Alpine Armageddon?

One thousand German officers and men captured in the “Alpine Redoubt” are marching back over the mountain road that they once defended in Austria.

This map shows the U.S. Ninth Army’s plan for the advance to Berlin.

The final operations of the Western Allied armies in Germany between 19 April and 7 May 1945.

The battle maps of Germany, filled with arrows, strings, and the tiny symbols used by the generals and their staffs to assess the current status of operations, covered large walls, while others were barely large enough to cover the hood of a jeep or staff car. But all had in common a forest of arrows depicting the movement of Allied forces eastward and the relentless advance of the Red Army toward the west. To the uninitiated, such maps may have seemed chaotic but, notes historian Charles B. MacDonald, it was an illusion, and “in reality from each of the columns strings led, as from puppet to puppeteer, to General Eisenhower’s supreme command.” Whether pointing east or west, the arrows were all aimed at one key location on the map: Berlin.

On the evening of his shocking visit to the Merkers mine and Ohrdruf, Eisenhower revealed privately to Patton that he was soon to halt the First and Ninth Armies at the Elbe River to await the arrival of the Red Army. Third Army would be given a new mission to drive southeast toward Czechoslovakia. “From a tactical point of view, it is highly inadvisable for the American Army to take Berlin and I hope political influence won’t cause me to take the city,” he said. “It has no tactical or strategic value and would place upon the American forces the burden of caring for thousands and thousands of Germans, displaced persons and Allied prisoners of war.”

Patton’s reaction was incredulity. “Ike, I don’t see how you figure that out. We had better take Berlin, and quick—and on to the Oder!” Later on, in the presence of his chief of staff, Patton reiterated the need to drive on to Berlin, arguing that it could certainly be done in forty-eight hours by Ninth Army. Eisenhower wondered aloud, “Well, who would want it?” Patton did not reply at once, but placed both hands on his friend’s shoulders and said, “I think history will answer that question for you.”

Bradley admitted that he was sorely tempted by the lure of his troops capturing the greatest political prize of the war but realized it was simply not militarily feasible. A strong dose of reality set in when he calculated the cost, and noted that to have sent Montgomery on a mission to capture Berlin would have necessitated detaching a U.S. army-size force to guard his flank and correspondingly thwart the defeat of the German army on the 12th Army Group front. “As soldiers we looked naively on the British inclination to complicate the war with political foresight and nonmilitary objectives.”

Among those dismayed by Eisenhower’s decision was Simpson, who when ordered by Bradley to halt his Ninth Army at the Elbe, replied, “Where the hell did you get this?” Told, “From Ike,” Simpson obeyed his orders but was convinced it was a terrible mistake, and that his army could have advanced to Berlin. The U.S. official historian agrees: “The American armies, the Ninth in particular, could have continued their offensive some fifty more miles at least to the fringe of Berlin. The decision of the Supreme Allied Commander and nothing else halted the Americans at the Elbe and the Mulde [Rivers].”

As Patton prepared for bed after his conversation with Eisenhower later that fateful April 12, he tuned to the BBC to obtain the correct time, and learned of Roosevelt’s sudden death in Warm Springs, Georgia. Patton immediately awakened Eisenhower and Bradley, who was also spending the night at Third Army. In their bathrobes the three generals somberly contemplated Roosevelt’s loss and its impact until two A.M. the following morning. All agreed that FDR would be sorely missed at a critical moment of history. No one knew much about their new commander in chief, Harry S. Truman, who would turn out to have little use for either Eisenhower or Patton. Truman’s fellow Missourian, Omar Bradley, thought that “[f]rom our distance, Truman did not appear at all qualified to fill Roosevelt’s large shoes.” Eisenhower would later recall, “We went to bed depressed and sad.”

With the Russians already astride the Oder, a mere thirty miles east of the German capital, the question of Berlin was of paramount importance. Eisenhower’s concern over a collision with the Russians was high, and on March 19 a Russian observer and unofficial liaison, Gen. Ivan Susloparoff, arrived at SHAEF. To Susloparoff, Eisenhower conveyed his deepening concern regarding the impending linkup and coordination problems with the Red Army, but the Russian had scant knowledge of the Red Army situation along the Oder, and had no authorization from his Soviet masters to reveal what little he did know.

