of high ground before they reached a flat plain that led straight into Kursk. The 9th Army finally realized its luck had been cut short, and chose to switch from offensive to defensive, and dug itself in around Ponyri. But they had made a fatal error, one General Mark Clark would make when landing at Salerno two months later. The Germans had split their forces along the banks of the river Zhizdra, and if that gap was exploited, a wedge could be driven between the elements of the 9th Army and an army could get behind the 9th and surround it. And on July 12, that was exactly what happened. The Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov, and after heavy fighting against determined defenders under the command of Walter Model, by mid-August they had almost annihilated the 9th Army and reached Orel, the starting point of the German advance. The Red Army and the Wehrmacht were like two boxers engaged in a brawl. The Germans had attempted to break the Soviet line with brute force, but the Red Army had absorbed their assaults and waited for the Germans to exhaust themselves before capitalizing on their exhaustion and fighting back. To the south, the offensive had gone smoother, with the 4th Panzer Army, supplemented with the strength of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division, had advanced sixteen miles to Prokhorovka before they ran into the might of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army, and on the same day the Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov, the largest tank battle in history occurred as more than one thousand tanks engaged in battle, kicking up colossal clouds of dust on the arid steppe in the dead heat of that disastrous Soviet summer. By the end of the sixteenth of July, the battle had been decided. The charred hulls of tanks, shattered antitank defenses, and the bloated bodies of the dead had proven that the Soviets were now permanently on the offensive. Stalin’s overture to his men, issued in the summer of 1942 imploring them to not take “one step backward”, was now truer than it ever was. Retreat was no longer and option for the Red Army. At Kursk, the Soviets had claimed the lives of close to 300,000 men, and destroyed over one thousand German tanks and tank destroyers. The Soviets had lost upwards of over a million men and close to eight thousand tanks and tank destroyers, but the difference between the Soviets and the Germans, like those of the United States and Japan, was that where the Soviets lost a tank, they could produce ten more to replace it. If the Germans lost a tank, it could take months to make just one more, similar to the Japanese, whose loss of an aircraft carrier was an irreparable scar, whereas by war’s end the United States had forty fleet-sized aircraft carriers in service in the Pacific. By war’s end, the Soviets had constructed over fifty thousand T-34 medium tanks, whereas the Germans could only complete twelve hundred Tiger tanks, and was forced to balance that number between two, technically three, fronts. The Germans had attempted to annihilate industry, but the Soviets had simply packed up their factories and displaced them into the Urals, and like Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion in the summer of 1812, the Germans had fallen victim to the very same enemy that had crushed the Grande Armee. It was a silent enemy, and it was all around. It was Russia itself. Russia had been invaded by a full-scale force hundreds of times, but Hitler’s would be the last. And it would be the most devastating, claiming over thirty million German and Soviet lives, and destroying the U.S.S.R.’s grain surpluses and livestock. But like the United States, the Soviets could recover. The Soviets possessed native natural resources and veritable wells of able-bodied men that could be forcefully conscripted into service. The Germans were not as lucky. With a smaller population to conscript from and without the daunting size of the U.S.S.R.’s grain and oil fields, the Third Reich was doomed when Citadel failed. Its fate had been sealed. But there would be no surrender. Hitler had made his decision when he chose to invade that muggy summer morning two years earlier. Unknown to him, or any of his generals, he had sealed his own fate, had hammered in the nails of his own coffin. He was fighting against an enemy that not only had behind it the force of a despotic regime that was regarded with a sort of god-like, albeit forced, loyalty, but also a population that was angered with the invasion. Angered not only with the level of destruction, but with the loss of their kin. Hitler had done something. He had united an entire country against him. And when Citadel failed that scorching summer day in 1943, when the realization of that failure finally sunk in, the tide could no longer be held back. The dikes burst, and the irreversible tide of millions of people, angered beyond all comprehension, fell upon his armies with devastating effect. Hitler’s Reich would soon see its last sunrise.

By early August the scales had tipped in the Soviets’ favor for the final time. Fighting the south was taking a severe toll, and unlike in France in the summer and early fall of 1944, where the Wehrmacht had managed to slip across the river Seine and retreat to the pre-constructed defenses of the Siegfried Line, the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union would not be blessed was such divine luck. Over flat, open steppes they were pursued doggedly by the forces of the Red Army, which in many areas outnumbered the beleaguered German defenders ten to one. Fighting was brutal, and often relied on armored support. Engagements between tanks were a frequent sight, like dogfights in the Pacific. By early August, the Wehrmacht was forced to abandon their position at Orel, and retreat to Kharkov, their final defensive line before the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the third largest city in the Soviet Union. Outnumbered, outgunned, exhausted, and running dangerously low on supplies and morale, the Wehrmacht was executing a fighting retreat over one hundred and forty miles to the river Dneiper, which Hitler hoped would act as an impromptu Siegfried Line, but unlike the defenses along Germany’s western border, the defensive line along the Dneiper was the very definition of the word “impromptu”. Hitler hoped defenses like dragon’s teeth, rifle pits, pillboxes, bunkers, tunnels, minefields, machine gun nests, and artillery and mortar pits would be built, but the German troops would have to settle for shallow slit trenches and foxholes that would have to be dug immediately and would not be waiting for them when they reached the two mile wide Dneiper. The Soviets were bearing down on the Wehrmacht, and on August 22, 1943, the Germans evacuated Kharkov for the last time, and in just a matter of days the city changed hands for the fourth and final time in two years. The Wehrmacht was under threat of being overrun, and had to retreat faster than the Soviets could advance, leaving everything they had taken two years to seize behind. Those hard fought regions, including rich farmland, were retaken in mere days or weeks by the unstoppable Red Army. German defenses along the river Mius, manned by troops of the 6th Army, which had to be rebuilt from scratch, were abandoned. German troops fled to the banks of the river Donbass, but even this could not stem the tide. The Soviets never seemed to engage the Wehrmacht in a pitched battle (considering the Germans attempted to avoid one at all costs), and like waves against rocks the Soviets struck continuously, and gradually began to whither away German strength. By September, the Soviets had finally reached the Dneiper, where the Germans had managed to dig themselves into hasty defenses. The Soviets initially did not attack these positions en masse, and small patrols crossed the river in the rubber rafts or wooden boats and small, relatively insignificant beachheads were established. Shootouts were sporadic, but not uncommon, as German and Soviet troops probed each others defenses to assess the strength of the other. In late September a paratrooper drop was attempted at Kanev, but the strike only proved the tactical unpreparedness and insufficiency of the Soviet paratrooper corps, and the Soviets chose to leave airborne operations in the hands of their Western counterparts, who had used them in Sicily with average, albeit pleasing, results (the average results inspired the British and American commanders in London to continue with the project, using paratroopers with devastating results in Normandy, and even launching an almost entirely airborne assault in the Netherlands in September 1944, which accomplished with what Bernard Montgomery claimed to be a “ninety percent success”). But the minuscule Soviet bridgeheads established by scouting parties in early September continued only to grow in size, and soon actual bridges were being constructed, and tanks were being ferried across the river to bolster the strength of the Soviet infantry, many of whom faced the brunt of German armored strength with little support. Fighting became more intense as the Russians gathered their strength for the push to Kiev, and in late October, as the first snow became to fall, the Soviets overran German positions near Zaporozhye and Dnepropetrovsk, and soon the powerful Soviet sword fell upon Kiev, which had been the site of several mass murders, such as the massacre at Babi Yar, that were part of the infamous genocidal campaign known as the Holocaust. An armored counterattack, mounted by the 4th Panzer Army, attempted to force the Soviets back from Kiev in mid-November, with a successful assault on Zhytomyr, almost ninety miles west of Kiev, displaying promising results, but the position the 4th Panzer Army had established for itself was rapidly becoming untenable. The 4th, under Hermann Hoth, had dug out a relatively negligible salient in the Soviet line near Korosten, but the position was soon overrun in late December by the First Ukrainian Front. By early January, the prewar border with Poland had been recovered, which would allow the Soviets to breakout into Eastern Europe and threaten the eastern border of the Third Reich, and an assault that same month, which linked two Soviet army groups (known as fronts), had caught ten German armored and infantry divisions, including the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, in a small pocket near the villages of Korsun and Cherkassy. Hitler intended for the division to breakout and advance east and reclaim Kiev, but Field Marshal von Manstein informed the Fuehrer, who had become too invested in pipe dreams and the impossible due to the unrealistic maps at Rastenburg, that that would be advancing in the wrong direction. Manstein intended to get the trapped divisions across the frozen expanse of the river Gniloy Tikich in mid-February 1944. Manstein’s concerns, like many of Hitler’s generals, were not invested in the impossible. Hitler’s field commanders knew what reality looked like, and it was the loss of everything between Stalingrad and Kiev in just a year. The maps in Rastenburg and Berlin had deceived Hitler. In the west, the fortress of Sicily, the last line of defense before the Italian peninsula, had fallen, and in September 1943 British forces had landed at Calabria and Taranto, and Americans had landed at Salerno. Mussolini had been deposed and arrested by the same Fascist Grand Council that sworn him loyalty, and the Italians had negotiated, like the Russians in the First World War, a separate peace. The level of Italian treachery forced Hitler’s hand, and prompted him to disarm the Italian military, arrest some of its commanders, and invade the peninsula to protect his southern flank. By early 1944, American positions were deeply entrenched at Anzio and Monte Cassino, and the British had taken Ortona. By late spring, the Allies would breakout of their position at Monte Cassino and take Rome, the first Axis capital to fall. In the East, the Soviets would launch an all-out offensive against Hitler’s line of defense protecting Poland, Romania, the Baltic States, and Yugoslavia, and with this offensive Hitler would lose Leningrad, as well a Belgrade and Bucharest. And when this offensive came, so too would another offensive, the largest amphibious landing in history, whose end result would destroy an entire German army group and liberate Paris. Hitler had nowhere to turn. He was helpless. And the Soviets knew it. 1944 and 1945 would be the years of reversals for the Wehrmacht, and the years of retribution for the Red Army, as they entered and sacked the black heart of the Third Reich. As MacBeth said, “blood demands blood.” And the Red Army would have theirs.

