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1944 continued

In Italy, as soon as the Allies linked up from Cassino and Anzio, they began making plans to cut off the retreating Germans. The majority of the German 10th Army could be trapped if they made it to the Valmonone Gap in time, but it was not to be. For once the German retreat was efficient and they destroyed bridges and boobytrapped roads to settle in their positions. This defensive position, called "The Gothic Line" was 200 miles wide and was set up with 8 divisions. When the Allies went up against them in mid-June, they were held back and since Allied forces in Italy were taken out for the invasion of southern France, hardly any progress was made. Still, because of intercepted German messages, the Allies knew of the German positions and began offensive attacks again. The Allied commander in Italy, General Harold Alexander used classic deception tactics to trick the Germans into believing Allied positions were in false locations. On 25 August the British 8th Army crossed the Metauro river and moved into the Gothic Line, then ceased the advance. Kesselring, assuming the British were unable to move further, began reinforcing the area. By the time Kesselring did so, General Clark’s 5th Army captured Pisa on 2 September and the 8th Army began pushing up again on 12 September and 4 days later Clark made it to the Apennine passes. The Germans were not easily duped here and quickly responded with strong resistance and used the muddy roads to their advantage. The Italian campaign once again came to a stop.

Now that the Balkans were all but neutralized, the Soviets could cut off the Wehrmacht in Yugoslavia and Albania by moving into Hungary. The Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy tried to end the upcoming conflict by seeking peace with the Soviets, but when Hitler found out, he arrested Horthy and put the pro-Nazi Ferenc Szalasi in his place. Hitler also reinforced Hungary so that when the Red Army moved in, they were met with a strong resistance. Soon the Soviets moved into northern Yugoslavia where they met up with Communist guerrilla freedom fighters, after which they took Belgrade on 20 October. The Germans in Greece, sensing their impending entrapment, began to pull out of the country just as the British moved in to occupy it. The ensuing civil war between the Communist and Royalist parties would prove to be far from over.

The Allies had not counted on capturing Paris within a couple months (they expected months or even a year), so they were ahead of schedule and began a run against the fleeing Germans. By now, however, Allied supply lines were wearing thin as the Allies advanced faster than they could be re-fitted, so it was a risky pursuit. Still, the Allies unanimously wanted to continue the pursuit, so the question was not "what to do," but "how to do it." Eisenhower planned to put the 21st Army Group (with Montgomery) to sneak in through Belgium and take the industrial heart of Germany, the Ruhr. Then the 12th Army Group (with Bradley) would strike at the other industrial region of Saar, east of France. This would bypass the difficult Ardennes region, but Montgomery opposed the idea, citing that a 2 pronged attack would only worsen the supply dilemma. Eisenhower refuted him, saying that if there were only 1 line of attack, the Germans could easily counter-attack elsewhere. A compromise was reached, as the 12th Army Group would be divided and General Hodge’s 1st Army would accompany Montgomery, while Patton’s 3rd Army would brave the Saar alone until the forces in southern France met up with him. Controversy brewed as Eisenhower gave Montgomery more supplies while the Americans received less, infuriating the US Generals.

As the Allies chased the Germans, they ran into roadblocks of dead animals, trees, and Germans, but they were cleared with bulldozers. The Germans tried to hinder the Allies by destroying any useful supplies, but many Germans had given up by now and were leaving their posts, a capital crime. Patton’s drive was eventually stopped as he ran out of fuel for his tanks, just 60 miles from the German border. The 1st Army also ran out of gas after capturing Laon, making it into Belgium and taking 25,000 POWs. The Canadians and British picked up the slack as they made a series of victories, capturing Rouen, Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, Amiens, the V-1 rocket bases in Pas-de-Calais and even Brussels. They had planned a huge airborne drop in Belgium, but actually reached the potential landing zone before the drop would be made. Although they progressed 250 miles in less than a week, they too ran out of gas, literally, and came to a stop at the Belgian/Dutch border.

