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Closing in on the crumbling Nazi empire

As the noose tightened 60 years ago, a high price had yet to be paid

From Monday's Globe and Mail

They knew it was nearly over, that six years of blood-drenched war in Europe was coming to an end, but they were under no illusions about how easy it would be.

Canadians reading their newspapers 60 years ago this week could see daily progress toward victory in the Second World War. They could not have known, as they looked over the dozens of stories on Jan. 31, 1945, that the war in Europe would last another 98 days.

They would certainly have known, however, that the Nazis were not going to be easily defeated. Decades on, there is a sense among casual readers of history that the victory in Europe was the smooth outcome of the invasion of Normandy in June, 1944. There may have been a sense of inevitability about the German defeat, but contemporary witnesses knew that there was a price paid for every kilometre gained against fierce Nazi troops.

The Soviet Army -- invariably referred to as the Reds -- was a stiletto pointed from the east at Berlin, the heart of the crumbling German empire. Soldiers from Canada, Britain and the United States were making slower progress on the western front, but defences were being overwhelmed.

And, from the air, Allied forces were delivering tonnes of bombs on Berlin and other German cities, disrupting daily life and leaving millions homeless.

Hitler was preparing his citizens for a final stand. In a radio address on Jan. 30, 1945, marking the 12th anniversary of his ascendancy to Germany's chancellorship, he warned of a "horrid fate" unfolding because of the Russian attack in the east. Even as he predicted ultimate victory, he spoke of "almost unbearable suffering and tribulations" as his nation fought for its survival.

"I expect every German to do his duty to the last," Hitler said in his broadcast. "Every fit man must stake his life and body. The sick and infirm or otherwise dispensable must work to the last ounce of their strength."

As the Nazi leader was speaking, the arrival in Paris of a confidant of U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt sparked reports that preparations were being made for the imminent surrender of the Germans. There were even reports that a draft "instrument of surrender" to be presented to the Nazis had been approved.

Both sides were reacting to the unexpectedly swift advance by the Soviet Army that was part of a broader attack from the east that had begun in mid-January.

On Jan. 31, the Soviets were said to be 73 miles from Berlin; a day later that was down to 63 miles or, as a Globe and Mail copy editor carefully inserted into an Associated Press story, "a distance about equal to that from Toronto to Paris, Ont." By Feb. 6, the papers were reporting that Soviet Army units were less than 30 miles from the German capital. "No miracle can save Berlin," a Soviet broadcast declared that day. "Its fall can be delayed only for a few weeks at the most."

In the west, the U.S. First and Third armies pierced the once legendary defences of the Siegfried Line, but progress deeper into Germany was slowed by fierce fighting. A day in which four miles of frigid, snow-covered territory was gained was considered noteworthy. By Feb. 5, U.S. and French troops had finally closed the so-called Colmar Pocket in which German troops had been trapped up against the Rhine River since the previous autumn.

British and Canadian soldiers had "completed elimination" (as a Jan. 31 AP dispatch said) of the last of the Germans holding out among the dikes north of Tilburg, Holland. Soldiers with the First Canadian Army learned from papers found on the body of a killed German officer that rewards of 100 cigarettes and two bottles of cognac were being given out for "good work" in defending positions against Canadian patrols.

The Germans were also thinking of Canada as they tried to hold Italy in the winter of 1945. On the Canadian front, along the Senlo River near the Adriatic Sea, they were dropping leaflets welcoming their enemies to the front lines in a mocking way. "Of course, the fellows who stayed home altogether are far better off," one leaflet said. "They have taken your jobs and besides kissing your girls are making plenty of money while you are out here in the mud."

The Germans who stayed at home may not have been better off in the last months of the war. On Feb. 1, for example, an armada of more than 1,000 Royal Air Force planes attacked Berlin to prevent troop deployments to the eastern front. During the day, 700 U.S. heavy bombers, escorted by 300 fighter-bombers, hammered cities on the Rhine.

Radio and newspaper reports from other European capitals -- such as Stockholm, Bern and Luxembourg -- all gave a picture of deep anxiety in Berlin. In the eastern part of Germany, the Soviet offensive had raised the number of war refugees to more than 23 million, or more than a third of the country's prewar population. It's little wonder that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, declared in an article in Das Reich: "It's just before zero hour." A military radio broadcast chided those who did not fully back the war effort: "Too many lack the fanaticism the hour demands."

But it wasn't clear how the German leaders intended to rally their citizens. The New York Times reported on Jan. 30 that Hitler had moved his headquarters to the Harz Mountains. Swedish reports had Goebbels planning a scorched-earth policy that would destroy Berlin before it could be captured. Two days later, however, reports indicated that Goebbels, too, had fled to Bavaria where supplies were being stockpiled in anticipation of a last-ditch defence of the Third Reich. Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the Gestapo, was said by those fleeing Germany to be preparing to join Hitler at his mountain retreat, Berchtesgaden. Much of the previous year's harvest in Poland was being stored in caves around Munich while diplomats were buzzing that Belgium's King Leopold would be held hostage, the reports said.

In the end, of course, Hitler stayed in his Berlin bunker, killing himself as enemy troops overtook the city.

Even as the war entered its last stage, Allied leaders were planning the postwar world. The first indications that the British, U.S. and Soviet leaders were up to something came in late January when Churchill did not show up in the Commons and the U.S. Secretary of State left Rome for an undisclosed location. The tease continued for days with AP reporting that "the fate of Germany was being decided by the Big Three somewhere east of London." We now know that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt spent the first few days of February at the Black Sea resort of Yalta to plan the postwar occupation of Germany and to divvy up their spheres of influence.

In Canada, prime minister Mackenzie King was trying to maintain his own sphere of influence in the face of a major political reversal when his hand-picked candidate for defence minister was soundly rejected by voters in a by-election.

Throughout the war, King had tried to avoid introducing conscription, knowing how bitterly it was opposed by French Canadians in 1917-18. But his ability to resist conscripting troops for overseas service was undermined by the position of his defence minister, J.L. Ralston, who believed that Canadian soldiers were dying in Europe because of a shortage of men. So, King fired him and appointed as his successor Andrew McNaughton, a former general who had commanded the First Canadian Army in Europe.

He then set out to find a Commons seat. The opposition, particularly Progressive Conservative leader John Bracken, used the Feb. 5 by-election in the Ontario riding of Grey North to drive home the message that Canadian troops overseas were feeling let down by their government. A Globe report characterized it as a "campaign of name-calling and innuendoes." Two days before the vote, Tories hauled on to an election platform in Owen Sound, two decorated war heroes (including George Hees, later a Tory cabinet minister himself) to plead for reinforcements.

McNaughton professed himself mystified at the reasons for his defeat but Globe editors knew better and rebuked King for turning a deaf ear to the cries for "truth and decency in the name of fighting men who have pledged all in the battle of freedom." An accompanying cartoon showed critics, including General H. D. G. Crerar, telling King: "We told you so."

If anti-government feeling over conscription took hold -- in English Canada, at least -- it may have been because Canadians were not allowed to distance themselves from the fate of soldiers fighting overseas. Newspapers, including The Globe, ran daily listings of those killed in action, wounded, captured or missing that served as a constant reminder that war had its cost.

The sobering total for this week in the depth of winter when victory could be tasted: 1,055.

Nazi-held territory in February, 1945

The dark areas show Nazi-controlled territory as of February 1, 1945, with the Soviet Army pressing toward Berlin from the east while U.S., British, Canadian, and French forces were fighting their way toward the capital from the west and south.

SOURCE: THE TIMES ATLAS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR

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