T-34/85 Model 1943, early production vehicle from a Red Guards battalion, Leningrad sector, February 1944.

Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg trenchantly describes the twelve months from the end of Kursk to the Red Army’ s summer offensive of 1944 as “the forgotten year.” That period featured continuous fighting from Leningrad to the Black Sea, on scales surpassing those of 1941-42 and with losses far larger, especially on the Soviet side. The story of the panzers becomes correspondingly difficult to reconstruct as the divisions bloodied at Kursk were scattered to bolster resistance in a dozen sectors.

The German retreat from Leningrad and the successful, albeit temporary, stabilization of the northern front in the Baltic states owed little yet much to the army’s panzers. They were stretched too thin elsewhere to provide major assistance to the hard-pressed Landser. But the Red Army in the north was still learning its craft. Three Tigers by themselves played a vital role in holding a reestablished defense line around Narva, Estonia. A panzer division that arrived with only three dozen tanks was the spearhead of a counterattack that plugged a critical gap between two German armies. And the buccaneering assault gunners kept appearing where they were most needed, shifting from sector to sector and division to division to shore up infantrymen as outgunned as they were outnumbered. By October one battalion recorded a thousand official kills.

Part of the panzer gap was filled by the Waffen SS. By the end of 1942 the army had essentially decided the small units of foreigners it had managed to raise were more trouble than they were worth. Heinrich Himmler, always on the lookout to enhance the scope of his ramshackle empire within an empire, took them in. In early 1943 he activated III (Germanic) Panzer Corps, to include the Vikings and a new division eventually designated the 11th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division (Northland).

Had Hitler not intervened its honorific might have been “Varan gian,” a reference to the Scandinavian guard troops of the medieval Byzantine empire and a reflection of Himmler’s desire to base the division on Aryan volunteers. In fact Northland absorbed most of the remaining foreign legions—including, for a while, a 50-man British detachment—and made up its strength with “ethnic Germans” from outside the expanded state and “Reich Germans” from territories annexed during the war. Northland saw its first action and made its first bones in the no-quarter partisan fighting in Yugoslavia. In November the division and III SS Panzer Corps were sent to the Leningrad sector. When it proved impossible to withdraw Viking from the fighting in the south, the corps was fleshed out by the ostensibly Dutch SS Volunteer PanzerGrenadier Brigade Nederland. Despite having only a single tank battalion plus some assault guns, it played an important role in the successful defense of Narva over the winter of 1943-44.

The III SS Panzer Corps is best understood in the context of the far more numerous unmechanized Waffen SS formations also thrown into what Reich propagandists described as “the battle of the European SS.” Some were Belgian, with Flemings and Walloons carefully separated. Others were local: Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. Interpreted by postwar apologists as participants in a crusade against Bolshevism, they wore SS runes but saw themselves fighting against Russia and for their homelands.

In the war’s final months the Waffen SS would incorporate Bos nian Muslims, Croats, Italians, Frenchmen, and plain criminals into grandiosely styled “brigades” and “divisions” whose only German elements, in the words of one contemptuous Landser, were a few German shepherd watchdogs. Another thing these ragtag formations had in common was that they only saw German tanks by accident. The Waffen SS, in short, was subdividing into an elite fighting core, according to many accounts disproportionately favored in personnel and equipment; and a fringe of increasingly desperate men who, as they felt the ropes tighten around their necks, took little account of their behavior to prisoners and civilians.

Army Group Center’s post-Kursk circumstances were arguably even more perilous than those of Army Group North. When the general Russian offensives began in that sector, 3rd Panzer Army on the far left had not a single armored vehicle under command. Its neighbor, 4th Army, began the battle with 66 assault guns against almost 1,500 Soviet AFVs. The Germans nevertheless executed a fighting retreat into White Russia despite the Red Army’s desperate efforts. Companies were commanded by sergeants; local reserves were nonexistent, and replacements were a forlorn hope. As early as September 8, one army commander reported the total combat strength of his infantry was fewer than 7,000 men. A month later Kluge contacted Hitler directly and pulled no punches informing him that no general could command without men, weapons, and reserves. The Russians had all three.

Things might have become far worse had the Red Army in this sector not regressed to tactics making the Somme and Passchendaele appear sophisticated by comparison. Massed infantry, massed armor, and massed artillery hammered at the same points time after time, until nothing and no one remained to send forward or the Germans gave way.

The German plight was compounded by a well- coordinated partisan uprising in their rear. The army group had been preoccupied with holding its front since 1942. Now it faced an exponentially increasing number of strikes against communications systems and railroads. Security forces responded with large-scale, near-random executions and, as the front receded, scorched earth—when anything remained to scorch. This was no mere torching of villages and looting of houses. It involved the systematic destruction of militarily useful installations. In total war that meant anything. What was not burned was blown up. Thousands of civilians were “evacuated,” a euphemism for being driven west with what they could carry, with the alternative of risking execution as partisans or being shot at random. Files named “Protests” and “Refusals” are conspicuously absent from otherwise well- kept German records. What was important to senior officers was that the devastation be carried out in order and under command. German soldiers were not mere brigands.

The fight of Army Group Center was largely a foot soldier’s affair—with the by-now usual and welcome support of the near-ubiquitous assault guns. At the beginning of October the army group’s order of battle included a single panzer division itself reduced to battle group strength, and two panzer grenadier divisions in no better shape. Those figures remained typical. Yet ironically the panzers’ major contribution to the retreat played a large role in setting the scene for future debacle in the sector.

