After the Allies had breached the Rhine, they had a chance to regroup and take stock before marching on central Germany.
By the end of March 1945, General Eisenhower was drained; the Rhine had finally been crossed, but only after months of difficulties and reversals. Since D-Day there had been several moments in which the Allies had assumed the collapse of Germany was imminent and the war was close to an end, and Eisenhower had learned not to celebrate too soon. Once the Allies had successfully crossed the great river, Eisenhower had time to rethink his strategy. The weight of responsibility had depleted his mental and physical resources, however, and he took five days off in Cannes, which he used mainly to sleep.
For most of the war, Eisenhower had favoured an advance in Germany on a broad front, and for several months had encouraged Montgomery’s belief that his 21st Army Group would be the main invasion force, with a mandate to thrust across northern Germany towards Berlin. When Eisenhower returned to his headquarters at Reims, he revised his strategy, partly because of the capture of the bridge at Remagen and partly because of the rapid progress of the Red Army from the east. He realized that there was no point in competing with the Soviets to take Berlin, who were much closer to the German capital than the Anglo-American forces. In addition, committing US troops to an attack on Berlin would risk heavy casualties for a city that was steadily being reduced to rubble.
Instead of looking to Berlin, Eisenhower nominated Montgomery’s rival, US General Omar Bradley, as the vanguard. His US 12th Army Group would traverse Hessen and Thuringia, making for Leipzig and Dresden in Saxony, before meeting up with the Soviets on the Elbe. Once Germany was defeated, it would be divided into zones assigned to the western Allies and the Soviets. Montgomery’s role would be to protect Bradley’s northern flank, while the south was assigned to Devers’ 6th Army Group.
Having successfully crossed the Rhine, the Allies were presented with an opportunity they had anticipated for some time. The cities of the Ruhr made up the industrial heartland of the German Reich, and although they had been damaged by Allied bombing, the factories were still of great symbolic importance. Hitler would defend them with force, but that incurred a risk: the Allies may be able to surround the Ruhr and capture the German troops within their cordon.
The German Army Group B, led by Walter Model, defended the Ruhr. Model was aware of the risk of encirclement, but was told by Hitler to make the Ruhr into a fortress that would not yield. Model was outmatched. His men were poorly trained: they included numerous Volkssturm militia volunteers, some of whom were unarmed, and members of the Hitler youth who – though enthusiastic and ready to die for the Fatherland – were unlikely to offer any serious resistance.
On Easter Sunday, which fell on 1 April 1945, US troops travelling north met their counterparts travelling south at Lippstadt, and the Ruhr was enveloped. Model’s predicament worsened, and on 14 April the US divisions split the Ruhr Pocket into two further sections, east and west. The next day Model formally dissolved his army group, a move to make his coming surrender seem less calamitous. He made provisions for the safety of his family before committing suicide on 21 April to avoid the shame of capitulation. More than 300,000 prisoners were captured in the Ruhr Pocket, a much higher number than the Allied planners had predicted. In total, one and a half million German prisoners were taken on the Western Front. Incarcerating all of them in safe conditions was a major problem for the Allies, a common issue throughout the Liberation.
While the events of the Ruhr Pocket were being concluded, Hodges’ US First Army advanced rapidly across land to the south of the Harz mountains, until it neared the Elbe river. On 25 April, forward American patrols met Soviet scouts at Torgau, a meeting of great significance. German forces in the north of the country were cut off from those in the south, and Berlin was surrounded. The war could only have days left.
Dresden, in the far east of Germany’s central belt, was one of the last cities to be taken by the Allies on 8 May 1945. It had already suffered enormously as the result of a ruthless bombing campaign in February of the same year.
Although the city had little industry of value to the Reich, it was repeatedly bombed by the British and Americans, igniting a firestorm. Whether the bombing of Dresden was a legitimate act of strategic warfare or a terrible atrocity – even a war crime – is hotly debated. The number of casualties is also controversial, but 25,000 civilian deaths is probably a fairly low estimate.
The Military History Museum in Dresden is one of the few museums in the country that has German military equipment from both world wars. The largest items on display include a V2 ballistic missile and Germany’s first submarine. The museum aims to explain how armies and war influenced politics and society in the twentieth century, and vice versa.
Fifteenth-century Colditz Castle was used to incarcerate political prisoners in the early years of the Nazi regime. At the outbreak of war, it was designated “Oflag IV C” and claimed to be “escape-proof”, serving as a prisoner of war camp for Allied officers until it was liberated on 16 April 1945. Life inside was relatively comfortable, but thirty prisoners still defied the camp’s guards, barbed wire, searchlights and reputation to break free. A British escapee later wrote The Colditz Story, which was subsequently adapted into the film that turned the castle into a household name in Britain. The museum displays artefacts and uniforms of Allied POWs as well as detailed information on their legendary breakouts.
The Nazi regime relied on violence and terror perpetrated by a fanatical paramilitary organization called the SS (or Schutzstaffel). It was founded in 1925 as a personal protection force to escort the Führer, and each member swore unconditional loyalty to him. The SS was divided into units. One enforced Nazi racial laws; another ran the concentration and extermination camps; the Gestapo – the official secret police – carried out investigations, acts of torture and executions in Germany and its occupied territories.
Heinrich Himmler, a former chicken farmer appointed as Reichsführer – head of the SS – in 1926, had big plans for this triangular castle. It was used in the 1930s and the early years of the war as an SS ideological training site, a meeting place of high-ranking officers and a base for Himmler’s military and racial elite. The north tower was planned as the focal point of a vast complex consisting of a series of concentric installations. Slave labourers, housed in a specially commissioned concentration camp nearby, began construction work, but it was never finished. The intended purpose of the circular crypt and Hall of the Supreme SS Leaders above it is unknown.
In the guardhouse, a permanent exhibition entitled “Ideology and Terror of the SS” tells the story of the SS and its relationship with Wewelsburg between 1933 and 1945.
“Nothing has shocked me as much as that sight,” wrote Eisenhower of his visit to Buchenwald, the largest concentration camp in Germany, shortly after its liberation on 11 April 1945. At its height, Buchenwald and its 139 subcamps held a staggering 280,000 prisoners. An estimated 56,000 people died here – some as the result of torture or medical experiments – including eight thousand Soviet prisoners who were shot in a specially built killing facility. There was an underground resistance organization operating in the camp, but it was unable to prevent the worst excesses.
Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp was established in 1943 near Nordhausen in Thuringia and served as a subcamp of Buchenwald. Like Buchenwald, it was liberated on 11 April 1945. The memorial includes one permanent collection and several changing exhibits with information on the camp’s history.
“Always happy to be at your service” was the slogan of Topf & Söhne, the leading company for the supply, installation and maintenance of crematorium incinerators under the Weimar Republic. The creation of the Nazis' extermination camps boosted business for Topf & Söhne, whose engineers installed corpse incinerators and ventilation systems for gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and serviced their upkeep. The management knew what its products were being used for; demand for better efficiency led one of the company’s engineers to design and patent a horrifying “continuous operation corpse incineration oven for mass use”. Even as late as February 1945 Topf & Söhne was planning a new extermination centre for Mauthausen camp in Austria, reusing machines that had to be dismantled at Auschwitz-Birkenau because of the approach of the Red Army. The company was closed down after the war, and its former premises are now a memorial to those who died as a consequence of the Holocaust and – more directly – as a result of Topf & Söhne apparatus.
Top image: Buchenwald Memorial © iStock