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A History of Europe



Chapter 14: WORLD WAR II

1939 to 1945




This chapter covers the following topics:

The Blitzkrieg Unleashed
The Fall of the West
The Battle of Britain and the Campaigns of 1941
Under the Swastika
The "Final Solution"
Underground Resistance
The Battle of the Atlantic
The Air War
The Underbelly of the Axis
The Liberation of France
The Final 150 Days
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The Blitzkrieg Unleashed


Though he had taken over Austria and Czechoslovakia without firing a shot, Adolf Hitler could not hide his intentions forever, and it was easy to guess who his next victim was going to be. Poland had gained more German territory from the Versailles Treaty than any other country; the existence of Danzig and of the Polish Corridor that separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany were standing affronts to German nationalism. When Hitler opened his propaganda campaign against these "injustices," British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a joint declaration with the French, finally drew the line: if Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France would declare war. However, both he and the Poles shrank from asking the Soviet Union to join in this anti-Nazi alliance; the Poles because they knew exactly what the Soviets would ask for in return (the territory Poland had annexed in 1920)(1), Chamberlain because he couldn't bring himself to associate with Bolsheviks. Consequently the Anglo-French threat wasn't very impressive. The Germans would think twice about starting a war if it meant fighting on two fronts, because many felt that was what killed them in World War I, but without the USSR there wouldn't be an eastern front for long.

By this time, Hitler had set a date for the invasion of Poland. However, the Nazi leader did sense that the upcoming war would be a lot easier to handle if the Soviets stayed out of it, so he made an offer to Stalin: he would let Stalin have half of Poland if the Soviet Union did not get involved in the next war. If Chamberlain had been blind for too long about Hitler's intentions, it seems even stranger that Stalin was blind for a time as well. He appears to have regarded the Allied and German diplomatic missions to Moscow in the 1930s as nothing more than the bids of rival suitors seeking his favor. In the end, he found the German offer more to his liking, because it gave him both time and a chance to grab some land. One week after German and Soviet ministers signed the papers dividing up Poland between them, the German army crossed the Polish frontier (September 1, 1939). Two days later Chamberlain reluctantly declared war, and the world was in flames again.

Hitler knew from experience that German soldiers did best when they moved fast, avoiding bloody slugging matches like the ones that characterized World War I. But how could they overcome the immense firepower of automatic weapons in the hands of a defending force? During the last war, the tank was the best solution, so the generals wanted more tanks, and most planned on using them the same way they had done in 1918: advancing with the infantry, taking out points of resistance that were too tough for the foot soldiers to handle. However, one German general, Heinz Guderian, had a different idea. During the 1920s he wrote several papers that proposed motorizing and armoring all the elements of a normal division (infantry, artillery and engineers) so that they could work alongside tanks without slowing them down. The end result, a special panzer (armored) division, turned the tank concept around; now infantry supported the tanks, rather than the other way around. Panzer divisions would be very expensive--to pay for them, the rest of the German army would have to use horse-drawn transport for years to come--but Guderian believed that with half a dozen of them he could make war a matter of movement again.

In 1933, Guderian showed Hitler the first experimental panzer unit. "That's what I want," exclaimed the excited Führer, and he gave his full support to Guderian's panzer-building program. As a result, all six of the armored divisions Guderian had requested were ready in time for the invasion of Poland. One division was based in Pomerania, and one was based in East Prussia, forming Army Group North, while four divisions formed Army Group South in Silesia. The Pomeranian and three of the Silesian divisions were under orders to converge on Warsaw as fast as possible, before the French and British could counterattack on Germany's western frontier (see Chapter 15, footnote #17). The East Prussian and the fourth Silesian division would go for Brest-Litovsk, 120 miles east of Warsaw.


The German strategy in Poland


The insistence on speed made the campaign against Poland a model operation. The Polish air force was wiped out on the first day, giving the Luftwaffe full command of the air. Then the Luftwaffe continued to go ahead of the panzers, striking at military targets the ground forces couldn't reach, or spreading terror by attacking civilian-populated areas. Within five days Army Group North overran the Polish Corridor and Danzig; one of the divisions from Army Group South reached the gates of the Polish capital on September 9. Poland's armies, spread evenly along the frontier, found themselves first bypassed, then surrounded as infantry poured through the breaches the panzers had made. The only counterattack the Poles managed, near the Bzura River, failed to keep the Germans from encircling, bombing and shelling Warsaw into submission. The world had its first taste of Blitzkrieg, "lightning war."


Das Stuka

A German Stuka (dive bomber) in action.

While the world concentrated its attention on the siege of Warsaw, the second pincer movement drove on Brest-Litovsk. This was General Guderian's idea; he had the second pincer movement put into his orders because he thought the panzers could take more than just Warsaw. Personally leading the East Prussian division, he reached Brest-Litovsk on September 14. Three days later he made contact with the other division sent east, and central Poland, like western Poland, was now isolated. The Poles tried to make a stand in the southeast, but any chance of that succeeding was ruined on September 17, when the Soviet Union moved in to take the part of Poland that Germany hadn't conquered yet. All the Poles could do after that was evacuate as many soldiers as possible into neutral Romania. Five weeks after the invasion started, the last Polish resistance ended.(2)

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The Fall of the West


Once Poland was divided up, Stalin began to implement the other parts of the non-aggression pact. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) had been independent of Russian rule since 1918; now he brought them back into Russia's "sphere of influence." By the end of the year he had Soviet troops in all three republics; the following year saw them annexed into the Soviet Union. Soviet troops also entered Finland in November, but not with Finnish permission. The Russo-Finnish border was too close to Leningrad for comfort, and when the Finns refused to shift the border west, Stalin ordered the Red Army to do it, after accusing the Finns of attacking him first. The first invasions took place in sub-zero weather and were defeated by valiant Finnish troops, who counterattacked on skis. Not until February 1940 did enough Red army soldiers arrive on the scene to bludgeon a path forward to the line Stalin wanted.

Stalin's pact with Hitler and his ruthless behavior toward the states on the USSR's border aroused great fury in the west; during the Winter War, anti-Soviet feeling ran so high that Britain and France considered sending an expeditionary force to help the Finns. An Allied landing at Petsamo, Finland's Arctic port, was out of the question at this time of the year, and with the Baltic frozen as well, the only way an army from Western Europe could get to Finland was by going across neutral Norway and Sweden. The Norwegians and Swedes refused to let foreign armies pass through their territories, but the fact that the expedition had been suggested at all started people thinking. Three-quarters of Germany's iron ore came from northern Sweden, and rather than deal with ice in the Baltic, the Swedes exported the iron by shipping it on a railroad that ran from the town of Luleå to the Norwegian port of Narvik. If the Allies could get control of Narvik, Germany would lose a vital resource. Both sides saw this at the same time, but as usual Hitler acted while Chamberlain was still thinking about it. Combined air and sea landings on April 9 conquered Denmark and most of Norway in a single day. The British responded by landing their expeditionary force at Narvik, confident that their command of the sea would give them the edge in this campaign, but as in Poland, command of the air was more important. The Germans already had the airfields; by early June they had the rest of Norway.

Meanwhile, all was quiet on the Western Front. To most people this didn't make sense. Western journalists, who had been expecting something like 1914, began writing about the "Phony War," and the Germans compared the Blitzkrieg in the east with the Sitzkrieg ("sit-down war") in the west. Indeed, it was because of this lack of activity that the Allies had thought about intervening in Finland. The Germans were busy moving troops to their western frontier as fast as they could, while the Allies, remembering how every offensive in the last war had produced heavy casualties, refused to strike first. On September 7, 1939, while the bulk of the German army was fighting in Poland, the French made a half-hearted invasion of the Saar district, across the Rhine; they halted at the Siegfried Line, changed their minds, and withdrew by October. After that, the French simply waited behind the Maginot Line, confident that it would defend them against anything.

Initally the Germans were going to repeat the Schlieffen Plan, marching into the Low Countries first and then wheeling left to enter France. But then in January 1940, a German plane carrying a complete copy of the orders made a forced landing in Belgium, and since the Belgians now had the orders, the High Command had to come up with a new strategy. Of the various ideas proposed, the best one, proposed by General Erich von Manstein, put the main blow in the center, through Luxembourg and the Ardennes forest. By the spring of 1940, the German army had ten panzer divisions, and General Guderian would use three of those divisions to make the crucial breakthrough. On the other side, the Allies had three (mostly French) armored divisions, but they kept them in reserve, meaning that by the time Allied tanks got to the front line, the panzers would have done their work.

The German invasion of the West began on May 10, and went like clockwork. Neville Chamberlain resigned in disgrace, now that everything he had done to prevent war had failed; he was succeeded by his rival Winston Churchill.(3) In the Low Countries, the Allies went to the rescue of the Dutch, who were invaded first, and didn't pay much attention to anything else. A daring raid by German paratroopers captured Eben-Emael, the strongest Belgian fort, opening the way for the invasion of Belgium. Again the Luftwaffe quickly won control of the air, and it mercilessly bombed the city of Rotterdam (May 14). One day later Holland surrendered--and Guderian struck. His panzers crashed through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes, crossed the Meuse River at Sedan, and raced west. Five days later, on May 20, they reached the Channel. The Allied front had been split in two at its weakest point; the Belgian and British armies were cut off from the French. On May 28, Belgium capitulated, leaving the British Expeditionary Force surrounded in the northernmost corner of France.