It began in March 1944 when the Red Army enveloped the city of Gomel and its patchwork garrison of 4,000 men. Gomel was a regional road and rail hub, as much as such existed in White Russia. Hitler declared it a fortress; the High Command supplied it from the air and ordered its immediate relief.

Initial efforts were thwarted by soft ground and the spring thaw. But after 10 days a battle group of SS Viking fought its way into the city. It required 18 hours and cost over 50 percent casualties. The lieutenant commanding received the Knight’s Cross. The hundred-odd surviving panzer grenadiers were welcome. The half-dozen Panthers were vital in holding off Soviet armor while LXVI Panzer Corps put together a relief force from an already worn-down 4th Panzer Division and a battle group built around what remained of Viking’s Panthers. The combination broke the siege on April 5, though it was two weeks before the link to the main front was fully reestablished.

The defense of Gomel solidified Hitler’s conviction that he had found a force multiplier. Gomel was on a small scale. But if larger “fortresses” could be established and garrisoned, under orders to hold to the last, the Soviets would be drawn into siege operations that would dissipate their offensive strength while the panzers and the Luftwaffe assembled enough strength to relieve the position. Army Group Center considered the idea good enough to be the best available alternative. The operational consequences of shifting to this fixed-defense approach would be demonstrated within months.






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.

Prussian Fortunes 1760 Liegnitz and Torgau

After four campaigns of ceaseless activity and intense stress, during which he had had to witness tens of thousands of dead and dying, all victims of his ambition, Frederick was beginning to feel the strain. Rarely healthy at the best of times, he was now increasingly prone to disabling bouts of illness, with gout and hemorrhoids to the fore. So fierce had been the attack of gout and attendant fever the previous autumn that his journey to Silesia at a crucial time had to be delayed. He had told Prince Henry: “I shall fly to you on the wings of patriotism and duty, but when I arrive you will find only a skeleton,” although he added that his feeble body would still be activated by his indomitable spirit. By January 1760 the spirit had wilted too. He wrote to d’Argens to thank him for the trouble he was taking to publish his “twaddle,” but asked how he could be expected to write good verse when his mind was “too disturbed, too agitated, too depressed.” There was no prospect of securing peace, he cried, and one more defeat would deliver the coup de grâce. Weighed down by care, surrounded by implacable enemies, life had become an insupportable burden…and so he went on in the same vein lamenting his fate.

It was not quite yet a case of “darkest before dawn,” because Frederick had one even more tenebrous moment to survive. His overall strategy remained the same—to keep control of Saxony and Silesia—and so did his prime objective—the recapture of Dresden. How many troops he had at his disposal is a matter of dispute. The best guess is that he never had more than 110,000 on active duty, so his numerical inferiority was of the order of at least two to one. That disparity increased on 23 June when General de la Motte-Fouqué was overwhelmed at Landeshut by a greatly superior Austrian force under Laudon, losing 2,000 on the field of battle and another 8,000 in prisoners of war. Fewer than 1,500 managed to escape. Once again, a Prussian general had obeyed his royal master well but not wisely. Frederick had had second thoughts about his original order to hold Landeshut come what may, but his change of heart came too late to save Fouqué’s corps.

Back in Saxony, Frederick had been very active but without achieving anything. All his attempts to bring either Lacy or Daun to battle failed. So did his siege of Dresden, which began on 19 July only to be abandoned four days later. Three days after that, the Austrians showed him how a siege should be conducted when Laudon’s army took the great Silesian fortress of Glatz by storm. Admittedly, Dresden had been garrisoned by 14,000 veterans commanded by the determined Major General Macguire (sic), whereas the luckless Glatz commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Bartolomei d’O (also sic), had only 3,000 ill-motivated Saxons and Austrian deserters at his disposal. That did not save him from court-martial and execution when he eventually returned from Austrian captivity. The difference between the two defenses showed that the greater demographic resources of the Austrians were beginning to make themselves felt.

Frederick’s situation was now perilous in the extreme. He was losing control of both Saxony and Silesia and was running out of men, thanks to his own numerous mistakes. To make matters worse, a Russian corps under General Chernyshev had crossed the Oder and was advancing through Silesia to join up with Daun. Nothing, it seemed, lay between the allies and total victory but a few weakly defended Silesian fortresses. As soon as he had taken Glatz, Laudon moved off to Breslau, the greatest prize of all, confident that he could repeat his triumph. Now at last chinks of light began to shine through the gloom for Frederick: his commander at Breslau, General Bogislav Friedrich von Tauentzien, proved to be made of sterner stuff than his colleague d’O at Glatz; in a lightning march which took his army corps of around 35,000 over a hundred kilometers in three days, Prince Henry marched to Breslau’s relief; and the Russians failed to link up with Laudon. Meanwhile, Frederick had embarked on an epic march from Saxony to Silesia, which took up the first week of August, not so much pursued as accompanied by the main Austrian army commanded by Daun and a subsidiary corps under Lacy. So close were the three armies that they appeared to be one force. Urged on by Maria Theresa and Kaunitz, who demanded a battle to finish Frederick off, it was Daun’s intention to force an engagement on the Katzbach, a tributary of the Oder, north of Breslau.

