Remagen, beschädigte Brücke

“The Rhine. I don’t know what I expected. Another Mississippi, I suppose,” an engineer sergeant told his diary. “The damn thing flows north.” Indeed it did. From Switzerland, where the river was fed by 150 glaciers, to the North Sea, the European father of waters formed an extraordinary moat against invasion from the west. Although it was only the world’s fifteenth-largest river in volume, ranking between the Euphrates and the Rhône, the Rhine was broad, deep, and fast enough that engineers compared any crossing to “a short sea voyage.” “At no place is the river fordable, even at low water,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported, and winter floods had been the highest in a quarter century, with currents in some stretches approaching eleven miles an hour. Most of the thirty-one Rhine bridges within Germany had been demolished by men with a rare aptitude for destruction. Thanks to the aerial bombardment of German factories, the river flowed relatively unpolluted for the first time in a generation, but so much wreckage clogged its bed that the Allies could not simply sail upstream from Nijmegen. A “top secret and private” note from Churchill’s office to Beetle Smith likened the difficulties faced by seven Allied armies in catapulting eighty divisions across the river to “another D-Day.”

Plans to jump the Rhine had been drafted even before the Normandy landings. Exhaustive studies examined bank, current, weather, and ice conditions, as well as Roman accounts of erecting a trestle bridge before the birth of Christ, and French records of nineteenth-century pile-driving near Strasbourg. Army engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi, scrutinized historical hydrology data, aided by intelligence agents in Switzerland and daily gage readings intercepted in German radio broadcasts to river pilots. More than 170 models of the Rhine were built, and a hydraulics laboratory in Grenoble conducted elaborate experiments. A Rhine River Flood Prediction Service opened in January; mindful of the Roer debacle, diplomats pressed the Swiss to protect seven headwater dams with soldiers and artillery.

River-crossing schools on the Loire trained hundreds of outboard-motor operators, pile-driving specialists, and DUKW drivers. A steel mill in Luxembourg extruded 54,000 tons of massive I-beams for bridge building. Boatyards in Florida, Minnesota, and Michigan built hundreds of seventeen-foot plywood craft designed to carry a dozen riflemen and three engineers each; nested and crated in clusters of six, the vessels were whisked to Europe by cargo plane or fast ship. French boatwrights, shown a photograph of a storm boat in January, set to work using blueprints drawn by a naval architect. Trees were felled, plywood milled, and screws and nails fashioned from surplus wire; five weeks after placing the order, the U.S. Army picked up seven hundred boats.

Seagoing landing craft, capable of carrying a Sherman tank or sixty men, sailed from England to Antwerp and up the Albert Canal before being hauled overland to the Rhineland on trailers so enormous that bulldozers led the convoys to knock down any building crimping the roadway. Other big craft for this “inland navy” were trucked three hundred miles from Le Havre; they arrived, a witness reported, “festooned with treetops, telephone wires, and bits of buildings from French villages.”

By early March, forward depots contained 1,100 assault boats, 124 landing craft, 2,500 outboard motors, 5 million board feet of lumber, 6,000 bridge floats, and enough steel and pilings to build more than 60 bridges. Everyone agreed, however, that it would be far simpler to capture one already built.


Just such a bridge still stood fifteen miles south of Bonn at Remagen, an ancient Roman town straddling a road built by Marcus Aurelius. Here the Rhine scoured a curving basalt gorge: to the north, Siegfried had slain his dragon at Drachenfels, bathing in the creature’s blood to become invulnerable; to the south, Julius Caesar built two spans over the river, in 55 and 53 B.C., during his Gallic campaigns. The current bridge had been completed in 1918 and named for General Erich Ludendorff, the progenitor of the final, fatal German offensives on the Western Front in the Great War. More than a thousand feet long and wide enough for two trains to pass abeam, the span featured symmetrical arches resting on four stone piers, with embrasured stone towers at either end. Wooden planks could be laid on the rail tracks to permit motor traffic. On the east bank, the tracks vanished into the Dwarf’s Hole, a tunnel bored through the steep six-hundred-foot hill called the Erpeler Ley. Local aesthetes complained that the bridge marred the dramatic riverscape; they complained more when it drew repeated Allied air attacks, including a January raid that killed three dozen civilians.

Retreating German soldiers had tramped across the Ludendorff in late 1918, and now retreating German soldiers were tramping over it once again, mingling with refugees, livestock, and an occasional hospital train carrying broken boys. A teenage antiaircraft gunner described a snaking procession making for the bridge through Remagen’s jammed streets on Wednesday morning, March 7, “with cannons being pulled by horses, by motor vehicles, and yes, even by soldiers.” Fewer than a thousand defenders remained in the area; most were Volkssturm militia of doubtful martial value, and all fell under a confused, fractured command architecture. Field Marshal Model had promised reinforcements, but none had arrived.

Sixty zinc-lined boxes for explosives had been fitted to the bridge in 1938, linked by cables through heavy conduits to an electrical firing switch inside the rail tunnel. The premature blowing of a bridge near Cologne—apparently triggered by an American bomb—had led to a Führer order that explosive charges would be emplaced only when the enemy was within five miles of a bridge, and igniters were to be withheld until “demolition seems to be unavoidable.” On Wednesday morning, sketchy reports put U.S. Army outriders near the western bluffs above Remagen. Explosives were laid, but Army Group B described the Americans as a thin screening force to mask an Allied thrust toward Bonn and Cologne. Little urgency obtained.

Their enemy was nearer than they knew. On the previous night, March 6, the U.S. III Corps commander, Major General John Millikin, had phoned Major General John W. Leonard, commander of the 9th Armored Division. “Do you see that little black strip of a bridge at Remagen?” Millikin asked as both men squinted at their maps. “If you happen to get that, your name will go down in glory.”

At 8:20 A.M. on this gray, misty Wednesday, a tank-and-infantry task force left Meckenheim, ten miles from the river. Leading the column in the advance guard was Lieutenant Karl H. Timmermann, who had commanded Company A of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion for less than twenty-four hours. Timmermann had been born not far to the southeast, in Frankfurt; his doughboy father had taken a German war bride in 1919 before moving back to Nebraska. In a note scribbled in a Meckenheim cellar, the weary young officer told his wife:

There is no glory in war. Maybe those who have never been in battle find [a] certain glory and glamour that doesn’t exist.… Tell mom that we’ll be on the Rhine tomorrow.

Now Lieutenant Timmermann would prove himself wrong: for a brief, vivid moment glory would be his. Summoned by two waving scouts shortly before one P.M., he hurried forward in his jeep to find a hazy, panoramic view of the Rhine gorge below. “Jesus, look at that,” a sergeant muttered. “Do you know what the hell river that is?” Through field glasses Timmermann watched cows, horses, soldiers, trucks, and civilians cross beneath the bridge arches in a lumbering parade. Just below, white flags and bedsheets flapped from Remagen windowsills. Two locomotives with steam up stood on the far bank.

As three platoons descended through the town, leapfrogging from doorway to doorway, Timmermann bounded past the handsome St. Apollinaris Church and a sign that read, “Citizens and Friends: Preserve Our Parks.” A spatter of German musketry provoked booming return fire from a platoon of new M-26 Pershing tanks, each brandishing a 90mm gun. Tearful Germans pointed to cellars where Volkssturm stragglers crouched in terror. A captured enemy general in an elaborately braided uniform proved upon interrogation to be a railroad station agent.

Shortly before two P.M. a dark geyser of earth and paving stones abruptly blossomed above the western ramp; the blast left a smoking hole thirty feet wide, intended to keep American tanks from gaining the bridge. Heckling gunfire erupted from the Ludendorff towers. Bullets pinged and sparked among the girders. GIs fixed bayonets before darting past the last houses above the river. “I’ll see you on the other side,” the 27th Armored Infantry commander told Timmermann, “and we’ll all have a chicken dinner.… Move on.” Timmermann raked the far bank with his glasses. Tiny figures loped along the shoreline and into the tunnel. “They look like they want to get us on the bridge before they blow it up,” he said.

Barely half a mile away, pandemonium swept the eastern shore. Civilians and shrieking children cowered in the Dwarf’s Hole as billowing smoke from white-phosphorus shells drifted down the tunnel. German soldiers ran this way and that along the bridge ramp, including several engulfed in orange flame from American tank shells chewing up the riverbank and smacking the Erpeler Ley. Three junior officers argued over whether the demolition order should be put in writing. Shouts of “Blow the bridge!” carried across the water, and at length a captain shouted, “Everybody lie down! Open your mouths to protect your eardrums.” He turned the key on the firing switch.

Nothing happened. He turned it again, and again, without effect. A German sergeant sprinted ninety yards onto the bridge, lighted the primer cord by hand, and pelted back to the tunnel, chased by bullets.

With a doleful boom the timber planks rose from the railbed like jackstraws. Dust and black smoke boiled from the piers. The Ludendorff seemed to levitate momentarily as if expending a great sigh, then settled back onto its stone foundations, insulted but intact.

No one would ever be certain why fourteen hundred pounds of explosives failed to detonate properly: faulty charges, faulty blasting caps, perhaps a tank shell that severed the main demolition cable, perhaps, as some averred, a miracle.

Reprieved, Lieutenant Timmermann and his men raced onto the bridge, slashing wires and pitching charges into the water. Four Pershing tanks and a dozen Shermans arrayed on the west bank hammered the eastern tower until riflemen could clear out a German machine-gun nest. Sergeant Alex Drabik of Toledo reached the far bank first, in a zigzagging, stumbling sprint that cost him his helmet. Eight others followed on his heels, including Timmermann.

By late afternoon, Company A had 120 men across. A platoon began to scale the Erpeler Ley, dodging stones rolled down the slope by a flak battery holding the crest. After a single warning shot, five German engineers surrendered in the Dwarf’s Hole; GIs blew apart the master demolition switch with a carbine. A 90mm tank round from across the river smashed through a German locomotive tugging a long string of boxcars, and the train halted with a sharp lurch, a white plume of steam sighing from the firebox. GIs crouched in a ditch as a passenger train from the north pulled into the tiny Erpel station; middle-aged soldiers with rifles spilled onto the platform only to be greeted with mispronounced shouts of “Hände hoch.” A single German guard at the eastern exit of the rail tunnel also was seized, and twenty minutes later two hundred others emerged under a white flag to march in their long leather coats, hands high, across the bridge they had neither saved nor destroyed. Before surrendering, Captain Willi Bratge, the Remagen commandant, told a subordinate to deliver a message to the German high command. “Inform them that the demolition of the bridge was unsuccessful,” Bratge said, “and that the Americans have crossed.”

Night fell, a sodden, moonless night, “dark as a pocket,” as one officer recorded, so dark that engineers felt for the street curbs in Remagen with their feet. Bulldozers slowly filled the crater on the western ramp and three artillery battalions unlimbered. Soldiers ripped lumber from German houses to patch the rail planks. Exhausted drivers napped at their wheels as great knots of convoy traffic converged at the bridge, awaiting orders to cross. By ten P.M. three depleted rifle companies occupied the far shore, thwarting a counterattack by a hundred German engineers and antiaircraft crewmen who were repulsed near the Erpeler Ley while carrying half a ton of explosives.