Hitler and General Gerd Von Rundstedt, Guderian's commanding officer, were surprised by how swiftly the panzers had demolished the French army. During the last week of May they halted their advance, fearing that they were now overextended. For the British this was the miracle they needed, and they used the time gained to bring every boat available to the one French port remaining to them, Dunkirk, from which they evacuated their men to safety in England. At first they thought they would only have two days to undertake the rescue, but it lasted nine days, and they saved 338,226 men, which included some of their French and Belgian companions. By the time the Germans overran Dunkirk, only a holding force of 40,000 French remained.

On the same day that the siege of Dunkirk ended (June 5), the Germans began the second phase of the campaign to conquer France. General Hoth took one Panzer corps along the coast to capture Normandy and Brittany, while Kleist and Guderian led the others directly south. For the French it was a speedy doom. General Maxime Weygand had sixty-six divisions hastily dig in along the Somme and Aisne rivers, but this only held the Germans briefly. The French commander of the Maginot Line had refused to release any of his men to defend the heart of France, thinking that the main German attack was still to come at the Maginot Line itself; now he found that his guns were pointing the wrong way. Paris fell on June 14; on June 22 the French government, recognizing the military situation as hopeless, surrendered to the Germans.(4)


Hitler in Paris
Hitler goes sightseeing in Paris, after the fall of France. He spent an hour in Napoleon's tomb, regarding Napoleon as a predecessor.

One final point worth noting is Mussolini's formal entry into the war. Finally convinced that Germany was going to win, he declared war on France and Britain on June 10. Unfortunately for him, Italy's military performance hadn't improved much since the last war, and the French had also fortified the Franco-Italian frontier, with a defensive barrier called the Alpine Line. Italy's thirty-two divisions, opposed by six French ones, succeeded in getting yards (not miles) past the border before the French surrendered to Hitler. Winston Churchill knew that Italy was no asset; before World War II began, he was informed that Italy was going to be on Germany's side in the next war, and he reportedly said, "That seems only fair, we had them last time!"

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The Battle of Britain and the Campaigns of 1941


With France defeated, Hitler was ready to wind down the war in the west; his main interest shifted to Russia. Because the English were Aryans like the Germans, he didn't really want to fight them, and figured if he offered peace, they would either join him or agree to a treaty. Many folks in Britain, including the ex-king Edward VIII and David Lloyd George, the prime minister during the last war, also felt that after the French collapse, the war was as good as over. However, it was the current prime minister's opinion that mattered, and in Churchill, the Allies finally had a leader who wouldn't knuckle under to Hitler's threats. When the prime minister spurned the Führer's overtures, Hitler had to plan for an invasion of the British Isles. This wasn't a simple proposition; the British not only had their famous navy patrolling the Channel, they also had--and this was the one military preparation they did exactly right--fighter squadrons protecting the skies, guided by the new invention of radar. In the Battle of Britain Hitler tried repeatedly to shoot down the RAF (Royal Air Force), but he failed to win the air superiority he needed; summer became fall, and "Operation Sea Lion," the invasion of Britain, had to be indefinitely postponed. The Nazi leader shrugged off his first defeat as irrelevant; to try to break the spirit of the British he sent nightly bombing raids against the cities of England ("the Blitz") until May 1941. Meanwhile plans were made for "Operation Barbarossa," the invasion of Russia. Hitler thought that Russia wouldn't be much more of an opponent than France had been, and once he had eliminated the "Jewish Bolshevik" the British would listen to reason and make peace. And if London still didn't agree, he would be in an even stronger position to deal the death blow to Britain.(5)

St. Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz
St. Paul's Cathedral survived all German attacks on London, though the buildings around it went up in flames.

Churchill ready for an air raid
And here Winston Churchill wears a helmet during an air raid.

Meanwhile Mussolini made his own play for the limelight. In August he occupied British Somaliland and in September he invaded Egypt from Libya. Those activities were all that the Italians could handle, but when the campaign against Egypt began to go badly, Mussolini responded by opening up additional fronts. He proposed simultaneous invasions of Switzerland, Yugoslavia and Greece, until his commanders warned that he did not have enough troops for all three, so he decided to go after Greece only. Then came the news that Hitler had persuaded Romania to join the Axis. Mussolini blurted to Count Ciano, his son-in-law and foreign minister, "Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli. This time I am going to pay him back in his own coin. He will find out from the newspapers that I have occupied Greece. In this way the equilibrium will be reestablished. I shall send in my resignation as an Italian if anyone objects to our fighting the Greeks."

Unfortunately for him the Greeks objected. Since 1936 Greece had been under its own fascist dictator, Ioannis Metaxas. Mussolini may have thought that he could make Metaxas become the next Axis member, but most Greeks preferred France and Britain, and because of Greece's preoccupation with the sea, they had a strong respect for the Royal Navy. According to a popular legend, on October 28, 1940, an Italian diplomat presented Metaxas with an ultimatum demanding that he allow Italian forces to occupy strategic sites in Greece, and Metaxas responded with one word, "Ohi!" meaning "No!" in Greek. Because of that event, in modern Greece October 28 is a national holiday, "Ohi Day." The Italians launched a surprise attack from Albania, Metaxas successfully mobilized his subjects to resist, and within a matter of days the Italians were stopped and turned back, by a far smaller army using obsolete equipment. Two weeks after the invasion began, Mussolini sacked the general in charge, Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, but his replacement, Ubaldo Soddu, was worse. Soddu was a career officer who was good at office work and networking (before the war he attended so many parties that he had quite a few friends from both Germany and Britain), but when it came to strategy and tactics, he had no talent whatsoever. Nor did that interest him much; he once told his staff, "When you have a fine plate of pasta guaranteed for life and a little music, you don't need anything more." While the Greeks began a counterattack that captured a third of Albania by early 1941, Soddu spent much of his time composing musical scores for movie soundtracks. In Africa the British also turned the tables on the invaders, conquering half of Libya and all of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland.

Hitler, who had wanted to keep things quiet elsewhere while he got the Russian campaign ready, was furious, but he felt he had to bail out his fellow dictator. Two divisions sent to North Africa restored the situation in Libya and became the core units for the soon-to-be-famous Afrika Korps. In March the Yugoslav government gave in to German pressure and agreed to join the Axis, thereby allowing the Germans to pass through their country on the way to Greece. This was too much for the Yugoslav people, though, and a few days later a coup d'etat brought in a new government dedicated to keeping Yugoslavia neutral.

Germany retaliated quickly and without mercy. Five panzer divisions and the cooperation of his Balkan partners (Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania) made it possible for Hitler to crush Yugoslavia in just ten days. The panzers moved on, and by the end of April they took care of mainland Greece, too. Then came a whirlwind paratroop assault on Crete, which forced a sudden withdrawal of the forces Britain had dispatched to the area.(6) But all this forced Hitler to postpone the invasion of Russia for five weeks. Later on he wished that the Italians had never gotten involved in the war--at least on his side. "My unshakable friendship for Italy and the Duce may well be held to be an error on my part," he wrote. "It is in fact quite obvious that our Italian alliance has been of more service to our enemies than to ourselves."


Nazis on the Acropolis.
Nazis on the Acropolis.


With the wisdom of hindsight, one could point out that the delay of Operation Barbarossa caused by the Balkan campaign was quite unnecessary. In June 1941 Hitler had more than 150 divisions massed along the Russian border, compared with just seven in Yugoslavia and Greece. But those five weeks may well have made all the difference. By the time the panzers reached the gates of Moscow in the fall of 1941, the troops were fought out, ill-prepared for the Russian winter (they didn't bring cold weather clothing because they had expected victory by the end of summer), and unable to go any farther. As Hitler began to deal with the consequences of having made the same mistake as Napoleon and Sweden's King Charles XII, Stalin found that his best generals were the ones that nature had provided in the past: first "General Mud," and later "Generals January and February."(7)

Finally one other event of 1941 is important enough to mention here, though it took place on the other side of the world. On December 7, the Japanese launched a pre-emptive air strike on the American Pacific Fleet as it was anchored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This caused the United States to declare war on Japan, and when Hitler heard the news, he was so delighted that he proclaimed the Japanese honorary Aryans and declared war on the USA himself. With both Britain and Russia still fighting, it was the height of folly. Maybe America was going to come against Germany sooner or later, but why hasten the day?(8) What conceivable advantage could be gained, even of the most temporary sort? There seems to be no answer except to say that Hitler was acting petulant and short-sighted. But then Hitler never did calculate the long-term odds of anything; maybe that is why he was so successful--in the short term.

