The Fall of the Third Reich: From D-Day to the Rhine

7 Apr


As Allied victories in North Africa became imminent in the late spring of 1943, the attention in the Allied headquarters in London shifted rapidly toward the remainder of the Mediterranean, and conquering what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill dubbed “the soft underbelly of the beast”. The German Wehrmacht, a well-trained, well-equipped, and incredibly well-led multi-million soldier juggernaut had suffered staggering defeats in the fall and winter of 1942, as well as into the spring and summer of 1943, namely at the hands of General, later Field Marshal, Bernard Montgomery at El Alamein and at the hands of Marshal of the Soviet Union Vasily Chuikov at Stalingrad and Konstantin Rokossovsky at Kursk. The tide had gradually begun to shift enormously in favor of the Allies, not only in their stunning victories when all seemed lost, yet also in their incredibly resiliency, in their capability to bounce back from defeat even stronger than before. Not only had the Allies overwhelmed the German Afrika Korps in Libya and Tunisia, yet the Red Army had gradually begun to push the decimated Army Group South, under the leadership of ingenious Field Marshal Erich von Manstein back into the Ukraine and eastern Europe altogether. Yet the Allies had not only achieved victory in Europe. In the Pacific, American forces under General Alexander Vandegrift had decimated a Japanese army on the small Solomon island of Guadalcanal, and sent the Imperial Japanese Navy reeling with their victory at Midway in the early summer of 1942. Similarly, American and Australian forces had overwhelmed a beleaguered Japanese army fumbling its way along the treacherous Kokoda Trail along the remote stretches of the Owen Stanley Mountains, the veritable spine of New Guinea, and thrown them back from their target of Port Moresby following a daring landing at Lae and Salamaua, as well as surrounding and pummeling the survivors into submission at Gona and Buna after an epic Japanese retreat back across the Owen Stanleys. With the initiative firmly in Allied hands in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, Allied commanders began to focus on the offensive, rather than the defensive posture they had come to loath and taken for some many years.

The German Afrika Korps surrendered to the Allies on May 13th, 1943, in Tunis, the occupied capital of Tunisia. The surrender had cost the joint Italian-German army in North Africa close to 300,000 men, while the majority of the headquarters staff and high ranking officers managed to escape to the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and move on to Rome. The defeat in North Africa had come as a shock to many in not only Rome, yet also Berlin, where Hitler struggled to come to terms with the startling setback in the dank confines of the Wolfsschanze, his impregnable East Prussian headquarters in Rastenburg. With the 6th Army under Paulus annihilated at Stalingrad, the loss of the Afrika Korps under Hans-Jurgen von Arnim, and the obliteration of 9th Army under Walter Model at Kursk, the German Wehrmacht had completely lost its offensive capabilities, and had been thrown ingloriously by the Allies onto the defensive, a position it had rarely been forced to take in the past four years of the war. With the victory of North Africa, the Allies, under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshal Harold Alexander, shifted their attention to the Mediterranean islands, the veritable stepping stones to their overall target: the Italian Peninsula. The offensive would be slow and calculated, a decision made that frustrated the impatient Soviet premier, Josef Stalin, who had, on numerous occasions, pleaded with Allied commanders to open a second front to relieve pressure on the Red Army, which had suffered enormous casualties. From Operation Barbarossa to the victory at Kursk, a span of roughly two years, the Red Army had lost between fifteen and twenty million men (I counsel you to maintain that these are strictly military casualties, not civilian. If it encompassed civilian, the number would be much higher). Stalin urged the western Allies strongly to open a second front, yet the British continually advised the American military, under Chief of Staff George Marshall, that a strike directly against Hitler’s Festung Europa, Fortress Europe, i.e. France, would be impossible until 1944. Since the arrival of the United States military in the summer of 1942, the American military command had been barking at the British leash to invade France, yet had seen the strength of the defenses along the French coast with the British Operation Jubilee in August 1942 under Lord Louis Mountbatten. The disastrous landing, executed at the tiny coastal village of Dieppe, had decimated in a small force of some 6,000 Canadian and British troops (primarily Commandos) that had landed, and had proven with blood and fire that France would have to wait. There would be no repeat of the First World War, in which American troops under General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing arrived in France under an Allied fanfare. The Americans had been reluctant to assist the British in the Mediterranean, fearing the British fight in North Africa and the Italian islands was mainly aimed at expanding Britain’s colonial prestige following the war. Yet both President Roosevelt and Chief of Staff Marshall’s hands were tied. They had no choice but to accept Britain’s terms, with Churchill saying that if the United States assisted the British in Africa and the Mediterranean, the British would assist the United States in France. And so the stage was set for the American landings at Morocco and Algeria during Operation Torch in November 1942, as well as the future Allied landings at Sicily during Operation Husky in July 1943.