On March 28 Eisenhower, without reference to the Combined Chiefs, felt compelled to take the unusual step of sending a cable directly to Stalin, to whom he laid out his plans for the final weeks of the war and asked if the Soviet leader could “tell me your intentions, and let me know how far the proposed operations outlined in this message conform to your probable action.”


At the time of his decision the four occupation zones of Germany had already been decided on. At Quebec in September 1944, the United States and Britain approved some of the provisions—first drawn up in early 1944 by the European Advisory Commission (EAC), based on British suggestions—rejected certain others, and, notes Warren Kimball, “allowed still others to apply by failing to act. But, either way, by 1945 the Big Three had set the parameters for much of the German settlement from presumably temporary occupation zones to the frontiers between the Germans and other European states.” At Yalta the Soviet Union ratified the Anglo-American recommendations, which included the division of Berlin into four separate sectors, each to be administered by one of the four Allied powers (which for purposes of the occupation included France). Thus when controversy flared over Berlin, Eisenhower’s decision had already become a moot point. The real problem was not Berlin but the occupation zones of Germany that left the German capital a virtual island deep in the Soviet sector, a fact about which Eisenhower could do nothing.

While the Western Allies wrung their collective hands over the fate of postwar Poland, which the Yalta agreements failed to protect adequately, Berlin had already slipped through the cracks. Roosevelt thought the Soviets ought to be given a fair chance to implement the Yalta accords, and was loath to challenge Stalin over Berlin. And when Churchill raised the issue of an Allied race for Berlin, he was rebuffed. FDR had been urged by Marshall not to interfere with Eisenhower and wholeheartedly rejected any attempt to compromise Eisenhower’s authority. The question of Berlin was not one in which Eisenhower was operating in some sort of vacuum. To the contrary, with the Red Army nearly at its gates, Marshall and the U.S. chiefs saw little value in making the city an objective. Moreover, with the war against Japan as yet far from won, the United States was anxious to end the fighting in Europe and begin deploying troops home, and to the Pacific.

The United States also had cause for concern over Churchill’s impossible Balkan notion of sending Alexander’s armies through the so-called Ljubljana Gap and into the plains of the Danube and Vienna, a scheme scarcely more than a Churchillian fantasy. Thus such British proposals targeting Berlin and the Ljubljana Gap received short shrift from the United States at this stage of the war.

At the time Berlin was already under siege by a score of Russian divisions, and an estimated 2,200 big guns would pound the city into rubble during the operation. “The fact that the Soviets were so close to Berlin, in such strength,” said Eisenhower, “would seem to give pause to those armchair strategists who say, ‘Of course, the Western Allies could have captured Berlin without any trouble.’” The cost, he noted, would have been high, including the diversion of forces sent to free Denmark and Austria.

On this issue the differences between Britain and the United States were as deep as they were fundamental. Britain was anxious to carve out a postwar role for what was left of its fragmented colonial empire, whereas the intentions of the United States were to see the war ended victoriously, and to bring home its fighting men promptly, before too many more lost their lives, which, in the case of Berlin, Eisenhower was convinced would be needless.

From the time of Eisenhower’s original directive from the Combined Chiefs of Staff in February 1944, Berlin had been the key objective that had permeated Allied thinking and planning. Certainly it was foremost in Eisenhower’s mind when he took command of the Allied ground forces in September 1944. “Clearly, Berlin is the main prize,” he wrote to Montgomery, “and the prize in defense of which the enemy is likely to concentrate the bulk of his forces. There is no doubt whatsoever, in my mind, that we should concentrate all our energies and resources on a rapid thrust to Berlin.”

Roosevelt first articulated his position on the postwar occupation of Germany in November 1943, while en route to the conferences in Cairo and Teheran, on the battleship USS Iowa. FDR not only viewed Berlin as a key Allied objective but fully expected that “[t]here would definitely be a race for Berlin. We may have to put United States Divisions into Berlin as soon as possible.” On a National Geographic map he drew in pencil his view of the proposed zones of occupation. On Roosevelt’s sketch Berlin was incorporated into the U.S. zone.

