Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Germany, Collapse of (March–May 1945)

Adolf Hitler's failed Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge) during December 1944–January 1945, far from stalling the western Allies as Hitler had hoped, actually hastened the German military collapse. By 1 March 1945, Allied Supreme Commander in the west General Dwight D. Eisenhower had assembled sufficient forces for a full frontal assault. By April, it would be the largest coalition army ever assembled in war. Several hundred miles to the east, Soviet leader Josef Stalin massed three fronts (army groups) for the final drive on Berlin. The Soviets were consolidating their positions for a final assault and ensuring that their Baltic flank was not exposed. Supporting these huge Allied armies were their air forces, which now had complete control of the skies. Large numbers of British and U.S. aircraft continued the strategic bombing campaign against the German heartland. During the period 1–21 March, more than 10,000 American and British bombers dropped in excess of 31,000 tons of bombs on the Ruhr area alone.

Undaunted by the overwhelming odds against him, German leader Adolf Hitler clung to the hope of victory. Conducting operations from the troglodyte atmosphere of his Berlin bunker and surrounded primarily by sycophants, the Führer relied on his so-called V (for "vengeance") weapons—the V-1 buzz bomb and V-2 rocket—as well as new jet aircraft. He also hoped for some miracle, such as Allied dissension, to turn the tide. The only military realist in headquarters was army chief of staff General Heinz Guderian. His clashes with Hitler, however, led to his departure at the end of March.

The onslaught from the west began with a drive to the Rhine River. From north to south, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery commanded the 21st Army Group. It consisted of General Henry Crerar's Canadian First Army, Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey's British Second Army, and Lieutenant General William H. Simpson's U.S. Ninth Army, temporarily assigned to Montgomery's command from that of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley's 12th Army Group. In the center was Bradley's 12th Army Group, the largest American field force ever commanded by a U.S. general. Bradley's army group comprised the U.S. First Army under Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges; Lieutenant General George S. Patton's U.S. Third Army; and Major General Leonard Gerow's U.S. Fifteenth Army, whose forces were engaged in occupation duty and the elimination of bypassed pockets of German resistance. In the south was the 6th Army Group of Lieutenant General Jacob Devers, which consisted of Lieutenant General Alexander Patch's U.S. Seventh Army and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny's French First Army. The 6th Army Group eliminated the Colmar pocket and advanced toward the Rhine between the Belgian and Swiss borders.

Elements of Hodges's First Army discovered the railroad bridge at Remagen intact, and they pushed forces across it to establish a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Rhine. German troops were everywhere withdrawing toward the Rhine. In typical fashion, Hitler replaced his commander in the west, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. The western Allies then launched Operation undertone, an assault on the Saar-Palatinate region, wherein the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies broke through the German Siegfried Line and destroyed Schutzstaffel Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser's German First Army. On 22–23 March, Montgomery launched Operation plunder, a large-scale attack on the lower Rhine. Meanwhile, Patton's troops crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim on 22 March. All along the front, Allied forces moved relentlessly eastward. In April, the XVIII Airborne Corps encircled Field Marshal Walther Model's Army Group B, resulting in the surrender of 300,000 German troops. German cities capitulated rapidly; many streets were lined with white flags. On 20 April, Nuremberg fell to Patch's U.S. Third Army.

On 31 March on the Eastern Front, three Soviet fronts (army groups) opened the Berlin Campaign to take the German capital. They were Marshal Ivan Konev's 2nd Ukrainian Front, Marshal Georgii Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front, and Marshal Konstantin Rokossovski's 2nd Belorussian Front. Konev's troops, supported by massive artillery barrages, cut across the Neisse River, destroying the German Fourth Panzer Army. Zhukov faced stiff German resistance and sustained heavy casualties, although his forces wore down the defenders. By this time, the German armies were only shadows of their former selves and included many young untrained levies. Steadily the Soviets drove Army Group Vistula back near Berlin. Hitler, meanwhile, insisted on a scorched-earth policy; he also called on German citizens to act as "werewolves," and he dared to hope that the miracle of the House of Brandenburg of the Seven Years' War—in which the coalition against Prussian King Frederick II came undone on the death of Russian Tsarina Elizabeth—might be repeated. He even seized on the death of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 12 April 1945 as an omen that Germany would yet survive. As propaganda minister Josef Goebbels exhorted the people of Berlin to defend their city, Hitler called up Volkstrum troops (the largely untrained older civilian militia) and the Hitler Youth to defend his dying Third Reich.

At the same time, millions of German refugees were fleeing west to avoid falling into the hands of the Soviets, The German navy evacuated hundreds of thousands of Germans from the Baltics. Many others made their way west on foot. Ultimately, perhaps 16 million Germans were displaced from their homelands in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. More than 2 million may have been killed in the exodus that followed. Those who escaped or were forced to leave added yet another burden on already strained German social services.

On Hitler's birthday, 20 April 1945, Zhukov's troops pierced through three German defensive lines defending Berlin. On 22 April, Soviet troops were fighting in the city itself, and three days later they had surrounded Berlin. That same day, 25 April, elements of Bradley's 12th Army Group linked up with Soviet troops of Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front at Torgau on the Elbe River.

The last significant German counterattack of the war occurred on 25–26 April when General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner's Eleventh Army struck at Soviet forces driving on Berlin near Oranienburg, to no avail. Almost 500,000 Soviet troops were now battling for Berlin. Hitler, defiant to the last, refused to leave his capital and committed suicide on 30 April. To the end, he refused to accept responsibility and blamed others for Germany's defeat. Hitler's designated successor as chief of state, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, then took over what remained of German forces. Meanwhile, the Allies had overrun northern Italy. Remaining German forces there surrendered on 2 May.

In the west, Lieutenant General Walton Walker's XX Corps of Patton's Third Army reached the Austrian border opposite Braunau. Then, on 2 May, Lieutenant General Helmuth Weidling, commander of Berlin, surrendered the German capital to Soviet Colonel General Vassili Chuikov. On 3 May, elements of Montgomery's 21st Army Group linked up with Rokossovsky's 2nd Byelorussian Front at Wismar. Marshal Rodion Malinovsky's 2nd Ukrainian Front moved from Hungary into Austria and Czechoslovakia and prepared to link up with Patton's Third Army, which was advancing down the Danube near Linz.

Remaining German forces under Dönitz still controlled Norway, Denmark, western Holland, and portions of Germany, Yugoslavia, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Although Dönitz realized defeat was certain, he briefly stalled for time to rescue additional German refugees fleeing westward. On 7 May, Dönitz surrendered all German forces unconditionally to the victorious Allies; a formal ceremony was held the next day. The guns fell silent. Germany lay prostrate and in ruins, its social services a shambles and its cities great wastelands of twisted girders and rubble.

Gene Mueller and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Beevor, Antony. The Fall of Berlin, 1945. New York: Viking, 2002.; Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941–45. New York: William Morrow, 1965.; Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin: Stalin's War with Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.; Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
 

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