Chapter 5: D-Day: Build up; Invasion; Normandy; Omaha; Commanders; “The Longest Day”; Stats, casualties.
Chapter 6: 1944 – Normandy to Paris; Breakout; Mulberry harbors; enter De Gaulle; Patton; V1 & V2 bombs/rockets; Westminster and Guards Chapels; Assassination plot and its aftermath; Liberation of Paris.
Chapter 7: Oradour: Dragoon (invasion of Southern France); Liberation of Belgium and Channel ports; Netherlands (Anne Frank and Corrie ten Boom); “Market Garden” (A Bridge too Far); Battle of the Bulge; Malmedy.
Chapter 8: Russia – battles and victories; Two cities – Leningrad and Warsaw; Western Front – Metz; Aachen; Remagen Bridge; Rhine – Patton’s task force, Monty, Churchill.
DELIVERANCE – The Story of WWII
D-DAY, NORMANDY, FRANCE – A DAY TO REMEMBER
Last year, June 6, 2014, Queen Elizabeth II, President Obama, President Putin, and the leaders of France, Germany, Poland, Italy and many others, together with WWII medaled elderly veterans in their 80s and 90s, assembled on the beaches of Normandy, France.
They were gathered to pay a 70th anniversary memorial tribute to those who were part of the deliverance forces which stormed these same Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. On that day the Allied nations began to liberate Europe from the tyranny of a German Nazi regime. The whole operation was code-named “Overlord” and June 6, 1944 itself was known as “D-Day”.
At this 2014 memorial, speeches were delivered, planes did a fly-past, and prayers of thanks were offered to Almighty God. In the several cemeteries, due respect was again paid to the thousands who gave their lives.
Twelve years ago in 2003 June and I also visited Normandy and paid our respects. As we walked quietly between the gravestones of the U.S. cemetery at Omaha a carillon of bells played hymns. And, as we read the short messages chiseled on the gravestones in the British cemetery at Bayeux we were moved to tears. “Our only son…“; “Forever with the Lord…“; “Greater love hath no man…“; “Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn…“; or, on the stone (in the picture) of the 19 year old Royal Marine who died on June 6, 1944, “Dearer to us than words can tell was the son we lost and loved so well.”
The Build Up
Preparations began as far back as 1941. The English Channel is a notoriously hazardous strip of water. At its shortest point – Dover to Calais – it is only 21 miles (33.8 kilometers) wide. But no foreign army has successfully crossed it to invade England for 1,000 years. The Spanish Armada failed to do it in 1588. Napoleon – after amassing his Grande Armée of two-hundred-thousand men – changed his mind and declined to even attempt it. So did Adolf Hitler.
After the capitulation of the French and the British retreat from Dunkirk; England in 1941 seemed at its most vulnerable. Still, Hitler hesitated. He feared the Royal Navy, the ferocious Channel, and the Royal Air Force which had mauled Goering’s Luftwaffe in the “Battle of Britain.” Instead, Hitler turned East and invaded the Soviet Union – with whom he had a peace treaty!
Now the Allies of the United States, Britain, and Canada were to attempt a landing in the opposite direction. Hitler had given orders for defenses to be prepared from Norway to Spain – it would be known as “The Atlantic Wall”.
By the time of D-Day, amassed in Britain were over 1.5 million men, together with thousands of planes, tanks, guns, and other military requirements. The joke was that Britain would have sunk under the ocean with the weight of the build-up had it not been for the barrage balloons holding it up.
There had to be enough equipment for troops to take and hold a fifty-mile long coastal strip, at least five miles deep, and capture a serviceable port which would allow a constant stream of reinforcements, of men, ammunition, fuel and equipment. It must quickly become strong enough to withstand the inevitable counter-attack. From April 30th Southern England was sealed off for 10 miles inland from the coast.
Of course, it could not possibly be hidden from the Germans that this build up was taking place. What the Germans did not know – and must not know – was where and when the invasion would take place.
All the Allied leaders were understandably nervous. Churchill was haunted by the tragedy of Gallipoli during World War I, with tremendous losses especially to Australian and New Zealand troops. Remembered to this day by those nations as “Anzac Day”. Much more recent had been the fiasco in 1942 of an attempted landing to take the port of Dieppe. Three-quarters of the Canadian force were killed, wounded, or captured – 7,000 brave men.
Good weather was essential, but around the coasts of the British Isles, very unpredictable and changeable. One could only hope for the best and pray. Millions of people were doing just that.
President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill had together decided that the Supreme Commander was to be American General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Under him – Eisenhower (Ike) generously, but wisely, asked for – and got, Marshall of the Royal Air Force, Arthur Tedder to be his deputy and three other British leaders to overall command of the three branches of the invading force.
Army – General Montgomery (“Monty”);
Air Force – Air Chief Marshall Leigh Mallory; Navy – Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.
Eisenhower was chosen, not only because of his abilities as a soldier, but also because he had proved himself able to command and control a coalition of forces from many nations. British Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham said to Ike, “I do not believe any other man than yourself could have done it” (North Africa success). Monty said, “He has the power of drawing the hearts of men towards him as a magnet attracts metal. He merely has to smile at you and you trust him at once.”
Overall command of the German forces appointed to provide “the welcome” to the Allied landing was given to Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt; and under Rundstedt, Field Marshall Irwin Rommel.
Obviously a three thousand mile coastline could not be defended with equal strength. Their guess as to where the landings would be attempted was either around Calais – the shortest crossing from England and with at least three ports; Calais, Boulogne, and Dieppe. The alternative would be Normandy, 100 miles to the south-west with its one port, Cherbourg.
WHICH – CALAIS OR NORMANDY?
Rundstedt and Rommel thought Calais – Normandy would be much too far to re-supply and the Port of Cherbourg would be strongly fortified. But the fact that Calais was the most likely made Hitler at first favor Normandy. However, the more he listened to his generals and studied the problems, he changed to Calais. Several of his best armored divisions were therefore positioned near Calais with one-hundred and fifty thousand men, and Hitler would not permit them to move south – even after the invasion had started. Hitler thought the Normandy landings a diversionary feint to try to fool the Germans. The main invasion, he believed, still would come at Calais.
The Allies had several plans to encourage this prediction.
First, almost all the German spies they had caught – and the penalty for spying was death – had been “turned”. That is to say, they agreed to send false information to their contact in Germany confirming the view it would be Calais.
Second, Eisenhower arranged for an impressive decoy invasion force – the “First Army” – to be assembled around the Dover area. They would do military exercises, and have dummy tanks, guns, and even planes. Often they were made only of camouflaged wood or canvas. Some were inflatable. They would be commanded by one of Eisenhower’s best generals, old “Blood and Guts”, General George Patton. Some said Patton was the Allied commander the Germans feared the most! To further strengthen the illusion
this “First Army” was visited by King George VI.
The Allies even gathered another substantial force in Scotland, causing Hitler to leave several divisions in Norway, just in case his enemies attempted a landing there.
Third, on the night of June 5th signals were sent to the French Resistance in coded messages. They had plans to blow up rail-cars, locomotives, fuel, and ammunition depots. This they did very successfully. Not only in the Normandy area, but Calais too, and up and down the French coast, thus to keep the German High Command guessing.
On 4th June, the very day that the Allied coalition troops had entered Rome, all these preparations for an invasion of occupied France were reaching the climax.
Assembling in the ports across southern England were ships of the greatest armada in the history of man. At Plymouth and Dartmouth; Spithead and Falmouth; Brixham and Yarmouth; Weymouth and Portsmouth; they loaded the ships and waited.
Supreme Commander Eisenhower called a meeting of all the significant Allied leaders. The invasion had first been planned for May, but bad weather led to a postponement. Now they were ready again, but once again the weather was atrocious and the forecast, at first, was for no let up. A terrible weight of responsibility rested on Ike’s broad shoulders and he felt every ounce of it. Would he have to postpone again?
Group Captain Stagg, the senior meteorologist, arrived to report. Usually his news was bad or worse. Previously his team had seen nothing but blackness over the Atlantic. However, this time he revealed that an unexpected break had been detected out in the Atlantic. He could offer the possibility of a lull in the storm. Hopefully, calmer waters and clearer skies. Only from the evening of June 5th and through the 6th. More bad weather would follow.
Eisenhower considered this hopeful news. He paced the floor smoking cigarette after cigarette. He consulted his top sub-commanders. Should they go, and pray for a safe crossing – or not. Monty said, “Yes”. So did Admiral Ramsay and Deputy Commander Tedder. Only Air Force Marshall Leigh-Mallory hesitated. If the assault was to succeed the landing force must have air-cover and his bombers must be able to destroy their targets.
Eventually Ike stood. “O.K.” he said. “Let’s go!”
Eight years later Eisenhower gave a speech in his home town of Abilene, Kansas. The date was June 4 1952. “This day, eight years ago, I made the most agonizing decision of my life…If there was nothing else in my life to prove the existence of an Almighty God and Merciful God the events of the next 24 hours did it…” He was, of course, referring to the totally unexpected 24-hour break in the stormy weather and the success of the D-Day Landing.
Rommel had prepared the defenses well using at least half-a-million slave laborers. In the sea, one-hundred-thousand mines and hindrances of every kind awaited the ships and men of the armada. Should any assault troops make it from their landing crafts onto the beaches, one-million mines were buried in the sand, together with concrete spikes and other hazards. Plus, of course, miles of barbed wire.
Furthermore, almost indestructible reinforced concrete “pillboxes” were positioned on the cliffs and the bluffs. Some had powerful guns to reach the invading ships, others spewed out machine gun fire and mortars to ambush the heavily laden Allied soldiers with withering fire.
D-DAY – Midnight – Planes and Ships
First, at midnight, went the bombers to do as much preparatory damage as possible, pummeling the coastal defenses.
Then, at 01:30 a.m. the airborne paratroops and gliders. Eisenhower visited the paras on June 5th, and as he watched them now leave for their mission it was reported that Ike had tears in his eyes. He knew many of these brave men would not be returning.
One thousand planes carried 18,000 airborne paratroops with a mission to liberate villages and towns.
Others were to destroy some bridges to prevent German reinforcements; but capture and control others helpful to the Allies – all targets in advance of the beachhead invasion landings. Each man would carry 70lbs or more of equipment. The U.S. 82nd and 101st – contained para’s experienced and hardened in action in Sicily and Salerno – as did the 6th British Airborne division. They also contained recruits who had never before dropped into combat. Rommel had flooded fields in Normandy, an area already crisscrossed by rivers and canals. Many paratroopers, alas, would drown having been blown off course and dropped into the water.
