By late August 1944 the Allies had more than made up the time lost slugging it out in Normandy and were well ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, their rapid advance also placed them ahead of the supply buildup planned to support a drive to the German border. As a result, the Allies conducted their operations in France and the Low Countries during the late summer and fall of 1944 on a logistical shoestring.
Supply limitations shaped the strategic debate about the course of future operations—a debate perhaps more important for its political ramifications than its strategic merits. Montgomery believed that the supply shortages dictated the need for a more focused advance. He suggested that Eisenhower halt the American advance and funnel available supplies to the British and Canadian forces on the Allied left, where the terrain was more suited to mobile operations. For obvious reasons, such a proposal held few attractions for the Americans, who argued for a continued advance on a broad front.
There were advantages and disadvantages to both strategies, and it is impossible to say with certainty which was better from a purely military point of view. But Eisenhower recognized that Montgomery’s strategy was politically dangerous. Such a decision would infuriate the American public, place a huge burden on the British-Canadian forces that would henceforth bear the brunt of the casualties, and risk a weakening of the heretofore solid Anglo-American alliance. By now, the Allied invasion in southern France had begun (5 August), and by the end of the month, advance elements had reached Grenoble. Eisenhower hoped that this second supply corridor would help alleviate the logistical crisis before the Germans recovered.
Unfortunately, the Allied broad advance slowed and then stalled. In September, Eisenhower agreed to allow Montgomery to try to break the Rhine River line in the Netherlands by using three Allied airborne divisions to seize a series of bridges leading to the main crossing at Arnhem. But the daring operation failed, principally because the Germans had already recovered their equilibrium. The Allied advance continued along the front from the Channel to the Swiss border, but the fighting was more attritional than mobile. Allied hopes that the war might end before Christmas were dashed.
As the western Allies struggled to break out in Normandy, the Soviets opened their summer 1944 offensive. On 23 June, the Russians launched Bagration, an operation designed to destroy the German Army Group Center. In six weeks, a series of successive and deep attacks encircled and destroyed the bulk of an entire German army group. By 1 August, the Soviets were on the outskirts of Warsaw. Much of German Army Group North was trapped in Estonia and Latvia. In August, the Soviets struck farther south and broke the German lines, overran most of Romania, and drove into Bulgaria and, later, Yugoslavia and Hungary. In the fall, the Russians closed up on the East Prussian border in the north, but remained idle in the center while the Germans destroyed the Polish resistance in Warsaw.
Hitler, facing disaster on all fronts, decided to gamble. During the fall, the Germans had built up a sizable reserve of panzer divisions. He knew that these divisions would be quickly consumed in the east, but their impact in the west would be substantial. He planned to strike through the Ardennes, split the Anglo-American front, and recapture the main Allied supply port of Antwerp.
The Germans struck on 16 December along the American front in the Ardennes, achieving near-complete surprise. Bradley’s troops were caught off balance and with few reserves. The situation was an embarrassment for the American high command, and Montgomery did little to spare their fee balance and with few reserves. The situation was an embarrassment for the American high command, and Montgomery did little to spare their feelings.
But despite initial success, the operation was a forlorn hope. The Germans had thrust through the Ardennes in May 1940, but at that time had motored unopposed through a virtually undefended region. The Americans defended their positions in the Ardennes, and whatever the faults of their high command, the troops were dogged in their determination. German panzer leaders quickly discovered that the Ardennes was not, in fact, prime tank country. They were tactically road-bound and unable to move quickly. The advance fell behind schedule, and fuel supplies ran short. Initially, poor weather kept the jammed roads safe from Allied air attacks, but when the skies cleared on the 23 December, the dreaded Allied fighter-bombers appeared. On the northern flank of the Bulge, as it became known, the Americans, backstopped by the British, held firm. In the south, Patton masterfully redirected his Third Army from an easterly to a northerly orientation and drove into the German flank. On 26 December, Patton relieved the Americans at Bastogne, a major road junction that had held out in the German rear. The Allies spent the rest of December and January eliminating the Bulge and, with it, Hitler’s final hope for something other than complete and utter defeat.
The Soviets, to help take the pressure off the Americans in the Ardennes, stepped up the timetable for their own offensive. Along the front from Hungary to the Baltic, Soviet advances shattered the German line. By mid-February, the Russians had reached the Elbe, less than fifty miles from Berlin. Hitler shifted his reserves from the west to the east, counterattacking in Hungary. But gains were few, and the German counterattacks were quickly overwhelmed by broader and heavier Soviet offensives. Vienna fell on 13 April. Stalin’s armies were poised for their final offensive toward the Nazi capital.