Operation Husky had been drafted under British direction following the victory the North Africa, and was primarily designed around a British landing to be executed at Syracuse, on the southeastern tip of Sicily, under recently-promoted Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and his 8th Army, and for an American landing by the American 3rd Army, under General George S. Patton, to be executed at Gela, a little to the west. The British would advance along the eastern coastline of Sicily in the direction of Messina, a port on the northeast coast of Sicily facing the toe of the boot of Italy, seize it, and cut off any hope of a Italo-German retreat back into Italy. The American landing at Gela was designed to protect the British left flank as they advanced, speeding up the Allied advance to Messina so as to take the city as quickly as possible. The plan suited Montgomery well, yet made Patton sick to his stomach. Both men were glory hounds, that much had been obvious in North Africa, and Patton refused to take second chair to Montgomery, a man Patton loathed not only due to some form of jealously yet also because Montgomery was British. Patton hated the British. When the Allies landed at Gela and Syracuse on July 10th, 1943, Patton quickly diverted his forces to the left and advanced along the southern coast of Sicily, then shifted his troops north and quickly seized Palermo, the capital of the island, before turning east and advancing back toward Messina, leaving Montgomery and his 8th Army at the will of the Italo-German troops on the island. Heavy fighting bogged the British hero of El Alamein down near Mount Etna, while Patton forced his reluctant generals, namely Lucian Truscott, Omar Bradley, and John Lucas, to execute amphibious landings along the northern coast of Sicily to circumvent impossible German hard points. As July turned to August, the fight had tipped into the Allies favor, and by mid-August, Patton had taken Messina just hours before Montgomery arrived. Casualties had been severe, on both sides, and on July 25th, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini was arrested under orders from Marshal Pietro Badaglio, the new head of the Fascist Grand Council in Rome. Mussolini had fled to the home of Italian King Victory Emmanuel III, with his position now more ceremonial than possessing actual importance due to the policies of Mussolini, and the Italian Prime Minister, desperate for some form of assistance, was quickly arrested by those he had thought were loyal. The Italian public opinion of not only the war yet also Mussolini had shifted toward the prospect of peace, and the belligerent Italian Prime Minister had done more harm than good, his gross ignorance of military tactics costing the Italian Army countless casualties. With Mussolini deposed and imprisoned at the Campo Imperatore Hotel, a mountain ski resort high in the summits of the Apennines, Badaglio immediately entered into negotiations with the Allies, hoping to hammer out a peace settlement, most likely in the form of a conditional surrender. Badaglio met with both Eisenhower and Alexander, among other high profile Allied commanders, and within weeks a peace settlement had been reached. The Italians maintained a tentative alliance with Nazi Germany, yet their inactivity regarding the Allied seizures of Sardinia and Corsica had caused suspicion regarding Italy’s loyalty to surge through the German military, and on September 8th, 1943, when the Italian surrender went public, the German military in Italy, under the command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, initiated Unternehmen Alaric, Operation Alaric, named for the Visigoth king who commanded the tribes that sacked Rome in the 4th Century A.D. The German military, which had begun to take on a more obtrusive presence in the Italian Peninsula as Italy’s distrust grew more obvious, set about disarming the Italian military, and throwing high-ranking Italian military officials in prison. Those who remained loyal to the Axis cause were placed within the Salo Republic, a Fascist puppet state established in the Italian Alps north of the River Po. On September 12th, on orders from Hitler, Colonel Otto Skorzeny, an officer in the SS and commander of Germany’s Werwolf, a detachment of a revolutionary sort of special forces, descended upon the Campo Imperatore in silent gliders and rescued the deposed and imprisoned Mussolini without firing a shot at the Italian partisans who controlled the hotel-cum-prison.  Three days before this stunning rescue operation, the American 5th Army under General Mark Clark, former Deputy Chief of Staff Army Ground Forces and the negotiator during the stalemated talks of Operation Flagpole at Cherchell with Vichy French General Henri Giraud, landed at Salerno as part of Operation Avalanche. The Salerno landings, just 29 miles (47 kilometers) from the metropolis of Naples, met with initial hardship, as the landings were separated from one another by the River Sangro. A German counterattack, spearheaded by formidable Panzers, had nearly thrown the landing back into the Tyrrhenian Sea, yet just as all hope seemed lost, the USS Texas, a pre-dreadnought still in the employ of the United States Navy, arrived and began shelling the German troops executing the counterattack with the assistance of American fighter-bomber aircraft equipped with unguided rockets. The American phase of the Avalanche landings had worried British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, primarily because he had predicted the German counterattack that had nearly destroyed Clark’s forces. Montgomery’s 8th Army had come ashore piecemeal at Calabria (Operation Slapstick) and Taranto (Operation Baytown) in the days leading up to the American landings at Salerno, the final chapter of Avalanche. Montgomery had told Field Marshal Harold Alexander, his superior officer and commander-in-chief of Allied forces in the Mediterranean, his reservations regarding the distance of the American landings from his own. Once fully landed and situated, the British 8th Army and American 5th Army would be over 300 miles (482 kilometers) from each other, and they would also be separated by the formidable Apennine Mountain range, which branched south from the Alps and formed the veritable spine of the Italian Peninsula. When presented with these reservations, the American commanders had merely shrugged them off and insisted on moving ahead as planned. The American commanders had appeared incredibly overconfident regarding the Allied landings in Italy, and had even drafted two airborne operations, Operation Giant I and Giant II, to drop the American 82nd Airborne Division, the only American airborne division with combat experience, directly into Rome to liberate the city and hold it until Allied forces could reach it. General Maxwell Taylor, deputy commander of the 82nd and future commander of the 101st, had met with Italian commanders in Rome to assess the situation, only to find that the sheer volume of German troops in the area, specifically German panzergrenadiers, or troops who fight alongside armor, was staggering. The 82nd would have been annihilated, and Giant II was only cancelled minutes prior to the first aircraft leaving the runway, which had to be stopped when General Matthew Ridgeway, commander of the division, sprinted out onto the runway and ordered the pilot to cut the engines. The fighting in Italy would be much harder than managed, primarily due not only to the intimidating terrain, a peninsula dominated by swamps, forests, and mountains, criss-crossed by rivers, yet also the unpredictable weather patterns, with intense rain in late autumn turning passable roads into quagmires. As if to compound Allied woes, in late 1943 and early 1944, the majority of experienced Allied commanders, men who had seen combat in Africa, Sicily, and the early days of the Italian campaign, were being pulled off the line to assist in the planning of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe, leaving behind men who had lesser experience to command men in one of the most hotly contested theaters of the war. From Salerno to Rome, the Italian Peninsula proved a tough nut to crack. The terrain overwhelmingly favored the defender, and the Allies would be forced to work overtime to combat the German troops, who had had more than enough time to dig themselves into intricate defensive networks based on the impassible rivers crossing the peninsula. The first of these lines was struck in the early winter of 1943 at the small Benedictine monastery, the same one in which Charlemagne had been crowned king of the Franks, the abbey of Monte Cassino.

Monte Cassino had been constructed over four hundred years prior to the arrival of American forces there, and since that time a small village had been constructed at the base of the mountain the monastery was located atop. The village sat on an embankment overlooking the formidable River Rapido, and would be assaulted a total of four times from January to May 1944. Simultaneously, American forces attempted strikes at San Pietro, which had garnered fame due to the article authored by American war correspondent Ernie Pyle during the battle, and Monte la Difensa, or Hill 960. British and Canadian forces assaulted Ortona, on the Adriatic coast, in conjunction with these attacks. During the heavy fighting around Monte Cassino, in which troops from over ten countries (Great Britain, Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, the United States, Canada, France, Nepal, India, and Poland) fought, bled, and died together to unhinge the German Winter, or Gustav, Line, whose veritable center of defense was located at Monte Cassino. Allied planners, urged on by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, drafted a plan christened Operation Shingle, devising landing at Anzio spearheaded by American troops. The landing would circumvent the impregnable defenses at Monte Cassino and strike due north toward Rome. If successful, the landing at Anzio could not strike toward Rome, yet also force the defenders at Monte Cassino to abandon their defensive position and retreat in fear of becoming surrounded by the Allied onslaught. Even on paper the operation seemed risky at best, and in another show of history’s many brutal ironies it had been drafted under the meticulous eye of Churchill, whose only real military endeavors had resulted in his capture during the Boer War (1899-1902) and the indecisive 1916 Battle of Jutland, where the German High Seas Fleet had slipped through the Royal Navy’s fingers. The task of executing Shingle fell to General John P. Lucas, and on January 22nd, 1944, after the second strike at Monte Cassino, the landings were underway, covered by the 99th Pursuit Squadron under Colonel Benjamin Davis, Jr. The 99th Pursuit Squadron were the first black pilots to fly in combat in American history, and ushered in the legendary “Tuskegee Airmen”, or “Red Tails”, a group of black American pilots who bore the name of the Tuskegee Institute, a vocational school founded by former slave Booker T. Washington in Louisiana and were known for the red stripe painted on the tail of their aircraft. Lucas’s landings met uncontested, and established a foothold inside the coastal town, assisted by the First Special Service Force, a joint American-Canadian special forces group that had fought the Japanese in the Aleutian islands of Kiska and Attu in 1943 and had earned the nickname “the Devil’s Brigade” for their exploits. Although Lucas had successfully waded ashore without the slightest inclining of German forces in the area, he chose to consolidate his position rather than move on into the countryside to seize Rome. If he had done so, he would have most likely had a clear shot at taking the Italian capital, now declared an open city, yet he chose to consolidate in fear of a potential German counterattack. And that counterattack did come, not due to initial German knowledge of the landing, but due instead to Lucas’s inactivity, a virtual invitation for German troops to bottleneck and surround his landing. Lucas was quickly dismissed by Clark and replaced by Truscott, with Lucas viewing his replacement as if he had been a scapegoat for the landings. Lucas had feared a replacement was inevitable, and saw the landings at Anzio as the final straw. Truscott’s arrival did little to alter the situation, with an attempted American breakout halted with high casualties at Cisterna and the German military bringing in two massive Krupp K5 283mm (11-inch) railway siege guns to bombard the Allies at Anzio. The guns garnered the nickname Anzio Annie and Anzio Express, and following the Allied breakout from Monte Cassino and lift of the siege of Anzio, the duo of destruction were sabotaged as the Germans retreated yet were salvaged and shipped back to the United States, where they can still be seen today at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds outside of Baltimore, Maryland.