At last nine Shermans—narrower than the Pershings—crept across at midnight, guided by foot soldiers wearing luminous buttons on their belts. German tracer fire searched the span, usually a few feet too high. “Ominous and nerve-wracking creaking” rose from the bridge, a captain reported, all the more ominous when the tenth vehicle to cross, a tank destroyer, skidded to the right near one of the eastern piers and plunged partway through a hole in the deck. For several hours—“the most harrowing minutes of my life,” one officer acknowledged—the vehicle remained stuck, blocking all traffic. Engineers debated pushing it over the side, or jacking it up, or winching it out, or blowing it to pieces. Just as dawn peeked above the Erpeler Ley, the damnable thing was muscled out and towed away. The desperate effort to deepen the bridgehead resumed apace, through what a Wehrmacht general now called “the inner door to Germany.”



A galley which Ottoman Sultans used at inshore waters. Built at the end of the 16th century. Length: 40 m; Width: 5.70 m. It is reportedly the only original galley in the world. (Maritime Museum, Istanbul).

On August 14, 1571, a gigantic ship’s pennant of silk damask passed through the congested streets of Naples. Embroidered to the pope’s commission, it was the standard of Christendom, to fly from the tallest mast in the fleet of the Holy League as it sailed into battle. The pope’s banner with a huge golden figure of Christ nailed to the cross loomed over the stocky Spanish soldiers who carried it in procession from the steps of the Church of Santa Clara. As the blue flag moved through the Neapolitan crowds, an unnatural stillness gripped all who watched it go by. An hour before, inside the church, the assembled nobles, officers, monks, and priests had stood silent and unmoving, all their eyes on the admiral of the Holy League, Don John of Austria. Arrayed in cloth of gold, scarlet satin, and white velvet, the young admiral knelt before the altar as the pope’s representative, Cardinal Granvelle, handed him his staff of office and pointed to the great banner behind him. “Take these emblems,” the cardinal exhorted, “of the Word made flesh, these symbols of the true faith, and may they give thee a glorious victory over our impious enemy and by thy hand may his pride be laid low.”

Below the cross of Christ were the emblems of the king of Spain and of the Holy Father, Pope Pius V, with the badge of the Republic of Venice, all linked by a great golden chain, symbolizing the power of faith that bound them together. From that chain, in slightly smaller scale, hung the pendant crest of Don John. The emblems marked a brief moment of unity. For the first time in more than a century, Christendom had combined in force to do battle with the power of “Islam.” The war was sanctified, waged under the protection of the golden figure of Christ. The pope had declared that those who fought in this struggle were to be granted the same plenary indulgences as earlier Crusaders fighting to secure the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. All who died in the shadow of this battle flag would be spared the worst rigors of purgatory.

Eight hundred miles to the east a similar, if less public, ceremony had already taken place. From the treasury of the imperial palace in Constantinople, a bulky bundle wrapped in silk had been brought from Sultan Selim II to Ali Pasha, admiral of the Ottoman fleet. It also contained a flag, but one colored a vivid green instead of the lambent Christian blue. Even larger than the banner that Pope Pius V had entrusted to his commander, this was one of the most potent emblems of Islam. Upon its surface the ninety-nine names and attributes of God had been embroidered in gold. It was reputed that these were repeated no less than 28,900 times. The giant Kufic characters were surrounded and interlaced with endless reiteration of those same names, in a smaller script, so that from a distance the whole surface of the pennant appeared a shimmering network of golden filigree.

The two commanders were opposites—in rank, status, and experience of life. Don John was the acknowledged natural brother of the king of Spain, Philip II, and the by-blow from a few months Emperor Charles V had spent with a young widow called Barbara Blomberg in the imperial city of Regensburg. Don John had come to Naples from fighting a savage war in the mountains of southern Spain, to command the largest fleet ever assembled by Christian Europe. He had never fought at sea before. By contrast, Ali, the Kapudan Pasha of the Ottoman fleet, was a veteran of galley warfare, feared throughout the Aegean and into the far west of the Mediterranean. His origins were more humble, as the son of a muezzin, a mosque servant who called the faithful to prayer. But the two leaders, for all their differences, had much in common. They were like twin paladins from an epic poem: yearning for battle, chivalrous, and honorable. Fate decreed divergent destinies for them. One would die with a musket ball through the skull, his head then hacked off and stuck on the point of a pike. The other would return in triumph, honored and feted, his victory celebrated with paintings, engravings, poems, coins and medals, essays and learned disquisitions through more than four centuries.

Stories of their encounter abound, some closely following facts, others embellished to make a better tale. Quite where history ends and legends begin is still unsure. The battle they fought in the Gulf of Lepanto has a double character: the event itself and its burgeoning afterlife. This afterlife, the mythic Lepanto, came to stand as a synecdoche for the contest between the Islamic and the Christian worlds. In deciphering the meaning of Lepanto, we may find a point of entry into those deeper mysteries. The greater struggle had deep roots. For almost a thousand years the Christian world had felt threatened by the power in the East. Sometimes, with the Crusades in the Levant, for example, in Sicily and in Spain, Christian Europe had taken war to the enemy. Over the centuries a brooding sense of Muslim threat came to mesmerize Christendom. By the sixteenth century conflict was accepted as the natural and inevitable relationship between East and West. Like a child’s seesaw, the rise of the East required the fall of the West. In 1571, the two adversaries sat roughly in balance.

Scholars reinforced a common belief in the danger and evil of “Islam.” The Muslims, according to the Venerable Bede, who wrote in the eighth century, were descended from Hagar, the prophet Abraham’s concubine. Many Muslims believed that she and her son, Ishmael, lay buried under the Kaaba, the great black stone in Mecca, which was the focal point of the Islamic faith. Christians, however, were descended from Abraham’s lawful offspring, Isaac. Worse still than the stain of bastardy, an even darker curse hung over the people of the East. Christians inferred that while all men traced their line back to Adam and Eve, the Muslims were the lineal descendants of Cain, thrust from the presence of God for murdering his brother Abel. For his crime, Cain bemoaned that he would “be a fugitive and a wanderer upon earth … and everyone who finds me will slay me.” They had been forced to dwell “east of Eden.” Between the children of Cain and the other descendants of Adam, there could be only mutual slaughter and revenge for the primordial crime of fratricide. So this struggle grew from a long tradition of atavistic hatred between the peoples of the West and East.

What this meant in practice it is hard to say. Naturally, Christians in battle routinely insulted their enemies as the “sons of Cain,” as “misbegotten,” or “Antichrist.” Muslims decried their enemies with equal vehemence. Conflict between East and West seemed permanent, inevitable, preordained, as much for the Christians as for the Muslims. Yet it did not destroy the skein of mutual economic and political interests that dominated the Mediterranean and the Balkans, the border and boundary between the two worlds. Trade and commercial interests were constantly in play, especially in the case of Venice and the other city-states of the Adriatic, which preferred to negotiate with Muslim power rather than fight it.

The Christian powers in the Mediterranean had much to fear from an Ottoman Empire intent on expansion. The desire for a great victory went beyond political calculations, and not only for the pope, the architect of the grand alliance. After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, many Christians were convinced that the triumphant advance of Islam could only be part of God’s plan. The Islamic scourge was a means to chasten mankind to a better sense of its faults and flaws. Were Christians being punished for the sins of declining faith and, latterly, schism? For more than a century Christian Europe had resisted the Islamic onslaught, but had won few decisive victories. What better sign of renewed divine favor could there be than a great and annihilating victory over the forces of darkness?

Victory was also much in the minds of Sultan Selim II and his advisers in Constantinople. Although the armies of “Islam” had continued to press forward against the infidel, the pace of advance had slowed. Selim’s grandfather and namesake had brought vast territories in Egypt, Arabia, and the Levant into the Ottoman domain. His father, Suleiman the Lawgiver, had captured the fortress island of Rhodes, Belgrade, and Budapest, and held the Hungarian plain almost to the walls of Vienna. Suleiman had destroyed the Kingdom of Hungary in a single day on the battlefield of Mohacs in 1526. Yet Suleiman too had his setbacks. He twice failed to capture Vienna—in 1529 and 1566—and the island of Malta had withstood all the Turkish efforts at storm and siege. In the Mediterranean, the great naval battle in 1538 at Prevesa, just off the Greek mainland north of the Gulf of Lepanto, produced no decisive result.

The Ottoman state was built upon a theory of infinite expansion, and annual war to advance its frontiers. Without conquest it would decay. Moreover, all good Muslims were duty bound to extend the Domain of Peace, and that burden weighed heaviest upon the sultan. Selim II had committed himself to advance the boundaries of righteousness by seizing the island of Cyprus, which was under the rule of Venice. He used the pretext that privateers had sailed from the island to harry his shipping and the coastal towns of Anatolia. By late 1570, it seemed likely that the island would fall to his armies. Even so, he desired much more than the capture of an island. The sultan demanded a dramatic victory from his commanders, another Mohacs. Thus, his admiral, Ali Pasha, knew that he had to achieve the complete destruction of the Christian fleet, and return laden with trophies, slaves, and booty.

The two adversaries gathered their forces from far distant points in the Mediterranean. Throughout the summer of 1571, little clusters of ships moved toward the designated meeting points: Messina for the Christians commanded by Don John, the Aegean for the sultan’s war fleet under Ali Pasha. They were galleys, a type of ship built for the specific conditions of the Mediterranean. Galley warfare occupied its own universe, utterly different from battles fought between the sailing ships of the Atlantic. Long, sitting low on the water, frail by comparison with their solid northern counterparts, war galleys appeared to be able to move regardless of the force or direction of the wind. Although these slender craft carried two or three large triangular sails, their main motive power was banks of oars that extended out forty feet or more from either side of the ship, both banks pulling in unison so that the boat moved forward swiftly in what seemed a series of rhythmic spasms. In their element, with a calm sea and a following wind, they resembled gigantic water beetles skittering on their long legs over the surface of the water. Although the galleys were faster under sail than when they depended on their oars alone, their power of maneuver came from the rowers. It meant that a galley never risked being blown ashore onto a rocky coast, which was a constant danger for the clumsy deep-hulled merchant sailing ships. A galley could move almost as fast backward as it did forward and, with its shallow draft, could negotiate shoals that would strand other sailing vessels.

Over the centuries galleys had developed many forms, some designed to carry cargo, but by the mid–sixteenth century they were evolving for a single purpose: war. The Mediterranean war galley had been adapted over many generations, from the Greek triremes that destroyed the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis, almost two thousand years before. After 1500, some galleys acquired superstructures at bow and stern, to house guns and fighting men. But the essence of the galley remained the same. As in classical times, galleys were merely a floating platform from which men could board and overcome the crews of other ships, an insubstantial shell for carrying the oarsmen and men-at-arms. Originally, as in the rowing skiffs and caïques to be found in every Mediterranean port, each man had pulled his own oar, but this became a costly option since oars had to be made from expensive well-seasoned timber, much of it imported from northern Europe. From the mid–sixteenth century a new style of rowing appeared that reduced the number of oars. Three or four men, sometimes as many as five, would sit side by side on benches, all pulling in unison on a single massive sweep. It was easy thereafter to add more men to increase the force behind the oars.

The power of a war galley lay in its personnel. Aboard each one would be a number of well-equipped professional fighting men, a battle crew. On Muslim and Venetian ships, many among the rowing crew were also armed and would join the melee. Of the Venetian oarsmen, who were volunteers, those on the end of each bench had a sword and short pike close at hand, while the second man had a bow and a quiver of arrows. As the ships closed, they would leave their oars to the third man and gather, ready to swarm across onto the deck of their victim. No merchant vessel loaded with cargo could hope to outrun a galley pursuing at full speed. Most tried, because the alternative was dire. The galley attack resembled that of a hawk swooping to snatch its prey. The sharp beak of the galley would come closer and closer to the fleeing ship, so close that the crew of the doomed vessel could see its nemesis preparing to board. At that point, many ships yielded; any that continued to run would be showered with arrows or musket fire and the crew killed. For reasons of economy the great bow guns of the attacking galley were rarely used.

