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War machine crumbles

By April, 1945, MURRAY CAMPBELL writes, Goebbels was pinning his country's hopes on a 'lucky star'

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The German war machine was in tatters. For nearly a decade it had rolled over Europe, knocking off governments and spreading the Nazi empire. Even when it was on the defensive, as in the months after the D-Day invasion of 1944, the German military was a formidable foe.

But by late April, 1945, the resistance to an Allied squeeze from east and west was fitful. Indeed, Soviet troops had encircled Berlin and were pressing toward the centre of the city where Hitler was holed up in an underground bunker.

U.S. troops closing in from the west stopped their advance only because they wanted to, not because they had encountered fierce resistance. They were close enough to Soviet formations -- about 55 kilometres -- that they could pick up their walkie-talkie radio messages. And in Italy, British soldiers were routing a badly disorganized enemy.

The Second World War was inexorably coming to an end. German leaders were refusing to surrender, but it was clear their ability to wage war had almost totally eroded.

"For all practical purposes, organized German resistance on well-defined front lines is at an end," an Associated Press correspondent wrote on April 19 from the banks of the Elbe River where U.S. troops had paused in their furious assault.

The view from inside a rapidly shrinking Nazi empire was similar. "The organic structure of the German front has ceased to exist," a German commentator said. "The terms west front and east front have lost their meaning."

It would have been difficult to persuade Canadian soldiers, however, that the war had become less intense. Soldiers of the 1st Canadian Army driving west in the Netherlands south of the Zuider Zee were confronted by German soldiers trying to halt their advance by flooding the area around Utrecht and Amsterdam. And in northwest Germany, a Canadian bridgehead was expanded only with a human cost that in the last days of the war seemed enormously wasteful.

The nightmarish quality of the conflict in late April was encapsulated perfectly in a feverish German attack on April 17 against Canadian positions in the Dutch town of Otterlo. The assault came just after midnight and caught many Canadians in bed. Hundreds of German soldiers stormed through the village, throwing grenades and firing at anything that appeared to move. It took six hours for the Canadians to prevail.

There was more victory in the next few hours as Canadian troops liberated Apeldoorn, happily without much struggle. The expectation had been that German troops withdrawing to what they perceived to be the safety of the western part of the Netherlands would put up stiff resistance. But on April 17, Dutch resistance reported that the enemy had departed, and Canadians strolled in to a rapturous reception from Dutch citizens -- jammed five deep on the sidewalks -- grateful that their city would not become a battleground.

Within hours, Dutch underground leaders told the Canadians of the reign of terror they had endured under German rule. In particular, they told about a day in mid-March, when 1,400 of their countrymen were executed in reprisal for the killing of a Gestapo general.

In Apeldoorn, 117 people were taken to the bullet-riddled car that marked the scene of the general's assassination, then shot by SS troops. Their bodies were left there, and for the rest of the day Dutch cyclists or pedestrians who passed were forced to walk on the corpses before being allowed to continue their journeys.

Canadian soldiers were also part of the effort by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery to capture northern German seaports. The 2nd Canadian Corps, given the task of taking Emden, were meeting bitter resistance as the Canadians slowly expanded a bridgehead over the Küsten canal. Canadian officers described German counterattacks as so "absolutely fanatical" that no notice was taken of the slaughter within their ranks.

And what of Hitler, whose dream of a 1,000-year Reich was dying a fiery death? It appeared that the German leader had defied expectations that he would flee to a mountain redoubt in Bavaria and was prepared to end the war in Berlin even as Soviet troops were wandering through its suburbs.

The city was being hammered by Soviet artillery and by U.S., Canadian and British bombers. An AP story said that 70,000 tonnes of bombs had been dropped on Berlin in the previous few months, more than 10 times the amount that had fallen on London during the 11-month Battle of Britain. Berliners noting the billowing clouds of smoke overhead called their city Reichsscheiterbaufen --"funeral pyre of the Reich."

The AP reported on April 22 that 8,000 people had been killed that day in the capital. The next day, The Globe and Mail ran a picture of the once-magnificent boulevard Unter Den Linden and proclaimed it "battered beyond recognition."

On April 19, on the eve of his 56th birthday, Hitler was still expressing optimism that he could prevail, as he did in his ascent to power in the early 1930s. "However great and crushing the enemy's superiority may appear to us, we will break it just as we did in those days," a German news agency reported him saying. His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was more realistic, pinning Nazi hopes on luck. "We are witnessing the last acts of a tremendous tragedy," he wrote in his weekly paper Das Reich. "Let us stake our hopes on our lucky star."

Hitler's birthday was marked by complete radio silence. The boastful praise of earlier years was missing in 1945 because the transmitters that allowed a German radio network from Calais to the Caucasus had been badly damaged.

Two days later, Hitler accepted, by implication, that the vast German legions of earlier years had been reduced to a guerrilla operation, and he ordered his commanders to disrupt his enemy's rear and flank with the hope of cutting lines of communication.

Amid the screaming headlines of German disintegration, The Globe took time to note on April 19 the greatest anticlimax of the war -- the end of the blackout in Britain after five years and seven months. A New York Times story reported that at 9:15 p.m. on April 23, the light at the top of the clock tower of Big Ben would be switched on for the first time since Aug. 31, 1939.

The long night was finally ending.

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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