Armageddon: The Battle For Germany 1944-45

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.   Forty-something years ago, when I was a teenager, even then avidly preoccupied with the Second World War,  the study of its history was still dominated by fiercely nationalistic perceptions.   Americans wildly overrated their battlefield contribution to victory, and perhaps underestimated their decisive industrial one.   The British, astonishingly enough, still perceived themselves as the inhabitants of middle earth.  The Russians barely acknowledged that the western allies had participated in the war at all.

Today, by contrast,  in Britain and the US there is an infinitely sharper understanding of reality.   Even some knowledgeable people are still amazed to be told that US and British troops on the battlefield, in the course of the entire war, killed around 200,000 German soldiers while the Russians killed over three million.   But there is a clear understanding first, that the Soviet Union did most of the fighting necessary to defeat the Wehrmacht, and second, that the United States provided a critical portion of the tools necessary to do so, for all the nations of the Grand Alliance.  In Russia, objectivity remains elusive.  The western contribution to the war is regarded, not only by veterans of the Red Army but by many historians, with something close to contempt.   Most Russians are irked by the simple truth that, once the tide had turned in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Anglo-Americans enjoyed a huge measure of strategic choice about when and where to engage Germany on the battlefield, and exercised this to the full.    While the leaders of America’s armed forces were always eager for an early confrontation in Europe,  British persuasion and military reality deflected them from pressing their point until 1944.   While the Soviets were compelled to fight Germans almost every day of their war, in the West the Americans and British waited until conditions overwhelmingly favoured their arms before launching each of their great operations.   To say this is not to criticise;  nor is it to underrate the extraordinary ferocity of the fighting some western allied troops endured.  It is merely to recognise an obvious reality, reflected in the vastly smaller casualties the Westerners endured, to do their part towards victory.

My hero among historians, Professor Sir Michael Howard, often remarks that we should never forget that there was a time when events now in the past were still in the future.   We know today that D-Day in Normandy took place on 6 June 1944.  Yet there is little doubt that, without forceful American pressure in the months which preceded invasion, the British would have been content to allow the timetable to slip in a fashion which would probably have deferred a landing in north-west Europe until 1945.

Winston Churchill’s bitter dismay in 1945, about the manner in which eastern Europe in general and Poland in particular were swallowed by Soviet tyranny is wholly understandable.   A strong case persists, that Roosevelt was naïve in his belief that he could do business with Stalin.  Yet the British prime minister was disingenuous in pretending that in 1944-45, it was remotely feasible to undo the consequences of strategic decisions made years earlier.   The simple truth was that the Soviets got to eastern Europe first, and to frustrate their imperial design, the Western allies would have been obliged to fight them, as only George Patton and a handful of others were eager to do.

If the Anglo-Americans had seriously wished to dictate the political shape of postwar Europe, to make the freedom of eastern Europe a war aim, they could have achieved this only by invading north-west Europe in 1943, at huge risk, and driving for Berlin with a ferocity and indifference to casualties which would have been unthinkable for the Western democracies.  Had the publics of Britain and America been told in 1943 that their leaders were proposing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of extra allied lives to secure the welfare of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Roumanians, it is not difficult to guess how they would have responded.

Instead, of course, whatever their vague hopes for the political future of Europe, they conducted their military operations in a manner and according to a timetable which was designed to achieve the destruction of Nazi Germany, and nothing much more.   I am among those who believe that the Western allies deserve a considerable share of blame for the tragedy of the Warsaw Rising in the fall of 1944.   They armed and incited the Poles to resist, and resist they rashly did.   Of course the Russians behaved ruthlessly by declining to assist the Home Army’s cause, but what else could ever have been expected from Stalin ?   He could reasonably have argued that he adopted no different a view to that of Eisenhower about Holland.   The Dutch suffered terribly in the winter of 1944, thousands of their people starving to death, because after the failure at Arnhem the allies declined to drive north to liberate the balance of Holland.  Instead, they argued entirely rationally that they must focus on the sole strategic purpose of thrusting into Germany, to free all the oppressed peoples of Europe, by the earliest possible defeat of Nazism.