Inexplicably the president’s wishes vanished almost immediately into the vortex of a nasty bureaucratic clash between the War and State Departments over the occupation of Germany. The map actually disappeared into a desk drawer in the Operations Division of the War Department and was never acted on. “The shelving of the Roosevelt plan by his own military advisors,” wrote Cornelius Ryan, “was just one of a series of strange and costly blunders and errors of judgment that occurred among American officials in the days following the Iowa meeting.” The turf wars in Washington and months of wrangling within the EAC itself between Britain and the United States and with the USSR ultimately resulted, in the final version ratified at Yalta, in the placement of Berlin in the Russian zone—with no provision for U.S.-British access to the city. Although Roosevelt had doubts about Stalin’s postwar aims, his optimism, articulated at Quebec in September 1944, won out. He could “manage Stalin,” and the United States, he said, “could get along with Russia” and indeed must do so in the postwar world, a position also taken by Churchill, who in his heart had serious misgivings. FDR did not contest the final EAC proposals. It was one of the most fateful political decisions of World War II. Within six weeks of signing the Yalta agreements, Stalin had already broken one of its provisions.

Bound by the Big Three protocols, Eisenhower had by the end of March 1945 come to regard Berlin as “no longer a particularly important objective,” at best a diversion. Certainly, however, a precedent existed for unilateral action as supreme commander. Decisions ranging from Darlan to Normandy and the broad front had been made, and Eisenhower deemed Berlin as simply yet another problem requiring action. Less certain is the extent to which Eisenhower anticipated the buzz saw of controversy, criticism, and dissension his Berlin decision would produce. His grandson suggests that for Eisenhower to have acted aggressively over Berlin would likely have fractured British and American cooperation with the USSR and “probably destroyed the emerging settlement of World War II.”

Nor was Eisenhower in any mood to be dissuaded at this critical juncture of the war. He complained to Marshall that the British had opposed virtually everything he did as supreme commander, from Anvil to the advance to the Rhine. And now came their latest proposal: that Montgomery advance across the plains of northern Germany, whose wet conditions, he argued, were unsuitable terrain at that time of year. “I submit that these things are studied daily and hourly by me and my advisors and that we are animated by one single thought which is the early winning of this war.”

Notes John Eisenhower, “Dad felt seriously that he’d been given a military objective: to defeat the armed forces of Germany. All of our military doctrine from the days at West Point emphasizes that the object of military operations is the enemy’s armed forces, not cities … in the last days of the war, [Dad] was going to fight a military rather than a political war, unless told otherwise. … This was paramount in his thinking. That doesn’t mean to say he wasn’t suspicious of the Russians. He had been suspicious of them from as far back as the days at O.P.D. [Operations Division, War Department] in 1942 when a couple of them had come there, and they were so arrogant that he said, ‘My God, what are these people? What are they about?’”

Eisenhower formalized his views in a letter to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on April 7. “I regard it as militarily unsound,” he wrote,

at this stage of the proceedings to make Berlin a major objective, particularly in view of the fact that it is only 35 miles from the Russian lines. I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs purely military considerations in this theater, I would cheerfully readjust my plans and my thinking so as to carry out such an operation.

Eisenhower’s intentions remained to capture Berlin “only if feasible and practicable,” and he did suggest to Montgomery, “Naturally, if I get an opportunity to capture Berlin cheaply, I will take it.” Otherwise Eisenhower’s intentions were to continue implementing his present plan, which included a broad-front advance into the heart of Germany, establishing the Allied left flank on the Baltic Sea around Lübeck, and to disrupt any German effort to establish a national redoubt in the Bavarian Alps.

Eisenhower retained bitter memories from his experience in North Africa over Darlan, and knew better than to invade a political sphere without directions from above. However, in the case of Berlin, Eisenhower’s decision had the enthusiastic backing of Marshall, who likewise wanted no part of the German capital, and despite strong remonstrations from both Churchill and his military chiefs that Eisenhower had committed a political gaffe and exceeded his authority, the U.S. chiefs gave the supreme commander their full backing to run the war his way.