That was what Daun got, on 15 August, but not in the manner he had expected. As his combined forces of 90,000 enjoyed a three-to-one superiority, he was confident he could encircle and eliminate Frederick’s army, which was camped a couple of kilometers northeast of Liegnitz. On this occasion, Frederick was not caught napping. On the contrary, during the night of 14–15 August he moved his army to the north, leaving his campfires burning to confuse the enemy. So when it began to get light shortly after 3 A.M., it was General Laudon who was taken by surprise. Expecting to be supported by Lacy and Daun, who were supposed to be advancing from the west and south, respectively, and unaware that he was facing the main Prussian army, Laudon attacked. Decimated by artillery, then taken in the flank, the Austrians were forced back to the Katzbach. By 6 A.M. the battle was all over. It had been short but sharp. It cost Laudon around 10,000, including 4,000 prisoners of war, among them two generals and eighty officers, and eighty-three pieces of artillery. The Prussians lost 775 dead and 2,500 wounded, most of them to two late cavalry charges which covered the Austrian withdrawal.

As the battles of the Seven Years’ War went, Liegnitz was not a particularly grand affair. Most of the Austrians never fired a shot in anger. Yet its importance was colossal. This was a battle Frederick had to win, or rather it was a battle he could not afford to lose. If Daun and Lacy’s hammer had smashed down on Laudon’s anvil, as had been intended, the Prussians in between would have been pulverized, to an even greater extent than at Kunersdorf. Any remnants would have been mopped up by a Russian force under Chernyshev which Saltykov had promised to send across the Oder on the 15th. In the event, the Russians now prudently went east rather than west, while Daun and the Austrians moved off to besiege the fortress of Schweidnitz to the west of Breslau. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that Liegnitz was a pivotal moment in the Seven Years’ War. It brought to an end a sequence of military defeats stretching back to Hochkirch nearly two years previously (although some of Frederick’s subordinate generals, notably Prince Henry, had won minor engagements in the interim). Napoleon was not the first to realize the importance for an army’s morale of the belief that luck (also known variously as Providence, Fortune and God) was on its commander’s side. As Jomini observed, Liegnitz restored “toute sa force morale.” It also restored his reputation among the powers. The British secretary of state, Lord Holderness, wrote: “The superior genius of that great prince never appeared in a higher light than during this last expedition into Silesia. The whole maneuver is looked upon here as the masterpiece of military skill.” This was the best chance the Austro-Russians had had since Kunersdorf of bringing the war to an abrupt end and they knew it. Thereafter their offensive never regained momentum.

In the short term, this brief but violent flurry of activity was followed by several weeks of stalemate, as Daun and Frederick maneuverd around each other in the hills of western Silesia. At the end of September, Frederick complained to Prince Henry that he was getting nowhere. Daun was in one camp, Frederick in another, and both were invulnerable. The impasse was broken further north by an unusually vigorous if brief initiative on the part of the Russians, spurred on by the French military attaché in their camp. In the first week of October, a force led by Chernyshev occupied Berlin, where they were joined by 18,000 Austrians and Saxons detached from Daun’s army. Although this was an expensive and disagreeable experience for the inhabitants, and a good deal of vandalism was perpetrated at the palaces of Charlottenburg and Schönhausen, the three-day occupation had no military consequences. The main casualties were the fifteen Russian soldiers killed during an incompetent attempt to blow up the powder mill. As Showalter has commented, “It was a raid as opposed to an operational maneuver.”

Liegnitz did nothing to repair Frederick’s personal morale. He lamented to Prince Henry that his resources were too narrow and shallow to resist the overwhelming numerical superiority of his various enemies, adding, “And if we perish, you can date our eclipse to that pernicious affair at Maxen.” He now had to realize that the ever-cautious Daun had got the better of him in Silesia and that he must march back to Saxony if the campaign was not to end in total failure. It was in a grim mood that he set out, telling Prince Henry on 7 October that “given my present situation, my only motto can be: conquer or die.” Daun was also under pressure from Vienna, from which an increasingly impatient Maria Theresa sent an express order to maintain control of Saxony against Frederick and to seek the necessary battle no matter what the circumstances. In the event, Frederick took the battle to him, on 3 November at Torgau to the northeast of Leipzig, where the Austrians had taken up a strong defensive position. If they could not be dislodged, Saxony and its resources would be lost. To attack head-on invited a disaster along the lines of Kunersdorf, so Frederick embarked on an imaginative outflanking movement designed to take the bulk of his army—24,000 infantry, 6,500 cavalry and fifty twelve-pound guns—to attack the Austrians in the rear. Their attention would be diverted to their front by a smaller force of 11,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry commanded by General von Zieten. The drawback turned out to be the long march needed to get the main army into position. Too much could and did go wrong, so that it all took too long and allowed Daun to take effective counteraction.

The battle that ensued was even more ferocious than previous encounters between the two sides. Frederick himself was stunned when hit by a spent bullet and had to be carried from the field for a time. What turned out to be the bloodiest victory of his career was won by a combination of individual initiatives by junior officers at crucial moments and the timely advance of Zieten’s corps. Until almost literally one minute to midnight, the result was in the balance. Indeed, Daun had already sent off a courier announcing a victory when the tide turned, a mistake which caused intense despondency in Vienna when the initial rejoicing turned to ashes. The losses on both sides were horrific. In a letter to Prince Henry written the following day, Frederick claimed that in this “rough and stubborn” battle he had inflicted 20,000 to 25,000 casualties. He did not even mention his own. When his adjutant, Georg Heinrich von Berenhorst, produced the final score some days after the battle, Frederick told him: “It will cost you your head, if this figure ever gets out!” It cannot be known just how high it really was, the estimates ranging from 16,670 to 24,700, but even the lowest exceeded the Austrian total (which Frederick greatly exaggerated).

