While the Poles were being crucified in Warsaw, on 20 August 1944 Marshal A. M. Vasilevsky began his drive to clear the Germans out of the Balkans, which saw spectacular successes as the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts crossed the Prut River and attacked Army Group South Ukraine in Romania. With Hitler desperate to retain control of the Romanian oilfields, without which his tanks and planes would be forced to rely on failing synthetic-fuel production within the Reich, he could not withdraw the Sixth Army (reconstituted in name after Stalingrad), twenty divisions of which were therefore entrapped in a giant pocket between the Dnieper river and the Prut by 23 August. On that same day, Romania surrendered, and soon afterwards changed sides and declared war on Germany: 100,000 German prisoners and much matériel were taken and by 31 August the Red Army was in Bucharest. Despite having advanced 250 miles in ten days, it then actually sped up, crossing 200 miles to the Yugoslav border in the next six days, and to within striking distance of Budapest by 24 September.
On 25 August Model was posted off to the west to replace Kluge both as commander of Army Group B and as commander-in-chief west, the posts Rommel and Rundstedt had held on D-Day. In the calendar year 1944, therefore, Hitler had appointed his ‘fireman’ to command each of the three major army groups in the east, and for a short period the Army Group North Ukraine too, as well as the two senior posts in the west. It was an extreme example of how Hitler tended not to leave his generals in commands for long enough for them to grasp more than the essentials. Only one month into Model’s command in the west, he was relieved of it when Rundstedt was recalled from disgrace, although he retained his command of Army Group B, in which position he defended the Scheldt estuary for eighty-five days, defeated the British and Poles at Arnhem and commanded the Ardennes offensive.
Rundstedt’s career was equally pitted with examples of the Führer’s caprice. His first forced retirement had taken place before the war even started, in October 1938 after he had supported non-Nazi generals during the Wehrmacht rearmament programme that he headed. Recalled to command Army Group South in June 1939, he was one of the twelve field marshals appointed on 19 July 1940. When in December 1941 he refused to obey Hitler’s ‘Stand or die’ order at Rostov, he was dismissed. Four months later he was appointed commander-in-chief west, but was removed from command on 6 July 1944 after trying to persuade Hitler to adopt a mobile defence rather than fighting for every town and village in France. After his recall that September, and being given his old job back, he was sacked once again after advising one of Hitler’s Staff officers to ‘Make peace, you fools!’ in March 1945. Rundstedt’s four dismissals were exceptional, but Guderian was sacked twice, in December 1941 and March 1945, and the movement of senior personnel on the Eastern Front in 1944 resembled a merry-go-round, made more complicated by the renaming of the army groups as the geographical situation worsened.
Bulgaria, which up to this point had been at war solely with Britain and France, made the inexplicable and suicidal decision also to declare war against the USSR on 5 September 1944, only to collapse within twenty-four hours after the Russians crossed the Danube. She then joined the Allies on 8 September. Further south, Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front marched on Belgrade, aided by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav partisans, taking it on 20 October. ‘The results of Nazi barbarity, by now sickeningly familiar, greeted Russian liberators and more than 200 mass graves had been filled with slaughtered Slovaks.’
Hitler insisted on Army Group F staying in Greece for as long as possible, which meant that it could not help much in the defence of Yugoslavia, where, in order to avoid being cut off, Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, the German Supreme Commander in south-east Europe, was forced westwards via Sarejevo as the Russians established a bridgehead over the Danube on 24 November and encircled Budapest on Christmas Eve. The Hungarian capital held out bravely, if in vain, through terrible privations until mid-February 1945. The frustrations of the Red Army besiegers were taken out on the women of Budapest, with mass rapine in scenes that were to be repeated across eastern Europe, and especially in Germany.
Meanwhile, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were liberated from Hitler’s yoke between 10 October and Christmas 1944, only to fall beneath Stalin’s for the next forty-four years. Guderian, who had been appointed OKH chief of staff in June, attempted to get the twenty veteran divisions of Army Group North – a powerful manoeuvrable striking force – out of west Latvia so that it could reinforce the hard-pressed German units defending East Prussia to the south, but he was prevented from doing so by Hitler. So when the Russian 1st Baltic Front reached the Baltic Sea and took Memel, Army Group North was trapped, with no land route back to East Prussia. Hitler had effectively created a ‘fortified locality’ out of the whole western part of Latvia. Between September and November 1944 the German Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies were forced to retreat into Baltic enclaves at Memel and Kurland, but Hitler would not evacuate them, because he said he needed the Baltic coastline to continue to import Swedish iron ore and to test a new generation of undetectable, indefinitely submersible U-boats that were faster underwater than the Allies’ convoys. Hitler now hoped to win the war by marooning the Anglo-American armies on the Continent without supplies. He later insisted that, although some divisions could evacuate, the Kurland bridgehead must be held by an entire army. Thus his forces were trapped in the Kurland pocket, which the Red Army perceptively came to regard as a gigantic POW camp maintained for them by the Wehrmacht, and so did not force it to surrender until the end of the war. (The U-boats never came on stream in sufficient quantities either.) As 1944 ended, it was understandably hailed as ‘The Year of Ten Victories’ by the Soviets, who had seen an unbroken run of success since the relief of Leningrad that January.