A dictionary defines Armageddon: ‘The site of the decisive battle on the Day of Judgement;  hence, a final contest on a grand scale’.  The last campaigns of the Second World War locked in bloody embrace more than a hundred million people within and without the frontiers of Hitler’s Third Reich.  Their outcome drastically influenced the lives of many more.  The Second World War was the most disastrous human experience in history.  Its closing months provided an appropriately terrible climax.

Twenty years ago, in my earlier book Overlord, I described the D-Day invasion of Europe and the campaign in Normandy.  That narrative ended with the American and British breakthrough in August 1944, followed by a triumphant dash across France.  Many allied soldiers believed that the collapse of Hitler’s empire must swiftly follow.   The British Joint Intelligence Committee declared that for planning purposes, it might be assumed that Germany would have collapsed by 31 December 1944.  Most front-line commanders, including Eisenhower, were of the same opinion.  Only Winston Churchill disagreed.   No man knew better than Britain’s Prime Minister just how formidable were the fighting powers of the German Army.  He responded to that JIC note by asserting first, that he thought it much more likely than not, that the Germans would still be fighting in 1945.  And second, that if they were not, this would be because of a political collapse in Germany, not a military one.

My starting point for writing Armageddon was personal curiosity, to see why the allies did not win the war in 1944 as everyone expected in August, and as our vast superiority of resources should have made possible.   In the West, the allies possessed 2000 tanks against less than 100 German, 14,000 aircraft against a few hundred of the Luftwaffe’s. And we should remember that back in 1940 and 1941, the British attributed most of their defeats to the superiority of the German air force.  In the autumn of 1944, it has sometimes been suggested that the allies had to cross a succession of great rivers and difficult terrain features to break into Hitler’s Germany.  Yet none of these things had stopped the Germans, coming the other way in 1940.

The truth was that Hitler’s army, even in the last months of the war, was the most formidable  fighting force the world had ever seen.   The Western allies to the very end displayed the limitations and inhibitions of citizen armies.    These were not professional warriors, but store clerks and truck drivers, schoolteachers and factory workers, masquerading for an unwelcome season in uniform to do a job they knew had to be done for the cause of democracy.  But most, who now knew that the allies were sure of final victory, were pathetically eager to live to see the end and come home to resume the ordinary lives among their loved ones, which had been so pathetically interrupted.  HOLLIS STORY.

In Overlord, my earlier book, I emphasised the harsh fact that Hitler’s army was, as a fighting force, better than the American and British armies.  Yet in Armageddon I have added an important corollary to what I’ve said above, about the limitations of the soldiers of the democracies.  In many ways, one of the most admirable things about them was that amid total war, they preserved most of the inhibitions and decencies of democratic citizens at war.  Their soldiers didn’t like killing people, razing towns, massacring innocents.   By the time I finished writing Armageddon,  I found myself concluding:  if the Americans and British had been as good soldiers as the Waffen SS, as suicidally brave as some men of the Red Army, they would have needed to be people like them, imbued with their ethos of tyranny and savagery.  And if that had been so, the very purposes for which the war was being fought would have been set at naught.   The British and American armies in 1944-45 did as well as could have been expected, given the sort of people they were, and we should be very grateful for the sort of people they were.

But, from the viewpoint of their commanders, it was a handicap in getting into Germany that most allied formations lacked the ruthless fighting power quickly to break down the German defence, when the soldiers of Hitler were fighting with the courage of fear and despair.   The great irony, of course, is that many German veterans whom I interviewed for this book assert to this day that they fought on to the end, because of fear of what the Soviets would do to Germany, as they relentlessly advanced into Hitler’s empire, to revenge themselves for what Hitler’s legions had done in Russia..  Yet the Germans’ last ditch resistance only made sense if they had let the Anglo-Americans into Germany in 1944, while continuing to resist the Russians.  As it was, by fighting to the end, the German Army ensured that its country’s fate in 1945 was incomparably worse than it would have been, had the country been forced to surrender in 1944.  The bombing of Dresden and many other horrors would have been avoided, for a start.  Let us never forget that Hiroshima and Nagasaki inflicted fewer deaths on the Japanese than allied bombing inflicted on Germany in the last months of the war, in 1945.

