With the lights going on again all over Europe, the United States and its allies on 8 May celebrated V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. To the troops in the field, the end brought a flush of relief but with it a dulling sense of anticlimax.
A myriad of taxing jobs remained before Allied troops everywhere could turn full attention to occupation duties. The Allies had to disarm and control all German forces, many of them sizable, as in Denmark, Norway, and Czechoslovakia, and discharge them as quickly as possible in order to reduce the strain on food stocks and facilities. They had to continue to evacuate Allied prisoners of war; control, feed, and eventually evacuate foreign laborers and other displaced persons; assert authority over the Doenitz government and OKW, then disband them along with the headquarters of the Luftwaffe and the Navy. They had also to collect German records and documents; arrest ranking German officers and others who might be charged with war crimes; begin redeploying some units through the Suez Canal to the Pacific, others to the United States, both for projected commitment in the war against Japan; weed out individuals with long overseas and combat service for early return to the United States; prepare for disbanding SHAEF and shifting to military government in four national zones of occupation; withdraw American and British forces from the Russian zone; arrange for four-power occupation of Berlin and Vienna--these and more.1
The thorniest of all problems with German forces still under arms was in Czechoslovakia where large German units continued to fight against the Red Army in hope of withdrawing into American lines. Yet once the general surrender became effective at 2301 on 8 May, haven in American lines was denied by stipulation of the terms of surrender signed at Reims. As German troops, many with their families in tow, continued to flock toward American positions, U.S. divisions assembled them in "concentration areas" immediately in front of their defensive line, there eventually to turn them over to the Russians. At Russian insistence, SHAEF also directed that higher commanders of those forces presumed to have been responsible for continued defense and thus for violation of the surrender agreement, also be turned over to the Russians even though they might have entered American lines before the deadline. Many was the pitiable scene enacted, for most of the Germans were desperately fearful of what the Russians would do to them.2 For
some million and a quarter German officers and men who became prisoners of the Russians after the surrender, the way home would be long and toilsome.3
The last days of the war in Czechoslovakia also brought appeals from Czech partisans and the Czech government-in-exile for Allied units to march to relief of partisans in Prague. Although the partisans liberated their capital on 5 May, German armor promptly converged on the city. On the basis of the prior Soviet request that Allied troops advance no farther than the line Karlsbad-Pilsen-České Budějovice, Eisenhower declined to send troops but passed the appeals on to the Russians.4
Other than in Czechoslovakia, the surrender of German forces produced few problems except those of an administrative and logistical nature. With assistance from small U.S. units, British forces undertook the surrender and evacuation of German troops from Denmark and Norway; the Canadians, those Germans in the Netherlands. A garrison that held out on the French coast at Dunkerque surrendered on 9 May to the Czech Independent Armored Brigade Group that had been containing them. The British accepted surrender of German forces in the Channel Islands, also on 9 May, and the last Germans holding out along the southwestern coast of France capitulated to the French on the same day. The garrisons of Lorient and St. Nazaire on the coast of Brittany surrendered on 10 May to troops of the U.S. 66th Division (Maj. Gen. Herman F. Kramer). Having earlier assumed the assignment of containing these garrisons from the 94th Division, the 66th was one of only two U.S. divisions in the European theater that failed to enter the enemy's country before hostilities ended.5 The other, the 13th Airborne Division, was the only division to see no combat.
Although General Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, continued to function until 14 July, the combat phase of World War II in Europe ended with the final German capitulations. The campaign from the D-day landings in Normandy on 6 June through the surrenders had taken just over eleven months.
In those eleven months Allied armies had driven some 475 to 700 miles from the beaches of Normandy and those of the Côte d'Azur to the Baltic, the Elbe, and into Czechoslovakia and Austria. From the Dutch coast near the mouth of the Rhine to the Baltic near Luebeck, thence south to the Brenner Pass and westward to the Swiss frontier, the final Allied positions encompassed some 900 miles. As of V-E Day General Eisenhower had under his command more than four and a half million troops, which included 91 divisions and several independent brigades and cavalry groups (61 of the divisions were American), 6 tactical air commands, and 2 strategic air forces. At peak strength in
April, the Allies had 28,000 combat aircraft, of which 14,845 were American, including 5,559 heavy bombers and 6,003 fighters. Between D-day and V-E Day, a total of 5,412,219 Allied troops had entered western Europe along with 970,044 vehicles and 18,292,310 tons of supplies.6
Allied casualties from D-day to V-E Day totaled 766,294. American losses were 586,628, including 135,576 dead. The British, Canadians, French, and other allies in the west lost approximately 60,000 dead.7 How many of the three million Germans that were killed during the entire war died on the Western Front is impossible to determine, but exclusive of prisoners of war, all German casualties in the west from D-day to V-E Day probably equaled or slightly exceeded Allied losses. More than two million Germans were captured in the west.8
In many respects the last offensive had been a replay on a grander scale of the Allied victory in France. Following the difficult close-in fighting during the fall of 1944 in the Netherlands, along the West Wall, and in Alsace and Lorraine, which could be likened to the early weeks in Normandy, the Germans had counterattacked in the Ardennes as they had in Normandy at Mortain, and in the process so weakened themselves that great slashing Allied drives across their homeland were as inevitable as had been the swift Allied thrusts across France and Belgium. Nor was there anything new in Hitler's adamant refusal to authorize withdrawals; he had done the same in France.