The battle of Monte Cassino had continued to rage on as the landings at Anzio were bottled up on the beaches and shelled relentlessly by the Germans. The Americans had begun to suspect German artillery spotters were utilizing the monastery atop the summit to spot targets and cause destruction and chaos among Allied positions, and in a rather high-profile incident, American bombers of the 15th Air Force struck the abbey and razed it to the ground, destroying the 400-year-old historical site. It has since been rebuilt, yet the incident garnered much public attention and chastising and outrage from the historical community. It was later learned that the abbey was actually vacant during the fighting. By May 1944, the German positions along the Winter Line were becoming increasingly untenable, with San Pietro, Ortona and Monte la Difensa firmly in Allied hands. Monte Cassino fell shortly thereafter, with Polish troops seizing the village on May 18th. In subsequent days, the siege at Anzio was lifted by Clark’s troops, with Truscott’s battered men celebrating wildly after nearly four months of incessant shelling and counterattacks. The rapid Allied breakout from Monte Cassino had given Clark the opportunity to encircle and destroy the entire German 10th Army which had failed to move out of the destruction path of the Allied juggernaut steamrolling out from Monte Cassino, and was strongly urged to do so by Truscott, yet in a more Patton or Montgomery-esque move, chose instead to push on to Rome, allowing the 10th Army to escape annihilation and retreat north of the River Tiber and fortify the Gothic Line, the last German defensive network before the Alps and the Austrian border. On June 5th, 1944, Clark’s men of the 5th Army entered Rome, which had been declared an open city to save its myriad historical sites from destruction, to a massive civilian fanfare. Although the liberation of Rome was a stunning Allied success, earning Clark much praise from Pope Pius XII, it actually bordered on insubordination considering the plans did not state that Clark was scheduled to take Rome that day. Regardless of these events, Clark could only enjoy one day of celebration. The following day, between 150 and 175,000 British, Canadian, and American troops waded ashore on the Normandy peninsula. When Clark heard of this event and saw the newspapers with the epic stories of Operation Overlord plastered across the front page, he exclaimed that even when he took Rome, the first Axis capital to fall, he still could not get the front page.

In the early morning hours of June 6th, 1944, while General Clark and his 5th Army was celebrating their victory in Rome, the first British and American paratroopers descended from the skies over Normandy. They were known as pathfinders, and carried with them Rebecca and Eureka portable radar systems, a primitive form of radar capable of guiding the majority of Allied aircraft ferrying paratroopers from southern England to northern France, to their designated drop zones. The pathfinders were the first of over 13,600 British and American paratroopers that would land in the sleepy fields and pastures of Normandy, criss-crossed by hedgerows and dotted with farm houses occupied by German troops who were completely unaware as to the gravity of what was coming. It was code-named Operation Neptune, and along with amphibious landings at five predesignated beaches along the Normandy coast, constituted the assault phase of the greater operation, the largest amphibious invasion in history, Operation Overlord, or, better known by its alternative, more popular moniker, D-Day. Operation Overlord had been nearly two years in the making, with the first American officers in Britain advocating a landing in France as early as the summer of 1942. Upon British advice not to undertake such a high profile landing so early in the war, and following the disastrous results of the landing at Dieppe, the Americans shelved the plans they had authored for the landing in France, code-named Operations Roundup and Sledgehammer. Throughout 1943, attention was focused primarily on North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, yet as 1943 gave way to 1944, the Allies began to shift their attention more toward France and the landings in that region. The Allies searched the coast of northern France was a fine-toothed comb, searching for the most suitable landing area, and finally settled on Normandy, a region on the northern coast of the Contentin Peninsula. Normandy was sandwiched between the Pas-de-Calais to the north, a peninsula separated from Dover in England by a just twenty-mile wide corridor of the English Channel, the thinnest point between the two nations, and  Brittany to the south. The Allied planners, primarily through usage of Britain’s ULTRA intelligence, the same that had assisted Alan Turing in breaking the German Enigma code in 1942 at Bletchley Park, and the Double Cross System in which American and British intelligence groups, such as MI5 and MI6, garnered the employ of German spies to pass confidential information through German intelligence circles and dispatch it to the Allies, to coordinate the landing and to find the weakest links of the vaunted Atlantic Wall, a series of steel-reinforced concrete bunkers and pillboxes stretching from the Norwegian fjords south to the northeast coast of Spain. The Atlantic Wall was a formidable and intimidating obstacle to the Allies, yet to its constructor, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, it was more for show than practicality. Rommel insisted that an Allied landing would have to be defeated at the beaches, and when his designated superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, arrived from the Eastern Front in spring 1944, he agreed. Yet the Allies feared the Wall, as well as what lay beyond, and utilized the Double Cross System not only to look in on German intelligence traffic, yet also to pass false information on to the Germans, such as insisting that an Allied landing would come not in Normandy, but at the Pas-de-Calais. The Germans had long believed this to be the most suitable area for a landing, due to its close proximity to England, and when Allied communiques insisted on this being the location, and when the Allies launched Operation Fortitude, in which they constructed dummy tanks and aircraft, a veritable ghost army, in northern England supposedly under the command of General Patton (who had been temporarily removed after he slapped two shell-shocked soldiers in Sicily) to dupe German reconnaissance aircraft, the Germans bought the story, and Hitler ordered a shift in troop strength to concentrate heavily in the Pas-de-Calais. Fortitude had been modeled indirectly off of spring 1943’s Operation Mincemeat, in which a British vagabond, who had committed suicide with rat poison, was dressed as a Royal Navy officer, strapped with false papers stating an Allied landing would come in Sardinia or Greece, and was dropped into the Mediterranean off the southern coast of Spain. Spanish authorities seized the body, and considering their tentative alliance (not technically an alliance militarily yet the German Condor Legion had assisted Franco in seizing power during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War), passed the body and intelligence on to Germany, prompting the High Command to fortify Greece and Sardinia, and also forcing them to be caught off guard when Allied troops landed on Sicily instead. Allied intelligence reports were flowing into the office of the German Abwehr, the German intelligence and counterintelligence agency, stating projected landings in either the Pas-de-Calais or Norway. The Germans were forced to spread their troops thin along a massive frontier to combat the landing, and were necessarily surprised when it instead fell in Normandy, far to the south of what the Allies had been saying. For the first two weeks of the D-Day landings and the ensuing combat in the hedgerow country around the landing beaches, Hitler actually refused to believe that the Normandy landings were the real Allied landings, and thought them rather to be a diversion from the real landings at the Pas-de-Calais, and continued to hold onto this believe up until several of his generals, lead by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a disfigured veteran of the Tunisian campaign, attempted an assassination with British-made plastic explosives at Rastenburg on July 20th, 1944. The planning for D-Day had forced the Supreme Allied Headquarters in London to withdraw several of its most experienced generals from Italy, including Bernard Montgomery among others, costing the Italian campaign many of its best, and in all the operation had to be postponed four times to poor weather over the English Channel which could hinder the airborne drops, considering the airborne needed a full moon to land. The continued postponements cost the Allies considerable time, and gave time to allow the Germans in France to catch on if they could. Yet in the twilight hours of June 5th, 1944, the last British and American aircraft departed from airfields in southern England, some towing gliders, bound for the northern shores of France.