Most books on this period deal either with the Western or Eastern Fronts.  I have tried to consider both, putting in context the campaign of Patton and Rokossovsky, Montgomery and Zhukov, together with the towering events of the period- the Warsaw Rising and Arnhem, the Ardennes and the drive to the Oder, the winter of blood and ice in east Prussia, the crossing of the Rhine and the great bomber operations.     I have been writing books about the Second World war for a long time, but one never ceases to be amazed by the new material still to be found in the Soviet archives, and by talking to Soviet veterans both men and women, of whom I interviewed many.  Their experiences dwarf those of the western front.  The Russians thought their campaign for Rumania, which took only two weeks in August 1944, among the least costly of the war.  Yet in Rumania alone, the Red Army lost more men than the British and Canadians in the course of the whole campaign for NW Europe, took almost as many casualties as the US Army between June 1944 and May 1945.    A former Red Army tank officer, a delightful and wonderfully articulate man named Gennady Ivanov, said to me: ‘We were living in a time in which human life possessed absolutely no value.  All that mattered was to stay alive oneself’.

I felt very conscious, as I wrote Armageddon, that this is the last decade in which one will be privileged to be able usefully to interview people who lived through all these remarkable and terrible experiences.  When I started researching this period almost 30 years ago, I was able to meet people who served as generals.  Today, no one whom I saw held a rank higher than major.  Many people still recall what happened to them more than 60 years ago amazingly vividly, but they are fading.  It is very moving to see those men and women who back in 1945 were young, fresh, vital, often brave and handsome young men and women, who did so many remarkable things in the war,  today stooped and frail.   Though to most of you such a fate seems far, far off, it is of course the destiny of us all.

A cultural collision took place in Germany in 1945, between societies whose experience of the war was light years apart.  What the Soviet and German people did, as well as what was done to them, bore scant resemblance to the war the British and Americans knew.  There was a chasm between the world of the Western allies, populated by people still striving to act temperately, and the Eastern universe in which, on both sides, elemental passions dominated.   The lives of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet subjects embraced unspeakable miseries, even before the Nazis entered the story.  I have met many people whose families perished in Russia’s famines and purges of the pre-war 1941 era.  One man described to me how his parents, illiterate peasants, were anonymously denounced by neighbours as counter-revolutionaries, and shot in 1939 at the prison outside St.Petersburg.  A woman who was listening to our conversation interjected: ‘My parents were shot at that prison, too !’.  She used the commonplace language we might employ on discovering that somebody we met had attended the same school as ourselves.   After she spoke, another woman said darkly: ‘You shouldn’t talk about things like that in front of a foreigner’.  In Russia, there is no tradition of pursuing objective historical truth.  Even in the 21st century, it remains difficult to persuade a fiercely nationalistic people to speak frankly about the bleaker aspects of their wartime history.  Historians try to write of Russia’s commanders as if they were people cast in the same mould as their Western counterparts.   They were not.  They were brutes, for none but brutes could have prospered in Stalin’s world, steeped in blood.  Consider that great Soviet commander Rokossosvky.  He started the war without his fingernails, because they had been removed during his incarceration in the Purges, weakly expecting his own execution.  Once when Marshal Zhukov began to complain to him about Beria, Stalin’s terrible secret policeman, Rokossovsky interrupted. ‘Don’t talk to me about Beria’, he growled. ‘I have seen his prisons !’    In the first two years of the war alone, the Red Army executed 167,000 of its own men for alleged cowardice or desertion.   900,000 Russians died defending Leningrad, and some of that city’s people ate each other when there was nothing else left.

Stalin himself liked to tell a story, of a time when he lost a favourite pipe.  He mentioned this to Beria….

At least 27 million Soviet citizens died in the war, against a million British, American and French people combined.   In whole war Brit & American ground troops- that is, not counting air bombardment- killed about 200,000 Germans.   Russians killed around four million of Hitler’s people.

