Germany, Digging In – August and September 1944 I

ADN-ZB/Archiv Das faschistische Deutschland im II. Weltkrieg 1939-45 Berlin wird am 1. Februar 1945 zum "Verteidigungsbereich" erklärt. Die Bevölkerung wird zum Bau von Straßensperrungen u.ä. befohlen. Betriebsangehörige, fast nur Frauen, im Schneetreiben auf dem Anmarsch zum Ausheben von Panzergräben am Stadtrand. Aufnahme Februar/März 1945 343-45

ADN-ZB/Archiv
Das faschistische Deutschland im II. Weltkrieg 1939-45
Berlin wird am 1. Februar 1945 zum “Verteidigungsbereich” erklärt. Die Bevölkerung wird zum Bau von Straßensperrungen u.ä. befohlen. Betriebsangehörige, fast nur Frauen, im Schneetreiben auf dem Anmarsch zum Ausheben von Panzergräben am Stadtrand.
Aufnahme Februar/März 1945
343-45

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In late August and September 1944, the Germans dug in, literally. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were sent out to dig trenches and build fortifications, a massive effort directed by the Gauleiters in their role as regional Reich Defence Commissioners. By 10 September, there were 211,000 civilians at work on the West Wall alone, mainly women, teenagers and men too old for military service. A further 137 units of the Hitler Youth and the Reich Labour Service, for which both young men and women were liable, were also sent to work. In the east, another half-million Germans and foreign workers were conscripted to dig. In September the theatres were closed across the Reich so that actors, musicians and stagehands could be drafted. While Goebbels tried to protect part of the film industry and Hitler constructed his own list of exceptional artists to exempt, in the Führer’s adopted city of Linz actors and singers were enlisted in the SS and sent off to do guard duty at the nearby concentration camp of Mauthausen.

Applying the lesson of the Soviets’ bitter defence of Stalingrad, in March 1944 Hitler had designated Mogilev, Bobruisk and Vitebsk as ‘fortresses’, which ‘will allow themselves to be surrounded, thereby holding down the largest possible number of enemy forces and establishing conditions for successful counter-attacks’. All three had been lost in the devastating defeats of the summer, but the model had worked better on the western front. Capturing Brest had cost so many American lives – and the port had been so badly destroyed – that the German garrisons were left in control of their other Atlantic ports at Royan, La Rochelle, St-Nazaire and Lorient. As the Wehrmacht fell back to the Vistula in the east, a further twenty towns were now designated as ‘fortresses’ in the eastern German provinces and in Poland. In Silesia, Danzig-West Prussia and the Wartheland, much of the work was done by forced Polish labour. In East Prussia, extensive fortifications dated back to before the First World War but had to be renovated and, where possible, re-equipped. Here the 200,000 Germans racing to finish that task before the autumn rains came complained about the coercive quality of the works. Criticism was mainly aimed at local Party officials who drove out to the sites in their immaculate uniforms and bawled out commands without venturing to pick up a spade and join in. Poor food, accommodation in barns on straw mattresses and excessive hours all took their toll, as German civilians got a mild taste of what they had inflicted on others. But the corvées of labour also renewed a sense of common endeavour, as restaurant waiters and students, printers and university professors trooped out of cities like Königsberg to pick up shovels. By the end of the year, their number had risen to 1.5 million.

The collecting drives for Winter Relief, summer camps and communal stews had long prepared Germans for such an effort. Years of war had completed the training in shared sacrifice. In Lauterbach, Irene Guicking wrote to her husband Ernst, ‘I would so like to set a good example going forwards. I am convinced I would shame the others.’ But looking after two small children left her wondering ‘what I should do so as not to be left on the margins in the total war drive’. At least the German retreat from France meant that her husband could no longer be tempted by the elegant French women. The hills of the Vosges looked so close on the map in her atlas and, gazing at it several times a day, she mused, ‘Just a bit further east and you will be behind the protective border. You know, it must be a funny feeling to know that the border of the Reich is near.’

It was a time of exceptional measures. In mid-July, Goebbels still felt thwarted by Hitler’s reluctance to impose ‘total war’ measures on the home front. But on 20 July 1944 Hitler’s attitude changed, after he narrowly survived an assassination attempt. A bomb planted by Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg went off in the conference room at his field headquarters in East Prussia, fatally wounding three officers and the stenographer. Like most of the twenty-four people in the room, Hitler suffered a burst eardrum and blast injuries; otherwise, he escaped unscathed. A profound weakness in the conspiracy lay in its lack of high-level support. Whereas in Italy in July 1943 there had been clear consensus within the military that they had to oust Mussolini, no such view had crystallised in the Wehrmacht. Indeed, although they tested out many senior officers, most of the conspirators were officers of mid-rank.

Its organising brain was Henning von Tresckow, who used his role as chief of operations on the Staff of Army Group Centre in 1942–43 to have men like Rudolf Christoph von Gersdorff, Carl-Hans von Hardenberg, Heinrich von Lehndorff-Steinort, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Philipp and Georg von Boeselager and Berndt von Kleist placed in key positions there. Linked by a web of aristocratic family connections, these younger officers were both held back and tolerated by senior commanders such as Bock, the uncle of Tresckow’s wife, and by Bock’s successor as commander of Army Group Centre, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, who vetoed their plan to assassinate Hitler when he visited the Smolensk headquarters in March 1943. The plotters failed to win over any high-level military commanders, with the exception of Erwin Rommel and the military commander in France, Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel. This lack of support and comprehension was still more evident lower down the chain of command: the conspirators might have been well connected but they were always an isolated minority.

The plotters attempted to circumvent their weakness by misappropriating an operational plan, code-named ‘Valkyrie’, which had been designed to suppress internal disorder, such as a coup attempt or an uprising by foreign workers, by automatically ordering military units under the command of the Reserve Army to surround government buildings in the capital. It was a fairly flimsy plan. It only took one loyal major, Otto-Ernst Remer, to question the raison d’être of his deployment for the plot to collapse. When Remer went up to arrest Goebbels, he was put through on the telephone to Hitler, whose voice he recognised, and the major immediately accepted responsibility for crushing the plot whose unwitting instrument he had been made. By the early evening of 20 July the rest of the coup attempt had unravelled: the key conspirators were either dead, under arrest or frantically trying to destroy evidence that might implicate them. Remer and his men reached army headquarters in the Bendlerstrasse in time to provide the firing squad. Stauffenberg was in no doubt that his contemporaries would not understand their actions, explaining that he was acting ‘in the knowledge that he will go down in German history as a traitor’. Among his contemporaries, he was not wrong.

News of the attempted coup broke at 6.30 p.m. with a short radio announcement. Then, just after midnight, Hitler’s baritone voice – measured, if slightly breathless – could be heard. ‘German national comrades, I do not know how many times now an attempt on my life has been planned and carried out,’ the Führer began. ‘If I speak to you today it is, first, in order that you should hear my voice and that you should know that I myself am unhurt and well; second, in order that you should know about a crime unparalleled in German history.’ He went on to tell how ‘a very small clique of ambitious, irresponsible, and at the same time senseless and criminally stupid officers have formed a plot to eliminate me and, with me, the German Wehrmacht command’ and to reassure the nation that ‘I myself am completely unhurt. I regard this as a confirmation of the task imposed on me by Providence to continue on the road of my life as I have done hitherto.’ Hitler promised to ‘exterminate’ the perpetrators. The six-minute-long speech and those by Hermann Göring and the Commander-in-Chief of the navy, Karl Dönitz, which followed straight afterwards, were re-broadcast throughout the following day. They came as an earthquake.

In Berlin-Zehlendorf, Peter Stölten’s father expressed his shock tersely, writing to his son, ‘How can they endanger the front so?’ In his diary, he expressed his thoughts more fully: ‘It looks as if they regard the war as lost and want to save what can be saved or what appears salvageable to them. But the whole thing . . . can only lead at this moment to civil war and inner division and create a new stab-in-the-back myth.’ It was a measured response, and he was not alone in fearing defeat or even civil war. According to the SD report from Nuremberg, even those who were critical of the Nazis were convinced that ‘only the Führer can master the situation and that his death would have led to chaos and civil war’. This local report added an interesting note of candour: ‘Even the circles which have looked favourably on a military dictatorship are convinced by the more than dilettantish preparation and execution of the coup that generals are not equipped to take over the helm of state in the most serious of times.’ Clearly, the loose talk about regime change from the summer of 1943 was over. In the streets and shops of Königsberg and Berlin, women were said to have burst into tears of joy at news of Hitler’s survival: ‘Thank God, the Führer is alive’ was the typical expression of relief.

The Propaganda Ministry and the Party rushed to organise ‘spontaneous’ rallies and thanksgivings for Hitler’s ‘providential salvation’. But the huge turnouts and effusive expressions of gratitude seem to have been genuine enough. Even Catholic bastions such as Paderborn and Freiburg, where the Party had previously struggled to hold public rallies at all, recorded unprecedented numbers. Families wrote to each other en masse expressing their relief and joy at Hitler’s miraculous escape: no military censor or propagandist could force them to do so. The Allies, applying ‘scientific’ techniques to measure the success of their own propaganda amongst German prisoners of war, found – to their dismay – that trust in Hitler’s leadership rose from 57 per cent in mid-July to 68 per cent in early August. By this stage, the regime did not make the mistake of confusing such trust and relief with confidence in Germany’s military position. As the President of the Nuremberg provincial court reported, ‘that the mood of the people is very gloomy is no surprise given the position on the eastern front’. But the crisis had a galvanising effect. All the reports confirmed that people expected that ‘now finally’ all obstacles to full mobilisation for total war would be swept aside.