Galleys were raptors, living off weaker and less well armed vessels.

Like the carnivorous dinosaur the war galley dominated its environment. But like the dinosaur, it grew progressively larger and more powerful to compete with its own kind until, like the dinosaur, it became increasingly immobile. The tactical power of the Mediterranean war galley, with the teeth and jaws of Tyrannosaurus Rex, depended on a continuous supply of flesh and blood.

Unless a galley could keep its rowing benches filled it could not survive. Much of the ceaseless raiding and predation was to seize not cargo but manpower. When a Muslim vessel took a Christian ship, all non-Muslims aboard would be immediately enslaved. Often the crew and any passengers would be the most valued prize. Some could be ransomed, and others sold for a good profit in the markets of North Africa or Constantinople.

If a Christian galley intercepted a Muslim ship, exactly the same transactions would take place. All non-Christians would be made prisoner and put to work at the oars. But Spanish, French, and Venetian ships preyed as frequently on the ships of other Christian nations. There were many excuses that would permit a war galley to seize a merchant vessel. They might search a Christian ship for “contraband,” claiming that the crew was trading with an enemy. The Knights of St. John, sailing from their fortress island of Malta, were feared by all, Christian and Muslim alike. If they stopped a Christian ship in eastern waters, they would examine the cargo minutely for anything that could be termed illicit. When lacking anything more obvious, they were in the habit of uncovering “Jewish clothing” during a search, indicating that the ship was trading with the Jewish population of Muslim ports. This justified the expropriation of the whole cargo, and the enslavement of the crew.


Minatoga: A Missed Opportunity

One of the still-unexplained puzzlers of the Battle for Okinawa is why Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner allowed two veteran Marine divisions to stand idle in the north—the First for a month, the Sixth for nearly two weeks—instead of using them to relieve one or two Army infantry divisions badly battered in his three-division assault on the Naha-Shuri-Yonabaru line. The answer, unpleasant though this speculation may be, seems to be that Buckner wanted the Army infantry to have the honor of crushing the Japanese Thirty-second Army.

There is nothing especially biased or prejudiced in such an attitude, and it is actually much more common among commanders of rival services than is generally understood. A similar decision by a Marine general occurred when Major General William Rupertus, commanding the First Marine Division at Peleliu, hesitated much too long before relieving his crippled First Regiment with a regiment from the Eighty-first Infantry Division. He did it only after ordered to do so by Major General Roy Geiger, who was commander of the Third Marine Amphibious Corps. But Buckner’s reluctance was somewhat more surprising in that the First Marine Division was probably the most experienced fighting formation in the American Armed Forces; 70 percent of the Sixth—though new to battle as a unit—was composed of veterans from other divisions in other campaigns.

It was not until April 28 that Buckner decided to put fresh troops into his renewed down-island offensive. The Seventh would remain in place on the left, and the Ninety-sixth would be relieved by the Seventy-seventh. The First Marine Division would relieve the Twenty-seventh Infantry Division on the Seventy-seventh’s right with the Sixth Marine Division holding the western flank. Thus the line, Seventh, Seventy-seventh, First, Sixth: Twenty-fourth Corps, Third Corps.

Almost simultaneously with this realignment there arose a dispute over a proposal made by Major General Andrew Bruce of the Seventy-seventh. Just before Cho’s counter-attack, Bruce had suggested that his division envelop Ushijima’s rear by storming the Minatoga Beaches below him. On Leyte, Bruce’s Seventy-seventh had made a strikingly successful landing behind the Japanese line at Ormoc—where “the 77th rolled a pair of sevens”—and he was confident he could do the same on Okinawa. Once ashore, his division could either move inland to take Iwa, a road and communications center on the island’s southern tip, or push north to join the Seventh near Yonabaru.

Buckner gave no serious consideration to the suggestion after his supply officer, Brigadier General David Blakelock, reported that though he could supply food for the operation, Tenth Army had not enough ammunition to spare for it. On the last count, Blakelock’s analysis was correct; for even Tenth Army’s splendid service of supply had not yet been able to compensate for the loss of those two ammunition ships on April 6. Buckner was also aware that Tenth Army planners had rejected the Minatoga Beaches before L-day: the reefs were too dangerous, the beaches inadequate, and the area exposed to strong enemy counter-attack. Beach outlets also were commanded by a plateau, and Bruce’s landing would be too far south to receive support from Hodge’s corps in the north and was also out of range of his artillery.

These were indeed daunting considerations, although hardly more formidable than the drying reef and seawall at Tarawa or even the reefs and seawall at Hagushi. Other division chiefs besides Bruce supported his proposal, although not necessarily to be executed by his division. Major General Pedro del Valle of the First Marine Division believed a Minatoga landing was advisable, although it should be made by the more experienced Second Marine Division, still in Third Corps reserve. Major General Lemuel Shepherd of the Sixth said later he had suggested use of the Second several times to Buckner, pointing out that the logistics argument did not apply to this formation because it had enough beans and bullets of its own to sustain a thirty-day assault. A landing by the Second, he wrote later, “would have seriously threatened Ushijima’s rear and required him to withdraw troops from the Shuri battle or employ his limited reserve to contain the landing.”

Army historians of Okinawa in their book on the campaign were agreed that Minatoga would have produced logistical difficulties and might have failed, but only if it were attempted before the end of April. If made after May 5—the date that Cho’s abortive counter-strike was shattered—it could not have been opposed by more than two or three thousand men. Colonel John Guerard, Tenth Army operations officer, had learned by late April of Ushijima’s order for the Japanese Twenty-fourth Division and Forty-fourth Brigade to move north into Shuri, where they joined Cho’s assault. This left Minatoga lightly defended, and Guerard, who had originally opposed a landing there, now strongly recommended it. So did General Hodge, who went to Tenth Army headquarters to urge Buckner to envelop the enemy there. But the Tenth Army commander did not agree, again basing his rejection on the logistics argument even though he now knew that the Second Marine Division could operate for a month on its own supplies.

Buckner’s decision became highly controversial in the stateside press even before the Okinawa campaign had ended. Such influential newspapers as the Washington Star and the New York Herald-Tribune, probably at the urging of Admiral King, flatly stated that the secondary landing should have been made. Some historians in defense of Buckner have suggested that if the Tenth Army commander had even suspected that the Okinawa fighting would continue through May, and then for almost another agonizing month in June, he might have preferred to risk a quick end to it by landing in Ushijima’s rear. This is a specious argument, the purest conjecture apparently based upon nothing more substantial than a desire to exonerate the Tenth Army commander for having failed to take what can only be described as a gamble with little risk. All the odds after May 5 were in Buckner’s favor: an inferior foe defending against his own superiority in the number and quality of his troops, as well as in supply and in control of the air above and sea surrounding Okinawa.

Caught between four American divisions to his front, with another in reserve and a garrison division also available behind them; and in his rear a seventh veteran division; pounded from land, sea, and sky; hopelessly isolated and cut off from reinforcement or supplies, with the kikusui attacks of no help on land, Ushijima’s Thirty-second Army could either be starved into submission or—if surrender was still so unthinkable to Samurai such as Ushijima, Cho, and Yahara—compelled to make a final “glorious” sally that would be broken in blood ending in mass suicide.



Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s World War III (2017)

Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s World War III

As the American president Truman cruised towards northern Europe, an exhausted Churchill took the opportunity of a few days rest after the election and a chance to refresh himself before Potsdam. He and his wife, Clementine, stayed at the Château de Bordaberry, overlooking the Bay of Biscay in south-west France, painting and swimming, or, more accurately, floating. Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, recorded in his diary that ‘the Prime Minister floated, like a benevolent hippo, in the middle of a large circle of protective French policemen who had duly donned bathing-suits for the purpose.’ When he was not bathing, Churchill painted coastal scenes at St Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye, using rich colours from his paint box to depict the dramatic Atlantic seashore.

Meanwhile, on 11 July, as the prime minister enjoyed a brief moment of relaxation in France, his chiefs of staff in London received their first glimpse of the second report on Operation Unthinkable. It had taken a month for the same JPS team of Grantham, Thompson and Dawson to report back on ‘what measures would be required to ensure the security of the British Isles in the event of war with Russia in the near future’. It was, of course, highly sensitive, even by the standards of national security and the normal staffs in the services ministries were not consulted. The premise was quite conceivable, for one of Stalin’s cherished ambitions was to control a unified greater Germany, and his Red Army might not stop at the Rhine. The report, however, assumed that the Red Army had overrun the whole of Western Europe and were poised to attack Britain, but there was no discussion as to how quickly and by what method the Soviets would conquer Europe.

There would have been some warning of a Soviet invasion, hopefully via British Intelligence, but the job of gathering intelligence on Red Army dispositions was never straightforward. Extracting information from German intelligence officers about Soviet movements caused a crisis of conscience for senior British intelligence officers, such as Dick White. ‘I would have objected to the use of a Nazi as an agent,’ he curtly noted, but ‘the prospect never arose.’ The Americans, however, had no such qualms and were not only using German Abwehr officers, but were even ‘pinching’ British agents. Britain’s pre-eminent place in the world of espionage was slipping, as was the relationship between the British and US intelligence services. The British Embassy in Moscow was obviously a conduit for local intelligence and debate about Soviet intentions. Staff spent endless hours poring over the Soviet press, such as Pravda, Izvestia or the English-language Moscow Evening News, as well as any number of technical journals for information about the strength of Soviet armaments. Then there were diplomatic trips to Kiev or Leningrad during April and May 1945, when the presence of the NKVD was not quite as claustrophobic as it would shortly become. There were gaps and opportunities, through which diplomats could talk to local people or glimpse ‘off limits’ areas.

Even if the West had some prior notice of a Soviet attack, it would only take the Red Army weeks to arrive on the French border. But what were the constraints on the Soviet operations? One major problem for the Red Army would be their long lines of communication, and once they had pushed their vast ‘Front’ units out of Eastern Europe they would no longer find themselves a majority force in their occupied territories, such as Poland, Ukraine and Germany. Resistance fighters in those countries could rise up in significant numbers and cause serious problems behind the Soviet lines.

Nonetheless, the planners opened their report with the blunt scenario:

The following are the main methods by which the Russians might attempt to attack the British Isles after they had reached the shores of the North Sea and Atlantic:

– By cutting our sea communications

– By invasion

– By air attack

– By rocket or other new methods

It was believed that the Soviets were unable to mount a submarine or air attack on Allied shipping, at least nowhere near the capability of the German threat in the Second World War. Reassuringly, it would take some years for Soviet technology to catch up, especially in submarine design. So, if the Soviets could not cut British sea communications, could they launch a successful invasion of Britain? They were unlikely to rely just on airborne operations and if they came ashore by landing craft, they would need to land in very large numbers to establish a beachhead. But the Soviets would be severely handicapped by their inexperience in such amphibious operations, and, having little or no merchant navy of their own, they could hardly support them. Most Allied merchant shipping would have been already withdrawn from Atlantic ports or otherwise scuttled in advance of the approaching Red Army; the threat of an invasion was always present but because of Soviet limitations the planners decided that the threat of invasion was not imminent.