Although he talked up his victory, Frederick was not in a victorious mood. The losses had been so heavy that in the future such offensive tactics simply could not be afforded. As he wrote to d’Argens on 5 November, he had secured a period of peace for the winter but that was all. Five days later he added that the Austrians had been sent back to Dresden but from there they could not be dislodged for the time being. He went on:

In truth, this is a wretched prospect and a poor reward for all the exhaustion and colossal effort which this campaign has cost us. My only support in the midst of all these aggravations is my philosophy; this is the staff on which I lean and my only source of consolation at this time of trouble when everything is falling apart. As you will see, my dear marquis, I am not inflating my success. I am just telling it like it is; perhaps the rest of the world will be dazzled by the glamour a victory bestows, but “From afar we are envied, on the spot we tremble.”

This was just the sort of gloomy mood in which he had begun the year. He was perhaps being too hard on himself; 1760 had been a decidedly better year than 1759. The Austrians and Russians had failed to combine effectively, he had won two major engagements and the only net loss was the fortress of Glatz. A more judicious assessment would be given by Clausewitz. While disagreeing with those who saw the campaign as a work of art and a masterpiece, he did find admirable

the King’s wisdom: pursuing a major objective with limited resources, he did not try to undertake anything beyond his strength, but always just enough to get him what he wanted…His whole conduct…shows an element of restrained strength, which was always in balance, never lacking in vigor, rising to remarkable heights in moments of crisis, but immediately afterwards reverting to a state of calm oscillation, always ready to adjust to the smallest shift in the political situation. Neither vanity, nor ambition, nor vindictiveness could move him from this course, and it was this course alone that brought him success.

Much less satisfactory was the situation on the western front. French losses overseas in 1759 forced them to seek victory in Germany as a bargaining counter for the eventual peace negotiations. A large army of around 150,000 was unleashed in June 1760. Prince Ferdinand was forced back from Hessen and much of Westphalia, despite winning a number of engagements. Victory at Warburg on 31 July could not stop the French taking Göttingen a week later, although that proved to be the limit of their advance into Hanoverian territory. More ominous in the long term for Frederick was the diminishing enthusiasm on the part of his British allies for the continental war. They had achieved virtually all their war aims in North America, the Caribbean and India and were now looking for an early end to what had become a ruinously expensive war. Moreover, the death of George II on 25 October brought to the throne a king who the previous year had referred to Hanover as “that horrid Electorate which has always liv’d upon the very vitals of this poor Country.” It could be only a matter of time before the invaluable British subsidies to Frederick were halted. In December the Prussian representative in London, Knyphausen, warned Frederick of the growing opposition in Parliament to the continental war and corresponding enthusiasm for a separate peace with France.

The Northwest European Theatre: General Eisenhower I

Ike, Monty, and Bradley outside of Ike’s offices.

Eisenhower proved to be a mediocre practitioner of operational art in the summer of 1944. This was hardly surprising, given that he had spent his military career as a staff officer, with a brief spell commanding a battalion and no combat experience at all before being catapulted into theatre command in 1942. He had studied military theory and history assiduously, but no amount of study can give a feel for battle or adequately prepare one for it—both essential for the practical problems of command. Nor was Leavenworth’s interwar teaching a wholly reliable guide to fighting the Wehrmacht in 1944. Although it was certainly biased toward victory through attritional employment of superior firepower, it did not preclude operational maneuver. This was plainly what was required in the late summer of 1944, when an all but total enemy collapse afforded opportunities for the victors that were limited only by their logistic constraints—a situation never anticipated by the doctrine writers. Like all doctrine, Leavenworth’s should have been considered a guide to action without being prescriptive, but over time, it became unthinking dogma.

The dominant Allied problem in post-Normandy operations was logistics. It was especially acute for the Americans. Unlike the British, they would be moving farther away from their source of supply, while their ally took ports in the course of the advance on Germany. Eisenhower understood this from the day he decided against an operational pause on the Seine. However, the answers he found were inadequate. He stressed from the time of the Cobra breakout that the Breton ports were urgently needed, but he did not press his commanders with sufficient force or even logic. Several times he reiterated his requirement for the reduction of Brest, the last time on 13 September. He wrote: “We never counted on [Brest] as much as we had from Quiberon Bay. . . . experience of the past proved that we were likely to be vastly disappointed in the usefulness of the Brittany ports. Not only did we expect them to be stubbornly defended but we were certain that they would be effectively destroyed once we captured them.” Yet on 3 September he accepted the abandonment of the Quiberon Bay project while persisting with Brest—only to accept on 14 September that Brest would not be utilized. Despite this decision, he allowed attacks to continue at great expense in casualties and ammunition until the port’s fall five days later.

