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Allied juggernaut

With supply lines cut and one million troops taken prisoner, the German army was fading fast

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The flip side of the Allied juggernaut steaming toward Berlin was the confusion and misery that was the daily lot of German soldiers in the last days of the Second World War.

In April of 1945, the German army, which had regrouped brilliantly after the Normandy invasion 10 months earlier, was maintaining disorganized, often spotty -- but occasionally fanatical -- resistance. Its supply lines had been cut in many places, and more than a million of its troops had been taken prisoner in the previous four months.

Soviet troops were within 50 kilometres of Berlin, while the massive front of U.S., Canadian and British soldiers that had breeched the Rhine River was less than 300 kilometres away. German commanders, desperate to stabilize the western front, were throwing into the fray every soldier available, regardless of whether they had combat training or even weapons.

In fact, there was a desperate shortage of small arms, particularly the machine pistol that the Wehrmacht preferred to use in combat. According to an April 1 Associated Press dispatch from Marburg, near Frankfurt, many German soldiers were destroying their weapons before surrendering to U.S. troops, and "hundreds were sent into action unarmed with crisp orders to 'look for guns on the battlefield.' Not surprisingly, many Germans sent back to the front under those conditions are deserting at the first opportunity."

The fervour of the enemy resistance varied widely across the 300-kilometre front billowing out from the east bank of the Rhine. The Globe and Mail's Ralph Allen reported on March 29 that there was resentment among Canadian troops that other Allied soldiers were sailing toward the heart of Germany while they were locked in hand-to-hand combat, "taking casualties to win another acrid and insignificant heap of rubble whose place in history is unlikely to survive the red smear which now identifies it on battle maps." Canadians, he wrote, are "doing more than their share of fighting on the Western front."

But the strategic situation was changing dramatically. Canadian troops on the northern flank of the Allied advance were given, apparently in a last-minute change of plans, the responsibility of liberating the Netherlands.

Canadian Press correspondent Ross Munro speculated on April 1 that Allied commanders had succumbed to pressure from the Free Netherlands government to divert troops from Germany for the job. He said the partial collapse of enemy opposition in the breakout from the Rhine persuaded Allied officials that the Canadians could be spared.

The early indications were that German commanders were more interested in getting their troops back home for the defence of Berlin. The central task thought to be facing the Canadians was feeding the malnourished Dutch.

A censorship blanket covered the Canadians' early hours in the Netherlands and there was uncertainty about in which direction their advance was headed. But reports said that the Calgary Highlanders and the Royal Highland (Black Watch) regiments, among others, were advancing around Arnhem amid little resistance.

What correspondents did not know at that time was that U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, had written to the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, on March 28, to say that the four million soldiers under his control would not drive for Berlin but would, instead, stop at the Elbe River, about 80 kilometres to the west of the capital.

Eisenhower's decisions underscored the growing dissension among the Allies, particularly between U.S. and British commanders. Publicly, everyone was united, but behind the scenes, the Americans were, in particular, tiring of the pretensions of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. The Americans also could not help but note that they had 2.5 million soldiers on the Western front, compared with 866,000 British troops.

Eisenhower did not consult any political or military superiors before writing Stalin, which angered Winston Churchill, but the strategy to allow Soviet troops to conquer Berlin stood, although it remained controversial.

As it was, in the first few days of April, the 2nd British Army under Montgomery had swept 160 kilometres out of the Rhine bridgehead, overrunning a vast area of northern Germany in a drive toward the Baltic Sea.

At the same time, the 3rd U.S. Army under Lieutenant-General George Patton had smashed to points less than 300 kilometres from Berlin.

An April 2 New York Times dispatch said the southern and northern flanks of the Rhineland front had made important progress. It noted the "solid gains" of Canadian soldiers thrusting north from the Germany city of Emmerich to disrupt supply lines for V-2 sites.

Confidence was growing that there was no organized defence line confronting the Allies and that the war, in military terms, had ended.

"The sweeping advances of the last seven days have obscured the fact that what remains of the German army in the west is being destroyed," wrote Times correspondent Drew Middleton, noting the massive numbers of German prisoners being taken.

Despite the general trend, however, Patton's troops were finding pockets of fierce resistance. German fanatics wanting to fight to the death had formed a "Werewolf" underground terrorist organization, according to Nazi officials. Among their first acts were the assassinations of the mayors of two occupied German cities, and there were claims that some U.S. Army officers had been murdered.

But as the last month of the conflict began, there were also reports that the German High Command had advised Hitler that continuation of the war was impossible and that his government should resign in anticipation of an armistice.

On April 1, Canadians got an update on the tragic cost of the war with the release of casualty figures by the National Defence Department. To the end of February, 33,266 military personnel had been killed, with a further 45,251 wounded, 4,163 missing in action and 8,157 interned. The article about this rated just five paragraphs on the bottom of The Globe's front page. The story emphasized that Canadian army casualties in February -- 2,661 dead, wounded or missing in action -- were the third-lowest total since D-Day.

The Wartime Information Board estimated that more than a million Canadians had put on uniforms in the first five years of this long and bloody conflict.

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.

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