Army Group Centre, from which many of the plotters came, had just lost half its divisions in the huge encirclement battles in Belorussia. The regime was not slow to attribute the defeats to the treachery of these officers. According to the SD reports, ‘national comrades’ now looked admiringly at Stalin’s 1937–38 purge of the officer corps of the Red Army, passing comments such as ‘Stalin is the only clear-sighted one among all the leaders, the one who made betrayal impossible in advance by exterminating the predominant but unreliable elements’. The resolutely plebeian Robert Ley promptly amplified such sentiments in an article in the house paper of the German Labour Front, in which he ranted in terms he had previously reserved for the Jews:

Degenerate to their very bones, blue-blooded to idiocy, repulsively corrupt and as cowardly as all base creatures, this is the clique of nobles which the Jew sends forth against National Socialism, arms with bombs and turns into murderers and criminals . . . This vermin must be exterminated, destroyed root and branch.

Ley’s tirade remained the exception, and Goebbels instructed the press to be careful not to attack the officer corps as a whole. Hitler had called the conspirators ‘a very small clique’ – and so they were. They had lacked the support of any major part of the German state: although many of the plotters came from the army and the Foreign Office, the senior ranks of both institutions remained firmly loyal through the crisis.

In its aftermath, Hitler relied not just on out-and-out Nazi generals, like General Ferdinand Schörner, the new commander of Army Group North, but more ‘apolitical’ figures such as the veteran tank commander Heinz Guderian, whom he had immediately appointed as his new Chief of General Staff on 21 July. The ageing conservative nationalist Gerd von Rundstedt was recalled too, first to chair the officer corps’s purge of its own ranks, and, in September, to take command of the western front once more – this, despite having been dismissed at the beginning of July for telling the High Command that the Allied invasion could not be halted. Despite his deep distrust of the military caste in general and the General Staff in particular, Hitler still knew how to use the loyalty and skills of these men. There was even room for General Johannes Blaskowitz, who had been sacked from his Polish command in 1940 for repeatedly challenging the atrocities carried out by the SS. In the aftermath of the July assassination attempt Blaskowitz had pledged ‘after this dastardly crime to rally to him [the Führer] yet more closely’. Having proved himself during the retreat from southern France, Blaskowitz was entrusted with commanding Army Group H in the Netherlands: with the British in Belgium, it was vital to prevent them from bypassing the Rhineland defences by swinging through the southern Netherlands and into northern Germany. Blaskowitz would repay Hitler’s confidence in full.

When Schörner took command of the 500,000-strong Army Group North in Estonia and Latvia, he issued orders which reflected Hitler’s own apocalyptic views, insisting on the absolute necessity of stopping the ‘Asiatic flood-wave’ of Bolshevism. To halt the German retreat and the desertion of Latvian auxiliaries and to instil obedience through fear, Schörner meted out unprecedented numbers of death sentences for cowardice, defeatism and desertion. For the first time German soldiers did not just face the firing squad. Increasingly Schörner’s command ordered that the condemned should be hanged, with demeaning placards attesting to their crime for all to see: a ‘dishonourable’ death which had so far been reserved for Jews and Slavs. But Schörner was merely an extreme exponent of a growing trend, as Wehrmacht commanders fought to stop their armies from breaking. Even the pious Protestant Blaskowitz turned to draconian methods to halt mass flight. He too would have increasing numbers of his own soldiers shot during the coming months for desertion. On 31 October, Rundstedt proposed placing the relatives of deserters in concentration camps and confiscating their property – so far a measure which had only been used against a handful of families of the July plotters, with most of their wives and children being released within a few weeks.

Although this principle of family liability was also canvassed by other senior generals, the widespread introduction of the policy was ultimately thwarted, and from an unlikely quarter. The SD, the institution empowered to take family members into custody, refused to operate a system of collective reprisals against Germans. Instead of immediately resorting to such measures on the German home front, the Gestapo and SD continued to weigh its decisions on the basis of individual assessments of ‘character’. In Würzburg, for example, the Gestapo refused to act against the parents of a soldier who had deserted on the Italian front because it found no evidence that they were ‘anti-National Socialist’; after dragging out the investigation for nine months, the Gestapo closed the case. Despite new levels of coercion, the Nazi regime was still not ready to deploy at home the techniques of indiscriminate mass terror it had pioneered in occupied Europe.

In other respects, the Nazi leadership emerged from the bomb plot imbued with a more radical sense of purpose, as the most ruthless and efficient group of leaders now formed a virtual ‘quadrumvirate’. With more and more responsibility for the defence of the German regions given to the Gauleiters, Martin Bormann’s control over the Party machine made him a key player. Now adding the command of the Reserve Army to his control over the Interior Ministry, police and SS, Himmler had a near-complete monopoly over the means of coercion within the Reich. Goebbels finally became Plenipotentiary for Total War, a role he had coveted since early 1942. He was now able – at least in principle – to give a new impetus to setting the needs of the civilian economy and cultural consumption aside in favour of unchecked mobilisation for the defence of the Reich. The fourth member of this inner group was Albert Speer, the Minister for Armaments, whose abilities in getting the most out of inadequate resources would be tested as never before. With Hitler focused ever more on micromanaging his military commanders, these four key leaders – all inclined to expand into the others’ spheres of control – would be forced to run the home front in competitive collaboration.

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Germany, Digging In – August and September 1944 II

Feierliche Vereidigung der Freiwilligen des Deutschen Volkssturms in Berlin In Berlin fand heute die feierliche Vereidigung der Freiwilligen des Deutschen Volkssturms statt. UBz Volkssturmmänner mit ihren Waffen während des Vorbeimarsches an Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels.

Feierliche Vereidigung der Freiwilligen des Deutschen Volkssturms in Berlin
In Berlin fand heute die feierliche Vereidigung der Freiwilligen des Deutschen Volkssturms statt. UBz Volkssturmmänner mit ihren Waffen während des Vorbeimarsches an Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels.

Volkssturm marching, November 1944.

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In August, the Hitler Youth leader, Artur Axmann, issued a call for boys born in 1928 to volunteer for the Wehrmacht. Whole cohorts of Hitler Youths answered the summons and within six weeks 70 per cent of the age group had signed up. Parents may have viewed the call-up with horror, but few tried to stop the teenagers from going. In the earlier years of the war, especially after the victories in the west, military recruitment offices had been besieged by teenagers desperate to sign up and do their bit for the Fatherland; for many this sense of patriotic adventure continued into 1945. Then on 25 September a new people’s militia was announced, the Volkssturm, its name a populist merging of the romantic tradition of the 1813 ‘War of Liberation’ against Napoleon and the traditional Prussian militia, the Landsturm. As military strategists in the 1920s had examined Germany’s failure to make a ‘last stand’ in 1918, there had been calls for just such a ‘total mobilisation’ of the civilian population. Unlike Axmann’s earlier appeal for volunteers, however, recruitment for the Volkssturm was not voluntary, and by the end of 1944 parents were being threatened with legal sanctions if their sons did not enlist. But these threats affected a small minority: by that time most Hitler Youths had already volunteered. As call-up was extended to boys and men between the ages of 16 and 60, the Gauleiters were entrusted with raising this final levy to form a militia numbering up to six million. Its potential reservoir was even larger: if every able-bodied German man had been called up, the Volkssturm would have grown to 13.5 million – greater in size than the Wehrmacht with its 11.2 million officers and men.

The Volkssturm levy, intended to help make good the losses the army had sustained that summer, was simply too large to be equipped. Indeed, the Wehrmacht itself was short of 714,000 rifles in October 1944. At a monthly output of 186,000 standard infantry carbines, German production could no longer keep pace with the ambitions of this ‘rising of the people’. By the end of January 1945, the Volkssturm had managed to accumulate a mere 40,500 rifles and 2,900 machine guns: a heterogeneous array of mainly foreign and out-of-date weapons, often with little, if any, compatible ammunition, giving recruits little chance to practise with live rounds. While more effort was lavished on inducting the teenagers as future soldiers, who were sent to separate training camps, far less went on the middle-aged men, who were treated as cannon fodder; few of them received more than ten to fourteen days’ training. Improvisation was the order of the day: the quadruple batteries of 20mm anti-aircraft guns were frequently converted to infantry use, machine guns from planes remounted on tripods and even flare pistols used for firing grenades.

The flak auxiliaries already included 10,000 women volunteers from the Nazi Women’s Organisation, who ran messages and worked the searchlights and radar guidance systems of the heavy batteries. As boys headed off to train for the Volkssturm, their anti-aircraft positions were often taken over by girls from the BDM and Reich Labour Service. Unlike the smart attire worn by the women already posted to the military telephone exhanges and typing pools, this new levy of female recruits simply inherited the oversized uniforms left by their male forerunners. Now, as German women put on pistols to defend their gun emplacements, the myth that German men ‘out there’ were protecting women and children ‘at home’ completely crumbled. In 1941, audiences at home had unhesitatingly seen the ‘Bolshevik gun-woman’ as a freak against nature and a perversion of women’s vocation to nurture. As German women broke this final cultural barrier, it hardly seemed remarkable any more.