Of course, the progressive ditching of the Breton ports as the armies’ lines of communication stretched beyond the breaking point made sense if alternatives were becoming available. The investment of Le Havre at the beginning of September was promising, but it would be over a month before it could be opened for even minimal discharges. Of vastly more importance was the seizure, on 4 September, of Antwerp with its facilities intact. Eisenhower had been warned in the clearest of terms that this windfall would be useless without the clearance of the Scheldt estuary. He repeated, several times, his injunction to Montgomery to make this a priority, but in such terms that the field marshal felt the need to do nothing more than issue vague reassurances while overtasking First Canadian Army. Moreover, Eisenhower critically weakened his demand by acknowledging the primacy of the Market Garden offensive. He had succumbed to victory disease, as his office memo of 5 September illustrates: “The defeat of the German armies is complete and the only thing now needed to realize the whole conception is speed.” By 15 September, he was writing to Montgomery about a rapid march on Berlin. It was not until 9 October, after the failure of the venture and following a warning by Ramsay that Canadian operations were being hamstrung by an ammunition shortage, that he returned to the Antwerp issue and addressed it in blunt terms in a telegram:

I must repeat, we are now squarely up against the situation which we have anticipated for months; our intake into Continent will not support our battle. All operations will come to a standstill unless Antwerp is producing by middle of November. I must emphasize that I consider Antwerp of first importance of all our endeavors on entire front from Switzerland to Channel. I believe your personal attention is required in operation to clear entrance.

Even that injunction did not convince Montgomery to shift his priority from Second Army operations to clear the west bank of the Meuse. It took another blistering rebuke in a letter of 13 October to force Montgomery to take Eisenhower seriously.

By early September, the Supreme Commander knew that polite suggestions and reminders would be insufficient to deflect Montgomery from his chosen course. Only an unpolished, explicit order would suffice for an issue of such paramount importance as the opening of Antwerp. Eisenhower should have given such an order the moment he realized that bland assurances were not being matched by immediate action on the ground following his first, tactful directive of 5 September. Of course, he should have thought the problem through and offered troops—VIII Corps, which was now pointlessly besieging Brest, was the obvious choice—to help the overstretched 21 Army Group accomplish this vital task. It was too important and too urgent for anything but decisive action, and Eisenhower was the only man who could take it. Unfortunately, his thinking about Antwerp was neither clear nor consistent. During the critical period when the Germans were adjusting to the unexpected loss of the port and starting to organize their defense of the estuary, Eisenhower was apparently seduced into gambling on the Arnhem operation precipitating a German collapse that would make Antwerp unnecessary. He apparently failed to understand that if the gamble did not pay off, critical time would be lost. Too late, he realized that the end of Market Garden would find Montgomery’s command overextended and scattered, unable to make up for time lost in clearing the Scheldt. His belated provision of two American divisions to 21 Army Group was too little too late to prevent the full flowering of the logistic crisis that was paralyzing Bradley’s forces.

In deciding on his theatre’s operational formation and form of action, Eisenhower automatically followed the Leavenworth teaching and opted for an advance all along the front with only the airborne army as a reserve. The enemy would be kept under continuous pressure everywhere and ground down by superior firepower, with no opportunity to rest his formations, form a reserve to contest the initiative, or shift resources from one sector to another. Sooner or later he would crack somewhere, and this would enable the more mobile and flexible Americans, aided by air supremacy, to destroy him in pursuit. Normandy was seen as a vindication of this approach. Given the short frontage the Germans had to defend and the consequent density and depth of the defense, only relentless attrition could break their front, and this was finally achieved in Operation Cobra. There was, perhaps, a tendency to forget that Cobra’s success was due in large measure to First Army’s unusual concentration and deployment in depth for the attack. At any rate, none of the American armies would achieve similar concentration and depth in the autumn offensives, when there was a somewhat similar semi-stalemate.

In an advance against a withdrawing enemy, especially given superior mobility and armor and command of the air, there is much to be said for the broad-front concept. As the line of contact widens after the breakout, the enemy’s ability to hold strongly everywhere diminishes; attacks can be mounted against weak spots, penetrations can be achieved and exploited, and further ground can be gained before the defense is restored. Then rapid regrouping can enable fresh blows on weakened sectors, and the process is repeated until the enemy’s cohesion disintegrates. Once this happens, the advance becomes a pursuit as the enemy becomes a more or less helpless victim, reacting ever more belatedly and ineffectually to thrusts that can become bolder with impunity. Unless and until he can muster fresh forces to restore the situation, the size of this problem will become progressively more daunting; he may win the occasional tactical battle, but any elements that do so will be engulfed in a spreading operational catastrophe. In this way, the defeat of a corps may end in the disintegration of an army group.

One major argument adduced for the broad-front approach does not carry much weight in the circumstances of September 1944. The fear that halting Third Army would allow the enemy to reinforce against First Army or even mount a counteroffensive can be discounted. The Germans’ divertible strength in Lorraine was meager and lacking mobility; they had to take seriously the possibility of Patton renewing his drive at any time; and the Dragoon forces advancing rapidly up the Rhône valley were a looming threat to southern Lorraine and Alsace.