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Under the Swastika


Hitler had predicted that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years, and as it turned out, he was only 988 years off. As a political structure, what did this mean for Europe? Germany was much larger, for a start. Besides Austria and Bohemia-Moravia, the new German provinces were territories that had previously belonged to Poland (Bialystok and the entire northwest), Luxembourg (the whole country), France (Alsace-Lorraine) and Yugoslavia (northern Slovenia). Then came the states ruled by either Nazi officials or locals appointed by the Nazis: Slovakia, Poland (what was left of it, Galicia and the area around Warsaw), Serbia, Croatia (which included Bosnia-Herzegovina), the Ukraine and Ostland (a future Baltic German state, made by uniting Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus). The next rank down was for those states under direct Nazi military occupation: Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, northern and western France, Russia east of the Ukraine and Ostland, Greece and the Serbian part of Banat.(9) Finally there were the other members of the Axis, those sovereign states that had chosen to hitch their wagons to Hitler's star: Italy, Vichy France, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Finland.(10)

Those in the last group were rewarded for their support. Mussolini got those bits of the Balkans he had always wanted: southern Slovenia, Dalmatia and the Ionian Islands, additions to his Albanian province (Kosovo and part of Greece) and Montenegro as a new one. The Hungarians got Transylvania and half of Banat; the Bulgarians got back western Thrace, the southern Dobruja, and added the Yugoslavian part of Macedonia. Hungary and Bulgaria's gains were made partially at Romania's expense, and because Hitler had also let Stalin annex Bessarabia and northern Bukovina in 1940, the Romanians were the least happy members of the Axis. However, after the break with Russia, Hitler gave them back Bessarabia and northern Bukovina and threw in the slice of the Ukraine between the Dniester and the Southern Bug Rivers (Transnistria) as well. As for the Finns, they were once again in possession of the territory they had lost in 1940, though in the war against Russia they did not take anything beyond that.


Europe in 1942.
Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). Europe in 1942, at the high-water mark of the Axis. Germany and German-occupied areas are colored purple. Also shown are Hitler's Axis partners: Vichy France (brown), Italy (light green), Croatia (mint green), Hungary (gray-green), Romania (magenta), Bulgaria (red-violet), and Finland (sky-blue).

40 percent of France and the overseas French colonies were ruled from the provincial town of Vichy, under a dictatorship managed by the ancient Marshal Petain, and a despicable prime minister named Pierre Laval. Petain pleaded that he was not a traitor, and that only political necessity made him support the Axis. Though this was true, at times it seemed that he pleaded too often and too easily; still, at this stage in the war, most Frenchmen gave him their support. When the Allies captured French North Africa in November 1942, Hitler dispensed with the Vichy charade. Savoy, Provence and Corsica were given to Italy, while the rest of France was brought under German occupation.


Occupied France, 1940-1944.
Details on the French occupation.


One French general, Charles de Gaulle, escaped to England in 1940 and tried to persuade French citizens to continue the struggle against Germany. But while Churchill and Roosevelt recognized him as the leader of the "Free French" without hesitation, he got little response from the French themselves. The British hoped that he could at least bring Syria over to their side, but instead they had to conquer it for him and install a Free French governor. Not until late 1942 did de Gaulle have enough popular support to help the Allies constructively (in the liberation of French North Africa).

If de Gaulle's initial performance was disappointing to the Allies, Spain's Francisco Franco was a greater disappointment to the Axis. He was in debt to the Germans for their help in the Spanish Civil War, but he kept Spain neutral for all of World War II. He wouldn't declare war on the Allies because he said that Spain was too poor to afford another war, and wouldn't even let the Germans pass though Spanish territory to take the British base at Gibraltar. All he could do was contribute a regiment of Spanish volunteers, the so-called Blue Division, which joined the Wehrmacht on the Russian front.

Besides Spain, the other neutral nations were Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and Vatican City. Ireland refused to join any alliance that included Britain, despite its Commonwealth status, because Northern Ireland was still in British hands. However, Eamon de Valera, who served as prime minister from 1932 to 1948, faced a threat from a local fascist movement, the "Blue Shirts," in addition to the Irish Republican Army, so he gave the Allies better treatment. American and British pilots who crashlanded in Eire were given food and safe transport to Northern Ireland, along with their planes if they could be repaired, while German pilots were interned (the accidental German bombing of Dublin in 1941 didn't help German-Irish relations, either). Portugal signed a friendship pact with Spain right after the Spanish Civil War, and allowed the Allies to use Portuguese air bases from 1943 onward, but otherwise refused to commit itself to either side. Turkey stayed out until early 1945, and only declared war on Germany so that she would qualify for charter membership in the new United Nations. Sweden sold its iron ore to Germany, as we noted earlier, while Switzerland's banks and factories did business with the Third Reich; after the war the Swedes and Swiss claimed this was necessary to prevent an outright German invasion. In the 1990s it was discovered that Swiss bank accounts still held money the Nazis had looted from their Jewish victims, leading some to wonder how "neutral" Switzerland really was during the war.

The most controversial of the neutrals was the Vatican. We now know, from documents just made public in 2013, that Pope Pius XII worked to save several thousand Jews from the Nazis, either by giving them travel visas identifying them as Catholics, so they could leave Germany or Hungary, or by hiding them in Italian convents and monasteries. However, he also did very little to hinder Axis activities, going so far as allowing one Axis state, Croatia, to have an office in the Vatican. It has been said the pope did this because Hitler would have persecuted both Catholics and "Catholics" if he came out openly against the Axis, but he still refused to denounce Axis behavior after the war, when it was no longer dangerous to speak out. In today's information society, words can speak louder than actions, and the pope's silence led to the publication of a biography about him in 1999, entitled "Hitler's Pope."

Surprisingly, the Nazi regime did little to regulate Germany's economy, when one considers how much it controlled the rest of German society. Perhaps Hitler and his associates felt that economic prosperity was the real reason why the German people supported them, rather than their propaganda machine and the Nuremberg rallies. While the Allied nations accepted rationing, martial law, etc., almost immediately after they entered the war, ordinary Germans enjoyed peacetime standards of living until 1941; luxury goods that were no longer available in Britain or the USSR, and scarce in the United States, were still common in Germany. When shortages did appear, the Germans got by with imports from their conquests (e.g., French perfumes, Dutch cheeses, Norwegian furs, etc.), and with ersatz (substitute) products invented by their scientists. Equally astonishing, German factories worked only one shift a day until 1943, and they did not hire women to fill the vacancies when their workers went off to war. There was no Axis equivalent of "Rosie the Riveter," because that went against Nazi ideology; propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels declared that a woman's most important tasks were "being beautiful and bringing children into the world."

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The "Final Solution"


Undoubtedly the most insane aspect of the Third Reich was its hatred of Jews. Like other European Jews, the Jews of Germany were loyal subjects who thought of themselves as Germans first; many had served in the army during the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Anti-Semitism had long been a fact of life in Europe, but except for the pogroms in Russia, it now only showed up in isolated incidents (the most notorious being the Dreyfus case of the 1890s), rather than the wholesale expulsions and massacres of the past. Many Jews felt that if they looked like Germans, dressed like Germans, acted like Germans, and spoke the German language instead of Yiddish, they would find acceptance as Germans. However, tyrants find it useful to have a scapegoat around; even before he left his native Austria, Hitler was reading anti-Semitic literature, and jealous of Vienna's Jewish community. Soon he was blaming a worldwide Jewish conspiracy for every problem Germany had.

Hitler had announced his anti-Jewish feelings to the world when he wrote Mein Kampf, and he started putting them into action once he could rule without opposition. 1934 saw the creation of the first concentration camp, Dachau, and it served as the model for those built afterwards. The camps held anybody the Nazis didn't like, but as time went on Jews became the largest group incarcerated. In 1935 the infamous Nuremberg Laws liquidated Jewish businesses, barred Jews from working as doctors or lawyers, and made it illegal for them to marry Gentiles. In schools the teachers taught courage in battle, obedience, and the superiority of the "Aryan race," while books considered offensive were burned in bonfires. Individual Jews like Albert Einstein began leaving Germany for western Europe and America; for those who decided to wait it out, this was only the beginning.


German boycott of a Jewish shop

At first it seems that the main goal was to humiliate and impoverish the Jews; some even came out of the concentration camps, broken in spirit, but still alive. The second stage of the persecution began with Kristallnacht ("The Night of Broken Glass"), Hitler's own version of an organized pogrom. On the night of November 9-10, 1938, synagogues were burned, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, Jewish-owned buildings were destroyed, and 26,000 male Jews were arrested. More restrictions on Jewish life followed: Jews were prohibited from attending college, visiting cultural centers, or using public transportation. The worsening situation caused Jewish emigration to increase, but many couldn't leave because the German government confiscated their property, and wouldn't allow them to transfer cash out of the country. Another barrier came from the potential host countries; many, including the United States, would accept only a fraction of the refugees who wanted to go there.