On board the waiting ships Chaplains held services and offered Holy Communion. Six thousand vessels would sail. Some men played cards, some wrote (perhaps) a last letter to a loved-one. Some sat quietly. Some read their Bibles. Most prayed.
Churchill went to the Map Room to watch the convoys as they steamed to their stations. He remarked to his wife, Clementine, as she made her way to bed, “Clemmie, do you know that by the time you wake, 20,000 men may well have been killed.” Though the casualties were grave they were, thankfully, well below his gloomy, pessimistic forecast.
Commanders great and small gave last minute words of encouragement to their platoons. Typical was the message of one general to his men, “You are about to embark on an undertaking on a day which will be talked about long after you and I are dead and gone.” Indeed it has been, and so it should be. And that is why I am writing about it.
A message from Eisenhower was read to the assembled men through the tannoy, “Soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave allies and brothers in armies on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine…”
After the fleet rendezvoused off the Isle of Wight they sailed to their appointed places. Battleships and cruisers directed a terrible bombardment of the coastal defenses.
Next the minesweeper ships sailed detonating mines and opening up channels for the assault craft. Finally came the men, wave after wave. Many, if not most, had been so seasick they just wanted to get on dry land – anywhere!
The 50-mile stretch of Normandy beaches had been allocated with special zones. At the western end, “Utah” and “Omaha” (US); then “Gold” (British); “Juno” (Canadian); and finally at the eastern end, “Sword” (British). The plan that by the end of D-Day itself the troops on these beaches would have been linked up. They weren’t. Only Gold and Juno. The remainder were linked a week later.
As we shall see, some poor fellows were let off their craft too far out in the sea and drowned in water too deep for them.
Others were mown down as soon as the ramp was dropped. Some of the second wave landing met with sea stained with blood; floating bodies, beaches strewn with dead and wounded. As the sea, and then sand, spurted up around them it must have seemed they were being asked to wade into hell!
In spite of all this it could have been far worse. Some things went in the invasion forces favor. For instance, the French Resistance rose to their assignment with great courage and effectiveness. Fifty-two locomotives were overturned which otherwise could have carried up supplies and units of defending soldiers. French railway workers further inland diverted troop trains to destinations anywhere but Normandy. Telegraph and telephone communications were cut. As the airborne troops, so the brave Resistance also disabled crucial bridges and cut electric cables. In fact, so far as the German forces were concerned, Normandy became isolated. The French people paid a heavy price for all this in reprisals.
Furthermore, the German meteorologists had assured Rundstedt, Rommel, and other generals that the storm would continue without a break. They knew nothing of a lull. Invasion, they said, would be impossible. So, some went on leave. Rommel left to be with his wife on her birthday – June 6th! – and many units were “stood down”. Some commanders attended a conference in Rennes, many miles away.
Incredibly, Rundstedt, who was at his headquarters in Paris had, but recently, assured the Fuehrer that there was no sign of an imminent invasion!
And where was the Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler? He was again in the beautiful Alps of Bavaria, enjoying his mountain home at Berchtesgaden. It was known as the Berghof, and Hitler spent more time there than in Berlin, at least in part because the Allies were bombing Berlin almost every day.
On June 6th Hitler had retired to bed with a sedative and his mistress, Eva Braun. When news of the landings reached the Berghof, Hitler’s aides decided the Fuehrer could not be awakened until 12 noon on the 7th. When awakened Hitler refused to release his seven SS crack Panzer divisions, 100 miles to the north because, he said, Normandy was only a diversion, the main invasion was still to come at Calais.
Hitler did give one instruction before he attended to more urgent (!) matters, “All American, British, and other invading forces must be swept off the beaches and into the sea by the end of the day!”
As dawn broke over the coast of Normandy, hundreds of assault craft, crowded with soldiers and marines, made their way to the beaches. They each knew the precise time they had to go – and where.
Accompanying them were craft carrying tanks. Some had been nicknamed “Hobart’s Funnies.” They had been invented and developed by a British engineer officer, Major General Percy Hobart and built in the United States.
They were dual-drive tanks in that they had both an underwater propeller and a conventional track. They were to be amphibious and they were known as D.Ds. In addition, from a few thousand yards out, an apron could be dropped to help the floating. Some would be fitted with flails which could operate from the front to explode mines; others with a bomb-like projectile which could be fired from up to 100yds to destroy or severely damage a concrete emplacement. Some were flame-throwers – a fearful weapon.
Once in combat “Hobart Funnies” were funny no longer; the troops regarded them as wonderful life-savers.
My readers will understand that in a survey of this kind I can but give some idea of how the assault went. No beach proved a walk-over. Though varied in intensity, all were hard fought and cost many precious lives – to which the cemeteries bear silent, but eloquent, testimony.
SWORD, JUNO, AND GOLD
This was the designation of the British assignment on the eastern end. Fighting with the British and Canadians were units of the Free French, Norwegian, Dutch, Belgium, and Polish. Another was a unit of German Jews which had found protection in England. They were issued with identity cards designating them as “Church of England,” in case of capture. They proved invaluable when German prisoners were being interrogated.
In this attack, though launched several thousand yards from shore, and into five-foot waves, only six of the 40 D.Ds. sank. When the assaulting troops reached shore these tanks were already there and firing. The flailing tanks opened up exit gullies which had been heavily mined.
Nevertheless a sad note is that the commanding officer was killed just as he reached the top of the bluff. Officers were particularly targeted, of course. Some units lost them all.
Wounded men could try to find shelter behind some of the barricades, or even behind tanks which had been knocked out. These also gave shelter to the medics trying to help them.
The very colorful Lord Lovat, Chieftain of the Clan Fraser, and now leader of a Scottish Commando Unit, insisted on bringing his bagpipes. Wearing their green berets, Lovat and his men came ashore to the kilted piper playing, “Highland Laddie”.
The piper then marched up and down to encourage the men. Some, it was said, thought him quite nuts. So, I should think, did the Germans!
Lovat’s mission was to relieve the glider division of Major John Howard’s 6th Airborne. These commandos had already taken two vital bridges over the Orne River and Caen canal.This they had accomplished in the early hours of D-Day – and thereafter fended off German counter-attacks. What relief for these tired, brave men when they heard Lovat’s piper marching up the road with the commandos from Sword Beach. The bridge is now named “Pegasus” after the Airborne unit’s emblem.
The fighting on Sword was described as fierce and bloody but, compared with some, relatively brief.
Bravely, some young French women came from the villages above “Sword” bringing refreshments and any medical supplies they had.
One young student nurse cycled down to retrieve her swimsuit which she had left the day before. She bravely stayed for two days attending the wounded. She also met a fine young English officer – whom she later married. There, amidst the blood and death, was also courage, kindness, love, and even romance. Amazing!
Assaulting on this four-and-one-half mile stretch of beach were the Canadians. The story was similar to that of Sword. Some Germans surrendered whilst other defending units fired and fought to the bitter end. Often those “German” troops who surrendered were actually Russians and Poles, made to fight for Germany or be sent to a concentration camp or worse.
Another feature of D-Day was the house to house fighting which had to take place in the villages and towns above the beaches. The French civilians above Juno were delighted to hear some Canadian units speaking French. Obviously those from Quebec. None fought harder, I should imagine.
The other British designated landing area. Some D.Ds. were lost, but most made it to shore and were invaluable. The commander, however, was killed almost immediately. The fighting went on for most of the day before the beach was cleared of German defenders. Two powerful gun emplacements caused many casualties until they were silenced by Hobart’s special tanks.
One honor that fell to these units was that they liberated the beautiful and historic town of Bayeux – famous for its Cathedral and the Medieval Bayeux Tapestry. This beautiful piece of craftsmanship celebrates the last successful invasion of England in 1066 by none other than William, King of Normandy! Bayeux was the first occupied town liberated and held. When June and I visited Normandy in 2003 we stayed there.
In all these liberated villages and towns the Allied liberators were met with cheering, hugs and kisses, wine, flowers, and grateful thanks. These grateful French villages flew the Union Jack of Britain, the Stars and Stripes of America, and the Tricolor of a France that was – or would be free.
AMERICAN BEACHES – OMAHA AND UTAH
Omaha was the worst and most heavily defended. It has been well said that all that could go wrong seemed to go wrong. First, it had the highest cliffs. The sandy sloping beach leads to shingle then to shrub and marsh, then the bluff. On a beautiful, peaceful day these cliffs and bluffs may not look so forbidding to modern visitors, but how different when machine-gun fire is raining down upon you. When mortars and grenades are blowing the head off your captain, or the guts out of your best friend, you know you may have only minutes, or seconds, to live.
The seas off Omaha were exceptionally stormy and the waves, high for the wind was unimpeded. Royal Engineer Officer Scott-Bowden warned it was far too rough for the D.Ds. It would be insane for them to be launched so far out and the assault ships should go as far in as possible. This warning was ignored and 35 D.Ds. were launched. Twenty-eight sank! The crews lost. A result described by all as “disastrous.”
As terrified men cowered in the shelter of the sea wall, behind which were eighty-five enemy machine-gun nests, I can do no better than quote the description written in the official booklet that we obtained in the museum for Omaha itself.
“Death wielded his scythe without pausing to count the victims. In one company all officers were killed in ten minutes. The village of Bedford in Virginia lost twenty-three men. Survivors crowded together behind the sea wall. Radio unusable, weapons jammed with muck, lifeless bodies littered the sand in every direction…here and there burning tanks and barges, the décor of the apocalypse.”
A second wave of troops disembarked at 07:00 hours and arrived, shaking, beside the wall, also terrified, and frozen in place. Officers and Sergeants and any other leaders around tried to stir their platoons to action. One cried, “There are two kinds of people staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now, let’s get the h— out of here!”
Another Divisional Colonel yelled, “They are murdering us here! Let’s move inland and get murdered there!”
The only way out was to try to storm up the few heavily mined and defended gullies and get to the top. The remarkable thing is that anybody made it – but they did. It has been well said that “heroes” are not those who have no fear, but those who, in spite of fear, rise and do their duty. There were many heroes on D-Day – especially on Omaha.