The Spring of 1940: The Death of Giants

3 Sep


(Another excerpt from the forthcoming book)

The belated-ness of the Anglo-French declaration of war cannot be measured in mere minutes or hours, not in days or months, but in years. The Western Allies had given unto Hitler the fertile soil of Europe, and even the plow—his armies—to sow the seeds of a totalitarian regime none dared stand against. Hitler had garnered for himself and his administration unbridled power and authority, and the Western Allies, fearful of a duplication of the previous war, had failed to act. Hitler’s armies had expanded into Europe almost unhampered by Western admonishments, which possessed little chance of consequence. Yet the invasion of Poland had awoken the Western Allies from their interbellum slumber, and propelled them to take action against an enemy who would stop for no man, and would gorge himself on the helpless, the fearful, the vulnerable of Europe until there was nothing more to feed upon. Hitler’s wretched regime had finally met an adversary capable of challenging his military might; yet it was not their strength in numbers that would determine the outcome in the fateful spring of 1940. It was how they utilized that strength that would determine who would be crowned victor when the dust settled in the whirlwind months following the invasion of Poland.

            Germany’s neighbor to the west, the French Third Republic, had suffered a terribly turbulent history. Waging wars against their ancient enemy, the English, the French had toppled their corrupted royal regime in the internationally tumultuous years marking the close of the Eighteenth Century, ushering in a period of violent retribution for years of subjugation: the Reign of Terror. And during this Reign of Terror, no one was safe, not even the event’s mastermind, who would soon fall victim to the very same blade he had utilized to sever the heads of France’s hated monarchs. The Convention would be held, followed by the structurally unsound Directory, and then by the Consulate, overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte, one of its creators, following his return from campaigning in Egypt. Napoleon would combat France’s enemies both foreign and domestic, crown himself emperor, wage war in Spain, Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Egypt, Syria, France, Italy, and Russia, laying waste to vast armies, making him the single greatest French military mind since Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Jeanne d’Arc, and Louis XIV. He would be defeated at Montmartre, forcing his abdication, his return, and his final defeat at Waterloo at the hands of his arch nemesis, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, the only military mind in Europe capable of soundly defeating him battle, as the cunning English fox had proven years earlier in Portugal and Spain. The French would reinstate their previously abhorred monarchy three times, first during the absence of Napoleon in 1814, again following his defeat and exile subsequent to the 1815 engagement at Waterloo, and again in 1830 following the death of Bourbon king Charles X. Yet in 1852, a Bonaparte would once again take the throne, waging wildly unpopular and equally as disastrous military campaigns in Mexico and against the Prussians, terminating in his ultimate defeat in 1871 following his inglorious kidnapping at Sedan, ushering in the Third Republic, which would reign over France as the primary policy-making body until 1940, the year of the German invasion.

Following the Allied victory in the First World War, the French remained dubious of her eastern neighbor; an incredibly militant neighbor that had invaded her twice, defeated her once, and nearly defeated her twice. This unease had prompted the French government to spend millions of francs on the construction of a subterranean defensive network spanning from the Swiss frontier to the English Channel, known as the Maginot Line, eponymous for the Line’s primary benefactor, French Minister of War André Maginot. The Maginot Line, though, was never completed, and only covered France’s eastern border with Germany from Switzerland to Alsace-Lorraine. The French had found this sufficient. They believed the Germans would not be foolish enough to recreate the events of the First World War by attempting to strike toward Paris through Belgium, which had deteriorated into five engagements near Ypres and static warfare in northern France following the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force and a German defeat at the Marne, and they believed the dark expanses of the Ardennes Forest to be impassible for German armor. They were wrong.

Great Britain, France’s northwestern island neighbor, possessed close ties with France. Following the 1066 victory of Guillaume le Conquerant, William the Conqueror, at Hastings, the Norman duke united the thrones of England and Normandy, leading, far into the future, to the Hundred Years’ War, and numerous Anglo-French contests regarding the state of the French throne in the absence of male heirs. England suffered from a history as turbulent as that of France, with the constant turmoil of her population hailing back to the time of King John. The nation suffered from an insurrection in the late Fifteenth Century terminating in the death of the reviled King Richard III at Bosworth Field (Richard had, during his time as Duke of Gloucester, been blamed for the disappearance of the Duke of Cornwall, heir apparent, and the Duke of York, the heir presumptive, to the English crown, leading to a tarnished reputation when he usurped the throne following the death of Edward V in 1483), a future king who married six wives, beheaded two of them, and divorced two of them, prompting him to establish the separatist Anglican Church, putting him at odds with the Pope, at the time Clement VII. Constant wars with Scotland put the latter at odds with the English crown and allied it on numerous occasions with England’s sworn enemy, France, and twice the English crown was overthrown, the first being Charles I, who dismissed Parliament, prompting his beheading and replacement by Oliver Cromwell, and the second, James II, who suffered a coup known as the Glorious Revolution, that replaced him with William III, Duke of Orange, a Dutch stadtholder. England would wage war abroad, conquering the Gurkhas, Marathas, Mysores, Burmese, Chinese, Zulus, Mahdists, and Boers. The British had arrived supreme following the First World War, yet the tide soon shifted. An international economic downturn following the war led to the reinstatement of the pound sterling, backed by the gold standard, which caused the value of British exports on the global market to soar, injuring the British economy almost beyond repair. The Great Depression hit the English incredibly hard, prompting the October 1936 Jarrow Crusade, in which unemployed inhabitants of the town of Jarrow, which constituted the majority of the population, banded together to march on London to order reforms. Yet the government in London was impotent under the circumstances. Four years earlier, it had ordered the Import Duties Act, terminating eighty-six years of free trade and levying a ten percent tariff on all imports, safe for raw materials and food. By 1932, just three years after the onset of the Depression, three and a half million Englishmen were unemployed. And, in 1936, as the situation continued only to worsen, Britain’s reigning monarch, George V, succumbed to collapsing health brought on by chain smoking and bouts of sepsis and died, leaving his eldest son, Edward, Duke of Cornwall and Prince of Wales, to succeed him to the throne as King Edward VIII, surpassing his younger brother, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, in that capacity. Edward would rule for just one year, from the death of George in January of 1936 to that December. Edward abdicated to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, which shattered numerous provisions in the English Constitution, and he was forced to abdicate in order to marry, leaving Albert to take the throne in the line of succession, as Edward had no children. Albert was reluctant to do so: he had a severe stuttering problem, one faced by many English royalty, including “mad” King George III, but he was crowned king in 1937, taking the title of George VI. Great Britain and France had waged war with one another over twenty times since the Norman conquest of 1066, and this made for a seemingly volatile relationship when the two allied with one another to wage war against Nazi Germany, yet in this circumstance they were wholly committed in combating a mutual enemy. Yet Britain’s miniscule army stood in stark contrast to that of the French or Germans, and their negligible Expeditionary Force, consisting of just one hundred and sixty thousand men (sixty thousand more than that sent to France in 1914) in October 1939 could do little to shift the tide of the oncoming conflict.