However theoretically desirable, an effective offensive on a broad front requires the right conditions to be set. One of these conditions is the establishment of some operational reserves, at least at army level. Without them, it is usually difficult to exploit rapidly and turn tactical into operational success or to switch axes in good time to prevent the defense from solidifying. The American operational-level commanders generally neglected this precaution, and their offensives suffered in consequence, especially when they compounded the problem by persisting in unprofitable attacks such as Hodges’s in the Hürtgen Forest and Patton’s on Metz. Eisenhower did nothing to correct this. Another precondition is the creation of a logistic system that can sustain the forces involved to the planned depth of the operation. This did not exist as US forces began their exploitation over the Seine in August, aiming for objectives about 1,000 km (620 miles) from their source of supply; this was due to the unexpected way operations had developed and the design of the system—Eisenhower’s fault in only a small way. The Supreme Commander had been worried about American logistic constraints as early as 24 August. Nevertheless, he was determined that both First and Third Armies should force the West Wall and cross the Rhine in a simultaneous advance. He knew that COMZ could maintain only ten to twelve divisions in the advance, even on reduced scales, and that this figure would decline even further. A general offensive would overstretch the enemy, but it would also inevitably overstretch his own forces; however, he persevered in the hope that the enemy would undergo political and/or military implosion before his own offensive culminated. It was a gamble, but one he believed worth taking. It was also a gamble that enabled him to avoid, or at least postpone, making a decision to halt a major formation and thus antagonize some influential players. Military logic—the importance of prioritizing the main effort and the greater effectiveness of fewer properly supported divisions in pursuit versus many inadequately supplied ones forced into an unpredictable stop-and-go pattern of activity—was lost to sight. An operational concept without sufficient means to implement it is a concept that should not be pursued.

It is clear that Eisenhower did not think through the implications of his directives, particularly for 12 Army Group, to the depth of his proposed operations. This was not the only example of his lack of operational-strategic foresight. He had consistently championed Operation Anvil/Dragoon in the teeth of British opposition. Yet he developed no concept for use of the forces coming up the Rhône corridor beyond tying down Nineteenth Army while the battle for Normandy was going on. When the newly designated 6 Army Group came under SHAEF control on 15 September, on Eisenhower’s insistence, its forward troops had reached the Epinal-Belfort line, skirting the High Vosges mountains. Eisenhower had assigned it, in essence, two tasks: destroy enemy forces within boundaries (the linkup with Third Army had been too late to trap the retreating Germans), and cross the Rhine–West Wall from Strasbourg southward. On 15 September he speculated in a letter to Montgomery that Devers would execute a thrust eastward, aimed at the Augsburg-Munich area. This mission would involve not only forcing the Rhine and its fortifications but also pushing through 50 km (30 miles) of the all but impenetrable Black Forest to seize objectives almost 400 km (250 miles) distant and of negligible importance to the German war effort. Little thought went into finding a useful role for 6 Army Group, even though it had its own supply chain from the Mediterranean ports. Eisenhower’s ideas never went beyond expressing a hope to Bradley that supply for Third Army’s operations in Lorraine could be eased by Devers’s logisticians and that his actions would support Patton’s right; later in September he transferred XV Corps to Seventh Army to relieve COMZ of the burden of supplying it, thus shifting the army group boundary north. The Supreme Commander seems never to have considered continuing an offensive north on the Epinal-Saarbrücken axis (about 160 km [100 miles]) to envelop the enemy facing Patton, or a more promising deep turning movement Epinal-Strasbourg-Mainz (about 360 km [225 miles], skirting the High Vosges). Eisenhower may have thought the latter move unworthy of consideration, as it could not commence until October, by which time he hoped victory would be clinched further north. He may have seen 6 Army Group as too marginal a force to contribute meaningfully to the campaign; it comprised five French, mostly colonial, divisions and only three American divisions, although more could and would be sent to it. He may have been influenced by his deep antipathy toward Devers. Whatever the excuses, he showed a lack of vision in his employment of a far from negligible asset when he confined it to Alsace, a strategic backwater.

The Northwest European Theatre: General Eisenhower II

Senior Allied commanders celebrate at Rheims shortly after General Eisenhower had addressed the German mission who had just signed the unconditional surrender document. Present are (left to right): General Ivan Susloparov (Soviet Union), Lieutenant General Frederick E. Morgan (British Army), Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith (US Army), Captain Kay Summersby (US Army) (obscured), Captain Harry C. Butcher (US Navy), General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower (US Army), Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder (Royal Air Force).

Eisenhower had an aim: to destroy the enemy west of the Rhine. But he neglected the harder part of strategic decision making—choosing what not to do. Nor did he explain how or where his aim was to be accomplished, confining himself to directions of advance and geographic objectives. There was no master plan other than a general desire to advance on all axes at the same time and somehow, somewhere destroy the German army. There was no single, developed concept under which both (later three) army groups worked synergistically to achieve an operationally significant result. In consequence, there was no meaningful prioritization of operations. Despite the centralization of command in his hands, operations became increasingly decentralized and fragmented as personalities, pride, politics, and doctrinal differences hampered their efficient development. This lacuna seemed to stem from a lack of foresight and flexibility in the operational sphere and a reluctance to make hard choices that might antagonize important people, in anticipation of problems to come. The result was a tendency toward opportunism and improvisation as the campaign progressed. Eisenhower was inclined to switcher between courses of action, despite the advice of his clear-sighted chief of staff, Major General Bedell Smith. This led to an ever-changing emphasis in the stream of directives emanating from SHAEF and contradictory statements made to Marshall and to each of the army group commanders. Lack of consistency caused a dissipation of effort at a time when limited logistic resources demanded that objectives be limited as well, or at least that their achievement be sequenced in order of importance, with the lesser ones being tackled as and when resources allowed. As a result, there was no economy of effort in the secondary sector to achieve something decisive in the direction of the main effort, and the Allied offensive culminated short of achieving anything of critical importance anywhere.