I must mention here the destroyers. These smaller gunships had heeded the distress call of Omaha. They sailed in as near to shore as they dared without being “marooned” on a sandbar or sunk. These eight destroyers (six American and two British) kept up a devastating coordinated bombardment against the German defenders. The guns grew so hot they had to be constantly hosed by sailors to cool them. They could even direct fire through the firing and observation slits in the pill-boxes. This silenced the shooters – most of them forever. Many Omaha men said, “Those courageous naval crews on the destroyers saved the day.”
Pointe de Hoc
Then there was Pointe de Hoc, a one-hundred foot high promontory between Omaha and Utah beaches. The U.S. Rangers had been assigned the task of scaling this cliff to take out the big guns housed in the almost invincible bunkers at the top. Fire from these could reach almost anywhere there was a ship.
Further, from that promontory fire could be directed across the curved beach by raking back and forth. It is nothing short of amazing that any Rangers with their grappling hooks, lines, and metal ladders could succeed. Some courageously stormed the gullies to get behind the gun emplacement. The plateau had been turned into a moonscape by the pre-invasion bombing. It can still be explored. Then, after all that the big guns were not there! They had been moved and hidden in an orchard. At least there they could be – and were – disabled.
Of the two-hundred Rangers assigned to that task over half of them lost their lives. The surviving Rangers had to sustain and hold off several German counter-attacks until they were relieved, at last, by a unit from Omaha two days later!
The other American designated beach was the most westerly one. The winds were so strong that the landing craft were blown two miles off course.
One commander was the son of a former President. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was the son of former President Theodore Roosevelt (Teddy) and cousin of F.D.R. He was greatly respected by his men, not primarily because of his famous name but because of his courage and leadership. At age 57 he is reported to have been the oldest soldier on the beaches. He said to his men, “I am not sure just where we are, but we’ll start our war from here.” He died in France of a heart attack, 36 days after the Landings and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
In one sense there was something advantageous by the inaccurate landing for the defenses were much lighter. Twenty-one thousand troops were landed. As well as securing their beachhead they were supposed to link up with Omaha forces. This they did not achieve, but they drove seven miles inland.
The Utah forces mission was also to relieve the mix of the 82nd and 101st USA paratroopers who had taken the strategic small town of St. Mère Église. This, the paras had accomplished though with much loss of life. It was finally secured the next day when tanks from Utah beach arrived to the relief and delight of the paratroopers and French civilians.
D-Day was called by Rommel, “The Longest Day.” I still think the film with that title – old though it is – has to be the film with the most accurate portrayal of that historic day. The most vivid portrayal of Omaha that I have seen on film is that depicted for 27 minutes in “Saving Private Ryan.”
THE HOME FRONT
What was going on at home on June 6, 1944?
King George VI broadcast to the British nation and to all the nations and dominions of the Commonwealth. Again, nobly overcoming his speech difficulties, he said, “I desire solemnly to call my people to prayer and dedication. We shall ask, not that God may do OUR will, but that we may be enabled to do the will of God.” The King called for a world-wide vigil of prayer for “the liberation of Europe.”
People did pray: in their homes and in their churches or chapels.
In the United States, the announcement of the commencement of the liberation forces brought forth the ringing of church bells, school bells, and the hooting of factory horns. The striking of the Liberty Bell was broadcast over the air from Philadelphia.
Later President Roosevelt also went on the air. He chose to lead the nation in prayer. He prayed for, “…our sons, pride of our nation… give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfast in their faith.” He then prayed for the people at home, for strong hearts “…to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come…Give us faith in Thee…faith in our united crusade.”
Wrote historian Stephen Ambrose, “…the impulse to pray was overwhelming. People jammed the pews of churches and synagogues in cities and towns throughout the land to sit in silence and pray.”
General Rommel had told his Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, that if the Allies invading were not immediately driven back into the sea, Germany would lose the war. Hitler thought this prediction nonsensical. Besides, he had secret weapons ready to launch that would change everything in Germany’s favor.
The Allies did not achieve all their hoped-for targets on D-Day itself, but neither were they driven back into the sea. Territorial gains on that first day varied from ten miles to one mile inland. Nevertheless a firm beachhead had been established…the task now was to hold it, reinforce it, and move forward.
Eisenhower had been so worried about the outcome he had even composed a possible statement admitting failure, “The landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops…The troops, the air, and the navy, did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” Thankfully, the statement was not needed and Eisenhower’s aide found it in Ike’s shirt pocket one month later.
No, General Eisenhower, you did not fail on D-Day, nor on subsequent days. Rather, D-Day was the first step of many, but Europe would be, at last, liberated. That is our story.
APPENDIX – LANDING FORCE AND CASUALTIES
Previously published figures have proved over time to be too low. The numbers listed below are confirmed by the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC, and the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, UK.
Of the 156,000 men landed:
- U.S. – 73,000
- British, Canadian and Others – 83,000
On the beaches:
- Utah – 21,000
- Omaha – 34,000 + 15,000 airborne
- Gold – 25,000
- Juno – 21,500
- Sword – 29,000 + 7,000 airborne
Ships – 7,000 of all types
Killed on D-Day
- US – 2,500 men
- British, Canadian and Others – 2,000 men
Estimated casualties (killed, wounded, prisoners, missing)
- Utah – 589
- Omaha – 3,686
- Gold – 1,025
- Juno – 1,242
- Sword – 1,306
German casualties – between 4,000 and 9,000 men
A sad aspect of D-Day was that 3,000 French civilians were killed. The fear of this had haunted Churchill. And yet, the grateful French people welcomed the Allies with cheering, gifts, and kisses.
Introduction to Chapter 6
We are considering how, in the mid 20th century, God delivered mankind from the tyranny of Nazi Germany and the oppression of militaristic Japan. It is known to history as World War II. Whole countries had been conquered, millions of people exterminated, and millions more enslaved.
Even as I write this, 70 years later, untold numbers of people are fleeing towards Europe from conflict and tyranny in the Middle East. This current migrant crisis is being compared to the various refugee crises during World War II.
We should never forget to give thanks to God for the freedoms most of us enjoy, and at what cost they were purchased. We should also not forget to pray for those who are suffering today.
FROM NORMANDY TO PARIS
D-day could be declared a success in that all five landing beaches had been secured.
Nevertheless it was then imperative to establish a working port so that reinforcements of men, vehicles, fuel, food, armaments and other equipment could be brought across from England.
Cherbourg, on the Cotentin Peninsula, was an immediate objective of the American divisions landed at Utah beach. This was going to be a task neither swift nor easy. The city and port were heavily defended and the German troops fought every street and every building with bitter resistance. Hitler had given orders that no port would surrender but fight to the last man. This was to hold true of Cherbourg, Le Havre, Calais, Dunkerque, Boulogne, or anywhere else.
By the end of June,however, the German Commander of Cherbourg, Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, saw the situation was hopeless. He surrendered his remaining 37,000 soldiers to the U.S.; but not before as much devastation as possible had been deliberately done by the defeated Germans seeking to render the port useless to the Allies. So thorough was the destruction it took engineers almost three months, working night and day, to rebuild it and restore it to working order.
Fortunately, the Allies had foreseen this when they chose Normandy and for over two years, in different parts of England, massive concrete caissons were being prepared. There were to be 120 of these, each six stories high, 600,000 tons of concrete, 1 million yards of steel – each one the length of a football field. They were made to be secured to the bottom of the ocean near the Normandy coast.
They would be towed across the Channel, fitted together, block ships would be sunk to provide breakwaters, and floating pontoons to provide a causeway for all armored trucks, fuel vehicles, and heavy weapons. Even tanks were to be able to drive all the way to the shore. These caissons were to be far enough out to sea to be able to received large container ships.
The operation to build them began on D-day itself. Each harbor was as big as Dover, one opposite Omaha and one opposite Sword. Parts of this one can still be seen at Arromanches. The Royal Engineers had these Mulberry Harbors up and operating on D-Day + 3 (June 9).
Alas, on June 19th one of the worst storms in 40 years hit the Normandy coast. The Mulberry Harbor at Omaha was destroyed beyond repair. So, now it was up to Arromanches and Mulberry #2. General Eisenhower pointed out that if the Allies had not had the two-day lull in the storms on June 5th and 6th, the next suitable date would have been June 19th!
By the end of the liberation of Europe and VE Day more than two-and-a-half million men and half a million vehicles had been unloaded by this method.
The Mulberry Harbor enterprise has often been described as being one of the engineering wonders of the world.
A second engineering achievement was code named PLUTO (Pipelines under the ocean). Of course, essential to the success of the invasion was a reliable and continuing supply of fuel. Just one of these Churchill or Sherman tanks, for example, burned one gallon of fuel every mile. Oil tankers sailing across to Arromanches were subject to the vagaries of the weather and the possibility of submarine attack.
To take care of this a giant pipeline was stretched across 70 miles of the English Channel from Sandown, Isle of Wight, to Cherbourg. Before war’s end 172 million gallons flowed along it. The entry point at Sandown was disguised as an ice-cream factory.
As German and American forces battled to take Cherbourg, so General Montgomery was heading British and Canadian forces to take Normandy’s chief city of Caen. It had been hoped – somewhat optimistically – that Caen would fall by the end of D-Day itself. It took not one day but over one month and much loss of life – sadly including French civilians as we shall see.
Why the delay? For one thing, the hinterland of Normandy is very difficult for an invading army. Fields are marked off by immense dense hedges, fifteen feet high and five feet thick. These had been planted in the Middle Ages, centuries before, by the Vikings, and now were virtually impenetrable. These hedges – bordered by sunken lanes – provided strong defenses for the retreating Germans. In addition Monty faced very strong divisions of Nazi fighters, including seven crack SS Panzer divisions. These were armed with superior 88mm weapons.
Eventually Allied bombers were called in to bomb and shell German emplacements in the city. Already bombs had targeted Caen – even before D-Day. Now leaflets were dropped to urge the civilian inhabitants to leave. Most did not but sought shelter in underground basements and tunnels.
The German Gestapo made a visit to the central Caen prison. They removed all prisoners suspected of aiding the Resistance. Taking them into the courtyard six at a time, men and women – eighty-seven in all – they machine-gunned them to death. As Allied troops neared the city center the Gestapo returned and removed the bodies to seek to cover up the crime.
Tragically, in this blitz of bombs and shells, 800 French civilians were killed and thousands wounded. Almost half the city was destroyed or damaged including beautiful abbeys and churches. On July 9th at last the Allies took control.