The months between the German invasion of Poland and the subsequent Allied declaration of war and the invasions of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, upsetting a tentative peace that had settled like a thin sheet over Europe, were known as the “Phony War”, or, in a more satirical approach, the “Sitzkrieg”. No fighting had been done on land, except for war between the Soviet Union and Finland for control of the Karelian Isthmus north of the metropolis of Leningrad in the winter of 1939 into the spring of 1940. Aside from the Winter War, as it came to be known, very little fighting was done on the continent, although there was a diminutive French invasion of the Saarland, in western Germany, which culminated in very early, very limited success before being thrown back. The only real combat that had been done had been on the high seas, such as the sinking of the British aircraft carrier Courageous by the submarine U-29 on September 17, 1939—she sank in just fifteen minutes—or the infamous raid conducted by the German Unterseeboot—U-boat—U-47, commanded by Günther Prein, that snuck into the seemingly impenetrable Royal Navy anchorage at Scapa Flow, north of Scotland, and torpedoed and sank the British Revenge-class battleship Royal Oak on the night of October 14, 1939. Another such event was the sinking of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, which had been dispatched into the South Atlantic shortly after war was declared, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, and engaged British shipping in the Indian Ocean, before turning back in the face of mounting Royal Navy resistance. A three-cruiser squadron engaged the German warship off the Falkland Islands in a replay of events from the first war (ironically enough, the commander of the German Asiatic Fleet that engaged the Royal Navy off the Falkland Islands in December 1914, while attempting to flee from their anchorage at German Samoa after Japanese troops took Tsingtao, their original anchorage in China, was commanded by Count, Graf in German, Maximilian von Spee), with all three cruisers leaving with exceptionally severe damage, although the Graf Spee had exhausted the majority of its ammunition and fuel reserves. The warship limped into Montevideo Harbor, in Uruguay, a nation sympathetic to Nazi Germany, yet considering its status as neutral, the German battleship could only remain in harbor for seventy-two hours before Uruguayan authorities could force its eviction. The Germans intercepted a radio communiqué from the British that stated that a massive task force was en route to fall upon the German warship the minute it departed from Montevideo, and in an effort to save his crew from annihilation, Hans Langsdorff, the commander of the warship, ordered it scuttled. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that the British communiqué had been doctored and was entirely false, designed to dupe Langsdorff into doing exactly what he had done, and Langsdorff, out of humiliation, committed suicide rather than face the wrath of the Führer. Those events occurred in December 1939, culminating in the December 17 scuttling. On the continent, however, fighting was almost nonexistent. Finnish troops of Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim continued to thwart every Soviet attempt to breach the vaunted Mannerheim Line and seize Karelia from their unruly Finnish neighbors, although when the spring thaw arrived in 1940, the tide shifted dramatically to the Soviets’ favor. They breached the line, and stormed over the frontier into Karelia, seizing the vital isthmus from the hands of the Finns, who, prior to 1917, had been a part of greater Russia, validating Soviet claims on the region. A peace was negotiated in March 1940, just three months after it had begun the previous November. Aside from that relatively minor and localized engagement, Europe was stagnant. Or so it seemed.

Every nation prepared for war as 1939 came to a close. That winter, every nation in Western Europe remained alert, cautious of what the inscrutable Third Reich might be planning next. The ‘Phony War’, a title coined by, oddly enough, American senator William Borah of Idaho, was a thin veneer of peace, yet beneath, it was all too obvious that every nation was preparing itself for a war they knew was coming, but knew not when. The French, facing the immediate brunt of German aggression, were faced with a dire situation. A 1920 pact with Belgium had allied the two nations against a potential German invasion, and had allowed France and Belgium to plan each contingency and construct any fortifications in tandem, yet in 1936, a dramatic shift in Belgian foreign policy toward neutrality removed Belgian support, and the treaty became virtually worthless. The French military had been struck surprisingly hard by the Great Depression, with around twenty four percent of the total population facing unemployment, and high casualties in the previous war, combined with an incredibly abysmal birthrate and a population equivalent to half that of Nazi Germany, France was forced to conscript any able-bodied man between the ages of twenty and forty-five into compulsory service, impressing roughly one-third of France’s total population. In doing so, the French had successfully mustered around five million men, although only about two million were stationed in northern France, along the Belgian frontier, adhering to the French military high command’s misconception that the Ardennes were impregnable and the Germans would not be foolish enough to repeat the calamitous commencement of the First World War. Although the French were convinced the German Wehrmacht would avoid invading Belgium altogether, they prepared for each possible contingency, with Marshal Maurice Gamelin, chief of the French military, drafting the Dyle Plan in 1940. Eponymous for the river Dyle, that flows from the Belgian province of Walloon to the port of Antwerp, fed via the Scheldt Estuary, the plan was simple: the French military in the north would meet the Wehrmacht in Belgium and halt its advance there, and once done, the Maginot Line would thwart any invasion from the east. The plan never once mentioned the Ardennes Forest, which was utilized by the plan to act as the side of a conduit to funnel the Wehrmacht into French killing zones, resembling the 1415 battle of Agincourt, where French heavy cavalry attacked the longbow men of English king Henry V down a narrow channel lined with thick forest. The French, as could be assumed, had been soundly defeated at Agincourt. And as one could easily deduce from the emphasis on the Ardennes, it would become pivotal.

In early October 1939, the first elements of the British Expeditionary Force arrived in France. Commanded by John Vereker, Sixth Viscount Gort, a Victoria Cross recipient in the previous war, the size of the Expeditionary Force was negligible at best. In 1939, the size of the English military was miniscule, just eight hundred and ninety seven thousand, and so, the English could only commit around one hundred and sixty thousand men to France. In comparison, the size of the Wehrmacht, including those units available as potential reserves following the invasions of Poland, Norway, and Denmark, the German military hovered somewhere between seven and eight million. The Allies were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. Initially, the English military was comprised solely of volunteers and professional soldiers, creating a relatively small, albeit incredibly well trained, well equipped, and well led force, yet following the German invasion of Poland and subsequent declaration of war, the Admiralty was forced to introduce the concept of general conscription in the form of the National Service Act, supplanting the April 1939 Military Training Act, which had been designed for limited conscription in the form of mandatory service of men between the ages of twenty and twenty one. The National Service Act called for the enlistment of men between the ages of eighteen and forty one, bolstering the size of the English military from just under eight hundred and fifty thousand to just over one and a half million. It was still not enough. As England and France prepared for war, with British troops arriving in France in October of 1939 and the defenses of the Maginot Line preparing for the oncoming invasion, the Low Countries prepared for war as well. The Netherlands possessed a military of nearly six hundred and fifty thousand men, with Belgium possessing an additional four hundred thousand. The Belgians also possessed modern fortifications, including Eben Emael and Liège, the latter of which had acted as the thorn in the side of the German military during the previous war. Yet no matter how large the armies of the western Allies, they could not compete with the Wehrmacht. Since 1933, Germany had been remilitarizing. The Germans had committed troops to combat in Spain, had invaded Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and by the time of the invasions of France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, Denmark and Norway as well. The armies of the Allies had been passive throughout the interbellum years. The desire of the western governments to avoid another catastrophe was obvious in their gross negligence in dealing with Hitler, and in the spring of 1940, that negligence would be proven, no matter the level confidence the Allied leaders possessed in their faulty militaries and fortifications. Hitler, in 1940, was unstoppable.


As the sky showed the first grey streaks of dawn on April 9, 1940, Cecil von Renthe-Fink, the German ambassador to Denmark, demanded a meeting with Danish foreign secretary Peter Munch. The two met in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, and Renthe-Fink made Munch aware that German forces were preparing to fall upon the minute Danish military and seize the entirety of the Jutland Peninsula, and should the Danish choose to fight, the Luftwaffe was at the ready to expense munitions on Copenhagen itself. Munch was horrified. He immediately retired to Amalienborg, the royal palace and residence of Danish monarch King Christian X, and informed him of the news. Unbeknownst to Christian, Munch, or General William Wain Prior, the chief of the Danish military, the Wehrmacht had crossed the Danish frontier nearly a half hour ahead of the notorious meeting between Renthe-Fink and Munch, had engaged small, disorganized units of the Danish military, and was advancing north, in the direction of the Danish capital. German forces had executed an amphibious landing at Gedser, others had seized Storstrøm Bridge, a massive railway suspension bridge connecting the southern island of Falster with the northern island of Zealand, which contains the Danish capital, and Fallschirmjäger had executed the first documented paratrooper assault in history after landing atop the garrison on Masnedø, a tiny island between Falster and Zealand. The Danish were powerless to resist. As Christian and his High Command discussed each possible contingency, the Luftwaffe thundered over Copenhagen, and dispensed leaflets entitled with the expression “Opraab!” meaning “shout” or “yell” in Danish. The leaflets, written in horrendously broken Danish, spoke personally to the Danish population, informing them that the neutrality of Denmark was to be breached by the English and French, and that the German invasion was merely to protect them from Western aggression. And the Danish believed every word, and, surprisingly, the leaflets were based on fact. An Anglo-French plan, known simply as “R 4”, had been drafted to dispatch troops to Scandinavia during the Soviet invasion of Finland to seize ore fields in Sweden and other vital resources on the peninsula, including the ice-free fjord of Narvik in Norway, where the majority of Swedish ore was exported, to prevent their capture by the Germans. Germany was one of the leading importers of ore in Europe, with the majority of German imports arriving from French mines, yet after war was declared, French shipments of ore, vital in the steel-forging process, ceased. Germany turned to Sweden, another leading producer, as well as a nation that had openly pledged its neutrality. The Anglo-French invasion was prepared, yet was running into considerable diplomatic hurdles, and was eventually scrubbed, yet the Germans had become aware of its former existence, and utilized it to tarnish the reputation of the western Allies in the eyes of Germany’s northern neighbor, who was to be utilized as a buffer and staging area for a potential assault. Just two hours after the German invasion, Denmark capitulated, with only General Prior in deviation of this nearly unilateral opinion. Denmark’s capitulation had been the first German expansion since the seizure of Poland, which had marked the beginning of the war, and effectively brought to a close the “Phony War”, opening what was known as Unternehmen Weserübung, Operation Weser Exercise (the river Weser is located in Lower Saxony). Denmark was the first piece to the Weserübung puzzle, and her northern neighbor, the kingdom of King Haakon VII, would soon follow her: Norway.

