Teutoburg Forest

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Reconstruction of palisade. The building of this palisade is indicative of Arminius’s careful planning, as was his use of terrain to nullify the superior equipment and training of the Romans.

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Date: autumn AD 9 Location: Kalkriese, Germany

In the field, the bones of the soldiers lay scattered about, each where he had fallen either standing his ground or trying to flee. There were bits of weapons, and the bones of horses amongst them, and human heads had been nailed to the trunks of the surrounding trees. TACITUS, ANNALS, 1.61

Germans

  • c.35,000 men
  • Commanded by Arminius
  • Unknown casualties

Romans

  • 20,000 men
  • Commanded by Publius Quintilius Varus
  • 20,000 dead, plus c. 3,000 civilians

In the early years of the 1st century AD the emperor Augustus tried to bring Germany under his control. An unconquered Germany was uncomfortably close to Italy, and Augustus may have felt that a defensive line along the Elbe was easier to maintain than the current one along the Rhine.

By AD 9 Germany seemed sufficiently conquered for Augustus to send a governor whose main concern was the Romanization of the province. This was Quintilius Varus, former governor of Syria and husband of Augustus’s great-niece.

Varus commanded three legions – the XVII, XVIII and XIX. Also, some of the many tribes of Germany were allied with the Romans. Among the young German aristocrats who served with the Roman legions for military experience was Arminius, son of a chieftain of the Cherusci tribe.

Varus was unaware that the despoiling of his native land had made Arminius a bitter enemy of Rome. From the moment Varus arrived in Germany, Arminius plotted to unite the tribes and bring about the Roman leader’s downfall.

These tribes sent to Varus and asked for garrisons to be stationed with them. Varus agreed readily and sent detachments, thus weakening his main force. Finally, in AD 9 Arminius arranged for reports of trouble in a distant part of the province to reach Varus. It was now autumn, and Varus seems to have decided to move his whole camp and deal with the problem on his way to winter quarters. Another German leader, Segestes, pleaded passionately with Varus not to trust Arminius, but he was ignored.

Action

Arminius’s guides led the Romans astray. Then the Germans attacked. Initially these attacks were pinpricks – ambuscades which melted at the first sign of serious resistance, and the threat seemed minor. The Romans had armour, equipment and training, while many Germans fought naked. Though some warriors had swords, others had merely a crude spear (the frameo), sometimes with only a fire-hardened wooden point. But the Romans were uncomfortable in the dense forest, and were made more miserable by a series of thunderstorms. Near modern Kalkriese, on the edge of the Wiehen hills north of Osnabrück, Arminius had prepared an ambush. Here, the forest extended almost to the edge of an impenetrable marsh. The Roman army was caught on the narrow stretch of land between the two when the Germans attacked.

The Romans were penned in by a wall at the forest edge. This was part-rampart, but mostly a fence woven with branches between the trees, of a type that the Germans used to stop their cattle from straying. The Romans were probably split into pockets by the first attack and unable to coordinate their efforts. In confused skirmishes and a running battle lasting several days, the trapped Romans were steadily worn down.

Outcome

Varus was either killed or fell on his sword. Others followed his example, for the Germans had a grisly way with prisoners. In the end, not one single Roman survived. What we know of the battle is from reconstruct ions, the first by the Romans themselves, who returned to the scene a few years later. They found places where senior Roman officers had been messily sacrificed, and the bones of the dead scattered where they had fallen.

Gradually the site of the disaster was forgotten. A massive monument to the battle was eventually erected at Hiddesen, south of Detmold. This was some 50 km (31 miles) from the actual site of Teutoburg Forest, which was discovered very recently by Major Tony Clunn, an amateur archaeologist. He found Roman metal artifacts which suggested a battle, and professional archaeologists confirmed that this was the site of the Varusschlacht – where Varus’s legions had been destroyed. Arminius’s victory ensured that north west Europe had a Germanic rather than a Latin culture. This in turn profoundly affected subsequent European history, and thus the history of the world.

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Germanicus – Rome’s Revenge

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BATTLE OF IDISTAVISUS

Defeating Arminius

“It was a great victory, and without bloodshed to us.”

TACITUS, The Annals, II, 18

It was the summer of AD 16, and Germanicus Caesar had used a fleet of 1,000 newly built ships to return to the heart of Germany in search of Arminius and his German allies. At midmorning, the Roman army came marching down beside the Weser River from where it had camped for the night. With a small force left at the camp to guard the baggage, the legions were marching in battle order.

This time, the Germans were not only ready for Germanicus, but their leader had chosen the location for a decisive battle, and had sent men posing as defectors to lure the Romans into a trap, in the same way that he had lured Varus into a trap seven years before. The chosen place, called Idistavisus by the Romans, was just east of the Weser on a rolling river plain between ranges of low hills. The so-called Great Forest ran along the eastern fringe of the plain, with grassland extending for 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) over low hillocks from the trees to the Weser. Fifty thousand German tribesmen stood waiting on the grass, massed in their tribes and clans, their ranks extending from the forest to the river. [Warry, WCW]

In addition to Arminius and his Cherusci, tribes represented are likely to have included Arpus and his Chatti; Mallovendus and the remnants of the Marsi, plus the Fosi, Usipetes, Tubantes and Bructeri; the Cauchi, who had captured one of Varus’ eagles, were probably present, along with young men of the Angrivarii—in defiance of their tribe’s latest treaty with Rome; and Tencteri and Mattiaci from the Rhineland opposite Cologne, as well as Langobardi and Ampsivarii from along the Weser and Hunte rivers.

As the Roman army rounded the river bend and met the sight of the waiting German horde, Germanicus, riding in the middle of the column, calmly gave orders for his units to deploy. To the 28,000 men of his eight under-strength legions he had added the 2,000 men of two Praetorian Guard cohorts sent to him from Rome by Tiberius. It was unique for Praetorians to fight in a field army when the emperor was not present. Their presence had more to do with Tiberius’ unfounded fear of his adopted son using his legions to topple him from the throne than from a genuine desire to help Germanicus.

In addition, the Roman army of 74,000 men included 30,000 auxiliaries from Gaul, Raetia, Batavia, Spain and Syria, 6,000 men from allied German tribes, and 8,000 cavalry including 2,000 mounted horse archers. One of Germanicus’ German auxiliary cohort commanders was none other than Flavus, brother of Arminius. Germanicus was not concerned at seeing the Germans waiting for him—the tribesmen sent to lure him here had confessed that Arminius planned to entrap him, telling of the Germans’ location and numbers. [Tac., A, II, 16]

Germanicus was also confident of the morale of his legionaries. In the days leading up to the battle, a German had ridden to the Roman camp ramparts in the night and called out that Arminius would reward every Roman who changed sides, with a German wife, a plot of land, and 100 sesterces a day while the war lasted. Germanicus had heard one of his men yell back, “Let daylight come, let battle be given! Then we’ll take your land, and carry off your wives!” [Ibid., 13]

As the Roman infantry spread with drilled precision in three battle lines, German tribesmen with massive spears up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) long began spilling down the slopes toward them. Germanicus turned to Lucius Stertinius, and ordered him to execute a prearranged cavalry maneuver; the general rode off and led the Roman cavalry at the gallop along beside the tree line. The Roman infantry front line was filled with auxiliaries. The second line comprised the ALR legions: the 1st, 5th Alaudae, 20th and 21st Rapax, with Germanicus and the two Praetorian cohorts in the middle of the line. Behind Germanicus in the third line were the AUR legions, the 2nd Augusta, 13th Gemina, 14th Gemina and 16th Gallica.

The legionaries stood in their ranks, waiting to meet the German rush, stock still, like statues, the sun glinting on their standards and military decorations, the horsehair plumes on their helmets wafting in the morning breeze. This would be one of the last times that legionaries wore plumes in battle; before long, they would be relegated to parade use only.

One of Germanicus’ aides then pointed to the sky. “Look, Caesar!”