Being overwhelmed by the Red Air Force was another possibility. Although their strategic bomber force was not rated by British advisors, the flying distance from coastal air bases in France or the Low Countries to Britain was short enough to bring industrial and military targets within easy range. Although Soviet tactical bombers were normally trained to support land operations, they could easily adapt for such an important mission and their sheer numbers could pose a threat. The RAF could expect to inflict very heavy losses on the Red Air Force, but its victory was by no means assured. However, it was the prospect of an attack by rockets or pilotless aircraft that posed the most concern:

The Russians are likely to begin large scale production of these weapons at an early date. We must expect a far heavier scale of attack than the Germans were able to develop, and we do not at present see any method of effectively reducing this. This would be the main threat over the considerable period which must elapse before the Russians can contemplate any attempt at invasion.

The planners were right to acknowledge this menace from the new weapons, for the Soviets were racing to develop copies of the German V–2, as well as ‘pilotless aircraft’. But fortunately for the Allies, they were some way from manufacturing large rockets capable of crossing the Channel. It was true that they had acquired detailed plans and operational knowledge of the V–2 rocket when their forces overran the Blizna testing ground in south-east Poland in August 1944. They were also due to receive the captured V–2 plant at Nordhausen from the Americans on 1 July 1945 (ironically the same date as Unthinkable had been due to start). But even then, the Soviets still did not possess any stocks of captured, complete V–2 rockets and neither did they have the services of enough German scientists. They did manage to secure some, but they were not even communist sympathisers. Helmut Gröttrup, a former assistant to the director of the Guidance, Control and Telemetry Laboratory at Peenemünde, had other motives, as his wife later confided:

They [the Americans] grabbed Wernher von Braun, Hüter, Schilling, Steinhoff, Gröttrup and other leading rocket experts. We were housed at Witzenhausen and interrogated. After weeks had passed, Helmut was handed a contract offering him a transfer to the USA without his family, a contract terminable by one signatory only: the US Army. Since we wanted to remain in Germany, we moved back to the Russian Zone.

It would be another year before scientists such as Gröttrup could begin to turn out Soviet V–2 rockets in sufficient quantity to endanger the West. The planners did not detail the type of rockets that posed a threat, but it would not come from the smaller Katyusha type. After all, the closest distance between France and England was 26 miles and the most powerful existing rocket, the M–13 DD, only had a range of 7 miles. However, if the rocket threat materialised any earlier, the main British defence would depend on anti-aircraft batteries, rather than the RAF – at least as far as Churchill was concerned. He had already attacked Sir Archibald Sinclair over claims that it was the RAF which had defeated the V-weapons:

You have no grounds to claim that the RAF frustrated the attacks by the V weapons. The RAF took their part, but in my opinion, their effort ranks definitely below that of the AA Artillery and still further below the achievements of the Army in clearing out all the establishments in the Pas de Calais. As to the V2, nothing has been done or can be done by the RAF.

To reduce the threat from rockets, the possibility of retaining bridgeheads on the continent was considered. By holding on to coastal areas, the idea was to deprive the Red Army of launch sites. If they had to fire rockets from further inland, aimed at London, it would be beyond the range of a V–2 type. But it was out of the question to expect an Allied army to hold on to a continual stretch of continental coastline in the face of such massive enemy forces. However, peninsulas such as Cherbourg or Brittany could be considered, along with Denmark or Western Holland, though concentrating Allied troops in these compact areas would provide the enemy with an easy target. In the end, the planners came down against establishing bridgeheads for the following reasons:

The range of the present rocket would necessitate the holding of a continuous front well into France and the Low Countries, if the scale of attack by this method is to be seriously affected.

If used as bases for a return to the continent, we should be sacrificing surprise and would enable the enemy to build up against us at leisure.

Except in the case of Denmark, use of which is limited by way of lack of harbours on the north and west coasts, the air forces we could station in the bridgehead would be little greater than those required to support the troops defending it.

Rockets were obviously an insoluble problem for the planners, who were more comfortable with the idea of conventional warfare and planning for the possibility of the Red Army sitting in captured French fortifications across the Channel. How would British commanders deploy their forces to defend the homeland? There would be the risk of a Soviet airborne invasion or amphibious landings, or both, and there would have to be mobile British units to deal with these threats – garrisons would need to be sent to defend urban and industrial centres, as well as ports. As for the defence of the rest of the country, that would be in the hands of some twenty British and US infantry and armoured divisions, deployed south of a line between the Severn and the Wash, with a concentration in the south-east of the country. The bulk of these forces were already in Britain, but they would have to be supplemented by troops withdrawing from Europe in the face of a Soviet advance. The speed of the retreat on the continent would mean a lot of their heavy equipment would be left behind. Indeed, the loss of equipment and the ability of British industry to replace it and keep its forces continually supplied would require industrial capacity to be substantially raised.

There was no reference in the plan to the possibility of an actual Soviet occupation of the British mainland, or indeed the provisions to set up a British government-in-exile in somewhere such as Canada, Newfoundland or South Africa. There was some reassurance, however, that the Royal Navy and RAF would provide a safe cordon around the country, with the local naval forces guarding the southern and eastern approaches and the Home Fleet protecting the northern waters. Depending on how the Soviet threat developed, convoy escorts would be required at a later date.

If the planners had unbounded faith in the Royal Navy, they had even more confidence in the ability of the Royal Air Force to deal with the Red Air Force, but only if both RAF and USAAF squadrons could be recalled from Europe in time to operate from British bases. To this end, RAF aircraft and personnel would be held back from deployment in the Far East, though the effect this would have on the continuing war against Japan was not calculated. Even if these conditions were met, the combined Anglo-American air force would need to muster 230 fighter squadrons, 100 tactical bomber and 200 heavy bomber squadrons.

The planners concluded:

It is only by the use of rockets and other new weapons that the Russians could develop any serious threat to the security of this country in the initial stages. Invasion or a serious attack upon our sea communications could only be undertaken after a period of preparation which must last some years.

While the chiefs of staff contemplated the JPS report, Churchill continued his long-overdue break in France, pending the start of the Potsdam Conference. ‘I’m going to relax completely,’ he informed his doctor. ‘I’m not going to look at any papers.’ It was clear he was not going to digest any government documents, and that included any new papers on Operation Unthinkable. They would have to wait. On 15 July, without returning to London, he flew from Bordeaux to Berlin for the beginning of the Potsdam conference.

Churchill invited Attlee to join him at Potsdam, pending the results of the British general election and Attlee flew out to the conference on 15 July, much to the surprise of the Soviet delegation, who could not understand why the leader of the opposition party should be included. By the time of the conference Allied troops had been withdrawn to the agreed zones, and Eden, as foreign secretary, was preparing to ‘tie up the loose ends’ of the Polish machination. Although Churchill remained depressed at not achieving his goal over Poland, he entered the conference room at Potsdam knowing that the Allies still had a major card to play – a card that could change the whole strategic balance.

Even before the first atomic test in July, the British had given their consent in principle to its use against the Japanese. Churchill confirmed that support for the bomb was emphatic:

The historic fact remains, and must be judged in the after-time, that the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table.

Truman entered the rooms at the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam fully briefed about the impending Trinity atomic test. The conference was due to start on 16 July, but Stalin had suffered a minor heart attack and the start of business was rescheduled for the following day. It was no wonder then that Major-General Leslie Hollis remarked ‘in the eighteen months since I first saw him [Stalin] at Teheran, his hair had gone as white as the tunic he wore.’ Churchill used the spare day to visit Berlin and the ruins of the Reich Chancellery. Lord Moran, who accompanied the PM, noted that Churchill was strangely unmoved by the surroundings. He was not even excited by the prospect of seeing the entrance to the bunker and the scene of the last sordid days of his bitter enemy. He took a few steps down into the bunker and promptly came back up into the ruined gardens. ‘Hitler must have come out here to get some air,’ he ventured, ‘and heard the guns getting nearer and nearer.’

A battered chair, hastily rescued from the bunker, was brought forward for a photo opportunity, and the prime minister dutifully sat down. ‘Churchill tries out Hitler’s chair for size’, trumpeted the subsequent headlines, but there was little triumph in Churchill’s demeanour. He was, no doubt, thinking of the forthcoming meetings and his first real discussions with Truman. He had met the president fleetingly before and had spoken to him on the telephone, but this was the first time they had met as world leaders. The PM was impressed with Truman but the feelings were not entirely mutual. ‘I’m sure we can get along,’ Truman cautiously noted in his diary, ‘if he doesn’t try to give me too much soft soap.’ When Truman finally met Stalin the following day, he had no such reservations about the Soviet leader. ‘I can deal with Stalin. He is honest – but smart as hell.’ Some of Stalin’s pronouncements certainly chimed with Truman, especially when he mentioned he would like to divide up some of the old colonies and mandates.

Business got underway quickly, despite the constant interruptions caused by delegates leaving the meeting rooms – diarrhoea was rampant, due to pollution of the local water supply – while the main concern of three British chiefs of staff was the plague of mosquitos ever present around their lakeside villa. Brooke, Portal and Cunningham made time for the odd spot of recreation, though the British chiefs were disappointed to be told that the nearby Lake Griebnitzsee was polluted by dead bodies and the fish had been blown up by hand grenades. Nevertheless, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff could still be seen in a canoe, with fishing rod in hand, being paddled around the lake by the Marshal of the RAF.

As the delegates prepared for their meetings, 6,000 miles away in a small military installation in the Jornada de Muerto desert in southern New Mexico, US scientists were about to experiment with a world-changing weapon. Just before dawn on 16 July, a truck arrived at the site bearing an innocuous-looking metal sphere. The ball looked simple enough, and, with a radius of 4ft 6in, it very much resembled a sea mine. The 4-ton load was hoisted off the truck and placed on the ground. Then, with due reverence, a canopy was placed over it, allowing technicians to adjust the device in complete and sterile privacy. The ball was then raised high up into a gantry, some 100ft above the ground. At precisely 5.29 a.m., ‘Fat Man’ was detonated. The plutonium bomb vaporised the gantry and eliminated all desert life within half a mile. Equivalent to the result of using 20 kilotons of TNT, the blast created an ‘oven heat’ that was felt 10 miles away, and its searing light was sufficient to cause temporary blindness at that distance. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project tasked with developing the atomic bomb, solemnly witnessed the Trinity test explosion:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

On 18 July Truman informed Churchill about the results of the atomic test. Before he had left for Potsdam, Churchill had asked Truman to cable him as soon as the news came through as to ‘whether it is a flop or a plop’. The telegram read ‘It’s a plop. Truman.’ At Churchill’s request the president held off from telling Stalin until 24 July. Even then Stalin did not seem to be particularly impressed or surprised at the news. There is no doubt that he knew of the progress of the US Manhattan Project through such spies as Klaus Fuchs, whose information was ‘of great value’ to the Soviets and was later exposed in the Venona transcripts. Stalin would also have been familiar with the earlier Anglo-American atomic co-operation, known as the Tube Alloys project, from Soviet agents inside Whitehall, London. However, he may not have understood the full implications until the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima several weeks later. Only then did Stalin and Beria break into a gallop with the development of a Soviet nuclear programme.

The explosion of an atomic bomb was also another massive jolt to Stalin’s view of his future relations with the West. Together with Roosevelt’s death, in April 1945, these two seismic changes in the international landscape reawakened Stalin’s ‘old demons of insecurity’. He would now have to deal with a material shift in the balance of military power, as well as a new host of diplomatic figures, including, shortly, a change in the British leadership. Such insecurity was also felt by Stalin’s colleagues. Yuli Khariton, one of the early Soviet atomic designers, gloomily concluded that ‘the Soviet Government interpreted Hiroshima as atomic blackmail against the USSR, as a threat to unleash a new, even more terrible and devastating war.’ The Soviets were now well aware that the USAAF was capable of delivering atomic bombs, from their bases in Europe and the Middle East, to the very heart of Stalin’s empire. The bomb also hammered home to Stalin that if Japan quickly capitulated, he could swiftly lose his chance to enact the Yalta agreement and capture strategic territory around Manchuria and Japan and thereby improve his security in the east.