The establishment of the Volkssturm also sat uncomfortably with Nazi measures to protect Germany’s children: what was the point in evacuating them from the cities, only to send them out against tanks on bicycles with a brace of anti-tank grenades strapped to the handlebars? With the nation’s future at stake, service and sacrifice became the overriding virtues. The new Commander-in-Chief of the Reserve Army and of the Volkssturm, Heinrich Himmler, told military recruiters why they should share his determination ‘to send 15-year-olds to the front’: ‘It is better that a young cohort dies and the nation is saved than that I spare a young cohort and a whole nation of 80–90 million people dies out.’ Hitler had warned in his decree establishing the Volkssturm that the enemy’s ‘final goal is to exterminate the German people’ and now his political idée fixe that ‘there must never be another November 1918’ had been put to the test.

As girls as well as boys took their military oaths, after the parade-ground ceremonies the immediate problem was to find uniforms and equipment. In the Rhineland, 15-year-old Hugo Stehkämper and his comrades were given pre-war black SS uniforms, brown Organisation Todt coats, blue Air Force Auxiliary caps and French steel helmets. Across the country, the stores of the Wehrmacht, police, railways, border guards, postal service, storm troopers, National Socialist truck drivers, the Reich Labour Service, the SS, the Hitler Youth and the German Labour Front were all turned over to provide uniforms for the Volkssturm. What made this quest all the more important was the fear that members of the Volkssturm would otherwise be shot as ‘irregulars’, in the way Germans had executed Polish volunteers in 1939.

The regime also realised that the Wehrmacht could learn about ideological control from the Red Army, and in the autumn of 1944 rapidly expanded its own – rather weak – version of political commissars, the National Socialist Leadership Officers. These were volunteers who took on the role of part-time morale-raiser and educator alongside their normal military duties, but they lacked the authority to countermand superior orders. One of the new volunteers was August Töpperwien. Although the high-school teacher from Solingen detested the anti-Christian thrust of Nazism and was appalled by the murder of the Jews, like many other Protestant conservatives Töpperwien still counted ‘world Jewry’ amongst Germany’s enemies. As early as October 1939, he had divided Europe into three blocks, ‘the Western democracies, the National Socialist centre and the Bolshevik east’, and concluded that only Germany would have the determination to defend European culture from ‘Asiatic barbarism’ – this at a time when Germany was allied to the Soviet Union. Believing that ‘World Jewry’ had corrupted the Western democracies, his analysis foreshadowed Goebbels’s later propaganda, but Töpperwien was no Nazi. His views stemmed from conservative nationalism, with its own anti-liberal, anti-Semitic and anti-socialist precepts. Moreover, Töpperwien shared one other fundamental tenet with many of the senior Wehrmacht commanders, like him all veterans of the First World War: he remained committed to preventing any repetition of the revolutionary disintegration of 1918. In October 1944, as the German front lines stabilised again, he noted proudly in his diary, ‘But thank God, the spirit of revolt is still far off!’ Töpperwien had periodically expressed doubts in Hitler’s leadership throughout the war, but by early November he admitted to himself that ‘The clearer it becomes that Hitler is not the God to whom people prayed the more I feel bound to him.’ As Töpperwien worried about people’s loyalty to the German cause, he realised that there was no room for any other leader than Hitler: he might not be a messianic saviour, but no one else could now save Germany.

Another unusual volunteer for the new propaganda role within the Wehrmacht was Peter Stölten. He had, he quipped to his mother, become ‘one of the Doctor’s [Goebbels’s] boys’. By the end of 1944, their number had swelled to 47,000 officers. The prime task of these part-time ‘political commissars’ was to educate their men in an ‘unconstrained will to destroy and to hate’ the enemy. Stölten was certain that the Soviets had to be stopped at all costs. Despite his growing conviction that the war was lost, he forbade himself from doing anything to hasten that result. On the contrary, he admired the Polish fighters in Warsaw for the lesson they had provided in heroic self-sacrifice. He assured his fiancée Dorothee that he had not lost his ‘inborn aversion to NS-sloganeering’ and left ‘all the information sheets’ unread and ‘just improvised’, but his talks may have been all the more credible for not sounding hackneyed; after all, they came from a tank commander with an impressive record of front-line service.

Stölten was not alone in looking to the Poles for an example. Even Heinrich Himmler, entrusted by Hitler with wiping Warsaw from the map, now turned to the Polish ‘Untermenschen’ for inspiration, telling an audience of Party, military and business leaders that

Nothing can be defended so outstandingly as a major city or a field of rubble . . . Here we must defend . . . the country . . . The saying ‘till the last cartridge and bullet!’ must be no idle phrase, but a fact. It must be our sacred duty to ensure that the sorrowful and costly exemplar which Warsaw gave us is enacted by the Wehrmacht and Volkssturm for every German city which has the misfortune to be encircled and besieged.

The comparison was not a hyperbolic one. That autumn, under Guderian’s guidance, German military strategy on the eastern front shifted away from digging continuous entrenched lines, like the positions so recently abandoned along the river Dniepr. Instead, military engineers were using their corvées of civilian workers to turn key cities such as Warsaw, Königsberg, Breslau, Küstrin and Budapest into strongpoints. They were to become the ‘fortresses’ that would hold back the Soviets the way that Moscow and Stalingrad had stopped the Wehrmacht.

Into October 1944, the new defensive lines held and, against all expectations, blocked the advance of both the Soviets and the Western Allies into the Reich. Partly because of the Wehrmacht’s strong position in the southern Vosges, it was not easy for Patton’s force advancing on the Saar to link up with Patch’s troops in Alsace. The British and American armies also struggled with their own logistical bottleneck: all supplies were still being shipped by road from Normandy and Marseilles. Although the port of Antwerp had been captured on 4 September, before the Germans could blow it up, the Wehrmacht controlled its harbour mouth until November. While the Allies concentrated on reopening Antwerp and shortening their supply lines, the Germans re-equipped the West Wall and began to mass their divisions on the western front.

On the eastern front, in early October the Red Army suddenly turned its northern assault across the marshlands, rivers and tough defences protecting Army Group North in the Baltic states around to the west. As Soviet troops crossed the pre-war German frontier for the first time, penetrating the East Prussian district of Gumbinnen and taking the town of Gołdap and the village of Nemmersdorf, they also cut off thirty German divisions on the Memel peninsula. Scratch units of the new, East Prussian Volkssturm managed to hold the Russian advance around Treuburg, Gumbinnen and along the Angerapp river until mobile reserves could move up to give them support. Then, in mid-October, the Wehrmacht counter-attacked in East Prussia, threatening to encircle the Soviets and forcing them to retreat to the border. With Berlin still over 600 kilometres away the Red Army’s summer offensive had come to a halt along the Vistula and the line of the Carpathians.

Compared to the mass panic which had gripped many of its units on the western front in September, a month later the Wehrmacht presented a very different opponent. Allied commanders were shocked by the stiffening resistance of an enemy that they had assumed was on the point of collapse. At Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Eisenhower called a crisis summit in November to ask why nothing had destroyed the ‘will of the Wehrmacht to resist’. The psychological war experts, responsible for debriefing German prisoners of war and profiling their beliefs, were at a loss to explain it. Earlier in the year they had been similarly baffled as the Allies slowly fought their way up the Italian peninsula: there too the morale of their German prisoners had kept rising, the complete oppos-ite of what they had predicted and hoped. Asked if they believed in the existence of ‘new weapons’, in October 1943, only 43 per cent of prisoners had answered in the affirmative, but by February 1944 that proportion had risen to 58 per cent. After the initial shock of the Allied landings in southern Italy, German morale had stabilised. Now, Eisenhower was told, at least half of the captives on the western front still displayed ‘loyalty to the Führer’ and spoke confidently of the Red Army as a spent and defeated force.

It seemed clear that the findings in Italy were now being replicated on the western front. In late August and early September, while ordinary German infantrymen were downcast, morale remained high amongst the core cadre of junior officers, not to mention elite formations such as paratroopers and Waffen SS divisions. But even before German resistance at the front stiffened, most of the prisoners being questioned affirmed the absolute necessity of national defence and the righteousness of their cause. Allied insistence on Germany’s ‘unconditional surrender’ and the leaking of the Morgenthau Plan to strip Germany of all industrial capacity played a part; but the most important factor, now as ever, remained the fear of conquest by the Russians. The exiled novelist Klaus Mann was one of those German-speakers in the US Army tasked with debriefing prisoners of war on the Italian front. In late 1944, he asked his New York publisher: ‘Why don’t they finally stop? What are they waiting for, the unfortunates? This is the question which I don’t just ask you and me, but always pose to them too.’ Other Western experts were equally baffled. Henry Dicks, a veteran of the Tavistock Clinic and the leading British Army psychiatrist, who had interviewed hundreds of German prisoners and written the standard analysis of their outlook, now took refuge in the rather vague concept of the ‘German capacity for repressing reality’. What neither Klaus Mann nor Henry Dicks considered was that, in the absence of a separate peace in the west, German troops considered blocking the British and Americans as essential to holding the Soviets in the east.