Understandably some French inhabitants were angry and bitter towards their ‘so-called’ liberators. One called the bombing action, “…useless and criminal.”
Remarkably, however, the surviving shell-shocked inhabitants, in the main, understood, forgave, and welcomed the Allies with gifts and gratitude.
For example, in my previous chapter on D-Day I mentioned a young nurse who cycled onto Sword beach on D-Day to retrieve a swimsuit from a beach hut. She stayed for two days and nights caring for wounded British soldiers. I have learned that her name was Jacqueline Noel. The swimsuit had been a gift given to her by her twin sister. Her sister was killed in one of the pre-D-Day bombing raids on Caen. Hence the gift, so precious. As well as courage and sacrifice on D-Day, Jacqueline Noel offered understanding and forgiving grace. Amazing grace!
Apparently, for years afterwards veteran survivors would find their way to her Normandy house to thank her for saving their lives.
Before we move on toward the liberation of Paris one or two visitors to Bayeux should be noted
Churchill and de Gaulle
One week after D-Day (June 12th) Prime Minister Winston Churchill sailed across by destroyer from Portsmouth and was met by General Montgomery and taken to Bayeux. Churchill, a life-long Francophile, was ecstatically welcomed by cheering crowds of Bayeux people.
Churchill had wanted to actually sail on D-Day itself and take part in the landings. Eisenhower, Montgomery, and everybody else said such a thing was madness. He was too valuable to be risked. But Churchill was determined. He was only deterred when King George VI said, “In that case, as an experienced Naval officer, I too will go.”
Only that stopped Winston!
Two days later, on June 14th, General Charles de Gaulle arrived. Bayeux gave this leader of Free French forces an even more ecstatic welcome with the Tricolor flag and the singing of the Marseillaise. De Gaulle had regarded the Vichy French collapse and surrender in 1940 as a shameful betrayal. He marched down the famous main street, stood on an improvised platform and made a short speech about the “Glory of France.” He declared, “The Government of France salutes Bayeux, the first town in France to be liberated.” Then de Gaulle retired to Algiers.
We will hear of him again when Paris is liberated and to that we will turn.
On to PARIS
The Allied armies pressed on towards the Rhine, one unit diverting to liberate Paris, the occupied capital of France.
Many were the battles to get there. Says one historian, “…the fighting ahead would make the casualties on D-Day appear light in comparison.” One such battle was around, and in, the city of Falaise – the American armies to the west and the British and Canadians to the east. They were joined by a division of “Free French” volunteers, the 2nd armored division, led by General Leclerc. These French soldiers, having trained in England, landed at Utah Beach on August 1.
Gradually the pincer movement sought to join up together and entrap the huge concentration of German defenders. Eventually forty-thousand defenders escaped in time to fight another day, but a further fifty-thousand were captured.
Into the liberating force at last came General George C. Patton. He had been “stuck” for one month after D-Day still commanding the decoy 1st Army in Southeast England. Of course he preferred real action. That is why he got his nickname (“Old blood and guts”). He was said to be a “God-fearing man” but he used profane language. He once told his troops, “Your duty is not to die for your country but to make sure the other b—— dies for his!”
On arrival in France on August 1 to command the 3rd Army he stood up in a jeep as the men gathered around. “I’m proud to be here to fight beside you. Now let’s cut the guts out of those Krauts and get the h— on to Berlin. I am going to personally shoot that paper-hanging ——- as I would a snake.” The men loved it and whooped and hollered.
Patton evidently was not impressed by the famous British General Montgomery. He reported, “Monty came for a conference and gave us a long explanation why he had been doing nothing!”
Onto the scene again came also General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle had permission from Eisenhower to allow his Free French division under General Leclerc to be the first to enter Paris.
As the Allies advanced across northern France towards Paris and beyond, what of the Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler? He had moved himself and central command to the bunker system at Rastenburg in the forests of eastern Prussia. It was known as “The Wolf’s Lair.” From here he would direct the defense against the advancing Russians in the east.
He directed that on no condition must Paris be surrendered. In fact it must be destroyed “from top to bottom”. Orders were given to the German commander in Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, that seventy especial targets for destruction should include the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and (would you believe) Notre Dame Cathedral. Throughout July and August Hitler kept asking his chief of staff, “Is Paris burning?”
Secret weapons – V-1 and V-2 bombs
On the day after Churchill’s visit to Bayeux (June 13) Hitler launched the first of his promised “secret weapons” which, he was convinced, would bring England to its knees.
This weapon, usually called the “V-1”, was a jet-propelled pilotless flying bomb. From June 13th on they were launched against London day and night.
Usually they were launched from ramps, but as the Allies destroyed these ramps – either by air attacks or overrunning them in the advance – the V-1s were launched from Heinkel bombers.
These weapons were given a precise amount of fuel to keep them flying for the pre-calculated distance, and then fall to the ground inflicting terrible destruction and death. A gyroscope was also fitted to keep them on track. It was the Blitz of 1940-1941 renewed. Londoners would first hear the hum of the approach, then sudden silence. Terrified, they would pause and wait to see if they were about to be plunged into eternity. Truly a terror weapon.
The anti-aircraft guns did their utmost to shoot them down. Fighter Command flew fighters also to try to bring them down. These brave pilots had to be fairly close or their firing would be useless – but not too close or they themselves would be blown up as the bomb exploded. Some even tried to fly alongside and tip the V-1 wings to send them plunging into the sea. Because of the distinctive “buzz”, they were often called “buzz bombs” or even “doodlebugs”, but they were anything but funny.
This horrific blitz lasted from June 13, 1944 until March, 1945. Thirteen thousand (13,000) V-1 bombs were launched in the nine-month period. Five thousand five hundred (5,500) Londoners were killed and thousands more severely wounded.
Several members of my extended family were Londoners and lived through the Blitz and the V-1 and V-2 attacks, including my uncle who was a London City Missionary based in Bermondsey in London’s dockland. They told me stories from their own experiences and those of friends and neighbors during that unforgettable and dreadful period.
June 18th 1944 – Westminster Chapel and The Guards Chapel
June and I met in 1956 as students serving in leadership in the Christian Unions of our respective colleges (Westminster and Southlands) in London. On Sundays we worshiped whenever possible at Westminster Chapel where Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd Jones was at the height of his long and powerful ministry, which had begun just before the commencement of WWII.
On the morning of Sunday, June 18, 1944 – just 5 days after the V-1 bombardment began – “The Doctor” ( as he was affectionately and respectfully known) was engaged in his intercessory “long” prayer from the pulpit.
Suddenly there came the new, but already familiar, buzzing sound, very low and very loud. A flying bomb was obviously near. The Doctor did not stop but the buzz did and the Chapel was shaken by a thunderous explosion. The congregation stood as one to their feet. The Doctor opened his eyes. Showers of white plaster and bits of concrete covered him and others. After a moment it became obvious that, though it had dropped very near, the Chapel had survived. The Doctor therefore calmly resumed his prayer as if nothing had happened.
When he had concluded his prayer he addressed the congregation. If any were nervous or frightened they could move to be under the side balconies for more protection. The Church Secretary, Mr. Marshall (always very formal in a tail coat – even in our time) emerged with a large duster. He dusted off the Doctor and his Bible, and no doubt offered his duster to others. The service then continued.
It later transpired that the flying bomb had landed on the Chapel of the nearby Wellington Barracks inflicting terrible casualties on fine Guards Officers and men.
The Guards Chapel “stood in Bird Cage Walk, St James and was the home of the Royal Guardsmen based at the Wellington Barracks. The church was packed that morning with Guardsmen, their families and friends. Just past 11.00 a.m. not long after the service started, the congregation heard a distant buzzing. It gradually grew louder and turned into a roar overhead which drowned out the hymn singing. The engine cut out and the V1 glided down and hit the roof of the chapel. This was made of concrete, having been rebuilt after damage by incendiary bombs in the blitz. The V1 exploded on impact and the whole roof collapsed on the congregation. Rubble was piled up to 10 foot deep in parts. 121 military and civilians were killed and 141 seriously injured. Only the Bishop of Maidstone, who was conducting the service was totally unhurt. The altar from which he was conducting the service was covered by a portico which sheltered him from the blast.”
A few weeks later another flying bomb landed even closer to Westminster Chapel causing serious damage to the sanctuary which necessitated the congregation worshiping at a nearby hall until the damage could be repaired.
I personally owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr. Lloyd Jones who encouraged me into the preaching and pastoral ministry and became both a friend and a mentor. I also had the privilege of preaching at Westminster Chapel on a number of occasions during the ministries of successors to Dr. Lloyd Jones.
To the V-1 weapon Hitler added the V-2. This was a rocket that made no sound whatsoever except the “whoosh” as it hurtled into the city at 4,000 mph. In total, one thousand, one hundred and fifteen (1,115) V-2 rockets were fired at England. Two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-four (2,754) people were killed and six thousand, five hundred (6,500) severely wounded.
If the British were “brought to their knees” it was, not to surrender, but to pray and fight even harder.
During this period Hitler survived a seventh assassination attempt. In March a bomb had been placed on his plane – but it failed to go off. The plotters tried again.
Now, on July 20, 1944, Colonel Stauffenberg – in attendance at the Fuehrer briefing in Rastenburg – planted a powerful bomb, hidden in a briefcase, under the table very near to Hitler. This time, with Stauffenberg gone flying back to Berlin, the bomb did explode.
Four were killed but, almost miraculously Hitler – somewhat sheltered by a concrete pillar – survived. He was badly shaken and his hearing in one ear almost completely destroyed.
Hitler broadcast to the German people attributing this remarkable escape to “Providence.” He had always believed he had been the Chosen One to lead the German people to be the greatest nation on earth – a nation of “pure Aryan stock” – purged of all Jews, gypsies, sexual deviants, and the mentally retarded or handicapped. The German people would be served by lower humans such as the Poles and Slavs.
How else would he interpret this and his six other escapes from attempted assassination?
This reminds us that, though over all history is a Sovereign and Almighty God, Who “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will…” (Ephesians 1:10), we should be slow to interpret dogmatically individual events.
So – the war went on. The plotters of “Valkyrie” (code name for the plot) were captured and some (like Stauffenberg) immediately shot. Others were hung by piano wire on meat hooks so that they died slowly and in agony. All of which was filmed for the later amusement and satisfaction of the Fuehrer. None escaped retribution; not even Field Marshall Rommel (though he was allowed to take poison and commit suicide).