News on 16 July that the plutonium-based bomb was successful meant that the Americans might not need to worry about pushing the Soviets to enter the war against Japan – could they now finish off Japan on their own? At this stage the US military did not think that atomic bombs could ensure victory on their own, but would instead be a powerful addition to the mix of bombardment necessary to support the land invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945. A much simpler uranium bomb, known as ‘Little Boy’, was also being developed, though this would not require a test explosion. Even so, little was known about the effect of radiation, and army commanders even discussed using the bombs tactically to soften up beach defences around the Japanese mainland.

The success of the Trinity test theoretically released the West from the obligation of courting Stalin and should have freed them to take a hard line with him over Poland and the other occupied Eastern European states. According to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Churchill was jubilant about the new bomb:

He had absorbed all the minor American exaggerations and as a result was completely carried away. It was now no longer necessary for the Russians to come into the Japanese War, the new explosive alone was sufficient to settle the matter! … Furthermore, we now had something in our hands which would redress the balance with the Russians.

The Potsdam leaders issued a final ultimatum for a Japanese surrender, but this was swiftly rejected by the Japanese prime minister, who announced that his forces would fight on. He was secretly trying to obtain a peace agreement with the Chinese, so that large numbers of Japanese troops could be released for the defence of the Home Islands. The Japanese military were hell-bent on continuing the war, but US decrypts of telegrams revealed that some Japanese politicians were looking for someone to broker a peace deal with the Allies. They were in a minority, so the US bombing onslaught against the Japanese mainland and islands continued. Raids by up to 500 Superfortresses and 1,000 carrier aircraft blitzed Tokyo, Nagoya, Yokohama, Osaka and Kobe, together with numerous oil refineries and ports.



Despite his euphoria over the bomb, Churchill was by now physically, if not mentally, exhausted. And as the PM’s health deteriorated, Eden increasingly took on the responsibility for the British delegation at Potsdam. ‘The PM is not mastering his brief,’ Lord Moran noted, ‘he is too tired to prepare anything.’ Yet Churchill was invigorated by the new military and political advantage that the bomb had given the West. ‘He was completely carried away,’ noted Field Marshal Brooke, ‘and was delighted to think that the bomb could redress the power balance with Stalin. “Now we could say,” Churchill enthused, “if you insist on doing this or that, well we can just blot out Moscow, then Stalingrad, then Kiev, then Kuibyshev, Karkhov, Sebastapol [sic]. And now where are the Russians!!!!”’ Brooke later conceded that Churchill was right to appreciate that the atomic bomb had shifted the balance of military power:

Winston’s appreciation of its value in the future international balance of power was certainly far more accurate than mine. But what was worrying me was that with his usual enthusiasm for anything new, he was letting himself be carried away by the very first and rather scanty reports of the first atomic explosion. He was already seeing himself capable of eliminating all the Russian centres of industry and population, without taking into account any of the connected problems, such as delivery of the bomb, production of bombs, possibility of Russia also possessing such bombs etc. He had at once painted a wonderful picture of himself as the sole possessor of these bombs and capable of dumping them where he wished, thus all powerful and capable of dictating to Stalin!

The atomic bomb had clearly reignited Churchill’s hopes of Unthinkable, though as Brooke reflected, it was the US who had the bomb and controlled its use, and not Britain. Even then, in 1945 there were great logistical problems in dropping an atom bomb. It was one thing for a B–29 bomber to pass through heavily depleted Japanese air defences, but quite another to attempt to penetrate a web of densely packed anti-aircraft defences across the Soviet Union. The aircraft bearing the bomb would have to fly at night, negotiate heavy ground fire and fighter inceptors, and then drop its bomb from a high altitude using radar, for which scope returns had to be prepared. Because at this stage US policy was still defiantly set on a course of accommodation with Stalin, there was little chance of a ‘first-strike’ against the Soviet Union. Anyway, the stock of atomic bombs was still extremely limited and until the development of rocket delivery, there remained the hindrance of enemy defences shooting down any bomb-laden aircraft.

Although Churchill had thrown in a number of Soviet city targets, such target data, especially east of Moscow, was very basic and few accurate maps existed. Even if these sites could be identified, factories manufacturing aircraft, ordnance and ball-bearings were heavily defended. The atomic bomb delivery aircraft, the B–29, had a radius of some 2,000 miles, so when it was operating out of US airbases only a limited number of Soviet targets could be attacked. The alternative was to operate from forward air bases in Europe, such as East Anglia, or Foggia, in Italy, but none of these had the necessary weapons pits for loading or facilities to store the atomic bombs. At this stage no one knew the effect of an atomic blast on a city, but since most Japanese population centres comprised wooden buildings, it was assumed that the devastation would be complete. Conversely, a Soviet concrete-built city could expect to survive total demolition.

While Japan remained oblivious to its fate, Churchill would shortly know his political future. He had already discussed the outcome of the British general election with Stalin, and, as far as the Soviet dictator was concerned, Churchill would be returned with a majority of eighty seats. Stalin was adamant that an army always voted for a strong premier. On 25 July the conference was suspended while Churchill, Eden and Attlee flew to London to discover the election results. They were due to return to Potsdam two days later, but there was a dramatic outcome. Remembering the pre-war shortcomings of the Conservative Party, rather than its leader’s wartime record, the country gave the Labour Party a landslide victory. Churchill, exercising that extraordinary will and strength, refused to flinch at the electoral upset. Those around him were stunned, though his family, and particularly his daughter Mary, offered huge support. She recalled a weekend at the prime minister’s retreat, Chequers, when, for the last time, the family entered their names in the visitors’ book. It was a volume full of the names who had dictated the fortunes of war, but now the PM signed off with one word – ‘Finis’.

In Potsdam Stalin was staggered at the result and couldn’t comprehend that Churchill couldn’t ‘fix’ it. The result caused Stalin some concern, because now he had lost both his equals. First, in April, Roosevelt had died and now, in July, Churchill had disappeared. The loss meant that the old triumvirate had melted away and Stalin became even more paranoid now that he had to deal with untested replacements. On the same day that the British contingent were away, Poland came up on the agenda. To Truman it seemed settled business. ‘Russia helped herself to a slice of Poland,’ he complained, ‘and gave Poland a nice slice of Germany, taking also a good slice of East Prussia for herself. Poland has moved in up to the Oder and the west Neisse, taking Stettin and Silesia as a fact accomplished.’ The Soviet-sponsored Polish provisional government had moved quickly to acquire this territory, and started to expel the millions of ethnic Germans, but it was a new boundary that neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had officially approved.

Two new faces appeared at Potsdam – Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister of Britain, together with his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin. This caused the Soviets some consternation; Molotov was suspicious of the new British leaders, and repeatedly asked Attlee why he didn’t know the result of the general election beforehand. The new leaders’ styles were totally different to Churchill and Eden. Attlee had little charisma but was technically master of his brief, whereas Bevin was the complete opposite of his suave, patrician predecessor and was only too happy to point it out. When returning from his first trip to America, waiting reporters were eager to record his experience. ‘What are your first impressions of America?’ they shouted. Bevin did not pause for a second. ‘The newspapers are too big,’ he replied, ‘and the lavatory paper is too small.’

Even though Bevin lacked the finesse of Eden, he continued much the same foreign policies, particularly the continued alliance with the US. He was anti-communist and had spent much of his political life fighting communist influence within the trade union movement. Indeed, Bevin arrived in Potsdam ‘fully aware of the tensions that existed and with a shrewd assessment of the scope of Soviet ambitions, a much shrewder one at this stage, than most of the Americans’. However, despite Bevin’s undoubted talents, he was at odds with many in his own party who wished to see a ‘Third Force’ of socialists within Europe, unaligned with either the US or the Soviet Union. Bevin was essentially an imperialist and believed that the best way to defend the British Empire was by a military and atomic deterrent, whereas Attlee’s hopes for security were largely vested in the emerging United Nations. Consequently, while Bevin and his immediate advisors might have agreed with the provisions of Operation Unthinkable, he would have faced an uphill struggle against Attlee and a large part of the Labour party.

On 6 August 1945 a specially adapted Boeing B–29 Superfortress, Enola Gay, set off for Hiroshima to deliver the innocently named ‘Little Boy’ uranium bomb. The target city was an important embarkation port, industrial centre and was also the site of a large military depot. The bomb took 43 seconds to fall, burst at 2000ft above the city and destroyed 70 per cent of the buildings. Estimates of those immediately killed range from 70,000 to 90,000. It was devastating but Truman had no remorse over the use of the atomic bomb, and had little patience with those who did. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been a key figure in the Manhattan Project, afterwards expressed doubt about the morality of using the bomb, but was dismissed by Truman as a ‘cry-baby’. After the Hiroshima bomb the Japanese attempted to petition the Soviet Union for a treaty, but in response Stalin declared war on Japan and the Red Army invaded Manchuria. It was true that this Soviet action had been agreed at Yalta, but its timing was an example of Stalin’s talent for opportunism.

On 9 August the US dropped a second, more powerful plutonium bomb on the industrial port of Nagasaki, killing in excess of 50,000 inhabitants. Still, the Japanese military refused to surrender, but it was the intervention, his only intervention during the war, of Emperor Hirohito that pressed them to surrender. Under his direction there was no loss of face. He declared the war over but never mentioned the word defeat, and Japan formally surrendered on 2 September. Unsurprisingly, this was a huge relief to the US military, for there would be only one more atomic bomb in stock until several more were produced the following month. Consequently, Churchill’s idea that the West could threaten to obliterate the Soviet Union in 1945 was very wide of the mark.

Stalin had made some important strategic gains from his war with Japan, and he was not about to concede his territorial designs in the West. Barely a week after the Japanese surrender, his foreign minister, Molotov, was involved in bitter wrangling with his counterparts in the West over recognition of the Soviet puppet governments in Europe. It seems that at the same time as this deterioration in relations, Stalin had discovered some startling information about British intentions. Oleg Tsarev, an ex-KGB journalist, has alleged that in September 1945 Stalin received his first high-level intelligence on a British strategic post-war plan. ‘The Security of the British Empire’, dated 29 June 1945, was a memorandum prepared by the British Post-Hostilities Planning Staff and had found its way onto Stalin’s desk. It was not as detailed as the Unthinkable plan, nor did it involve the US, but it was still a highly restricted document exposing British strategic thinking. There was a deluge of such documents coming into Stalin’s possession, for by the end of the war Soviet agents, including such high-fliers as Kim Philby, were operating in the very heart of Whitehall. He was head of anti-Soviet operations (Section IX) within the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and probably procured the ‘British Empire’ document for the NKVD. One of his SIS colleagues later confided that Philby had ‘ensured that the whole post-war effort to counter Communist espionage became known in the Kremlin. The history of espionage records few, if any, comparable masterstrokes.’