Germanicus looked up. Eight eagles were flying overhead—one for each of Germanicus’ legions. As the Romans watched, the birds dipped toward the forest. Germanicus called to his troops: “Follow the Roman birds, the true deities of our legions!,” then ordered his trumpeter to signal the front line to charge. [Ibid., 17]

With a determined roar, the auxiliaries surged forward. Behind them, a line of foot archers loosed off a looping volley of arrows at the oncoming tribesmen. Soon, Germans and Roman front line were locked together.

Stertinius and the cavalry drove into right flank and rear of the German horde. The impact of this cavalry onslaught drove a mass of Germans away from the trees, where they collided with thousands of other Germans running toward the forest to escape the cavalry attack from the rear. Cheruscans on the hill slopes were forced to give ground by their own panicked countrymen. After his men had charged without waiting for his orders, Arminius, on horseback, had been forced to join them. In the midst of the fighting, he was soon wounded.

Realizing that the day was already lost, Arminius smeared his face with his own blood to disguise his identity, urged his horse forward, and with his long hair flying, headed toward the Roman left wing, by the trees, which was occupied by Chauci Germans from the North Sea coast. These men had fought alongside Arminius in the Teutoburg, but had since allied themselves with Germanicus. Tacitus was to write: “Some have said that he was recognized by Chauci serving among the Roman auxiliaries, who let him go.” [Ibid.]

Arminius escaped into the forest, and kept riding, as, behind him, Germanicus sent his legions into the fight. The struggle between 128,000 men went on for hours. “From nine in the morning until nightfall the enemy were slaughtered,” said Tacitus, “and ten miles were covered with arms and dead bodies.” Arminius’ army was routed. “It was a great victory, and without bloodshed to us,” Tacitus declared. But Arminius himself was still at large. [Ibid., 18]

BATTLE OF THE ANGRIVAR BARRIER

After the bloody defeat of Idistavisus, Arminius was determined to have his revenge on Germanicus and his legions. In years past, when the Angrivari tribe was at war with the Cherusci, they had built a massive earth barrier to separate the tribes. The Weser river ran along one side of the Angrivar barrier; marshland extended behind it. A small plain ran from the barrier to forested hills. It was here at the barrier that Arminius planned to defeat Germanicus Caesar.

Word reached Germanicus that Arminius and his allies were regrouping at the barrier and receiving thousands of reinforcements. From a German deserter, Germanicus also learned that Arminius had set another trap for him, hoping to lure the Romans to the barrier. Arminius would be waiting in the forest with cavalry, and would emerge behind Germanicus as he attacked the barrier, to destroy him from the rear. Armed with that intelligence, Germanicus made his own plans. Sending his cavalry to deal with Arminius in the forest, he advanced on the Angrivar barrier in two columns.

While one Roman column made an obvious frontal attack on the barrier in full view of its thousands of German defenders, Germanicus and the second division made their way unnoticed along the hillsides. He then launched a surprise flanking attack against the Germans. But, in the face of determined defense, and devoid of scaling ladders or siege equipment, Germanicus’ troops were forced to pull back. After bombarding the barrier with his legions’ catapults, keeping the Germans’ heads down, Germanicus personally led the next attack, at the head of the Praetorians, removing his helmet so that no one could mistake who he was. The men of eight legions followed close behind their bareheaded general and the Praetorians. On clambering up the barrier they found a “vast host” of Germans lined up on the far side, commanded by Arminius’ uncle Inguiomerus, who, with blood-curdling war cries, surged forward to repulse the Romans.

The intense hand-to-hand combat continued for hours. Germanicus ordered that no prisoners be taken. The situation was equally perilous for both sides. “Valor was their only hope, victory their only safety,” said Tacitus. “The Germans were equally brave, but they were beaten by the nature of the fighting and the weapons,” for they were too tightly compressed to use their long spears effectively. [Tac., A, I, 21]

Pushed into woods, trapped with their backs to the marsh, the tribesmen were slaughtered. At nightfall, the killing stopped. The Germans had been dislodged from the barrier and butchered in their thousands. Inguiomerus escaped, but took no further part in German resistance. That night, Germanicus was joined by Seius Tubero, commander of the Roman cavalry that had gone after Arminius in the forest. Tubero, a close friend of Tiberius, had certainly prevented Arminius from attacking Germanicus in the rear, but after indecisive fighting had allowed the German cavalry to escape. While the battle at the barrier had been another crushing Roman victory, Arminius had again evaded capture.

The Roman victory was soured when, on the return voyage to Holland, a number of Germanicus’ ships were wrecked in a storm. To prove that the legions were still to be reckoned with, Germanicus immediately regrouped his forces and led a new raid across the Rhine, this time returning with another of Varus’ lost eagles.

The Senate heaped honors on Germanicus, and the adoring Roman people sang the prince’s praises. But Tiberius was unimpressed. When Germanicus asked the emperor for another year to complete the subjugation of the Germans, he recalled him. Germanicus returned to Rome, “though,” said Tacitus, “he saw that this was a pretense, and that he was hurried away through jealousy from the glory he had already acquired.” There would be no further Roman expeditions east of the Rhine during the reign of Tiberius. [Ibid., 26]

After Germanicus celebrated his Triumph in Rome in AD 17, Tiberius made him supreme Roman commander in the East, and in Syria, in AD 19, Germanicus, Tiberius’ heir apparent as emperor, would die—apparently poisoned, with Tiberius the chief suspect. Ironically, in Germany that same year, Arminius would also die, and also at the hands of his own people. Many hundreds of years later, Arminius, or Hermann, would become the hero of German nationalists.

As for Germanicus Caesar, many modern-day historians consider him a mediocrity. Yet Germanicus would be lamented by the Roman people for generations—as late as the third century, his birthday was still being commemorated on June 23 each year. [Web., RIA, 6] Fearless soldier and noble prince, Germanicus was, said Cassius Dio in the third century, “the bravest of men against the foe” yet “showed himself most gentle with his countrymen.” [Dio, LVII, 18]

Wars of Charlemagne

The composition and equipment of Charlemagne’s army was continuously evolving. Initially, the Carolingian Army was composed mostly of infantry, but as campaigning took him farther and farther from his base in Austrasia, Charlemagne soon relied increasingly on mounted troops rather than infantry. His numerous capitularies point to the raised status of cavalry. During 792-793 he issued regulations requiring vassals to have a horse, shield, lance, sword, dagger, bow, quiver, and arrows. In other royal decrees wealthier nobles were ordered to come to war wearing mail and were asked to bring rations for three months of service and clothing for six. Furthermore, these greater magnates were to make certain that their own vassals came on campaign with a standardized panoply consisting of shield, spear, bow, and 12 arrows. Even attendants were required to be armed with bows.

During his 46-year reign between 768 and 814, Charlemagne undertook an unprecedented 54 military campaigns, greatly expanding the territory of the Frankish kingdom. And even though the Frankish army was relatively small compared to armies of the Classical Period (modern estimates vary from 5,000 to 35,000 men, excluding attendants), it was sufficient to carve out the largest state that western Europe had seen since the fall of the western Roman empire some 300 years earlier. His impressive military and political achievements even won him the title of “emperor of the Holy Romans” from the papacy on Christmas Day 800 CE.

Charlemagne’s campaigns took him to many areas in Europe. In 773 he led his army into Italy, crushing the Lombards and crowning his son king of Italy. Four years later Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees into northern Spain. This campaign proved disappointing. Despite the annihilation of his rear guard at Roncesvalles by the Basques in 778, Charlemagne and his successors were successful in eventually establishing the Spanish March, a string of fortifications in Catalonia that served as a defensive bulwark against Muslim raiding and a future base of operations for the Christian reconquest of Spain in the eleventh century.

Charlemagne was more successful in his eastern campaigns into Germany. In 787 he invaded Bavaria and brought that region under his rule. In 790 his Frankish armies marched east along the Danube and met and utterly eradicated the Avar empire in the Balkans, seizing wealth accumulated in two centuries of raiding and adding it to his own treasury. Perhaps Charlemagne’s greatest success came in Frisia and Saxony, a region in northern Germany between the Rhine and Elbe rivers. Beginning in 772 Charlemagne set his sights on the conquest and conversion of these regions, but resistance was fierce (Charlemagne campaigned in Saxony in 772, 785, 792- 793, and 798-803). It was not until 804, after 18 annual campaigns, that Saxony was finally pacified and added to the Carolingian domain.