Even with their fuel shortages, the Allies were becoming overconfident at their amazing progress which led to mistakes. They captured the port city of Antwerp, but the Germans still controlled the surrounding seas so it was an ineffective mission. Their fuel problems mounted as Montgomery misallocated resources for ammunition instead of fuel, and the Americans simply consumed more supplies than anyone else. There was a great deal of waste and inefficiency because of the overconfident feeling that the war would be over by Christmas. They thought it would be like WWI, and that Germany would soon give up, so the Allies took a costly break. The Germans did not want an unconditional surrender, as now it was a matter of defending their homeland. The supply lines were failing and the temperature was dropping as Hitler fortified his borders. He reinforced his 4 year old line of defense, "The Siegfried Line," as well as piecing together a makeshift defensive line around Holland. Hitler then re-established Field Marshal von Rundstedt as commander of the west to boost the deplorable German morale.

The over-optimism of the Allies led Montgomery to create a plan to win the war by Christmas in a large airborne assault, even larger than D-Day. Going against his usual conservative nature, Montgomery wanted to make a risky airborne drop in Holland, then capture several key bridges. This would create a hole in the Germans' weaker northern defenses and allow ground troops to sneak into Germany through the Dutch lowlands. It was a gamble, but if successful the Allies could bypass the main German defenses and the wider parts of the Rhine river. Eisenhower preferred to push forward on a broad front, but there simply were not enough supplies to keep both British and American units moving forward. He did not have much confidence in the plan, called "Operation Market-Garden," but decided to give Montgomery a chance. Unfortunately the mission was hastily planned and only gave the thousands of men and machines one week to prepare. The preparations involved 5000 aircraft carrying the British 1st Airborne, the US 101st and 82nd Airborne, and the 1st Polish Airborne Brigade to be dropped over 3 days.

The British 1st and the Polish Airborne would take the Arnhem bridge, the 101st would land near Eindoven and the 82nd would land near Nijmegen. In the planning, Montgomery told General Frederick Browning, Deputy Commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, that the British 2nd Army could reach the airborne within 2 days. After studying the map, Browning noticed that Montgomery’s ambitions had gone "a bridge too far." Lofty ambitions were not the only problem facing the men. Dutch resistance and Allied intelligence indicated that the Germans had Panzer units in the area, yet this was ignored by the high command. Also, from fear of heavy anti-aircraft fire, the troops could not be dropped within the normal range of their objectives, yet the drop would be in broad daylight, taking away the element of surprise. On top of that, there weren't enough planes so the drop would have to be spread out over 3 days. Perhaps the most crucial detail was that there was no fail-safe; if just one of the bridges could not be taken, the whole mission would be a failure.

On 17 September 1944 at 1 pm the drop began. It was met with little resistance, but the British soon met up with 2 veteran SS Panzer divisions and a deadly Panzer Grenadier battalion. These were held off by the Allied 1st Airlanding Brigade as the Allies made their way across Holland. They tried to move quickly but were hampered by the grateful Dutch masses, who wanted to shake hands and offer food to each liberator. Flowers and orange flags (the traditional Dutch color, forbidden during the occupation) greeted Allied troops as they pressed forward on foot. The results of the first day were successful, as the 82nd and 101st reached their objectives. After the British 1st Airborne reached Arnhem, one battalion gained a foothold of the northern entrance of the bridge but were pushed back by the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, under General Wilhem Bittrich. It wasn't long before the British battalion was cut off from the rest of their men. Still, Lt. Colonel John Frost and his men fought valiantly, attacking the trapped SS on the bridge and creating a roadblock of burnt-out vehicles. The once beautiful bridge was now a nightmare of twisted metal, tracer fire and smoke. The British were immediately counter-attacked and were engaged in street fighting by the houses and buildings. Meanwhile the rest of the 1st Airborne that was supposed to be helping Frost's men were held up because of weather problems. When they finally did drop, it was not until 4 pm and they met immediate resistance because the Germans had stolen a copy of "Market-Garden" from a crashed glider. It soon became clear that the mission was in jeopardy, but there was no way of communicating with units outside of Arnhem because the radios would not work.