As well as Philby, there were other well connected Soviet spies supplying intelligence papers to Stalin. John Cairncross, who had previously worked for the ULTRA operation at Bletchley Park, was another SIS officer who turned traitor – at the time of VE Day, Cairncross worked for Section I, devoted to Political Intelligence. Anthony Blunt, who had worked for MI5 during the war, also proved to be of great help to Soviet intelligence and, in the words of a senior figure in their Foreign Intelligence Directorate, ‘had carried out such huge, titanic work for us’. He had also successfully run a sub-agent, Leo Long, who served in military intelligence during the war and then continued to work as a mole within the British Control Commission in Germany, rising to the post of Deputy Director of Intelligence.

The NKVD had two further moles within the British Foreign Office: Donald Maclean was First Secretary of the British Embassy in Washington, a sensitive post which was often diplomatic cover for senior intelligence officers. Another was Guy Burgess, who had left the BBC in June 1944 to take up a post in the press department of the Foreign Office. According to the former KGB agent Vasili Mitrokhin, during the period January to June 1945, Burgess supplied copies of 389 FO documents classified as ‘top secret’ to his Soviet handlers. He would regularly take a holdall full of these sensitive papers out of his office and meet his Soviet contact in a park. On one occasion he and his handler were even stopped by the police, who thought his bulging case looked like the proceeds of a robbery, but Burgess promptly convinced the officers that he had no housebreaking equipment on him. They then apologised for troubling him and his silent friend.

With the subsequent election of the Attlee government in July 1945, Burgess obtained even greater access to secret government papers, via his appointment as an aide to Hector McNeil, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office. It is not known whether the details of the tightly restricted Operation Unthinkable ever reached Stalin, though he had certainly received details of earlier reports prepared by the British Post-Hostilities planners. Such information was passed on by Donald Maclean, known in secret Soviet transcripts as ‘Homer’. He also regularly supplied his Soviet handlers with complete copies of telegrams between Churchill and Truman that often contained details of British tactics used in the argument over the composition of a Polish government. Consequently, Stalin knew all about the differences between Britain and the US over Poland, as well as their anxious exchanges about the fate of the sixteen Polish underground leaders.



T-34/85 Model 1943, late production, fresh from the Red Sormovo Works at Gorki, March 1944.

The southern sector of the eastern front saw far more armored action than the other two in the months following Kursk. The Red Army’s performance was also exponentially better. Most of the best Soviet tank generals had been sent to that theater to see off the Kursk offensive and to prepare for the series of strikes expected to—finally—destroy German fighting power in south Russia.

It began on July 17. First Panzer Army and the re-created 6th Army initially held positions along the Mius River. Manstein planned a coun terstrike, using Das Reich and Leibstandarte to stun the Soviets on 1st Panzer Army’s front, then shifting them to 6th Army’s sector to join Totenkopf and 3rd Panzer in a larger concentric attack. When Hitler forbade it, Manstein borrowed the words of General von Seydlitz from two centuries earlier: His head was at the Führer’s disposal, but while he held command he must be allowed to use it.

Eventually, reinforced by a total of five panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, 1st Panzer Army did mount a tactically successful counterattack. But Manstein still faced over two and a half million men, 50,000 guns, 2,400 tanks, almost 3,000 aircraft. Purists sometimes suggest that Stavka should have used this overwhelming superiority to generate battles of encirclement, panzer style. But Stalin remembered all too clearly how Manstein had thwarted a similar approach after Stalingrad. At front and army command levels there also seems to have been a near-visceral desire to smash an enemy that had so often embarrassed them, and to do it with strength the Germans could not hope to match. Even airborne forces were thrown into the operation.

Ninth Army, 4th Panzer Army, and Detachment Kempf, rechristened 8th Army but with the same resources, paid the bill. Model secured Hitler’s permission for a fighting retreat from the Orel salient as part of the general withdrawal of Army Group Center. Fourth Panzer Army was split into three parts by the Soviet onslaught, each fighting its own desperate battle. Useful reinforcements were few—the 8th Panzer Division arrived with no tanks. A staff officer at Army High Command confided—but only to his diary—that the end might come before the new year. Manstein had to fight Hitler almost as fiercely as the Russians to secure permission to do anything but “hold, hold, hold!” Guderian cattily observed that Manstein was inappropriately tentative in the Führer’s presence. In fact Army Group South’s commander not only insisted that disaster awaited were he not allowed to fall back to the line of the Dnieper River, but on September 14 he declared that he would issue the orders the next day on his own responsibility. Hitler conceded defeat.

The success of the retreat depended on the panzers. Materially Manstein was playing a handful of threes. In contrast to Kursk, there were few chances to recover and repair damaged tanks. Casualty evacuation was random. Units constantly on the move meant stragglers were usually lost for good. It took two weeks to reach the Dnieper. By that time Army Group South counted fewer than 300 serviceable tanks and assault guns. The average infantry division’s frontline strength was around a thousand men. Its average front was twelve to thirteen miles.

Even Tigers felt the strain. In the course of the campaign, Army Group South’s single battalion of Panzer VIs was increased to four. But their commanders complained the Tigers were victimized by their reputation: thrown in piecemeal, shuttled from sector to sector, denied time to maintain the complex and sensitive vehicle. Too often they were used as mobile pillboxes. Too often their infantry support was nonexistent or ineffective.

The tankers ascribed that last to poor training and low morale. From the infantry’s perspective, it was often common sense. The Tiger was essentially different from the familiar assault guns, whose low silhouettes and maneuverability enabled them to seek ambush positions and use cover—almost like a Landser on treads. The Tigers were big. They drew fire like magnets and attracted Soviet tanks like flies to manure. Any smart rifleman—and slow thinkers had short life spans in the autumn of 1943—was likely to avoid them rather than take the risk of providing close-in protection.

As they fell back, the Germans scorched the earth. That is a polite military euphemism for a swath of devastation covering hundreds of square miles, sparing nothing and no one except by accident. “They are burning the bread,” Vatutin admonished his men. Few Soviet soldiers did not know what hunger felt like. Small wonder the Russians succeeded in throwing bridgeheads across the river. Small wonder that the Germans’ best chance of holding was to destroy them before they could metastasize. And small wonder that they failed.

On November 3 the 1st Ukrainian Front began crossing the Dnieper in force around Kiev, on Manstein’s northern flank. Fourth Panzer Army’s few remaining AFVs foundered in the Soviet tide. The 25th Panzer Division, sent to restore the situation, had spent most of its existence in the peaceful surroundings of Norway. Botched transportation schedules temporarily made it a panzer division with no tracked vehicles at all. Yet the division managed, somehow, to halt an entire tank army and set the stage for another of Manstein’s signature counterattacks.

This one would be made without Hoth, summarily dismissed by Hitler for his failure to hold the river line. His replacement represented no loss in ability. Erhard Raus had been tempered in the front lines from Leningrad to Kursk. Tactical command of the counterattack was in the arguably even more capable hands of Hermann Balck, now commanding XLVIII Panzer Corps. Even the weather obliged, freezing the mud to stability by the time Balck went in.

Hitler had rejected Manstein and Guderian’s proposals to concentrate every tank in the southern sector for a short, massive blow. Forty-Eighth Panzer Corps counted only 200 tanks and assault guns, but they were manned by some of the Wehrmacht’s best, divisions like 1st Panzer, 7th Panzer, and Leibstandarte. For three weeks they ran rings around the baffled Rotarmisten. Balck’s corps was on the point of executing a 1941-style encirclement when a captured map showed the intended pocket contained no fewer than seven Soviet corps. Even for the intrepid Balck, that was a bit much. And despite virtuoso German performances from corps headquarters to tank crews, the Soviet bridgehead was still intact.

Further south, 1st Panzer Army and Army Group A, whose sector had been relatively quiet since the withdrawal from the Caucasus, came under increasing pressure in mid-August. Initially it was possible to plug gaps and secure flanks by using available AFVs as emergency relief. But when an eagerly awaited panzer division turned out to consist of seven tanks and an under strength panzer grenadier regiment, operational reality had an unpleasant way of unmistakably asserting itself. The situation was worsened in 1st Panzer Army’s sector, where Hitler had ordered an already dangerously deep salient where the Dnieper bent west at Zaporozhye to be expanded to a bridgehead—not for military reasons but to protect a dam producing electricity described as vital for the industry of occupied Ukraine, a dam that was also widely understood to symbolize Soviet achievement.

The extended deployment required to sustain this propaganda illusion drove Manstein to near-wordless fury. It took only four days for the Red Army to overrun the bridgehead in mid-October. The resources it had absorbed were unavailable to resist a far larger attack against 6th Army on 1st Panzer’s right: over a half-million men and 800 tanks against a fifth of the number of armored vehicles, in wide-open country. By the beginning of November the Crimea was isolated and Army Group A cut in half.

The Russians were learning how to keep moving tactically and operationally, and figuring out how to coordinate their movements on a theater level. On October 15 another sledgehammer shattered 1st Panzer Army’s left wing, and in 10 days covered the 100 miles to Krivoi Rog. On October 24 a second front-level offensive broke out of another Dnieper bridgehead a few miles south of the first. Mackensen, anything but an alarmist, reported the gap could not be closed, that his exhausted men had no more left in them. Hitler responded by giving Manstein control of 1st Panzer Army and a temporary free hand.

This time Manstein planned a movement. A panzer corps headquarters rotated from his army group through 1st Panzer Army’s rear zone into position on its left flank. It took command of Totenkopf, of 24th Panzer Division, in Italy since its reformation after Stalingrad, and of 14th Panzer Division, another Stalingrad revival currently shaking down in France. On August 28 this hastily assembled force drove southeast, into the Soviet rear toward Krivoi Rog. Mackensen’s LVII Panzer Corps attacked in the opposite direction two days later. Both operations took the Russians by surprise and succeeded in linking up to cut off the Soviet spearheads and restabilize the sector.

It was another neat local victory, and Mackensen’s last fight in Russia. On November 4 he was transferred to Italy, replaced by a no less capable man. Hans Hube had lost an arm in World War I, led a panzer corps with sufficient distinction to be flown out of Stalingrad, and done well against the British and Americans in Sicily. He had a reputation for willpower and energy. He would need both in the face of still another coordinated Soviet offensive in what again seemed overwhelming force.

The Soviet Union had paid for its successes against Army Group South with over 1.5 million casualties, a quarter of them dead or missing. The German front still held—barely—but its defenders were so tired and apathetic that in the words of one report, they no longer cared whether they were shot by the Russians or their own officers. And this was the elite Grossdeutschland Division, which enjoyed its own personal battalion of Tigers.

On December 24 the Red Army struck again: four fronts, 2.25 million men, 2,600 tanks. Fourth Panzer Army was again hammered into fragments, each making its own way west as best it could. Manstein almost by reflex saw the best response as shortening the front and concentrating his armor for a counterattack, as he had done after Stalingrad. When Hitler refused, Manstein, on his own responsibility, pulled 1st Panzer Army out of the line and redeployed it on 4th Panzer’s right. Hube had his own III Panzer Corps, XLVI Panzer Corps transferred in haste from France, and a provisional heavy tank regiment with a battalion each of Tigers and Panthers, plus some attached infantry and armored artillery. His counterattack cost the Russians a few tens of thousands of men and around 700 tanks. It was a victory—but only in the most limited tactical sense.

The experiences of Mackensen and Hube showed clearly that even in reasonable strength the panzers could do no more than restore local situations. Both counterattacks, moreover, had depended for half their striking power on divisions transferred from the west. How long would it be before Allied initiatives made that impossible?