In mid-October 1944, the Western Allies could not be sure whether the stiffening German resistance amounted to a temporary pause or a real change in the balance of forces. Military historians now know that the defeats of the summer had ripped the Wehrmacht apart, its fighting power sapped beyond recovery. In the three months from July until the end of September, German military deaths reached a new peak of 5,750 per day. The Army High Command knew in part how disastrous the summer had been – and it was Guderian who first suggested raising an East Prussian Landsturm. Even with bitter fighting in the west, it was on the eastern front that the real haemorrhaging had occurred: 1,233,000 German troops died there in 1944, accounting for nearly half the German fatalities in the east since June 1941.

U-Boot Demise…

Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Werner commanded U-415 from 17 April 1944 through 14 July 1944. Having joined the Kriegsmarine in 1939, he served as a watch officer in training aboard U-557 under Korvettenkapitän Ottokar Arnold Paulssen for three patrols and ninety-three days at sea. In that time the sub sank five Allied ships. Werner left the boat in November 1941 for another training assignment. On 16 December, U-557 was lost with all hands. From Werner’s book Iron Coffins: “It was past 1700 when I returned to the bunker. The radios had been silenced. Instead, the huge vault-like structure resounded to the songs of our 800 crewmen, who remained eager to sail against the enemy even if it meant sailing straight to their deaths. At 2100, as night descended upon the Normandy battlefields, 15 U-boats slipped out into the Bay. The night was clear. The stars glittered faintly in a still light sky. Soon a full moon would rise and light up our way into the Atlantic.

“The moon had risen fully above the horizon in the southeast. Standing like a giant lantern in the sky, it illuminated the long row of U-boats and was sharply reflected in the calm sea. Contrary to common procedure, all the men had put on their yellow life jackets. The bridge had been stacked with piles of ammunition, the conning tower turned into an arsenal. The gunners hung at their automatics in tense expectation of the first enemy plane. I stood in my nook trying to keep my boat directly in the wake of U-821, and to hold the distance to a prearranged 300 meters.

“2310: The first radar impulses were picked up by our Bug and the Fly as the coast receded. The report from below—‘Six radar impulses, all over forward sector, increasing in volume fast!’—alarmed every hand on the bridge. All ears turned into the wind, all eyes searched the quarters ahead. I kept my gaze circling above the armored superstructure, but the intense moonlight revealed no winged black monsters.

“2320: The head of our procession reached the open sea. With the escorts still in line, the eight boats sliced the silvery surface and drove ever deeper into the enemy’s defense. The scream of high volume radar impulses and the stream of emergency messages from below never ceased.

“2340: Sudden fireworks flared up in the forward port quarter, five miles ahead. We had been warned that several of our destroyers were en route from Lorient to Brest, and we should not mistake them for the British. I focused my glasses on the disturbance and sighted seven destroyers in an athwart formation, fighting off a British air attack. Thousands of tracers were exchanged, and brilliant flares parachuted down upon our vessels, adding their white light to the yellow moonglow. The sound of gunfire and howling aircraft engines increased as we drew closer to the battling forces. The Tommies, noting our approach, halted their wild attacks to avoid being trapped in the crossfire between U-boats and destroyers. The destroyers raced eastward past our long file, and our trawlers, seizing the chance for protected trip home, swerved out of formation and fastened onto the destroyers’ wake. Their sudden maneuver left eight U-boats at the mercy of the British. At that moment all eight U-boats acted in concert, and I ordered, ‘Both engines three times full ahead. Shoot on sight.’

“June 7 At 0015, our long chain of boats was racing at top speed towards the Atlantic. The diesels hacked, the exhausts fumed, impulses haunted us all the way. I found myself glancing repeatedly at my watch as if it could tell me when the fatal blow would fall.

“0030: Radar impulses chirped all around the horizon, their volumes shifting rapidly from feeble moans to high-pitched screams. The Tommies were obviously flying at various distances around our absurd procession. They must have thought we had lost our minds. Sometimes I could hear aircraft engines at fairly close range, but could not spot a plane. The hands of my watch crept slowly ahead while the British waited for reinforcement; our eyes sharpened and our hearts beat heavy under our breasts.

“0112: The battle began. Our leading boats were suddenly attacked. Tracers spurted in various directions, then the sound of gunfire hit our ears. Fountains reached into the sky.

“One of the enemy airplanes caught fire. It flashed comet-like toward the head of our file, crossed over one of the boats, dropped four bombs, then plunged into the ocean. The bombs knocked out Sachse’s U-413. With helm jammed hard aport, the boat swerved out of the column. She lost speed rapidly and sank below the surface.

“0125: The aircraft launched a new attack, again directed at the boats in the front. Three boats, brightly lighted by flares, concentrated their gunfire and held the planes at bay. A spectacular fireworks erupted, engulfing the U-boats and aircraft. Suddenly the Tommies retreated. Radar impulses indicated that they were circling our stubborn parade, regrouping for a fresh attack. I raised myself over the rim of the bridge, straining to see and sound out the roaming planes.

“0145: The boat at our stern, the last one in the column, became the target of a new British tactic. Trying to roll out the carpet of fire from the rear, a four-engined Liberator came roaring down on starboard, diving for the bow of U-256. Boddenberg’s men opened fire. But the aircraft veered off in front of the boat, where her guns became ineffective. That was our chance. ‘Open fire!’ I screamed. Five barrels, all that we had available, blazed away at the Liberator as it dropped four depth charges ahead of U-256 and roared past us. Four giant water columns leaped skyward behind the riddled aircraft as it tried to escape our fire. But some shells from our 37mm gun hit the plane broadside. It exploded in midair, then plunged into the sea. U-256, beaten and mutilated by the depth charges, lay stopped and helpless in our wake, slowly falling out of line. That was the last we saw of her. Realising that her demise left us the first target in any new attack from the rear, I called for more ammunition. Radar impulses increased rapidly. For a while, however, the British held back.

“0220: Impulses now from starboard. I presumed several planes were approaching. Suddenly, a Sunderland shot out of the night from starboard ahead. I yelled ‘Aircraft—starboard forty—fire!’ Short bursts from our two twin 20mm guns followed the sweep of the plane. It cleverly flew in from dead ahead, making our guns ineffective, and dropped four barrels in front of our bow. Simultaneously, a Liberator attacked from starboard bearing 90, firing from all its muzzles. An instant later, four detonations amidships. Four savage eruptions heaved U-415 out of the water and threw our men flat on the deck plates. Then she fell back, and the four collapsing geysers showered us with tons of water and sent cascades through the hatch. This was the end. Both diesels stopped, the rudder jammed hard-a-starboard. U-415 swerved in an arc, gradually losing speed. Above on starboard floated a flare, its treacherous glare enveloping our dying boat. U-415 lay crippled, bleeding oil from a ruptured tank, slowly coming to a full stop—now a target to be finished off with ease. Bewildered, I peered down through the tower hatch into the blackness of the hull. All life below seemed to have ceased. I feared the boat might sink at any moment and ordered, ‘All hands on deck! Make ready dinghies and lifebuoy.’

“Not a sound came from below. The men must have been knocked out by the blows. Interminable seconds passed. From the distance came the drone of planes regrouping for a new assault. It had to be fatal. Suddenly, some men came struggling up the ladder, shaken, mauled, groggy, reaching for air, tossing inflatable rubber floats to the bridge. As they jumped on deck and prepared the dinghies, the gunners raised their barrels toward the invisible airplanes circling their disabled prey. The speed of the attack and the resultant damages prevented us from sending a distress signal. This, I thought grimly, was the way many of my friends had died—the silent way, leaving no word.

“U-415, hopelessly damaged, lay waiting for the coup de grace. Since the boat did not seem to be sinking, I told my men to take cover behind the tower instead of lowering the dinghies into the water. I was determined to remain on board as long as the boat would float and to shoot as long as there was ammunition and men to handle the guns. It turned out, however, that we would not die unreported: the radio mate managed to patch up our emergency transmitter and sent Headquarters news of our destruction.

“0228: Increasing engine noise heralded a new attack, a fresh approach by Sunderland from starboard ahead, guns blazing. Zooming over our bridge, it dropped four canisters. Four deafening booms tossed the boat aloft. At that moment a Liberator attacked at low altitude from port ahead. Our men on two 20mm guns started firing at once and emptied their magazines into the plane’s cockpit. The black monster swept across our bridge, dropped four charges, then zoomed away, blowing hot exhaust fumes into our faces. As the boat made four violent jumps to port and as four white mushrooms soared high alongside our starboard saddle tanks, the gunner at the 37mm automatic sent a full charge of explosive shells into the bomber’s fuselage. The flaming aircraft plunged into the sea. Somewhere, the sound of the Sunderland’s engines faded into the distance.

“Then all was very quiet. The flare still flickered on the surface next to our boat.

U-415 was near death, but still afloat. The Fly and the Bug had been shot away; we were without a warning device. The bridge was punctured by many projectiles. A gunner lay scalped by a shell. Other men had been hit by steel fragments. The Exec moaned in pain, his back badly lacerated by countless splinters. In the aftermath of battle, I felt hot. Assuming I was sweating, I wiped my burning eyes. But my hand came away red, and I realised that blood was streaming down my face. My white cap was punctured like a sieve, and the tiny fragments had torn my scalp.

“Then I heard the Chief’s voice from below: ‘Boat is taking heavy water through galley and bow hatches. Strong leak in radio room. I’ll try to keep her afloat, if you keep the bees away.’