As the Allies advanced towards Paris, General Charles de Gaulle urged the French Resistance – which he had collectively renamed, “French Forces of the Interior”, to assist the liberation by seizing towns, bridges, and generally harassing the German occupiers, in addition to a general uprising of the Parisian population. Responding, Paris Metro employees, gendarmes (French police), postal workers, and many others went on strike. At first Choltitz sought to ruthlessly put this uprising down. One thousand Resistance fighters were killed and fifteen-hundred wounded. One thousand, five hundred men were captured and sent to Buchenwald, including 168 Allied airmen who had been shot down; and over five hundred women were sent to Ravensbruck.
General Leclerc had fought bravely with the Allies at Falaise and now, as promised, he received permission from General Eisenhower to lead the entrance into Paris.
He moved in to attempt to take the city. The German general decided to refuse his Fuehrer’s order (thereby breaking his oath of allegiance to Hitler), and he surrendered the city, leaving as much as possible unharmed. He said later he did not want to go down in history as “the man who destroyed Paris.” He surrendered his 12,000 occupying German forces on August 25.
That same day General de Gaulle made a speech at the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). In the speech he proclaimed that Paris had been liberated by her own people with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, that is to say, of fighting France “…the true France, the eternal France.” In fairness to General de Gaulle, I must say he was very anxious to seek to unite France (“true” France) – that is the “France” that had “not made peace with the devil” – i.e. Marshall Petain, Leval, and Vichy France. He was also anxious about the communists. There was a sizable chunk of the “Resistance fighters”, the militias, whose agenda was to establish a communist government in France following liberation.
On August 26 General Charles de Gaulle, flanked by Leclerc and with the French armored division behind, led a march from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. Hundreds of thousands of Parisians lined the historic Champs Elysees and surrounding streets – this despite the fact that German snipers were still firing into the crowd from certain vantage points, and some in the crowd were killed or wounded. Thousands more cheered from windows and rooftops, and mobbed the troops with flowers and kisses. It was later estimated that one million people thronged central Paris that day.
Also on August 26, 1944, a service was held in Notre Dame Cathedral in the presence of General de Gaulle, General Leclerc, and other leaders, to thank Almighty God that their Eternal City, the City of Light was “free at last.”
Unfortunately all the Allied leaders found the famous French General very difficult to work with. He was not just a French nationalist, he was an ultra French nationalist! De Gaulle once said, “France has no friends, only interests.” He took as his symbol the Cross of Lorraine, and Churchill, writing later, said the worst cross he had to carry during his tenure as Prime Minister was the Cross of Lorraine!
Later, in 1966 – as President of France – de Gaulle asked that all American troops be removed from France. The U.S. Secretary of State at the time, Dean Rusk, asked, “Would you also like us to remove our dead!”
A final, personal word. I am also a Francophile. I love the French language and culture. We have a dear friend who lives in retirement in Louveciennes, near Paris. Paris is one of the three capital cities I love; London, Washington DC, and Paris. Paris is the most beautiful. So I am grateful to General de Gaulle that he unified France (even though he was an Anglophobe!) and even to German General Choltitz for “sparing the city” from Hitler madness.
Warsaw was not so spared – nor Berlin.
I hope to turn to that as the series proceeds…
ATROCITIES, LIBERATION, AND TWO CRUCIAL BATTLES –
– THE BRIDGES AND THE BULGE
On June 10th, 1944, a unit of German Panzer SS Division arrived at a French small town named Oradour-sur-Glane. The soldiers were on their way from Toulouse to Normandy to help repel the Allied invasion.
Two French collaborators had told them that Oradour-sur-Vayres had captured an SS Officer. They were supposed to rescue him and take thirty hostages. It mattered not to these Nazis that they had the wrong Oradour! They ordered every inhabitant into the square. The men were taken off to six barns, and the women and children were locked in the church. The men were machine-gunned by guns already mounted.
Then, dead or alive, fuel was poured over them and around the barns, and the whole place set on fire. Next – the church. An incendiary device was placed beside it and all the women and children were burned alive. Any who tried to escape through windows and doors were shot to death by machine gun.
In all 190 men died that day, 247 women and 205 children. Included were several people who just happened to be cycling through the town from elsewhere.
As the liberating Allied armies moved across France towards Germany from the west, and the Russian armies did the same from the east, more and more atrocities were discovered such as Buchenwald, Belsen, Dachau, and Auschwitz. Hence the title of this series, “Deliverance.”
After the War, General de Gaulle ordered the ruins of the village should be left as they were as a memorial to those who died and as a reminder of this atrocity. Lest we forget.
DRAGOON – August 15 onwards
General Eisenhower decided to activate another plan by launching an invasion force on the southern coast of France. This was to be between Toulon and Cannes and was code-named “Dragoon”.
And so, on August 15th, as the French under Leclerc were liberating Paris, battleships, cruisers and a thousand other vessels disgorged Allied invaders onto the famous beaches of southern France.
Many of the German defenders were old or tired conscripts, while others were inadequately trained new recruits, and foreign conscripts. Even Russian prisoners were “persuaded” to fight for the Nazis.
The invaders were American, British, Canadian and French. One war correspondent accompanying them was a Welsh radio man called Wynford Vaughan Thomas. He had previously reported from the beaches of Anzio, Italy. Now he landed in France near St. Tropez – famous as a playground of the rich and famous. He was met, not by sun-soaked bathers, but by a well-dressed Frenchman who greeted the invaders with several trays of champagne.
“Welcome.” he said. “If I might venture a small criticism. You are a little late!”
There were pockets of German resistance when territory was not relinquished without a hard fight. But the cost in such battles was very heavy for the Nazi army. They sustained casualties at ten times the rate of the Allies. Mostly, however, the defense was weak and some defenders surrendered almost eagerly. Toulon was taken on August 26, Marseilles on August 28th, and Nice went to the French Resistance without a shot being fired.
Marseilles was a very valuable prize. Between September and December 1944 more tonnage of Allied supplies were unloaded there than anywhere else – eventually one-third of the needed total came through southern ports.
As the liberating Allies advanced through southern France, historic Avignon (home of the famous bridge of the song sung by schoolchildren; and also the Papal Palace from the time when there were two rival Popes) was taken, as was Grenoble.
On September 3 Lyon was liberated by the 1st French Free Army under General Leclerc plus the French Forces of the Interior (Resistance).
In just under one month this southern force had linked up with Patton’s Third Army, thus forming a continuous front from Switzerland to the North Sea.
The American, British, Canadian, and other Allied battalions continued to liberate cities, towns, and villages across France, Belgium, and the Netherlands (Holland). It was most desirable that more ports could be captured and made operational. The further east the Allied armies went the further the fuel, reinforcements, and all other supplies would have to travel – by sea, road, rail, and air.
Even roads through liberated territory could be hazardous. Remnants of German snipers would hide and then try to destroy or hamper the convoys, or terrorize the liberated populations – as we saw in Paris. Allied armies formed “task” groups of troops to stay behind and hunt them down – often called “mopping up.” Americans nicknamed one road, “Injun Country!”
Furthermore, Hitler had issued orders that each port must be a fortress, defended to the last man – and destroyed so it would be of no use. Remember Cherbourg.
Dieppe was one of the first to go. Surprisingly, it proved to be lightly defended. (The defenders said they did not receive Hitler’s memo!) Dieppe, however, was the exception. The others were much harder, sometimes with house to house, hand to hand fighting.
Antwerp was taken on September 4 – by the British Armored Division. It was so vital to the Nazis they bombarded it with V1 and V2 bombs and rockets and planned to re-occupy it. The Germans also continued to control the Scheldt Estuary which prevented the rebuilding and use of the port. The Canadians were “tasked” to drive them out
So thorough had been the destruction, plus the time it took to gain control of the Scheldt Estuary, Antwerp could not receive a convoy until November 28th.
Calais – very heavily fortified because it had been the expected area for the Allied landings – was taken by the Canadians on September 30.
Dunkirk – the scene of that miraculous evacuation of 350,000 British and French soldiers in 1940, was now, in 1944, so heavily fortified the Allies by-passed it, leaving it besieged with a force of Czech troops until it – at last – surrendered on May 9th 1945.
Brussels – The Belgian capital was liberated by a British regiment of Welsh Guards on September 4. There were huge celebrations by the Belgians. At last an end of dictatorship and the return of freedom. Similar celebrations took place in city after city; town after town.
Athens – The Greek capital was liberated on October 14. I wish I had more space to write about Greece. Here is another country I dearly love. I have visited often and had the privilege to preach many times. Greece, first, had been attacked and occupied by Italian armies under Mussolini, but the determined Greek forces had driven them out! Hitler, however, sent his powerful Nazi armored forces to conquer and occupy Greece for four terrible years.
The Netherlands – often known simply as “Holland”, and the people “Dutch” – proved to be a complex problem to liberate.
In 1940, though neutral, as was Belgium, Hitler had no scruples about overrunning these historic and beautiful countries. Goering’s bombers all but destroyed Rotterdam with terror bombing. The Dutch, like Belgium and even France, capitulated. They had little choice. As in all of the conquered countries, a Resistance movement was spawned.
However, in Holland there was also a strong Fascist minority of some 20,000 people in the Dutch National Socialist Party. By 1942 this Fascist Party had grown to 100,000 members, and was strong enough to help the Nazis round up 109,000 of the 140,000 Dutch Jewish population. Most were shipped off to labor camps and eventually exterminated – 102,000 perished – the highest percentage of any country in Europe. Some 25,000 Dutch volunteers even joined the Waffen SS and fought for the Nazis on the Eastern front.
Other brave Dutch people hid Jews, including the Jewish “Otto Frank” family. Sadly betrayed, just before liberation, teenager Anne Frank died in Belsen, but her memory lives on in her famous “Diary”.
Corrie ten Boom
Also betrayed was the Christian “ten Boom” family who hid Jews in a secret room. Corrie and her sister, Betsie, were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where Betsie died.
Corrie was eventually released: because of a clerical error. She became a writer and speaker. She wrote of her experiences in the book, “No Hiding Place,” which was made into a film of the same name. She eventually emigrated to California where she died in 1983 at the age of 91.
One story Corrie told has helped me through my life. She used to tell how, when she felt afraid during the terrible years of Occupation and cruelty, afraid of being arrested by the Gestapo, her father would ask, “Corrie, when you were a little girl and you were going to Amsterdam, when did I give you the ticket for the train?”
