Storm of War | Part 2 - History of the Second World War

We shall not fail now. Let us move forward steadfastly together into the storm and through the storm.

— Winston Churchill, February 1942 —

Eye of the Storm: 1942-43

Adolf Hitler was confident that victory would come in 1942. His armies would smash through what remained of Russia while Mussolini (with German help) would conquer Egypt and cross into the Middle East to seize Britain’s oil fields. Together, they would then march on India in the manner of Alexander the Great, help the Japanese seize the “Jewel in the British Crown.” Meanwhile, the U-boat blockade would starve the British Isles. Then the Axis Powers would confront the United States with the combined might of Europe, Asia and Africa under their sway. The reality, of course, was very different.

        The third full year of war in Europe opened with news of more Japanese victories in the Pacific as one island fortress after another fell before the might of Yamato’s children. (The Japanese defeat at Midway Island in June soon put an end to their offensive operations.) On the Eastern Front, the Soviets had reinforced the defenses around Moscow with troops from Siberian garrisons, so Hitler shifted south to capture the oil fields around the Caucasian mountains—without these resources, Stalin’s armies would wither and die. The gateway to southern Russia was the industrial city of Stalingrad, named for the Soviet dictator in recognition of his victory over the Czar’s forces during the Russian Civil War. The assault on Stalingrad began in September 1942 after early moves to expand the front eastward toward the Volga River, securing the German left flank. Again, Stalin ordered his soldiers to fight where they stood: “Not one step back!” read his order of September 30th. The city was soon ruined by bombardment and street-by-street fighting. Meanwhile, to the north, General Zhukov (recently arrived from Moscow) began to slowly push the Germans back, exposing their flank as the temperatures dropped yet again. By December, the city was surrounded, and the German Sixth Army was running out of food. Soviet snipers felled one officer after another, and the Germans’ leadership structure began to break down. By January 1943, the Sixth Army was seeking permission to surrender—which was refused—and the army was finally overrun on February 2nd. Hitler’s refusal to consider pulling back, and his hubris at believing his soldiers would fight on at all costs while the High Command abandoned them, had cost him the last chance of victory. Soon, defeat on the Eastern Front stared him in the face when his tank armies were crushed at Kursk in July 1943. For the Germans, the only way in Russia now was back toward the Fatherland.

        In North Africa, where fighting had raged back and forth along the coastal plain in Libya and Egypt for two years, the German Afrika Korps now pressed its attack under the leadership of General Erwin Rommel. A staunch patriot but not a member of the Nazi Party, Rommel was recognized as Germany’s greatest general and a favorite of the Führer. The British Eighth Army defending Egypt had gone through three commanders in as many years as Churchill sacked one general after another, desperately trying to find someone who could handle the threat from Rommel. In August 1942, the Afrika Korps suffered a minor defeat at the rail station of El Alamein, sixty miles west of Cairo, at the hands of General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery. Now running short of supplies, Rommel pulled back but remained in Egypt, bracing for a counterattack. Montgomery, however, felt he had plenty of time to prepare his troops. He finally moved only when Rommel advanced a second time. The Germans ran into a large British minefield near El Alamein, and Montgomery’s artillery destroyed what few enemy tanks remained. With his armor units destroyed, Rommel’s Afrika Korps now retreated. Days later, on November 7, 1942, an Anglo-American task force landed in French Northwest Africa under the command of US Army General Dwight Eisenhower. With Montgomery advancing from the east and Eisenhower from the west, Rommel had no choice but to fall back to Tunisia. By January 1943, his army was dwindling (yet still powerful enough to inflict heavy casualties on the Americans at Kasserine Pass), and all Axis forces surrendered to the Allies in May. One continent had been liberated.

        At sea, the German U-boats were now confronted with the vast production capacity of the United States. Germany’s surface fleet had been largely scrapped after the defeat of the Bismarck, but America put so many sub-hunting corvettes and escort destroyers into the waters of the Atlantic that the Germans were simply overrun. By the end of the year, the German Navy had been reduced to patrolling the coasts of France and Norway in search of Allied landing ships. Likewise, Germany’s efforts to control its own skies were frustrated in 1942 as American bombers appeared over German cities and rained fire and destruction unlike anything seen before. The Allied strategy of “strategic bombing”—deliberately targeting cities to destroy production facilities and demoralize the population—has been the subject of controversy and debate since the war’s end, and in hindsight its effectiveness is questionable. Nevertheless, it did bring the war home to the German people and gave them a taste of the medicine doled out by their Führer on Britons earlier in the war.