Charlemagne never developed a regular standing army; instead, he relied on feudal levies to raise his forces. It did not take the emperor long to assimilate new regions into his military machine. Just two years after bringing Saxony into the kingdom, Charlemagne created a sliding scale of military contributions, ordering five Saxon vassals to equip a sixth to campaign in Spain and two to equip a third for Bohemia, while all were required to campaign against regional threats. In 807 he issued a capitulary decreeing that all nobles in the realm holding a benefice (a lease of land) were obligated to military service. If a noble failed to muster for war, he risked the confiscation of his estate. Charlemagne perfected this system to the point where he could raise several annual levies and conduct operations on multiple fronts, including Germany, Bohemia, Brittany, and Spain.

Charlemagne’s military success was not founded on the decisive engagement; indeed, history records him present at only three battles during his lengthy reign. The Carolingian emperor’s success was instead based on a well-trained and experienced feudal fighting force wearing down the enemy through a strategy of attrition and the ability to raise several armies for annual campaigns in different regions. He also recognized the impending threat to his empire, building and garrisoning forts along his borders with the Muslims, Danes, and Slavs. He even went so far as to try to maintain his superiority in military equipment by threatening the forfeiture of all property to anyone selling mail hauberks to foreigners and death to any who exported Carolingian swords out of the country.

Finally, perhaps Charlemagne’s greatest military legacy was his emphasis on cavalry as an instrument of strategic mobility. And although the stirrup-stabilized lancer, probably present in limited numbers during Charlemagne’s reign, did not revolutionize battle tactics in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, heavy cavalry’s importance as the centerpiece of the Carolingian tactical system was a harbinger of how war would be made in the later medieval period.

Bibliography Bachrach, Bernard S. Armies and Politics in Early Medieval West. London: Aldershot, 1993. Beeler, John. Warfare in Feudal Europe, 730-1200. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971. Bowlus, C. W. Franks, Moravians and Magyars: The Struggle for the Middle Danube, 788-907. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Ganshof, F. L. Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1968.

Who Is to Have Berlin? I

“This is the brass that did it. Seated are Simpson, Patton (as if you didn’t know), Spaatz, Ike himself, Bradley, Hodges and Gerow. Standing are Stearley, Vandenberg, Smith, Weyland and Nugent.” Ca. 1945. Army. (OWI)
Exact Date Shot Unknown
NARA FILE #: 208-YE-182
WAR & CONFLICT #: 751

One of the attributes most valued in a military commander is calm. It was not one in which Hitler excelled. Rather the contrary, as was illustrated by a Führer Conference in the Berlin Chancellory on 13 February 1945. Before we see what happened there, it should be understood that by January, one month earlier, the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht had so disposed his armies that the most vulnerable front of all, both militarily and politically, the front in Poland and East Prussia, was in comparative terms the most weakly held, the one least likely to be capable of withstanding the knock it was about to receive. In the west were 76 divisions, in Italy 24, 10 were in Yugoslavia, 17 in Scandinavia – in short, 127 divisions were deployed elsewhere than on the Eastern Front; only a few more, 133, were in the east. In the same month of January 300 divisions and twenty-five tank armies of the Red Army were getting ready to end the war; in the north two groups of armies under Chernyakhovsky and Rokossovsky were to converge on East Prussia; Zhukov’s and Konev’s groups in the centre would aim at Berlin and Upper Silesia; further south two more groups would clear Slovakia, take Budapest and Vienna; finally, Petrov was to reoccupy the Northern Carpathians.

Whereas the Russians with their seemingly limitless resources of men and material could afford to operate over such broad fronts, the number of German divisions facing them was quite inadequate to constitute an effective defence. The vital central area of East Prussia and Poland was some 600 miles wide and here only seventy-five German divisions were deployed. Against them Stalin launched 180 divisions, including four tank armies each of which contained 1,200 tanks, so that it was hardly surprising when Konev’s Army Group rapidly broke out of its bridgehead on the Upper Vistula and heralded a series of disasters which engulfed the Eastern Front. Guderian had warned the Führer that this front was like a house of cards and that if it were broken anywhere it would collapse everywhere. Even so, Guderian, never one to despair, set to work in forming a new Army Group Vistula to stem the Russian advance. Its front would stretch from Poznan to Graudenz, and Guderian intended to give this Army Group all the reserves he was mustering from the west, including Sepp Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army. Intending to direct its operations himself – and it would have been difficult to find any general more qualified or more able to make telling used of it – Guderian proposed von Weichs as a nominal Army Group Commander. But Hitler was so disillusioned by the professional soldiers’ handling of affairs, a disillusionment brought about by virtue of his own unrealistic mishandling of them, that he appointed Himmler, who had never commanded armies in the field and was already contemplating treachery against his master.

Guderian was so appalled by this appointment that on 26 January he suggested to von Ribbentrop1 that the two of them should speak to the Führer and seek his agreement to securing an armistice on one front or the other. Von Ribbentrop lacked either the character or the courage to stand up to Hitler and refused, but was himself aghast when Guderian asked how he would feel when he found that the Russians had reached Berlin in a few weeks’ time. Von Ribbentrop then asked Guderian if he really believed such a thing was possible, and was hardly comforted by the reply that because of Hitler’s leadership it was not just possible, but certain. The conversation was duly reported to Hitler, who in Guderian’s presence referred to it as treason, but the great Panzer Leader never lacked the courage of his convictions and tried to argue the strategic issues there and then. Hitler refused to discuss the matter.

As the first two weeks of February went by, the disagreements between Guderian, still Chief of the Army General Staff, and the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht concerning the conduct of the war in general and the campaign on the Eastern Front in particular grew ever more bitter and violent. At one point when Guderian counselled withdrawal and Hitler refused to give up an inch of territory, the Führer’s rage and vituperation reached an absolute crescendo. Guderian’s assertion that he was not being obstinate but simply thinking of Germany precipitated a furious bellow from Hitler that his whole life had been a struggle for Germany. It was all he had been fighting for. Guderian’s adjutant was so alarmed by Hitler’s shaking fists that he took hold of his General’s tunic and pulled him back out of range. The whole sorry scene was re-enacted at the 13 February Führer Conference. This time the principal issue concerned the conduct of a counter-attack by Army Group Vistula against Zhukov’s extended and vulnerable right flank. Those present included Hitler himself, Keitel, Jodl, Himmler, still in command of the Army Group, Sepp Dietrich and Wenck, whom Guderian had brought with him. Guderian was insisting that the counter-attack should be launched at once, before the Russians had time to bring up their reserves, and moreover that command should be entrusted to Wenck, not to Himmler. Hitler contested every point made by Guderian, who just as steadily contradicted him and who later recorded what occurred:

And so it went on for two hours. His fists raised, his cheeks flushed with rage, his whole body trembling, the man stood there in front of me, beside himself with fury and having lost all self-control. After each outburst of rage Hitler would stride up and down the carpet edge, then suddenly stop immediately before me and hurl his next accusation in my face. He was almost screaming, his eyes seemed about to pop out of his head and the veins stood out on his temples.

Military decisions are best taken after calmly reviewing the circumstances, weighing the odds, determining the likely enemy action, keeping an eye firmly on the immediate objective and the consequences of attaining it, and then ensuring that the second great strategic rule – that of so disposing resources as to maximize the chances of success – is adhered to. Shrieking, shouting matches between senior commanders, decisions flawed by intrigue, lack of men and material, in short thoroughly bad leadership, were improbable preliminaries to taking the path of glory. They were much more likely to lead to the grave. Despite Hitler’s ravings on 13 February Guderian gained his point. With his most charming smile, the Führer announced that the General Staff had won a battle that day. Guderian’s subsequent comment was that it was the last battle he was to win and that in any case it came too late. The counter-attack, last of all offensives waged by the German army, petered out in failure after a few days. But was Guderian right in predicting to von Ribbentrop that the Russians would reach Berlin in a few weeks’ time? Could the British and American armies have got there first? The answer is almost certainly yes, but for the procrastination of one man – Eisenhower. For it was he who followed the example of so many military commanders before him. He changed his mind.

