After the capture of Rome in June 1944, the US 5th Army and British Eighth Army raced north and ran into the German Gothic Line across the northern Apennines Mountains. Through October and November, they ground their way through the miles deep German defensive belts, suffering tens of thousands of casualties. Like Monte Cassino the year before, the key to the position was Monte Belvedere which controlled Highway 64, and the gateway to the Po Valley and the cities of Bologna, Parma and Modena. The key to Monte Belvedere was Riva Ridge whose artillery controlled all approaches. The Germans easily fought off three previous determined assaults there and considered the southern face of the ridge impossible to scale.
This was particularly true at the time because the best mountain troops in the Mediterranean theatre, Gen Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps, were withdrawn and sent to France. But after two years of intense mountain training in the Colorado, America’s only mountain division, the 10th Light Infantry (Alpine) arrived in Italy just after Christmas 1944. They entered the line in late January 1945, and with the 1st Brazilian Expeditionary Division were told to seize the approaches to the Po Valley. The 10th was assigned the difficult task of seizing Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere.
For three weeks the mountaineers of the 10th conducted tedious nighttime patrols to determine routes to the German positions at the crest of the mountains. They discovered nine, all of which required some sort of vertical ascent using ropes or free climbing. They would have to do this without their specialized mountaineering equipment which sat in a warehouse in Boston awaiting transport. Nonetheless, on the night of 18-19 February 1945, the reinforced 1st Battalion 86th Infantry scaled the sheer and icy cliff faces (with 80 lbs packs) of Riva Ridge underneath the noses of the complacent German defenders. By the morning of the nineteenth, the Americans seized the ridge and neutralized the German artillery. This allowed the remainder of the division to make the equally arduous assault on Monte Belvedere the next night.
For the Americans on Riva Ridge, seizing it turned out to be the easy part: the Germans immediately counterattacked and would not let up the pressure for weeks. Fortunately, 10th Mountains’ logistics personnel worked ingenious miracles supplying the combat troops at the top of the ridge, without which Riva Ridge would fallen to a German counterattack the next day following the assault.
Climb to Glory!
On 19 February 1945, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th US Marine Divisions of General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith’s Task Force 56 landed on the island of Iwo Jima in the Bonin’s island chain south of Japan. They were to secure Iwo Jima’s three airfields. Because the island was about halfway between the Japanese Home Islands and the B-29 airfields in the Mariannas, Iwo Jima was planned to be used for an emergency landing field, though it was rarely used as such. Nonetheless Iwo Jima was a perfect staging area for the invasion of mainland Japan, scheduled for the upcoming autumn. For the next five weeks, 70,000 Marines and Navy personnel fought 22,000 Japanese defenders under Lieut General Tadamishi Kurabayashi for control of Iwo Jima.
Kurabayashi copied the tactics of ambush and interlocking fields of fire from impenetrable pillboxes that worked so well for the Japanese on Peleliu five months before. But unlike Peleliu, the Japanese had a further advantage: the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima was much easier to tunnel through. Kurabayashi’s troops spent almost a year digging in and connecting every pillbox, artillery position, and mortar, machine gun and sniper pit by tunnel. Furthermore, the entire southern portion of the island was dominated by the dormant volcano Mt Suribachi from which Japanese spotters could observe every inch of the island. Virtually the entire Japanese defense was underground and the three day American pre-invasion bombardment was especially ineffective.
The Marine’s first waves landed unopposed and subsequent patrols failed to find the defenders. Many thought the bombardment killed them all. They could not have been more wrong.
The Japanese only opened fire when the second wave crammed itself onto the beach, just as the assault battalions began to move off. The two waves of Marines crowded on the beach took enormous casualties from hidden Japanese positions.
Kurabayashi forbade wasteful banzai charges, but the Japanese took full advantage of the mobility afforded by the extensive tunnel system. Thousands of Marines were killed or wounded from “cleared” Japanese positions that were suddenly reoccupied after the Americans moved on.