Krystallnacht

The rapid Axis advances in the first years of the war brought millions of Jews under Nazi domination. Administration of the conquered areas became the job of the SS and the Gestapo, or secret police; Jews living here suffered harsher treatment than the Jews in Germany. In Poland the world's largest Jewish community went into confinement, either quartered in ghettoes or hauled off to the concentration camps. Relocating the Jews took too long on the Russian front, where the standing order was to kill them on sight. In the occupied part of the USSR, the preferred solution was to dig trenches for mass graves, and machine-gun the victims as they stood in front of them.

In July 1941, Hitler's second-in-command, Hermann Göring, sent a directive to the chief of the Reich Security Main Office, Reinhard Heydrich, charging him with the task of organizing a "final solution to the Jewish question" in all of German-dominated Europe. By September 1941, the Jews of Germany were forced to wear badges or armbands marked with a yellow star. In the following months, tens of thousands were deported to ghettos in Poland and to cities wrested from the USSR. Over there, a new type of concentration camp was created, where the main goal was to kill the inmates, not to put them to work.

Prisoners were usually transported to the new death camps in railroad cattle cars, and told beforehand that they were going somewhere else. Upon arrival, those incapable of working (women, children, the ill and the aged), were usually marched to the gas chambers right away. Those who could work were subjected to forced labor, until that or the starvation rations ended their usefulness. Besides the gassings, victims could be killed in any diabolical manner dreamed up by the guards, from shootings and hangings to "experimental surgery." Auschwitz (modern Oswiecim, near Cracow) was the worst camp of all; more than a million perished there.

Arrival at Birkenau, 1944.
A typical scene at Birkenau, the second camp in the Auschwitz complex, in 1944. Here a train-load of Hungarian Jews has arrived, and SS guards are busy sorting them, in effect deciding who will die first, and who will live for a while.

The administration of the camps was an example of German efficiency gone mad; it shows how the prisoners were regarded as nothing more than animals, an exploitable commodity. To start with, prisoners had to wear a cloth triangle on their clothing, colored to identify which category of untermenschen (inferior people) they were: brown for Gypsies, red for political prisoners, green for common criminals, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, blue for immigrants, pink for homosexuals, and black for miscellaneous anti-socials. For Jews, two yellow triangles were put together to form a Star-of-David-shaped badge. Other record-keeping among the SS doctors produced the following statistics: the typical inmate's work was worth six marks a day, and he could be expected to work 270 days before he dropped dead; after death, his gold fillings, money, clothing, and objects like eyeglasses would be worth an average of 200 marks. After taking from this two marks for the cost of cremation and a tenth of a mark for amortization of clothing, a final profit of 1,631 marks would be realized, plus some further revenue from industrial use of the bones and ashes.

Hitler ordered the trains to keep hauling Jews to the death camps for as long as possible, even when his officers protested that they needed the trains to move men and materiel to the war fronts.(11) Outside Germany, rumors about the Holocaust leaked out as early as 1942, but many among the Allies refused to believe them, thinking that the stories were just wartime propaganda. The truth became clear to everyone in early 1945, when Allied troops advanced far enough into the Third Reich to reach the camps. Most of the soldiers were battle-hardened veterans by this time, but they were sickened by what they saw: prisoners reduced to living skeletons, many of them too weak to be helped by doctors; dead and dying victims everywhere; bodies stacked like cordwood outside gas chambers and crematoria; SS guards still shooting inmates right until the end. When he heard what was in the camps, US General George Patton, a tough warrior nicknamed "Old Blood and Guts," refused to go in, out of fear that the sights would make him sick -- now THAT'S bad. However the highest-ranking American general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, felt he had to see the horror for himself, and once he did, he called Washington, D.C. and London, telling them to send photographers, reporters, and anyone else who could record these atrocities, because he knew that someday people would refuse to believe they had ever taken place; that is why we have so much information documenting the Holocaust. The camps were only in use for a few years, but what happened there may be the most horrifying episode in the story of man's inhumanity to man. Linguists had to coin a new word--genocide, the murder of a race--to define the mass slaughter of ten million people, six million of them Jews. The following table shows how many Jews fell victim to the Nazis in each country:


Nation Approx. Jewish Population (1941) Est. number of
Jews killed by 1945
Concentration Camps
Austria 70,000 65,000 Mauthausen
Belgium 85,000 28,000 -
Bulgaria 48,000 40,000 -
Czechoslovakia 281,000 277,000 Theresienstadt
Denmark 6,000 100 -
France 300,000 83,000 -
Germany 250,000 180,000 Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenberg, Grossrosen, Mittelbaudora, Neuengamme, Oranienberg, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof
Greece 67,000 65,000 -
Hungary 710,000 402,000 -
Italy 120,000 9,000 -
Latvia 100,000 70,000 -
Lithuania 140,000 104,000 -
Netherlands 140,000 106,000 Vught
Poland 3,000,000 2,600,000 Aushwitz, Belzec, Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka
Romania 1,000,000 750,000 -
(occupied) USSR 2,500,000 750,000 -
Yugoslavia 70,000 65,000 -

Most of the other Axis dictators were less bloodthirsty than Hitler, and didn't share his enthusiasm for killing members of "inferior races." Italy, Romania and Hungary, in fact, refused to hand over their Jews to the Germans, until German troops occupied those countries late in the war. This loophole allowed many Jews an opportunity to escape by going first to one of Germany's allies, then to a neutral nation like Switzerland. Most of Denmark's small Jewish community survived because the Danes cooperated in ferrying their Jews to Sweden. Finland never gave up its 2,000 Jews, and gave asylum to Jewish refugees who came there. The Finnish government even continued to allow Jews to serve in its army, though this meant they had Jews fighting on the side of Hitler! On the other side of the world, the Japanese did not understand why the Nazis hated Jews, so they ignored the few thousand Jewish refugees in the territories they conquered (mainly in Shanghai and Manila).

After the war those Jews who survived did not want to stay in Europe, since they had lost their homes and families. In the east, the Soviet Union and its satellite states continued to practice its own form of anti-Semitism. Most Jews who could leave emigrated to the United States or Israel. Today only a remnant is left of the once vibrant European Jewish community: 30,000 Jews in the Netherlands, 8,000 in Poland, 70,000 in Hungary, 10,000 in Austria, 40,000 in Germany. Of all the countries unlucky enough to fall under Axis tyranny, only France ended up with more Jews than it had before the war (600,000 in the late twentieth century), and more than half of them were North African immigrants, forced to leave North Africa when French rule over that area ended. Now a lot of those Jews are making Aliyah to Israel, thanks to Islam-inspired terrorist attacks. A large percentage of European Jews are more than 65 years old, and intermarriage with Gentiles is common among the younger ones, so the 21st century will probably witness the total assimilation of the last Jews in Europe. If this happens, Hitler will have perversely succeeded in one of his goals, despite the total defeat of Nazism.

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Underground Resistance


If Hitler had shown a trace of mercy, the Third Reich would have lasted considerably longer. Instead, he alienated the citizens of every country he conquered. Most civilians tried to go about their lives as normally as possible, if they did not collaborate with the rulers, but every year saw more of them join guerrilla/partisan units, collectively called "the Underground," to resist the Nazis. The Allied nations considered these movements worth several of their own divisions, and often the partisans helped by rescuing Allied pilots shot down over enemy territory. As early as 1940, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) office was equipping and encouraging resistance fighters, and so did its American counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), after the United States entered the war.

Anti-Nazi activity was strongest in the east, where the Germans had behaved with utter brutality. Red Army soldiers caught behind enemy lines formed the core of the resistance in the Soviet Union, which grew to number around 200,000 armed fighters. Yugoslavia fell to the Axis so quickly that tens of thousands of Yugoslav soldiers went into hiding, before the Germans could kill or capture them. By the end of 1941 they had organized themselves into two guerrilla movements. One, led by a Serb named Drago Mihailovich, was dedicated to restoring the Serbian monarchy; the other was led by Josip Broz Tito (1891-1980), a Croatian communist. Both attacked the Ustasha, the fascist regime set up in Croatia, and the Ustasha retaliated with a campaign of extermination against the Serbs.(12) In the long run, the communists did better; the brush wars of the late twentieth century showed that communism and guerrilla warfare work well together. From late 1943 onward the Americans and British only gave aid to Tito, because he was killing more Germans than anyone else in the Balkans. Poland also had a large Underground movement, though here it was nearly impossible for Britain and the United States to send help.

Similar but smaller groups of spies and saboteurs worked in Italy, France, Norway and the Netherlands. As in the east, many of these partisans were communists, which led to the rise of strong communist parties in postwar Europe. The German occupation force stationed in France had orders to act courteous and cultured, but this failed to end French hatred of the Boche. Eventually the Nazis resorted to their usual heavy-handedness, and resistance began to grow. The French fighters, a mixture of communists and de Gaulle's Free French, called themselves the Maquis, after the guerrillas that had long opposed the authorities on Corsica. The largest guerrilla force in western Europe was in northern Italy; it had more than 100,000 men by the end of the war.

