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Bombs pulverized German cities

The destructive force of the new weapons hastened war's end, writes MURRAY CAMPBELL

From Monday's Globe and Mail

They called it the Grand Slam and the Town Buster, and for a few months, until atomic weapons were dropped on Japan, it was the deadliest armament humans had ever invented.

The 11-tonne bombs dropped over Germany on the night of March 14, 1945, were nearly twice was big as anything used previously in the Second World War. The weapons, developed by the British government, were eight metres long, more than a metre in diameter and combined great power of penetration with massive explosive force.

They were so big that the four-engined Lancaster bombers carrying them had to be reinforced, their bomb bays cut away and two crewmen left behind to save weight. And the pilots found their planes bounced 500 feet higher at the moment the massive bombs were released.

One bomb dropped that night took out more than 60 metres of a concrete viaduct near Bielefeld. A Canadian flight engineer in the attacking Royal Air Force squadron said the new weapon made anything he had witnessed before seem "like babies in comparison."

Flying Officer L. T. Inglis, an air gunner from Pictou, N.S., said when he returned to England: "It was as if the earth had opened up."

For many Germans, the destructive force of the new weapons piled insult upon injury. For more than a month, massive fleets of Allied planes rained destruction, day and night, on Germany.

On March 15, for example, 2,100 U.S. warplanes -- part of the 7,000 planes in the air that day -- sowed 3,500 tonnes of high explosives and incendiaries near Berlin. The raid knocked out the general headquarters of the German army.

After the initial raid, the RAF continued to hurl the Town Busters at western Germany, but in some cases their power was redundant. Essen and Dortmund, in the industrial Ruhr Valley, were written off that week as "dead cities" after two of the war's mightiest aerial attacks.

Winston Churchill confidently predicted victory over the Nazis by the end of the summer. "Victory lies before us -- certain and perhaps near."

Reports indicated the same level of hopefulness among Allied soldiers struggling to cross the Rhine River, but it was mixed with a realization they were fighting a political and military war.

"The Nazi Party controls the army more firmly now than it ever did before the attempt on Hitler's life last July and does not show the slightest sign of throwing in the towel," Canadian Press correspondent Ross Munro wrote.

Despite this, the U.S. 3rd Army swept through the Saar Basin in southwestern Germany. Backed by fighter planes, troops roamed the region almost at will, and headed toward Coblenz at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers.

Roads were jammed with German troops and civilians fleeing east toward the river. U.S. troops, who 10 days earlier had broken out from a bridgehead at Remagen (when the Nazis failed to demolish a bridge), had advanced far enough to cut in two places the six-lane "superhighway" between Frankfurt and Cologne.

The collapse of the weakened Ludendorff bridge on March 18 did not impede the shipment of arms and men across the Rhine, however, as engineers had built a number of pontoon bridges. (A U.S. Army sergeant who was there the day the bridge was crossed told reporters that the German soldier assigned to blow it up was drunk when U.S. forces captured it.) The Nazis were determined that such a blunder would not happen again.

On March 19, retreating forces blew up three bridges over the Rhine at Mainz, near Frankfurt. Until that time, German soldiers, indulging in a hasty rout that The Globe and Mail described as "sauve qui peut," were abandoning arms and equipment and legging to the temporary safety of the river's east bank, every man for himself.

But in their hurry to forestall the capture of any intact bridges, the Germans trapped about 2,000 of their soldiers on the river's west bank, leaving them with the choice of swimming or being captured.

As the area under Nazi control shrank, diplomats from the Allied countries said they were bracing for a wave of informal peace bids as Germany attempted to sow dissension.

One U.S. soldier, meanwhile, had made his own, separate peace.

A March 16 Associated Press dispatch told the story of a 22-year-old sergeant who took over the military government of three suburbs of München-Gladbach, near Düsseldorf, issued passes to German civilians and billeted officers in the choicest of rooms. Commissioning himself as a lieutenant, he also "acquired the best-looking blonde he could find" and, when he discovered she was a nurse, appointed her as head of his health and welfare department.

The U.S. soldier, who had been awed by the elegance of German homes and decided to have "a helluva time," eventually was unmasked by a (real) U.S. lieutenant and sent to the brig.

There was sparse news from the eastern front, but Moscow radio was warning that the battle for Berlin was coming very soon. On March 18, Soviet troops captured the battered German Baltic naval port of Kolberg (now Kolobzreg) after a 13-day siege. Berlin reported, however, that fierce battles were raging along the 600-kilometre southern portion of the front.

The nearing victory sparked consternation in Britain after the United States announced on March 18 that shipments of meat under its Lend-Lease program would be cut by 87 per cent in the second quarter of 1945. London newspapers treated the announcement as sensational news. They reported that the new allotment of 25 million pounds in the subsequent three months would provide just one ounce weekly per person.

In Canada, the butter ration was raised an ounce to seven ounces weekly, but returning soldiers were causing huge problems in Toronto. The city's chief housing officer said the shortage of accommodation was six times as severe as it had been in 1944, because soldiers and their families were coming back to claim apartments and houses they had sublet years earlier.

A naval petty officer who returned on leave to find his wife and child facing eviction from their sublet flat threatened to desert, saying he didn't want to fight for a country that couldn't provide accommodation for his family. Even sadder was the tale of a woman who, within the space of five minutes, received a notice of eviction and a telegram notifying her that her husband had been killed in the Netherlands.

Please e-mail the Dominion Institute at staff@dominion.ca if you have any letters or photographs from Canadian soldiers who died in the final months of the Second World War.

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