Being, in effect, a replay, the campaign had produced little that was new in American tactics, doctrine, or techniques. The efficacy of the American tank-infantry-artillery team, of methods of air-ground co-operation, of the regimental combat team and combat command concepts, and of the "lean" division with attachments provided as needed, the role of the tank as an antitank weapon, the general excellence of American arms and equipment, the ability to motorize infantry divisions on short notice--all these had been demonstrated and proved long before. The campaign merely emphasized the general efficacy and professionalism of the American forces. The same shortcomings that had been evident before also were again
apparent: the basic obsolescence of the Sherman tank, the relative uselessness of the towed 57-mm. antitank gun, the relative ineffectiveness of the tank destroyer as compared with the tank as an antitank weapon, the redundance of a regimental cannon company in view of the close relationship existing between infantry and supporting artillery, the need for combat experience before a division functioned smoothly.
In view of the length of time and the tremendous power on the ground that was required to bring the foe finally to his knees, it was apparent that the new air arm for all its staggering blows against the enemy's production, economy, and morale had failed to achieve decision. It was not until December 1944 that German production of essential military items dropped off sharply, and not until late January and early February 1945 were indications of eventual collapse present in the German economy. Had Allied airmen known from the start what they learned later--that persistent blasting of a select group of targets critical to the entire economy may be more effective in less time than occasional strikes against a host of targets--the aerial campaign well might have critically influenced an earlier decision. As it was the Western Allied armies in league with the ally from the east, and with essential air and naval power in support, had broken the back of the German armies in the field before the aerial bombardment could build to an intensity capable of decision in its own right. Indeed, that air power alone can bring decision has yet to be demonstrated.9
Despite the overwhelming nature of the victory on the ground, many a provocative event had emerged. The First and Third Armies in the Ardennes, for example, might have trapped large numbers of the enemy had the main effort shifted after relief of Bastogne to the drive Patton wanted along the base of the bulge. The drive would have speeded German withdrawal if nothing else. Had General Bradley been allowed to continue a full-blooded attack from the Ardennes into the Eifel, the First and Third Armies probably would have gained the Rhine in short order, thus unhinging German defense west of the Rhine without the direct confrontation of the First Canadian Army with German strength in the flooded Rhine lowlands to the north. Perhaps the most striking result of the enemy's Ardennes offensive was the general apprehension and concern for German capabilities that it engendered in the Allied command, whereas once the counteroffensive was over, the Germans in reality had little but defensive capability left.
In several cases Allied commanders seemingly passed up opportunities that might have speeded the end: Field Marshal Montgomery's decision, for example, to deny Simpson's Ninth Army a quick jump of the Rhine early in March; or the failure to trap all German forces in the Saar-Palatinate, despite superb tactical strokes by the Third Army.
Yet there were moments, too, that seemed inspired: not only Remagen but also Oppenheim; the campaign to encircle the Ruhr, particularly that part staged by the First Army; the dashes by
the Ninth Army's 2d Armored and 83d Divisions to the Elbe.
There were others to be regretted, particularly Patton's ill-starred foray to Hammelburg, which was too ambitious for the force assigned and was unfortunate regardless of whether Patton knew his son-in-law was a captive there. The 10th Armored Division was overextended at Crailsheim, even for the type of loose-reined warfare that was the order of the day. Given the nature of the opposition, it was unnecessary to go through with the plan to employ airborne divisions in conjunction with Montgomery's Rhine crossing, since the risks and losses attendant on airborne operations hardly could be justified under the circumstances.
The last offensive was nevertheless a brilliant exercise in controlling masses of men and units and in co-ordinating the air and all the ground arms--a demonstration of power never before seen, even in the early German campaigns of World War II or in the offensives of the Red Army. It was, for all the crumbling nature of the opposition, a logistical tour de force by the most highly motorized and mechanized armies the world had ever known. No part of General Eisenhower's vast force had to pause at any point for purely logistical reasons, even while driving in slightly more than six weeks over such great distances as the 250 miles from the Roer to the Elbe. It was a campaign to be told in superlatives.