Shortly before dawn on April 9, 1940, as Cecil von Renthe-Fink and Peter Munch met in Copenhagen to discuss the oncoming German invasion, a Kriegsmarine naval squadron entered the Oslo Fjord, and immediately steamed north toward the capital—Oslo—with the intention of seizing the Norwegian Royal Family. As the squadron steamed north, it came under fire from the Oscarsborg gun battery, which succeeding in shattering the forecastle of the cruiser Blücher, leading to the death of the Blücher’s skipper, and a costly delay for the squadron’s timeline, allowing the Norwegian Parliament, Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold, and the Royal Family to elude capture and flee the doomed capital. They would later escape to Tromsø, where the Royal Navy cruiser H.M.S. Devonshire would ferry them to exile in England, a common location for asylum for deposed regents in the early stages of the war. English troops had become increasingly involved in Norwegian neutrality, meddling in the doomed kingdom’s affairs in an effort to spare her from the overwhelming superiority of the Third Reich. On February 16, 1940, a British destroyer, H.M.S. Cossack, and slipped into Jøssingfjord undetected, openly violating Norway’s neutrality. The destroyer had approached the German supply ship Altmark, and, after several tense minutes, some of her crew boarded the German ship and rescued two hundred and ninety nine Royal Navy prisoners being held in the ship’s hold, victims of the relentless exploits of the Graf Spee during her notorious South Atlantic sortie. The warship’s late captain, Langsdorff, had demanded the crews of doomed ships to abandon their vessel, and the gracious captain had taken them in before destroying their craft, saving the lives of his sworn enemies, and prior to the Graf Spee’s scuttling, he handed his prisoners over to the Altmark to spare them from harm.

Soon, German troops were landed in the fjord near the city of Narvik. And amidst this landing’s unopposed execution, a British task force, spearheaded by the aging warship H.M.S. Warspite, fell upon the German squadron covering the landings, and after the guns of the ships exchanged lethal fire with one another at close range, the contest appeared decided, with the Royal Navy reigning supreme. But in just three days, the German Kriegsmarine would return to challenge this supremacy, and again the Royal Navy would defeat them, yet at a cost: the British possessed a now untenable position, with mounting German resistance both on the high seas and on land, and the victorious Royal Navy task force was forced to flee the scene of its first real victory. An Anglo-French force had also arrived on the mainland to contest German advances north after the capture of Oslo, and fighting ensued near the village of Namsos. It appeared initially that the Allies would be successful, yet the situation rapidly altered, and the Germans routed the Allies and forced them still further north. It was the first engagement of British ground forces against Nazi German troops. By early May, southern Norway was in German hands, and after a final, suicidal stand at the fortress at Hegra, Norway had fallen. Now nothing stood between the Third Reich and the last bastions of freedom in Western Europe. Nothing but nearly microscopic militaries whose leaders still clutched with white knuckles to tactics of a previous war, who knew nothing of dynamic armored warfare, who knew not the blitzkrieg, a tactic that would drastically alter the course of the war. The Allies had played the hand they were dealt, and came up with one pair. Yet the Third Reich remained superior, flaunting a straight flush.


            The kingdom of Christian X had fallen in a mere two hours, yet the kingdom of Haakon VII would prove a much tougher nut to crack. And it would not fall until June of that fateful year of 1940, a year in which every feeble institution the Western Allies had erected to end war would come crashing down, ironically, in the flames of combat. The fall of Denmark and the invasion of Norway had thrown fuel onto the already massive fire of German territorial ambition, and nothing could stand in its way, not even the insipid resistance of an army that had only just begun to adopt the strategies of war that would not be determined in the trenches, but on the open field of battle. It had only just begun to sluggishly shrug off the shroud of interbellum wariness, and had opened conflict with a nation they had only just begun to comprehend. The combat in the first months of the war would shape the outcome of the next five years of bitter war in Western Europe. Tank against tank, man against man. And the Allies were as unprepared to take on this task as the Americans had been in their attempt at waging an early campaign against the Japanese, who had been entrenched in brutal combat in China for over a decade before attacking Pearl Harbor, or General Thomas Gage, who had attempted to pilfer the arms of American insurgents at Lexington and Concord, and again stumbled in an ill-managed assault on Breed’s Hill. Although he seized the coveted hill overlooking Boston Harbor, incorrectly named Bunker Hill for a neighboring promontory, it had cost Gage his commission as commandant of the British garrison in Boston. All that remained was the West, the last bastions of freedom in a world rapidly becoming enveloped in darkness.

            In Great Britain, the startling, now visible, defeat in Norway was obvious. The strategy in combating the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Wehrmacht had torn the House of Commons and House of Lords in England’s Parliament to shreds. The preemptive assault into Scandinavia, R 4, had been shelved indefinitely, only to be supplanted by a German invasion in its absence. The War Cabinet had ordered the rapid deployment of British forces, yet by late April it was clear the situation was speedily spiraling toward untenable. The majority of the blame on the woefully inadequate utilization of British troops was placed on the shoulders of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the brainchild behind the 1938 meeting in Munich communion between himself and Hitler regarding the fate of the Sudetenland, and following a series of debates in the House of Commons in early May 1940, Chamberlain was reviled by most and supported by few, and in the face of mounting opposition, resigned. Most Conservatives had wished he alter the government rather than depart, yet Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, announced his wish not to work in tandem with Chamberlain to construct a coalition government to reconstruct the faulty national government. His successor, Winston Churchill, a fellow Conservative and veteran of combat in the Second Boer War, was handpicked after Chamberlain’s original choice, Edward Wood, Viscount Halifax, had announced his wish not be placed in such a lofty office. The date was May 10, 1940; the very same day German forces invaded France and the Low Countries in accordance with an incredibly intricate, organized plan.

            The plan had been known simply as Fall Gelb, Case Yellow. It had been completed by Oberkommando des Heeres, the supreme headquarters of the German military, in mid-October 1939, and was submitted to der Führer for approval. The plan’s simplistic name was mirrored closely in its simplistic nature. It called for German forces to advance to the coastlines of the neighboring nations of Belgium and the Netherlands, comprising the Low Countries, named due to location of the rivers Scheldt, Rhine, and Meuse estuaries, which place the majority of the nations’ lands below sea level. Once these nations were conquered, German forces would advance south and engage the dual Anglo-French army amassed in northern France and southern Belgium, in accordance with Gamelin’s Dyle Plan. Hitler despised the plan. It was a far too unimaginative approach to outflanking the Maginot Line, the seemingly impregnable, daunting labyrinth of defenses bristling along Germany’s western frontier. Fall Gelb would outflank the Maginot Line, yes, but it would force German troops into an engagement against the majority of what the French army could mobilize against them, and the negligible British Expeditionary Force of Lord Gort, which numbered now close to three hundred and fifty thousand. German forces would also be forced to contend with the Belgian military, numbering some twenty-two infantry and motorized divisions, as well as her contemporary citadels. The German military, capable of massing one hundred and thirty six infantry, motorized, and airborne divisions, would be forced to contend with not only the Belgians, yet also nine infantry and motorized divisions in the Netherlands, and ninety-four in France, bolstered by the insignificant British Expeditionary Force. One of Case Yellow’s most outspoken detractors had been Erich von Manstein, the future architect behind the overwhelmingly successful siege of Sevastopol against Petrov’s Coastal Army in the summer of 1942 and the faulty attempt to rescue the ill-fated Sixth Army of Friederich Paulus caught in the frigid grasp of winter outside Stalingrad that same year. Manstein drafted an entirely different concept regarding the invasion of France and the Low Countries: instead of attacking in a relatively straight line in the direction of the coast and utilizing the Low Countries as a staging area for an assault into France, the Wehrmacht would instead launch an assault into the Low Countries, with German forces flanking south into Belgium while German forces attacked from the east, flanking south into the expanses of the Ardennes Forest, outflanking the vaunted defenses of the Maginot Line, and charging across the river Meuse. They would cross the river Meuse in northeastern France at Sedan, Dinant, and Monthermé, before an abrupt turn westward that would pin the unsuspecting Anglo-French army against the English Channel, before destroying it. Once this resistance had either capitulated or faced the wrath of their German adversary, the Wehrmacht would turn south and initiate Fall Rot, Case Red, the advance to and seizure of Paris, the City of Light. Manstein’s plan, dubbed simply “Sicklestroke”, but later christened the “Manstein Plan” in his honor, was adopted in February 1940, compensating for a strategic vacuum left in Oberkommando des Heeres after a German major, Erich Hoenmanns, was forced to crash-land in Belgium transporting schematics for Fall Gelb in early January. The Belgians had taken the plans seriously, and, in spite of their outspoken neutrality, passed the information along to Maurice Gamelin, who realized the plan’s implications: the German forces would be resuscitating the decrepit, defunct Schlieffen Plan, and the Allies could meet their advance along a more stable, entrenched, frontline in northern France, rather than give chase following a reactionary victory, such as at the Marne subsequent to a comparatively disorganized retreat from Belgium in 1914. Gamelin, and most Allied commanders at the time, held true to the static strategies of trench warfare, popular in the previous war, yet none understood the relatively new tactics of dynamic warfare, determined by armor, and ironically so—the British had invented the tank. And all Allied commanders were unaware of Fall Gelb’s replacement. The Wehrmacht was to do the unthinkable: they would attack through the Ardennes.