In his role as commander of land forces, a mantle he had assumed under pressure from the top of the US military and political hierarchy, Eisenhower did not display great skill in applying the principles of operational art in the unusual circumstances of post-Normandy operations. The situation called for more foresight, judgment, decisiveness, and boldness in decision making than he could muster under the enormous pressure of events and responsibilities and a lack of time for reflection. Eisenhower was also the theatre Supreme Commander, and in this role he was much more successful, a fact recognized by even his detractors. However, the very skills that made him effective in this position—political rather than military—were those that contributed significantly to his uninspired operational leadership.

Eisenhower’s primary responsibility in his more important job was to keep the military side of the Anglo-American alliance together and working in harmony toward a common aim through a mutually agreed (or at least accepted) operational-strategic concept. He had been chosen for the top job because of his political skill as an alliance manager. This was a task beset by extraordinary difficulties. He had to satisfy the US government, Marshall, and the British. These elements were pulling in divergent strategic directions, and the British obstinately refused to recognize that they were now junior partners to an increasingly self-confident United States. Within his theatre, he had to keep together an Allied team that was increasingly sundered by doctrinal differences, mutual incomprehension, nationalistic prejudices, and consequent dislike and distrust. Virtually all the characters he had to deal with had strong opinions, wills, and self-belief; they were competitive with one another, and many of them had inflated egos. Most of them, both Americans and British, believed that they knew better than their boss and that Eisenhower was favoring or even kowtowing to their rivals. The job of Supreme Commander required more than a soldier who knew the purely military-technical aspects of soldiering; it needed a consummate politician who also understood operations.

Brooke’s “main impression” of Eisenhower was that of “a swinger and no real director of thought, plans, energy or direction! Just a coordinator—a good mixer, a champion of inter-allied cooperation, and in those respects few can hold a candle to him. But is that enough? Or can we not find all qualities of a commander in one man? . . . I doubt it.”66 Brooke’s answer to his own rhetorical question was correct, and no other country, much less an alliance, had found such a paragon—at least not in modern times. Later, when the strains of the campaign were beginning to tell, Brooke amplified the thought:

There is no doubt that Ike is all out to do all he can to maintain the best of relations between British and Americans, but it is equally clear that Ike knows nothing about strategy and is quite unsuited to the post of Supreme Commander as far as running the strategy of the war is concerned! . . . With the Supreme Command set up as it is no wonder that Monty’s real high ability is not always realized. Especially when “national” spectacles pervert the perspective of the strategic landscape.

Unwittingly, of course, Brooke’s last sentence revealed his bias. If someone disagreed with him and Montgomery, they were, by definition, wrong and revealed their inadequacies in doing so. To him, national viewpoints were valid only if they were British.

Talking to a war correspondent and historian after the war, Montgomery complained:

The trouble was that Eisenhower did not know what he should do. He had no experience and no philosophy of battle by which to judge the rival plans. His method was to talk to everyone and then try to work out a compromise solution which would please everyone. He had no plan of his own. He was a sociable chap who liked talking, and he used to go from one HQ to another finding out what his various subordinates thought, instead of going to them and saying—here is the plan, you will do this, and so and so will do that. Eisenhower had conferences to collect ideas; I had conferences to issue orders.

There is some foundation for these criticisms, but they also demonstrate how little Montgomery understood about the highest levels of command and how unsuited he was to fill them. Making one’s allies feel valued and being prepared to compromise with them is part and parcel of alliance operations. The commander who ignores this elementary fact of coalition life not only will fail to secure their willing cooperation but also may unconsciously goad them into sabotaging his plans—as Montgomery had done with his high-handed treatment of Patton and Bradley in Sicily the year before.

From the start, Eisenhower knew he had to be much more a statesman than a straightforward issuer of arbitrary orders. His position was more akin to that of the chairman of an increasingly fractious board than a military autocrat. He wanted to—indeed, needed to—command through persuasion, consensus, and, when necessary to maintain harmony, through compromise. This was, he realized, the only way to keep the alliance working together:

No written agreement for the establishment of an Allied Command can hold up against nationalistic considerations. . . . Every commander in the field possesses direct disciplinary power over all subordinates of his own nationality . . .; any disobedience or other offence is punishable. . . . But such authority and power cannot be given by any country to an individual of another nation. Only trust and confidence can establish the authority of an Allied commander-in-chief so firmly that he need never fear the absence of this legal power.

If necessary, Eisenhower could compel obedience from unwilling American generals, as long as he was sure of Marshall’s backing. But Montgomery was not just another army group commander. As the foremost British field commander and the principal champion of British views on operational-strategic issues, and given his intimate relations with the CIGS and the War Office and his massive popularity and prestige in the United Kingdom, he could not simply be ordered about. National considerations were as real a limit on Eisenhower’s freedom of action as they had been for Montgomery when he contemplated getting rid of Crerar.