Although the British 2nd Army was nowhere to be found, the British still held the northern side of the bridge at great cost in lives to both sides. The paratroopers had traveled light and were holding out for tank reinforcements from XXX Corps, who were bogged down to the south from soft narrow roads, lack of infantry support, and German ambushes. The Polish Airborne were also delayed because of fog back in England. When they finally did land, they fell right into an enemy zone and were fired on by both the British and the Germans. Things looked bleak, so on 19 September the RAF tried to drop 390 tons of supplies on the battered 1st Airborne, of which they only received 31 tons. Unbeknownst to the air crews, the Germans controlled the supply drop zones. XXX Corps managed to meet up with the 82nd, then press on to Nijmegen, but the Allies were unable to reach the surrounded British at Arnhem. That night the decision was made to leave Frost’s men until help could arrive. They also warned the rest of the Polish Airborne to land 5 miles west of the "cauldron" of gunfire at the bridge and ferry over to the British. For Frost it was too late: he had been wounded and his men were captured on 20 September. With no escape route, food, ammunition or medical supplies, there was no alternative. The British Guards Armored Division and the 82nd captured the Nijmegen bridge, but time was running out for the positions in Arnhem.

On 21 September, when the remaining 1500 Poles landed at Driel, 2 miles south of the British, things had not gotten better. The Germans were waiting to attack them and the ferry was broken, so 200 Poles swam across the Rhine river while the rest stayed on the south side and watched for the enemy. They had missed their chance to reinforce the British, who were pushed out of Arnhem. The next day the British 2nd Army finally linked up with the fatigued 1st Airborne and over the next 2 days began to move up solidly on the southern side of the bridge. The battle had become a stalemate until 24 September, when elements of XXX finally reached the southern bank of the Rhine, but after arriving several days late, nothing could be done to regain Arnhem. With a dwindling supply of ammunition and growing number of casualties, the Allies were forced to pull out on 25 September and get back to the safe side of the Rhine. Unfortunately there were not enough boats so the rest of the soldiers, weary from a week’s fighting, had to walk another 11 miles to Nijmegen to meet with the 2nd Army to escape. Using approximate figures, of the 10,000 men dropped at Arnhem only 2400 managed to escape, while 6400 were taken prisoner. Over 1100 of Britain's best soldiers were killed. The Poles shared the same fate: only 160 of the original 1500 made it back to safety. The Germans had roughly 1100 dead and 2200 wounded, and consequently took their revenge out on the neighboring Dutch by making it a military zone, which it remained for several months. Market-Garden was not a complete loss in the sense that it established a spearhead into Holland, but the number of casualties, waste of resources and inability to capture Arnhem made it one of the biggest military blunders of the 20th century.

Ever since the Germans fought their way into Warsaw in September 1939, the Poles planned an insurgency to rid their capital of the Nazi plague. Over the years they had built up their resistance movements with their main branch being the Armia Krajowa (AK), or Home Army that was made up of people of all nationalities, all religions and different uniforms. As a multi-role organization during the occupation, they fed vital information to the Soviets and British and waited for their help to arrive. They were going to wait until the Soviets were at the gates of Warsaw, then rise up in force to expel the Germans as the Soviets marched in. In late July 1944 the Soviets neared Warsaw, so at 5 pm on 1 August the Warsaw Uprising began. The Warsaw Army Corps had 25,000 men, but only 2500 were armed, compared with the 15,000 fully-armed German soldiers which grew in numbers over the next 2 months. By the end of the day the Poles captured most of the city at a cost of 2000 men while only killing 500 Germans.

The partial victory was fleeting because the Germans began a full scale air assault on August 4 and even though the Poles controlled key locations, they had poor organizational methods with the few soldiers they had. When the Germans counterattacked on 5 August, they began to retake the city day by day with their superior weapons and numbers. The Germans swarmed in and kicked the Polish citizens out of their homes and gunned them down, then heaped their corpses in 3 foot high piles. General Hans Krebs called for unnecessary reinforcements, and when Hitler learned of uprising he sent in more troops and vowed to burn the city to the ground. On 11 August the western sector of Warsaw was in German hands and the much-needed help from the Red Army was nowhere to be found. It was not long before talks of an armistice surfaced but surprisingly it was the Poles who would not give in. The assault on the Old Town district began on 19 August using 4000 tons of shells on less than 1 square mile, obliterating hundreds of the ancient buildings.