            The first assault came, swift and brutal, a mere month following the anticlimactic fall of Denmark. In the early morning light of the fateful day of May 10, 1940, a day that would come to shape the next four years in Western Europe, the Third Reich fell upon her neighbors like an eagle, striking fast from a location unknown. She struck three enemies simultaneously: the French Third Republic and the Kingdoms of the Netherlands and Belgium, and in a much more successful repetition of the ill-fated Schlieffen Plan of the First World War, that met its match at the Marne, and later the Aisne, Manstein would outflank the Allies. The Dutch military, having erected modern fortifications and having poured fifty-three million gilders into a near-worthless defense budget, had fallen in just seven days, the last bastions of resistance holding out in the province of Zealand until the seventeenth of May. Dutch attempts at the destruction of dikes to slow the rapid German advance met with negligible success, and the Dutch were faced, much like their Danish and Norwegian counterparts, with air- and glider-borne infantry, revolutionary weapons of war the likes of which had never been combated. An early attempt to seize Queen Wilhelmina, the matriarch of the Netherlands, met with little success during a catastrophic melee on an airfield outside of The Hague, the administrative capital of the Netherlands. Yet, unbeknownst to the German paratroopers, Wilhelmina and the entirety of the Dutch Royal Family had preemptively fled aboard the British destroyer H.M.S. Hereward, and had been securely evacuated before German forces could seize them. The fighting was swift and brutal, with Dutch forces meeting defeat at each turn, such as the overwhelming German victory at Grebbeberg on the third day of battle, and later, the terror bombing of major Dutch municipal centers, the most infamous of which being the bombing of Rotterdam in spite of the glaring fact that it had been declared an open city to prevent its destruction. The German forces, under order from General Dietrich von Choltitz—later to command the Paris garrison that would surrender to American forces under George Patton in August 1944 and equate himself to Paris’s savoir after deliberately ignoring an order from der Führer to raze the City of Light to the ground in light of its precarious situation—had destroyed the Dutch city and claimed it was to assist German forces battling Dutch troops on the city’s periphery, although it was more likely designed to shatter the Dutch will to fight. Regardless of its true intent, it did indeed splinter the Dutch mentality regarding the invasion, and the Dutch surrendered the same day as the inglorious, unsanctioned aerial assault on Rotterdam, although scattered Dutch troops held out in Zealand, northwest of Belgium, for three more days in the face of mounting resistance.

            The Dutch capitulation had been swift, yet the Netherlands’ southern neighbor would prove a much more complicated undertaking to overcome. The reserved, neutral Belgium, ruled by thirty-eight-year-old King Leopold III, grandson of infamous king Leopold II, whose brutal treatment of dissenters in the Belgian Congo is too well known, possessed a relatively simple strategy: his armies would meet the advancing German military along a defensive line that spanned from the Scheldt Estuary, feeding the sprawling port of Antwerp, to the cavernous, murky Ardennes Forest. The Belgians did not anticipate a German invasion, and on numerous occasions refused meeting with British and French officers and strategists in order to preserve their tentative neutrality, continuously upsetting Anglo-French plans to counter the German invasion wherever it originated. The Belgian neutrality had also disregarded Dutch overtures at an alliance, which essentially forced the tiny, canal-ridden nation to fight for itself. The Belgian military was tiny, yet possessed some of the most modern fortresses in Europe, including Eben Emael, completed in 1935—which straddled the Dutch-Belgian border near Maastricht—Namur, near the French frontier, and Liège, an existing fortress in eastern Belgium, just south of Eben Emael, that had upset the timetable of the German advance in the First World War, costing the German infantry considerable time in surmounting its intricate defenses and reaching France. Yet in this war, much had changed. Imperial Germany’s pickelhaubed armies of the previous war had been replaced with grey-clothed, stahhelmed corps of battle-hardened infantry intent on victory. And, to the dismay of the Allies, although the strident blue and red uniforms of the French may have changed, so little had their strategies. And Maurice Gamelin, credited with organizing the highly praised counterattack at the Marne in 1914, would soon fall from grace, not realizing his most resounding blunder. He had positioned the French First Army Corps along the Belgian frontier, in harmony with his Dyle Plan, yet his distribution had been horrid. The strongest armies sat south of Antwerp while the French Second Army, by far its weakest, comprised of relics from the previous war, was defending Sedan, the keystone of the German advance.

            The assault into Belgium had been swift, with German Fallschirmjägern seizing Eben Emael. The fortress, designed to halt the advance of armor, had been seized from the air, not assaulted from the ground. The vital bridges the fortress protected, commanding the confluence of the river Meuse and Albert Canal, were soon taken by freshly landed German paratroopers, who, by day’s end, would be supplemented by the arrival of the German Fourth Panzer Division. German forces had seized Bastogne, a vital crossroads village to the south that commanded the Ardennes, severed Belgian communication, and advanced into the Central Belgian Plain, reigning victorious at Hannut, the first armored engagement of the war, while copious attempts to cross the river Meuse in southern Belgium were beaten back before a successful fording was completed between Houx and Yvoir, in central Belgium, in mid-May. A trellis bridge over the river had been sabotaged by retreating Franco-Belgian forces, yet in spite of this numerous attempts to cross between the two villages had been made by determined German forces, whose commanders comprehended the significance of speed, the lifeblood of the German advance. These attempted crossings had yielded almost no success, until German forces discovered a decrepit lock that could be crossed. The French had not blown the lock in fear that its destruction would lower the water level of the Meuse to a fordable depth, and when German forces crossed, they discovered the opposing bank to be undefended. Gamelin’s awkwardly constructed, inept, and incompetent command structure had proven too slow to react. German forces were steamrolling over Allied troops in western Belgium, forcing them still further back toward the Channel coast. To the south, Gerd von Rundstedt, a brilliant German field marshal, had struck hard and fast into the Ardennes, reaching Sedan in a matter of two and a half days.

Anglo-French resistance stood fast and subsequently broke in the face of the German invasion, and a general retreat to the coast was called, commanded to move in the direction of the port of Dunkirk in Calais, similar to Henry V’s attempt to flee from overwhelming French numerical superiority prior to his stunning victory at Agincourt in 1415. Henry, too, was attempting to flee to Calais. German forces under Georg von Küchler, following their victory at Rotterdam, advanced south into northern Belgium, while troops under Fedor von Bock and Walther von Reichenau struck westward. The Allies had sprung Manstein’s trap: Sicklestroke had been designed as a massive encirclement, similar to Hannibal’s double-envelopment victory over Lucius Aemilius Paullus at 216 B.C. at Cannae. Manstein had designed the invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium as fronts: diversionary attacks constructed with the express purpose of luring the massed Anglo-French forces in northern France away from their prepared and intricate defensive positions near the river Dyle, and simultaneously, German troops, spearheaded by armor, would attack through the Ardennes into Sedan, closing the rear of the Allied lines, and into western Belgium, striking the Allies on their right flank. And the Allies had gone for it, unwittingly springing the trap that would lead to their demise. If the Anglo-French troops were encircled and annihilated in Belgium, who would be left to defend the opened road to Paris?