        1942 was also a “turning point” for Hitler’s war against the Jews of Europe. With Germany now largely “cleansed” of Jews by the start of the war, the Nazis now turned their attention to the problem of those living in conquered territories. Walled ghettos had been set up in most major conquered cities across the Reich to concentrate the Jews in specific areas, but the concentration camps in Germany were overflowing with political prisoners and other “undesirables” like homosexuals, the disabled, and religious dissidents. In January 1942, a group of second-level Nazi bureaucrats led by Reinhard Heydrich (head of the Reich Main Security Office) met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. There, they laid out plans for a “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The question was what to do with the six million Jews who had been absorbed into the Reich by its military conquests. Some proposals included forced sterilization and euthanasia—already in progress under the T-4 program in Munich—but these were rejected by Heydrich as taking too long to complete. In the end, SS colonel Adolf Eichmann presented Heydrich’s own ideas for the Final Solution: two short-term and one long-term. First, the existing concentration and labor camps would be augmented with mobile gas vans whose exhaust fumes would be pumped into sealed compartments at the back; Jews would be loaded into the vans, driven about town and poisoned, then their bodies would be removed and burned. Second, the Waffen-SS (military arm of the SS police) would form six task forces which would move into occupied areas once secured by the Army, where they would form death squads and shoot Jews and other undesirables by the thousands; their bodies would be dumped into mass graves. In the long run, these options would still leave Germany with millions of Jews to be dealt with, so Eichmann proposed enlarging six existing concentration camps and constructing vast gas chambers to murder thousands of Jews each hour. In a calm voice which shook some in the audience, Eichmann explained the numbers from his research at Treblinka and Auschwitz: 3,500 Jews “processed” each hour at each camp for eight hours a day meant the deaths of 168,000 Jews per day; 840,000 per five-day work week; 42 million in just one year. Of course, he conceded, that would be at maximum efficiency, and he predicted the actual figure would be only half as much on average. Witnesses to the Wannsee Conference describe the light in Heydrich’s eyes as he eagerly ordered the full apparatus of the German government to comply with Eichmann’s plans. The Final Solution had been devised, and it would now be implemented.

        The Holocaust yielded far fewer deaths than Eichmann had planned, but the toll is still almost beyond comprehension. Of the eleven million people murdered by the Nazis during their twelve-year rule of Germany and much of Europe, at least three million were gassed and burned (often after weeks or months of tortured life) in the six camps over three years, and eight million more in the smaller concentration camps or by the SS task forces in Russia. Most of the attendees at Wannsee died during or shortly after the war—Heydrich was assassinated by Czech partisans later that year—and the survivors were put on trial at Nuremberg or by the State of Israel once the war had reached its end.

Through the Storm: 1943-44

In 1941, the Soviet Red Army was the world’s largest and yet slowest modern military force. Soldiers marched on foot or rode in horse-drawn wagons across hundreds of miles of Russian soil, and this contributed to their catastrophic defeats in the early years of the war. Thanks to American aid, and particularly the 27 million Ford and General Motors trucks delivered by convoys to the Soviet Union, by 1943 the Red Army had been transformed into a motorized juggernaut. It possessed the best main battle tank of the war, the T-34/72, which could out-shoot and outmaneuver any German panzer except the “King Tiger” (few of which were built during the war). With its victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, the Red Army now rolled forward, destroying one German army corps after another in a tidal wave of battle across the thousand-mile Eastern Front. Germany’s allies (Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) held the southern sectors of the front and were ground to pieces in the assault, and within a year all three nations had been invaded and were on the brink of surrender. Casualties on both sides were enormous—the Soviet Union would see twenty million men and women killed or wounded and another twenty million civilian losses—but once the tide began to roll it could not be stopped. By 1944, Germany’s conquests of three years past had been reabsorbed into the Motherland, and Zhukov was ready to invade occupied Poland and the rest of central Europe.

