By Louise Wilmot
In June 1944 Germany's military position in World War Two appeared hopeless. The situation on the eastern front was catastrophic, with the Red Army poised to drive the Nazis back through Poland. In the west, Allied forces had fought their way through southern Italy as far as Rome. In Britain, the task of amassing the men and materials for the liberation of northern Europe had been completed, and Operation Overlord had begun with the D-Day landings on 6 June.
Hitler, however, refused to accept the inevitability of defeat. Surrounded by acolytes, he blamed Germany's setbacks on incompetence on the part of his generals, and was convinced that the tide of war could still be turned. Above all, the German people must show the necessary faith and will. 'Providence', he believed, 'will bestow victory on the people that has done most to earn it!'
Hitler placed his hopes on two factors. Offensively, on the introduction of new 'miracle weapons' that would inflict massive damage on the Allied war effort. Defensively, on a tenacious rearguard struggle, bolstered by propaganda and mounted if necessary by boy soldiers.
Technical problems delayed the deployment of these weapons until the summer of 1944. By then, Hitler had persuaded himself that they would cause such devastation in London that Britain and the United States would be forced to reassess their strategy. The Western Allies might even abandon their 'unnatural' alliance with Stalin and accept a separate peace, allowing Nazi Germany to concentrate its resources on defeating the Red Army in the east.
The first weapon to go into operation was the V-1, a jet-propelled pilot-less aircraft with a one-ton warhead and a maximum range of approximately 200 miles. It could be launched from ramps on the ground or, less reliably, from the air via Heinkel-111 aircraft. After the V-1 reached its target on automatic pilot, its engine cut out and it fell from the sky, giving those on the ground below only a few precious seconds to take cover.
The first ten V-1s were launched on London on 12 June 1944, and six days later 121 people were killed by a direct hit on the Guard's Chapel at Wellington Barracks. At the end of the month some 100 'doodlebugs' - as Londoners called them - were being directed at the capital every day. According to the writer Evelyn Waugh, they were 'as impersonal as a plague, as though the city were infested with enormous, venomous insects'.
One key factor was the Nazis' inability to manufacture enough V-bombs. Only 3,000 were produced each month, instead of the 45,000 the Allies had feared. And their deployment was hampered by RAF raids on launch-sites in northern France, ordered after information was smuggled to British diplomats in Switzerland by the French resistance fighter Michel Hollard.
Of the 10,000 V-1s fired at England, moreover, around a quarter crashed before reaching land, and over half the remainder were shot down by a combination of fighters, anti-aircraft batteries massed on the south coast, and the effective use of radar and proximity fuses.
In September the Germans switched the focus of their V-1 attacks to Antwerp, the chief supply port for Allied forces in Europe. The area sustained similar casualties, but was never put out of action. That same month, however, London came under attack from von Braun's much-delayed V-2.
This 14-metre-long rocket with a one-ton warhead marked the first use of ballistic missile technology in warfare. It was fired 60 miles into the stratosphere before its fuel supply was cut, and the rocket coasted along its preset ballistic trajectory to the target. The first V-2s, fired from launch-sites in the Netherlands, struck London on 8 September.
Hitler now hoped that the V-2s would be 'the decisive weapon of the war'. The chief grounds for such optimism lay in the fact that the Allies could not defend themselves against the V-2, because the rockets travelled faster than the speed of sound, so the first sign of an attack was a massive explosion when they hit the ground. Yet, although the V-2s had killed more than 2,000 Londoners and damaged thousands of homes by March 1945, they proved no more able than the V-1 to change the course of the war.
The impact of the V-2 was limited by persistent production problems, with delays further increased by an RAF raid on Peenemünde in August 1943. And although thousands of concentration camp inmates were forced to work on the production lines at the Nordhausen underground rocket factory in the Harz mountains, no more than 700 rockets a month were ever produced.
With the rockets at such a rudimentary stage, moreover, they inevitably proved unreliable. Many of them exploded before they reached their target, and a significant proportion went astray because their guidance systems failed. A third 'miracle weapon', a massive long-range gun sited on the French coast, was never fired before the site was overrun by Allied troops.
Looking back, it is easy to conclude that the resources and manpower devoted to the V-weapons programme - 200,000 workers on the V-2 alone - were wasted. But if they hadn't had so many production problems, they could certainly have caused considerable damage to British cities. And V-weapons were the forerunners of many later developments in weapons and space technology.
The rocket research of von Braun, in particular, was so ground-breaking that he and his team were taken to the United States at the end of the war to become an essential part of the American space programme. Their work for the Nazis, including their responsibility for the fate of the forced labourers, was conveniently forgotten. Von Braun became an American citizen in 1955 and director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre in 1970.