Any doubts that the balance in armored war had definitively shifted should have been dispelled by the Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket. The Germans still held a 100-mile stretch of the Dnieper north of that city. Hitler projected its use as a springboard for a proposed spring offensive and forbade withdrawal. On January 24, two Soviet fronts hit the sector with a third of a million men, artillery, tanks, and aircraft in proportion. Inside of a week a half dozen divisions, including what was left of Viking, were cut off in the city of Korsun: around 60,000 men. Their armor support totaled two dozen tanks and half as many assault guns.

Hitler, remembering Demyansk, ordered the pocket to hold and promised supply from the air. Those melodies were too familiar. Manstein, well aware of the morale-sapping fear throughout his army group that the pocket would become another Stalingrad, planned a major relief operation using no fewer than nine panzer divisions. Initially every one of the divisions he proposed to use was already engaged elsewhere in Russia, and one was literally stuck fast trying to move through early spring mud. The four divisions finally assembled under 8th Army’s XLVII Panzer Corps had a combined total of 3,800 men in their eight panzer grenadier regiments. Their progress was predictably limited.

That left it up to Hube. His strike force for the unusually domesti cally named Operation Wanda—III Panzer Corps—included 1st, 16th, and 17th Panzer Divisions, Leibstandarte, and the heavy regiment. But the Panzer IV’s Tigers and Panthers bogged tread-deep in mud the wide-tracked T-34s traversed with relative ease. Fuel consumption spiraled; breakdowns multiplied; supply vehicles were immobilized. By February 15 it was clear that the pocket could not be relieved. Instead Manstein ordered a breakout in the direction of the mired III Panzer Corps, code word “Freedom.”

Orders were to leave anyone unable to march. For one of the few times in Wehrmacht history, something like a mutiny took place. Wounded who could be moved were loaded onto every available vehicle. With its seven tanks and three assault guns, Viking took the point and carried the retreat through the first Russian defenses. But III Panzer Corps was unable to fight its way to the designated meeting point and unable to contact the pocket by radio. Command and control were eroding even before the Germans entered a Russian combined-arms killing zone around dawn on February 16. For over four hours Russian tanks and cavalrymen chased fugitives through the ravines and across open ground. This was one of the few verifiable occasions where T-34s systematically ran over fleeing men. And the killing was likely both payback and pleasure.

Around 36,000 men, including 7,500 wounded, eventually reached III Panzer Corps’s lines. Eighty-three hundred of them belonged to Viking and the Walloon SS brigade attached to it. Total casualties in the pocket amounted to around 20,000: no bagatelle, but a long way from Stalingrad. First Panzer Army’s loss of over 150 AFVs reflected its inability to move immobilized tanks and repair breakdowns, rather than any sudden forward leap in the effectiveness of Soviet armor. Nevertheless, though Goebbels’s propaganda machine described a great victory, the battle for the Cherkassy Pocket highlighted the continuing decline of Hitler’s panzers from a strategic and operational force to a tactical instrument.

To maintain and restore even temporarily Army Group South’s sector of the Eastern Front in the months after Kursk had required the commitment of most of the army’s combat-ready armor. That commitment, moreover, was increasingly ad hoc. A “panzer division” in the German order of battle was increasingly likely to be on the ground with as many tanks as could be made operational combined in a single battalion; the mechanized panzer grenadier battalion and the reconnaissance battalion, both brought to something like table of organization strength by transfers from the remaining panzer grenadiers; the half-tracked pioneer company; and a few self-propelled guns. These remnants were repeatedly thrown in against odds of ten to one or higher without time to absorb replacements and work in new officers. They might bear famous names and numbers. They were not what they once were. But then the same could be said about an entire Reich approaching the point of unraveling.

The tipping point on the Eastern Front was even more clearly indicated in March 1944. The Korsun-Cherkassy breakout enraged Stalin, but was not even a speed bump to the continuing Russian offensive. Zukhov had taken over, and his hands drove the spearheads that tore 50-mile gaps in the front, left 1st Panzer Army facing in the wrong direction, and created within days a pocket containing over 200,000 men, fighting soldiers, their rear echelons, and the detritus of an occupation. Twenty-two divisions were represented. One had only 600 men and not a single antitank gun, and that was all too typical. The isolated Germans counted 50 assault guns and 43 tanks, some of them unable to move for lack of fuel.

One veteran spoke of “clean undershirt time,” when one looked for anything white enough to make a surrender flag. Hitler insisted on “holding what there is to hold.” Manstein informed Hitler that he intended to order a breakout on his own responsibility. Hitler temporized to show who was in charge, then agreed.

Manstein’s plan was by now almost conventional: reinforcements from France, this time the refreshed II SS Panzer Corps, to attack from the outside; 1st Panzer Army to drive west toward the SS spearheads. Radio interceptions—midlevel Red Army communications security had not progressed too far since 1914—helped Manstein time the breakout. Hube brought another idea to the table. His experience at Stalingrad and Cherkassy had convinced him of the risks involved in depending on a relief force. If one appeared and made contact, all was well and good. If necessary, however, Hube was prepared to fight his own way through in a “traveling pocket.”

Hube’s plan and its execution are still studied in war colleges. He had four corps headquarters, three of them panzer. He had elements of 10 panzer divisions—all the command elements he needed. The problem was how best to organize the operation. Given overall Russian superiority in the sector, conventional wisdom suggested a strong armored spearhead. The problem was that the tankers might move ahead too fast and too far, leaving the rest of the army to fend for itself—a polite euphemism for being overrun and destroyed. Instead Hube did the opposite. He organized the breakout in two parallel columns. Each had a vanguard of infantry supported by assault guns. The panzers formed the rear guard, in a position to move forward and support the advance forces when necessary.

Hube commanded the breakout in person. He had kept his men active in the days of preparation, sublimating feelings of despair and panic. Straggling and desertion were minimal. Zukhov’s threat to shoot every third prisoner if the pocket did not capitulate by April 2 was not generally known, but would have surprised few. That the Soviet marshal later restricted proposed victims to senior officers was limited comfort to anyone aware of the concession.

Hube originally wanted to break out to the south and head for Romania. Manstein insisted on a western direction despite the longer distance and the numerous river crossings it entailed. He had the senior rank and the final word. On March 27, 1st Panzer Army started west. It had the advantages of surprise; sluggish enemy reaction enabled the rear guard to close up to the main columns relatively unmolested. Hube kept his men closed up and moving. Improvised airstrips enabled the Luftwaffe to bring in fuel and ammunition and evacuate wounded—a major continuing boost to morale and a tribute to “Aunt Ju,” the Ju-52 transports that could land and take off from ground that was unusable by even the American Dakotas. On April 6, 1st Panzer’s spearheads made contact with elements of II SS Panzer Corps. A few days later its divisions were in action on a new defense line that held this time. Hube, awarded the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds, was killed in an air crash on his way to receive it.

His death was at once irony and paradigm. Hans Hube had conducted an epic, indeed heroic operation—but in the wrong direction. First Panzer Army brought out its tanks and its wounded at a cost of 6,000 dead and missing. Its anabasis bought time, but to what purpose? “For slow exhaustion and grim retreat/For a wasted hope and a sure defeat.” The words of an American captured on Bataan in 1942 might well serve as an epigram—or an epitaph—for the saga of Army Group South in the endgame months of the Russo-German War.



Field Marshal Erich von Manstein with Tiger I Tanks

The victories at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus initially encouraged the Soviet High Command to plan a major offensive on a front extending from north of Smolensk to the Black Sea. But the price of success had been high. The Germans, against expectations, had come back strong and added a new high card to their order of battle in the SS Panzer Corps. The second front long promised by the western Allies still consisted of promises and substitutes. Significant evidence indicates Stalin seriously considered the prospects of a separate peace with Hitler, or with a successor government willing to respond. Tentative contacts, most of them indirect, began in Sweden during the spring of 1943 and continued for most of the year.

By any rational calculation, the Reich’s short-term prospects of total victory in Russia were close to zero. The concluding volume of Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweiten Weltkrieg summarizes a project begun thirty years ago by suggesting that without Hitler’s iron determination, Germany would probably have been ready to conclude peace in 1943. But by that time the National Socialist Führer State had so far eroded the principal institutions of state, Wehrmacht, and party, that neither institutional nor personal forums for discussing the issue existed. No one but Hitler was responsible for the whole. No one—above all no one in the military—was willing to risk considering the whole and acting on the results. Like many a plan before it, Operation Citadel would take on a pseudolife of its own.

Postwar historians in general have followed the generals’ memoirs in blaming Kursk on Adolf Hitler. He is indicted, tried, and convicted first for refusing to accept the professionals’ recommendations and shift to an operational defensive, temporarily trading space for time while making good the losses of the winter campaign, allowing the Red Army to extend itself in a renewed offensive, then using the refitted panzer divisions to “backhand” it a second time. Once having accepted the concept of an offensive, Hitler is described as first delaying it while the Russians reinforced the sector, then abandoning it when, against the odds, the generals and the Landser were on the point of once more pulling the Reich’s chestnuts from the fire.

Reality, as might be expected, is a good deal more complex. Hitler badly needed a major victory to impress his wavering allies—perhaps even to convince Turkey to join the war. And his argument that south Russia’s resources were significant for sustaining Germany’s war effort could not be simply dismissed. The army high command, moreover, was not precisely of one mind on the issue. Guderian, restored to power and favor, argued against any major offensive during 1943 in favor of rebuilding a panzer force stretched to the limits by the fighting at the turn of the year. Wait until 1944, he urged, then strike with full-strength panzer divisions built around Panthers and Tigers, with increased numbers of half-tracks and assault guns and a mobile reserve strong enough to hold any second front the British and Americans could open.

For his part, Manstein believed Guderian took no account of time. His often-cited advocacy of an elastic defense taking full advantage of German officers’ mastery of mobile warfare and German soldiers’ fighting power has gained credibility with hindsight. But the concept was barely articulated in early 1943. To the extent that it existed, it was Manstein’s brain child, tested over no more than a few months, for practical purposes unfamiliar even in the panzer force. Experience would show that elastic defense was by no means a panacea. Its success depended on an obliging enemy—and the Red Army of 1943 was anything but obliging.

Manstein himself saw elastic defense in the existing strategic contest as essentially a temporary expedient, to wear down Soviet forces and prepare for a grander design. Manstein initially intended a combined general offensive by his Army Group South and Army Group Center against a hundred-mile bulge around the city of Kursk, driven into the German lines during the winter fighting. A double penetration would cut off Soviet forces in this Kursk salient, and draw Soviet reserves in that sector onto the German anvil in the fashion of 1941. With Kursk eliminated and the German front shortened by 150 miles, reserves could more readily be deployed for future operations against the Soviet flanks and rear.

Manstein described this ambitious operation as a “forehand stroke” that must be made quickly, while the Germans could take advantage of the dry season and before Soviet material power grew overwhelming and the Western allies could establish themselves on the continent. It was correspondingly disconcerting when Kluge’s Army Group Center replied that it lacked the resources to participate in the kind of assault he projected. Paradoxically, that refusal made Manstein’s commitment to the Kursk operation even firmer. He considered it a high-risk window of opportunity that must be seized even with limited resources.

Army Chief of Staff Kurt Zeitzler was also attracted by the prospects of eliminating the Kursk salient, albeit for less ambitious reasons than his subordinate. He considered weakening the Russians in the southern sector and shortening the front quite enough to be going on with.