There were five beaches in all: Gold and Sword (British), Juno (Canadian), and Omaha and Utah (American). Behind these beaches, some 13,600 British and American paratroopers were slated to land at designated drop zones during Operations Tonga and Deadstick (British) to seize Pegasus Bridge among others over the River Orne and Caen Canal and the Merville gun battery, and Missions Albany, Chicago, and Boston (American), where the 101st Airborne (Mission Albany) would seize four causeways through flooded fields leading back into the Norman countryside, neutralize two gun batteries at Brecourt Manner and Saint-Martin-de-Varreville, eliminate German barracks as Mesieres, take Saint-Come-du-Mont and Saint-Mere-Eglise, and seize strategic bridges over the River Douve. The 82nd Airborne (Mission Boston) would seize several bridges over the River Merderet and Saint-Marie-du-Mont. The Mission Chicago landings consisted of glider landings within the 101st, executed by 321st Glider Infantry Regiment. The Chicago landings would result in the death of the 101st’s deputy commander, General Don Pratt, who was killed due to a broken neck from whiplash when his glider struck a tree. The airborne landings had been the largest ever attempted, although not the first. The Allies had drawn on past experience, considering the only parachute landings they had attempted in the past were during the night, which was when Overlord was scheduled to occur, such as Operation Torch, when the American 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment was dropped behind Oran, Algeria, to assist in seizing the airfield, and Operation Husky, when the American 82nd Airborne Division and British 1st Parachute Brigade dropped behind enemy lines near Gela and Syracuse to cause chaos among the German defenders. The larger scale of Operation Husky actually caused chaos among the Allied paratroopers, who were horrifically miss-dropped, yet they were able to consolidate and complete their objectives in patchwork units, much like the paratroopers dropping into Normandy were forced to do. The sheer volume of antiaircraft fire combined with the volume of inexperienced pilots caused the vast majority of the paratroopers to be blown horrifically off course, with paratroopers dropping in the wrong drop zones within the sectors of their divisions, and in some severe cases, men from different divisions dropping into another division’s drop zone. By the time the infantry began to come ashore, the paratroopers had already set to work. The Merville and Saint-Martin-de-Varreville gun batteries had already been neutralized, and while American troops of the 4th Infantry Division came ashore at Utah Beach, the men of the 101st’s Easy Company under First Lieutenant Richard Winters set about neutralizing the Brecourt Manner gun battery. Pegasus Bridge had been secured by glider-borne infantry of the British 6th Airborne Division, and was holding out against a German counterattack. Saint-Marie-du-Mont, Saint-Mere-Eglise, and Saint-Come-du-Mont had been secured, as well as the four causeways, and the 101st, under the command of Maxwell Taylor, was shifting its gaze toward its overall goal, the crossroads town of Carentan, which, once taken, would like Omaha and Utah Beaches into one continuous beachhead. Between 0600 and 0700 on the morning of June 6th, 1944, over 150,000 British, Canadian, and American infantrymen came ashore at their designated beaches, running into varying degrees of resistance. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the beaches were taken with very little resistance, while Omaha Beach is the image most have in their head regarding the landings. The Omaha landings, undertaken by men of the 28th and 1st Infantry Divisions, augmented by detachments of the 2nd 5th Ranger Battalions (the bulk of those battalions were coming ashore and scaling the chalk cliffs between Utah and Omaha at Pointe-du-Hoc to neutralize 155mm Hotchkiss guns believed to be there, although the Germans had moved the guns back into the hedgerows. Once found, their sights and elevation/traverse controls were sabotaged with thermite grenades), ran into a massive amount of resistance from the German troops defending that stretch of the Atlantic Wall. The majority of the attention of the paratrooper divisions had been focused on neutralizing the defenses behind Utah Beach, while Omaha was somewhat neglected by Allied planners, save for a bombing raid early in the morning of the 6th that pounded the Wall with little to no noticeable effect. During the intense fighting, the men were forced to seize any available cover, including behind tank obstacles that had been laid out on the shore. General Omar Bradley, watching the landings from the deck of a destroyer patrolling along the coast, asked Eisenhower time and again to pull the men off the beach, yet Eisenhower refused and ordered him to continue the assault. By 1600 hours, 4:00 in the evening, high tide had come in, forcing the beleaguered men to seek refuge at the base of the very same bunkers that were pouring devastating fire down upon them. To the north and south, the situation was going much better for the Allied landings. At Utah Beach, to the south of Omaha, the men of the 4th Infantry Division came ashore under very little fire considering the 101st had neutralized the majority of German troop and artillery strength behind enemy lines, while to the north, the British and Canadians encountered thin and sporadic German resistance, with the only snags coming from reefs off Juno Beach causing a delay in which the Canadian tanks actually landed thirty minutes before the infantry did. Around 1600 Hours on June 6th, while British and Canadian troops set about pouring into the hedgerows and neutralizing German resistance near their designated targets, such as airfields, and attempting to work their way to Caen, a German counterattack was launched spearheaded by Panzers but stopped short from Allied air superiority. Montgomery had planned to seize Caen on June 6th, yet ran into considerable resistance. The fighting for Caen would last throughout July and August, with the massive Medieval city not being taken until August 6th, two months after the landings and the projected day the city would be taken. The American and Canadian landings succeeded in achieving their D-Day objectives, and by June 14th, Utah and Omaha Beaches had been linked following the climactic closure of the battle of Carentan at what became known as “Bloody Gulch”. As June turned to July, the fighting swayed back and forth from the hands of the Allies to the hands of the Germans, although the Allies did possess a leg up in not only troop strength yet also air superiority, being capable of assaulting German positions behind enemy lines from the air. D-Day had been launched in conjunction with two massive Soviet offensives in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, Operation Bagration and the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive, which completely annihilated Army Group Center and what remained of Army Group South, as well as allowing the Red Army to enter Poland and the Baltic States, and allowed for a push on to launch assaults into Romania, the Jassy-Kishinev Offensives, spurned on by a coup d’etat launched by Romania’s deposed king, Michael, coupled with an offensive into Yugoslavia that ended with the epic entry of the Red Army into Belgrade alongside Tito’s Partisans in October 1944.