On 15 September 1944, after the great victory in Normandy, he had sent a letter to his two Army Group commanders, Bradley and Montgomery, in which he outlined his views as to future operations and asked for theirs. At this time it was clear from his letter that he regarded Berlin as a primary objective. Having assumed that the Ruhr, the Saar and Frankfurt would before long be in Allied hands, he then designated Berlin as the main prize. ‘There is no doubt whatsoever, in my mind, that we should concentrate on a rapid thrust to Berlin.’ There would, of course, have to be some coordination with the Russians, but precise objectives could not be selected until later.

At this point, therefore, it was clear that Berlin was the goal. In his reply to Eisenhower Montgomery urged the Supreme Commander to decide there and then what forces were necessary to go to Berlin, and so reach agreement as to both the plan and the objectives. Moreover, these matters had to be agreed at once, not decided on later. Montgomery also stressed that all other considerations must be secondary to the main aim and objective. The trouble was that there was no absolutely clear and clearly understood policy as to what Eisenhower was required to do after crossing the Rhine. Indeed, in spite of his reference to Berlin, Eisenhower’s strategy had consistently been to advance on a broad front with primary and secondary thrusts, and then, having linked up the two advancing forces in the general area of Kassel, make one great thrust to the eastward. But where to? Lack of decision here meant that on crossing the Rhine and moving eastward, the aim of the Allied armies was far from clear.

One of the ironies of the situation was that whatever objectives the Western Allies might care to choose, they were almost certainly attainable, for the German forces in the west – now under Field-Marshal Kesselring – could no longer fight a coordinated defensive battle, however determined individual pockets of resistance might be. Although on paper there were still sixty-five German divisions on the Western Front, for practicable purposes they were only small battle groups and a few headquarter staffs, dispersed and without either proper communications or logistic support. Such penny packets would not be able to resist a firm Allied drive. Eisenhower’s plan, such as it was, laid down that the Ruhr would be encircled by Montgomery’s 21st Army Group plus US 9th Army to the north, while Bradley’s 12th Army Group would break out from the Remagen bridgehead and link up with Montgomery. The whole area east of the Rhine would be occupied and a further advance into Germany would proceed. Montgomery’s orders were for his forces to advance with all speed to the Elbe from Hamburg to Magdeburg, with great emphasis on ‘getting the whips out’ so that fast-moving armoured spearheads could capture airfields to ensure continuous close air support. These orders were given on 27 March, but the following day everything was changed. Eisenhower did an absolute volte-face, abandoned the idea of going for Berlin, and communicated directly with Stalin in order to coordinate his operations with those of the Red Army. Having informed Stalin of his intention to encircle the Ruhr and mop up the enemy there, Eisenhower went on to define his next task as ‘joining hands with your forces’ and suggesting that the junction should be Erfurt–Leipzig–Dresden. Nothing could have been more acceptable to Stalin or unacceptable to Churchill and Montgomery. Indeed, Eisenhower had signalled to Montgomery that the US 9th Army would be removed from him after his joining hands with Bradley in the Kassel–Paderborn area, and that the main Allied thrust would be not to Berlin, but to Leipzig and Dresden. Montgomery’s appeal not to change either the plan or the command arrangements was not heeded. Eisenhower reiterated his intention to divide and destroy the enemy forces and to join hands with the Russian army. He added significantly:

You will see that in none of this do I mention Berlin. So far as I am concerned, that place has become nothing but a geographical location; I have never been interested in those. My purpose is to destroy the enemy forces and his power to resist.

Why did Eisenhower change his mind? Previously he had emphasized that Berlin was the main prize, and that the Allies should concentrate everything on a rapid thrust there no matter how this was to be done. He had repeated that all his plans ultimately boiled down to exactly this – ‘to move on Berlin by the most direct and expeditious route’. Now he was dismissing the city as a mere geographical location. Why? Was it that he regarded its capture as no longer feasible in that whereas 21st Army Group was still 300 miles from Berlin, the Russians on the Oder were a mere forty miles away? Was it that he was fearful that Model’s Army Group in the Ruhr might even now form some formidable defensive front or that the stories about Hitler’s retiring to a National Redoubt in the Bavarian and Austrian mountains, there to conduct some desperate last stand, might have some foundation and involve some further great effort? Doubts of this sort may be comprehended. What is not easy to understand in view of Eisenhower’s insistence on the whole purpose of military operations being in pursuit of political aims, and the undisputed importance of Berlin as a political objective, is that he should suddenly have turned fully 180 degrees about and pronounced it to be of no significance. And the supreme irony of it all in view of Eisenhower’s reiteration that what he was after was the destruction of the enemy’s will to resist is that up to the very last Berlin, leaving aside its weight in the political game, contained the one military objective without whose seizure or demise the enemy’s will to resist would never be broken and the war itself would never end – the person of Adolf Hitler himself. Nor is it easy to understand why Eisenhower should have chucked away the possibility of taking Berlin with his own armies before it had become plain that he could not do it. Subsequent events were to show that he could.

The reaction in Moscow to Eisenhower’s change of plan could hardly have differed more from that in London. Stalin agreed with what Eisenhower had proposed and in his reply made four points: first, he confirmed the Erfurt–Leipzig–Dresden juncture for the two converging armies; second, he maintained that only secondary Soviet forces would be directed on Berlin, which had lost its former strategic importance (Churchill’s comment on this point was that it was not borne out by events); third, that the main Soviet attack would begin in the second half of May (it actually began a month earlier, on 16 April, which had a strong bearing on whether or not the Western Allies could have got to Berlin first); fourth, that the Germans were further reinforcing the Eastern Front. As a result of Stalin’s positive response, Eisenhower issued orders to execute his plan.

In London, Churchill took a very different view of things. As was customary with him, when it came to the big issues, his strategic instinct did not forsake him. In this case it concerned not only the final stages of one great struggle, but the seeds of another. The Russians’ behaviour at Yalta had given him pause when weighing up the likely course of Soviet policy. He was anxious that the Allied armies should do all they could to put the West in the best possible position for subsequent confrontation with the Russians if such circumstances should come about. Churchill signalled to Roosevelt that he was in no doubt that the rapid advance by their armies had both surprised and displeased the Russian leaders, that their joint armies should meet the Russian armies as far east as possible, and that they should enter Berlin. But Roosevelt was a dying man and the American military hierarchy fully supported Eisenhower. There was then a further exchange of messages, Eisenhower attempting to justify his action to Churchill, and Churchill summarizing his misgivings to Roosevelt. Churchill deplored the switch of axis from that which aimed at Berlin to one further south, and also the decision to rob 21st Army Group of the 9th US Army, thus restricting its ability to push beyond the Elbe. Berlin was still of high strategic importance. ‘Nothing will exert a psychological effect of despair upon all German forces or resistance equal to that of the fall of Berlin.’ The Russians would get Vienna in any case. Were they to be allowed to have Berlin too? If Berlin were within the Western armies’ grasp, Churchill concluded, they should take it.

Was it within their grasp in April 1945? Before answering the question we may perhaps take a look at the one obstacle to making peace there and then, a peace which so many of the senior Wehrmacht commanders and even the Führer’s henchmen, like Albert Speer, who repeatedly told his master that the war was lost, ardently desired. In other words, we should look at the Supreme War Lord of the Third Reich, which he had both created and destroyed, at genius in the Bunker. On 6 April 1945, a few weeks before the end, Hitler sent for General Wenck and appointed him to command the 12th Army. The various tasks that Wenck was given underlined the absolute absurdity to which Hitler’s conduct of war had deteriorated. First of all Wenck, with just one army, and little more than a phantom army at that, was required to restore the Wehrmacht’s fortunes on the Western Front, which was being overwhelmed by three Allied Army Groups. Then later he was to reverse the inevitable on the Eastern Front and relieve Berlin.