            Gamelin ordered his troops into Belgium to assist the vastly outnumbered Belgian troops, yet it had been exactly what Manstein wanted, and before long, armored spearheads commanded Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, the latter being the mastermind who had designed the Blitzkrieg, had crossed the “impassible” Ardennes and had entered Sedan, the scene of Napoleon III’s catastrophic defeat to the Prussian military in 1870, where he was actually kidnapped and ransomed by German troops. The generals soon arrived at the shimmering expanses of the Meuse in northeastern France, yet were met instantly with roadblocks in their near-stellar advance: Franco-Belgian forces had blown the bridge over the river at Dinant, yet it was no matter; the Germans had already crossed at Sedan. In just a matter of two days, the German forces under Rundstedt had massed nearly seven armored divisions, and after routing a counterattack of token resistance near Montcornet, commanded by then-colonel, and future firebrand leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle, Rundstedt arrived outside the port of Dunkirk just nine days after the commencement of Sicklestroke. His men had covered over two hundred miles in a mere ten days. Soon von Bock and Reichenau arrived. Just eighteen days after the German invasion, Belgium surrendered, and over three hundred thousand British and French troops, now disavowed by their previous ally, were trapped in Dunkirk, their backs to the English Channel. All seemed lost, when the unthinkable happened. Just as Rundstedt’s panzers seemed poised to fall upon the Allies, they did not. Rundstedt had halted to consolidate his armor, which had advanced so quickly he was now in danger of spreading his forces far too thin. This momentary respite was exploited by Winston Churchill, who ordered every serviceable boat in the British Isles, whether they be sailboat, skiff, battleship, submarine, fishing boat, or destroyer, to traverse the treacherous waters of the Channel, just twenty miles between Dunkirk and Dover, and rescue the battered and bruised Allied forces. It was known as Operation Dynamo, and in a sign of almost divine grace, a veritable miracle, the horrendous weather within the Channel, which had marked the days leading up to and during the Allied stay in Dunkirk, ceased, granting the motley crew of Allied rescuers to retrieve the three hundred thousand men and ferry them back to safety in the British Isles, just as Rundstedt’s men fell upon the city.

            German troops had invaded the Netherlands, and, in conquering it, shifted south and stormed into northern Belgian as German forces advanced from the west, while a southern prong struck through the Ardennes, forded the river Meuse, and folded up the Anglo-French rear. The Allied forces were trapped at Dunkirk, and rescued by the most uncommon of saviors, yet in their absence, the German troops had blasted open the road to Paris. And the City of Light was theirs for the taking. The German forces initiated Fall Rot. The Wehrmacht had kicked the doorway to Paris open. The entirety of an Allied army had been annihilated in Belgium. If Paris fell, all of Western Europe, formerly the only wall standing between the dark armies of the Reich and the free world, would fall with it. And just one British and sixty-four French divisions covered the threshold to Paris, a massive stretch of some six hundred miles, from Sedan and the Ardennes to the English Channel. The French had lost thirty and the British had lost nine infantry and motorized divisions in the calamitous combat in Belgium, yet they would not back down. The plucky little force would stand and fight, a decision that would not negate the inevitable seizure of Paris, but merely stall it. The Germans would take the French capital, one way or another. They outnumbered and outgunned the Allied armies, but as they pushed further south, renewing their offensive in early June—ironically exactly four years prior to the future Allied landings in Normandy—they ran into a new, previously unseen obstacle: organized resistance.

            The Allied forces had, in late May, been offered a minute window of opportunity to consolidate their forces and prepare for the inevitable German drive to Paris. Fortunately, the sheer force of German troops had alleviated the ever-present hazard of Gamelin’s awkward command structure and shattered communications. The fact was, the closer the Germans pushed the Allies to Paris, the healthier their communications and flow of supplies became, and the smoother their troops fought. The close proximity to Allied supply dumps and communications posts made the circulation of munitions and orders much smoother and faster. Oddly enough, morale was at an all-time high. French armor had proven itself against the formidable German Panzer, and the utilization of French artillery was spectacular, proving the German juggernaut was not invincible. Surviving French officers had been educated, through hands-on experience, in the tactics of the Wehrmacht, and understood how to combat them. It was the proverbial David and Goliath. The Allied armies stood poised on the gates of Paris, like Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans prepared to defend Thermopylae from the massive armies of the great Xerxes, even if it meant their death. The stage had been set for a biblical engagement the likes of which had not been witnessed in Europe since the massive armies of Napoleon had swept across the continent nearly a century prior. And it would culminate on the ultimate prize: the city of Paris, a thriving metropolis of over three and a half million people (one million six hundred thousand of those three and a half million would flee prior to the onset of the German offensive).


            It began on the river Somme, the scene of two climactic battles during the stagnant course of the previous war. A stretch of river flowing in northern France, whose name is the Celtic word—ironically—for tranquility, the Somme would prove the launch pad for the German strike toward Paris, and in early June, that strike materialized. Germany’s Army Group B would drive to Paris from two different directions, one striking south through the Brittany region, the other east of the city, in a double envelopment on a massive scale. As this was underway, Army Group A had driven south from Belgium into eastern France to encircle the Maginot Line, while Army Group C had struck directly into it, with the objectives of capturing the fortress cities of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, the latter of which being the scene of a nearly ten month siege in the previous war. And in another of history’s brutal ironies, the Maginot Line, a massive, two hundred mile subterranean defensive network that had cost the French government upwards of three billion francs, had been surmounted by armor, the very thing it had been designed to defeat. The Line had been constructed almost entirely underground, and in that regard, German Panzers merely drove over it. Previously, the Line had proved impregnable, with strikes at Fermont and Ferme-Chappy being driven back with overwhelming casualties, yet the ever-present threat of the German assault had drawn French forces away from the Line in an effort to bolster the Weygand Line on the Somme, named for General Maxime Weygand, the successor to the ball of tactical blunders and underestimates that had been Maurice Gamelin. If Army Groups A and C were successful, they could bottle up the French forces, now weakened to a meager strength by the constant removal of French armies to halt the German drive to Paris, in the Vosges Mountains. The French had, again, underestimated the German military. They had not believed an assault on the Maginot Line was possible, and if mounted, they were confident their now-negligible defenses could force it back. They were wrong.

On June 5, German forces pushed south toward the Weygand Line. In a mere matter of days, Army Groups A and C were pushing toward the Maginot Line in Alsace-Lorraine, slicing great swathes in its defenses. And the French at the Weygand Line were helpless to assist. The French fought hard, yet it would not be enough to prevent the German Wehrmacht from taking Paris. Strong resistance at Amiens dramatically blunted the sharp German spearhead, and the advance was, at the onset, uncharacteristically slow, yet the sheer volume of German assaults upon the numerically inferior enemy meant Paris would soon be within sight. German aerial superiority meant the formerly superior French artillery was now victim to unstoppable accosts from the air, as were the evenly matched French tanks, which were either destroyed or dispersed, opening gaps in the French line. Weygand had intended to combat the numerically superior Wehrmacht in a sort of fighting retreat, attritional warfare, in which he would bog the enemy down in constant combat, leapfrogging from defensive network from defensive network back toward Paris. The plan had initially worked, yet could buy the French only so much time. The remnants of the battered and bruised British Expeditionary Force had been separated and pushed into Normandy, where they would soon be evacuated across the English Channel during Operations Cycle and Ariel, and the French 10 Army was annihilated at Abbeville and its survivors were forced back to Rouen, south of Paris. In this striking turn of events, French resistance gradually began to crumble. The Maginot Line was all but destroyed, as was the Weygand Line, and a June 10 Italian invasion had furthered French woes. Mussolini’s forces had no intention of real success, and were thwarted in each strike through the precipitous passes of the Alps. Mussolini had no intent to mirror Hitler’s meteoric strike toward Paris, Il Duce just wished to purchase himself a seat at the bargaining table in the wake of France’s inevitable surrender, even if that seat was purchased with the blood of Italian soldiers, spilled without necessity. The fighting in the plains between the Somme and Seine was swift and brutal, lasting just a mere nine days. One June 14, 1940, German forces seized Paris, lowering the red, white, and black banner of Nazi Germany on the face of the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, the French had declared the city open, saving it from destruction had the French army attempted to defend the city from the city itself. A last-ditch effort to save France from destruction, a proposed Anglo-French union, had been refused by Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, who saw it as accepting defeat, which seemed, at this point, the most intelligent avenue to take. Reynaud resigned soon after; one of his final acts was his establishing Colonel Charles de Gaulle as Undersecretary of National Defense. Marshal Philippe Henri Pétain, the aging French marshal whose brainchild had been the 1916 victory at Verdun, which had saved Paris in the previous war, succeeded Reynaud. On June 22, 1940, the commanding generals of each side met in Compiègne. The stage was set for the collapse of France.