She answered, “When we got to the barrier.”
“Well,” he would say,” God will give you grace to face whatever happens to you, when it happens, but not before.”
That is precisely what God did for the sisters – even in Ravensbruck. Before Betsie died she said, “Corrie, there is no pit so deep – but God is deeper still.”
In addition to the round-up of Jews, all Dutch men between the ages of 18 and 45 were conscripted and sent to work in German factories as slave labor.
During the occupation the Dutch Government in exile in Britain called for a strike and the railway workers did so. This so hindered the Nazi occupiers in getting supplies to their troops, and Jews to the death camps, they banned the import of fuel and food. Rations for Dutch civilians were cut from 400 calories per day to 230. Slowly the Dutch people began to starve. They resorted to eating domestic pets and tulip bulbs. Eventually some sixteen thousand (16,000) died of cold and hunger.
Perhaps with some fear of judgment after the War, the Nazi occupiers finally allowed the Red Cross to provide some help and the Allies to provide by air drops (Operation Manna). A remarkable story in itself to which I may make reference later.
Maestricht – was the first Dutch city to be liberated on September 13, 1944. However, some areas of the Netherlands were not finally free until May 1945.
“A BRIDGE TOO FAR”
For most of the liberation of Nazi occupied Europe the Allies could claim victories, though often with fierce battles and severe troop losses. The Allies, however, had one failure: code-named Operation Market Garden.
Montgomery, in the north, put before Eisenhower a bold plan. This was to mount a massive airborne landing, some of which would be sixty miles behind enemy lines, to capture a major bridge over the Lower Rhine, at Arnhem in Holland. This would require other airborne troops to capture and hold six or more bridges over canals and tributaries of the Rhine to enable an army to cross the Rhine at Arnhem.
Having done that they would drive forward out-flanking the famous Siegfried Line and overpower German defenders of the great industrial area, known as the Ruhr.
The Siegfried Line – renamed by the Germans “The West Wall” – was 390 miles long, from the Netherlands to Switzerland, had 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps. If Montgomery’s plan could succeed there was even speculation that the war could be over by Christmas.
Ike accepted the plan. He put U.S. General Lewis Bretebon in command, with the commander of 1st British Airborne Division, General Robert Browning, as his deputy. They did not get on too well.
On September 17, 1944, the airborne assault began. This was to be larger even than D-Day – probably, therefore, the largest airborne assault in history.
All operations were to be timed perfectly to coordinate, allowing British General Horrock’s Army to drive up the one road to Arnhem. At first there were successes. Some bridges were undefended or succumbed quickly. However, one vital bridge had been blown up by the Germans and Allied engineers had to set to and erect another pontoon bridge as soon as possible. Delays were inevitable.
- There were to be many other problems. Nevertheless, all of the bridges – except the last and main target – the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem – were taken. As Browning said,
“It was a bridge to far!”
It was a story of disasters:
- The weather was uncooperative with fog preventing some flights and diverting others.
- Many gliders either landed on wrong drop zones or crash landed with tragic loss of life and vital vehicles and supplies.
- The British Airborne’s appointed drop zone was eight miles away from Arnhem. This – contrary to usual airborne tactics – was to avoid heavy anti-aircraft batteries (flack). They were supposed to go quickly to Arnhem by jeep. The trouble was the jeeps had been destroyed in the gliders’ crash. Now they had to do a four-hour march.
- Worst of all, the Allied invasion encountered two crack German armored units equipped with Tiger tanks capable of firing 88mm armor piercing shells. As the army began its advance up the two-way road, Tiger tanks were waiting to ambush the head of the column. Result – the rest were blocked on this narrow two-way road and were “sitting ducks”. Later it was described as “Hell’s Highway.”
- A final straw was the capture of a British officer carrying (would you believe?) detailed plans of the whole operation!
Historians (as is often the case) seem to find no settled agreement on losses. Nearest estimate of casualties (killed, wounded, or captured): British – over 13,000; U.S. Airborne – almost 6,000; Polish – unknown; Germans – 26,000 – of which 16,000 were captured.
It later came to light that a day or two before the operation, Dutch Resistance plus Bletchley Park intercepts of German coded signals, had warned of these unexpected Panzer units. Whereupon a very concerned officer had received permission to fly a reconnaissance Spitfire over the area and he came back with photographs of these armored units. General Browning – checking with both Monty and Ike – decided to ignore both the reports and the photographs. They even arranged for the “messenger” to be sent home on leave as “suffering from nervous strain and exhaustion.”
After 10 days of savage fighting Montgomery had to order a withdrawal on the 24th.
In the autumn of 1944, the German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler was feeling dispirited. His Generals – whom he usually blamed for setbacks and losses – always seemed to bring him bad news.
Even his favorite, Reich Minister Albert Speer, now cast a gloom over discussions. Speer was really an architect. He and Hitler used to confer for hours over elaborate plans for wonderful modern cities when Germany had won the War. Now Speer was tasked with keeping the armaments factories flowing. Trouble was the Allies, with night after night day after day of massive bomber raids, were destroying the factories – and the cities around them.
Hitler had four fronts to worry about. The Russians were now pushing the Nazi armies back on the entire 2,000 mile eastern front. Russia itself was now liberated from German occupation and Russian troops were well into Poland by the end of September. As the Russian army advanced, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania changed sides, so Hitler lost the Romanian oilfields.
Slowly, but surely, the Allies in Italy were succeeding; and the landing force in southern France had liberated city after city as we have seen.
Then there was Eisenhower. He was pushing American, British, French, and Canadian forces forward along the 500 mile front in the west. Hitler knew they were intending to cross the Rhine if they could and defeat Germany in the Fatherland. All bridges were to be prepared to be blown up. But, against the advice of his Generals, Hitler insisted that German territory west of the Rhine must also be defended ferociously. No “tactical withdrawals” to prepare defenses. The West Wall (Siegfried Line) was to be fortified: though the Allies would try to bypass it from the Netherlands.
Yes, the Fuhrer sure had a lot to think about.
HITLER’S SECRET PLAN
In his mind, however, another idea was germinating. To mount a massive offensive on the western front at a place where Eisenhower was weakest and at a time when the Allies would least expect it. The place – the Ardennes Forest. The time – the winter.
Hitler believed himself to be a genius, of course. However, his genius was best demonstrated – not with tactical retreats – but with unexpected overwhelming attacks. A blitz. He must mount an offence, not defense. One last (?) gamble.
He shared his plan with few, but made the secret arrangements to transfer great divisions of infantry and armor and assemble them in place. Goering promised him 3,000 planes (some hope!). Though Germany had already lost millions of men, Hitler would find millions to replace them. Conscription was extended from ages 16 to 60. Once deferred students were now “called up.” Some women were allowed to work in factories, thus releasing the men. (Hitherto Hitler’s views were that “Aryan women’s place was in the home.”)
Non-essential workers were withdrawn from factories and replaced with yet more slave labor. One hundred and thirty thousand (130,000) were taken from occupied Netherlands.
So, on November 20, Hitler left The Wolf’s Lair at Rastenburg for good and prepared to literally bunker down beneath the Chancellery in Berlin. Through the night his train took him first, to Rundstedt’s HQ where top generals were gathered. He revealed to these astonished military men – including Rundstedt himself – this daring plan. To be launched December 15th. No protests would be tolerated. After a couple of long monologues he departed for Berlin. Never to leave.
THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE – DECEMBER 15, 1944 – JANUARY 25, 1945
The hilly and heavily wooded area of Ardennes stretched across parts of Belgium and Luxembourg. It formed part of the five-hundred mile front Eisenhower had to defend. It could not all be defended with equal strength. So the Ardennes was the “Achilles Heel.” Tired, weary, and even exhausted troops may take some rest. New battalions made up of untried divisions of new recruits could be stationed there. Christmas was coming and Montgomery was given leave to “pop over” home to see his family and, on the 15th was actually playing golf! Eisenhower, himself, was attending a wedding. The skies were overcast, which is just what Hitler hoped for. Allied planes could not fly. The Fuhrer knew that the Allies had air superiority.
The Allies had about 83,000 men positioned in the Ardennes; the Germans had amassed 200,000. The Allies had 394 artillery; the Germans had 1600. The Allies had 4 infantry divisions; the Germans, 8. Armor (tanks) – the Allies, 1 division; the Germans, 5 divisions. With the element of surprise Hitler’s gamble looked like it was indeed a stroke of genius. The Allies were indeed taken completely by surprise.
Hitler had several vital goals. One was to re-take Antwerp, another to re-occupy Brussels. The Allied armies were to be cut in half and even surrounded. Monty (now promoted to Field Marshal) in the north was to be separated from Patton’s 3rd Army and that, in turn, to be separated from the US 1st Army.
Eisenhower realized very quickly that this was no brief skirmish. With an amazing accomplishment of his own he began to move armored divisions as well as available infantry many miles to provide strength against the attack, eventually amassing a force of over 600,000 men.
The 101st US Airborne (“Band of Brothers”) traveled 100 miles through the night and managed to reach the key crossing city of Bastogne just before the Germans took it. Immediately upon arrival the German Lieutenant General von Luttwitz besieged the city and prepared to attack. It was vital for the success of Hitler’s entire operation.
The weather was bitterly cold. Water was frozen solid in the soldiers’ bottles, so was food. They had to try to break it into small pieces to be melted in the mouth.
As General von Luttwitz launched attack after attack, the U.S. General McAuliffe realized he was running short on ammunition and other vital needs. Eventually an emissary came from the Germans under a white flag, suggesting that the Americans surrender. Their position was surely hopeless. General McAuliffe replied with a one-word answer which became famous, “NUTS!”
Then on Christmas Eve the skies began to clear and the Allies now could drop food and other reinforcements to the beleaguered brave Americans. Furthermore, “the cavalry” was coming. General George Patton had been ordered to go to the relief of Bastogne; and that is exactly what happened. Nevertheless the Germans were tenacious fighters and von Luttwitz did not call off the repeat attacks to capture Bastogne until January 5th 1945.
Furthermore, with clearing skies, Allied fighter-bombers could now attack the German armor – often trapped on narrow forest roads, or stuck in snow drifts. Though Luftwaffe planes also could be mobilized many planes were destroyed on the ground – they had no fuel to take off!
Panzer tanks also ran out of fuel and were finally stopped 70 miles short of Antwerp.