As for the Germans, a few years ago I stood in front of a television camera on Hitler’s rostrum and Nuremburg, and said how much I admired the courage with which the post-war generation had confronted the Nazi legacy.  After we finished filming our researcher,  a young German woman who has worked on many documentaries about the period, intervened: ‘Excuse me’, she said. ‘I think you are wrong.  I believe our people are still in denial about the war’.  I have since thought a lot about what she said, and concluded that she is partly right.  Many young Germans are extraordinarily ignorant about the Nazi period.  Some older ones seem less troubled by historic guilt about Hitler than are many British people about the alleged shortcomings of the British Empire.   It is as if the horrors of the Nazi era were committed by people quite unrelated to the law-abiding, taxpaying pensioners who now occupy comfortable retirement homes in Munich or Stuttgart, Nuremburg or Dresden, citizens in good standing of the European Union.  One former Waffen SS captain whom I met, and who spent some hours telling me his tale of battle from 1941 to 1945, sounded almost nostalgic for the experience.  I said to him, meaning to be ironic, that he seemed to have enjoyed his experience as a soldier. ‘Ach !’, he answered. ‘They were great days !  The two biggest moments of my life were taking the oath to Hitler’s bodyguard in 1934, and Nuremburg in 1936.  You have seen the newsreels- the searchlights, the crowds, the Fuhrer ?  I was there !  I was there !’.

By contrast, many Russian veterans of the Red Army are deeply embittered by their poverty today.  They have a saying: ‘It would have been better if the fascists had won the war, so that now we could all be living like the Germans !’.  When I started interviewing Russian veterans, my researcher asked if I could give each one $20.  I said this seems insulting: surely it ought to be $100.  She said, ‘you don’t understand.  $20 is more than their monthly pensions !’.    The men who fought for the Red Army in WW11 have been left behind as tragic flotsam of history.  Many suffered almost as terribly at Stalin’s hands after the war ended as when it was going on.

Although in this book I have told the story of what happened militarily,   above all Armageddon seeks to describe a vast and terrible human experience.    Although I have written a lot about Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler,  my purpose is also to paint a portrait of

what happened to a host of ordinary people.   Consider the two million Germans who fled from East Prussia and Silesia through four feet of snow amid the Soviet onslaught.  Anything up to a million, many of them women and children, perished.   A woman survivor said to me: ‘It was our Holocaust, but nobody cares !’.  Her choice of words was in poor taste, but it is true that most people in the West remain blithely ignorant of the vast experiment in ethnic cleansing which took place in Eastern Europe in 1945, because those who suffered were Germans.  The Russians eventually terrorised or expelled around four million Germans out of the East European lands in which they had been living.

Then there were the Dutch people, starving through the winter of 1944 in which their experiences were terrible, and remained largely unnoticed in British and American books about the period.  They suffered under British and American bombing, because the allies were trying to destroy German rocket sites in Holland, and they suffered from desperate hunger while the allied armies were fighting past them, to get into Germany.  Through the harsh winter of 1944, Dutch people were tearing up fences, even stealing the wooden wedges from the trolley car rails of the cities as fuel, for they had no electricity.   I asked a Dutchman who was a teenager in those days about his daily life.   He said, when you are that hungry and that cold, you don’t have a life.  Once, he saw a horse defacate in the street outside his house in Amsterdam.  A passer by dived down, looking for particles of corn and chaff in that horse’s stool, and ate them.

In their way, the Dutch were treated as ruthlessly by Eisenhower and his armies as were the people of Warsaw in the autumn of 1944, when the Red Army 20 miles away left the Poles to suffer and die after they rose in revolt against their Nazi occupiers.   The Dutch ate tulip bulbs and died in their thousands of malnutrition, because the Western allies were convinced- probably rightly, but nonetheless very painfully- that British and American soldiers should not be diverted from the drive upon Germany to liberate Holland.   German troops were still shooting suspected Dutch Resistance fighters in Holland on the very day the war ended.