Members of the Underground could expect only death and torture if captured; sometimes Nazi retaliation was even worse. In May 1942 the notorious Nazi administrator Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated in Czechoslovakia. A reward of ten million Czech crowns was offered for information leading to the capture of Heydrich's killers, but there were no takers, even after the reward increased to twenty million. Then the Nazis went to the map and randomly chose a victim to punish: Lidice, a village just west of Prague. All 192 men in the village were lined up and shot, while the women and children went to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Women under the age of 25 were assigned to brothels, and nine of the ninety-one children passed a racial test and were adopted by German families; the rest of the women and children were gassed to death. Then the houses were leveled, the cattle driven off, and the village pond filled in, leaving only a bare plain. The last step involved removing the name of Lidice from maps and government documents.

Despite all this, Lidice did not stay dead. Towns in Mexico and Illinois changed their names to Lidice when the Allies found out, and Venezuela gave that name to a new suburb. Several countries built memorials, and after the war the Czech government built a new village named Lidice, next to the old one; the original site became a memorial garden for the victims. This wasn't the case with another community the Nazis destroyed, Oradour-sur-Glane in central France. On June 10, 1944, two years to the day after the Lidice massacre, they drove into Oradour, shot or burned 642 people (all but six of the residents), and set the buildings on fire, to avenge the murder of another German officer. After liberation the French left the charred ruins of Oradour standing, but never publicized what happened, so today few people outside of France know about this atrocity.

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The Battle of the Atlantic


The longest-running battle of the war was the one between Germany, Britain and the United States for control of the Atlantic. The sea lanes were crucial to Britain's survival, as they had been in the last war, and the Americans could not get involved in Europe unless the Allies ruled the waves. Despite this, Hitler considered naval power a low priority; he didn't even begin a full-scale buildup of the German fleet until 1939. Admiral Erich Raeder, the commander-in-chief of the navy, didn't want to fight until 1942; by then he hoped to have 250 U-boats, thirteen battleships, and four aircraft carriers. The beginning of the war forced him to cancel this plan, and hurry construction of the submarines instead.

Even so, the Germans had some secret weapons with which they hoped to gain the advantage. All of their ships were brand-new, for a start, while most of Britain's capital ships were built before World War I. The U-boats operated in "wolf packs," which proved to be a bigger challenge than the solitary raiders of the last war, and this time the submarine captains didn't bother with the "restricted warfare" that had so hindered them before. Early in the war the Germans introduced the magnetic mine, which didn't wait for a ship to hit it, but exploded when a ship came close. It was a success until November 1940, when a magnetic mine was found intact on a British beach and taken apart, allowing scientists to invent a defense against it ("degaussing"). In the early 1930s Germany built three cruisers with as many guns packed into them as possible, to get around the tonnage limitations of the Versailles treaty; these "pocket battleships" were more powerful than anything the Allies had of similar size. Using the "pocket battleship" idea also permitted the construction of two super-battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz.

There was no "phony war" at sea. Just hours before Britain declared war on Germany, a U-boat sank a British ocean liner, the Athenia; 112 lives were lost, including 28 Americans. On the night of October 13-14, another U-boat, commanded by Captain Gunther Prien, slipped into the naval base at Scapa Flow, and sank the battleship Royal Oak; this was one of the most daring submarine raids ever attempted. A pocket battleship, the Graf Spee, wreaked havoc against Allied shipping in the south Atlantic, sinking nine merchantmen in two months, from Brazil to Mozambique. Finally on December 13, 1939, three British cruisers caught up with the Graf Spee outside the bay of the Rio de la Plata. In the battle that followed, all ships were heavily damaged, before the Graf Spee broke off and headed for Montevideo. Once in port, however, Captain Hans Langsdorff got the idea that he would not be able to escape, so a few days later he scuttled the Graf Spee and shot himself, ending a hunt that captured the attention of the world.

In May 1941, the Bismarck made her first and only foray into the war. The super-battleship, accompanied by the cruiser Prinz Eugen, sailed from the Baltic into the north Atlantic, with the intention of joining two warships and six U-boats already there. British planes spotted the Bismarck while refueling at Bergen, Norway, and immediately sent four ships in pursuit. Three days later, the Hood and the Prince of Wales, two of Britain's largest battleships, engaged the Bismarck between Iceland and Greenland. Only eight minutes after the battle began, a shell from the Bismarck found the Hood's magazine and blew up the whole ship; the Prince of Wales, badly damaged, limped away. The Bismarck also took a serious hit, and she changed course for the French port of Sainte-Nazaire, leaving a steady oil trail in her wake. On May 26, more British planes, cruisers and destroyers caught up with the Bismarck, 700 miles from occupied France, and went for the kill. The torpedoes from the planes couldn't penetrate the Bismarck's armor, but one disabled her rudder, making it impossible to escape; then torpedoes and shells from the ships finished her off. The sinking of the Bismarck was hailed as a great Allied victory, but it diverted so many ships and planes to the Atlantic that it may have permitted Hitler's victory on Crete at the same time.

While the Bismarck went down fighting, the career of the Tirpitz was long and inactive. After what happened to the Bismarck, Admiral Raeder didn't want to risk the other super-battleship in the Atlantic, and hid the Tirpitz in the fjords of Norway instead. The plan was to have the Tirpitz attack Allied convoys as they sailed past, on their way to Russia, but she saw no significant action; by mid-1942 the German Command realized that U-boats and the Luftwaffe did a better job at raiding. Even so, the presence of the Tirpitz so close to England kept the British nervous, and several air raids attempted to sink her. They failed because conventional bombs could not penetrate the dreadnought's double layer of armor plate; a special 12,000-lb. bomb called the "Tallboy" was invented in 1944, just to do that job. In September 1944 a squadron armed with the new bomb attacked at Kaa fjord, in northern Norway; they didn't sink the Tirpitz, but did so much damage that the Germans moved her south to Tromso, where they decided to use her as a floating artillery battery. There on November 12, 1944, another raid of Tallboy-equipped bombers finally blew up and sank the battleship. That event marked the end of the naval war in northern waters.

For the German navy, the best part of the war was from July to October 1940, when the threat of invasion kept the British fleet close to home, leaving convoys with almost no escort. During this time, each U-boat sank an average of eight ships per month. After that, though, the British began to work out an effective antisubmarine defense, and soon the Americans were helping as well. The entry of the United States in the war greatly expanded the area of operations. For a few months in 1942, the U-boats in American waters got choosy; pickings were so good that they let high-riding empty ships go by and sank only those that looked full. Eventually the Americans also learned how to defend themselves against the U-boats (sonar, depth charges, destroyer-escorted convoys, air reconnaissance), so the easy hunting ended by summer. The losses in men, ships and cargo were still appalling, but enough got through to keep Britain fighting, and each year after 1942 saw the German sailor's mission grow more suicidal.

For the U-boats, the most embarrassing defeat came because a U-boat captain did not know how to use a new toilet. The toilets on German subs could only be flushed when they were at or near the surface of the ocean, due to water pressure on the hull, so let's just say the atmosphere inside a U-boat could get really unpleasant if it spent a long time underwater. Even in the best of times, life on a submarine is not much fun, and extremely cramped; you can get an idea of it from the movie Das Boot. In April 1945 a U-boat, the U-1206, was launched with a new kind of plumbing that allowed underwater flushes, but the equipment was so complicated that most of the crew did not know how to operate it. That included the captain, and when he answered nature's call without the help of a toilet specialist, he turned the wrong valves and water started flooding into the sub. Because of the flooding, and because chlorine gas was released when sea water came into contact with the U-1206's batteries, the submarine had to surface immediately. Unfortunately this was right off the coast of Scotland, and Allied warplanes attacked it soon enough. Since the submarine could not dive again, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship, and then scuttled it. Of the fifty crew members, one was killed in the air attacks, and three drowned. The remaining forty-six were captured, but unlike so many other sailors, they lived to see the war's end.

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The Air War


World War II saw the warplane come of age; in nearly every campaign the outcome was decided by who controlled the air. We saw earlier how air power was crucial to the German victories against Poland and France, and how Hitler had to call off the invasion of Britain when the Luftwaffe couldn't defeat the RAF. The war also saw the residential districts of cities become targets for bombing; both sides regularly attacked civilians in bomber raids, and did much to destroy industry, but failed to destroy the other side's will to resist.

Britain launched its first raids on Germany in July 1940, while the battle of Britain was taking place. The commander of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, boasted that if any Allied bombs fell on Berlin, people could call him Meyer (a popular German Jewish name). A lot of Germans called him Meyer before long, when they had to spend their nights in bomb shelters! However, these early attacks did little besides restore British morale; daytime missions were suicidal, while bombers that attacked at night couldn't see their targets. It took America's entry into the war and the development of long-range bombers before the Allied planes could inflict real damage.