The most fearsome new weapon of all - the atom bomb - was fortunately never available to Hitler. Although its scientists continued to investigate the military potential of applied nuclear fission, Germany's uranium research programme did not progress beyond laboratory level in wartime. Hitler was thus denied a lethal weapon that he would most certainly not have hesitated to use.
Once the search for 'miracle weapons' had failed, the only expedient left to the Nazis was fanatical defence against Allied invaders. Every city, every village, every street was to be defended to the last. Superior will, Hitler believed, could still compensate for an overwhelming inferiority in manpower and resources.
But how could Germany be defended when its reserves of fighting men were almost exhausted? It was unable to replace its losses on the eastern front, while the home front was dependent on seven million foreign workers. In the absence of men of military age, the regime was forced to turn new reserves of older men and, especially, boys.
The main source of potential fighters was the Hitler Youth, the compulsory organisation for young Germans. In 1943, it provided basic infantry training to boys over the age of 14, while 15-year-olds were set to work in anti-aircraft batteries (where they were joined in the last months of war by some 35,000 members of the women's Labour Service).
In Spring 1943 the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the SS/Police organisation, requested permission to recruit a special Hitler Youth formation for boys under military age. The 12th Panzer (Armoured) Division Hitlerjugend began training later that year. Most of its 10,000 volunteers were 17-year-olds, and although the division was led by officers who had risen through Hitler Youth ranks, some of its NCOs were boys who had no combat experience at all.
The division first went into action in Normandy in June 1944, shortly after the D-Day landings. Allied officers attested to the reckless courage of its soldiers, but within a month 20 per cent of them had been killed, with another 40 per cent missing or wounded. The combination of fanaticism and recklessness in the unit was responsible for several war crimes in Normandy, including the murder of Canadian prisoners of war.
Later conscripts were not even given full military training before they went into battle. In October 1944 the Nazis established the Volkssturm for all available men between the ages of 16 and 60. Badly equipped, and consisting mostly of men who were not suitable for normal military service, the Volkssturm was to lose some 175,000 men in its hopeless efforts to repel the Allies.
Boys as young as 10 and 11 were also pressed into service in the chaotic final weeks of the war. In April 1945 some 5,000 of them were sent into action against the Red Army in defence of the bridges in Berlin. Many did not survive. Hitler Youth members as young as 12 were among those awarded the Iron Cross by Hitler during his last public appearance in the Reich Chancellery, on his 56th birthday on 20 April.
Elsewhere, too, boys fought against battle-hardened soldiers. In Munich, for example, American tanks were confronted by 10- and 11-year-olds, dressed in uniforms too big for them, carrying weapons they were afraid to fire. These boys were taken prisoner and survived the war, but thousands more were less fortunate.
There was to be no 'miracle' for Hitler's Germany. At the end, still unable to accept responsibility for the disaster, the Führer found others to blame. As always, he accused a mythical 'international Jewry' of conspiring against him, but now he turned also turned against his own people. The Germans themselves had been too lacking in will to deserve victory, he said in his final days - and they deserved the wasteland they were about to inherit.
By the beginning of 1945 the personnel, technical equipment and weapons of the Soviet army reached the highest level in all the war years. On the Soviet-German front the Soviet Army had 6.7 million people, 107.3 thousand guns and mortars, 12.1 thousand tanks and self-propelled artillery installations and 14.7 thousand war aircraft.
In mid January the Soviet troops launched a large-scale offensive on the front from the Baltic Sea to the Vistula
THE VISTULA-ODER OPERATION
By the beginning of 1945 a powerful defense system had been set up between the Vistula and the Oder by the Hitler Command, consisting of seven borderlines and a great number of fortified lines and positions. On the front from Warsaw to Jaslo defense was maintained by the main forces of the "A" army group numbering up to 560,000 soldiers and officers, some 5,000 guns and mortars, 1,220 tanks and storm guns. The army group was backed by 630 war aircraft. It was decided to use strong frontal blows, above all, to be delivered by the tank troops to split the enemy's grouping into two parts, crush the main forces of the "A" army group and complete the liberation of . The troops had to advance at high speed and arrive before the enemy could capture the defence lines. These actions are known as the Vistula-Oder operation.
The operation started on the morning of January 12. Initially the offensive was planned to begin on January 20 or later. But the date was changed because on December 16 the German command struck a blow at the American-British units in the Ardennes. The Soviet allies found themselves in a critical situation. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned to the head of the Soviet government Josef Stalin for help. Soviet troops opened fierce fire on the enemy, causing heavy losses. To avoid being surrounded, the Germans began to retreat. On January 16, the Soviet troops began to press the enemy along the entire 250-km front line. It took them six days to force their way farther to the West, covering 150 km and crossing the on the move.
On January 17, the Soviet troops liberated the cities of Radomsko and Czestochowa. The first to break into Czestochowa was a tank battalion under the command of Major Khokhryakov, who received his second Gold Star of the Hero of the for his resolute actions and personal courage.