As June changed to July, the Allies gradually fought their way deeper into Normandy’s formidable hedgerow country, battering their way past deeply entrenched German resistance. The British fought on for Caen, launching Operations Perch, Epsom, Windsor, Charnwood, and Jupiter, all meeting with some degree of failure before the coup de main, Operation Goodwood, was launched in late July alongside the United States’ Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy, after the arrival of the British 7th Armored, the infamous Desert Rats. As the fighting dragged on, the United States gradually advanced on Saint-Lo, their overall target and the launch pad for Cobra. The seizure of Cherbourg had been a great victory for the United States, yet it had only accomplished the task of seizing a large city with nothing really to show for it. The German troops defending the city had destroyed the serviceable port, and the Allies were forced to bring supplies to the frontline troops via two Mulberry artificial harbors, which would later be destroyed in a colossal storm in the Channel. By late July, the tide dipped into the Allies’ favor when American troops under General Omar Bradley broke out from Saint-Lo in Operation Cobra. Following an incident of friendly fire in which American bombers dispensed their bombs mistakenly on American troops at the start of the operation, killing General Lesley McNair, the highest ranking officer in the US Army to be killed in combat in the Second World War. Cobra succeeded in the breakout, simultaneous with the British liberation of Caen, and within days the German Army Group B, under Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, was nearly surrounded around the towns of Falaise and Chambois. The fighting there, in what became known as the Falaise Pocket or Falaise Gap, lasted a mere nine days, from August 12th-21st, 1944, but resulted in the deaths of over 60,000 German troops, 60 percent of Army Group B’s troop strength. Among the dead was von Kluge, who had committed suicide out of humiliation of the events of the battle. On numerous occasions, troops from both Poland and Canada attempted to seal the gap to prevent the German troops from escaping, such as at Hill 262, as well as Operations Totalize and Tractable, yet German troops were able to slip through the gap and cross the River Seine to the other side of France and escape destruction. Although extremely short, the Battle of the Falaise Pocket was one of the fiercest and deadliest duels in the Atlantic theater, only outmatched in casualties by the Battle of the Bulge. Following the destruction of Army Group B at Falaise, the Allies surged rapidly out of Normandy and poured with unstoppable might across France, with General Patton’s 3rd Army and General Courtney Hodge’s 1st Army reaching the German frontier in late September 1944, around the same time Romania surrendered to the Allies and immediately switched sides and declared war on Nazi Germany, cutting off Germany’s oil supply. The British 2nd Army under General Miles Dempsey and the American 9th Army under General William Simpson poured into northern France and Belgium, while Patton seized Paris from General Dietrich von Choltitz on August 25th, 1944, after crossing the Seine. Choltitz had been given orders by Hitler to destroy the City of Light by burning it to the ground, yet had refused to do so, with General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque being the first significant Allied officer entering the city, and, by fortune, being Free French. Patton had issued an order not to enter the city yet, but Hauteclocque had disregarded the order and entered anyway, although no punishment came about from it. Soon after, General Charles de Gaulle, the French leader in exile who had led the Free French movement and inspired the French Resistance to combat the German occupiers and French collaborators, entered triumphantly the capital alongside Patton. By September, General George Patton’s 3rd, General Leonard Gerow’s 15th, and General Courtney Hodges’s 1st Army, under the umbrella of General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group had reached the German frontier, and were nearly straddling the River Rhine, while General Miles Dempsey’s 2nd, General William Simpson’s 9th, and Canadian General Harry Crerar’s 1st Army under the umbrella of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group sat along the Dutch frontier in northern Belgium. Crerar had, on numerous occasions, told his superiors about the lack of Canadian troops committed to the fight, and after numerous pokes and prods at the Allied headquarters staff, Crerar was given command to clear the Channel coast, considering the deep water ports of Dunkirk and Le Havre remained in German hands, and would until the end of the war. Crerar’s Canadians would also seize Antwerp in September 1944, yet the port was controlled by the River Scheldt, which entered Belgium, and terminated at Antwerp, through the Netherlands. The port was useless without the Scheldt, and the Canadians, assisted by Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army, spent the majority of October and November 1944 clearing the Scheldt Estuary, with Antwerp being the first deep water serviceable port in Allied hands. On August 15th, 1944, the 6th Army Group under General Jacob Devers, consisting of General Alexander Patch’s 7th Army and the French 1st Army under Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, landed at Saint-Raphael, Saint-Tropez, Sainte-Maxime, and Cavalaire-sur-Mer during Operation Anvil-Dragoon, defeating quickly Army Group G under General Johannes Blaskowitz, which consisted solely of the German 19th Army, and advancing to the Vosges Mountains near the French-Swiss-German border, just to the south of Patton’s 3rd and Hodges’s 1st Army. By October 1944, the bulk of American forces rested against the German frontier, while some had gone inside Germany, including the 1st Infantry Division, which had become bogged down in fighting in the Huertgen Forest around the city of Aachen, the capital of Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom and the site where the treaty ending the War of Austrian Succession had been signed in 1748. Throughout September and October, fighting raged inside the forest around Aachen, with the city falling to American troops on October 21st, after nineteen days of bitter urban warfare. The fighting inside the forest would continue, however, well into February 1945, with much of the fighting happening alongside the battle of the Bulge to the north in the Ardennes. Aachen was the first German city to fall, and by war’s end, it would certainly not be the last.