“‘Can you get her repaired for diving?’ I shouted back.

“‘Can’t promise. We have no power, no light. We’ll do our best.’

“I lowered myself to the slippery deck. It was split in several places by the impact of depth charges which had hit the planks before falling into the water where they had exploded. One barrel had bounced off the starboard saddle tank and had left a deep dent. Far more serious, the starboard aft ballast tanks were split wide open. Diesel oil escaped in a thick stream, spreading rapidly over the surface.

“With each minute of truce, the danger of a new assault increased rapidly. The boat swung softly in the breathing ocean, paralyzed, seemingly dead. The next 20 or 30 minutes had to bring the finale. With every heartbeat we expected another attack or the boat to slip away from under us.

“Suddenly the Chief’s creaking voice escaped the hull: ‘Boat is ready for restricted dive. Twenty meters—no more. Only one motor good for eighty revolutions.’

“‘Can you hold her at twenty meters or will she go to the bottom?’ “

‘I can’t tell, we ought to try.’

“I tried. Quickly the men climbed up the bridge and dropped one by one through the round opening into their iron coffin. I watched the deck gradually sink below the surface. As the water crept up to the bridge I slammed the lid shut. Seconds later the floods engulfed the boat.”

The Kugelbunker

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The Kugelbunker (Ball or Spherical Bunker) was a late war expedient and may have been derived from the Finnish ‘Ball’ bunker which was based on the idea of an American naval officer. The Kugelbunker had a diameter of 2.13m and could sleep four men, but a smaller version was also more widely used.

One of the final developments in German bunker design was the creation of the Kugelbunker or spherical bunker. Similar in appearance to the Finnish ball bunker, its construction method was different. Few details are available about it beside a post-war report made by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency in 1945, which identified one variant. According to this document, in late 1944 Dr Hubert Rusch of the engineering firm Dyckerhoff and Widmann created most of the designs for these bunkers. The army quickly adopted them and ordered several thousand. Production was to be done at about twenty concrete plants in Germany, but the only production centre identified was a Dornbirn, near Lake Constance, where two to three dozen men in each of five concrete plants built them. The largest factory produced six a day. Since production only began in April 1945, all twenty to thirty Kugelbunkers made at Dornbirn went into positions close to the nearby Swiss border. These bunkers consisted of six segments cast in concrete, the top one of which was different since it included a neckpiece that served as an entrance as well as a fighting position. The other five sections were similar, but side entrances could be chiselled into one or two of them after all the segments were cemented together. When the bunker was assembled, its diameter was about 2.1m and its neck was about 37cm high. The interior included a place for four sleeping slabs, although it would not be practical for all four men to stand up at the same time. The man on duty stood on a platform allowing him to occupy the open neck. The wall thickness was 4cm, but the interior was designed for metal reinforcements although none was actually used. The entire bunker weighed less than 2 tons, which facilitated its transportation because several specimens could be placed on a trailer, hauled to the site, and rolled into their excavated position. Since Dornbirn was near the Swiss border, all the bunkers produced there were installed nearby, which made them part of the fictitious National Redoubt.

Little data exists on other types of Kugelbunkers, but it appears that some plants produced a larger number of smaller ones with a diameter of only 1.7m, but a thickness of 10cmm, which had barely enough room for one or two men. Some of these have been found on the Lower Danube front and in Slovakia as part of the defences of the Southeast Front. The bunker on display in the Vienna museum has the entrance at the bottom, but it seems more likely that it would have it on the side or the top from where the occupant could fight as seen in some photos taken in situ. These were the last bunkers of the Third Reich.

Verdun: The Mill on the Meuse I

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The German plans for Verdun appear to have entirely abandoned the idea of a breakthrough, Falkenhayn himself describing such a full-scale assault as a ‘doubtful operation … which is beyond our forces’ and which might lead to German forces being trapped in untenable salients that could be pounded from both flanks. Verdun was chosen as the objective since it was perceived both as a base from which the French could launch a potentially decisive offensive and because it had acquired an almost mystical significance during the Franco-Prussian War. Ironically, the Germans underrated their own fascination for the fortress city. The ever-aggressive General Charles Mangin noted that ‘Verdun has always exercised a singular fascination upon the German imagination, and its capture, which seemed relatively easy, could in itself be celebrated as a great victory in Germany and in neutral countries.’

On the French side the success of German heavy artillery in 1914 had convinced GQG’s theorists that fortresses were potential death-traps which might enable the enemy to isolate and capture large numbers of men. The capitulation of forts on the Eastern Front in 1915 appeared to further confirm the lessons of 1870 and Joffre had ordered the remaining forts to be stripped of their guns in late 1914 to reinforce the army artillery. The theory was that fortresses supported the defensive system but were too fragile to function as a strong-point upon which the entire system could succeed or fail. Placing valuable artillery in a position that the enemy could easily target seemed akin to placing too many eggs in one basket. General Herr protested that there was a difference between an isolated fortress and a fort in a defensive system but his memoranda were ignored. Herr’s problem was exacerbated by the relative inactivity seen in the Verdun sector since the Marne. With major assaults being planned elsewhere and the rumours of an attack assumed to presage a limited assault, GQG assigned Verdun territorial units and concentrated on offensive planning.

Oblivious to their unintended assistance from GQG, the Germans deployed vast quantities of equipment and ammunition and began to construct bomb-proof stollen (shelters) for the assault troops being moved into the line. Infantry units were given strict instructions not to push out ‘parallels of departure’ or Russian saps that might give away the on-going preparations for the offensive. Artillery units were moved forwards and carefully concealed. Most batteries were under orders to hold their fire until Operation Gericht had commenced so that the French would be surprised by the 306 field guns, 542 heavy guns and 152 minenwerfer directly behind the assault units and the 400 additional guns supporting the offensive on the flank. Entirely fooled by the German deception plan, the French artillery was outnumbered by a ratio of 4:1 and French military intelligence had identified only 70 gun emplacements before the battle. Most dangerously, they totally missed the larger guns assigned to smash the forts, including the 420mm and 380mm heavy howitzers; the latter could drop 40 shells a day on almost any target in the Verdun sector.

In General Schnabel’s fire-plan, the 210mm batteries were assigned to pulverise the front line then place a curtain barrage to block any potential counter-attack as the leading assault units consolidated their hard-won objectives. Strong-points would be reduced by both the heavy guns and minenwerfers and the 150mm batteries would then be assigned to both counter-battery missions and to interdict the supply network and rear areas. ‘No line is to remain unbounded and no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy feel safe.’ The 150mm batteries assigned to counter-battery work would use zone-fire, deluging entire areas instead of trying to hit individual targets, adjusting rapidly with the aid of air observers, instead of relying on more precise methods of adjustment. This required substantially more ammunition but the use of asphyxiating and lachrymatory agents delivered by gas shell successfully enabled the German gunners to neutralise the French batteries. The lighter guns would move forwards as soon as the assault began so that the heavy guns could be shifted to new positions capable of covering the new front line. The Germans stocked 2. 5 million rounds alongside the batteries, and intended to fire the bulk of them in only 9½ hours on a 22-kilometre stretch of front before an infantry attack only 7 kilometres wide. It would be an unprecedented demonstration of the power of modern artillery.

The bombardment was delayed by poor weather but finally began on 21 February. It was initially general, with batteries concentrating on key objectives only after the French defensive communication system was judged to have been sufficiently disrupted. In the final stages of the fire-plan, patrols were filtered into the gaps between the main target zones to assess the remaining defences. A horrified French air observer saw no evidence of a gap in the carnage and reported that ‘there are gun batteries everywhere. They follow each other non-stop; the flames from their shells form an unbroken sheet.’ Another described the fire as ‘a storm, a hurricane, a tempest growing ever stronger, where it is raining nothing but paving stones’. Fire jumped to the second line and continued on into the rear areas and out on to the flanks as the infantry advanced and the Germans surged forwards, only to halt as soon as they reached their primary objectives. They had been instructed not to push beyond these locations and new units moved forwards methodically to assault the second line; the General Staff had seen the effect of artillery barrages on attacks that were unsupported by counter-batteries and were wary of repeating what they saw as Gallic over-enthusiasm. ‘The mission of infantry units is generally as follows: to seize a part of the hostile fortified system on a front and to a depth which has been delimited in advance; and then to hold it against intense artillery fire, and resist hostile counter attacks.’ A note written by a staff officer in the same division (the 20th Bavarian Brigade) summarised the official view on initiative:

It is possible that the enemy situation may be such as to permit the attack to be continued beyond the line that has been designated, and to capture certain points which the subordinate may consider of secondary importance. Do not forget that our artillery will not be in condition, if progress is made beyond the designated line, to immediately execute a new preparation and to quickly support the operation … The decision made by a subordinate commander to extend the attack beyond the objective is a very serious one and should be the exception. Furthermore, the responsibility of the leader is affected, if a position which has been taken be retaken by the enemy, even though the adversary thus gains only a moral success.

