The odds may have been heaving in the Allies’ favour, but Eisenhower in the west and the commanders of the Russian fronts in the east knew that Germany was not a military power to be underestimated. Only a well-coordinated and tenacious attack would succeed. The campaign began inauspiciously, however, with a battle that would prove unexpectedly bloody, brutal and futile.
In the autumn of 1944, six British, American, Canadian and French armies advanced on Germany from the west, while three Red Army fronts approached from the east.
Numerically, the Allies had overwhelming superiority. Their uniformed combatants numbered well over five million – the US and the Soviets fielded more than two million soldiers each – and they were backed by almost 20,000 aircraft. British and American planes controlled Germany’s skies, from which they bombed towns and cities remorselessly in the hope of weakening the country’s industrial base and demoralizing the population. Germany’s forces, meanwhile, were dwindling in number, as its soldiers were killed or captured and its planes shot down. Persistent Allied bombing had devastated the German oil fields and synthetic oil plants were only producing a fraction of what was needed to keep the country’s tanks and other military vehicles on the move.
To an outside observer it was an unequal fight with a certain outcome. Some German generals believed the war was lost as early as July 1944. Each month that passed, each kilometre of retreat, seemed to bring further proof of the country’s inevitable defeat.
In September 1944 – when Allied victory was still uncertain – American, British and Soviet politicians began to plan the fate of a defeated Germany. Designed to prevent the dominance of a single power and international disputes after the war, Germany was to be divided into three zones of occupation, assigned to each of the “Big Three” victors.
The zones were reaffirmed at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, but with a difference. The Americans and British insisted that the French be given their own zone in the west of Germany. Stalin reluctantly agreed, so long as the French zone was carved out of the American (southern German) and British (northern German) zones. Berlin, located within the Soviet sector, would also be split into four zones of occupation.
No firm “stopping” lines were drawn up at the conference, which would have prevented the western Allied troops from liberating parts of Germany in the Soviet zone. At the time of Yalta, the British and Americans were still west of the Rhine, recovering from the Ardennes offensive and anxious about the existence of a southern redoubt. They didn’t expect to reach beyond the Elbe before the Red Army took Berlin.
In April 1945, however, the pace of the British and American advance took them further than expected. Eisenhower restrained his armies from continuing further east, leaving some Allied planners disappointed, who wanted to see General Patton liberate Prague. Instead, Eisenhower established stopping lines, beyond which only reconnaissance patrols were permitted to venture. Churchill remarked that Eisenhower’s decision must have been political, thinking ahead to the new world order. Yalta, he claimed, left a loophole: occupation zones were not to affect strategic military decisions, so Berlin, Vienna and Prague could be liberated by whichever army got to them first.
By the end of the war, both the British and Americans had advanced into territory far beyond their zones of occupation. The “line of contact” – where the western Allies met the Soviets – ran from Wismar on the Baltic, through Schwerin and Magdeburg, to the east of Leipzig and through Pilsen (in modern-day Czech Republic) to Linz (in Austria).
In July 1945 the British and Americans withdrew from the territory they had taken in the Soviet zone. The Soviet Union, in turn, honoured the division of the city of Berlin into four sectors. Austria was treated in a similar fashion to Germany, except that the centre of Vienna was declared a fifth, international zone to be governed by each of the occupying powers in turn. The postwar Potsdam Conference in August ratified the occupation zones.
With the advantage of hindsight, it’s hard not to ask why Nazi Germany carried on fighting rather than negotiating a peace with the Allies.
Before the war, Hitler had proudly proclaimed the start of a thousand-year Reich. In his mind, Germany’s territorial expansion into Central and Eastern Europe – and the war that followed – was just the beginning. Even as he was forced to fight on multiple fronts, unable to mount a new offensive, Hitler still talked and behaved like a man who thought he could win the war.
Hitler trusted in himself and his mission, and believed it was Germany’s destiny to be victorious under his leadership. Faced with mounting German losses, Hitler responded by branding his generals incompetent and his people irresolute. He was dismissive of anyone who expressed pessimism towards the Nazi cause, and made it clear that his confidence on winning the war rested on three expectations. Firstly, Hitler believed that the Allies would argue among themselves and that these divisions could be exploited. This was possible: at times, the American and British generals carped at each other, and the only motivation they shared with the Soviets was a desire to see the end of Nazism. Secondly, Hitler hoped that the introduction of new weapons would swing the balance of power in Germany’s favour or terrorize Britain’s population into demanding peace. Had Germany perfected the atomic bomb before the USA, the outcome of the war may indeed have been different.
If none of these hopes was realized, Hitler was certain that providence would step in to save Germany, killing one of his enemies or dealing a similarly devastating blow to the Allies.
Top image: Town of Bacharach in the Rhine Valley © saiko3p/Shutterstock