We sometimes kid ourselves that we live in a dangerous and frightening age, amid Al Qaeda and global warming.  Yet I suggest that we are a uniquely privileged generation, beside those who went before.  I think of a 17 year-old German girl whose story I have told.  She contacted me…. raped by the Red Army in Berlin.  Her mother led her and her sister on to the roof of their apartment building, and told them that with their honour gone, death was the only proper course.  That woman sat on the roof with her daughters, pleading with them to kill themselves, while their father stood on the street below, urging them to ignore her.  Mercifully, the father’s will prevailed.

Consider the story I tell, I think for the first time in the West, of a Soviet fighter pilot named Mikhael Devyataev….Peenemunde

It sometimes seemed as if the Western allies, doing their parts in the war,  were merely uncomprehending eavesdroppers upon the great and terrible death struggle taking place in the East, between rival tyrannies which differed only in the manner of the evils they represented, surely not in its scale.

On the Western Front, small humanities could happen, which were unthinkable in the East.  Many American and British soldiers in France and Belgium saw episodes in which, for instance, both sides held their fire while medical staff worked on wounded men, or stretcher-bearers carried them away.   Dr.David Tibbs & 13 Para in Bure.  On the Eastern Front, Russians and Germans in such a situation would have simply kept shooting.

Among the most terrible victims of the war were, of course, those who became Hitler’s prisoners.  Beyond the Jews explicitly destined for death, some eight million others were captive or slave labourers in Germany in 1945.  It was a revelation to me to hear a survivor of several concentration camps observe: ‘In Auschwitz, you were either alive or you were dead.  I have been in worse camps’.  Some soldiers ask: did it matter that the allies took so long to defeat Nazism ?  It was an issue of vital moment for hundreds of thousands of Hitler’s subjects and prisoners who died in 1945, some of whom would have lived if their deliverers had been able to hasten just a very little more.  Consider for instance Victor Klemperer, the Dresden Jew whose awesome diary records his fears and expectation of death, through almost every day of the war years.   He wrote on 21 September 1944, when British and American paratroopers were fighting in the legendary and unsuccessful attempt to seize bridges across the river Rhine, ‘‘Perhaps the annihilation of the English air landing division at Arnhem is an unimportant, soon to be forgotten episode.  But it is extremely important to me today’.   Met in Delaware US army nurse named Lt.Dorothy Beavers.  When talking to a US army nurse, mentioned Ebensee & girl who ran away from photographer.  .  Edith Gabor, the Hungarian Jewish survivor of Ravensbruck whom I mentioned above, today lives in Queens, New York, near Kennedy Airport.  I called to see her on my way to catch a flight to London.  After listening for four hours to the story of her ghastly odyssey, I waited for a taxi we had called, to take me to the airport…   I blushed then, as I blush now, that I could have displayed before such a woman a preoccupation with trivia which is characteristic of our lives in the 21st Century, and which our parents and grandparents perforce shed between 1939 and 1945.

If Hitler’s prisoners suffered unspeakably, so too did millions of German civilians who found themselves under air bombardment.     In the last months of WWII, more bombs dropped on Germany than in all rest of conflict put together, and more people killed.  Yet it was pretty futile.  I don’t believe strategic bombing was a war crime, but its moral cost certainly outweighed its military achievements.    Everybody who takes part in wars tends to get brutalised in some degree as they go on, and in saying that people don’t think that I am suggesting the allies were on a moral plane with the Germans.  It is just that things which seem terrible at the beginning of a long war somehow don’t seem so shocking by the end.  In 1940, British RAF pilots started out liking of think of their Luftwaffe enemies as fellow knights of the air.   They were therefore deeply shocked when they saw the Germans machine-gunning refugees on the roads of France.  One British pilot walked into his officers mess that night and said in dismay: ‘So they are shits after all’.  Yet in February 1945, the USAAF and RAF launched a joint operation codenamed Clarion, in which for several days some 14,000 aircraft systematically bombed and strafed every road and small community they could reach, regardless of who was underneath.  The idea was to bring it home to Germans who had not so far experienced the war that it was lost, and they had better quit.  Some allied officers protested against Clarion.  A senior American air force wrote a memo in which he said angrily: ‘This is the same old baby-killing plan of the get rich quick psychological boys, dressed up in a new kimono’.  The operation went ahead anyway, and nobody knows for sure how many thousands of civilians died under it.