The highly regulated approach to securing the first line of objectives (although this theoretically abandoned any chance of a coup de main) enabled the Germans to exploit along the flanks of the initial penetration of the defensive system. German units that secured the initial objectives instinctively sought out opportunities to assist other units still struggling on their flanks. The French defensive system was severely ruptured but the combination of inflexible assault timetables and the leadership and defensive innovation displayed by the redoubtable if doomed Colonel Driant, in the section of the line dominated by the Bois-de-Caures, bought the French enough time to stabilise the front line before the Germans could realise how close they had come to a breakthrough. Driant’s simple but effective tactic was to scatter his men among the shell-holes so that the German lifting barrage, designed to ‘lift’ just before the assault infantry swarmed over the defences, fell on his empty trench line and not on the men of his beleaguered command.

During the first stage of the Verdun offensive General Fayolle noted:

The Boches have captured the front-line trench and the support trench. How do they do it: all their attacks succeed … they knock over everything with a horrifying bombardment after concentrating superior means. Thereby they suppress the trenches, the supporting defences and the machine guns. But how do they cross the barrage? Probably their infantry infiltrate, and since there is no one left in the fire trenches they get in, and when they are there to get them out we need to have the same artillery superiority.

The effect of the German heavy bombardment, involving a rate of fire that the French simply could not match, soon earned the mordant nickname trommelfeuer (drumfire). An officer of the 243rd Infantry was stunned by the destruction: ‘by three o’clock in the afternoon, the section of the wood which we occupied which, in the morning, was completely covered in bushes, looked like the timber-yard of a sawmill; a little later, I had lost most of my men.’ Kronprinz Wilhelm was delighted by the apparent destruction but was quick to note the relatively low casualties inflicted during the bombardment:

The enemy, surprised by the annihilating volume of our fire, only shelled a few villages at random. At 5 p. m. our barrage jumped on to his second line, and the skirmishers and shock troops of all corps left their trenches. The material effect of our bombardment had been, as we discovered later, rather below our expectations, as the hostile defences in the wooded country were in many cases too well concealed; the moral effect was immense.

Mangin was rather less impressed with their initial moves in the battle:

The offensive of 21st February was both terrible and stingy at the same time; it was staged on too narrow a front, which while it widened out slightly, again contracted, in spite of the great array of artillery with which it was provided, and the limitless use of infantry in deep formations, it advanced only with great effort and did not know how to profit by the gaps which were in front of it on certain days. When it was decided to extend it to the left bank of the Meuse, it was too late; the defence had got a new hold on itself and had been organised.

As Mangin had noted, the first assaults were focused on the right bank of the Meuse and ignored the defensive positions on the left bank; for planning purposes, it was assumed that the counter-battery artillery would deal with any batteries flanking the main assault. Considering that the German plan was intended to maximise French casualties by retaining complete air and artillery dominance of the battlefield, the decision to leave the French batteries on the left bank almost completely unmolested by infantry seems to have been a major error in the planning for the first phase of the operation. As successive assaults went in, the obsolete but cunningly emplaced 155mm batteries on the left bank shrugged off the increasingly desperate attempts to silence them and poured fire into General von Zwehl’s VII Korps every time they recommenced their advance. In spite of a spirited defence and an overly methodical fire-plan, the Germans still drove deep. Their overwhelming superiority in both guns and tactics enabled them to consolidate most of their initial objectives but as soon as the French threw in reserves, they launched vigorous counter-attacks and casualties on both sides began to mount. What Mangin bitterly described as the age of ‘mechanical’ battle had begun.

After the under-garrisoned and ill-armed Fort Douaumont fell, isolated by a near-constant barrage that gradually drove the supporting units to positions from where they were unable to cover the entrances to the fort, the Germans commenced a series of remorseless assaults on positions on both banks of the Meuse. Stunned by the initial reverses, Joffre sacked all the officers he saw as responsible for the débâcle and assigned Pétain to command the sector. Colonel Driant’s tactical success with dispersed defences in the Bois-de-Caures during the first day of fighting was extended into a broader operational concept based upon ‘an advanced line of resistance’ consisting of forward outposts and observation positions backed up by ‘a principal line of resistance’ where localised reserves could gather and retake any lost positions with the assistance of attached artillery units. The concept of the easily identified defensive line was being aban-doned in the face of increasing firepower. Counter-battery and curtain barrages by the heavy artillery units delayed the enemy while creeping barrages supported counter-attacks.

Pétain, ably assisted by the slippery but brilliant Nivelle and the implacable Mangin, stabilised the Verdun sector by creating a position de barrage behind the front line, then using the old forts as armoured bastions in a defensive system that served as a protective zone in which the reserves could gather and launch counter-attacks. Unsurprisingly the artillery was seen as the key to this enhanced system and Pétain demanded additional artillery. The continuing carnage forced Joffre to confront the consequences of years of mismanagement at GQG. The French artillery was still outclassed and outranged by the Germans, giving Kronprinz Wilhelm a priceless advantage in a battle where artillery was the key to victory. The evidence was conclusive enough to convince Joffre, who demanded that 960 medium and 440 heavy guns should be produced as quickly as possible. Even with better weapons, French supplies were being brought along a narrow-gauge railway and the one forlorn, wreckage-strewn road into the salient and Army Group Centre could not hope to equal the near-continuous German barrage even if they wanted to. An American, working as a volunteer ambulance driver, asked about the rumble of thunder he heard as they approached the city and wondered if there was a storm coming. The driver shook his head in despair. ‘If it were thunder the noise would stop occasionally. The noise is constant. It’s Verdun.’

Verdun: The Mill on the Meuse II

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Pétain and his staff drafted a new artillery programme and it was disseminated in May 1916. The roles assigned to each type of artillery and their proportions were adjusted in recognition of the new realities revealed by the battles around Verdun. Divisions gained additional medium howitzers while all the 155mm howitzers and heavier, bunker-busting mortars went into the corps and army artillery groupes. Once again it was the Second Army’s training pamphlet that was circulated to the entire army as accepted doctrine, outlining advances in support, counter-preparation, communications, liaison, counter-battery techniques and the rapid concentration of fire from dispersed batteries. Pétain also set up a Centre of Artillery Studies to coordinate research into new technologies, techniques and doctrines and to disseminate the most effective approaches to artillery operations. The new programme changed production schedules and increased the French artillery regiments from 115 to 247: a radical increase in dedicated manpower at the very point at which the French were beginning to run out of fresh reserves.

Pétain took a personal interest in the activities of his hard-pressed gunners and often started meetings by asking corps liaison officers ‘What have your batteries being doing? We’ll discuss other points later.’ Coordination was to be their new watchword and they were instructed to ‘give the infantry the impression that [the artillery] is supporting them and that it is not dominated’. Such a policy increased artillery casualties but heartened the infantry, who were increasingly seeing the artillerymen as rear-area troops who had found a way to avoid genuine combat. One of the key innovations was the artillery offensive, a series of coordinated artillery raids on rear areas designed to disrupt movement and cause casualties. The Germans quickly noted the effectiveness of such tactics, observing that the French ‘began the flanking fire on the ravines and roads north of Douaumont that was to cause us such severe casualties’.

Even antiquated guns could make an impression if properly sited and, as noted above, the obsolete 155s placed to flank any German assault on the right bank of the Meuse inflicted horrific casualties during VII Korps’ attempts to breach that sector during March. The French guns were concealed among the fortress lines on the Bois Bourrus ridge and there was nothing that General von Zwehl’s gunners could do to prevent the French from slaughtering his men. The wounded streaming back to their start lines were described as ‘a vision of hell’ by one commander while another officer shouted ‘What … battalion? Is there such a thing!’

The next series of attacks focused on the left bank of the Meuse, centring on the grim slopes of the all-too-appropriately-named hill, Le Morte Homme. The terrain gave the attacking infantry considerable cover but the complex topography also favoured aggressive counter-attacks and the entire region was soon covered with blackened craters – one airman described the Verdun sector as appearing like ‘the humid skin of a monstrous toad’. The German preparatory bombardments were horrifying and one description of an attack on Côte 304 creates a strong impression of both the improvements to artillery preparation being made by the Germans and the stubborn tenacity of their Gallic opponents:

The pounding was continuous and terrifying. We had never experienced its like during the whole campaign. The earth around us quaked, and we were lifted and tossed about. Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trench no longer existed; it had been filled up with earth. We were crouching in shell-holes, where the mud thrown up by each new explosion covered us more and more. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died while splashing us with their blood. It really was a living hell. How could one ever survive such moments? We were deafened, dizzy and sick at heart. It is hard to imagine the torture we endured: our parched throats burned, we were thirsty, and the bombardment seemed endless …

Pétain’s new system was based upon building up a detailed record of all enemy artillery missions and battery locations and then centrally co-ordinating his forces to maximise his own guns’ disruption and destruction. Petain ensured that units spent only a few days in the front line before being relieved, the noria system, and this combination of fire-power and a realistic understanding of what the infantry could withstand gave the French the edge they needed. The army buckled but it did not collapse, even after the Germans launched eight frontal attacks on the defensive system around the heroic stronghold of Fort Vaux, finally taking its exhausted and parched garrison on 7 June. Undaunted, the Germans experimented with creating artillery corridors for assaults and the French found these extremely frustrating as it was difficult to predict the objective and resist the concentration of firepower. As Pétain noted, ‘In effect, ignorant of the points threatened by attack, the defenders are obliged to be strong everywhere and to place in the front line increased numbers of personnel who must be replaced often.’ While the new tactic was successful in increasing French casualties, it could not win the battle without forming part of a wider operational plan; it proved to be yet another example of the Germans’ inability to use their advanced tactics to achieve strategic objectives. In contrast, they ignored French logistics and throughout the battle ammunition and reinforcements flowed up the road from Bar-le–Duc to Verdun, endless lines of soldiers and 2, 000 tonnes of ammunition a day moving towards ‘the everlasting rumble of the guns’. For reasons that are still difficult to understand, neither the German artillery batteries nor the Luftstreitkräfte made a concerted effort to cut this vital artery and thus doomed both sides to a level of attrition that drained the fighting power of both armies.

