In the late autumn and early winter of 1944, Hitler risked everything on one last throw of the dice: the Ardennes offensive. With it he hoped to force the Western Allies out of the war so he could concentrate on the war weary Soviet Union. He was a paranoid and delusional tyrant living in a tactical and operational Never-Never Land but his strategic acumen was still sharp, far sharper than most future historians gave him credit for.
All of the nations in the conflict were reaching the bottom of their respective manpower pools. America was critically short of infantry and increasingly bringing women and African American troops closer to the front lines to make up the difference as male Caucasian and Latino troops in the rear echelons were dragooned into combat jobs. Great Britain was reduced to combining understrength formations wholesale to keep up the pretense of units at full strength. Germany and Russia had long emptied out their prisons and hospitals for replacements, and were fielding ad hoc units of underage teenagers and old men. Hitler thought Germany’s ideological fervor could overcome these shortcomings and that it was possible to come to an accommodation with Soviet Russia if a separate peace could be made with Britain and America. The bulk of his western front forces could then be moved to face the Russians and it would also grant him time for his “wonder weapons” to come on-line. This was the overall objective of his great gamble in the Ardennes.
And Stalin privately agreed.
Despite Stalin’s rhetoric, the Soviet Union reached most of its wartime goals by December 1944 and more importantly, was at its human limit. The Soviet Union had lost 22 million dead in 3 ½ years of fighting – fifty times the wartime deaths suffered by America with only 30% greater population. And they had not reached the fighting in Germany proper yet, where the Wehrmacht was sure to zealously defend, especially as stories got out of Communist troops raping their way across former Axis territories. Furthermore, Stalin knew the Soviet Union was already in an excellent position for the inevitable post war conflict with his current capitalist Allies. The Soviet Union had (or would soon have) complete control of its traditional western buffer states: Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Finland. The Red Army specifically stopped short of capturing Warsaw to allow the Wehrmacht the time to crush the pro Polish Govt in Exile (In London) Home Army in the midst of the Warsaw Uprising. Furthermore, the Soviet Union would have access to warm water ports on the Mediterranean through Tito’s communist partisans whom controlled Yugoslavia and Albania. Finally, National Socialism and Soviet Communism were natural ideological allies, if intense and bitter rivals as only sibling twins could be. A post war National Socialist rump state in Germany and Austria would provide additional depth and a further ideological buffer against its capitalist adversaries, America and Britain, and its allies in France and Italy.
In late 1944, Stalin saw no reason to invade Germany from the east if the Western Allies did not do so from the west. It would be a waste of resources that were needed after the war. Russian troops had stopped in Poland in late August and for the last several months were consolidating their gains in the buffer states. On 20 December 1944, German intelligence analysts were surprised when the long awaited Soviet winter offensive did not begin.
Stalin personally delayed it. He was waiting to see if the Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive did indeed force the Allies to the negotiating table, however slim that possibility might be. Stalin did authorize offensives to clear the remaining Germans along the Baltic coast and the Balkans, but the main Russian armies of the Belorussian and Ukrainian Fronts were held back, awaiting news from the West.
On New Year’s Day 1945, the Luftwaffe launched a massive raid with every plane it had left against the Western Allies tactical air forces, and the initial reports indicated the British and American fighters and fighter bombers were wiped out. So on 2 January, Stalin delayed the offensive again. (The massive dawn raid, “Operation Baseplate”, did destroy 500 allied planes on the ground and shut down 12 airfields for a week. The airfields’ anti aircraft crews were sent to the front as infantry replacements, and combat air patrols over the fields were minimal if the existed at all. In any case, the Luftwaffe was annihilated in the process). Only in the second week of 1945, when it was obvious that Hitler had failed in the Ardennes, did Stalin unleash his armies. On 12 January, Marshals Zhukov and Konev were given authorization to launch the war winning Vistula/Oder Offensive that would carry the Russians to the gates of Berlin in April.