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Soviet push

As the Eastern front advanced, the Allies faced sporadic and dangerously unpredictable resistance, MURRAY CAMPBELL writes

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The final chapter of the Second World War began in darkness, amid the mud and leafless trees, when a Soviet commander shouted out: ''Now, comrades, now.''And with that order in the predawn hours of April 16, 1945, some two million Red Army soldiers rushed forth into the heart of Germany, their path lit by red flares, dozens of huge searchlights and the headlights of thousands of tanks and trucks. The noose around Hitler's Third Reich was tightening.

With an awesome display of power, the well-stocked Soviet armies -- seven million artillery shells had been stockpiled -- pushed forward along a 200-kilometre front across the ice-filled Oder River.

The Germans knew where they were headed and pulled back to a secondary line of defence. If they hadn't done so, it's questionable whether the advance would have been successful because the central assault on Berlin by the 1st Red Army wasn't particularly well organized. German artillery units used the searchlights to target their fire, and hundreds of Soviet soldiers died leaving their positions because their own minefields hadn't been cleared. There were even reports of some senior officers being so drunk on vodka that they couldn't fight.

But the deafening fire from 42,000 Soviet guns thundered ceaselessly throughout the day in Berlin, just 37 kilometres to the west. Within hours, Hitler issued special orders commanding German soldiers on the eastern front to "drown the Bolshevik assault in a bloodbath."

Meanwhile, U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower was warning Germans that resistance from their soldiers on the Western Front had collapsed. He warned against "fanatics" who would attempt to sabotage ports that would be needed to import food and fuel after the war.

"The power of the men behind these fanatics is crumbling," he said in an April 10 broadcast heard in Germany. "It will be broken with the arrival of Allied armies. Then your ports will be used at once."

Indeed, the Allied drive on the Western Front was meeting only spasmodic enemy resistance with the U.S. 1st and 9th armies in a neck-and-neck race toward Berlin. At the same time, the U.S. 3rd Army severed ties between the German capital and the southern part of the country, effectively splitting it in two. At one point during the week, the 3rd Army reported that it hadn't heard a rifle shot in the previous 24 hours as it rolled eastward along a six-lane autobahn.

The military assault continued despite German hopes that the sudden death on April 12 of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt would weaken the united front of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. A German news agency dismissed the U.S. leader as "nothing but a dictator . . . the chief war criminal." His successor, Harry Truman, pledged immediately to continue both the war effort and the postwar security talks, which led to the formation of the United Nations.

One indication of the continuing commitment was the massive bombardment of German airfields in April, 1945, that essentially knocked the once-feared Luftwaffe out of the war. Royal Air Force and U.S. planes continued to bomb Berlin, as they had been doing for more than two months, in a bid to soften it for conquest. On April 14, for example, the RAF sent 700 heavy bombers over the capital and suburban Potsdam, where the German army had its headquarters. The response was so weak that British pilots reported just one air battle.

Indeed, Allied pilots had largely undiminished access to targets because the Germans had neither fuel nor pilots and, as a result, records for destruction were set daily. In the first 16 days of April, at least 2,950 German aircraft were wrecked.

Canadian soldiers in the last full month of the war were fighting against pockets of fierce resistance in the Netherlands. Groningen, a city near the North Sea, was captured by the 2nd Division on April 16, isolating German forces in the western part of the country. Just over the border, in the small German town of Sogel, Canadian troops discovered just how formless -- and dangerous -- the last days of the war could be.

Globe and Mail correspondent Ralph Allen described a German counterattack against the town as "a huge donnybrook to the death" played out in thick early-morning fog around a hotel filled with war reporters, German women and Canadian snipers. A Canadian field-ambulance unit wondered why it had been attacked so vigorously that small-arms fire was coming in the windows of dressing stations. Then it discovered that it had been holding a small portion of the shifting front.

As if the limited visibility weren't enough of a problem, many of the Germans were very young men who wore no discernible military uniform. At one point, Lewis Etson of Calgary, a driver with the 4th Armoured Division, raced under fire to the hotel with his bootlaces undone after strolling, unarmed and casual, up to a group of German soldiers he mistook for Canadians.

Inside the hotel, Mr. Allen took note of a German woman who cried constantly throughout the battle. "There was no fear in her eyes that you could detect," he wrote on April 11. "Only a sort of despair and hapless resentment against the choking cruelty of forces over which she had no control."

In Canada, the newspapers continued to run stories of jubilation alongside tales of ineffable sorrow.

Some stories emphasized the country's newfound economic might, a relief for a population that had lived through the 1930s Depression. Munitions Minister C. D. Howe said war production was at a peak and pledged to keep it that way until peace came. He noted that Canada had built more than 14,000 aircraft and 800 ships since the war began.

War brides continued to arrive -- "fine, healthy, rosy-cheeked British girls," in The Globe's view -- and their apprehension about a new country gave way to exultation over the peace and abundance of their adopted home. Ottawa announced that it would build 600 houses in Toronto to ease the city's housing crisis.

But the daily casualty reports were a constant reminder that the fighting in Europe was not over. Routinely, the front-page lists of casualties were supplemented by stories that put a human face on the loss of life. Douglas LeBar, for example, was just 25 when he was killed in action on March 8. He had grown up in Toronto, attending Jesse Ketchum School and had been overseas since November, 1941. He had been wounded after D-Day and had just returned to the Royal Regiment of Canada when he was killed in Germany.

Sadder still, perhaps, was the story of two boyhood chums, Gordon Phillips and Alex Johnston, who were reported missing after air operations over Germany. The two 20-year-old flight sergeants grew up on the same Toronto street, enlisted together in the RCAF and received their air gunner's wings at the same time.

Inseparable to the end, they were together aboard a Lancaster in an RAF squadron when they disappeared.

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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