Battles raged on with the Allies gradually prevailing. My readers will understand that I have neither space nor knowledge to describe much detail of the titanic battles which ensued. Historians are agreed that, had Hitler pulled this off, the story of World War II would have been very, very different.
By January 25th the German line was back where it started. Gone was “the Bulge” in the Allied line, but one story circulated quickly throughout the Allied battalions – even to Ike’s headquarters in Versailles.
Apparently, on December 17 a US convoy of trucks was overrun and all troops had to surrender. The captured Americans were herded into a nearby field and left under light guard. Along came an SS Panzer unit who trained their tanks upon them and massacred them with machine gun fire. Some ran into the woods and survived to report the atrocity. Some ran for shelter to a nearby café. The SS set it on fire. The place was Malmèdy. Eighty-six (86) captured men were murdered.
Both sides continued to fight hard. What Americans did with SS prisoners I know not. After Malmèdy they did not wish them “A Merry Christmas”, of that I can be sure.
The Germans had lost 120,000 men (killed, wounded, or missing); 600 tanks and assault guns; 1,600 planes and 6,000 vehicles.
American losses were also severe: 8,000 killed; 48,000 wounded; 21,000 captured or missing.
Now Hitler’s “genius” plan had been thwarted, the crisis passed, General Eisenhower’s coalition of Allied armies could return to their assignment to defeat Nazi Germany and finish the War. More cities must be liberated, more V1 and V2 bomb and rocket sites destroyed (they were still raining down terror on British cities). The Rhine is yet to be crossed. Britain’s “Monty” and US “Patton” – egoists – each strove to be first across… Who will, “hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line?” – as we schoolboys used to sing in England.
We shall see in the next chapter…
THE RUSSIANS, TWO CITIES, AND THE RHINE
Let me remind my readers of the situation on the Eastern Front in this never-to-be-forgotten World War.
On June 22, 1941 Hitler attacked the Russian occupied part of Poland then swept across the western part of Russia itself. The Russians lost 1,500,000 (1½ million) men killed in the first two weeks and a further 1,000,000 (1 million) captured.
At first the German armies had many victories and occupied much territory but then the summer ended, the snows came, and the notorious Russian winter. With it the military tide stalled, and then turned.
Hitler opted to besiege Leningrad (St. Petersburg).
Outside Moscow dedicated Muscovite wives, mothers, and even “babushkas” (grandmothers) dug trenches until their hands were blistered and their backs breaking.
STALINGRAD – became a heroic story of itself. A story still being re-told in top-selling books and high grossing films.
The survival – and eventual triumph of the Russian armies – was due to the following: the heroism and determination of the Russian people; the continuous re-supply of men and armaments (added supplies being sent from America) and the incomparable brutality of the winters.
I believe also that God came to their aid because tens of thousands of believers in the (officially) atheist state were now once again allowed to pack the churches and call upon the mercy of Almighty God (see also Part 3 of this series).
Russian General Giorgi Zhukov, the most successful of the Russian generals, began to prevail in counter attacks. As the German invaders were pushed back out of Russia and then ejected from Poland, the battles were titanic. Casualties were horrendously high on both sides. Sometimes cities, towns and territories were liberated only to be re-occupied by a German counter offensive.
It seems almost a sin to only mention some of the great battles and the accompanying suffering of the Russian, Polish, and German people, but I must ask readers who wish to know more to consult appropriate books, or the wonderful on-line resource called “Wikipedia.”
But to mention some examples:
- February – the battles for Kharkov – liberated – reoccupied – liberated again
- July – Kursk – regarded by historians as probably the largest tank battle in history
- June – Minsk – capital city of Belorussia
- July – Tannenberg – famous both for the battle fought in 1914; and the burial site for President von Hindenburg
Nevertheless, by mid-August 1944 the Russians had liberated most of Poland and sought to be in Germany itself by the end of the year. As the Russians fought across Poland they came across terrible atrocities.
When the Nazis were retreating from a city – such as Krakow – their instructions were to “liquidate all Jews remaining in the ghetto“. When the Russians liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1944, they saw what “liquidation” meant – mass murder.
I shall have more to write on this horrific subject in the next chapter; including the experience of the Western (U.S. and British and Canadian) forces as they liberated concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Belsen.
A Tale of Two Cities
LENINGRAD – was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. It became the capital city, St. Petersburg, with the beautiful palaces of the Tsars. In 1924 it was renamed Leningrad after Vladimir Lenin – one of the founders of Communism. Lenin moved the capital to Moscow.
The German armies laid siege to Leningrad, encircling it in September 1941. On the eastern side of the city lay Lake Ladoga, said to be the largest freshwater lake in Europe.
Hitler’s plan was to bombard the city by artillery fire and bombing. In addition, the population of about two million was to be gradually starved to death. Food became very scarce. Rationing was, of course, introduced but theft of food or a ration book could be punishable by death. Amounts allowed each person became smaller and smaller as supplies ran out. Supplies could not be brought through contiguous Finland. The Finns had been at war with Russia even before the German invasion, so at first they were pro-German. That was to change later.
Thus the starving inhabitants were trying to be supplied across the lake – boats in summer – trucks in winter – once the ice was thick enough. Highly risky due to enemy shelling and bombing.
The Western allies tried to drop supplies but Stalin (for some reason) refused to let Allied planes refuel at Russian airfields. The people took to eating horses, then cats and dogs began to disappear. There were even rumors of cannibalism – especially the more tender “meat” from the bodies of children who had died. However, discovery was also punishable by death. Death was everywhere. One million were buried; one-hundred-and-ten thousand (110,000) cremated. The authorities could not cope. Bodies lay in streets unburied.
After the war, the diary of a young girl called Tanya Savicheva was found. Tanya wrote: “Sister died…grandmother died…brother, then uncle, another uncle, finally…mother has died. Only Tanya is left. Everyone has died.” She was rescued from Leningrad with 140 other children in August 1942 and taken to the village of Krasny Bor, but she was very sick and died in May 1944 of intestinal tuberculosis. Her diary is now displayed at the Museum of Leningrad History.
In 1942, Karl Eliasberg, the conductor of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra scraped around to find musicians. Weakened though they were, on August 9, 1942, they played the newly composed Symphony No. 7 by Dmitri Shostakovich, which he had dedicated to Leningrad. Loudspeakers were placed across the city and even facing the German lines. It was an act of defiance. August 9th had been the date announced in advance by Hitler when he would be celebrating the fall of Leningrad. Tickets had even been distributed for the hotel where the celebration was supposed to take place.
Instead of champagne (or vodka) the Germans were treated to defiant Russian music!
In January 1943 some Russian units broke through and brought a modicum of relief. Hitler had said the city was to be razed to the ground. Much damage had been done to the palaces; much beautiful artwork stolen or destroyed.
But – on January 27, 1944 at last the Russian liberators came and the Germans retreated. Six-hundred-and-forty (640,000) thousand civilians had died of starvation alone. Some historians say it was the worst siege in history.
WARSAW – On September 1st, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. Poland was conquered in less than three weeks and in the capital, Warsaw an occupation began that was to last for four terrible years.
Almost immediately the Nazis began identifying the Jewish population and persecuting them – as they did in all places they conquered. First the Jews were forbidden to enter cafés and restaurants, then public parks and recreation areas. Next they had to wear a “Star of David” armband and step into the road if German soldiers approached.
On October 31st, 1940 all Jews were herded into a central area – known as “The Ghetto.” A wall was built around it and four-hundred-thousand (400,000) Jews were interned there. Jewish leaders were appointed to organize their own community.
Beginning in July 1942 the leaders in the Ghetto were informed that seven thousand (7,000) Jews per day were to be made ready to leave. They were to be “re-settled” in the East. Actually they were taken to Treblinka, a death camp, and gassed immediately. A total of three-hundred-thousand (300,000) were “re-settled” in this way.
However, the Jews began to suspect what was happening and began to resist. Approximately sixty thousand (60,000) were left alive in the Ghetto following the deportations and they collected a few weapons thrown to them over the wall.
On January 18, 1943 when the Germans entered the Ghetto to start more deportations they rose up. The final battle took place between April 19 and 28, 1943 when the Germans entered the Ghetto in force. All the homes were systematically destroyed by flame-throwers and artillery, block by block. Thirteen thousand died: either burned alive or suffocated. Any left alive were taken to Treblinka.
Meanwhile the Polish (non-Jewish) residents of Warsaw were also severely malnourished, if not actually starving. They, too, were smuggling in arms or even stealing them from German depots and armories. Thus – over several years – they built up an organized “Resistance Army“.
In London the Poles had a “Government in Exile“. This body sent the signal to rise up on August 1, 1944 – perhaps because the Russian Army had reached the banks of the Vistula River opposite. It was expected the Russians would come to the aid of the Warsaw Resistance and drive the Germans out. They did not. They “sat on their hands” and left the Poles to their fate. The uprising lasted 63 days. Ten thousand Resistance Army members were killed in the fighting. Between 100,000 to 200,000 civilians died, mostly by mass executions. In the end some 250,000 Warsaw civilians surrendered and were marched off to concentration camps.
The Germans also took casualties. Approximately 8,000 died and 9,000 were wounded.
Why did Stalin order his troops to wait? He said it was because they were exhausted and could not yet fight a street by street, house by house, urban conflict. Others thought it was because Stalin did not like the pro-Western and pro-democracy Polish Government in Exile in London. He wanted to appoint a Communist one.
The German occupiers at last abandoned Warsaw in January 1945. They first had to obey the order of Adolf Hitler. “The city must disappear completely from the surface of the earth…No stone should remain standing but must be razed to the foundation.”
85% of the city was destroyed.
A brilliant recent film, “The Pianist”, which won several Oscars, accurately portrays the suffering of the Jews in Warsaw. It is the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish classical pianist and composer. He was a Jew who survived the War – and played concerts again.
- In 1983 I was privileged to travel and preach for a month in Poland with a Polish Christian brother. Poland was at that time under the control of Communist Russia. I met wonderful Christians, enjoyed their hospitality, and preached in their churches.
As the Russian (Soviet) forces were moving ever westward towards Berlin, so the Allied forces under General Eisenhower (Ike) were heading east towards the German homeland also.
In the north Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery (Monty) was planning a massive assault upon two defensive obstacles: namely the mighty river Rhine and the famous “West Wall” (Siegfried Line – described in Part 7). With the failure of the Allies to shorten the war with Operation Market Garden (“A bridge too far”), this time Monty wanted a resounding success.