Peace talks resurfaced on 9 September, but the "London Poles" (the Polish government-in-exile that had escaped to Britain) wanted the AK to hold out until the Soviets rescued them. The insidious Soviets, however, wanted to use up the expendable Poles’ lives to wear the Germans down before they moved in. The Americans had been asking to use Soviet air bases so they could launch bombing runs from the east, but Stalin waited until a Polish defeat was certain before he agreed on 18 September. By then it was too late for Warsaw, as the city was reduced to rubble. The Polish soldiers had killed 2000 Germans and wounded 6000, but at a cost of 200,000 Polish lives. On 2 October the AK finally surrendered under the condition that they would be treated as regular POWs. The German commander at Warsaw, Erich von Bach-Zelewski, was honored by Hitler, who hoped that the uprising in Hungary would be as unsuccessful as the one in Poland.

Riga was taken by the Soviets on 15 October, cutting off Army Group North and all the Baltic nations were reclaimed by the USSR. On 16 October, the Soviets had moved into East Prussia but by 22 October were held up at Intersburg, only 45 miles from Hitler’s headquarters; the "Wolfs’ Lair." 2 days later the Germans retook Gumbinnen and the French moved eastward to Strasbourg, the site of the horrific Anatomical Institute. The Germans quickly destroyed as much evidence of their bizarre medical testing on humans as they could. On 31 October the Soviets crossed the Tisza river and neared Kecskemet, a mere 50 miles from the Hungarian capital of Budapest. At the same time the Slovakian resistance movement was snuffed out at Kremnica and 2100 Slovaks were killed. They too, like the Poles, started their uprising before the Soviets were close enough to help. In Denmark, Britain was convinced to bomb the Danish Gestapo headquarters at Aarhus, in which 150 Germans died but it also killed 21 Danes and destroyed Gestapo records. On 2 November the Yugoslav partisans, under Tito, kicked the Germans out of the port of Zara. 2 days later the Soviets took Cegled, 40 miles from Budapest, but the German resistance only got stronger from then on. On 29 November the Germans in Albania left the port city of Scutari and withdrew to the Drina river. The Red Army then moved into the Hungarian cities of Pecs and Mohacs.

By the winter of 1944, the German army was on the brink of collapse. Fighting a 3 front war had taken its toll on the Germans, and they were losing men, weapons and fuel faster than they could replace them. They were producing more weapons than ever, but could not keep up with the Allies so their next offensive would rely on capturing Allied fuel and supplies. By now the Allies had made it to the German border and actually captured a few German towns, but they underestimated the Germans’ defiance and Hitler’s determination to keep them out of the Fatherland. He knew that the eastern war was a lost cause, so he had to make up for it in the west, since the British and Americans were having supply problems of their own. They had lost the great momentum they had gained over the last few months and if he dealt them a crushing defeat it would be possible to negotiate a favorable surrender. Thus, Hitler set out with his top secret plans which he did not reveal outside his staff headquarters until 22 October.

True, it was possible, but a dream far from reality as Hitler’s mental health deteriorated. His offensive plan, nicknamed Wacht am Rhein, or "Watch on the Rhine" was to make a all-or-nothing push for the Belgian port of Antwerp where he would capture vital fuel and supplies. He counted on capturing American fuel for the drive, but also counted on the weather being poor to prevent Allied air cover which was totally superior at that point in the war. However, this was far too ambitious with the few men and weapons he had, which was only 1500 tanks and 1000 aircraft to do the work of twice that. Hitler’s top Generals told him it was a crazy plan, but all he would do was delay the operation until 10 December, the day that he moved his headquarters from East Prussia to the Rhineland, called Alderhorst, or "Eagle's Nest." Field Marshal von Rundstedt, chief of German forces in western Europe was particularly against the plan because they had no fuel for this type of gamble, and thought instead it would be wiser to envelope the Americans near Aachen. Although Hitler had 17 divisions which were well suited for defensive postures, Hitler was driven to commit them to an offensive, even though the Americans had vastly superior numbers. Still, General Bradley's 12th Army Group only had 4 infantry divisions and 1 armored divisions to defend an 80 mile front and both Eisenhower and Montgomery ignored intelligence reports from their own staff of the imminent attack. German tanks could be heard moving around the front lines yet there was a strict German radio silence, and the Allies intercepted a German message bluntly mentioning "the upcoming attack." The Germans had sought to keep the attack a secret and failed, but the Allies failed to recognize the warning signs.