Pétain, ‘the master of scientific tactics’, was promoted to command Army Group Centre in June and Robert Nivelle took over the defence of Verdun, ‘the kingdom of the guns’. A new German offensive, led by the elite Alpenkorps and supported by a three-day bombardment that utilised large quantities of phosgene (a new asphyxiating gas), understandably described by Mangin as ‘the most important and most massive attack that Verdun had to withstand’, greeted Nivelle’s appointment but the French artillery had reorganised and restructured since February. The precise German timetable of fire-missions and assaults that had worked so effectively in February fell apart in the face of a devastating series of counter-barrages that enabled French counter-attacks to retake all the key points. Another offensive in July ran straight into Mangin’s veteran gunners and was pushed back to its start line by a series of savage counter-attacks. Verdun had become an open ulcer that threatened to swallow Germans as fast as it slaughtered Frenchmen. The German phase of the battle had ground to a halt and now the French could demonstrate what they had learned in the first six months of fighting.

It would take time to fully reorganise the French army to suit Pétain’s vision of total war but most of the key concepts would be in place when their primary creator was placed in supreme command. The proof came when Nivelle and Mangin finally launched a successful attack to retake Fort Douaumont, after a number of costly but instructive failures, overwhelming the battered fortress with relentless fire from super-heavy guns – including two 400mm pieces which Joffre brusquely dismissed as being ‘chiefly for the diversion of the public and the press’. Nivelle dedicated enormous resources to the assault and a number of innovations helped the advancing French infantry. Every unit was thoroughly briefed on their objectives, a creeping barrage was used to keep the defenders under cover until the assault was on top of them and all communication wires were laid in 6-ft deep trenches to ensure continuous communications. The barrage moved 100 yards every 4 minutes, the 75s firing a hail of shrapnel only 70 yards ahead of the advancing infantry and the 400 heavy guns methodically pulverising the line with high explosive another 80 yards further forwards.

The supremely confident Mangin, described by one observer as literally licking his lips in anticipation, even briefed Allied journalists on the morning of the attack:

My 75s will engage the Boche trenches and I have an abundance of large calibre shells to smash every shelter … At H-hour, in two hours, the infantry will leave their own trenches and take the trenches before them; preceding them, at a distance of 70 or 80 metres, will be a blanket of 75 shells … When the creeping barrage catches up with it, the heavies will shift targets and hammer the reserves … We will continue towards the [German] reserves using the same method and they will be beaten by our troops … It will be an affair of at most a few hours …

One officer saw the lines of guns being deployed and understandably snarled at the belated arrival of France’s full military potential: ‘If only we had been thus provided at the beginning of the war, we should not now be fighting in France.’

Mangin ordered a continuous preparatory bombardment to prevent the Germans from improving their defences, a process he gleefully described as ‘not burying the hatchet’ and the Germans assumed that the French intended a series of localised attacks. One French unit even withdrew to avoid being hit by any shorts from their own side during the massive barrage and some audacious Mecklenburgers on the other side of no-man’s-land had the audacity to dash over and take cover in the abandoned French front line! The larger guns focused on Douaumont itself and as the 400mm shells began to smash into the fort’s already shattered carapace, the German garrison withdrew to the interior – then, after the water was exhausted, all but a few men abandoned the fortress entirely.

The bombardment started on 15 December and lasted three days; when the French guns at last fell silent the Germans emerged from their stollen and dashed to their assigned positions just as their own guns commenced counter-preparatory fire. To the amazement of the front-line infantry, there were no enemy troops in sight – but then Nivelle’s reserve of heavy guns commenced counter-battery fire against the freshly unmasked German batteries. The French 155mm guns pounded the German positions for an additional 36 hours, silencing or destroying 68 of the 158 batteries, before the creeping barrage began its relentless progress towards the main French objectives. The stunned Germans were completely over-whelmed as the French emerged from the morning mist and poured across the shell-scarred landscape, seizing positions that both sides had bitterly contested for months. In the foggy chaos Mangin and his staff soon lost contact with the assault regiments – a foretaste of disasters to come – but the key objectives were taken. French casualties were higher than hoped but the defenders suffered an even greater mauling and the Verdun sector was finally deemed to be secure.

Joffre’s influence faded during the battle for Verdun. His aggressive prewar doctrine had simply collapsed in a battle where superior artillery played the decisive role. Heavier guns, indirect fire and greater range gave the Germans a valuable advantage but their strategic errors allowed the French to survive, a victory of sorts. With Papa Joffre politely kicked upstairs, the Young Turks were dispersed to field commands and the artillery was finally able to take full advantage of the increasing numbers of heavy pieces being supplied. Planning began to focus around the artillery instead of the furia francese. The problem with such revolutions is that they occasionally lead to grand assumptions about the utility of the technical innovations forged during the collapse of the old system and tend to forget that the enemy has an even greater reason to monitor such changes.

Rommel and Kluge

 

Among the higher German brass in the field commands, it was assumed that the senior marshal’s successor as theater commander would be the proven and widely admired Rommel. Instead, Rundstedt’s replacement was Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge, a Prussian, who had only recently recovered from an automobile accident on the eastern front. Kluge had proved his mettle as a top-level commander in the 1940 French campaign. (It was as a subordinate of Kluge in 1940 that Rommel had led his ”Ghost” Division in its epic thrust to the English Channel.) Later he had been supreme commander of the Central Army Group in Russia.

Kluge was a serious, cold-eyed, energetic man who was quick to grasp a situation, courageous, unsparing of himself, remorseless in extracting the last ounce of effort from his underlings, but, in all, a bit of a peacock. While not enamored of Hitler, he felt indebted to him, perhaps swayed by a sense of being obligated for the special honors and JPGts he had accepted from him.

The overlord dared not supplant the popular Desert Fox. This would have been too much of a jolt for the German citizenry, whose confidence in Hitler’s military acumen was waning rapidly despite Goebbel’s constant assurances of the Führer’s omniscience. Rommel’s removal would have been interpreted as an admission of military bankruptcy and the cult of the Führer as “the greatest general of all times” (which had come into being after the successful campaigns in Poland, Norway, France, and the Balkans) would have been diminished.

Rommel had viewed Rundstedt as an officer with many capabilities but now so old (he was approaching seventy) he had one foot in the grave. He had felt hindered by him, and when he was replaced Rommel had mixed feeling. The two had been in agreement on the political situation and on the overall conduct of the war. What Rommel saw in the old man was an eminent strategist, an expert in using the tools of war, but at the same time a man whose creative drive had been replaced by a sarcastic indifference, who was too tired for modern-day battle and so rarely left his command post.

In taking leave of his staff, the embittered old warrior swore never to accept another command. Yet, only weeks later, after the failure of the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life, he, along with Keitel, accepted membership on the “Court of Honor,” which cashiered 1,200 officers, including 250 of the General Staff Corps and many of his fellow generals, for suspected complicity in the conspiracy. These degraded officers were then passed on to the “People’s Court.” Here they were usually sentenced to hanging, and their families, after first paying the cost of the execution, were sent to concentration camps.

This part of Rundstedt’s career has been charitably described by one of his associates as “the result of the physical and spiritual deterioration of an old man after five years of hard war and bitter experiences.”

Over dinner one evening with Speidel and his wife, Ruth, we discussed at considerable length Rundstedt’s membership on the Court of Honor. Mrs. Speidel had a similar forgiving view of Rundstedt, whereas her husband’s was harsher and less absolving.

Fresh from the Führer’s headquarters at Berchtesgaden, where Hitler had told him, “Rundstedt and Rommel are just dawdling along,” and had blamed the disaster in the West on the omissions and commissions of the pair, a cocky Kluge visited Rommel at La Roche Guyon on the afternoon of July 5 for orientation. A robust, aggressive individual, confident that Rommel’s pessimism was unwarranted and that he could turn the situation around, Kluge began sharply with, “Rommel, it is time you learned to listen!”

“You are talking to a field marshal!” shouted Rommel, enraged, jumping to his feet. “I demand an explanation of that remark! I have equal rank with you and I am responsible to the Führer for my decisions!”

The conversation took on such a tempestuous character that General Speidel and the other officers present were ordered to leave the room. It lasted an hour, with Rommel interrupting Kluge’s diatribe with suggestions that he withhold judgment until he had seen for himself the situation and the needed countermeasures.

In fairness to the new theater commander, it must be understood that Rommel’s realistic assessment of the war situation and his messages prodding the Führer to face the consequences of defeat on the battlefield had not endeared him to Hitler and his sycophants, who viewed the Swabian as too popular, too independent, ofttimes disobedient, and now defeatist. This characterization they had conveyed to Kluge. Later in the day, still under the influence of the Führer’s aerie talk, Kluge expressed incredulity as Rommel portrayed German impotence in the face of Allied power. “I think you view the situation too pessimistically,” he said. “I shall visit the front myself tomorrow.”