After a grueling four day fight for the southern part of the island, the Marines captured Mount Suribachi on 23 February 1945. The event was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the flag raising on the summit of the volcano. (The famous picture was actually of the second flag raised on the Mt Suribachi. The first was about an hour before but of a much smaller flag.)
Unfortunately, the hardest fights for the island were still to come. Kurabayashi’s main defensive line was further north protecting the second and third airfields on the island. The Marines were forced to clear every square foot of the island.
The only tactic that was effective against the dug in Japanese was an armored frontal assault. The Marines lead with tanks, especially the Sherman “Zippo” flamethrower tank, which forced the Japanese to attack — they had no way to stop the tanks short of physically assaulting and overrunning them. The dismounted Marines would fight off the now exposed Japanese, and then clear the Japanese positions with tank main gun rounds, satchel charges, and flamethrowers. Once the Japanese were cleared or dead, a bulldozer then sealed the inevitable connecting tunnel. The entire operation was usually under fire from supporting Japanese positions and artillery. The Marines did this until the last organized Japanese resistance ended. That occurred when the remaining defenders, out of food, water and ammunition, launched a final banzai charge led by Lieut General Kurabayashi himself (in defiance of his own orders) on 25 March 1945.
The island was declared secure, and the US Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment took over from the Marines. The 147th was an Ohio National Guard unit from Columbus Ohio, lost from the 37th Infantry Division when that division “went triangle” (Four to three regiments per division) in 1942. Starting on Guadalcanal, the 147th spent the rest of the war cleaning up after the Marines, and Iwo Jima was no different. About 1500 Japanese were still living in the tunnels and fighting on the desolate island after the Marines departed. The last two Japanese defenders didn’t surrender until 1949.
The Battle for Iwo Jima was the bloodiest and most bitterly contested amphibious operation of the Second World War. The Americans suffered 30,000 casualties including 7,000 killed in action. All but 200 of the 22,000 Japanese fought to the death. Of the 82 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in the entire War in the Pacific, 27 were awarded for actions on the small island of Iwo Jima. Admiral Nimitz said of the Marines who fought there:
“Uncommon valor was a common virtue”.
Early in World War II, at the height of “The Phony War” on the Western Front between Great Britain and France, and Nazi Germany, the Battle of the Atlantic raged between German U-boats and pocket battleships and British and French shipping and escorts. In December 1939 the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sank several British merchantmen, rescued the survivors and transferred them to the German tanker Altmark for transport back to Germany.
During the long cruise to Germany, the Altmark violated Norwegian national waters to escape the pursuing British destroyer HMS Cossack. The Norwegian Navy interred the Altmark but refused to let the crew from the Cossack search it for the prisoners. First lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill radioed the captain with some of the best common sense rules of engagement ever, to search it anyway.
“Unless Norwegian torpedo-boat undertakes to convoy Altmark to Bergen with a joint Anglo-Norwegian guard on board, and a joint escort, you should board Altmark, liberate the prisoners, and take possession of the ship pending further instructions. If Norwegian torpedo-boat interferes, you should warn her to stand off. If she fires upon you, you should not reply unless attack is serious, in which case you should defend yourself, using no more force than is necessary, and ceasing fire when she desists” -Winston Churhill
The Norwegians backed off but the German crew of the Altmark prepared to repel boarders. The Cossack pulled along side and forcibly boarded and captured the Altmark killing eight Germans and wounding 15 others. It was the last naval action in history with the recorded use of the cutlass. The Cossack’s crew searched the ship, yelling “Anyone Englishmen here?” When the captured merchant seamen answered “yes”, the captain of the Cossack coolly replied, “Well, the Navy is here”.
The Altmark Incident convinced both the British and German governments that neither side would respect Norwegian neutrality. The British invaded Norway on 8 April to cut off Germany’s much needed supply Swedish iron ore and to open up a supply route to the Finns who were fighting Hitler’s ally, the Soviets. The Germans invaded Norway on 9 April to secure U boat bases on the North Atlantic.
