Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II

Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II

by David Stafford
     
 

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To End a History of World War II in Europe at VE Day is to leave the tale only partially told. While the war may have seemed all but over, the days that followed were filled with extraordinary events, many of them long hidden from view, that bespeak a different, much richer story.  See more details below

Overview

To End a History of World War II in Europe at VE Day is to leave the tale only partially told. While the war may have seemed all but over, the days that followed were filled with extraordinary events, many of them long hidden from view, that bespeak a different, much richer story.

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Kirkus Reviews
Hitler's death did not end the war in Europe in 1945. Instead, as diplomat-historian Stafford (Ten Days to D-Day: Citizens and Soldiers on the Eve of the Invasion, 2004, etc.) writes, the fighting dragged on for three more momentous months, during which Europe was reshaped. That quarter-year has not exactly been overlooked. The closing pages of Stephen E. Ambrose's Band of Brothers, for instance, find its paratrooper protagonists in western Austria, where, as Stafford notes, it was feared that the remnants of the Nazi state would attempt to regroup for a last stand in the mountainous redoubt. That prospect, surmises the author, contributed to Eisenhower's decision not to race to Berlin but instead to stop the Western Allies's advance at the Elbe River and cede the land east of it to the Soviets, even though Churchill was strongly agitating to "capture Berlin and use it as a bargaining tool with the Soviet leader." Even in the desperate days before Hitler's suicide, German soldiers were offering stiff resistance. In its wake, strong German resistance continued until the government of Admiral Doenitz finally agreed to unconditional surrender, having offered to make peace with the West under the condition that Germany be allowed to continue fighting against the Soviet Union. Eisenhower did keep the lines open for two days to allow German units an escape route to the west, and, writes Stafford, "thanks to Doenitz's delaying tactics, almost two million German soldiers were able to avoid Soviet captivity." With that surrender, the Allies now had the task of imposing occupation rule on Germany, quashing any last efforts at armed resistance and cleaning up a horrific mess while attending tomillions of displaced, starving persons-a story that stretches well beyond July 1945, but one that Stafford capably outlines. Drawing on the memoirs of participants-from Nazi test pilots to concentration-camp inmates-and on an impressive body of historical work, Stafford delivers a useful survey of a transformative time.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780316109802
Publisher:
Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
11/12/2007
Pages:
608
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.00(d)

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Endgame, 1945


By David Stafford

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2007 David Stafford
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-10980-2


Chapter One

CRUEL SPRING

Friday 20 April was Adolf Hitler's birthday. Since seizing power in 1933 and making himself Führer of the German people, the anniversary had been celebrated throughout the Reich as a public holiday. Across Germany, the blood-red flag of the Nazi Party, with its crooked black swastika, had festooned private balconies and public buildings alike. Radio broadcasts had played special music and adulatory speeches, schoolchildren had enjoyed the day off, and at his Bavarian home at Obersalzberg outside Berchtesgaden Hitler had smiled paternally as blonde young girls presented him with posies of alpine flowers.

But today, as he turned fifty-six, the mood was distinctly unfestive. Josef Goebbels, the Führer's fervently loyal minister of propaganda, tried to make the best of it all amid the mood of impending disaster. The German people, he announced that morning on the radio, should trust their leader to the bitter end. For this, Hitler himself was now making grim preparation. For weeks he had been in Berlin, living an underground existence in his neon-lit bunker deep below the Chancellery. It consisted of eighteen cramped rooms with a special suite that he shared with his mistress, Eva Braun.

Today, as elsewhere across Europe, it was a sunny spring day in the German capital and the lilacs were in bloom. But throughout the city housewives were desperately stocking up with food in preparation for the battle that everyone knew was coming. Overhead, the once vaunted and feared Luftwaffe was reduced to an impotent weapon, and American and British heavy bombers had been hitting the capital with impunity for months. Only the week before, they had sent the Foreign Ministry and the old Reich Chancellery itself up in flames. Now, overnight, knowing the significance of the date, they had returned for an even bigger raid, and all day the acrid smell of smoke hung heavy in the air. On the ground, Red Army forces had begun their final big offensive against the capital with two and a half million men and were rapidly approaching the eastern suburbs, threatening to surround the city completely. The thunder of heavy artillery was now audible even to those below ground.