If the United States and Britain (collectively or individually) had developed a strategy to deal with the Russians, it was never communicated to Eisenhower. Thus, when the Combined Chiefs failed to take up the question of Berlin or instruct him what action he should take regarding the city, Eisenhower felt free to continue operating under his original broadly worded mandate to “enter the continent of Europe, and in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” With Roosevelt’s health failing badly, there was a power vacuum in Washington that, in military matters, was filled by Marshall. In Eisenhower’s mind the lack of response from the chiefs constituted tacit acceptance of his present intentions. He would therefore continue to direct the final weeks of the war on a strictly military basis.

Although Churchill protested that Allied failure to take Berlin would “raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future,” Roosevelt endorsed Eisenhower’s decision to halt at the Elbe. The final humiliation for the British was that with Leipzig and the Elbe the principal Allied objectives instead of Berlin, Montgomery not only lost Ninth Army, which was given back to Bradley, but he was now placed in the unaccustomed role of supporting Bradley’s advance.

Churchill and Eisenhower exchanged spirited telegrams over Berlin, but the prime minister’s entreaties that the city was too important to ignore (“the supreme signal of defeat to the German people”) fell on unresponsive ears. When the prime minister expressed dismay that His Majesty’s forces would be relegated “to an unexpectedly restricted sphere,” Eisenhower retorted that he was “disturbed, if not hurt, that you should suggest any thought on my part to ‘relegate His Majesty’s forces. … Nothing is further from my mind and I think my record of over two and a half years commanding the Allied forces should eliminate any such idea.” Exasperated, Churchill exclaimed to Brooke, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them!” To Roosevelt he expressed his disappointment over Eisenhower’s telegram to Stalin, but assured FDR that he and Ike remained on good terms with each other, as characterized by Churchill’s rare use of a Latin quotation: Amantium irae amoris integratio est, which evoked smiles when someone in the War Department translated the phrase and sent it to Eisenhower: “Lovers’ quarrels are a part of love.”

Churchill cabled Roosevelt that he wished to place on record “the complete confidence felt by His Majesty’s Government in General Eisenhower, our pleasure that our armies are serving under his command and our admiration of the great and shining qualities of character and personality which he has proved himself to possess.” Nevertheless, it was simply not in Churchill’s nature to concede defeat, and he renewed his argument over Berlin to Roosevelt, “as the truest friends and comrades that ever fought side by side as allies. … I say quite frankly that Berlin remains of high strategic importance.” The following day he cabled Eisenhower, “I deem it highly important that we should shake hands with the Russians as far east as possible.” Churchill’s entreaties failed to sway Roosevelt or to alter Eisenhower’s intention to halt at the Elbe.

Any attempt by the United States and Britain to capture Berlin might have brought about open conflict not only with the Red Army, but certainly with the city’s German defenders, and the resulting bloodbath of Allied casualties would have all but ruined Eisenhower’s reputation. What remains indisputable is that Eisenhower’s hands were already tied by the Big Three agreement over the division of occupied Germany, and had the British or Americans captured Berlin, most of the territory taken west of the city would have had to be ceded right back to the Russians. “Why should we endanger the life of a single American or Briton to capture areas we soon will be handing over to the Russians?” Eisenhower would remark more than once at SHAEF staff meetings.

While most of the postwar controversy was second-guessing, hindsight also serves to raise the obvious question of why there was no policy in place regarding Berlin and the Russians other than the zones of occupation formally agreed to at Yalta. Robert Murphy believes that Eisenhower had been so deeply affected by the scenes at Buchenwald and Ohrdruf that his “hatred for Nazism intensified his determination to have no conflict with Russia about Germany.”

Eisenhower nevertheless remained apprehensive about the meeting of Russian and Allied forces: “You know the Russians have been arrogant, and I just don’t know what our future is going to be with them. I’ve got to send Patton down into Austria to take as much of Austria as possible. But I sure wish I had more of my divisions concentrated up here on the First Army front, ready to meet these people when they come in, on the Elbe and Mulde Rivers.”