The Allies began to get the upper hand against the Luftwaffe in 1942. Part of the reason was numbers: in that year the overextended Germans built about 15,000 aircraft, compared to 23,672 for Britain, 25,436 for the Soviet Union, and 47,836 for the United States. The other reason was that the British and Americans worked out a strategy for their bombing campaign; the more heavily armored American planes would attack in the daytime, while the RAF made its raids during the night, using new target-finding techniques. The first of these combined missions went against Lübeck in March 1942; the old headquarters of the Hanseatic League was full of wooden buildings, so the attack flattened or burned half the city. At the end of May, a massive force of 1,000 bombers incinerated Cologne, bringing the horrors of war to the heart of Germany. No more raids on that scale were attempted for the rest of 1942, but now nights in an air-raid shelter became a regular part of life for the Germans, rather than the British. Each year saw the raids on Britain decrease, while the raids on Germany increased:

Bombs dropped on Britain (tons) Bombs dropped on Germany (tons)
1940 36,844 10,000
1941 21,858 30,000
1942 3,260 40,000
1943 2,298 120,000
1944 9,151 650,000
Early 1945 761 500,000

1943 saw the beginning of Allied bombing around the clock. By early 1944, advances on the Russian and Italian fronts made three-way bombing possible: bombers could take off from Britain, southern Italy or the Soviet Union, fly missions over any place the Axis controlled, and land in one of the other Allied areas. However, the raids didn't disrupt German production as much as the Allies expected, especially when they hit homes instead of factories, and Allied losses were also heavy; an American B-17 bomber, for instance, cost more than $250,000 in 1942, and its trained crew was even harder to replace. Furthermore, bombing civilian targets was a poor advertisement for the Allied cause; the worst example was the bombing of Dresden, where three raids in February 1945 killed 135,000 and turned that city into a smoking tomb. The bombing campaign's value was in the strain it put on the Luftwaffe, and how it increased the drain on Germany's resources. It also meant that German soldiers could no longer expect air support.

In 1944 the Germans invented some devastating secret weapons, which gave the Allies a few sleepless nights but failed to change the course of the air war. One of these was the first jet fighter, the ME 262. At a top speed of 540 MPH, it could outrun and outfight any other plane, but Hitler was not impressed. When Göring and other Luftwaffe generals argued that the ME 262 would make an excellent defensive weapon, he shouted, "I want bombers, bombers, bombers. Your fighters are no damned good!" For months he refused to even watch a test flight, then he changed his mind and ordered that the jet be converted into a bomber, though it had neither the range nor the load capacity.

Hitler probably liked another airplane design better, the Horten Ho 229. This was a bomber that could not be detected by radar, eliminating the advantage that saved the RAF in the battle of Britain. Using a "flying wing" design, the builders created an airplane that looked a lot like the B-2 stealth bomber the United States produced, forty-five years later. A prototype of the Horten Ho 229 was built and successfully tested at the end of 1944, but then American soldiers captured it, ending this remarkable project. Man, those German scientists were good; no wonder the United States and the Soviet Union wanted to capture them, after the war ended.

Two German secret weapons did see use in the war, with stunning results. The first was a forerunner of the cruise missile, the V-1 (the V stood for "vengeance"). Basically an unmanned, unguided jet full of explosives, the V-1 was tested at Peenemünde on the Baltic, and launched at London from bases in the Netherlands and northern France. The British were forced to station planes along the Channel to catch these "buzz bombs" before they hit anything. Then the Germans introduced the V-2; the Allies found this rocket unstoppable, because it traveled at a speed of 3,000 miles an hour, and flew as high as 60 miles before it slammed into its target with 2,200 pounds of TNT. Fortunately for the Allies, the V-2 could not be guided to a target, either; of those launched at Britain, one in five missed the island altogether. Also, V-2s were not cost-effective -- each cost about $500,000 in wartime dollars, while an American B-29 bomber could carry bombs weighing ten times as much as the V-2's warhead. Then when the Allies captured the launching sites on the Continental side of the Channel, the missile threat to Britain ended. The last attack of the Luftwaffe occurred around the same time (January 1, 1945), and the Germans lost so many planes that Göring never tried large-scale bombing raids again.(13)

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The Underbelly of the Axis


1942 was the most crucial year of the war. It began like the last two, with the Allies on the defensive, reeling from the attacks of the dictators. But then the tide turned. It turned in the Coral Sea, at Midway Island, Guadalcanal, Stalingrad, and El Alamein. By the end of the year, the Allies were on the offensive, and they would remain so almost constantly for the rest of the war.

In the European theater, the Allied counterattack began on the southern fringe: North Africa. German air power had badly shaken, but failed to destroy, Britain's prewar naval supremacy over the Mediterranean. The tiny but strategic island of Malta underwent a hideous two-year siege at the hands of the Luftwaffe, but like Gibraltar, it remained in British hands. Honors in the desert war between General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and the British Eighth Army were even for two years and if the British had their supply problems (they had to sail around Africa, rather than use the Suez Canal), so did the Germans, because air and submarine attacks by both sides made travel in the Mediterranean a risky business for everybody.

Rommel's last success was his offensive of June 1942, which chased the British halfway to Suez. However, Rommel failed to break through the Alamein Line--the last defense before Alexandria--at that time, and again when he tried three months later. In October, the Eighth Army, led by General Bernard Law Montgomery, struck back. The Afrika Korps was hit very hard in this battle and barely managed to get out of Egypt; worse still, it couldn't stop to recuperate in Libya the way it had before because the Allies had opened up a second front in the rear--by landing British and American troops in Algeria and Morocco (Operation Torch, November 1942). Thus, Rommel had to withdraw to Tunisia. He managed to hold out for the entire winter because Hitler foolishly reinforced him, but in May 1943 the entire Afrika Korps (though not Rommel, who was recalled to Europe before the end) was forced to surrender.

The liberation of North Africa was a tremendous triumph for the Allies, but there was still the question of where and when the first attack on Hitler's "Fortress Europa" should begin. Stalin and Roosevelt both felt it should be in France, since it would crush the Germans in a two-front offensive from both east and west, but when a 1942 commando raid on the German defensives along the Channel (at Dieppe) ended in disaster, it was back to the drawing board. It would take the immense resources of the United States to force a breakthrough that way, and there wouldn't be enough Americans in England to try it until 1944, so Churchill proposed a smaller invasion for 1943. He suggested going after Italy, which he called "the soft underbelly of the Axis beast."

The attack began with a landing of eight divisions on Sicily (July 10, 1943). With the Americans racing around the west end of the island, and the British occupying the east, the Allies succeeded in driving out the Italian forces, along with their German help, by the end of August. And on July 19, the Allies were close enough to launch their first air raid on Rome.

Mussolini's showmanship and dictatorial powers concealed the fact that he had never abolished the government that existed before he took over in 1922; his official title was still prime minister, and Victor Emmanuel III was still the king of Italy. Because Italy had lost all its African colonies, and the Allies were now on Italy's doorstep, several of the men around Mussolini turned against him. To rally support, a tired, sick Mussolini summoned the Grand Council of Fascism on July 24, the first time that group had met since Italy entered the war. Instead, the council passed a "no confidence" vote by 19-8, and called on Victor Emmanuel to resume his powers. The next day, Mussolini met with the king, who told him that the war was lost, and Marshal Pietro Badoglio was the new prime minister. Immediately after the meeting, Mussolini was arrested. There were no protests when Mussolini fell; the Italians were sick of the war, and saw joining the Allies as the quickest way to get out. But as soon as they thought about quitting, Hitler suspected it; when it came to a double-cross he had always been a hard man to beat.

Hitler's action to keep Italy in the Axis was both swift and successful. The Italians, playing very carefully, didn't announce they were changing sides until September, when Allied forces landed on Sardinia, the Italian toe, and at Salerno. This delay gave Hitler enough time to transfer an army from Russia, which he used to occupy Italy and form a defensive line across the peninsula, between Rome and Naples (the Gustav Line). He also managed to find out where the new Italian government had locked up Mussolini, spring him from jail and put him back in charge.(14)

Mussolini with his rescuers.
Mussolini with the German soldiers who rescued him.

Churchill's portrayal of Italy as a vulnerable spot may have been correct politically, but it wasn't from a geographical standpoint. The Italian peninsula has many streams and lines of mountains, providing numerous opportunities to set up defensive barriers. Once the Germans were in charge their commander, Field Marshal Alfred Kesselring, used a brilliantly flexible series of tactics that slowed the Allied advance to a miserable crawl. The Allies expected to be in Rome by Christmas, but the Gustav Line held until the last days of 1943.

In January 1944 an attempt was made to go around the Germans, by making a new amphibious landing at Anzio, less than 40 miles south of Rome. The landing achieved complete surprise, but once the troops were on the beach, their commander kept them there, waiting for the artillery and tanks that would back him up. This gave the Germans time to mount a counter-assault that bottled up the invaders on their beachhead--"the largest self-supporting prison camp in the world" is what German propaganda called it. Meanwhile, activity on the main front centered on a siege of the Monte Cassino monastery, the birthplace of the Benedictine order (see Chapter 6). Not until May 1944 was there a successful breakout, and in the end it was the main force that came to the rescue of the troops at Anzio, when the original plan had been for the opposite to happen. Allied troops finally entered Rome on June 4.