“Do so,” said Rommel, “but be careful. Enemy planes patrol the roads continuously.”

“Oh, they won’t bother me,” said Kluge deprecatingly. “I won’t even get out of the car.”

“I warn you,” repeated Rommel, “be careful. Whenever I go up forward I keep my hand on the door release, ready to jump out. I have to dive into a ditch ten or fifteen times, and I don’t permit the presence of my driver or the accompanying officers to embarrass me.”

The conference ended in a satisfactory working arrangement, their responsibilities defined, although the Swabian resented Kluge’s refusal to discuss the all-important question of how to save Germany from destruction. He knew through confidential sources that Kluge had been in touch for years with forces opposing Hitler. The two parted with chilly formality.

In Kluge, known to the troops as “der kluge Hans” (cunning Hans), Rommel recognized the schooled and polished General Staff officer, a type for which he had an aversion. Kluge, for his part, saw in Rommel an unsophisticated officer who did not come up to the General Staff standards of a field marshal.

Beginning the next day, following an itinerary prepared by Rommel’s staff, Kluge went on a two-day tour of inspections and talked with the troops and field commanders. A convert returned.

“How many times did you get out of the car?” asked Rommel.

“Twenty!” exclaimed the chastened Kluge. “And I find your description of the situation much nearer the truth than the Führer’s!” He apologized to Rommel for his original remarks, excusing his behavior on the grounds that Hitler and Keitel had misled him. This they had done in Russia, too, he said.

Kluge’s opinion of Rommel steadily heightened in the next weeks and the two men, different as they were in background and method, approached a unanimity in outlook.

The substitution of Kluge for Rundstedt did little to curtail the success of the Western Powers, who during the next ten days rapidly pushed deeper into France and seized more bases for their planes. They bombarded the railroads funneling into the combat area so heavily and repeatedly that a one-day trip now took a week. To reinforce the first half million men he had landed, Eisenhower shuttled over another half million. Supplies he had safely ferried over the Channel by now totalled a million tons. To move them to the troops and to keep the troops moving, he had landed 30,000 vehicles. With every passing day the efficiency and scope of the liquidation of the Teutonic legions increased.

While the German Seventh Army was bleeding to death in Normandy, the Fifteenth Army sat stoically guarding the coast of the Pas de Calais. The High Command dared not send it to the rescue. German Intelligence was imbued with the idée fixe that the Normandy invasion was only a diversionary effort, that the main assault was yet to come, and that when it did, it would be directed against the Pas de Calais. An invasion here offered the Allies a minimum of water travel, a maximum of air coverage and, once established, the most direct route to the heart of Germany.

This illusion was carefully nurtured by the Allies with dummy ships in the Thames and on the Dover coast, plus dummy camps in East Anglia and more than usual bombing of the Fifteenth Army preserve. Luftwaffe scouting did little to correct the catastrophic Nazi analysis of Eisenhower’s intentions. “Already by May 15,” said Speidel, “Allied air supremacy was so absolute that not once after that date could one of our reconnaissance planes penetrate the island defenses to get a suitable strip of photographs of the English harbors.”

Rommel’s letters are evidence that he, too, misinterpreted the Allied intentions. Four days after the initial landings he wrote: “It will probably soon start at another point.” A week later he still thought so: “We expect the next assault, perhaps on an even greater scale, at another point within the next few days.” And several weeks later, as he lay wounded in the hospital, he still thought there was a likelihood of such an attack. Intelligence available to him placed thirty to thirty-five divisions still in England. He guessed the site for the second assault as the eastern edge of Calais.

On July 8 Montgomery assaulted Caen, a key city in the German plan of defense, after first striking the enemy with an air attack by 500 heavy bombers. The next day troops of the British Second Army occupied all of the town north and west of the Orne River. On the 10th Maltot fell, promising to snare the Nazis between Orne and Odon. Seeing nothing but a long series of disasters ahead, Rommel discussed the situation with Kluge. “We have lost the war in the West,” he said. “It must be brought to an end.”

Kluge agreed.

At this time the Military Governor of France, General Stuelpnagel, who wanted the marshal to take independent action to end the war, sent a staff officer, Dr. Caesar von Hofacker, to see Rommel for a definitive analysis of the conditions on the front. So that plans could be synchronized, this was to be reported to Colonel General Ludwig Beck, the Army faction’s conspiracy leader in Berlin, and to Colonel Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the man who was eventually to place the bomb beneath Hitler’s map table.

On July 12 Kluge came to La Roche Guyon for another discussion of the military situation. Kluge asked Rommel how long the front could be held, with the fighting units being whittled down and no reserves in support. The Fox suggested that the corps and division commanders be asked their opinions and those opinions be forwarded to Hitler with an ultimatum. Kluge agreed with the suggestion and said he would take these reports into account in making his final decision.

Rommel dispatched Speidel to see Stuelpnagel in Paris, advise him of the talks with Kluge, and promise him that he would take action no matter what Kluge’s decision was. During the next three days Rommel visited the front and held frank discussions with the commanders, returning with assurances that the troops and officers of all ranks trusted his leadership and would follow him.

In discussions Rommel and Speidel had had before the invasion had begun, they were in accord that it might be possible to save Germany by ending the war in the West through an armistice, contacting Eisenhower directly or through Sir Samuel Hoare, the British ambassador in Madrid, or through Vatican or Swiss emissaries. “We envisioned withdrawing the German forces behind the West Wall and holding the German front in the East,” Speidel told me. “Rommel and Kluge were also in accord on this on July 12.”

Returning from the front on July 15, the marshal discussed his findings with Speidel. He directed him to draft a special report for Hitler. This report, in effect an ultimatum, was sent as a radio message. It said that the situation on the invasion front had so developed, as Rommel had repeatedly warned orally and in writing, that the front could be held fourteen days or at most three weeks. Then it was to be expected that the enemy would break through south of the Seine with the primary aim of winning the Paris area and cutting off Brittany. There were no more reserves of any of the three arms available, it continued, and the bloody losses now amounted to 28 generals, 354 fieldgrade officers and 250,000 men, who could be replaced only by 30,000 convalescents. It could be determined with almost mathematical exactness where and when the front would fall apart. The result of the enemy’s steadily increasing potential and the simultaneous decrease in the German potential had to be given the weightiest consideration.

“After reading the draft,” said Speidel, “Rommel scribbled the concluding sentence himself. ‘I must inform you, my Führer,’ he wrote, ‘that you must immediately accept the political consequences. Rommel, Field Marshal.’ But before we sent it off, we thought it best to delete the word ‘political.’ This would have been a red flag to Hitler and we would have been showered with a flurry of ridiculous orders. We decided ‘consequences’ could be read to include both military and political matters.

“At this point Rommel said to me, ‘I am giving Hitler this last chance before we negotiate ourselves.'”

The message was transmitted to Hitler via Kluge. Before sending it on Kluge added a sentence: “I agree with all Rommel’s conclusions.”

To my observation that the original message would be an interesting historical document, Speidel replied, “Yes. Unfortunately my wife had to burn it when I was arrested.”

That evening, after the dispatch of the message, Rommel discussed with his naval aide, Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, and Speidel his expectations of the conditions of peace. They would be tough, he was sure, and he expected little sympathy from the Allies, but he hoped for understanding. In preparation for discussions he had selected a commission to be made up of Speidel, Ruge, Stuelpnagel, Hofacker, and Generals Geyr von Schweppenburg and Gerd von Schwerin.

There was no answer to this message the next day and at dawn on the following, July 17, Rommel left his headquarters in his Horch to once more discuss the alarming developments with his corps and division commanders. During the night and the prior two days, the Allies had staged a big attack that had been halted only by throwing in the last reserves. Now the Germans were trying desperately to hold the line from the mouth of the Orne River to Colombes, then to the southeast edge of Caen, then to Caumont and Saint Lo-Lessay.

By 4:00 P.M. the marshal had concluded his last conference and departed from the headquarters of General Sepp Dietrich’s 1st Panzer Corps, heading for his own command post. Speidel had telephoned that the situation at Caen looked threatening, and since noon Allied air activity had greatly increased. The roads were full of burning vehicles. Fighter-bombers patrolled the main highways, forcing traffic to take secondary dirt roads. On dirt roads the dust a car raised soon betrayed its presence.

Around 6:00 Rommel’s car reached the vicinity of Livarot, where more freshly burning vehicles were piled up. For four hours British and American flyers had been strafing all traffic leading into the city. Just outside Livarot the car branched off onto a side road in order to skirt the city and connect with the main road again two miles before Vimoutiers. Suddenly the air observer shouted the alarm. Banking toward the car were three planes that Rommel later told his son and Speidel were American but which the British have always maintained were RAF aircraft.

The driver was ordered to head full speed for a tree-bordered road 300 yards away and to seek concealment there. Before the sanctuary could be reached, bursts from the lead plane riddled the Horch. One shot shattered the driver’s left shoulder and arm and punctured his lung. He lost control of the vehicle. It hit a tree stump on the right side of the road, ricocheted off the tree, careened into a ditch on the other side of the road, and flipped over.

Rommel, thrown out of the car at the first impact, suffered a crushing blow to the left temple and cheekbone that caused a quadruple fracture of the skull and immediate unconsciousness. Twenty yards down the road from where he lay was the entrance to an estate named, ironically, like his old opponent, “Montgomery.”