Traditionally, the Führer was congratulated first on his birthday just after the stroke of midnight by his personal household staff. But this year he told them the situation was too somber for such ceremonies. Despite this, they persisted. Looking twenty years older than his actual age and his skin a deathly white, he trudged down the line of men and women and limply shook hands with each of them. Then, after sleeping a few hours, in the early afternoon he climbed the steps out of the bunker into the Chancellery garden to take Nazi salutes from selected army units and SS troops. About twenty teenage boys from the Hitler Youth who had been fighting against the Russians were also lined up.

Hitler was wearing his field-gray army uniform jacket with its Iron Cross, awarded for bravery during the First World War. Slowly, he walked down the line, pinching a few of the boys on the cheek and muttering words of encouragement. A newsreel camera recorded the event. Inadvertently, it also captured the violently shaking left hand that he kept firmly behind his back in an effort to conceal it, a mark of his rapid physical decline in recent months. "Here in Berlin," Hitler told the teenagers, "we are facing the great, decisive battle ... Our belief that we will win ... has to remain unbroken. The situation can be compared with that of a patient believed to have reached the end. Yet he does not have to die. He can be saved with a new medication, discovered just in time to save him."

What the miracle at this stage might be was anyone's guess. Since the allied landings in France on D-Day the previous June, Hitler and Goebbels had constantly hinted at miracle weapons that would yet win the war, such as the V2 rocket or a new jet aircraft. The week before, it had even seemed that a political rather than a military miracle might save the Reich. Shortly before midnight on Thursday 12 April a BBC-Reuters flash had announced the sudden death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his private retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia.

Goebbels immediately phoned Hitler. "My Führer," he exclaimed, "this is the miracle of the House of Brandenburg we have been waiting for. This is the turning point predicted in your horoscope!" The Minister of Propaganda was referring to a historical event well known to Hitler, with his megalomaniac habit of comparing himself to the great figures of German history. In 1762, King Frederick the Great of Prussia had been saved from defeat in the Seven Years' War against Russia by the sudden death of Czarina Elizabeth. Hitler, who kept a portrait of Frederick in his bunker study, reacted to Goebbels's news with delight. Soon, he told him, the Americans and the Red Army would be exchanging artillery barrages over the roof of the Chancellery.

The euphoria had been fleeting. Few of those now listening to Hitler's promises in the garden placed much faith in his curiously defiant yet depressing message to the assembled faithful about a dying patient. Later that day, below ground again, he greeted assembled luminaries of the Reich-ministers and generals alike-who had come to give him their birthday wishes. He shook hands with each and exchanged a desultory few words. Then, the birthday ritual completed, they turned to the great decision of the day. Would Hitler stay in Berlin, or would he move south to Bavaria to lead some last-ditch resistance from his base at Berchtesgaden? This had long been the plan. Just ten days before, he had sent his servants south to prepare the way.

The decision was now urgent. The Red Army advance was so rapid and so close that it threatened to cut off all routes of escape out of the city. Worse, with the Russians advancing west, and the Americans moving rapidly east in central and southern Germany, the Reich faced being cut in two, with the route south to Bavaria being completely shut off. Everyone present argued that Hitler should quit his capital immediately. Earlier in the day, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, his military chief, had urged this course, but he had been rebuffed. "Keitel," said Hitler, "I know what I want. I will fight on in front of, within, or behind Berlin." Now, after further discussion, he relented a little by saying that he would leave the final decision to fate.

Yet, in truth, he had already made up his mind. In March, Eva Braun had arrived in Berlin from Berchtesgaden. Then, just a week ago, she had descended from her private apartment in the Chancellery to sleep with Hitler in the bunker. Gerda Christian, his senior private secretary, knew instinctively what this meant: Hitler would never flee to Bavaria. Instead, Berchtesgaden, in the shape of Eva Braun, had come to Berlin. Hitler's mistress was a middle-class Catholic girl from Munich. Twenty-three years his junior, she had met him in the studios of his official photographer Heinrich Hoffman, where she was working as an assistant. Whatever else might be said about her, she was loyalty supreme. She would stay at his side until the bitter end.