        The attack on Poland pushed the Germans back in a familiar pattern, and by June the Red Army had reached Warsaw. The people of the Polish capital, who had suffered under German occupation for five years, rose up to drive the Nazis out of their beloved city, and they sent messages to the Soviets welcoming them to Warsaw. Under orders from Zhukov, the Red Army halted on the opposite bank of the Vistula River for three months as the Germans regrouped and attacked the city. Tens of thousands of Polish patriots were butchered by the Germans in the Warsaw Uprising as the Red Army looked on. Then, once the city had been reclaimed by the Nazis, the Soviets moved in and crushed the garrison. According to his postwar memoirs, Zhukov’s rationale for his actions at Warsaw was simple: “If they would rise against the Nazis, they would certainly rise against the communists.” He was content to let the Germans destroy what remained of Polish nationalism.

        With North Africa secure, the Anglo-American armies next moved to attack what Churchill called the “soft underbelly” of Europe: Italy. Beginning with an amphibious assault on Sicily in July 1943, the attack on Italy brought down Mussolini’s government. The new government of Marshal Pietro Badoglio then surrendered Italy to the Allies, but Germany occupied the peninsula and fought bitterly for every mile of ground. Eisenhower was soon transferred to London to plan the invasion of France and the creation of the longed-for “second front” in Europe, and Montgomery soon followed him home. The Italian campaign drew thousands of German soldiers away from France and the Eastern Front, but attention soon shifted to the invasion of Normandy. Nevertheless, the sacrifices made by Allied soldiers at Cassino, Anzio and Salerno should not be forgotten, and historians have recently begun to reexamine the Italian campaign and to pay honor to these heroes.

        On June 6, 1944, the Western Allies fulfilled promises made to Stalin at the wartime conferences to open a second front in Europe. One hundred fifty thousand American, British, Canadian and other Allied soldiers landed on the shores of Normandy in northern France in what has become known as “D-Day.” The amphibious operation was the largest in history to that point (surpassed only by those at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the closing months of the Pacific War), and the Allies soon held a secure beachhead in France. Thanks to the efforts of Montgomery and General George Patton of the US Army, the Allies liberated Paris in August and raced to the Franco-German border in a quick campaign that overwhelmed the German defenders. The attack slowed briefly in September for an ill-fated diversion northward into the Netherlands to destroy Hitler’s secret weapon launch sites, and this allowed the Germans room to recover from the Allied blitz across France. American and British bombers continued to reduce one German city after another to rubble, and by November, the Allies were moving toward Germany again. Yet amidst these signs of defeat, Hitler summoned the strength for one last, desperate offensive.

        The Ardennes Forest stretches from southern Belgium into northeastern France, and its dense foliage provided a barrier to both countries against invasion for centuries. Hitler had sent his armored units through the Ardennes in 1940 during the initial attack on France, and now, four years later, he would do so again. He planned to drive the enemy back and capture the Belgian city of Antwerp, the only open port in Allied hands; if it fell, the Allied supply lines to Britain would be cut, and they would be forced to retreat from France for a second time. The High Command had scraped together 26 divisions for the attack, and on December 16, 1944, they hit a weak point in the Allied line at the “hinge” between the British and American army groups. The Nazi attack pushed a bulge into the Allied lines, giving the operation its popular name: “The Battle of the Bulge.” An American airborne division held the vital crossroads of Bastogne at the center of the bulge against repeated German attacks in the coldest winter Europe had seen in years. At the same time, General Patton’s Third Army shifted its axis of advance northward to attack the bulge from the south, and these two forces met on the day after Christmas to drive the Germans back.