On January 17, , the Soviet troops liberated the capital Warsaw though Hitler's orders were that the city should not be surrendered whatever the cost. To mark the liberation of the Polish capital the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet established the medal "For the Liberation of Warsaw", which was conferred on more than 682 thousand Soviet and Polish soldiers and officers.
On January 18, the troops of the 1st Ukrainian and the 1st Belorussian Fronts met in the area of Szydlowiec. This allowed the Soviet troops to launch an assault along the frontline of over 500 km and break through the German defense lines on theVistula. The enemy's "A" army group sustained a heavy defeat. The Soviet Army was moving rapidly toward German borders.
On January 19 the advance units entered .
By the end of January the Soviet troops reached the Oder, forced it and captured a position to the north and the south of Kustrin. The tankers of the 44th guard brigade became famous for their heroic performance as they moved forward in the advance unit of the 11th guard tank corps. The brigade left behind the retreating German units, reached the stronghold of the Mezeritz reinforced region and, without waiting for the corps' main forces, broke through the enemy defenses in an audacious attack, got into the enemy's rear and captured a position on the Oder. For their heroism and quick action the brigade's entire personnel received government decorations, eleven soldiers and officers were given the title of the Hero of the , and the Brigade's Commander Colonel I. Gusakovsky received his second "Gold Star" medal.
Within the 23 days of the offensive the 500-km-deep defenses between the Vistula and the were crushed. The Vistula-Oder operation was of paramount military and political importance. The Soviet troops with the participation of the 1st Polish Army and guerillas liberated a considerable part of Polish territory. War moved on to German territory and was waged now 60 km from its capital . The enemy sustained heavy losses: 35 divisions were destroyed, and 25 lost from 50 to 70 percent of their personnel. To oppose the advancing Soviet troops the Hitler Command had to transfer 29 divisions and 4 brigades from other directions of the Soviet-German Front, from inside of Germany and from the Western Front and to stop its offensive in the west. In this way the Soviet Army helped its allies.
THE EASTERN-PRUSSIAN OPERATION
Eastern Prussia had a most powerful defense system, including concrete fortifications. The Heilsberg reinforced area alone had over 900 long-term defense structures, covered with anti-tank trenches. The enemy grouping numbered up to 45 divisions with 580 thousand soldiers and officers, 8,200 guns and mortars, some 700 tanks and assault guns. The defense of East Prussia involved 200 thousand Volkssturm members. Ground troops were supported by 775 war aircraft. By the beginning of the offensive the Soviet troops had 1,669 thousand men, 25,426 guns and mortars, 3,859 tanks and self-propelled artillery installations, and 3,097 war aircraft.
On January 13, the Soviet troops launched an offensive. A thick and dense fog hung over the battlefield. Using the fog as a cover, the enemy let the infantry and tanks come close, then opened fire and started a counterstroke. This hampered the advance, but the Soviet offensive grew increasingly stronger.
On January 21, the Soviet troops liberated Gumbinnen, and on the following day Insterburg. The enemy put up stubborn resistance and it took many hours of fierce fighting to seize Gumbinnen. The defeat of the enemy near Insterburg opened the road to Königsberg and forced the Germans to retreat from the area of the Masurian Lakes. The Soviet Army began to pursue the enemy.
On February 10, Soviet troops began to liquidate the enemy grouping, pressed against the gulf to the southwest of Königsberg. During these days extraordinary energy and courage were displayed by the 38-year-old Commander of the Front General I. Chernyakhovsky.
On February 18, General Chernyakhovsky received a fatal wound on the battlefield near Malsak. The General was buried in Vilnius.
On March 29, the enemy grouping located southwest of Königsberg ceased to exist. It took 48 days to crush the grouping. Only a small part of the enemy units managed to cross the gulf and reach the bay bar, Frische-Nherung.
On April 6, , the Soviet troops began the storming of Königsberg.
On April 9, the Germans defending Königsberg surrendered.
On April 13-25 the remainder of the Eastern-Prussian German grouping concentrated on the Zemland peninsula was crushed by Soviet troops. The ground troops were backed by Baltic Fleet aircraft, war ships and submarines. During the East-Prussian operation more than 25 enemy divisions were destroyed, 12 divisions lost from 50 to 75 percent of their personnel. The Soviet Army took over the whole of East Prussia and liberated a large part of Poland's northern regions.
THE CARPATHIAN-PRAGUE DIRECTION
In the first half of January the Soviet troops launched an offensive on the frontline of the Vistula and Ondava rivers. Military operations were resumed in the southern regions of Slovakia. The troops had to advance in the severe winter conditions through mountains and forests.
In January-February the Soviet Army liberated Poland's southern regions and a large part of Slovakia.