The capture of Rome was a moral triumph for the Allies--it was the first capital of an Axis state to fall into Allied hands--but it was overshadowed by the D-day landings which took place in France just two days later. D-day took away men and supplies from the Italian front, and those officers remaining showed a remarkable lack of imagination, seeming to think that all they needed was superiority in numbers and they would win in the end. This was true, but it also prolonged the Italian campaign much longer than necessary. The Allies had Kesselring on the run in the summer of 1944, for example, but they didn't follow him very closely; by August they had only gotten as far as the Arno River and the Etruscan Apennines. There the Germans dug in along a new barrier, the Gothic Line, and the Allies made no headway at all for months. By the time they broke through and liberated northern Italy it was April 1945, and Allied troops were so close to victory in Germany that what happened in the south no longer mattered much.(15)

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The Liberation of France


The campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific showed the Allies what had to be done if an amphibious invasion was going to succeed; the failed raid on Dieppe showed that thorough preparations were essential. Throughout 1943 and early 1944, troops from the United States, Britain and Canada assembled and trained in southern England. The Normandy coast, between Cherbourg and Le Havre, was picked as the place to land, because it was conveniently close to the airfields and ports in both southeast and southwest England, unlike the part of France at the narrowest point of the Channel, around Calais. By the spring of 1944, the massed force was so large that Hitler couldn't fail to notice it, and he placed a fifth of the German army (58 divisions, out of the 295 he had at the time) in France, making it the strongest point of "Fortress Europe," with his best general, Rommel, in command of the defenses. A complex Allied deception plan, which involved dummy tanks and troop maneuvers in the southeast, convinced the Germans that the main landing was going to take place at Calais, so they held back several divisions from the action, even after the Allies began the attack in Normandy.


D-Day
American soldiers on D-Day.

The original date for "D-Day," June 5, 1944, had to be cancelled due to extremely bad weather, but on the following day there was a lull in the storm, so the commanding Allied general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, reluctantly gave the go-ahead. The largest amphibious assault in history, involving five divisions (two American, two British, and one Canadian), took place on the beaches of Normandy. Not only were the Germans totally surprised, they happened to be leaderless on that day, and this helped a lot. The same bad weather which made Eisenhower postpone the landing had also convinced Rommel that the Allies would not try to land at all, so he drove home to celebrate his wife's birthday, meaning he couldn't be reached for several critical hours. There was another general on the scene, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, who correctly guessed from the air raids on June 5 that the Allies were about to land at Normandy, and he tried to get the two nearest panzer divisions sent there. Those tanks would have made short work of the Allied troops, but they were under the direct command of Hitler, and would not move unless he ordered them to do so. To complete this comedy of errors, Hitler had left orders to let him sleep late on the morning of June 6, and his guards were too frightened to wake him up for any reason, including a massive invasion that was sure to decide the war!

Though the Allies had to spend their first month on the coast building up their force to full strength, they did manage to liberate the nearest French town to the west, Cherbourg. At the end of July the Americans succeeded in breaking out of that zone. Swinging first through Brittany, the US armies turned to the east in a maneuver that tried to pin the Germans back against the British; they weren't quick enough to catch the panzer divisions they were after, but they did trap and destroy a German army at Falaise. In late August, the Allies approached Paris, and they stood aside so that de Gaulle and the Free French could have the honor of liberating the city.

The war might have ended around this time, had a plot to assassinate Hitler succeeded. The rapid Allied advances in France and Belarus convinced a group of German officers that they must get rid of the Führer now, while Germany was still strong enough to negotiate anything besides its surrender. On July 20, Lt. Colonel Count Klauss von Stauffenberg, a one-armed veteran, went to a meeting in Hitler's East Prussian headquarters ("The Wolf's Lair"), carrying a bomb in a briefcase; he placed the briefcase under the conference table and left. It exploded on schedule, killing four and wounding twenty, but Hitler was partially protected by the table, so his injuries were not permanent. The Führer's reaction was quick; a huge Gestapo roundup arrested fifteen thousand suspects, and eventually executed five thousand of them. The ringleaders, including Stauffenberg, were shot immediately, while a group of distinguished prisoners were tried in a "Peoples' Court" and hanged with piano wire; Hitler ordered their slow deaths filmed, and had the film shown to selected audiences as a warning. General Rommel, "the Desert Fox," was not directly involved in the plot, but he was a suspect, so he took poison; the press announced that he had died in an automobile accident.

On August 15, an additional front was opened as a force of Americans and Free French landed on the Riviera. On a map of Europe this maneuver looked like the southern claw of a grand pincer movement, but it really was Eisenhower's way of transferring troops from the Mediterranean to the main front. Italy was becoming the sort of dead end that the Americans had warned it would be, and they wanted to reduce their commitment there as quickly as possible. At any rate, it succeeded in linking up with the force in northern France at Dijon on September 3, thus completing the liberation of France.(16) It was the worst disaster Hitler had suffered since Stalingrad, doubly magnified because it was twice as close to Germany.

September saw the Allies liberate Belgium and capture Germany's westernmost town, Aachen. As the Germans withdrew to the Fatherland it began to look like the war would end in 1944. But the farther the Allied troops advanced the harder it was to keep them supplied, and German supply lines shortened proportionately. Finally the Germans discovered that the troops pursuing them were too weak to press their attacks and front lines formed again. In the east Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and parts of Poland and Yugoslavia remained in Axis hands. In the west the first attempt to liberate Holland (by paratroops) was defeated, and the Allies were halted before they could cross the Rhine.

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The Final 150 Days


Although the combined Allied assaults on Germany ran out of steam during the final months of 1944, it was clear to anyone but the most fanatical Nazi that Hitler had lost the war. Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria all surrendered when the Soviets knocked on their door, leaving only Mussolini and the Hungarians as partners for Hitler. Communist partisans, led by Tito in Yugoslavia and Enver Hoxha in Albania, liberated their countries by the end of 1944. In Greece, Axis troops had been withdrawn to fight on the Russian and Italian fronts; by 1944 the German soldiers remaining held only the cities, and 80 percent of the country was controlled by guerrillas. As in Yugoslavia and Albania, the most successful guerrillas were communists, so when British troops landed in October 1944, they were not only there to liberate the rest of Greece, but also to make sure the postwar Greek government would be pro-Western.

The German army's losses in 1944 were immense, adding up to more than 100 divisions, but by drafting every able-bodied man between the ages of 16 and 60, Hitler produced a reserve force of twenty-five divisions, which he committed to a replay of his 1940 triumph in France, a westward thrust through the Ardennes. Field Marshal Walther Model was given charge of this operation. He planned it well: when the attack was launched against the Americans (December 16, 1944), it came as a complete surprise. As the panzers raced for the Meuse and surrounded Bastogne, the Allies desperately searched for reinforcements and wondered if Hitler had managed to pull it off again. But the Allies had the men they needed and Hitler didn't; on Christmas "the Battle of the Bulge" began to turn in favor of the Allies and after New Year's Day they resumed their advance. The British, Americans, Canadians and French approached the Rhine again; the Soviets burst across the Vistula, completed the liberation of Poland, cleared the Germans out of Pomerania and Silesia, and reached the line that would become the postwar German-Polish frontier, the banks of the Oder and Neisse Rivers. In February the Red Army captured Budapest and began to push toward Vienna.(17)

In January 1945 Hitler moved from the "Wolf's Lair," his headquarters in East Prussia, to a bombproof bunker in Berlin, beneath his ruined presidential palace, the Chancellery. After that his orders were always the same: stand firm, shoot any waverers and sell your own lives as dearly as possible. But the military situation was beyond his control; the Allies finally crossed the Rhine in March when they captured the last undamaged bridge over that river, and leaving the German army on the western front locked up in the Ruhr, the Allies swept across the heart of Germany to the Elbe. On the eastern front, the Russians paused on the Oder River for ten weeks, and then crossed it on April 16. Nine days after crossing the Oder, the Russians met the easternmost American unit at Torgau, on the banks of the Elbe, and General Eisenhower decided to concentrate American efforts on Bavaria and Austria, leaving Berlin to the Red Army. The Third Reich had been cut to pieces.

Hitler decided to stay where he was. When the Russians entered Berlin, he held his midday conferences as usual, charting the progress of the enemy across the city block by block. Whereas Germany's leaders in World War I had surrendered before any Allied soldier set foot on German soil, Hitler expected every German to fight to the death. The composer Richard Wagner had called this kind of fiery end Götterdämmerung, the "Twilight of the Gods," and because Nazi propaganda included Wagner's operas, the last Nazis figured that if they were going to lose, they would do their best to drag their enemies down with them. As Joseph Goebbels put it on April 17: "Gentlemen, a hundred years from now, a wonderful color film will be shown about these terrible days we are going through. Stand firm today, so that the audience does not whistle you down when you appear on the screen in a hundred years' time."(18) Accordingly, Hitler drafted another group of teenagers to take part in the final defense, and composed his political testament. He denounced Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, two of his closest friends, because they dared to negotiate with the Allies; he declared the German people unworthy of the great future he had promised them; he claimed that a Jewish conspiracy had brought him to ruin.