In the early morning hours of April 17 the Russians launched their final offensive along the Oder, which led to the capture of Berlin. Twenty-two divisions backed by massive artillery and rocket fire rained some half million rounds on the Germans, who, in one of their final paroxysms of defensive fury, managed to slow but not stop the vast numbers of tanks and infantry arrayed against them. On both sides it was butchery rivaling the Somme or Verdun.

Shortly before noon on April 25, two separate patrols of the U.S. 69th Division made contact with the Red Army at the Elbe, and in one of the most epic moments of the war the eastern and western fronts were joined. After the war Bedell Smith had mixed emotions over Eisenhower’s decision. “The line of the Elbe,” he said,

was decided on as a primarily military tactical matter. We frankly wanted water between us and the Russians. … We needed a definite line of demarcation. The Elbe was the most convenient one. Berlin had ceased to have military value. The political heart of Germany was Berlin, the industrial one the Ruhr. The latter had ceased to beat, while the former was about to stop. … Churchill bitterly opposed our stopping and … I have often thought … it would have been better to follow him. But the American people wouldn’t have put up with it. They would have hanged us to a lamp post. We leaned over backward to give them a proper deal, and it was a mistake.

The Berlin controversy spawned various wildly erroneous scenarios, including that Eisenhower made some sort of “deal” to keep Allied forces out of Berlin. Smith has emphatically stated, “Nothing could be further from the truth. There was no political consideration involved and there was no agreement on this score with the Russians.”

Eisenhower rarely defended himself publicly, but in the postwar years the debates and criticism over his Berlin decision did lead to a testy defense of his decision during the 1952 presidential election campaign: “None of his critics, he noted bitingly, had offered ‘to go out and choose the ten thousand mothers’ whose sons would have been killed capturing ‘a worthless objective.’”

Eisenhower’s numbers were, in fact, very conservative, and when Eisenhower asked Bradley for his estimate of what it would cost in casualties to take Berlin, was told to expect at least one hundred thousand. Given the ferocious street-by-street fighting between the Red Army and the last Nazi holdouts, Bradley’s estimate also appears to have been conservative. In mid-April the Red Army began a three-week siege of Berlin. Russian losses were staggering. During the siege, between April 16 and May 8, 1945, German troops responded to Hitler’s order to fight to the death by inflicting a staggering 361,367 casualties on the Red Army before Berlin was reduced to smoking rubble.

The final word on Berlin is summed up by Marshall’s official biographer, who points out that “[t]he crux of the argument lies in the charge that Marshall and Eisenhower failed to think politically. … It was not the failure by the military leaders to think of political consequences but their refusal to make political decisions that their critics apparently deplore. On that point the position of Marshall and Eisenhower was in the soundest tradition of the Republic.”

Eisenhower’s Berlin decision was closely tied to one of the war’s great fantasies: the so-called but mythical National Redoubt in the mountains of southern Bavaria and northern Austria, where Hitler and a group of Nazi leaders were thought to have planned to retreat and conduct a last-ditch fight to the death. The myth had its origins in September 1944 when the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) element operating in Bern, Switzerland, headed by Allen Dulles, reported that Nazi leaders were preparing to make their final stand in the Bavarian Alps centered on Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden. This was followed by a report issued by the OSS HQ in Washington that not only asserted German intentions but stated that the Redoubt was all but a reality. However, the OSS predictions were at odds with intelligence reports emanating from SHAEF and—with one exception—its subordinate armies. “Most Allied intelligence officers discounted the likelihood of any formidable, self-contained fortress in the Alps,” noted an official U.S. historian. The British official history concluded that “the very name ‘National Redoubt’ seems to have been introduced by the Allies, who borrowed it from the Swiss.”

Although the fiction ought to have died, it could no longer be ignored when its three strongest proponents became Eisenhower, Bedell Smith, and Bradley, all of whom grew obsessed with the notion that Hitler was planning a final stand in a National Redoubt, which might well prolong the war for a lengthy period of months, perhaps more than a year.