With the rapid Allied advance’s of late summer and early autumn 1944, the Allied supply lines throughout the country became stretched desperately thin. The days leading up to D-Day had seen an exponential growth in the volume of Allied bombing raids behind enemy lines in Normandy, with Allied strategic bombers severing rail lines and roads. The bombings had succeeded in wiping out any chance of a quick resupply or reinforcement by the Germans defending the area, yet had also injured the Allies when the breakout of late July occurred. The severed rail lines meant that supplies would have to be trucked to the front. Due to the lack of a deep water port, supplies would also have to be landed at the beaches, and trucked from their to the frontline. The Americans quickly devised a system operated solely by black infantry known as the “Red Ball Express”, an organized convoy of trucks designed to ferry supplies from the D-Day beaches to the frontlines. As August turned to September, and the Allies turned their attention toward Germany and the Netherlands, Eisenhower and the staff of the SHAEF, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, were faced with a daunting decision. Eisenhower wished to pursue a strategy known as “broad front”, in which the Allies liberate the entire western bank of the River Rhine before mounting a push into all of Germany. German territory would be taken of course, considering the Rhine does not form the entire western German border with France and the Low Countries, but the Allied armies would push to the Rhine and halt, awaiting a consolidated front along the entire river before pushing into Germany as a united front. Patton dispatched overtures continuously to London demanding that Eisenhower give him priority supply to launch a strike into Germany near Mannheim and Koblenz after taking Aachen. Meanwhile, Montgomery continuously sent overtures to Eisenhower demanding he give the British field marshal priority supply to launch a massive airborne strike into the Netherlands. On September 10th, Eisenhower and Montgomery met with each other in London, and after Montgomery informed Eisenhower of the scheme, Eisenhower agreed. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force was faced with an incredibly tough decision: he had to give priority supply to one general to launch an attack, considering there were not enough supplies reaching the frontline fast enough to launch a broad attack. The logistics issues would be a thorn in the Allied side until early 1945. Montgomery’s plan was originally code-named Operation Comet, and called for a limited airborne strike to be executed by the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, a Polish unit under General Stanislaw Sosabowski, and the 1st Parachute Brigade under Colonel John Frost to seize the 2,000-foot road bridges in Nijmegen and Arnhem to allow British armor of XXX Corps under General Brian Horrocks, spearheaded by the Guards Armored Division, to push across the bridges and into the North German Plain, and strike hard and fast toward Berlin. The plan seemed far too audacious, and so after some emendation, Montgomery presented the amended version, dubbed Operation Market Garden, to Eisenhower. The new plan called for some 40,000 British, American, and Polish paratroopers to be dropped along a sixty mile span of Highway 69 in the southeastern Netherlands, a thoroughfare just twenty miles west of the German border. Montgomery had altered the plan significantly, including three more airborne infantry divisions and six more bridges, as well as the addition of two more corps of armor to protect XXX Corps’s flanks. The new plan consisted of two phases: Operation Market, the airborne phase, and Operation Garden, the ground phase. Operation Market would tip off on Sunday, September 17th, 1944, with three airborne divisions and two airborne brigades landing along a sixty-mile stretch of highway to seize eight key bridges to allow British armor to advance north from Belgium, cross the bridges, relieving the paratroopers as they go, and swing east, cross the German frontier into the Reichswald, outflank the defenses of the vaunted Siegfried Line protecting Germany’s western border, and drive rapidly across the North German Plain to Berlin, and, if successful, end the war by Christmas 1944 while simultaneously trapping the German 15th Army against the IJsselmeer. The Dutch phase of the operation was slated to take roughly two to three days, with the British reaching Eindhoven, the furthest south, just six miles from the Belgian border, within two to three hours, and reaching Arnhem, sixty two miles behind enemy lines and the nearest to the German border, within two to three days. The American 101st Airborne Division, under General Maxwell Taylor, would seize the bridges at Eindhoven, over the Dommel Canal, Sint-Oedenrode, and Veghel, as well as the two at Son over the Wilhelmina Canal. The 82nd Airborne Division under General James Gavin (having replaced Ridgeway after he was selected as the Deputy Commander of the First Allied Airborne Army under British Field Marshal Frederick Browning) would land near Nijmegen and Grave, seizing the 2,000-foot road bridge in Nijmegen over the Waal Canal. The British 1st Airborne (including the 1st Parachute Brigade under Frost) under General Roy Urquhart and the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade under General Stanislaw Sosabowski would land around Oosterbeek and Arnhem, seizing the 2,000-foot road bridge over the north Rhine, allowing British armor to cross into Germany. The airborne landings were also scheduled to occur around 1300 Hours, 1:00 in the afternoon, in broad daylight. That caused fear among the paratroopers who would execute the landing, due to the chance of their being more accurate flak fire, yet an later hour was chosen to allow for the pilots to navigate and land their troops in time, due to the operation’s strict timetable. On September 17th, the paratroopers came down in the Netherlands. The aircraft met with initial thick flak fire as they crossed the border, yet it was incredibly inaccurate and hampered little the navigation of the aircraft. The landings met with initial success and surprise, but were soon bogged down and the timetable was immediately broken. The British XXX Corps under Horrocks had crossed the border, with its flanks covered by General Neil Ritchie’s XII Corps on his left flank facing the 15th Army and General Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps on his right flank facing the Siegfried Line and Germany, but ran into stiff German resistance which Allied intelligence had said was not supposed to be there. The Germans assaulted rapidly from cover, destroying the lead tank in each column so as to slow the advance, and assaulting from forested positions to make it harder on British infantry to detect the source of the fire and stop it. The British advance was slowed by a day due to this sudden turn of events, and to the north, the American advance had Son, twenty miles north of Eindhoven, had stalled when the Germans had sabotaged the bridges over the Canal. The Americans now needed Bailey bridging equipment to construct a new bridge over the canal to allow the British armor to pass, and in Arnhem, the British had landed equipped with wireless radios that had been given the wrong batteries and could not function properly. With the British at Arnhem completely out of communication with London, two bridges destroyed, and the British advance slowed, the Operation was already off to a horrendous start. By September 18th, XXX Corps had arrived with the necessary bridging equipment to cross the Wilhelmina Canal, and within nine hours on the night of the 18th had constructed a proper bridge to cross the canal, yet the British soon came under fire from relentless German counterattacks from the surrounding forests, further slowing the advance. To the north, the 82nd under Gavin had landed unopposed, yet Gavin had chosen to consolidate his position rather than immediately push for and take the bridge in Nijmegen. Had they done so, they would have faced about twelve German troops, yet in their consolidation, they instead faced about a battalion when they chose to finally attack. To the north, only Frost and his men had actually made it inside Arnhem from their positions in Oosterbeek, while the remainder of the division stayed inside Oosterbeek under relentless counterattack. After several days of heavy combat, including being assaulted by German armor with nothing to combat it save for PIAT grenade launchers, the men under Frost were finally forced to surrender on September 20th after three days of heavy fighting. The bridge in Arnhem has since been renamed in Frost’s honor, now known as John Frost Bridge. The British had been forced into a pocket around Oosterbeek with their backs to the Rhine. The following day, Polish paratroopers landed at the original British drop zones outside Oosterbeek, which had since been overrun by the German military. The Polish troops were ripped apart in mid-air by German small arms and machine gun fire, and many were killed in the subsequent attempt to cross the Rhine to safety. The British advance was finally forced to halt at Nijmegen, even after a daring cross-river assault by Major Julian Cook had succeeded in taking the bridge from both ends at once. Finally, the Allies dug in and braved incessant German counterattacks for the next two weeks, with the Americans of the 101st finally learning of the failure of Market Garden following a battle at Koevering on September 25th. Montgomery had trumpeted the operation as a “90 percent success”, although the British 1st Airborne had nearly been annihilated, losing 8,000 men in the fighting, with similarly high casualties in the other airborne divisions. Eisenhower had taken a gamble in granting Montgomery his operation, yet faulty intelligence regarding the conditions of the German military in the Netherlands had led to an Allied defeat at the hands of a much stronger force than what was imagined. XXX Corps had never even reached Arnhem, with German strength around the city being far too high for XXX Corps to risk breaking in. The remnants of the 1st Airborne would not be rescued until Operation Berlin was launched by the 101st Airborne in November 1944 to rescue to beleaguered men.