On 12 January 1945, the Russians unleashed a massive offensive along the entire front from the Baltic Sea in the north down to the Carpathian mountains in the south, against what was left of the new German Central Front, made up of the seventy divisions of Army Group Centre and Army Group A. Planned by Stalin and the Stavka, but particularly by Zhukov, this giant offensive primarily comprised, from south to north: Konev’s 1st Ukrainian, Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian, Ivan Chernyakovsky’s 3rd Belorussian, Ivan Bagrayan’s 1st Baltic and Andrei Yeremenko’s 2nd Baltic Fronts, no fewer than 200 divisions in all. Faced with this onslaught, wildly outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans conducted an impressive fighting retreat of almost 300 miles, losing Warsaw on 17 January and leaving isolated garrisons at Thorn, Poznań and Breslau that had no real hope of relief.
Almost one million German citizens were sheltering in or around the pleasant city of Breslau in Lower Silesia, which was not a fortress in the conventional sense despite attempts after August 1944 to build a defensive ring at a 10-mile radius from the city centre. ‘Women and children must leave the city on foot and proceed in the direction of Opperau and Kanth!’ blared loudspeakers on 20 and 21 January 1945, effectively expelling the civilian population into 3-foot snowdrifts and temperatures of –20 Celsius. ‘The babies were usually the first to die,’ records the historian of Breslau’s subsequent seventy-seven-day defence.50 For all the horrors of the siege – 26 per cent of Breslau’s fire brigade perished, for example – the Aviatik cigarette factory somehow continued to make 600,000 cigarettes a day, which was good for morale. Ammunition and supplies were parachuted in by the Luftwaffe, but these often fell into the Oder or behind the Russian lines. Lower Silesia’s famously brutal Gauleiter, Karl Hanke – who executed Breslau’s mayor for suspected defeatism – chose the cellars under the University Library to use as his bunker. He wanted to blow up the library to provide additional cover above him, but feared that the flames from its 550,000 books might spread dangerously. (A Gauleiter perishing from the burning of books would have had its own pleasing irony.) In the event Breslau surrendered only on 6 May 1945, with troops throwing their weapons into the Oder and changing into civilian clothes. The siege had cost the city the lives of 28,600 (that is, 22 per cent) of its 130,000 soldiers and civilians. A few days before Breslau’s capitulation, Hanke – whom Hitler appointed as Himmler’s successor as Reichsführer-SS in his will – changed into an NCO’s uniform and flew in a Fieseler Storch plane from the Kaiserstrasse airstrip. He was shot by Czech partisans when trying to escape in June 1945.
Zhukov reached the Oder River on 31 January 1945 and Konev the Oder–Neisse Line a fortnight later, before finally halting due to their long lines of supply and communications. ‘Logistics is the ball and chain of armoured warfare,’ Guderian used to say, and, having long worked to their advantage, these long lines would now occasionally work in the Soviets’ disfavour. Hitler’s dispositions continued to make Germany’s strategic situation worse. Guderian recalled after the war that the Führer had refused his advice to bring the bulk of the Wehrmacht stationed in Poland back from the Hauptkampflinie (front line) to more defensible positions 12 miles further back at the Grosskampflinie (defensive line), out of range of Russian artillery. Disastrously, Hitler’s orders meant that the new defensive lines, only 2 miles behind the front, were badly hit by the Soviet guns, wrecking hopes for a classic German counter-attack to develop. ‘This was in absolute contradiction of German military doctrine,’ notes an historian of the campaign. Hitler’s insistence on personally approving everything done by the Staff was explained to Guderian with words so hubristic as to invite retribution from the gods: ‘There’s no need for you to try and teach me. I’ve been commanding the Wehrmacht in the field for five years and during that time I’ve had more practical experience than any gentlemen of the General Staff could ever hope to have. I’ve studied Clausewitz and Moltke and read all the Schlieffen papers. I’m more in the picture than you are!’
A few days into the great Soviet offensive in the east, Guderian challenged Hitler aggressively over his refusal to evacuate the German army in Kurland, which had been completely cut off against the Baltic. Speer vividly recalled walking across the heavy, hand-woven rug in Hitler’s massive office in the Reich Chancellery to the table top of blood-red Austria marble, ‘striated with the beige and white cross sections of an ancient coral reef’. When Hitler refused Guderian’s request to evacuate the trapped army across the Baltic, as ‘he always did when asked to authorize a retreat’, the OKH Chief of Staff lost his temper and addressed his Führer with what Speer described as ‘an openness unprecedented in this circle’. Speer thought that Guderian might have been drinking with the Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Oshima beforehand, but whatever the reason he stood facing Hitler across the table, ‘with flashing eyes and the hairs of his moustache literally [sic] standing on end’, saying, in ‘a challenging voice’: ‘It’s simply our duty to save these people, and we still have time to remove them!’ Hitler stood up to answer back: ‘You are going to fight on there. We cannot give up these areas!’ ‘But it’s useless to sacrifice men in this senseless way,’ continued Guderian. ‘It’s high time! We must evacuate those soldiers at once!’ According to Speer, ‘Hitler appeared visibly intimidated by this assault,’ more by its tone than by the arguments themselves, and although the Führer of course got his way, ‘The novelty was almost palpable. New worlds had opened out.’