By the end of February the Soviet troops got to the upper reaches of the Vistula and became engaged in the fighting at the approaches to the Moravska-Ostrava industrial area and on the western slopes of the Slovakian mining area on the River Gron.
On March 25 the Soviet troops delivered the first strikes against the enemy to the north of the Danube. After the surprise forced crossing of the River Gron, they rushed to the West, liberating one region of after another.
On April 4 the Soviet troops liberated the Slovakian capital and then developing the offensive the city of Brno.
From December 26, 1944, Soviet troops were engaged in the fighting aimed at liquidating the enemy grouping surrounded near Budapest. The main units fought on the outer front of the encirclement, and part of the Soviet troops turned the front to the east against the enemy units defending the western part of the city, Buda. The German Command ordered the garrison to defend the city to the last soldier, hoping to use the blows from the outside to break through the encirclement and restore the defense on the . To reach this goal, the enemy struck three counterblows. The bloody fighting persisted to the west of for more than a month.
On February 13 the Hungarian capital was liberated. The enemy's massive forces, which had tried to break through the encirclement, were destroyed on the following day near the city. More than 350 thousand soldiers and officers were decorated with the medal "For the Seizure of Budapest" established to mark the victory. Many units were named after the city. Along with Soviet troops, units of the Rumanian corps as well as over 2,500 Hungarian soldiers and officers of the Budaisk voluntary regiment were engaged in the fighting for Budapest.
On March 6 the German troops launched a counteroffensive. The Nazi leaders sought at any cost to throw the Soviet troops behind the Danube and retain the oil-rich areas south of Vienna and west of Lake Balaton. They concentrated massive forces southwest of Budapes and transferred several tank and infantry divisions from the western part of Germany and from Italy. The 6th SS tank army arrived from the Western Front.
On March 15 the enemy advance was stopped. The German tanks did not manage to break through to the Danube.
On March 16 the Soviet Army began the Viennese operation, which resulted in a German retreat.
On March 25 Soviet troops sent the enemy flying.
On April 4 the Soviet Army completed the liberation of Hungarian territory. Later the Presidium of the Hungarian People's Republic declared this day (April 4) a national holiday. More than 140,000 Soviet soldiers and officers lost their lives for the liberation of Hungary.
On April 13 the Soviet troops fully cleared Vienna from the Nazis. This was the sixth European capital liberated by the Soviet Army. The units that displayed courage in the fighting for were named after the city. The Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet established the medal "For the Seizure of Vienna" and decorated with it more than 270,000 soldiers and officers. More than 26,000 were killed in action, liberating Austria from Nazism.
Albert Kerscher's (511 Heavy Tank Battalion) scored his 100th kill, holding off the Russian Army
THE STORMING OF BERLIN
On the morning of April 16 the Soviet troops launched an offensive. The operation involved 2.5 million personnel, 41,600 guns and mortars, 6,250 tanks and self-propelled artillery guns, 7,500 war aircraft, including 800 long-range aircraft. A great number of artillery guns and tanks were concentrated on the directions of the main strikes. A key role was played by the famed Russian "Katyusha" rockets.
On April 25, the Soviet and American troops met in the area of Torgau.
By April 29, the Soviet troops took over a large part of the city and reached its center. On the day before the Division of General V.Shatilov took by storm the Moabit prison, where the Nazis had murdered the prominent Tatar poet Musa Dzhalil. The surviving prisoners were set free by the Soviet Army.
On April 30 Soviet troops began storming the Reichstag. Clashes took place in the building's halls, rooms and on the staircases. The enemy put up fierce resistance, but the Soviet soldiers pressed forward.
On the early morning of May 1 a red banner was flying on the Reichstag near the sculpture groups. The banner was erected by M. Yegorov and M. Kantaria. Thousands of soldiers and officers, who had stormed the Reichstag, were decorated with orders and medals. Officers A. Davydov, S. Neustroev, K. Samsonov, sergeants M. Yegorov, M. Kantaria and many others received the title of the Hero of the .
On May 8, in Karlshorst in a Berlin suburb, at 22 hours 43 minutes Central European time the Act for unconditional capitulation of the German Armed Forces was signed by the former Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht Supreme Command Field Marshal Keitel, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Admiral Friedeburg and Colonel General of the Air Forces Stumpf, who had been authorized by Dönitz (appointed by Hitler as Reich Chancellor and Commander-in-Chief). The signing ceremony was attended by Marshal of the Soviet Union G. Zhukov, Chief Marshal of the British Royal Air Force Tedder, and also, as witnesses, by American General Spaatz and French General Lattre de Tassigny.
On May 8 the operation was over. The Soviet people rejoiced at the news of the seizure of. By 25 salvoes from 324 guns hailed the courageous Soviet soldiers who had seized Berlin.