It was clear from the very outset that the first task alone was totally beyond him. His forces were inadequate in every way – in numbers, preparation, cohesion, training, concentration. The divisions theoretically under his command simply did not exist. He had no tanks, no self-propelled assault guns, no anti-aircraft artillery. And with this skeleton of an army Wenck was supposed to do what von Rundstedt and Model had already failed to do with far larger forces – stop the Western Allies from advancing. The whole thing was a non-starter. None the less, Wenck did made a start and tried to slow down the advancing American forces. Except for one small pocket in the Halle–Leipzig area, his army never got west of the Mulde–Elbe line, but by mid-April something became plain to Wenck, something so significant that it made him think again about how to employ his troops. This was that the Americans seemed to be consolidating their positions on the Elbe, without any clear intention of pushing further east. This discovery, together with the Red Army’s attack across the Oder, made up his mind. He would use the 12th Army to assist on the Eastern Front. His decision to do so was powerfully supported by a visit from Field-Marshal Keitel, during one of his extremely rare absences from Hitler’s side, who gave Wenck some dramatic instructions: ‘Free Berlin. Turn and advance with all available strength. Link up with the 9th Army. Rescue the Führer. His fate is Germany’s fate. You, Wenck, have it in your power to save Germany.’ Good stirring stuff, which was almost at once confirmed and reinforced by a message from the Führer himself, calling upon the soldiers of Wenck’s army to turn east and defeat the Bolsheviks in their battle for the German capital, whose defenders had taken heart from the news of Wenck’s fast approach and were fighting doggedly in the belief that the thunder of his guns would soon be heard. ‘The Führer has called you. You have, as in old times, started on the road to victory. Berlin waits for you. Berlin yearns for you here, with warm hearts.’

 

Who Is to Have Berlin? II

There were not many warm hearts in the Bunker on 20 April when Hitler celebrated his fifty-sixth birthday. To those who attended he presented a picture of a man in the last stages of bodily and mental decay. While the will-power which had exercised so great and enduring an influence on those about him could still be summoned up, while the dull grey-blue eyes, which often now were glazed over with a film of sheer exhaustion, still seemed able to hypnotize, fascinate and compel, the actual physical state of the man was more an object of pity than of fear. The Führer’s shuffling steps, weak handshake, wobbling head, trembling hands and slack left arm were the movements and appearance of a man prematurely senile. Yet his hesitancy and indecisiveness while confirming the completeness of his disintegration were still at odds with the ‘indescribable, flickering glow in his eyes, creating a fearsome and wholly unnatural effect’.

On the following day, 21 April, Hitler was giving orders for making a last stand in Berlin. There was not much time left for, by then, Marshal Zhukov’s armies had got as far as Berlin’s eastern suburbs, while his fellow Marshal, Konev, was nearing Dresden. Nevertheless the Supreme Commander was detailing to Göring’s Chief of Staff, General Koller, an elderly, scrupulous fusspot, exactly which troops would be withdrawn from the north of the city to counter-attack the Russians in the southern suburbs. Every tank, every aircraft that could be mustered, everything and everybody would make an all-out, final, desperate effort to throw back the enemy. Obergruppenführer Steiner of the SS would command the attack. Any commanding officer who did not thrust home would answer for it with his head. It was all in vain. The attack never came off, did not even get under way; withdrawal of units from the north simply allowed the Russians to surge through there and sweep on to the city’s centre. It hardly seemed possible that the military situation could worsen, yet it was just such cold comfort that Hitler was obliged to stomach.

He did not do so lightly. At the military conference the following day, when the facts were presented to him, he completely lost control of himself. One more shrieking, shouting match – a wholly one-sided affair – was duly played out. The Generals and the Staff were then treated to three hours of denunciation. Hitler had been betrayed and deserted. The army had failed him. There was nothing but lies, deceit, cowardly incompetence. It was the end. His great mission, the Third Reich itself, had come to nothing, and indeed nothing was left but for him to stay in Berlin and die. This conference, if conference it could be called, may have left his listeners bewildered and exhausted, yet its effect on Hitler himself was quite different. Decision calmed him. He seemed able to face the future, however limited it might be, serenely. Yet at the very moment of resigning himself to failure and death, he took the unwarranted, unforgivable step of resigning too from that great position which he had so long coveted and relished – command of the German army. He refused to delegate. He gave no orders to his principal military assistants, Field-Marshal Keitel and General Jodl. He simply abdicated all responsibility. From the former position of directing the entire war machine, personally, continuously and arbitrarily, he swung fully about and would have nothing more to do with it. He declared that he would stay in Berlin, lead its defence and then at the last moment shoot himself. His physical state did not allow him to take part in the fight personally and in any case he could not risk falling into enemy hands. It was not until 30 April that Hitler actually shot himself, and by then the Russians were only a few streets away from the Berlin Chancellory and the Bunker. What would have happened if the Western armies had got there first?

On 1 April 1945 Stalin was conferring in Moscow with some of his most senior commanders – Zhukov and Konev, respectively commanding the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukraine fronts, and Antonov and Shtemenko, both of the General Staff. A telegram was read out with the unexpected information that the Anglo-American command was preparing to launch a drive to capture Berlin, the principal spearhead under Montgomery’s direction. The axis would be north of the Ruhr, the shortest route, and the telegram ended by saying that Allied plans were such that they would certainly reach Berlin before the Red Army. It must be assumed that Stalin had fabricated this telegram or that it was a thoroughly bad piece of intelligence. When the Soviet leader then asked his commanders, ‘Who is going to take Berlin, we or the Allies?’ there was unanimous agreement that it would be themselves. The only question was whether Zhukov’s or Konev’s front would be charged with the task. Stalin then instructed the two commanders to prepare their ideas and two days later gave orders that whichever of the two reached a certain line between the river Neisse and the river Spree first would go on to take Berlin.

During the first week of April 1945, therefore, we have the spectacle of two Russian Army Group commanders planning how they would take Berlin, while on the Allied side Eisenhower is being pressed by the British to do so and resisting this pressure with the aid of his own countrymen. Bradley, for example, always hostile to and a rival of Montgomery, made the extraordinary estimate, quite unsupported by military considerations, that an advance from the Elbe to Berlin would cost them 100,000 men, which he regarded as too high a price to pay for a ‘prestige objective’. He could not have been unaware that any such drive would be conducted by Montgomery’s Army Group rather than his own, purely because of their respective deployment. He echoed Eisenhower by declaiming that postwar political alignments were less important than destroying what remained of the German army. He eschewed the idea of complicating matters with political foresight and what he called non-military objectives. Yet what are military operations for but to determine political circumstances? And it has always to be borne in mind that the German army and indeed the German people as a whole, given the option, would have infinitely preferred occupation of their country by the Anglo-American armies than the Russians.

Yet Eisenhower received further support from the US Chiefs of Staff. Speaking on their behalf, General Marshall reiterated Bradley’s contention that any political or psychological advantages resulting from the capture of Berlin ahead of the Russians should not override the imperative military consideration of the dismemberment of Germany’s armed forces. In reply Eisenhower, while adhering to the orders he had already given, and insisting that there would be no drive on Berlin until he had joined forces with the Russians, as already agreed, none the less commented:

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 military considerations in this theatre, I would cheerfully readjust my plans.

This signal to Marshall was dated 7 April. If the Combined Chiefs of Staff had decided to order Eisenhower to go full steam ahead for Berlin there and then, could he have got there first? On the very next day, 8 April, we find Eisenhower telling Montgomery: ‘If I get an opportunity to capture Berlin cheaply, I will take it.’ He was hardly as good as his word. Even Bradley, finding three days later that his armies had secured a bridgehead over the Elbe at Magdeburg and were only fifty miles from Berlin, admitted: ‘At that time we could probably have pushed on to Berlin had we been willing to take the casualties Berlin would have cost us. Zhukov had not yet crossed the Oder and Berlin now lay about midway between our forces.’

Chester Wilmot was in no doubt. He pointed out that there were no prepared defences to prevent Eisenhower reaching Berlin first, no serious obstacles, ‘nor any resistance that could not be brusquely swept aside by the 60 divisions available for his next offensive’. What is more, there were no logistic objections.