In September 1939, the joint invasion of Poland by National Socialist Germany and its defacto ally Soviet Russia, defeated the Polish Army in 36 days. (Not too bad considering the much better equipped, more numerous, and better positioned French and British armies only lasted 45 days) Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers, sailors, and civilians fled to Western Allied countries but millions did not. The Soviet authorities emptied the jails, put the communist political prisoners in charge, and encouraged the rest to seek revenge. Because the Soviets disarmed the populace, “axe murder” became the most common cause of death in eastern Poland for the next three months.
In formal agreement with Nazi Germany on 28 September 1939, Poland was to be erased from history. Stalin’s stated and declared aim was the final destruction of Polish culture. On 10 February 1940, the Soviet Union began the forced exile and ethnic cleansing of Poles in Soviet occupied eastern Poland (Western Belorussia and western Ukraine today). That night, the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB) and Red Army burst into the homes of 139,794 middle and upper class ethnic Poles. (That number is straight from the Soviet archive, the actual number was probably much higher) Service in the pre-war Polish state was deemed a “crime against the revolution”. Captured Polish officers and soldiers were soon joined by thousands of government workers, land owners, school teachers, university professors, scientists, Polish Jews, factory managers, writers and publishers, business owners, and priests and clergy, including their extended families. Anyone they could find who could provide any leadership or resistance to the Soviet socialist march westward was targeted. Most were given 15 minutes to pack and herded onto trains for the long cold journey to gulags in Siberia and Kazahkstan where they were to be worked to death on collective farms or starved. Thousands of Polish women were raped and many more Polish citizens were immediately executed at the whims of their occupiers. Soviet journalists and teachers celebrated, proclaiming, “Poland had fallen and would never rise again.”
Mass graves of Poles from the Soviet pogroms of early 1940 were found all over eastern Poland and western Russia, the 22,000 dead found in Katyn Forest by German troops in 1943 being the most famous. Most survivors arrived in Siberia in April when the temperatures were still well below zero and were forced to build their camps with what they had, with no shelter or winter clothing and little food provided. Tens of thousands more perished enroute to and during the construction of the camps. Many Poles were sent to the same camps the kulaks were murdered in the decade before.
2.2 million Poles were deported east by the Soviet Union in the 21 months between the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The vast majority were never seen again. Only about 200,000 survivors returned to Poland after the war. The returnees were mostly soldiers and their camp followers from the Polish Armored Division and Polish II Corps, who fought with the Western Allies in North Africa, Italy, and France; the ZPP (Soviet based Polish Communists), and the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies, Soviet creations later in the war comprised of Polish soldiers led by Russian officers.
The two million Poles killed by the Soviets are not included in the usual figure of six million Poles killed during Second World War, or 22% reduction in the Polish population. The official six million figure was compiled by the Soviet backed Polish government in 1947 and included the three million non-Jewish Poles were killed by the German occupation, and three million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust. The 1947 estimate did not include the Poles killed by the Soviets because the areas occupied by the Soviets from Sept 1939-June 1941 were never returned to Poland after the war and were given to Soviet Belorussia and Soviet Ukraine. The two million Poles killed in the “Forgotten Holocaust” by the Soviets were included in the Belorussian and Ukrainian wartime death tolls to hide the fact that they weren’t killed by German socialists but by Russian socialists.
“Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder should be required reading for humanity.
Dresden was a Baroque German city and dubbed the “Florence on the Elbe”. It’s Central European mystique was rivaled only by Vienna and Prague. In early 1945, it had little military significance and fewer anti aircraft defenses. 900,000 civilians, mostly refugees fleeing Soviet atrocities, swelled the city.
