By the dawn of 1945, the war in Europe was finally going the Allies’ way. That hadn’t always been the case.
A sense of relief swept through Allied ranks after the successful — although bloody — D-Day landings at Normandy in June 1944, when the Western Allies finally opened a second front in Europe.
In the months that followed, however, euphoria had given way to frustration. Successes were followed by setbacks, and as the troops approached Germany, the Allied advance had bogged down.
Six weeks after D-Day, the Allies broke through German defenses at St. Lo, killing or capturing up to 65,000 German soldiers and enabling Gen. George Patton’s forces to race across France. Paris fell to the Allies on Aug. 25 — 55 days ahead of schedule. By September, the Americans were closing in on Aachen, which would become the first German city to fall.
U.S. troops crossed German defenses along the Siegfried line but had bogged down in the dense Huertigen Forest just across the border in Germany in fighting reminiscent of World War I-style trench warfare.
In September, Operation Market Garden, a bold plan to seize Rhine River bridges in the Netherlands and sweep into northern Germany, failed with up to 17,000 Allied casualties.
Supply was a huge problem. The Germans were still holding out in several Channel ports, limiting Allied ability to bring in enough food, fuel and ammunition. British and Canadian troops managed to capture the major German port at Antwerp in November, but at the cost of nearly 13,000 casualties, about half of them Canadian.
With the Allied advance stalled, the Germans launched a “go-for-broke” assault Dec. 16, pouring 200,000 troops and 340 tanks into a bulge in the Allied lines in the dense Ardennes Forest of eastern Belgium. Their goal was to split the Allied forces, recapture Antwerp and negotiate a separate peace with the Western Allies so German forces could shift eastward to stop the Soviet advance.
With bad weather depriving the Allies of their advantage in the air, the Germans routed inexperienced U.S. divisions. But heroic U.S. defense at places like Bastogne, the Elsenborn Ridge and St. Vith blocked or delayed the German advance, buying time for an Allied counterattack. The U.S. suffered more than 89,000 casualties in more than a month of intense fighting during the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in World War II.
German losses were estimated at up to 100,000 — losing men and equipment they could not replace. For the Allies, victory was in sight, even if the bloodletting was not over.
Crossing the Rhine
With Germany’s battered forces in retreat, the Allies still faced a major obstacle, the Rhine River. Flowing from Switzerland to the North Sea, the river forms a natural western barrier into the heart of Germany, and the Germans were systematically blowing all the bridges. Allied commanders expected that crossing the Rhine would be costly and difficult.
On the afternoon of March 7, 1945, forward units of the U.S. 9th Armored Division approached the Rhine at Remagen, a village south of Bonn. The troops knew there was a 400-yard long railroad bridge at Remagen but assumed it had been blown up. As patrols crested the ridge above the town, they were stunned to see the bridge intact, with German soldiers and civilians scurrying across the span. The senior U.S. officer, Lt. Col. Leonard Engemann of Minneapolis, had orders to turn south and link up with Patton’s forces. Instead, he decided to seize the bridge.
At 3:50 p.m., a U.S. platoon attacked, setting off furious volleys of gunfire as the Germans tried frantically to organize a defense. German prisoners said later the bridge had been wired with explosives just before the attack, but the German lieutenant in charge of the demolition was drunk. Sgt. Alexander Drabik of Holland, Ohio, raced across the bridge while Lt. John Mitchell of Pittsburgh cut the detonation wires under heavy machine-gun fire.
Soon hundreds of American trucks packed with troops were rolling over the bridge, establishing an eastern bridgehead and becoming the first invaders to enter Germany from the west since Napoleon. For a week, the German divisions attacked the bridgehead and tried to destroy the bridge with artillery, mortar fire, airstrikes and even frogmen in the water. By the time the bridge collapsed March 17, nearly 25,000 troops had poured across the river. The bridge was never rebuilt.
A week after the bridge collapsed, U.S. troops broke out of the bridgehead, and the British crossed the Rhine to the north soon afterward. They launched a giant pincer movement that trapped about 430,000 German soldiers in the so-called “Ruhr Pocket.” By late April, 350,000 German troops had surrendered. Organized resistance in the west had collapsed. The road to Berlin was open.
Race to Berlin
In the east, the Soviet juggernaut was rolling westward, fueled by a desire for revenge after years of slaughter and destruction. Hitler had attacked his former allies June 22, 1941, rolling across vast areas of the Soviet Union until the Soviets turned them back at Stalingrad in February 1943. The slaughter on the Eastern Front was staggering, including more than 30 million dead on all sides. Germany suffered 80 percent of its military deaths in World War II in the east. More troops were engaged in ground combat on the Eastern Front than in all other theaters of World War II combined.
The Soviets entered the Polish capital of Warsaw on Jan. 17, 1945, and soon launched a major offensive westward, rolling through eastern parts of Germany, the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, but with horrific casualties. Within months, Budapest and Vienna had fallen to the Soviets. The big prize — Berlin — lay waiting for the taking.
In February 1945, leaders of the major Allied powers — President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — agreed at Yalta on the division of a defeated Germany into zones of occupation.
But Allied armies were free to push forward as far as they could as long as Germany was still fighting. As the war drew to a close, U.S. troops had reached Czechoslovakia, which would become a pro-Soviet state, as well as parts of Germany that would fall into the Soviet zone. Berlin was up for grabs for whomever got there first.
By April, however, the supreme Allied commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, had decided that for U.S. forces, destroying the remaining German forces was more important than taking Berlin. He worried about reports that fanatical Nazis would regroup around Hitler’s Alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden for a last stand. Despite opposition by some British and American commanders, Eisenhower agreed to let Stalin fight it out in the shattered streets of Berlin and to halt the U.S. advance at the Elbe River.
On April 25, an advance patrol of the U.S. 69th Infantry Division crossed the Elbe by boat at Torgau, 70 miles southwest of Berlin and 700 miles west of the Normandy beaches, and met with members of the Soviet 58th Guards Division. The next day, Soviet and American troops posed for pictures and partied in the town square.
“This is not the hour of final victory,” said President Harry S. Truman, in office only 13 days since Roosevelt had died of a stroke. “But the hour draws near, the hour for which all the American people, all the British people and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed so long.”
Final showdown in Berlin
The Soviets launched their assault on Berlin on April 16 with a thunderous barrage of artillery and rocket fire on German defenses on the Seelow Heights a ridgeline about 40 miles east of the center of Berlin. Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov threw nearly 1 million troops across flooded, swampy plain at the 110,000 German defenders, who held out for three days before the Soviets breached their lines.
On April 20, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery began shelling Berlin. Within days the Soviets had fought their way into the city, defended by fanatical SS troops, regular army, Hitler Youth and old men, some of them World War I veterans. In the Reichstag, the German parliament building, SS and Hitler Youth fought room to room.
On April 29, German commanders told Hitler they expected to run out of ammunition that night. Hitler gave permission for remaining German units to try to escape the city. A day later, he and his new bride, Eva Braun, committed suicide.
A week later, on May 7, Gen. Alfred Jodl surrendered all German forces effective the next day. On May 9, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the final documents before Soviet and western commanders in Berlin. Celebrations erupted across Europe and the United States.
But euphoria over Germany’s defeat was tempered by the knowledge that Japan remained in the fight. The Allies were drawing up plans for an invasion of Japan. The Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated an invasion would cost 1.2 million American casualties, including 267,000 deaths.