Gerda Christian's guess was confirmed later that evening when Hitler, as so often, ended his day by chatting with his secretaries in his study. He always liked the company of impressionable young women, and it was to women that he often revealed his deepest feelings. They too wanted to know if he would leave Berlin. If he did, he replied, he would feel like a Tibetan lama turning an empty prayer mill. "I must," he insisted, "bring things to a head in Berlin-or go under!"

To all but the willfully blind, it was now obvious he would do both. Moreover, whatever he said or did in Berlin was increasingly irrelevant to the march of war throughout his beleaguered Reich and beyond.

Of all the bitter months of the war against Hitler, April 1945 was the hardest to bear. It was not just the weather, although this proved true to form, shifting treacherously between days of spring promise and the last gasps of a dying winter that fought back tenaciously with sleeting hard rain and flurries of snow that drove soldiers and civilians alike scurrying for warmth.

Nor was it the fear of allied victory slipping away at the last moment, like some perpetually distant and elusive prize. The end of Hitler's Third Reich was now inevitable and visibly close. Hostile armies surrounded the Nazis in a tightening grip. In the flatlands of Northwest Europe British, American and Canadian armies had crossed the Rhine, the traditional guardian of Germany's western frontier, and were pushing rapidly forward through Holland and towards the great North Sea ports of Bremen and Hamburg.

On the bountiful granary plains of eastern Germany, Stalin's Red Army had crossed the Rivers Oder and Neisse to reach the outer suburbs of Berlin. Further south, the Soviet dictator's forces were poised to link up with the Americans in the center of the country, and in Austria his troops had already taken Vienna. In southern Germany, American troops were driving rapidly up the Danube and deep into Bavaria, Nazism's spiritual home, with its cities of Munich, the Nazi Party headquarters, and Nuremberg, site of the torch-lit rallies that had mesmerized the world just a few years before. In Italy, allied forces were finally poised to make their crucial breakout into the valley of the River Po with its arrow-straight roads pointing north to the Alps and the Reich beyond.

However, unbearably, despite all this, Hitler refused to surrender. Instead, his armies were fighting on with ferocious tenacity. Soldiers and civilians alike now knew that this would be a fight to the death, with all that this meant for them and for Europe. Liberation would come to millions, but at a price made painfully high because it seemed so needless. More soldiers and civilians would die. More houses would be destroyed by bomb and artillery shell. More fields and crops would be flooded by broken dams and dikes, ruining crops and tightening the grip of hunger that had already reduced millions to starvation. And more refugees would be sent on their way along desolate roads with their pathetic bundles of personal belongings slung on their backs or dragged in carts behind them. This, indeed, was a bittersweet month.

Globally, the end of the war looked no less dark. Japan, like its German ally, was battling back viciously to postpone the day of defeat. The island-hopping advance of the Americans in the Pacific had come to a bloody halt on rocky Okinawa, the last stop before the Japanese mainland. Here, 120,000 Japanese troops supported by 10,000 aircraft were making a suicidal last stand against an army of 155,000 Americans that stormed ashore on the first day of the month. Kamikaze pilots dive-bombed American warships and the Japanese Imperial Navy sent the Yamato, the largest battleship in the world, on a desperate last mission to ram as many enemy ships as it could. The battle would end eighty days later with the ritual suicide of the Japanese commander and his chief of staff, and with only 10,000 of the island's defenders still alive. With 50,000 dead and wounded Americans, the fight for Okinawa offered a grim and worrying portent of what could still lay ahead before Japan surrendered.

Politically, too, the shadows were deepening. At his death, Roosevelt had yet to resolve the big question of how to deal with Stalin and the Soviet Union; while his successor, Harry Truman, was virtually unknown even to Americans and had little executive experience. Britain's prime minister, Winston Churchill, was by now full of dark foreboding about Soviet intentions in Europe and was already using the term "Iron Curtain" to describe a Europe divided between communism and democracy. Poland, for whose independence Britain had gone to war in 1939, was already in the grip of the communists. Would military victory turn to dust once the killing stopped?

More than anything, Robert Ellis wanted to sleep. All night he had clambered up the ridge dodging machine-gun and mortar fire. Physically and mentally, he was drained. Now, even though it was only early spring, the harsh Italian sun was scorching his skin. He crouched deeper into his foxhole to escape its relentless glare, but the ground was baked hard and his shelter was shallow.