On the night of 12-13 February 1945, 773 British Avro Lancaster bombers struck the city with incendiaries solely to break the German civilian will to continue the war. The mission was the brainchild of British Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, a disciple of Giullo Douhet, the influential Italian pre war air centric strategic bombing enthusiast who believed that ground troops were obsolete. By late 1944, the “thousand bomber raids” of the British Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force were having significant economic impact on Germany’s ability to carry on the war. Harris wanted to go further and “break the will” of the German people. That “the Blitz” on London and other British cities did not do so in 1940 was of no concern to him: the Germans just simply didn’t drop enough bombs. Harris saw no need for ground troops and that air power alone could win the war. According to Harris, every day that his bombers supported ground attacks was “another day in the life of Nazi Germany.”
The bombing of Dresden on the night of 12/13 February 1945 created a firestorm that demolished the city. A “firestorm” is a fire that burns so hot it consumes oxygen at such a furious pace that it creates a tornado-like windstorm around the fire to feed it. The firestorm demolished 90% of Dresden’s inner city and killed upwards of 40,000 German civilians… in one night.
It was the largest single loss of life in the shortest period of time in the war. The two atomic bombs dropped months later on Japan weren’t nearly as destructive.
The American Eighth Air Force bombed Dresden’s rail yards the next night but the damage was already done. Because of Dresden, Churchill would call off Harris’ Bomber Command’s nighttime area “terror bombings” of civilian targets.
The bombing of Dresden tarnished the sacrifices of the American and British bomber crews and the real economic and military impact the bomber campaigns had during the war. Harris would escape war crimes charges (because the Allies won) but public opinion would force him to emigrate to South Africa after the war
The first American B-29 bomber raids against Japanese industry began soon after Saipan was captured. They were tentative at first, about one a month and used different mixes of ordnance. By mid January, XX Air Force planners, led by a young “iron major” Major Robert McNamara (JFK and LBJ’s future Secretary of Defense), devised a campaign for the most effective way to destroy Japanese morale and the war making capability of the home islands in preparation for an invasion of Japan in late summer.
McNamara was instrumental in establishing an entire school for the study of statistics at Harvard from which up and coming young Army Air Corps planners graduated. McNamara’s reliance of statistics permeated every part of the plan in preparation for the invasion. The timing, targets, routes, formations, ordnance etc. were mathematically planned down to the last detail for an effective and efficient “reduction of Japan”. Major General Curtis LeMay, the XX Air Force commander, briefed the plan to his superiors and famously summed it up, “If you kill enough of them, they will stop fighting.”
It was brutally effective. The plan’s focus on incendiaries devastated Japan’s primarily wooden cities. The morale of the Japanese population was crushed but only because there was little response from the now defunct Japanese air force, and the shock at the scale of the raids. For years the Japanese ministry of propaganda had fooled the Japanese people into thinking they were winning the war. But no amount of official lying could cover up the loss of Saipan, a Japanese home territory, and the B29s that appeared in the skies with increasing frequency.
On 27 January 1945, 68 B29s bombed Tokyo and reduced 15% of it to ash and rubble with the loss of only six planes, despite the lack of escorting fighters. McNamara’s plan was deemed successful and implemented in full. Every city in Japan, no matter the size, was targeted. A new raid launched every seven days until the end of the war. 500,000 Japanese civilians would die in the campaign and over five million displaced into the countryside.
Patton’s counterattack towards Bastogne was not only predicted by Hitler’s Ardennes planners, it was relied upon. As Patton’s 3rd Army attacked north, his lines would have to be taken over by Lieutenant General Patch’s 7th Army to the south. The 7th Army was already overextended from the Saar Valley down to the “Colmar Pocket” along the Swiss border. This presented an opportunity for the Germans to break through the thinly held lines and force Eisenhower to choose between the encirclement and destruction of the 7th Army, or the German recapture the Franco-Teutonic city of Strasbourg (it changed hands between France and Germany a few dozen times over the last 1500 years. Both countries considered it national territory).