The theory was fueled at SHAEF by Smith, who believed that the Germans could muster between 100 and 150 divisions. This utterly preposterous notion was arrived at despite the fact that there was almost nothing of substance in SHAEF’s own intelligence estimates to encourage such a conclusion, particularly one so wildly inaccurate. Kenneth Strong headed the skeptics and would allow only for the possibility that Hitler might leave a core of Nazis in the Alps to one day restore Nazism to Germany. Smith and Eisenhower may have been misled initially by the SHAEF intelligence summary of March 11, 1945, which reported various signs of preparations in the area thought to be the redoubt, along with “considerable numbers of SS and specially chosen units” withdrawing into Austria.

The value of intelligence as a commander’s coin of the realm cannot be overemphasized. However, intelligence is only as useful as it is current, and by early April SHAEF’s intelligence summaries were increasingly discounting the possibility of such organized resistance. By mid-March it was clear that resistance was crumbling so fast that even the hard-core Nazis no longer believed they could avoid defeat. Moreover, any lingering doubts about the existence and threat of a National Redoubt ought to have been satisfied by a report issued by the SHAEF Joint Intelligence Committee on April 10, which stated unequivocally, “There is no evidence to show that the strategy of the German High Command is being conducted with a view to occupying eventually the so-called National Redoubt.” Moreover, “the area is not one which could support large forces for any length of time even if, as is improbable, large quantities of supplies have been dumped [there].”

“The plot,” notes Smith’s biographer, “might more properly have been found in the cheap spy novels Eisenhower and Smith liked to read than in the councils of the Allied high command.” At a press conference on April 21 Smith admitted,

This so-called “national redoubt” is something we don’t know a whole lot about. We do know that the Germans have, as they could, shifted men and matériel and supplies down there. … Just what we will find down there we don’t know. We are beginning to think it will be a lot more than we expect. … Our target now, if we are going to bring this war to an end and bring it to an end in a hell of a hurry, is this national redoubt and we are organizing our strength in that direction. … We may find that when we have cut the head from the snake the tail won’t wiggle very long.

Smith not only completely misjudged the issue, but even when it was clear that the Russians were in Berlin, he refused to alter his view that a quick victory was still not probable. There can be little doubt that Smith’s miscalculations played into Eisenhower’s concerns about the National Redoubt. “The evidence was clear,” an unrepentant Eisenhower wrote after the war, “that the Nazi intended to make the attempt and I decided to give him no opportunity to carry it out.”

Eisenhower had the full endorsement of Bradley, who was likewise convinced of the existence of a National Redoubt, which, he said, was “too ominous a threat to be ignored and in consequence it shaped our tactical thinking during the closing weeks of the war.” Bradley, wrote Chester Hansen in his diary, “is convinced that we shall have to fight the Germans in the mountain wilderness of southern Germany and there destroy the core of his SS units which are determined to carry on the battle.” Bradley predicted there might be twenty SS divisions, “supplied through a system of underground factories and supported by aircraft from underground hangers [sic]” from which “he could presumably have held out for a year.” No one seems to have questioned where these divisions might have come from, particularly in view of the fact that Model’s forces in the Ruhr had been thoroughly bottled up and then surrendered. In A Soldier’s Story Bradley ruefully admitted that it had existed “largely in the imaginations of a few fanatic Nazis.” Only after a senior German general in a position to have known surrendered to Ninth Army did it finally become clear, at least to Bradley, that they had been chasing a ghost. “I am astonished we could have believed it as innocently as we did.”

Not until a week before his death did Hitler issue a rather broadly worded directive outlining the creation of a “last bulwark of fanatical resistance” in the Alps, which came far too late in the war to have been established. The British official historian was unable to discern “any clear intention” on the part of Hitler

to make a “last-ditch” stand in the Alps or anywhere else in particular unless it were in Berlin. … Indeed, the greater the threat to Berlin, the more tenaciously did Hitler cling to the idea of holding out there at all costs … for Hitler the notion of a “redoubt” was no more than a momentary idea. … An examination of the contemporary German evidence available to us [in 1968] shows quite conclusively that the so-called “National Redoubt” never existed outside the imaginations of the combatants.