The Storm Breaks: 1945

At its height in 1942, the Greater German Reich had stretched from the Pyrenees Mountains on the borders of Spain to the Volga River in Russia and from the North Cape of Norway to the Sahara Desert. Now, three years later, Hitler ruled only his own nation of Germany, the western third of Poland, bits of Italy and the Scandinavian lands of Denmark and Norway. His fall from power was as shocking as his rise, and it was too much for him to bear. On July 20, 1944, there had been an attempt on his life at his headquarters in East Prussia when a bomb was planted at a daily conference. The blast had shattered both his eardrums, which caused severe vertigo and headaches, and he was likely suffering from the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease as well. Hitler gradually withdrew from his inner circle and grew increasingly unhinged in the last months of the war. The Anglo-American armies were now sweeping across the Rhine River after bridges were secured at Remagen, Koblenz and Strasbourg, and the Soviets were moving into West Prussia. A decision by General Eisenhower had divided Nazi Germany in half, and Berlin lay in the Soviet zone—Russia would deal Germany the final blow. His beautiful home in Berchtesgaden had been blown up by the SS to prevent its fall to the Allies, and he was now confined to the bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery in Berlin (which was under repeated bombardment from American planes). Here he intended to die.

        The Führer was awoken on his 56th birthday on April 20, 1945, to the sounds of Soviet artillery landing in central Berlin. The Red Army had broken through the German defenses at Seelow Heights east of the capital and were poised over the city. Now commanding paper armies which did not exist in reality, Hitler’s rage grew each day as his soldiers failed to relieve Berlin and rescue their leader. Much of his time was spent meeting with Nazi officials bidding him their farewells before flying out of the last operational airfield for Munich and then Berchtesgaden (where the SS was preparing a “National Redoubt” for a last stand). When word reached him that two of his long-time collaborators, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, had betrayed him by opening talks with the Allies, Hitler ordered their deaths. Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect and closest friend, confessed that he had tried to poison the Führer, and that was the end. Rather than flying into a rage, as had been common for so many years when confronted with unpleasant news, Hitler simply bid him farewell and disappeared into the apartment he shared with his mistress of fifteen years, Eva Braun. Only the ever-loyal Joseph Goebbels, who had brought his wife Magda and their six children with him into the bunker, remained true to Hitler to the end.

        On April 29th, as the Battle of Berlin raged above him, Hitler and Eva Braun were married in a macabre scene witnessed by Goebbels, a secretary, and a civil minister. Thousands of German boys and old men were being mowed down and tens of thousands of German girls and women were being assaulted and murdered by the Red Army, but their Führer showed no concern for their fate. Amidst the lies and vitriol spewed toward the Jews in his last will and testament, dictated to his secretary after the ceremony, Hitler said, “The German people have failed in this test of strength, and they deserve their fate.” True to the end, his nihilistic and Darwinist sentiments still intact, Hitler remained a fervent National Socialist. At 3:00 AM on April 30, 1945, Hitler bade his remaining staff farewell and, save for a brief interaction with Magda Goebbels who begged him to stay with Germany a little longer, he was never seen alive again. An hour later, a shot rang through the bunker, and Hitler’s SS adjutant entered the apartment. Hitler and Eva had committed suicide—he by gunshot, she by cyanide capsule. Their bodies were cremated in the Reich Chancellery garden as Berlin, and the Third Reich, burned around them.

        Berlin’s defenders surrendered to the Red Army on May 1st, the same day on which Grand Admiral Dönitz assumed the leadership of Germany after Joseph Goebbels and his wife shot themselves (they had first poisoned their children, ages four to thirteen). On May 7th, General Alfred Jodl arrived at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France, to negotiate a general surrender. The terms were accepted and the documents signed, and word was broadcast to the world that May 8, 1945, would be “Victory in Europe Day.”

        The celebrations which erupted across Europe and the world on V-E Day will never be forgotten by those who witnessed them. In Paris, hundreds of thousands of people watched a victory parade down the Champs-Elysees and Allied aircraft zoomed overhead. The Mall, Whitehall and Parliament Square in London were mobbed by over a million Britons dancing in the streets, drinking beer, laughing and cheering as they saw Winston Churchill and the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. (The future Queen Elizabeth II and her sister Princess Margaret later mingled with the crowd for the rest of the day.) Even in Moscow, the long-suffering yet still-oppressed Soviet people watched in awe as the mighty Red Army paraded through Red Square under the watchful eyes of Joseph Stalin and his NKVD guards. American spirits were tempered by the reality that Japan had not yet surrendered. In the hour of victory, the people of Europe put aside their grief at the loss of friends and loved ones. The storm had passed. The war was over.