The selection at Compiègne had been quite significant for the German delegation: it had been the scene of the German surrender in the First World War. Marshal Charles Huntziger chaired the French commission, while the German concession was headed by none other than der Führer himself, who sat in the very same chair Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat in while negotiating the climactic close of the preceding war some twenty-two years prior. And much like the terms imposed on Germany following the close of the First World War, Hitler’s terms placed upon France were equally insufferable. Three-fifths of the country was to be occupied by Nazi Germany, while a diminutive, collaborationist republic was established in the South of France, centered on the city of Vichy. The Vichy Republic was straddled to the west by German-controlled territory running through Aquitaine to northeastern Spain, the reasoning for this would be to allow the Kriegsmarine to have access to the entirety of France’s coastal ports, such as Lorient, Saint-Nazaire (at the time, the largest port in the world, and the only capable of servicing Germany’s massive warships), and Cherbourg. Previously, all German surface ships and submarines were forced to sail from Germany’s Baltic Coast through the Skagerrak and Kattegat Straits between Denmark and Scandinavia, or through the Heligoland Bight into the North Sea, riddled with the Royal Navy, yet the seizure of Norway had opened its North Atlantic fjords, and the seizure of France had opened its Atlantic ports to German usage, making the vast expanses of the Atlantic Ocean easily accessible to prowling German wolf packs. The French would also be forced to shoulder the entirety of the expenses necessary to maintain the Wehrmacht on French territory, amounting to some four hundred million francs, paid daily, which would easily bankrupt France within a matter of days. All French troops captured during Sicklestroke or the drive to Paris, amounting to some one and a half million men, would be kept in captivity until Great Britain was subjugated, at which point they would be granted their freedom, and a nominal French military could be maintained. The modern French navy, a belligerent matching both the Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine in its effectiveness, was disarmed but not disbanded for Hitler feared too numerous restrictions would prompt the French to wage war in French North Africa. Admiral François Darlan, the commandant of the French navy, assured the Allies that the massive French navy would not fall into German hands, yet the fear remained deep within Allied hearts, primarily within those of the British. If the Kriegsmarine gained control of France’s modern warships, there was no telling what could be the outcome. To further alleviate Allied worries, Darlan even ordered the navy to be scattered, breaking the fleet into thirds and commanding them to steam away from Marseilles, the home port of the fleet. One third steamed for Mers-el-Kébir, in Algeria, while another steamed for friendly ports in Palestine, primarily French Syria. The third, disobeying a direct order, steamed through the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, through the Bay of Biscay, and entered English waters, surrendering itself to the Royal Navy. Yet British worries were still not alleviated. On July 3, 1940, a Royal Navy squadron centered on the aircraft carrier Ark Royal launched an assault on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir after its refusal to sail to the port of Martinique in the West Indies under Royal Navy escort or surrender. The attack had been launched to deny the fleet’s potential utilization by the Kriegsmarine. The assault resulted in the sinking or damaging of the modern battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, and the battleships Provence, Bretagne, and Mogador, while a July 8 assault on the warship Richelieu at its anchorage at Dakar resulted in its garnering negligible damage. As these came to pass, the warship Lorraine and four cruiser escorts were blockaded in the port of Alexandria, in northern Egypt, offered the same terms as the squadron at Mers-el-Kébir, and after careful negotiations, the commodore of the Lorraine offered his surrender. These three events damaged Anglo-French relations beyond repair, and would come to stain the tentative alliance of the two nations for the remainder of the war.

Final terms stipulated that the Vichy regime would be forced to hunt, discover, and deport all Jews and others deemed “inferior”, leading to the 1943 creation of the Milice, a paramilitary organization dedicated to fulfilling the duties of the Totenkopfvorbände-S.S. in what was known, ironically, as the Zone Libre, the Free Zone, as it was free of German occupation. Marshal Pétain would head the Vichy government, as his first act as prime minister had been to propose an armistice with Nazi Germany rather than a complete surrender, which would subjugate all France under German control. His tactic had been somewhat noble in its aim, yet tragically skewed in its outcome, as insufferable German demands mutated and bastardized the policies dictated within Vichy France, turning it into an equally anti-Semitic, oppressive administration. To further add to Allied woes, all overseas territories formerly controlled by France would fall under the control of the Vichy government, including Syria, French North Africa (present-day Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), French West Africa (which consisted of the present-day regions of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Benin, and Burkina Faso), French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti), French Indochina (which consisted of present-day Vietnam and Laos), Madagascar, French Guiana, French Equatorial Africa (which consisted of Chad, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Cameroon, and São Tomé and Príncipe), Lebanon, and the French Concession within Shanghai. The demands were set before the French delegation on June 22, 1940, at Compiègne, and, much to the anguish of the distraught Huntziger, he had no choice but to concede. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel had informed the French that negotiation over any point was impossible, and that the armistice before them was concrete. They would be forced to either take it or leave it entirely. To abandon negotiations would mean prolonging the war, leading to the unnecessary deaths of French soldiers and civilians, yet to accept the unilateral, horrendous treaty would mean forfeiting France’s hard-fought liberty to an enemy France had become well acquainted with. At 6:50 on the evening of June 22, 1940, the French delegation announced their acceptance of the humiliating terms. The armistice and accompanying ceasefire would go into effect at 1:35 in the morning of June 25, 1940. The French Third Republic was no more. 

The Battle that Saved a Nation: The Battle of Britain and the Blitz

15 Aug


(This is an excerpt taken from the book I’m writing that is currently underway. Enjoy!)

Even though the seemingly invincible juggernaut of the Wehrmacht had steamrolled over Western Europe, and her proudest cities lay sobbing within the shadow of the swastika, the final obstacle stood, a defiant island that had resisted the force of a military that numbered almost ten times its size: the United Kingdom. The stellar, overwhelming success that had become Sicklestroke had taken France and the Low Countries in a matter of weeks, leaving the lone keeper of the watch of the Allies awash in a sea of uncertainty. Britain’s House of Commons and House of Lords had torn themselves asunder in debating the proper course of action in dealing with Hitler’s Germany. The fall of France had pitted some three hundred thousand British and five million French troops against nearly eight million German soldiers, and the Allies had been decimated. If the Wehrmacht were to attempt a strike against the British Isles, there was no telling if Britain’s million-man army could withstand the shock of such an attack. The Norwegian campaign had, for the most part, ravaged Germany’s surface fleet, meaning that if any amphibious landing were to be attempted, the Kriegsmarine would be of little or no assistance. Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and a diminutive minority in the House of Commons supported a move to sue for peace; a move that Hitler had hoped the British would follow; yet Churchill—the audacious, militant new prime minister—and the heart of the British people would have none of it. On June 18, 1940, Churchill addressed the British people, stating that this would be “their finest hour”. The stage was set for one of the most legendary engagements in British, and world, history: the Battle of Britain.

As fighting in France intensified as the summer dawned in 1940, Churchill ordered the majority of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command to be dispatched to France, a decision abhorred by Fighter Command’s commandant, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. The German Luftwaffe had acquired air superiority almost instantly in the face of little Allied aerial resistance, and dispatching Fighter Command would be suicidal. And that it was. The beleaguered force returned decimated. With the evacuation from Dunkirk and the subsequent French capitulation, contrary to popular belief, Hitler did not wish to invade the British Isles. He actually wished to avoid them altogether. The last time the Isles had been invaded by a full-scale invasion force had been in 1066 by Guillaume le Conquerant—William the Conqueror—of Normandy, and before him, the great Julius Caesar of Rome in 54 B.C., followed by subsequent failed attempts made by the infamous Caligula and his much more triumphant successor, Claudius. The British Isles appeared a deathtrap, and with France destroyed, Hitler could safely turn his attention eastward, toward the vast, looming Soviet Union, a nation he desperately wished to destroy. Hitler had made the treacherous, and incredibly false, assumption that in the wake of France’s surrender, the British would follow suit, suing for peace in a last ditch effort to save their sovereignty. Yet Churchill’s June 18 speech thwarted those assumptions, with Churchill stating to the British people that the Isles would not surrender, and would fight on, no matter how long the war lasted. Hitler would be compelled into action to quell this last fortification of Allied resistance in the west. And the longer it remained, the further an invasion of the Soviet Union would have to be postponed, something Hitler had dreadfully wanted to avoid.

There are two avenues that can be taken with an attempted invasion of Great Britain, rather, any island for that matter: an amphibious assault, and an airborne landing. Both require some degree of air superiority, and in the summer of 1940, that was truer then than it is now. The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet still possessed fifty destroyers, twenty-one cruisers, and eight battleships, and the Royal Air Force nearly one thousand one hundred and forty four aircraft, of which seven hundred and four were fighters, the additional four hundred and forty being bomber aircraft of varying size. Facing them was the Kriegsmarine, whose surface fleet had nearly been annihilated in the Norwegian campaign and only possessed a token few battleships, the largest of which, Bismarck, would be laying in pieces on the muddy floor of the North Atlantic within a year (the Kriegsmarine, at Hitler’s behest, would begin switching priority to their submarine fleet, leading to the nefarious U-boat campaign within the North Atlantic, which had just begun to get underway), yet the Luftwaffe possessed two thousand six hundred and sixty nine aircraft, of which thirteen hundred and sixty eight were fighter aircraft, the remainder being bombers of varying size. It appeared that numerical superiority sat drastically with the Luftwaffe, as did the majority of experienced pilots, as a multitude of Germany’s tried and true pilots had seen combat in Spain, western, and northern Europe, while the majority of the Royal Air Force’s trained pilots had been lost in France, and they were irreplaceable. Yet the British had two resounding advantages over the Luftwaffe: the benefit of fighting on familiar, friendly ground, where the German aircraft would be forced to cross between twenty and fifty miles of sea to reach them (Germany’s fighters had been designed to cover infantry at short distances, not bombers at intermediate to long distance, and most fighters could only protect German bombers in British air space for twenty minutes before abandoning the bombers to refuel), and a recently finalized invention: radar. An acronym meaning radio detection and ranging and still incredibly fresh from the prototypical stage (the United States would not possess its first operational radar station until November 1941), radar had actually been floating in the minds of inventors since the late 1880’s, when Heinrich Hertz pioneered the concept of ricocheting radio waves off objects to produce a picture. Perfected in 1935 by British inventor Robert Watson-Watt, the concept of radar would be implemented by the British in the form of a defensive network known simply as “Chain Home”, a line of radar stations and accompanying air bases running in an intertwining, linked system down Britain’s eastern coast. The idea was simple: spot German aircraft formations in northern France, inform the nearby air base of their arrival, and wait until the last possible second to scramble fighters and intercept, a veritable aerial ambush. And under the direction of Hugh Dowding, this system would prove unstoppable.