Leading the attack was General Joseph Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army and General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army. The actual attack did not begin until dawn on 16 December and completely took the Americans by surprise, even including a team of English-speaking Germans in stolen American uniforms and weapons to sneak behind enemy lines and cause as much damage and confusion as possible. They were all captured, but with the foul weather grounding the Allied air forces the Germans were able to push 50 miles into enemy territory. This forced the Americans to burn fuel supplies to prevent their capture, which thwarted the key element in the German plan. Although Hitler was convinced he could repeat his famous Ardennes blitzkrieg of 1940, he soon found out that an undermanned Ardennes offensive in winter would be far more difficult than imagined. Bridges were destroyed by retreating Americans, and panzers ran out of gas or slipped off of icy roads, further hampering their advance. The spearhead of the attack, under Colonel Jochen Peiper, took 100 PzKw IV and Panther tanks, plus 40 infamous Tiger tanks and met up with a group of unfortunate Americans of the 99th division. They were rounded up and the ones who refused to surrender were all shot. When Peiper came across an airfield, he made the Americans refuel his tanks and then shot them. When they arrived at Malmédy they overran the 120 poorly-armed Americans and put them in front of 2 tanks’ machine guns. The 20 survivors ran off and 12 ran into a restaurant which the Germans proceeded to burn down and shot anyone who ran out. When word got out of these horrible acts, it only made the Americans more determined to destroy Germany and end the war.

Even with all their progress, the German advance hit an obstacle that surprised them--the US 101st Airborne’s refusal to surrender at the city of Bastogne, a key city at the junction of several main roads. They were completely surrounded by 9 German divisions, but when the Germans asked them to surrender, the 101st commanding officer (General Anthony McAuliffe) replied "To the German commander: NUTS! --From the American commander." On 20 December Eisenhower made Bradley take the southern front as Montgomery would take the northern side to put the Germans in a vice. The next day General Dietrich defeated the US at St. Vith, but he new it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out. On 22 December he asked Hitler to retreat, but was naturally turned down. Dietrich’s instincts were right as the following day the weather improved and a full scaled air attack was on the way, as well as dropping 145 tons of supplies on the needy Americans at Bastogne. Also, Patton’s 4th Armored division came to their aid from the south as the US 1st Army and Montgomery’s men hit the Germans from the north. These turns of events, along with the Germans’ fuel shortage was the turning point of the battle.

On Christmas Eve the Allies moved 32 divisions into the region and on Christmas the 5th Panzer Army took severe losses. The next day Bastogne was taken by the Americans with brutal hand- to-hand fighting as 3900 Americans and 12000 Germans died along with 150 American and 450 German tanks. These continuous defeats were too much even for Hitler, and he began the retreat on 27 December, as the German offensive completely stopped on 31 December. When the new year rolled around, the boundaries were nearly identical to the original ones on 16 December at an unbelievable cost. The British (who were not significantly involved) had only 1400 casualties, but the Americans had 81,000 and the Germans had 100,000. Both sides lost tremendous amounts of weapons and men but the Germans could not replace them like the Americans could. For the Germans, in hindsight all the men and weapons wasted in "The Bulge" could have been used much more effectively in a defensive campaign. In January 1945 the bitterly cold weather slowed the Germans retreat, but also the Americans’ pursuit. In the miserably frigid climate vehicles froze, roads were treacherously icy and foggy and snowy conditions made movement difficult at best. On 1 January 1945, the Luftwaffe made a desperate raid on Allied airfields to try to salvage the Battle of the Bulge, but the 300 planes made little damage on Allied progress. Instead, many valuable pilots were killed that could have been useful in the coming months against the Soviets, who were the real threat to Germany's very existence.

Early 1944

Mid 1944


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