Politically, too, the way was clear for, though the German capital lay in the centre of that area which was to be occupied by the Soviet Union after the war, it had never been suggested that the military forces of one power should not enter the occupation zone of another in pursuit of the common enemy.

Indeed, there had been no discussion between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, still less an agreement, as to who was to take Berlin. At Yalta the question did not arise. Certainly there was no understanding that the city was to be reserved for the Red Army. Since Yalta the relative freedom of movement by the two converging armies had changed dramatically. Formerly the Allies had been bogged down, the Russians advancing everywhere. Now, in April 1945, the position was reversed: the Red Army halted, Eisenhower’s armies free to advance. Leaving aside for a moment whether these latter armies could have reached Berlin first, if they had attempted to do so from mid-April onwards, would the German commanders in the field – notwithstanding anything the Führer or OKW might have had to say, for their orders were negligible – have allowed the Western armies to have made their way to the capital virtually unopposed? There might have been fanatical and scattered resistance from ill-organized groups, but if a decision of this sort had been left to such men as Guderian, Wenck, Busse, Kesselring, Manteuffel, Speer, Dönitz – even Himmler – the answer would in all likelihood have been yes.

Bearing in mind now that the Russian offensive across the Oder did not start until 16 April and that five days later the armies of Zhukov’s front reached the outskirts of the city, any Allied attempt to take Berlin would have had to succeed before this. Given that Montgomery’s Army Group, having reached the Elbe during the first weeks of April was then charged with so many tasks – to clear Schleswig-Holstein, take Wismar, Lübeck, Emden, Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Bremen – that it had to be reinforced by a US Airborne Corps, it would have been impossible for Montgomery’s forces to have got to Berlin before the Russians. On Bradley’s front, however, it was a different story. His elimination of Model’s group of armies in the Ruhr encirclement had been so successful that by 10 April the German soldiers were surrendering en masse. A total of 320,000 were captured with all their weapons and equipment, a significant pointer to what might have happened on the road to Berlin. Bradley had been instructed to seize bridgeheads over the Elbe and be prepared to continue the advance. On 11 April Simpson’s 9th US Army reached the Elbe astride Magdeburg and was across it the following day. On the same day, 12 April, it reached Tangemünde, just over fifty miles from Berlin. Everywhere the US armies were advancing rapidly, and by 15 April Hodges’ 1st Army reached the Mulde and Patton’s 3rd Army had got to Plauen, Hof and Bayreuth. On that very day Simpson proposed to Bradley that his army should expand its Elbe bridgehead and push on in force and with all speed to Berlin: this, it must be noted, on the day before the Red Army’s attack began.

Eisenhower vetoed the suggestion. We may hazard a guess that had Patton been there instead of Simpson he would have pushed on anyway and asked for permission later. That Simpson could have got on seems more or less certain for in the whole of his advance up to the Elbe, his army had suffered very few casualties. Indeed, all that had opposed him – ill-equipped and unpractised divisions of Wenck’s 12th Army, which had no air support at all – had been scattered. Wenck’s own comment on it all was: ‘If the Americans launch a major attack they’ll crack our positions with ease. After all what’s to stop them? There’s nothing between here and Berlin.’ If we assume therefore that on 15 April Simpson had despatched powerful armoured columns down the Autobahn to Berlin, with motorized infantry, artillery and engineers in support, and the Allies’ unchallenged air supremacy to deal with any pockets of resistance, we may suppose that the American armies could have reached and occupied Berlin on 15 and 16 April, so anticipating the arrival of the Russians by several days. Of one thing we may be sure. They would have been welcomed by the Berliners with the most profound relief.

What about Hitler himself? Would he still have committed suicide when the information was brought to him that the American forces were in Berlin? There could presumably be no surrender, conditional or unconditional, while he still lived. Would he still have married Eva Braun, who arrived in the Bunker on 15 April? There would just have been time. Whom would the Führer have nominated as his successor? Would it still have been Dönitz? There are innumerable questions of this sort. But having assumed that Simpson’s 9th Army, rapidly reinforced by elements from the US 1st, 3rd and 15th Armies, did reach, occupy and even extend eastwards beyond Berlin, we may allow ourselves further speculation. Once it was known that Hitler was dead, his nominated successor, provided it were someone like Dönitz, and not Göring, Himmler, Goebbels or Keitel, would have initiated some approach to the Western Allies to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. In view of the proximity of the Red Army, the Western negotiators would have insisted that the Soviet Union be involved in the surrender conditions. There would have to be a newly agreed junction between the two converging armies, possibly the arterial roads to the east of Berlin or the broadly defined eastern outskirts of the city. It must be assumed here too that the Red Army has been ordered not to contest occupation of Berlin.

Who would have been the principal negotiator on behalf of the Western Allies? Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander, might have been a candidate, provided he were furnished with the necessary political guidance from Truman and Churchill. But such delegated authority would have been limited to surrender terms, and would not have changed what had been agreed at Yalta in February. We may be sure that at least three men would have wanted to make their presence known when it came to detailed discussions with Stalin: Truman, Churchill and de Gaulle. One other man would somehow or other have contrived not only to be involved himself, but to ensure a substantial role for the soldiers he commanded: Field-Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. How he would have longed to organize some sort of victory parade or celebration in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium! If Churchill had been given the chance, he would no doubt have arranged for his quarters to have been at Frederick the Great’s Potsdam palace, Sans Souci, and indeed had there been a Potsdam conference in April 1945, instead of July, with the Western Allies in a far more powerful bargaining position than was in reality the case, Churchill might never have experienced his subsequent disappointment and dismay as to what actually emerged in July, when he was out of power:

The line of the Oder and the Eastern Neisse had already been recognized as the Polish compensation for retiring to the Curzon Line, but the overrunning by the Russian armies of the territory up to and even beyond the Western Neisse was never and never would have been agreed to by any Government of which I was the head . . .

The real time to deal with these issues was . . . when the fronts of the mighty Allies faced each other in the field, and before the Americans, and to a lesser extent, the British, made their vast retirement on a 400-mile front to a depth in some places of 120 miles, thus giving the heart and a great mass of Germany over to the Russians . . .

The heart: what if Churchill had had his way earlier and the Western armies had met the Russians not on the line of the Elbe–Mulde rivers, but on the Oder–Neisse line, with Berlin in their own hands? What then? How different a Potsdam conference might have been. Churchill’s fundamental antipathy towards allowing the Russians to occupy great chunks of Central Europe was that he could see no future for these areas unless it was acceptable to – that is, controlled by – the Soviet Government. And that to him was no future at all. Yet all this apart, the American view, at a time when American counsels carried great weight, was that the Western Allies were committed to a definite line of occupation and that this commitment must be honoured. Churchill, too, was in favour of honouring commitments provided all of them were equally honoured, in other words, provided the Western Allies could be satisfied that the entire European future was being properly settled. At Potsdam in July 1945 American support for such a notion was not to hand. Would the situation have differed if Potsdam had instead taken place in April, with Berlin occupied by American and British forces and the Red Army still some way off to the east? We may be sure that Churchill, still at that point wielding much influence and power, would have moved mountains to reach a satisfactory solution.

As for Berlin itself, there would still have been quadripartite control of the city, but how different might have been its initial occupation. We have to recall that in April 1945 Berlin was kaputt, a bombed ruin of a city, as described by a correspondent of the Red Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Troyanovsky, who saw for himself what happened between 21 and 25 April as the battle raged:

From one end of the horizon to the other stretched houses, gardens, factory buildings, and many churches. Volumes of smoke arose from all quarters and hung like a pall over the city. The German capital was burning. The thunder of the artillery bombardment shook the air, the houses and the ground. And Berlin replied with thousands of shells and bombs. It seemed as though we were confronted not by a town, but by a nightmare of fire and steel. Every house appeared to have been converted into a fortress. There were no squares, but only gun positions for artillery and mine throwers. From house to house and street to street, from one district to another, mowing their way through gun fire and hot steel, went our infantrymen, artillery, sappers and tanks. On 25 April the German capital was completely encircled and cut off from the rest of the country. At the height of the street fighting Berlin was without water, without light, without landing fields, without radio stations. The city ceased to resemble Berlin.