The climactic battle of the last phase was, of course, that for Berlin in April 1945.    I have only put in bits about Berlin which are completely new cos of material I got from Soviets.  Soviet attack was a shambles, drunkenness clearing minefields, shooting at own men.  200,000 dead for Stalin’s glory.  Sort of Soviet gems- Japanese diplomats go to Russians beginning May and demand cars back.   Some people have criticized Eisenhower for refusing to drive on to Berlin in April 1945, to try and get there ahead of the Russians.  I doubt whether the American and British publics would have thought 200,000 more dead worth that empty moment of glory for which Stalin was content to pay whatever price was needed.

What is Blood and Ice.  Michael Wieck.

I began writing books about this period almost thirty years ago.  Familiarity, however, does nothing to diminish one’s awe for the summits of courage some men and women attained, the depths of baseness others plumbed.   It is terrible to notice that hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners who returned from German captivity in 1945 were immediately dispatched to their own country’s labour camps.  Stalin chose to treat every Russian who had allowed himself or herself to be captured by the Germans as a traitor, a counter-revolutionary.  Just 1.68 million Russians survived to return home, out of four million captured by the Germans.   Soviet historians today estimate that 20% of these were either executed or given 25 year terms of imprisonment.   One of the Russians I interviewed, a bomber pilot named Vasily Legun, spent years almost starving as a gold prospector in northern wastelands of Russia, his papers stamped with the fatal words, ‘former fascist prisoner’.  He said to me: ‘it was worse than the German camps.  We were now prisoners of the country we had fought to defend, branded as traitors.  It killed our spirit’.  His wife was told that he was dead, and all his personal property and papers were removed from his home.  Valya Brekeleva wasonly seven when she returned to Russia in 1945, after three years with her mother in Germany as a slave labourer.  Yet even she as branded as a prospective threat to the state,She told me that when she applied for work at a shipyard in Tartary in 1965, as soon as the manager saw that she was a former Nazi prisoner, he said grimly: Before we consider anything else, we have got to establish whether you have done damage to the state’.    It is chilling to tell ourselves that the Soviet Union was our ally in the Second World War, without whose blood sacrifice hundreds of thousands more American and British soldiers would have to have died, to defeat Hitler.

The American and British soldiers who fought their way into Germany in 1945 were obliged to be content with liberating only half of Europe from tyranny, while the other half fell as booty to the Soviet Union, at least as terrible a fate for their peoples as occupation by the Nazis.  The Western allies were obliged to acquiesce in Stalin’s subjection of Eastern Europe.  He had got there first.   The American and British publics had no conceivable stomach for the only course that could have saved Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Roumania and the rest from becoming part of the Soviet empire- fighting another war, against the Russians.  It is virtually unknown in the West that long after the Second World War officially ended in May 1945, Poles continued to fight a full-scale guerrilla war against Soviet troops, in pursuit of their country’s political independence.  They died almost unknown and unnoticed, in combat or in Stalin’s Gulag, because in those first months after VE Day, the nations of the West were reluctant to say too much about the horrors of Soviet imperialism.

The American and British soldiers who fought in Europe in 1944-45 enjoyed their full reward only in 1990 when, mercifully without another war, the Soviet tyranny collapsed, and eastern Europe became free.

My own gratitude never diminishes, that our generation has been spared what our grandparents endured, especially those who fought in the Second World War.  I believe passionately in the truth of the words inscribed on so many war memorials: ‘They died that we might live’.   We should never forget that the vast majority of those who fought to defeat the Nazis did not think of themselves as soldiers.  They were civilians, ordinary people, swept up by the tide of history into an unwelcome season’s masquerade as warriors.   This is the most ambitious book I have ever written, because it attempt to cover a vast canvas, to record an epic of military history, and also of human experience.   It is sometimes suggested that too many books are written about the Second World War.   Yet the stories still untold about the saga are so extraordinary that it seems a privilege to make a modest contribution to recording them, and to setting them in the context of the most significant event of the 20th century, in which our grandparents and great grandparents were so justly proud of having played their parts.