With Allied boots on the ground in the Netherlands and working fervently to secure the country throughout October and into November, the front seemed to stabilize, with fires raging mainly in the Huertgen Forest, the Netherlands, and the Channel coast and Scheldt Estuary. Patton and Hodges’s desired strike into western Germany against Mannheim, Bonn, Cologne, Koblenz, and Mainz had been put on ice to compensate for Montgomery’s ill-fated drive into the Netherlands, and as the first snow fell in late November, the front seemed stable. The Allies still held fast to the ill-informed notion that the German military was on the brink of collapse, yet it was far from it actually. The German Wehrmacht faced the Allies with some twenty divisions on the Rhine, while they faced the ever-encroaching Red Army on the River Oder with some 238 infantry and armored divisions. Throughout the autumn of 1944, the Red Army had advanced into Yugoslavia, liberated Belgrade with the assistance of Tito’s partisans and combated the collaborationist Croatian Ustase, as well as liberated Romania and pushed into Hungary, fighting bitterly throughout October and November for control of Budapest against Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army. With the arrival of the Red Army in eastern Poland, and with the noise of Russian guns thundering over the horizon, the Polish Home Army, an extremely militant underground terrorist group operating against the occupying German military in Warsaw, under General Count Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski attempted an uprising to overthrow the German troops occupying the city. It was the first real uprising since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, and was put down just as hard. The German troops in the city were replaced by troops under the command of Heinrich Himmler,  Reichsmarschall  of the SS. The Poles had been inspired to rise up with the prospect of the arrival of the Red Army to assist in the fighting, yet the Red Army halted just before the River Vistula, and watched as the Uprising was destroyed. With this success, the fighting in Poland would not resume until January 1945, when  the Red Army would liberate Poland, and the first of the concentration camps, Auschwitz, was liberated on January 27th, 1945. By early spring, the Red Army had reached the River Oder, the border between Poland and Germany. To the south, the Russians had thrown back an attempted German counterattack in Hungary, and were pushing into Austria and Czechoslovakia. To the west, the situation was far less complex, yet the Allied situation took a significant setback in the winter of 1944-45.

On July 20th, 1944, a British-made plastic explosive in the briefcase of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg went off in the meeting hut at Hitler’s Wolfsschanze, the Wolf’s Lair, in Rastenburg, East Prussia. The bomb had killed Colonel Heinz Brandt after he had moved the suitcase to deflect the blast away from Hitler with his foot, and Hitler had escaped with cuts and bruises. Stauffenberg’s attempt, known as Unternehmen Walkerie, Operation Valkyrie, had been believed a success at first, yet soon Stauffenberg and his men were captured and executed for treason. The attack on Hitler’s life had sent him spiraling into a rage in which he could no longer trust those around him, even his highest ranking and supposedly most loyal officers, a paranoia that would gradually drive him insane as the war progressed in the Allies’ favor. Hitler purged his High Command of those he viewed as distrustful, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had been implemented in the plot. Rommel was given the option to take cyanide and have a state funeral as a war hero, saying he died of natural causes. His family would be left alone if he did so. Rommel took the cyanide in October of 1944. While in hospital recuperating, Hitler drafted an operation dubbed Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein, Operation Watch on the Rhine. The operation called for a counteroffensive to be launched against American forces in the Ardennes Forest in southeastern Belgium, who were known to be spread thin due to American complacency and overconfidence regarding the state of the German military. The plan called for thirteen divisions to launch an assault into the Ardennes, under the command of Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt, Walter Model, Hasso von Manteuffel, Sepp Dietrich, and Erich Brandenburger, to push toward the crossroads town of Bastogne, seize it, as well as seize the Losheim Gap and Elsenborn Ridge and take Liege. Once these objectives were accomplished, Hitler would order his troops to push forward toward Antwerp, seize the port city, and then shift south and push for the River Meuse in northern France, then allow the Allies to sue for peace before throwing them into the sea. The plan was set to launch on the night of December 16th-17th, and be spearheaded by German Panzers, primarily the new addition of the King Tiger tank, which had not seen combat up to that point. The German troops were forced to cross the River Our, and for weeks American and German troops had marauded across the river, primarily to take prisoners and gain information regarding the state of the other’s military, yet in the end each side only received information such as what was Hitler’s favorite color (he is actually believed to be color blind), leading the Americans to believe a German assault would not come, especially not during the winter of 1944-45, which was comparatively brutal. The German assault began as scheduled, crossing the River Our and advancing rapidly in the first days of the strike. The Germans in the north under Dietrich struck hard and fast toward the Losheim Gap and Elsenborn Ridge, which controlled the Gap, yet the German troops were turned back time and again. The Gap was the only way to advance on to Liege, the overall target, yet the American troops, who would soon be augmented by men of the 1st Infantry from the Huertgen Forest, continued to resist, such as the men of the 101st Airborne Division, who had been trucked south to Bastogne to fortify the position after the 29th Infantry Division broke under the pressure of the German assault. The 101st resisted the German strike, and held fast. Hasso von Manteuffel, commanding the German troops around Bastogne, decided instead to push on toward Antwerp, yet failed to push far beyond Bastogne due to the tremendous thorn in his side. By late December, it was obvious the German assault, which had come to garner the nickname “the Battle of the Bulge” due to the bulge Hitler’s salient made in Allied lines, was losing steam. The Americans had initially been caught off guard, but had consolidated and were now fighting hard back at the German advance. In early January, with the element of surprise lost and supplies, primarily fuel, running low, the Germans were again hampered by another issue. General George Patton and his 3rd Army were moving north from France to counterattack the German troops in Belgium, and to the north, General Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army was moving south to do the very same.  By late January, it had become obvious that the assault had failed, the remaining German units fell back behind the defenses of the Siegfried Line, being forced to leave behind much of their armor due to lack of fuel. Hitler was enraged, and the incessant German failures since Kursk, Stalingrad, and El Alamein had gradually been driving the already emotionally unstable German chancellor into a state of paranoid rage. He had begun to hide his left arm due to its constant trembling, and was taking quack medication, including eye drops containing traces of cocaine, from his personal physician, Theodor Morell. Hitler ordered another offensive, Unternehmen Nordwind, Operation North Wind, to be launched against the American position in Alsace-Lorraine in January 1945 under the personal command of Reichsmarschall Heinrich Himmler, yet North Wind and its sister operation, Unternehmen Bodenplatte, Operation Roundplate, designed to eliminate Allied air superiority in western Europe, had both met with very limited success, with the German advance halting near Haguenau, whose defense had been bolstered by the men of the 101st Airborne. Sergeant Audie Murphy, the legendary Medal of Honor recipient, garnered his commendation during the fighting in Alsace-Lorraine. With North Wind thrown back into Germany with high casualties, the Allies set about during February and early March 1945 clearing western Germany up to the Rhine with Operations Veritable, Grenade, Queen, Blackcock, and Lumberjack, the latter seizing the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, the only bridge left intact over the River Rhine by the retreating German troops.