In late June 1940, Hitler finally realized the necessity of neutralizing Britain in order to achieve his goal of subduing the troublesome Soviet Union. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commanding the entirety of Germany’s Kriegsmarine, understood the dire situation facing his navy: they no longer possessed the operational capacity to wage war on the high seas against the Royal Navy. If the planned amphibious landing, known as Unternehmen See Löwe, Operation Sea Lion, was to be successful, air superiority was an inevitable necessity. The Kriegsmarine was both outnumbered and outgunned, and any hope of an invasion of Britain rested in the hands of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe. If German fighters and bombers could neutralize the Royal Air Force and achieve air superiority, any Royal Navy attempt to halt an amphibious landing on England’s southern coast could potentially be held at bay by the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine being in no position to offer support. The concept of assaulting surface ships with aircraft had been pioneered in the early 1920’s by Billy Mitchell, an early American advocate of strategic bombing, yet the idea was still laughable, and no amphibious landing of the size necessary to land men in England had been attempted in western Europe. The closest equivalent had been a Japanese landing at Wuhan, a city of two million people, on the river Yangtze in central China in 1938. It was the Luftwaffe’s prerogative to neutralize the effectiveness of the Royal Air Force, decimating the plucky force, and focusing the majority of their attention upon strategically invaluable targets, including aircraft industry, radar stations, and airfields. And beginning in earnest that July, the first sorties of the Luftwaffe thundered from airfields in northern France toward southern England, their roaring engines soon to meet with those of the Royal Air Force as the two mixed contrails and engaged in high altitude aerial combat, the first dogfights since the previous war.

Initially, German aircraft attempted to lure British fighters into the skies over the English Channel, yet the attempt actually caused the reverse to occur. With each failure to lure British aircraft into the open, German aircraft were forced to move closer and closer to the English coast, allowing the British to successfully to force German fighter pilots to spring the trap. Once they reached the coast, the British would assault from below, catching the aircraft off guard. And with their limited fuel, in most circumstances the fighter aircraft would be forced to abandon the bombers they were protecting to the mercy of the Royal Air Force. German aircraft were achieving limited to no success, even when fifteen hundred fighters and bombers assaulted southern England in what was then known as Adlertag, or Eagle Day, August 13, 1940. Any Royal Air Force fighters lost in combat were rapidly replaced, and, by December, the Royal Air Force actually possessed more fighters under their command than they had at the battle’s onset, nearly four thousand nine hundred and fifty five, while German aircraft industry was faltering in its attempt to compensate, and with each loss of an aircraft, it meant the simultaneous loss of a pilot, considering—in the circumstance that they did live—they would be forced to bail out over enemy territory. Pilots from myriad nations, including French, Czech, and Polish, came to assist the Royal Air Force, and even a small contingent of Americans. Considering their status as neutral noncombatants—although the United States government of President Franklin Roosevelt supported the British through programs such as battleships-for-bases, cash-and-carry, and later 1941’s Lend Lease and the Atlantic Charter—the American pilots, much like Claire Chennault’s “Flying Tigers”, were forced to forfeit their commissions in the United States’ Army Air Corps, so, if captured, they could not be labeled as a true American pilot, as well as being forced to wear the uniforms of the nation they flew for, in this case Britain, and fly British aircraft. They would become known as the “Eagle Squadron”. As the fighting continued into early September, with the British being forced to contend not only with incessant Luftwaffe assaults on port cities, which often resulted in civilian casualties, as well as airfields and radar stations, yet also an Italian assault from eastern Libya’s Cyrenaica province in Egypt’s Western Desert under General Rodolfo Graziani. Fortunately for the British, the Luftwaffe assault was largely impotent, with most raids being met in the sky long before they had the opportunity to reach any strategically valuable targets. Only one radar station was forced to be shut down during the entirety of the aerial siege, and it was only down for a mere two hours. Yet the fighting would soon make a turn for the worst, entering a chapter of the Second World War that would come to be known simply as The Blitz.

On August 1, 1940, Hitler issued his Directive Number Seventeen, stating that once the British airfields and radar stations along the coast were neutralized, as well as compromising the combat effectiveness of the Royal Air Force, then the Luftwaffe would focus the majority of their munitions upon major cities, including Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, and Coventry, and at any time before that stipulated date, permission to bomb any municipality had to originate directly from the Führer himself, yet within fourteen days, the situation rapidly deteriorated. One the night of August 15, a German bomber mistakenly released its ordinance on an airfield on the outskirts of London, and within a matter of days, more bombers were driven off course, relinquishing high explosive munitions on residential areas on the capital’s periphery, such as Harrow, as well as subsequent bombings of the Scottish port of Aberdeen and the British seaport of Bristol, located on the southern, or English, bank of the Bristol Channel between England and Wales. A raid upon Portsmouth that led to the death of one hundred civilians proved the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The bombings had gradually traversed the schism between mistaken raids and deliberate assaults on residential areas. And the British, predominantly Churchill, were infuriated. On August 25, 1940, the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command launched a midnight raid through the overcast skies over Germany, with eighty-one aircraft dispensing their munitions upon Berlin. The cloud cover that blanketed the city during the raid had caused the British, who intended to dispense their ordinance upon industrial targets, to instead release their high explosive munitions upon predominantly residential areas. And now it was the turn of Hitler to be incensed. He immediately rescinded his previous directive, and issued a prompt replacement. For the remainder of the aerial war, German bombing would be shifted to striking civilian targets in the concept of terror bombing. They would bomb the island into submission by striking fear into the hearts of its civilian population, and London and other major municipal centers would be stricken on a daily basis. Göring was ecstatic. He, along with Albert Kesselring, a fellow officer within the Luftwaffe who would go on to gain fame within combat in the Mediterranean, had championed the utilization of terror bombing against the defiant British. And as August gave way to September, that campaign had gone well underway.

From the first of September to the fifteenth, German aircraft struck London on a daily basis, marauding in broad daylight, a rather brazen tactic, as barrage balloons and antiaircraft batteries had been deployed within the city. The bomber aircraft had begun to utilize not only high explosive, yet also incendiary munitions, which caused massive conflagrations, burning whole city blocks to ashes, yet bombing was not entirely centered on laying waste to residential areas. Several raids still centered upon striking industrial or commercial targets, such as a raid launched upon the city of Derby, which possessed the intent of razing the city to the ground, Derby being the location of the Rolls Royce factory that produced Merlin engines for the Supermarine Spitfire. A conference held on the fourteenth of September resulted in a groundbreaking decision by der Führer: no longer would the Luftwaffe focus upon destroying Britain’s cities. They would destroy her population entirely. On September 15, 1940, a daylight raid, later known as Battle of Britain Day, resulted in, up to that point, the bloodiest single day of aerial combat since August 18. The August 18 raid had been dubbed the Hardest Day, and was the veritable Shiloh to the Antietam Battle of Britain Day would become, Shiloh being the bloodiest single day in the American Civil War until Antietam. The fatalities had been so grave that it had prompted Hitler to shift from daylight to permanent nocturnal bombing, and postponed the amphibious landing further. And the British Isles remained defiant. London’s population slept within the Underground by night, and by day resided in the countryside. Children were sent away to the residences of friends and family in the surrounding environment. And still the Isles fought on. And as they continued to resist, the Luftwaffe only continued to waste away. By early October, it had become evident that any possible landing upon the southern coast of England was impossible, and Hitler permanently abandoned the fleeting dream that had been Operation Sea Lion. Britain would continue to resist. And the Luftwaffe would continue to conduct token raids on several cities, although by October 1940, the brunt of the Blitz had passed. Raids would continue on until the spring of 1941, when the remnants of the Luftwaffe’s strength in France was stripped away to assist in Unternehmen Barbarossa, Operation Barbarossa, the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.