Because he felt betrayed by the leaders of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and SS, he turned to the navy in his final hours. Admiral Karl Doenitz, the commander of the U-boat fleet, was named in the political testament as his successor. On April 29 he married his longtime girlfriend Eva Braun, and the next day he gave her poison, bit a cyanide capsule, and shot himself. Their bodies were burned with gasoline in a ditch outside the bunker.

On May 1 the Führer's most devoted follower, Goebbels, killed his wife, six children, and finally himself in the same bunker. Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief, took cyanide when captured by the British. Another senior Nazi, Martin Bormann, simply disappeared, leading to speculation on his fate long after the war. It is now believed that he was killed by the Russians, while trying to escape from Berlin.

The Third Reich outlasted Hitler by three weeks. Doenitz was only interested in getting as many Germans as possible--both soldiers and civilians--to surrender to the Allies in the west, since they, unlike the Russians, were likely to be merciful to a defeated foe. Those left in Berlin surrendered on May 2; the remaining German-held areas in the north (Norway, Denmark, Schleswig and Frisia) began to lay down their arms on May 4.(19) That left Army Group South in Bohemia as the last major German military unit, and now the Allies surrounded it; the Americans took Innsbruck and Linz in Austria and Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, while a partisan uprising began the liberation of Prague just before the Russians arrived. General Alfred Jodl met with Eisenhower in Rheims on May 7 to sign the terms of unconditional surrender; the next day he did the same thing with the Russians in Berlin and "V-E Day" could be officially declared. Doenitz and what remained of his Cabinet were surrounded by the Allies in Flensburg, Germany's northernmost town, where they pretended to run the government as usual; not until May 23 did the Allies get around to arresting them. The war that had claimed some 18 million military lives, even more civilian lives, and caused unprecedented devastation, was finally over.


Hitler in a garbage can
Goodbye, Third Reich.



This is the End of Chapter 16.

FOOTNOTES


1. In 1919 the Allies drew Poland's eastern frontier along the Bug River, calling it the Curzon Line. The Polish state thus created contained just about everyone who spoke Polish, but it was much smaller than the Poland of the 15th-18th centuries. Consequently, the Poles grabbed as much eastern territory as they could while the USSR was engulfed in civil war, and after the war ended they got to keep most of it. The territory in question included the capital of Lithuania (Vilnius, Wilno in Polish), half of Byelorussia (modern Belarus), and a good-sized chunk of the Ukraine.

2. Three Slovak divisions marched into Poland with Army Group South. The Slovaks were rewarded for their support with the bits of Slovak territory that Poland had taken the year before (see Chapter 15, footnote #16). In the northeast, the Russians captured Wilno (see the previous footnote) and promptly handed it over to Lithuania. They didn't miss Wilno, because all of Lithuania would be theirs before long.

3. Chamberlain deteriorated rapidly after his resignation, dying of cancer just six months later. To the end, he seems to have believed that his "peace at any price" policy was the most sensible one. On his deathbed, he reportedly said, "Everything would have been all right if Hitler hadn't lied to me."

4. To humiliate the French even more, Hitler chose to have the terms of surrender signed in the same railroad car, parked in the same spot (Compiègne, France), where Germany had surrendered in 1918. Afterwards the railroad car was taken to Germany as a war trophy. In April 1945, when everyone knew that Germany would soon lose the war, the SS destroyed the railroad car, so that the Allies could not use it a third time.

5. One of the strangest events of the war was the flight of Rudolf Hess. On May 10, 1941, the number three Nazi flew west and bailed out over Scotland. Hess claimed that he was trying to land at the estate of the Duke of Hamilton, whom he wrongly believed was the leader of a "peace party," so they could negotiate an end to the war. Instead, he went to jail for the rest of his life. Hess never changed his story, Churchill denied that Hess had been lured to Scotland by British agents, and Hitler denied that his deputy left with his blessing. Thus, we may never know the real reason why Hess defected.

6. However, it was a costly victory for the Germans. The loss of 4,000 paratroops made sure that Hitler would not try any more airborne attacks.

7. The Russian campaign will not be covered in the detail it deserves here, because I have already done so in my Russian history.

8. President Roosevelt had been giving Churchill military and financial aid (the famous "Lend-Lease" program) since late 1940; it started with fifty surplus destroyers. The first American ship sunk in the war, the Reuben James, was torpedoed while escorting a British convoy, on October 31, 1941. Germany's declaration of war against the US made Churchill's job easier; for a few days it looked like the United States was going to concentrate all its attention on defeating the Japanese.

9. Banat is the small part of Serbia north of Belgrade that is populated by Serbs and Hungarians, where the Danube, Sava, and several smaller rivers meet. Today it is called Voyvodina.

10. Hungary and Romania declared themselves in the Axis camp in November 1940; Bulgaria joined in March 1941 and Finland did so in June, just in time to take part in the war against the Russians.

11. From 1942 to 1944, the busiest railway station in Europe was at Birkenau, an extension of Auschwitz. And this was a station where all the traffic came from arriving passengers; departing trains were always empty. The Germans abandoned the camp to the Russians in January 1945.

12. At first the Croats were glad to be free of the Serbs, but it now appears that most of the Croatian people eventually supported the Allies; independence wasn't worth the price of Fascist terror. On the other hand, by the end of the war, Croatia's Ustasha regime had slaughtered more than a million Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. At Croatian concentration camps like Jasenovac, Ustasha guards got rid of prisoners in ways that horrified even the Germans, who preferred to use the more humane killing method of poison gas on theirs.

13. Nazi scientists also worked on chemical secret weapons -- drugs that could get more mileage out of soldiers by increasing their strength, endurance, and pain tolerance. In just one three-month period, April to July of 1940, more than 35 million tablets of pervitin and isophan, two methamphetamines, were issued to the German armed forces. However, German doctors knew that stimulants can lead to addiction and health problems, so they tried to develop a better formula, a real-life version of the "Super Soldier Serum" that turned a wimpy kid into Captain America. In 1944 they came up with a pill that combined cocaine, pervitin and morphine, code named D-IX, and while the effects were not permanent, they were impressive. Tests were done on prisoners in the Sachsenhausen camp, who were forced to march with 45-lb. backpacks until they dropped; they were able to go 55 miles without resting. But like most of the other secret weapons described above, D-IX was invented too late to be mass produced. It's just as well; not only could this drug have changed the course of the war, but once the fighting ended, the supply to the soldiers would be cut off. Imagine what would happen next, as an entire army of strung-out Nazis suffered from withdrawal symptoms! The period immediately after the war would get ugly in a hurry, and probably be remembered as "The Great Hangover."

14. After this Hitler and Mussolini no longer even pretended to be equal partners. Hitler punished the Italians for their defection by taking back the French territory he had given to Italy ten months earlier, and moving the northern Italian frontier to where it had been in 1914, adding the rest of Slovenia (including Istria) and the southern Tyrol to Germany's possessions. This gave Germany a port on the Adriatic. He also took away Dalmatia and gave it to Croatia, which, unlike Italy, was still an enthusiastic member of the Axis. Finally, the Germans confiscated Italy's gold reserves and sent 640,000 Italian soldiers to P.O.W. camps. Two Italian divisions got away because they were stationed in Yugoslavia, and they joined Tito as the "Garibaldi Partisan Division."

15. Mussolini tried to escape to Germany when the end came, but was captured and shot by Italian communist partisans (April 28, 1945). His body was hung upside down in a public square of Milan.

16. The Free French liberated Corsica in October. Three German-held ports on the Bay of Biscay (L'Orient, St. Nazaire and La Rochelle) were not taken, but surrounded and isolated from the rest of the Axis world until the war ended. Allied troops did not have to liberate any part of France west of the Rhone River or south of Paris--the Underground took care of that.


Hungarian crown.

17. Here is the crown of Stephen I, the first king of Hungary (see Chapter 7). This crown, and the golden orb and scepter made to go with it, have belonged to every Hungarian king over the past millennium, up to Karl I, the last Hapsburg monarch (see Chapter 14). In the fall of 1944, when Soviet troops first entered Hungary, Hungarian nationalists took the crown jewels from their usual storage place, to prevent them falling into the hands of the Red Army. Then in early 1945, the jewels were smuggled to Austria, and hidden in a monastery near Salzburg, where they were shown to American soldiers on May 3. After that, because of the Cold War, these treasures were kept in Fort Knox, Kentucky, for more than thirty years; Hungary didn't know it because their location was a military secret until the 1970s. Finally in January 1978, US President Jimmy Carter sent them back, as a goodwill gesture and to reward the Hungarian government for lifting many communist-era restrictions.

18. I believe Der Untergang (Downfall) qualifies as that film. Because it is a German-language film, it is easy to imagine you are really witnessing the battle of Berlin and Hitler's last days.







Surrender in northern Germany.

19. The blurry picture above may not look like much, but it is the only color photograph taken of the northern German army surrendering to General Montgomery. Montgomery did not want any photography of the event, but his clerk, Sergeant Ronald Playforth, hid in a clump of trees to snap this picture. Playforth concealed the picture for the rest of his life, and only his family knew about it until 2009, when they sold Playforth's wartime mementoes at an auction.


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