The final irony was that in the last days of the Third Reich, when Joseph Goebbels learned of the Allied delusion over the Redoubt, his propaganda machine scored one of its greatest coups by effectively playing on Allied suppositions in much the same way that the Germans had been hoaxed before D-Day by Fortitude.

The myth of the National Redoubt might have been merely incidental and a lesson in leaping to false conclusions had it not been for its profound effect on Eisenhower’s strategic thinking. As Russell Weigley points out, despite evidence to the contrary, “Eisenhower and Bradley had already moved their armies as though the threat of the Redoubt merited a high strategic priority, higher than Berlin.”

The decision to turn de Lattre’s French First Army, Hodges’s First Army, and Patton’s Third Army south toward Switzerland, Bavaria, and Austria came at a time when Montgomery’s army group was thinly spread. With Ninth Army committed to securing and guarding the Elbe, there was no American force available to provide support to carry out his mission of capturing northern Germany, securing the Baltic ports, and liberating Denmark.

Eisenhower’s controversial decisions regarding Berlin and the National Redoubt notwithstanding, during the month of April 1945 the death knell of the Third Reich sounded as the rampaging Allied armies began mopping up pockets of resistance from the central plains to the Alps, capturing tens of thousands of prisoners and drawing the noose ever tighter.

With his nation in ruins and his armies destroyed, Hitler designated the head of the German navy, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, to carry on the fight as his successor, then committed suicide on the night of April 30. His corpse and that of his mistress, Eva Braun, were burned on a funeral pyre outside his Berlin bunker in a scene that would have done justice to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. To the bitter end the German madman who had unleashed the worst conflagration in history entertained fantastical delusions that somehow he could still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

By May 1, 1945, both the U.S. First and Ninth Armies were astride the Mulde and Elbe Rivers, where they halted as ordered, while to the south the Seventh Army was advancing deep into Bavaria and Austria. To the north Montgomery’s troops were nearing Hamburg and Lübeck. Patton’s Third Army had driven into Austria and Czechoslovakia, but—in yet another controversial decision by Eisenhower—his troops were forbidden to enter the capital of Prague. At Churchill’s instigation the British chiefs of staff exhorted the U.S. Joint Chiefs to compel Eisenhower to liberate Prague and Czechoslovakia before the arrival of the Red Army. The State Department, agreeing that Czechoslovakia was a political prize that should be denied the Russians, urged Truman’s concurrence. Truman consulted Marshall, who passed the request back to Eisenhower, who replied that he thought that the Red Army would liberate Prague before Patton could get there, and thus elected to halt Third Army at the prewar border near Pilsen (now Plzeň). Marshall supported his decision. “Personally and aside from all logistic, tactical or strategical implications, I would be loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes.”

However, Third Army, which had captured Nuremberg, advanced to the Danube, and been astride the Czech border for several weeks, was primed to advance into both Czechoslovakia and Austria. Patton had begged for permission to push on but had been firmly restrained by a stop line beyond which Third Army was not to advance without permission. Bradley thought that Prague could have been liberated within twenty-four hours. On May 4 Eisenhower finally authorized Third Army to cross the Czech border, but there was to be no advance beyond Pilsen. That same day units of the U.S. Seventh Army and the U.S. Fifth Army driving north from Italy made contact at Austria’s Brenner Pass.

Bradley believed that Patton might ignore the new stop line, and on May 6 excitedly telephoned to reaffirm Eisenhower’s order. “You hear me, George, goddamnit, halt!” Reluctantly Patton complied. This decision brought about the repercussions Churchill had correctly feared. An uprising by the Czech Resistance against the SS in Prague was ruthlessly suppressed, while Third Army sat idle, a mere forty miles away, but under orders not to intervene. Although conceding that Eisenhower’s reasons for halting at Pilsen were sound, Patton wrote shortly before his death, “I was very much chagrined, because I felt, and I still feel, that we should have gone on the Moldau River and, if the Russians didn’t like it, let them go to hell.”