Earth is the friend and final resting place of the combat infantryman. There he takes cover, shelters and sleeps, but it is also what he must capture and occupy. For six straight days, Ellis, of the Tenth Mountain Division, had been fighting in the last big push by the US Fifth Army to break out of the Apennine Mountains and into the valley of the River Po.

It lay below him now, its fertile green plain stretching far into the distance, representing both promise and threat. The grueling weeks of scrambling up and down rock-strewn hillsides braving withering enemy fire were over. But the river was wide and deep, a natural barrier for the retreating yet stubborn enemy. The last week's fighting had been the heaviest and most costly thus far for the division. Three hundred and seventy men had been killed and some fourteen hundred wounded. In Ellis's battalion alone, almost fifty men had perished in just two days of fighting. He knew all too well that many more men would die before victory came. It still seemed far away.

He was twenty years old. Home was Wooster, Ohio, where his parents had settled after years serving as Presbyterian missionaries in the Persian city of Urumia. They had arrived in Urumia during the First World War. "It was a battleground for Turkish and Russian troops, Kurdish tribesmen, Assyrians, Armenians and other native partisans," he wrote. "Massacres and epidemics were the order of the day. My father's medical services as a surgeon were desperately needed."

In 1918, his parents narrowly escaped a massacre of Christian missionaries by Muslim Kurds. Already they had two small children, both boys. A daughter followed three years later. Robert had completed the family when he was born in 1924, finally arriving in the States in the mid-1930s for more formal schooling.

Now, Ellis was heading a machine-gun squad in Company F of the division's 85th Regiment, having recently been promoted to sergeant. He had covered his helmet with burlap to reduce the reflection and make himself less of a target to the enemy, and had decided not to wear his sergeant's stripes on his shoulder. Like most of his buddies, he assumed the Germans made special efforts to shoot officers and NCOs to disrupt the chain of command.

There had been enough death anyway, without drawing attention to yourself. Casualties were running high and one in particular came shockingly close. On the first day of the offensive, Bill Luth, one of his oldest friends in the division, had been killed. They went back together to training days in Colorado, where they had enjoyed one fabulous weekend's leave with a couple of other buddies in Colorado Springs, singing fraternity and popular songs as they took the breathtaking drive over the mountains in full moonlight. Bill had come from Wisconsin, and Ellis had shared with him the cake his mother had sent for his nineteenth birthday, just two days before Bill's own.

Now, Ellis wasn't at all sure that he himself was going to make it. "The war may seem very close to the end," he wrote to his parents, "but to the men here who watch their comrades die each day the end is far away." Preying vividly on his mind was the final, heart-wrenching scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1930s' film version of Erich Maria Remarque's great anti-war bestseller about the First World War. As he waits in his foxhole on the front, the armistice signed but not yet in effect, the soldier hero reaches out to touch a butterfly that has settled on a blade of grass only to be shot dead by an enemy sniper.

No one now was keen to be killed, and self-inflicted wounds, to provide an exit from the carnage, were not unusual. The risks did not diminish because victory was close. Over the last few days Ellis's company, along with others of the division, had advanced slowly from hilltop to hilltop through deadly, often unsuspected minefields as well as towards murderous machine-gun fire that raked the slopes as men desperately scrambled for cover. Mortar and artillery fire also caused dreadful wounds.

"Men were spun to the ground by the impact of bullets," writes one historian of a typical Tenth Division firefight in the Apennines, "sliced open by whirling jagged shards of shrapnel, atomized by direct bursts from artillery and mortar shells, catapulted into the air from the force of explosions, or thrown to the ground in agony, screaming with pain, clutching at torn limbs or spilled intestines, at jaws and genitals that had disappeared." German Schu mines, undetectable in their wooden boxes and scattered liberally over the landscape, invariably blew off their victims' feet. In such savage and bitter fighting, where American soldiers saw friends killed or mortally wounded in terrible ways, prisoners, especially wounded ones, were sometimes simply shot. Ellis, like most young soldiers, was careful to self-censor his letters home about such matters.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Endgame, 1945 by David Stafford Copyright © 2007 by David Stafford. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

A leading writer on military intelligence and project director at the Center for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh, David Stafford is the author of Churchill and the Secret Service, Spies Beneath Berlin, and Ten Days to D-Day.

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