Eisenhower could be counted on to choose to maintain the continuity of the front and withdraw from Strasbourg. This would be a national disaster for France (they couldn’t give up the city again to the Germans) and would almost assuredly force De Gaulle to withdraw France from the Allied Coalition. In any case, it would open up Patton to attack and destruction from behind. Operations North Wind and Dentist nearly succeeded on all accounts.
On 1 January 1945, the Germans launched Operation North Wind to destroy the 7th Army and seize Strasbourg. And on 15 January they launched Operation Dentist to assault into the 3rd Army’s rear area and defeat what they thought was the Allies’ most dangerous general – Patton. As expected, Eisenhower ordered a withdrawal of all troops from Strasbourg to shorten the lines, and the French ignored him and planned on fighting alone for the city. De Gaulle even threatened to stop Allied supplies from arriving in French ports and from traveling along French roads and railways. He also secretly began organizing the French resistance to “fight the new invaders”, the Americans and British. Fortunately hard fighting by the vastly outnumbered US VI Corps, which defended against attacks on three sides, held long enough for reinforcements to arrive from the Ardennes.
The VI Corps’ unexpected stand precluded the Allied abandonment of Strasbourg and allowed Eisenhower to avert France’s withdrawal from the Allied nations. (Eisenhower would say in his memoirs that De Gaulle was his biggest challenge of the war.) By 25 January both offensives were defeated. Strasbourg, Patton, and the coalition of Western Allies were saved. In hindsight it seems a foregone conclusion, but early January 1945 was one of Eisenhower’s most stressful times of the war.
On 27 January 1945, the Soviet forces in the Vistula-Oder offensive liberated the Nazi camps in the vicinity of the towns of Auschwitz and Birkenau in German province of Silesia (Occupied Polish province of Upper Silesia). The “Auschwitz Death Camp” was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners in 1940, but by 1945 it had grown into a series of 48 extermination, concentration, and labor camps around the towns of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz.
Unlike pure extermination camps like Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belsec, Auschwitz-Birkenau was hybrid camp system of three main camps and their satellite camps. KL Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp and railway terminal, with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate (“Work makes you free”). Built in the spring of 1940, the first Polish prisoners arrived shortly thereafter. The first gassing and mass cremation took place in August 1941, when 300 Russian prisoners of war were used to test the effects of Zyklon-B. The first mass arrival of Jewish prisoners occured in February 1942, shortly after the Wannsee Conference in January. The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of high level Nazi officials to work out the logistical details needed to eradicate European Jews, with a planning factor of 10,000,000.
Auschwitz II Birkenau was a purpose built death complex, opened in late 1941, whose slave labor inmates worked the gas chambers and crematorium ovens. Most prisoners never made it to the main camp and went directly gas chambers after their baggage, clothes, and even hair were collected. 900,000 people were murdered at Auschwitz II Birkenau.
KL Auschwitz III at Monowitz was a slave labor camp complex for IG Farben that produced synthetic rubber for the German war effort. Many German corporations threw in their lot with the National Socialists, whom offered free land, labor, and tax credits in the conquered territories for ideologically pure companies. Each SS guard was paid for each inmate that worked a shift under their watch. 23,000 workers were executed, worked to death, or died of disease or malnutrition at KL Auschwitz III. This number doesn’t include the monthly 1/5 worker turnover of those sent to Auschwitz II Birkenau to be killed to make space for healthier workers.
1.1 million people, from all over Europe, were systematically worked to death, or looted, murdered and cremated in the camps. This also includes those that died during the routine sadistic torture, and/or the gruesome medical experiments on human subjects, few of whom survived. 90% of the victims were Jewish but they also included ethnic Poles, Roma, homosexuals, Polish and Russian soldiers, and German political opponents of National Socialism.
The camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau were murder on an industrial scale.