By default the generals’ debate kicked the decision upstairs, to Hitler. On March 9 his Operations Order No. 5 provided for a spring offensive with the purpose of denying the Russians the initiative. After a couple of false starts, it became the basis for Operation Citadel, whose scope was defined in an order of April 15. The opening paragraph of Operations Order No. 6 spoke of “decisive significance . . . a signal to all the world.” In sharp contrast to the far-reaching objectives set in 1941 and 1942, however, the operational geography was so limited it requires a small-scale regional map to follow. That did not make Kursk a limited offensive. Success offered a chance to damage the Red Army sufficiently so as to at least stabilize the Eastern front and perhaps develop a temporary political solution to a militarily unwinnable war.

The operation was militarily promising. Strategically even a limited success would remove a major threat to German flanks in the sector and limit prospects for a Soviet breakout of the Dnieper. The experiences of Operations Barbarossa and Blue indicated that the Germans won their victories at the start of campaigns and ran down as they grew overextended. Citadel’s relatively modest objectives seemed insurance against that risk. This time, forward units would not be ranging far beyond the front in a race to nowhere in particular. There were no economic temptations like in the Ukraine in 1941 or the Caucasus in 1942. Kursk would be a straightforward soldiers’ battle. As for what would come next, sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof. It was a line of thinking—perhaps a line of feeling—uncomfortably reminiscent of Ludendorff ’s approach to the great offensive of March 1918: punch a hole and see what happens.

Kursk seemed to be the kind of prepared offensive that had frustrated the Soviets from division to theater levels for eighteen months. Geographically, the sector was small enough to enable concentrating overstretched Luftwaffe assets on scales unseen since 1941. Logistically, the objectives were well within reach. Operationally, the double envelopment of a salient was a textbook exercise. Tactically, from company to corps, the panzer commanders were skilled and confident. For the first time since Barbarossa they would have tanks to match Soviet quality.

But would there be enough of them—indeed, enough armor of any kind? As had been the case throughout the war, the tip of the upside-down pyramid was the panzer arm. By the end of the winter fighting, the eighteen panzer divisions on the Russian Front had a combined strength of only around 600 serviceable tanks. The shortages of trucks and other supporting vehicles were even greater. Refreshing the divisions in situ meant fresh demands on men already bone tired.

Friedrich von Mellenthin, widely accepted as a final authority on panzer operations, declared the “hardened and experienced” panzer divisions to be ready for another battle once the ground dried. But Mellenthin was a staff officer, a bit removed from the sharp end. Some divisions of his own XLVIII Panzer Corps were down to fewer than two dozen tanks apiece. Fourth Panzer Army’s old pro Hermann Hoth informed Manstein on March 21 that men who had been fighting day and night for months now expected a chance to rest. Even hard-charging company and battalion commanders were reporting widespread apathy.

Operations Order No. 6 emphasized speed. But Army Group South reported that its panzers could not be ready for battle until the first half of May. Army Group Center complained that partisan attacks and air strikes were seriously delaying rail movements. Walther Model, whose 9th Army would carry the weight of the northern arm of the proposed pincers, insisted postponement was necessary. Perhaps even that aggressive general had lost faith in the operation’s prospects. Certainly he was well aware of the overall weakness of Army Group Center’s front. Shifting its resources southward invited a repetition of Rzhev, where the Soviets had come far too close to a victory under similar conditions.

Hitler was having his own second thoughts. He postponed the attack until May 9, partly with the intention of bringing as many Panthers and Tigers on line as possible. When the overworked assembly lines failed to deliver, Hitler postponed the attack again, then again, and finally set the date for July 5. The delay was later widely criticized among the soldiers. Some of this was reflex; “ask of me anything but time” was a military axiom long before Napoleon aphorized it. Some was second-guessing, typically expressed by Mellenthin’s assertion that the Russian position at Kursk was vulnerable in May. It might indeed have been—to the kind of attack the Germans delivered in July. The postponements enabled doubling Citadel’s strength, bringing the order of battle to a quarter million men and over 2,500 armored fighting vehicles for a 60-mile front. The postponements enabled refitting the panzer divisions, bringing them to near full strength of 150 or so tanks. Approximately 150 Tigers and 200 Panthers were included in the inventory—most of them concentrated in a few units.

The panzers would be sporting new coats. After over eighteen months, higher headquarters had become officially aware that the dark gray with which the armored force had gone to war was poor camouflage in the greens and browns of rural Russia. The new scheme authorized in January 1943 was a base color of dark yellow, with crews at liberty to apply olive green and red brown mottling to suit specific conditions. As spring broke out, would-be artists employed spray guns and brushes.

Eighteen hundred aircraft, two-thirds of the Luftwaffe strength in Russia, were available to support the operation—a number enhanced by the high quality of the air and ground crews compared to a Red Air Force still learning its craft. The now-legendary Stuka would make its last appearance in a dive-bomber role and its first as a tank-buster with two 37mm cannon mounted below the wings. The Stukas were joined by five ground-attack squadrons equipped with Fw 190s, and by five more squadrons of specialized antitank aircraft: the Henschel Hs 129, whose twin engines, heavy armor, and 30mm cannon made it the ancestor of the US Air Force’s well- known A-10 Thunderbolt, and no less formidable in action.

Delaying the attack also gave the old hands in the panzer divisions the breathing space they so badly needed. It gave them time to welcome returned wounded, to integrate replacements, to learn the individual characteristics of the Panzer IIIs and IVs most of them were still riding. It gave them opportunity to experience a buildup like few had ever seen. Reactions, even among the old hands, oddly resembled those widespread in the BEF in the weeks before the Battle of the Somme in 1916. There was just too much of everything for anything to go seriously wrong.

The catch-22 was that the Red Army had been steadily countering the German buildup with one of its own—one whose scale escaped both German intelligence and German reconnaissance. Its strategic matrix, as mentioned above, was offensive. Its operational intention was to break the Germans and advance to the line of the Dnieper. And tactically it would begin on the defensive—by design. Intelligence sources, including Western-supplied ULTRA information, and common sense alike indicated the Germans would attack rather than wait to be overrun. And this time there was only one sector of the entire front offering anything like a favorable opportunity. The question was not “where” but “whether” the offensive could be stopped.

Preparation began in mid-April to make Kursk a fortress and a killing ground. The salient was configured as a combination of battalion defensive sectors, antitank strong points, barbed wire, and minefields. The forward belt alone included 350 battalion positions, each a network of mutually supporting trenches and bunkers. There were seven more of them, with a depth extending over 100 miles. Minefields averaged over 2,500 mines per mile. These active and passive defenses were structured to steer the panzers against antitank strong points largely built around combinations of antitank rifles and light 45mm guns. Both were long obsolescent and correspondingly expendable. Both were useful only at point-blank ranges. Both were proof of Stavka’s commitment to replicating Stalingrad in the steppe.

Manning the fixed defenses were some of the best infantry of the revitalized Red Army, including a number of Guard divisions who had earned the honorific the hard way. Supporting them was a mass of artillery, heavy mortars, and rocket launchers—close to 20,000 barrels, many organized in complete divisions, working with calibrated ranges. Behind the salient, the sword to the shield was a striking force under Ivan Konev, who would finish the war second to none in the Red Army as a master of operational art. His Steppe Front included over 4,000 tanks commanded by some of the best of a new generation of Soviet armor generals: M. E. Katukov of 1st Tank Army, A. G. Rodin of 2nd, and a dozen others forgotten to history but familiar enough to the Germans.

Overall responsibility in the northern sector rested with Central Front’s Konstantin Rokossovsky. Polish born, he had spent three years in the Gulag during the Great Purge. Released in 1940, his lost teeth replaced by the best Soviet metal, he showed his own mettle from Moscow to Stalingrad. Facing off against Manstein, Voronezh Front’s N. F. Vatutin had demonstrated his capacity for high command since the start of the war. A leader from the front, respected by his subordinates and his soldiers, Vatutin was a risk-taker who appreciated staff work: an uncommon but welcome combination in the Red Army.

No less significant was the synergy between the geographic scale of Kursk and the Red Army’s command and control methods and capacities. Since Barbarossa, those had developed in contexts of top-down battle management, reflecting both the Soviet principle that war is a science and the fact that Soviet commanders at all levels were essentially the product of experience. At this stage of the war, and arguably much later, senior Soviet officers resembled their counterparts in the armies of Napoleon: both lost effectiveness when operating independently. Previous German offensives had found no difficulty in getting inside Soviet decision loops, generating increasingly random responses that frequently collapsed into chaos. Kursk’s small scale enabled timely response to German moves as the defense slowed the German pace. It also enabled a level of management absent in previous major battles, cresting in turn a confidence at all levels of headquarters that a culture of competence had replaced a culture of improvisation from desperation.

Those were significant force multipliers, in a situation arguably not needing them. It is a familiar axiom of modern war, expressed mathematically in something called the Lanchester equations, that an offensive requires three-to-one superiority. Soviet doctrine reduced that to 3:2, assuming superior planning, staff work, and fighting power. By the time the preparations for Kursk were complete, the Soviet defenders outnumbered the attackers in every category of men and equipment, in almost every sector. The average ratio was somewhere between 1:1.5 and 1:2.5. On paper the outcome seemed assured. But wars are won in the field, and the panzers had made a habit of defying odds.

Given the respective rates of buildup, it seems reasonable that an attack mounted by the forces available in April or May would have lacked the combat power to overcome the salient’s defenses even in their early stages. The Germans’ only chance was the steel-headed sledgehammer they eventually swung in July. And that highlights the essential paradox of Kursk. The factors that made the battle zone acceptable in operational terms also made it too small to allow for the application of the force multipliers the panzers had spent a decade cultivating. Geographically Kursk offered no opportunity for operational skill and little for tactical virtuosity. Militarily the strength of the defensive system meant the German offensive had to depend on momentum sustained by mass—which is another way to describe a battle of attrition, the one type of combat the German way of war was structured to avoid.

Hitler’s panzers thus faced a second paradox. Not only were they the tip of an inverted strategic pyramid, operationally and tactically they were required to match the Red Army’s strengths at the expense of their own. And once the fighting started, a third paradox developed. One of the tactical advantages initially considered in planning Kursk was that the limited geography would enable the infantry to remain close to the armor and assume responsibility for mopping up. But the Reich’s systemic and increasing shortages of replacements favored giving priority to the panzers—army and SS alike. The advantage was often marginal: Leibstandarte’s ranks were in part refilled by unceremoniously transferred Luftwaffe ground crews. But infantry divisions already chronically understaffed were in the process of being reduced to six battalions instead of the original nine.

The resulting formations were easier to handle. New weapons like the MG 42 enhanced their firepower. But they lacked staying power when pitted against defenses like those of Kursk. As a consequence the panzers were increasingly constrained to use their own resources—tanks as well as panzer grenadiers—to secure the ground they captured at the expense of sustaining offensive momentum.

On the right half of the German pincer, Army Group South deployed Hoth and 4th Panzer Army on its right. With six army panzer divisions and the SS Panzer Corps, plus an independent regiment including all 200 available Panthers, this was the largest armored force ever previously put under a single commander. Its mission was correspondingly straightforward. Screened on his left by the three panzer divisions of Army Detachment Kempf ’s III Panzer Corps. Hoth was to break through and join forces with Army Group Center’s 9th Army attacking from the north. Model had another six panzer divisions, one of panzer grenadiers, and seven infantry divisions which he proposed to use to open the way for his mobile forces. Sixty miles separated Model and Hoth. It would be the longest distance in the history of Hitler’s panzers.

“It’s time to write the last will and testament!” one SS trooper wrote in his diary while awaiting the order to advance. Across the line Soviet soldiers swapped their own grim jokes—like the one about the tanker who reported almost everyone in his unit had been killed that day. “I’m sorry,” he concluded, “I’ll make sure I burn tomorrow.”