Despite the presence of potentially abrasive personalities in the Allied command--Montgomery, de Lattre, Patton--no serious interference with the conduct of the campaign developed. Montgomery's insistence on keeping the Ninth Army and driving on Berlin was a disagreement that took place behind the scenes and did nothing to delay the advancing divisions. De Lattre's digressions at Stuttgart, Ulm, and St. Anton took on in the end a character of nothing more serious than an opéra buffe. Patton's lamented detour to Hammelburg was painful and costly to the men involved but had little lasting effect on the campaign.
On the matters of major controversy with the British--Berlin and Prague--the Supreme Commander could hardly be faulted. On Berlin, there seemed little point in driving deeper into territory already allocated for Russian occupation merely for the sake of prestige, and since arrangements for Allied access to Berlin during the occupation had already been made at governmental level, dashing to the capital would have had no effect on them. As for Prague, the Supreme Commander might have relented on humanitarian grounds, but since the Western Allies had no intention of staying long in Czechoslovakia, the effect on postwar developments could hardly have been lasting.
The German attempt to stem the last offensive was an exercise in futility. Once the Germans had failed in the Ardennes, there could be no longer any doubt that they had lost the war. Had Hitler acquiesced in an early withdrawal behind the Rhine, as his field commanders apparently urged, they might have prolonged the end; but so empty was the threat of miracle weapons, so unlikely a démarche between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, that prolongation would have been the sole result.
The only basic matter to be decided
by the last offensive was not whether the Germans would be reduced to total defeat, but when. Given the stranglehold and almost mystic fascination that Hitler and his coterie exercised over the German people and the incredible loyalty of German military commanders to a regime that long had been discredited, perhaps it was inevitable that the end would come only when the nation was prostrate, almost every square inch of territory under the control of the victors. In those circumstances, whether the invaders insisted on unconditional surrender or came shouting mercy and forgiveness probably would have had little effect on the outcome.
As the last offensive came to an end, few if any who fought in it could have entertained any doubts as to the right of their cause--they had seen at Buchenwald, Belsen, Dachau, and at a dozen other places, including little Ohrdruf, what awful tyranny man can practice on his fellow man. To erase those cruel monuments to evil was reason enough for it all, from bloody OMAHA Beach to that bridgehead to nowhere over the Elbe.
1. Greater detail on post-D-day activities may be found in Pogue, The Supreme Command, ch. XXVI.
2. See AAR's of 4th Armd and 26th Divs, May 45; V Corps Operations in the ETO, p. 465; Gay Diary, entries of 10 and 11 May 45; SHAEF SGS 322.01-1, Liaison with the Russians, passim; and Koyen, The Fourth Armored Division (first edition), p. 151.
3. Ziemke, Stalingrad to Berlin, ch. XXI.
4. See Pogue, The Supreme Command, pp. 504-05.
5. In one of the few instances of the sinking of a loaded U.S. troopship during World War II, the 66th Division had lost 800 men on Christmas Eve 1944, when a German submarine sank the Belgian ship Léopoldville in the English Channel. See Jacquin Sanders, A Night Before Christmas--The Sinking of the Troopship Léopoldville (New York: MacFadden Books, 1964).
6. SHAEF G-3 War Room Daily Sum, 11 May 45, and AAF Statistical Digest, World War II, p. 156.
7. Department of the Army, Army Battle Casualties and Nonbattle Deaths in World War II: Final Report, 7 December 1941-31 December 1946, and SHAEF's final cumulative casualty report in the G-3 War Room Daily Summary, 29 May 1945.
8. The only specific figures available are from OB WEST for the period 2 June 1941-10 April 1945 as follows: Dead, 80,819; wounded, 265,526; missing, 490,624; total, 836,969. (Of the total, 4,548 casualties were incurred prior to D-day.) See Rpts, Der Heeresarzt im Oberkommando des Heeres Gen St d H/Gen Qu, Az.: 1335 c/d (IIb) Nr-: H.A./263/45 g. Kdos. of 14 Apr 45 and 1335 c/d (IIb) (no date, but before 1945). The former is in OCMH X 313, a photostat of a document contained in German armament folder H 17/207; the latter in folder OKW/1561 (OKW Wehrmacht Verluste). These figures are for the field army only, and do not include the Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS. Since the Germans seldom remained in control of the battlefield in a position to verify the status of those missing, a considerable percentage of the missing probably were killed. Time lag in reporting probably precludes these figures' reflecting the heavy losses during the Allied drive to the Rhine in March, and the cut-off date precludes inclusion of the losses in the Ruhr Pocket and in other stages of the fight in central Germany. SHAEF records list 2,057,138 Germans as "prisoners of war" and another four million as "disarmed enemy personnel," the former presumably taken before formal capitulation began, the latter afterward. SHAEF G-3 War Room Daily Sum, 23 Jun 45.
9. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey-Summary Report (European War), 30 September 1945, pages 15-16, appears to have overstated the case in saying, "Allied air power was decisive in the war in Western Europe . . ."