The operations of early spring 1945 had succeeded in clearing the western bank of the Rhine and had established a consolidated British and Canadian position in the Reichswald, while American forces, now bolstered by William Simpson’s 9th Army, which had been handed back to American jurisdiction in early 1945, reached Mainz, Koblenz, Bonn, Cologne, and Mannheim. The tenacity of the American troops had gained their respect by the British, and admiration and pride by General Eisenhower, and soon both Patton and Montgomery were barking at the leash to strike into Germany. Both men wanted the glory of being the first Allied commander to cross the Rhine, and Montgomery had drawn up plans for Operations Plunder and Varsity, joint amphibious and airborne landings around the German cities of Rees and Wesel, scheduled for March 23rd, 1945. Montgomery believed himself the first to cross, yet Patton had actually done so the night before after completing a bridge across the Rhine at Oppenheim and successfully getting the entire 5th Infantry Division across before daylight. In the early morning hours of March 23rd, the first of Dempsey’s 2nd Army crossed the Rhine, assisted by British Commandos and SAS special forces troops, and by late morning, the American 17th and British 6th Airborne Divisions had begun landing near Rees and Wesel, securing the roads and strategic positions, and braved several counterattacks as they awaited the arrival of the Allied armies. General Omar Bradley bragged that the United States military could cross the Rhine without the need of the airborne, which had proven true yet only because the resistance in the area of the American crossing at Oppenheim at the time was next to nothing. With British troops crossing to the north, the Americans soon encountered stiffer resistance around the bridgehead at Oppenheim, and began to attempt to cross the bridge at Remagen, the only way to get their armor across the Rhine. The Germans had attempted to blow the bridge, yet it had not collapsed due to some malfunction with the explosives, and American armor began to pour across the bridge. German Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter aircraft attempted on several occasions to sink the bridge into the river, yet all attempts had failed. The bridge did eventually collapse under its own weight and compromised structural integrity after the bulk of American armor had crossed. By April, the German troops around the British landing site at fallen back either to Bremen or Hamburg or into the comparative safety of the vast Teutoburg Forest, where, in 9 A.D., Publius Quintilius Varus had been defeated by a coalition of Germanic tribes under Arminius, a distrustful Germanic guide who had led the Roman legionaries into an ambush. The Germans, primarily the 15th Army, had been pushed into the Ruhr Pocket around Dusseldorf and were gradually being pounded into submission until early May. In Italy, throughout April and into May 1945, the American 5th Army under General Clark and the British 8th Army under Oliver Leese combated the German armies along the expanse of the River Po and the Gothic Line to break out into the Asiago Plateau. On April 28th, 1945, Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were stopped by a duo of communist partisans, taken to a field, and gunned down. Mussolini and Petacci’s bodies were strung up by their ankles in the square in Milan, beaten, and spit on by the people. Hitler viewed this event with disgust, yet also fear. When the Red Army entered Berlin in late April 1945, he dictated his will, naming his successors, and insisting that his body be burned after his suicide to keep the Russians from doing the same to him that the partisans had done to Mussolini. By late April, the British had reached Hamburg and Bremen, while the Americans had reached Munich and Nuremberg and were pushing to the River Elbe, and to the south, the 5th Army had liberated Milan and Genoa, while the British had liberated Venice. American diplomat and future director of the Central Intelligence Agency Allen Dulles had initiated Operation Sunrise with the assistance of the OSS. Sunrise was essentially a series of clandestine surrender discussions held between the German commanders in Italy and the United States to negotiate a settlement prior to the actual overall German surrender. General Eisenhower had realized that the Allied armies would never reach Berlin before the Red Army would, and so told the Russians they could essentially “have” the city, and so on April 16th, the Red Army broke through at Seelow Heights, the last German defensive line before Berlin, and within days were in the nation’s capital, the black heart of the Reich. Hitler and his top commanders (although Himmler and Goering were not present in Berlin) sought refuge in the specially constructed bunker in the basement of the Reichstag parliamentary building. While the fighting raged above, the private telephone and radio lines out of the bunker had been severed, and so Hitler and his staff, mainly Josef Goebbels, Martin Bormann, and Karl Doenitz, listened to public radio to learn what had occurred outside the city. They had learned of the surrender of over 300,000 German troops in the Ruhr Pocket in late April, and soon learned of the treachery of those Hitler thought he had trusted.

Hermann Goering, the man Hitler had named as his successor, had dispatched a letter to Hitler asking if he could take early control of the crumbling Third Reich due to Hitler’s unstable emotional situation, which had only begun to deteriorate as the stress of his failure compounded with each defeat. Hitler had been driven into a rage, and order Goering’s arrest or execution and decided to re-dictate his will. Hitler had gone nearly blind from hysteria in the days inside the bunker, and could no longer write himself due to the uncontrollable trembling of his hands. Hitler named Goebbels, the Reichsmarschall of Propaganda and one of his still-loyal officials his successor, and named Admiral Karl Doenitz, the commander of the German Kriegsmarine, Goebbel’s successor. Himmler had attempted to negotiate his surrender to the British, yet the British had promptly refused. Himmler had been living in his home in Hamburg, close to the British lines, yet after the British had discovered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, they refused Himmler’s surrendered, and broadcast the attempted surrender on BBC radio. Hitler and his staff had been listening to BBC radio when the story had been broadcast, and Hitler spiraled out of control, and ordered Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s envoy to the Furherbunker to be executed. On April 27th, one day before the death of Mussolini, seven days after his 56th birthday, and three days before his death, Hitler married his long-time mistress and third cousin Eva Braun in the bunker under the Reichstag while shells fell around, shaking dust loose from the ceiling. As the remnants of the German military were wiped out in the brutal urban warfare in the streets of Berlin, in which the Red Army fought with a brutality that had become so well known, Hitler and Braun committed suicide on April 30th. Hitler even fed his German shepherd, Blondie, cyanide to prevent her falling into Russian hands. Their bodies were subsequently taken out into a shell crater outside the emergency exit of the bunker and burned in accordance with Hitler’s will, and Goebbels assumed to command of the crumbling Third Reich. Goebbels assumed command of the Third Reich for only one day, receiving cyanide from Doctor Morell, and feeding the substance to his six children, his wife, Magda, and himself. The Goebbels family had their bodies burned as well, only the job was botched and the bodies could still be identified, unlike Hitler, which had been incredibly thorough. Alfred Jodl subsequently commit suicide, following the example of Walter Model, who had committed suicide on April 21st in the Ruhr Pocket. Martin Bormann and several others had attempted to escape the beleaguered city on the night of May 1st-2nd, and he was never seen again, prompting a series of rumors that he had escaped to Argentina or Paraguay, where many Nazis had fled to following the war, yet Bormann’s body was found under a parking lot in the late 1990s and positively identified. Himmler took cyanide in a suicide attempt in a British camp in Luneberg after a failed escape attempt on May 23rd. Doenitz assumed command of the Reich following Goebbels’s suicide, and negotiated the unconditional German surrender on May 8th, 1945, although it did not go into effect until May 9th. The majority of German commanders, specifically SS, were captured, detained, and tried in the Nuremberg trials in 1946 for war crimes, although the most prominent official captured and tried, Hermann Goering, committed suicide with cyanide before his sentencing. Rudolf Hess was sentenced to life in Spandau Prison, where he was placed in solitary confinement for nearly twenty years and died of natural causes in 1987. During the months after the end of the Second World War, and the months leading up to it, the Americans and British had initiated Operations Paperclip and Overcast in an effort to capture as many German rocket and atomic scientists as possible, the most prominent of which was Werner von Braun, who successfully designed the Saturn-V rocket that took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins (the son of World War II general J. Lawton Collins), and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to the moon on July 21st, 1969. The Russians co opted scientists of their own, ushering the period from 1945-1989 known as the “Cold War”. With the Second World War ended, the world shifted its gaze to the epic struggle of wits between the Soviet Union and United States that would come to mark the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. World War II was the most destructive conflict in history, yet was won with the strength of men resolute in the steadfast choice to defend freedom’s frontier.


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