‘How pitiful is their Berlin!’ observed Zhukov.

How pitiful too was the plight of the Berliners, particularly the women. The Red Army ran riot. Rape, looting, burning and murder were rife. Hitler’s very last War Directive of 15 April had made it clear what fate threatened a defeated Germany: ‘While the old men and children will be murdered, the women and girls will be reduced to barrack-room whores.’ Antony Beevor, while doing his research into the fall of Berlin, was shocked by what he discovered about the depravity of the Russian soldiers. This research, says a newspaper report, ‘revealed that the Russians raped hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Germans; the troops even raped the Russian and Polish women prisoners they freed from German camps. In some towns every female, young and old, was violated.’

The British and Americans would have behaved better. There might have been seduction, even barter, for cigarettes were treasured currency then, but rape would have been rare. When the British did enter Berlin later, they were greeted as liberators rather than conquerors. What must have been the consequence if Berlin had initially been wholly occupied by the Western armies, before its division into the four sectors, British, American, French and Russian? Is it not possible that as soon as the boundaries were made known and before the barriers and barbed wire went up, every Berliner able to do so would have quitted the Russian zone to find refuge in one of the other three? Even as things were, Germans who found themselves in the Soviet-controlled part of the former Third Reich and in East Berlin flocked to the west in their thousands until the Berlin Wall and the boundary minefields deterred such abundant emigration and denied those seeking refuge from the oppressor’s wrong, the whips and scorns of uniformed bullies, the spurns of the unworthy, the insolence of jack-booted officials, the chance to do so.

It had all been brought about by one man, whom Speer called ‘a demonic figure’, whose ‘person determined the fate of a nation. He alone placed it, and kept it, upon the path which has led to this dreadful ending. The nation was spellbound by him as a people has rarely been in the whole of history.’ Was it all by chance?

A7V FLAKPANZER

The A7V Flakpanzer anti-aircraft tank had two Russian M1902/30 76.2mm (3in) field guns mounted on each end.

ANTI-AIRCRAFT TANK

In the First World War, the Germans used the A7V tank chassis as a starting point in the development of several other variations. Although most would be used for the A7V Überlandwagen rough-terrain tracked supply vehicle, others were used to create unique vehicles, such as a trench-digging machine and the anti-aircraft version known as the A7V Flakpanzer.

Plans were also made to produce an A7V Funkpanzer wireless communication tank fitted with a Graben-Funkstation 16 radio transmitter and large circling antenna positioned on the roof.

In order to combat the ever more numerous aircraft in the skies, the German Army needed something that could fend off the enemy aviators, but also relocate to a more defensible position if necessary. Little is known about this mysterious A7V Flakpanzer – the earliest recorded tracked anti-aircraft vehicle – save for a few photographs. Three prototypes were being tested in the closing stages of the First World War.

The fate of these machines is unknown; it is possible that they were captured by the Allies and scrapped, or dismantled and the parts used for other things.

The guns themselves were positioned at each end of the platform. Ammo boxes were placed around the driving position and just under the guns. The Flakpanzer A7V was very similar to the Überlandwagen, which also had the A7V chassis and suspension, with the engines mounted centrally. The driving compartment was placed above them and was open and unarmoured, but had a tarpaulin cover to be used in bad weather.

The cargo bays were extended well over the front and rear of the vehicle, making the Flakpanzer longer. Each of these bays held an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pedestal. These guns could traverse 360 degrees and could also elevate to fire at enemy planes.

Also present were two elevated guard rails, which seem to have had a double purpose. They could keep the crew from falling off the vehicle and serve as sitting places when moving. Under them were the ammunition compartments, which could be accessed from the outside of the vehicle when the wooden side panels were lowered.

The crew consisted of around ten men, with four needed to service each gun. There was also a driver and a commander, although it is not clear if these positions were somehow amalgamated.

THE ARMAMENT

There is no verified information on the armament used by the Flakpanzer. However, it is believed that two of the prototypes were equipped with captured Russian M1902/30 76.2mm (3in) field guns. They were mounted on a new trunnion and elevation assembly to enable high elevation.

The Germans had captured copious numbers of such guns from the Tsarist Empire and pressed them into service; they even manufactured the ammunition for them.

The third prototype A7V Flakpanzer was equipped with a German Krupp-manufactured gun. It is believed that it was a 7.7cm (3.03in) German leichte Feld Kanone (l.F.K.) 1896 n/a (7.7cm light field cannon). Only one gun was fitted to this vehicle.

Whether these guns were effective against their intended targets remains a mystery as no paperwork related to their use has been found.

New German Submarine Production

In the fall of 1943, Dönitz ordered 152 Type XXI and 140 Type XXIII sub marines. Speer examined the plans and he promised the first Type XXI would be ready in April 1944. Speer determined that the need for early availability of the submarines ruled out the luxury of making a prototype. This later resulted in a number of problems. Speer had established a Central Board for Ship Construction with representatives from both the navy and the Armaments Ministry. He selected Otto Merker (1899–1986), a man from the automobile industry to head the board. To reduce the construction time, Merker proposed a modular approach. Naval engineers estimated that this would reduce construction time from about 22 months to 5–9 months. It would also halve the time submarines were in slips, greatly reducing the time they would be vulnerable to Allied bombing. Merker’s decision on modular construction may have been influenced by the American building of Liberty Ships.

A great number of industrial sites were involved in this mammoth project. Each hull consisted of eight prefabricated sections with final assembly at the shipyards. Some of these sections weighed as much as 150 tons and were too heavy for the rail system. Consequently, they were shipped via rivers and canals to the final assembly yards in Danzig, Bremen, and Hamburg. The Germans planned eventually to transfer all assembly operations to a gigantic bomb-hardened assembly plant at the Valentin submarine pens in the small port of Farge downriver from Bremen. Work on this enormous facility began in early 1943. The plant was nearly complete in March 1945 when it was severely damaged in an Allied air raid using bunker-buster bombs. It was still not completed when the war ended.

Although Dönitz had expected 152 XXIs and 140 XXIIIs to be completed by the end of October 1944, the completion schedule could not be followed for a variety of reasons as detailed below. Only 118 Type XXI were completed by the end of the war and only four of these were ready for combat. Only 59 Type XXIIIs of the 140 planned for were ready by the end of the war and only six put to sea, the first on 29 January 1945 and the last on 4 May. None was sunk while engaged in operations.

Production Obstacles

There are those who claim that the new boats should have been given a higher priority in armament production. They forget the fact that Hitler was caught in a “Catch 22” situation. If he reduced the priority accorded the Luftwaffe, the facilities needed for submarine construction and the synthetic oil refineries would have been destroyed earlier than was the case. If he reduced the priority for the army, replacements for the hard-pressed units in both the East and West would quickly slow down, as would equipment for the new divisions that were being formed. Lowering the priorities for the other two services could only lead to undesirable situations and a shortening of the war. Professor Grier provides some interesting and telling figures in this regard. He notes that the steel required for the Type XXI submarines “would have provided Guderian 5,100 additional tanks” and that another ‘miracle weapon’ program, the V-2 rockets “devoured resources equivalent to 24,000 combat aircraft.” He concludes that “the German war effort certainly would have benefited more from five thousand tanks than from Dönitz’ ‘miracle weapon.’”

A possible solution to the problem was to withdraw units that were ordered to defend the “fortified places” to shorter defensive lines. The wisdom of some decisions can only be judged retrospectively. This was not the case with allowing large forces to be voluntarily encircled or besieged without realistic prospects for relief or re-supply. History tells us that this is a virtually certain prescription for disaster. The new submarine program, on the other hand, cannot be judged realistically except in retrospect.