This role as coordinator, coaxer, and arbiter became increasingly difficult as national differences and personal rivalries and prejudices intensified at the top, to the detriment of military priorities. The temptation to challenge, selectively interpret, or simply ignore the wishes of the Supreme Commander grew with the feeling that the war was all but won and that glory (and the chance for promotion) had to be seized before it was too late and competitors hogged it all. Faced with these divisive tendencies, Eisenhower found that his style of command proved less and less effective. Careful qualifications, circumlocution, and tactful wording in directives were taken as signs of weakness, and their recipients searched for get-out phrases that would enable them to follow their own pet schemes in conscious (if unadmitted) disregard for their commander’s intent. The more mutable and open to compromise and interpretation these directives were, the more they became the subject of debate and negotiation and the less force they carried. The problem was exacerbated by Eisenhower’s tendency to equivocate and delay decisions in the hope of avoiding stark choices. Though sometimes an appropriate response, this was injurious at a time when speed and decisiveness were paramount. Of course, had the keenly anticipated German collapse actually happened, his methods would not have been questioned. In the event, the campaign lost its coherence as army groups and armies increasingly followed their own inclinations, to the detriment of both focus and synergy. In the end, the initiative was lost, and with it the opportunity to achieve an early end to the war.

Eisenhower’s approach to the Supreme Command was correct in its essence, but he permitted his subordinates too much leeway and wound up losing considerable authority and control. Whether through his strong desire to be liked, his natural predisposition to compromise and avoid confrontation, his inexperience, or his sheer unfamiliarity with operational art, he failed to assert himself sufficiently in exercising command of the land forces. It was a slippery slope from liberty to license, and he allowed his senior commanders to slide too far down that slope before recognizing the error. The estimable Bedell Smith, watching the erosion of SHAEF’s credibility, observed: “The trouble with Ike, instead of giving direct and clear orders, [he] dresses them up in polite language; and that is why our senior American commanders take advantage.” Montgomery, who needed to be kept on a much tighter rein, did likewise. When clear, unambiguous decisions had to be made and adhered to, even if unpopular in some quarters, Eisenhower delayed or equivocated. He need not have done so. He had the authority, underpinned by Marshall, to keep Bradley and Patton in line. On issues he deemed of fundamental importance, he could have gripped Montgomery and told him the period for discussion was over, and the time for implementation without dissent had come. On the occasions when he actually did so, Montgomery obeyed like the good, disciplined soldier he was. Of course, the longer Eisenhower let things slide, the more difficult it became to convince his subordinates that he was serious.

Eisenhower’s main problems were linked. One was the lack of a well-thought-out plan to accomplish the aim: destruction of the enemy’s forces. Absent this, the concept of operations became too generalized and, critically, mutable; without a clear idea of how the armies should act synergistically to achieve the desired end, it was difficult to see how each development in the campaign should be turned to the Allies’ advantage. Foresight is difficult if the direction of travel is ill defined. Improvisation is necessary in the conduct of any operation, but it is unsatisfactory as the sole method. If actions are not set in context, there is danger of losing direction, fragmenting efforts, and reacting to rather than shaping events—the very problems that beset the Allies as September gave way to October. Eisenhower’s difficulties were exacerbated by his lack of decisiveness. As Brooke observed in his diary, the strictly military requirements of Supreme Command are incompatible with the political. A politician, in most circumstances, finds that temporizing and compromise are prime virtues. When these are exercised in the context of command in fast-developing operations, they are likely to result in drift. Eisenhower saw his most important endeavor as keeping the alliance working synergistically toward the common end. The fact that it was not functioning harmoniously was not his fault, as he strove to preserve amity or, failing that, at least understanding.

Several factors combined to undermine Eisenhower’s prospects of success. In taking on both Supreme Command and land command (in which he had no choice), he overextended himself. The multifarious tasks involved were all important to someone of consequence, even if they were sometimes tangential to victory. The enormous pressures allowed the Supreme Commander little time for the quiet reflection that is essential to judgment and creativity. For the critical period in September, he was semi-incommunicado. The base at Granville, which his HQ occupied for the first fortnight, was remote and poorly served by its communications; this was followed by the disruption of the weeklong move to Versailles. Eisenhower found it difficult to keep his finger on the pulse of operations, and his lack of practical command experience exacerbated the problem. This made it easier for his principal subordinates to deceive him about their implementation of his directives and their logistic states. Such behavior was symptomatic of the worst of his problems: the attitude of his army group commanders. Of his experience in Tunisia, Eisenhower wrote later:

It is easy to minimize the obstacles that always obstruct progress in developing efficient command mechanisms for large allied forces. Some are easy to recognize, such as those relating to differences in equipment, training and tactical doctrine, staff procedures and methods of organization. But these are overshadowed by national prides and prejudices. In modern war, with its great facilities for quickly informing populations of battlefield developments, every little difference is magnified . . . but success in allied ventures can be achieved if the chief figures in the government and in the field see the necessities of the situation and refuse to violate the basic principle of unity, either in public or in the confidence of the personal contacts with subordinates and staffs. Immediate and continuous loyalty to the concept of unity and to allied commanders is basic to victory.

Neither Montgomery nor Bradley showed him much loyalty. They ignored the spirit of his directives, and occasionally the letter. They undermined his authority with their disparaging comments to their staffs and army commanders. Their mutual lack of understanding, born of personal and national rivalries, was inimical to cooperation. Eisenhower wanted a good working relationship with his subordinates, but however hard he worked for it, however much he sought compromises to achieve it, he could not overcome the corrosive and ultimately campaign-destructive animus between his principal lieutenants. Ultimately, his endless patience, tact, and compromise preserved only a veneer of united effort and a merely generalized sense of common purpose.

Who Is to Have Berlin? I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Who Is to Have Berlin? II

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs military considerations in this theatre, I would cheerfully readjust my plans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How pitiful is their Berlin!’ observed Zhukov.

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

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

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