In the center and south there were three great U.S. Armies under the overall command of General Omar Bradley: Courtney Hodges over the U.S. 1st Army; George Patton leading the 3rd, and William Simpson the 9th. They, too, were hoping to cross the Rhine and overcome the “West Wall” defenses.
Before attempting a crossing of the Rhine some Nazi occupied cities west of the river must be taken care of.
One was the old fortress city of METZ in eastern France near the border. This city, declared Hitler must be a “festung” (“fortress city”). The German defenders must never surrender without the Fuhrer’s express permission. He wanted to tie up the U.S. divisions as long as possible and further strengthen the West Wall.
The liberation of Metz fell to General Patton’s 3rd Army. It was a long costly battle – lasting from the end of September 1944 until mid-December. Casualties were incalculable but very high on both sides. One indication could be: the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe is at nearby St. Avold, with 10,489 graves.
After Metz it was AACHEN (in French, Aix-La-Chappelle). It actually lay in the part of Germany lying west of the Rhine – known as “The Rhineland.” The German Commander in Chief was Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt. Fearing horrific casualties for a “lost cause”, he asked permission of Hitler to withdraw from the western Rhineland and strengthen even more the German “Homeland” east of the river. Hitler replied “absolutely NOT.” Aachen was to be another “fortress city.”
Historical – Perhaps Hitler remembered Aachen had been the seat of government of the great Charlemagne in the 9th century and the first ruler of Germany.
My readers may remember also that back in 1936, after Hitler became Supreme Nazi Dictator, he was determined to reverse some of the – so regarded – humiliating aspects of the Versailles Treaty following the defeat of Germany in 1918.
One was that, though Germany could keep these “Rhineland” territories, there must be no German military there of any description. A de-militarized zone.
So, on a memorable day, March 7th 1936, Hitler ordered German troops to march over several Rhine bridges in the western Rhineland. He – and all Germany – waited to see what France would do. Nothing! The mood was appeasement. One British M.P. said, “Well, after all Herr Hitler has only gone into his own backyard!”
What was not known then was that Hitler was very nervous. He had ordered that if there was any resistance from France the German troops must immediately withdraw. Hitler was now emboldened to further conquests – Austria, February 1938; Sudetenland, September 1938; Czechoslovakia, March 1939; Poland, September 1939 – result, World War II.
So the battle for Aachen was “on”. Arrangements had been prepared to evacuate the civilian population. The governing officers, however, had already moved to safety. Hitler immediately stripped these officers to the rank of “Private” and had them sent to fight – and probably die – on the eastern front. Gerd von Rundstedt was replaced. Just for asking!
Under the U.S. 1st Army and General Hodges once again the fight was brutal, street by street, house by house, fighting. The Germans lost 5,000 dead and 5,000 captured. The U.S. forces 5,000 total. But Aachen was the first German city to fall to the Allies. The battle had lasted from September 12 to October 21, 1944.
The U.S. forces were now ready to attempt a Rhine crossing. However, the retreating Germans were under strict instructions to blow up all bridges.
Imagine, therefore, the surprise of an armored unit of the 9th U.S. Army when, looking down from the heights of a town called Remagen, they saw an intact bridge. It was “The Ludendorff Railway Bridge” with an accompanying footbridge. Their superiors ordered soldiers to dash across as quickly as possible and seek to overpower defenders on the eastern side. On March 7, 1945, brave soldiers began to do this while heroic engineers sought to disable the fuses and wires connected to the explosives.
Once the startled defenders realized what was happening they made every attempt to blow the bridge with the U.S. infantry on it and the engineers underneath it. One reason the defenders were taken by surprise was because this was not topographically suitable terrain for a military crossing. High bluffs towered both sides of the eastern end from which withering mortar, rockets, and artillery fire could be directed upon the Americans. And it was!
In spite of this 8,000 troops made the crossing in the first twenty-four hours and engineers got busy erecting other bridges – foot for infantry, pontoon for armor. After ten days, on March 17, the Germans managed to bring down the bridge with the loss of 28 engineers killed and 93 wounded – but by then approximately 22,000 U.S. men were across establishing a strong bridgehead.
Hitler was apoplectic. He ordered a “flying” court-martial to be arranged at once and all five officers responsible to be shot. Four were executed immediately. The other fortunate fellow had been captured by the Americans.
Of course, George Patton was excited and arrived just as quickly as his jeep could carry him. The engineers had eight bridges constructed and Patton went over.
After crossing the Rhine, and gathering divisions of his 3rd Army, Patton set off for Berlin (he thought).
First he begged Bradley to announce to America and the world that the 3rd Army was over the Rhine on March 22, and that they did so “ahead of Monty!”
Actually Monty was busy with his own assault to start next day. He congratulated Hodges, Patton, and all the successful U.S. soldiers. He hoped this would mean German divisions would have to try to form a counter-attack and thus weaken the defenders facing the British, Canadian, and U.S. troops further north.
Patton received permission from Allied HQ (Eisenhower) to “keep going”, but to bypass Trier, because it would require four divisions to take it. Patton replied, “We have already taken Trier with two divisions. What do you want us to do? Give it back?!”
General George S. Patton became something of a folk hero in the United States. But not all the stories about old “blood and guts” are commendable – or even amusing.
For example: Patton turned up in person at his HQ and asked them to form a “Task Force” of men and armor to go and rescue U.S. prisoners in a German prisoner-of-war camp – Oflag 13-B – about 60 miles behind German lines. His officers declared it impossible. Neither men nor equipment could be spared for such a mission.
The General, however, was so insistent it became an order. They asked why. He said, ”Because my son-in-law is in captivity in that camp!” No doubt they shook their heads in disbelief but had to comply. An order is an order! Patton’s son-in-law was Major John Walter
The camp was near a town called Hammelburg and Patton supposed there to be some 900 U.S. prisoners. The Task Force was to dash as fast as possible with 300 men and weapons, plus several tanks, and enough trucks to transport the prisoners back to safety. As they drove no town was to be spared, no prisoners taken.
The convoy, under Capt. Abraham Baum, drove at full speed causing alarm and confusion to German civilians and military alike. Many white sheets appeared in the windows of houses, but grenades were tossed into them anyway. A truck full of German soldiers appeared traveling in the opposite direction. The Task Forces slaughtered the surprised occupants with withering fire. As they drove on one young U.S. officer saw, to his horror, there were girls in the truck – albeit some in uniform. He pulled off to the side of the road and vomited for shame!
Eventually, having themselves taken casualties, they approached the camp. The prisoners were cheering and Major Walters went forth under a white flag to approach his rescuers. He was immediately shot by a lone German sniper and severely wounded. There were not 900 prisoners but 1,291. The Task Force did not have enough trucks. Some prisoners would have to be left behind including the sick – and even Major Walters! The attempt to get back to safety and freedom was a fiasco. Five hundred (500) prisoners turned and limped back to the prison camp hardly able to march. Others wandered into the forests and fields only to be recaptured. Of the 300 men of the task force, 32 were killed in action. Only 35 made it back; the remainder were captured. The German guards evacuated the camp and made the prisoners march east to another camp.
The Third Army Press Office was told to put out only that “a US Task Force” had been lost. It had been sent to attempt a rescue fearing that these prisoners might be shot. Patton said he hadn’t known that his son-in-law was interned there! Patton’s officers knew the true story but chose not to reveal it until after a further twenty years. By that time Patton was long dead.
Not all Patton’s men hero-worshiped their flamboyant General. Some said, “Yes, he is ‘old blood and guts’. Trouble is it is OUR blood and guts, not his!”
This was the code name for the massive enterprise by the 21st Army Group under Field Marshall Montgomery. It comprised several regiments of infantry from the British Army (such as the Scottish “Black Watch”) and the 30 Corp under General Brian Horrocks; US troops of the 9th Army under General Simpson; plus Canadian Divisions. Commando Units of British and US Airborne Divisions were in operation. Behind a massive smokescreen Royal Engineers and U.S. Engineers were preparing pontoon bridges to throw across the Rhine, and the Navy had been designing suitable landing craft.
The operation began on March 23 with a bombardment of 4,000 Allied guns, and bombing destruction by the Royal Air Force of key towns and cities. This onslaught continued for 4 hours. Long after the end of the War General Horrocks talked of a decision he had to make which haunted him still.
In the pathway of the Allied force lay the historic city of Cleves. Some readers may remember that the 4th wife of the oft-married Henry VIII was “Anne of Cleves.”
Horrocks knew that Cleves harbored a garrison of German defenders and a supply depot. Should he “take out” Cleves? It was a residential city of many women and children. But to save the lives of his own troops Horrocks ordered it to be “taken out.” It was reduced to rubble by bombers. For years, said Horrocks, he had nightmares about Cleves and all those women and children. “I felt I was a murderer.”
After the bombardment, there followed an airborne landing even larger than that of D-Day. The Commandos fought to secure the eastern side of the river.
In some places the German resistance was relatively light, but in others the opposite. By March 25th thousands of troops were across – some bridges of 1,300ft length were constructed in record time. Nearby Winston Churchill had arrived to watch this operation. On 25th he expressed a desire to go across. Eisenhower, with Monty, said, “NO! Too dangerous.” But after Ike had departed Churchill commandeered a boat and, with Monty and other top brass, spent some time on the shores of the German Homeland. They departed only when it seemed they were being targeted by shell fire. Monty later explained to a displeased Eisenhower, “The Prime Minister actually wanted to go over in a tank!”
Where now? Berlin?
Now was Eisenhower going to give to these Commanders – Monty, Simpson, Patton, Hodges – the go-ahead for Berlin? That is what they wanted and what they assumed would be the order.
Ike said, “No.” He wanted Monty to make his way to capture the Baltic ports and encircle the great industrial are of the Ruhr. Simpson was to link up with Monty. Hodges and Patton were to continue across Central Germany then head for Bavaria. Leave Berlin to the Russians. Zhukov was almost in the suburbs anyway. The western Allies were at least 300 miles away.
The battle for Berlin would surely be bloody and very, very costly. It was. Furthermore, there was some evidence that Hitler had plans to make a “last stand” at a redoubt, heavily defended, in the Alpine fortress of his Berchtesgaden house.
Next time we will consider these matters: the end of Hitler in his Berlin bunker; and the end of the European part of the War. V.E. Day.
For the next chapters click on DELIVERANCE – The Story of WWII – chapters 9-11