The lack of prototypes for the new submarines and the fact that many companies involved in the modular construction had little experience in shipbuilding caused severe problems. Much time was wasted because the modular sections did not interlock properly because specific tolerances were exceeded. Additional delays were caused by the long training time required for crews. Most sources note that the normal submarine training time was about three months, but the new types, because of their advanced technology and design complexity, required around six months. The Allies had also started—on August 7, 1944—heavy aerial mining of the Bay of Danzig, now the primary German training area. The mining forced the Germans to move their training to the less suitable Bay of Lübeck. A number of new submarines that were near the completion of trials and ready to head to Norway for stationing were lost in the Bay of Lübeck, probably victims of mines. The loss statistics of Claes-Göran Wetterholm undoubtedly include those lost in routine training accidents.

Allied bombing of production and assembly facilities became an increasing problem for German submarine output. Except for the mining operations in the Baltic, the Allies did not make a concerted effort to damage and destroy the German submarine facilities until January 1945. This objective was simply not on the priority list of the strategic air offensive. Instead, the priorities of the Allied heavy bomber forces were:

  • Synthetic oil facilities
  • Transportation network
  • Tank and mechanized transport production facilities.

The British Admiralty was aware, however, that the Germans were developing new submarines. Intelligence was collected not only through an analysis of Enigma deciphers but by reconnaissance flights over German harbors. By mid-December the National Intelligence Division had come up with a rather accurate estimate and status of the new German submarine production. They estimated that 95 Type XXIs were under construction or in various stages of preparation and that 35 had already been commissioned. The Enigma deciphering even allowed the British to conclude that the commanders appointed to skipper these submarines were experienced and capable.

From their information on the German submarine program, the Allies were less worried about the existing submarines being fitted with snorkel and the Type XXIII than they were about the ocean-going Type XXI. The Allies felt that they could handle the threat from the snorkel and Type XXIII submarines by using existing anti-submarine warfare assets to the maximum. However, they felt that the Type XXI could seriously impede transport across the Atlantic and threaten landing operations if those submarines were deployed in sufficient numbers. Only a dramatic increase in anti-submarine warfare assets could counter this possibility. The alarming intelligence reports caused the Admiralty to urge a heavy bombing campaign against submarine production facilities and slips.

The Royal Air Force, which was somewhat skeptical about the navy’s intelligence, concluded that an aerial campaign of the kind that was suggested by the Admiralty had to be on such a large scale that it would constitute a serious detraction from existing priorities. They noted that German armored forces and the Luftwaffe were seriously constrained by lack of fuel and that any relaxation on existing priorities would lead to the resurgence of the Luftwaffe and allow the Germans to increase their operations vastly on all fronts. The German coal and oil supplies had, by January 1945, been cut to a fraction of what was needed to prosecute the war on two fronts. Therefore, they argued, there should be no shift in priorities until it was shown that the naval commands could no longer cope with the threat.

In the end, the Admiralty convinced the Combined Chiefs of Staff in mid-December 1944 that it was necessary to take the requested action as long as it did not imperil existing priorities. Heavy Allied bombers were ordered to carry out secondary strikes against submarine facilities. Below is a listing of major raids carried out against the submarine facilities and a summary of their results:

  • 18/19 December 1944—a “target of opportunity” raid by 227 Lancaster bombers dropped 817 tons of bombs on Gdynia, a port on the west side of Danzig Bay. The bombs sunk two submarine depot ships, a torpedo boat, and five merchant ships. An oil refinery ship, the World War I battleship Schleswig Holstein, and a Type XXI—about to undertake the final training exercise in the Gulf of Danzig—were heavily damaged.
  • The first attack by the US Eighth Air Force was carried out on December 31, 1944, when 324 bombers attacked Hamburg, dropping 740 tons of bombs. The Germans shot down 24 aircraft. The raid resulted in the destruction of four Type XXI submarines while seriously damaging two others. A large depot ship and several other vessels were also destroyed.
  • An attack on the canals through which pre-fabricated sections were brought to the assembly yards was carried out on January 1, 1945, resulting in the Dortmund–Ems and Mittelland Canals being put out of service until February 6.
  • A very successful raid was carried out by the Eighth Air Force against the submarine assembly yard at Hamburg on January 17. The results of the 360 tons of bombs dropped were impressive. Three commissioned Type XXI were destroyed and nine others were seriously damaged. Five merchant ships were also sunk and three damaged. The US lost three aircraft.
  • Precision bombing by small groups of Mosquitoes, each carrying a 4,000lb bomb, was carried out against a Type XXI yard in Bremen. These attacks were carried out nightly from February 17 until the end of the month. The most successful attack was carried out on February 21/22. Two Type XXIs were damaged and the launch of three others blocked by debris.
  • Eighth Air Force carried out a 198-aircraft raid on the yards at Bremen on February 24. While only one Type XXI was sunk, two floating cranes and the crane used for preparing the submarine were badly damaged.
  • An unusually heavy attack by 407 bombers of the Eighth Air Force was carried out on March 11 against the Bremen yard. This attack was so damaging that it virtually shut down the yard.
  • A damaging raid on the canal system in February again made it unusable. Another raid on the canal system on March 3-4 damaged it beyond repair.
  • Three devastating raids were carried out against the facilities in Hamburg—two by the Royal Air Force and three by the Eighth Air Force. The facilities were virtually brought to a standstill. Eleven older submarines were sunk and five Type XXI were dam aged beyond repair. A new destroyer and 15 other ships were also sunk.
  • Two destructive attacks were carried out in late March on the gigantic submarine pen at Farge, near Bremen. One raid was carried out by the Royal Air Force while the other was delivered by the Eighth Air Force. The damage delayed construction.
  • Heavy raids were carried out by the Eighth Air Force in April 1945 on the port facilities at Kiel. A total of 1,184 aircraft dropped 3,138 tons of bombs. Three older submarines, two liners, and 10 other ships were sunk.
  • The British were also busy over Kiel. On the night of April 8–9, 427 bombers dropped 1,503 tons of bombs. Five commissioned Type XXI submarines and five merchant vessels were sunk. Nightly raids by Mosquitoes were carried out from 21 to 27 April.
  • Kiel was attacked again on the night of 14–15 April by 467 British bombers. Seven older and two Type XXI submarines were sunk in the British raids and the facilities were practically destroyed in the combined raids.

Raids not directly linked to the air campaign against the new submarine facilities were also damaging. For example, the bombing of factories in Hanover and Hagen destroyed the production plants for batteries. The only other plant producing batteries for the submarines was at Posen and it was captured by the Soviets in January 1945. The Soviet advance also stopped all work at the submarine assembly yard at Danzig. Churchill writes that the Soviet capture of Danzig, one of the three principal submarine bases, was a great relief to the British Admiralty. He observed that the resumption of the submarine war on the scale envisioned was clearly impossible.

The production of the smaller Type XXIII was not nearly as affected by Allied bombing as the Type XXI. Only five of these boats were destroyed by bombing. There were two reasons for this lesser damage. First, the assembly site in Hamburg was sheltered in hardened concrete bunkers. Second, the other assembly point in Kiel was not heavily damaged by bombing. However, the output of these boats dropped off because the supply parts dried up. The production dropped from nine boats each month in 1944 to four in February 1945.

Dönitz, with his single-minded focus on the submarine war, was probably one of the very few among the senior German leaders who still believed in early 1945 that the war could be turned around. He was repeatedly forced to explain to Hitler why the 1943 production schedule was continually falling behind. In these “excuse” sessions he always maintained that the turning of the tide was just around the corner, when he knew that was not the case. Hitler would not have tolerated this from his generals, but Dönitz had apparently ingratiated himself to Hitler in such a way that it was tolerated. His optimistic approach to a person who faced disasters on all fronts may be one explanation. Their ideological compatibility was undoubtedly also important. Raeder, Dönitz’ predecessor, met with Hitler infrequently, but Dönitz became practically a fixture at Hitler’s briefings and conferences.

Dönitz had focused his entire naval strategy during the last two years of the war on the deployment of the new submarines. While the Germans came up with a design that profoundly influenced future submarine designs, their immense efforts did not help them turn the tide in World War II. The most promising new boats—Type XXIs—never launched a single torpedo at an enemy.