In the west, the Allies unleashed a series of offensives designed to bring their armies into position along the entire length of the Rhine. By early March, they had succeeded, taking ever-larger formations of Germans prisoner. By late March, the Allies were across the Rhine in the British sector in the north and in the sectors of the First and Third American Armies. Within a week, the Americans encircled the Ruhr and, with it, an entire German army group. In late March and early April, Allied forces began a race across Germany. Eisenhower, for sound political and military reasons, decided not to drive toward Berlin.
On 16 April, the Soviets began their final offensive, comprising two fronts driving for Hitler’s capital. By 25 April, the Russians had surrounded Berlin. Hitler committed suicide on 30 April, and by 2 May, the Russians had extinguished resistance in the city. On 7 May, Admiral Karl Dönitz, Hitler’s successor, surrendered. The Second World War had come to an end in the European theater.
In retrospect, it is tempting to conclude that the effective Allied coalition was itself sufficient to secure success. Combined, Russia, the United States, and Great Britain outproduced Germany in every military category. But quantity, while important, was itself no guarantor of victory. Excepting the Polish campaign, early on the Germans were usually outnumbered and won nonetheless. Ultimately, all the production in the world could not have defeated the Wehrmacht unless that output had been applied judiciously and effectively.
At the level of grand strategy, the Allies demonstrated clear superiority. Whatever their early mistakes, they planned for the long war they fought. The United States, despite the post-Pearl Harbor debacle and public desire to refocus the American war effort in the Pacific, stuck to its prewar Europe-first strategy, rooted in the correct assumption that Nazi Germany posed the far more serious threat than Japan. That the Allies enjoyed a production advantage in the final stages of the war was no accident: it was a planned outcome. Few leaders in Moscow, London, or Washington held illusions about the costs or the length of the war.
In the strategic realm, there can be little doubt that the Allies were much wiser than their Axis counterparts. Generals such as Eisenhower may never have commanded a unit in battle, but they possessed the diplomatic and management skills to wage coalition warfare effectively on an oceanic and continental scale. A general with Eisenhower’s background would never have risen to such a position of prominence in the German army, but then Eisenhower would never have waited until the campaign in Tunisia was concluded before considering his next move to Sicily, in the fashion that the German generals in the spring of 1940 thought no further than the immediate defeat of France. Even Soviet strategic military planning after 1942 was more thoughtful and analytical than that of the Germans.
At the operational level, the Germans excelled, but their advantage eroded gradually and was often undermined by poor strategy. By midwar, the Allies often displayed operational excellence. Russian operations during 1943 and 1944 demonstrated an evolving level of skill and appreciation of the realities of war, including the tactical limitations of the Soviet army. The Russians made the most of their numerical superiority, but numbers had not guaranteed victory in 1941 or 1942. They did so between 1943 and 1945 because of an improved level of operational effectiveness.
Tactically, the Germans retained their superiority until the end of the war. But here, too, the German advantage declined as the war progressed, and Allied tactics improved as their armies learned from experience much of what the Germans had learned from study during the 1920s.
In the air, the Germans lost the initiative earlier than they did on the ground. During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe and the industrial base upon which it was built displayed their limitations. This failure was central to the Axis defeat. German combined-arms doctrine envisioned close cooperation between ground and air elements. When the Germans lost the initiative in the air, in 1942 in the west and 1943 in the east, they lost a fundamental component of their military machine. While Allied doctrine for close air support never became as effective as that of the Germans, the Anglo-American air forces excelled in interdiction and the isolation of the battlefield.
In the realm of strategic air warfare, the Germans were at a disadvantage. By 1942, faced with a protracted struggle, the Luftwaffe lacked the capability to retaliate. Geography was a major factor: even possession of a bomber comparable to the B-17 would not have allowed the Germans to strike distant American factories. But the Germans possessed the means to develop a fighter force capable of defending the Reich. The Battle of Britain had demonstrated that successful air defense was possible. But lack of strategic direction, and technical and administrative incompetence and mismanagement, assured German defeat in the air.
Nazi Germany lost the war because it failed to continue the pace of innovation so evident in the 1920s. The Nazis, during their twelve years in power, were unable to build on the strategic, operational, and tactical inheritance of the Reichswehr. In April 1945, they were still relying on Enigma coding machines that the Allies had learned to read six years earlier. Blitzkrieg was in many ways nothing more than the addition of steel tanks to an existing combined-arms doctrine that had employed cardboard substitutes. The Germans developed their air doctrine primarily before the advent of Hitler. In the strategic realm, Hitler and his generals failed to look beyond the defeat of Poland and France, as envisioned almost two decades earlier by Seeckt, until it was too late. In 1944 and 1945, operationally and tactically on the ground, in the air, and at sea, the Germans were often doing things the same way that they had done them in 1939 and 1940. The same could not be said of the Allies.