In January 1945, as the Red Army’s Vistula–Oder operation rolled forward and Warsaw was about to fall, three senior members of Guderian’s OKH planning Staff – a colonel and two lieutenant-colonels – were arrested by the Gestapo and interrogated about their seeming questioning of orders from OKW. Only after Guderian spent much time and energy intervening were the lieutenant-colonels freed, although the colonel was sent to a concentration camp. ‘The essence of the problem lay in Hitler’s Führer-system of unquestioning obedience to orders clashing with the General Staff’s system of mutual trust and exchange of ideas, against a background of Hitler’s class consciousness and genuine distrust of the General Staff following the failed putsch.’
At a two-and-a-half-hour Führer-conference starting at 4.20 p.m. on 27 January 1945, Hitler explained his thinking with regard to the Balkans, and in particular the oilfields of the Lake Balaton region in Hungary. Attended by Göring, Keitel, Jodl, Guderian, five other generals and fourteen other officials, he ranged over every front of the war, with the major parts of the agenda covering weather conditions, Army Group South in Hungary, Army Group Centre in Silesia, Army Group Vistula in Pomerania, Army Group Kurland, the Eastern Front in general, the west, ammunition allotments, Allied advances in Italy, the north, the situation at sea, and political and personnel questions. ‘Our main problem is the fuel issue at the moment,’ Guderian told Hitler, who replied: ‘That’s why I’m concerned, Guderian.’ Pointing at the Balaton region, he added, ‘If something happens down there, it’s over. That’s the most dangerous point. We can improvise everywhere else, but not there. I can’t improvise with the fuel.’ He had been speaking of the importance of keeping hold of the Balkans, largely for its copper, bauxite and chromium deposits, as well as oil, since mid-1943. The Sixth Panzer Army, reconstituted after its exertions in the Ardennes offensive, was ordered to Hungary, from where it could not be extracted.
Defending Hungary accounted for seven of the eighteen Panzer divisions still available to Hitler on the Eastern Front, a massive but necessary commitment. By January 1945, the month that the battle of the Bulge was lost, Hitler had only 4,800 tanks and 1,500 combat aircraft in the east, to fight Stalin’s 14,000 and 15,000 respectively. The Red Army’s 12 January offensive finally came to an end a month later on the lower reaches of the River Oder, a mere 44 miles from the suburbs of Berlin. It had been an epic advance, but had temporarily exhausted the USSR. Yet his troops’ proximity to the German capital gave Stalin a greatly increased voice at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea, called to discuss the endgame in Europe, and to try to persuade the Soviets to undertake a major involvement in the war against Japan.
Mere survival by then was, for Hitler, Darwinian a priori proof of Untermensch status, and the utter destruction of Germany was preferable to her domination by Stalin. Although there must be some doubt that Speer interpreted Hitler correctly about the Soviets, whom he had only ever referred to with contempt as ‘barbarians’ and ‘primitives’, there was none about the order the Führer gave to his Gauleiters, Reichskommissars and senior commanders the very next day, 19 March, entitled ‘Demolitions on Reich Territory’, in which he commanded that ‘All military transport, communication facilities, industrial establishments, and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory that could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the continuation of the war, be destroyed.’
Fortunately this order was not carried out by Speer at all, and by Nazi officials only sparingly according to the level of their fanaticism. If it had been carried out to the letter, the German people could hardly have survived the winter of 1945/6, which was harsh enough for them as it was. ‘I think the Wagner ideology of Götterdämmerung [Twilight of the Gods] had an influence on Hitler during the last few months,’ Walther Funk told his Nuremberg psychiatrist in May 1946, ‘and everything had to go down in ruins with Hitler himself, as a sort of false Götterdämmerung.’ Yet Speer should not be commended too highly on the back of this one action, or rather inaction. It had been he who commanded the vast army of slave labourers that produced German armaments in barbarous conditions. ‘Just as the Nazi state rested on a basis of total brutality and corruption,’ recorded Alan Clark, ‘so the parts of the army machine, the actual weapons with which the soldiers fought, Tigers, Panzers, Nebelwerfers, Solothurns [anti-tank rifles], Schmeissers, came from the darkened sheds of Krupp and Daimler-Benz; where slave labour toiled eighteen hours a day, cowering under the lash, sleeping six to a “dog kennel” eight feet square, starving or freezing to death at the whim of their guards.’ Although Speer’s deputy, Fritz Sauckel, was hanged at Nuremberg, the life of the urbane, middle-class but above all seemingly apologetic Speer was spared.