Skip navigation

'Its men were beaten'

The Nazi war machine became a ghost of what it once was as German troops surrendered in droves in 1945, MURRAY CAMPBELL writes

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Quite suddenly, resistance from the vaunted Nazi war machine seemed to dissipate. As the second week of March, 1945, began, Allied soldiers at many points along the 250-kilometre front on Germany's Rhine River reported that they were taking territory without a fight.

The U.S. 3rd Army stormed up to the west bank of the Rhine on the night of March 7 after having covered more than 100 kilometres in just 58 hours against German soldiers who appeared to be reeling in chaotic defeat.

Enemy troops appeared to be concerned only with retreating to safety or surrendering as quickly as possible. Masses of German equipment were destroyed and supply dumps were captured so rapidly that there was no time to evaluate what was there.

"The most complete picture of defeat the war in the West has produced," wrote Associated Press correspondent Edward Ball. "Its men were beaten, its equipment destroyed."

The story was much the same on the other side of Germany, where Soviet forces had launched an all-out offensive toward Berlin from beachheads on the Oder River about 50 kilometres to the east.

Churchill was ecstatic, saying that "one strong heave" could end the Second World War after more than five years. "We will soon bring down tyranny so you can go home," he said during a visit with a Scottish regiment fighting alongside Canadian troops on the northern Rhine. The British prime minister stopped at an artillery position long enough to write, "For Hitler -- Personal" in chalk on a 360-pound shell and then watch as it was fired at the Rhine ferry crossing the town of Xanten a few kilometres away.

But the ebullient Churchill was overlooking the difficult job that the 1st Canadian Army was having in the Xanten area. Canadian Press correspondent Ross Munro said the British and Canadian soldiers fighting under General H. D. G. Crerar were involved in the stickiest job of the campaign that had started with the D-Day invasion of France nine months earlier.

About 20,000 German troops, compressed in an area on the west bank of the Rhine measuring 12 kilometres by eight kilometres, were fighting bitterly. No one was sure why this was the case when their countrymen at other points along the front looked like they had given up. "Perhaps the Germans could not move the guns and ammunition dumps back over the Rhine and decided to fight as long as their ammunition holds out," Munro wrote on March 7.

By week's end, however, the last-ditch stand had petered out and Gen. Crerar's forces, with about 21,000 captured enemy soldiers, were resting in ruined German towns for the first time since they had launched an offensive a month earlier in the Netherlands.

The week's most remarkable action -- one which set the stage for a quicker-than-anticipated conquest of Germany -- occurred at the little Rhine town of Remagen. An armoured division of the U.S. 1st Army had arrived at the town to find the Ludendorff Bridge across the river still standing despite Hitler's order to his retreating forces to blow up all bridges.

The bridge was, in fact, wired for demolition and though German forces on the eastern bank of the Rhine blew a 10-metre crater at the bridge's approach, U.S. soldiers managed to cut the wires to the main explosive minutes before its planned demolition. The capture of the bridge, which was chronicled in a 1969 Hollywood film, The Bridge at Remagen, saved thousands of lives that would have been lost in an assault crossing the Rhine. The bridge was used to funnel U.S. forces and equipment and establish a bridgehead.

By March 12, the bridgehead was 18 kilometres wide and eight kilometres deep and U.S. forces were 450 kilometres from Berlin and poised for attack on the great war factories of the Ruhr River valley.

Hitler was apoplectic about the Allies' successes. On March 11, German radio read a statement from the Nazi leader in which he said that country's defeat in 1918 would not be repeated. "Drunk with their orgy of victory, our enemies have clearly announced their war aims: extermination of the German nation," the manifesto said.

But even though Hitler once again exhorted his countrymen to fight with "courage, endurance and fanaticism," it was clear that the Nazi war machine was a ghost of the force that launched blitzkrieg offensives in Europe in 1939. In Paris, the Allied Supreme Headquarters revealed on March 11 that 50 generals of the German army had been lost: 18 of them killed and 32 captured. The dead included the hero of the Nazi African campaign, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

The Allies also announced that more than a million German soldiers had been captured since D-Day, including 138,000 rounded up by the 1st Canadian Army. Another 500,000 German troops had been killed or seriously wounded.

With numbers like those, it's little wonder that a Reuters reporter in London concluded on March 9 that "the will to resistance of the bulk of the German soldiers and civilians, as distinct from the fanaticism of special units and the mechanical obedience of the rest, is definitely broken."

As those words were being written, civilians in newly captured Cologne were looting stores and liquor warehouses with such exuberance that a U.S. Army lieutenant from Salt Lake City said, "It's like Saturday night back home when the carnival's in town."

In Toronto, meanwhile, city officials making tentative plans for a celebration of the eventual victory in Europe doubted that the rejoicing would get out of hand the way it had in 1918. Stores in the downtown area were making no plans to shutter their windows but, nevertheless, all police leave would be cancelled when Germany finally capitulated. Amid this prospect of euphoria, a Canadian soldier -- and former Globe and Mail carrier boy -- thought he detected a sense back home that the German collapse had made warfare easy.

"Do they figure we're having a soft time of it?" Trooper Mel Smith, serving in New Brunswick's North Shore regiment wrote in The Globe on March 9. "If they figure we're having a picnic over here, they want to go out in their backyards and dig a slit trench and stand up in it all night and sleep in it in the daytime, especially when it is so cold that the water in your water bottle freezes."

Please e-mail the Dominion Institute at staff@dominion.ca

if you have any letters or photos from Canadian soldiers who died

in the final months of the Second World War.

Recommend this article? 36 votes

Back to top