When the Soviets launched the Vistula-Oder Offensive in early January, 1945, the German administration of the camps attempted to hide the evidence of their crimes: They destroyed the gas chambers and crematoriums. They burned down the warehouses of stolen looted goods that had been an integral part of the German economy for the previous five years. They burned the meticulous camp records. They murdered as many inmates as they could, stopping only when they couldn’t dispose of the bodies. The remaining inmates were marched west to rail heads where they were sent to camps further inside Germany. Those that fell out were shot and left behind. Tens of thousands died on these death marches in the frigid January temperatures. However, the scale of their crimes against humanity couldn’t be covered up.
On morning of 27 January 1945, scouts from the 322nd and 100th Rifle Divisions of the 1st Ukrainian Front found first a sub camp of KL Auschwitz III, and then the main camps of Auschwitz II Birkenau and KL Auschwitz I later in the morning and afternoon, respectively.
The Russian troops found only 7000 scattered survivors; most were too sick to move or had hid during the prisoner round ups prior to the death marches.
Auschwitz-Birkenau camps weren’t the first extermination camps discovered by the Soviets, but they were the first to expose the scale of National Socialist crimes against humanity. The first extermination camp “liberated” from the Germans was Majdanek in July, 1944. The Majdanek Death Camp was overrun during Operation Bagration before it could be dismantled. Ironically, or maybe not so, the Soviets kept Majdanek open for Polish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian partisans allied with Western powers and supporters of the Polish Government in exile in London. At the very moment the Russians were realizing the scale of the German camps around Auschwitz, they were processing tens of thousands of political prisoners in former German camps for transport to the gulags in Siberia. However, several KL Auschwitz III camps were used for workers to dismantle the IG Farben factories for transport east. And several other camps were eventually used to hold Polish political prisoners by the NKVD and its proxies once Silesia was fully occupied by the Soviets. The Soviet vow of “Never Again” clearly didn’t apply to themselves.
The conversion of Auschwitz-Birkenau into a Soviet reeducation camp initially wasn’t attempted due to the scale of the Nazi slaughter and its later documentation. Russian soldiers found 350,000 men’s suits, 860,000 women’s garments, and seven tons of human hair estimated to be from 150,000 people. Entire buildings were full of human feces, to the point where it was caked and solidified on the walls and ceilings. Soviet doctors and the Polish Red Cross managed to save 4500 of the 7000, though some were still in the camps months later because they were too weak to move. Soviet authorities estimated 4,000,000 people were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, and the Soviets maintained this number until 1989. The inflated number actually assisted the German cover up, as Western observers dismissed the number as propaganda, and by extension the camps themselves. The discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau was only taken seriously by Western journalists and authorities after similar camps were liberated by the Allies in April.
In 2005, 27 January became known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the six million Jews and 11 million others murdered by Nationals Socialists during the Second World War, 1.1 million of whom were killed in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
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.
On Saturday 16 December 1944, the Germans Ardennes offensive broke through the Losheim Gap and encircled two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division, soon to be the second largest surrender of American soldiers after the fall of Bataan two and a half years before. The German’s next target was the critical Belgian crossroads town of St Vith.
In the restricted terrain of the Ardennes Forest, the Battle of the Bulge was a fight for roads and crossroads. Unlike the French in 1940, Eisenhower quickly recognized this and ordered his reserves to two critical road junctions: the towns of Bastogne and St Vith.
The common historical narrative is that Eisenhower’s only reserves were the much ballyhooed Airborne divisions – the 82nd and 101st. This is not entirely accurate, he also had Bradley’s reserves which were sitting idle because of the confusion in Bradley’s 12th Army Group headquarters. Bradley was having difficulty getting back to his headquarters from Versaille due to German commandos dressed in US Army uniforms causing confusion and doubt on the roads (At one checkpoint, he was asked the name of Betty Grable’s current husband to prove he wasn’t German). Without Bradley, the 12 Army Group headquarter’s operations essentially ground to halt trying to figure out what was going on. Eisenhower took control and ordered Bradley’s reserves forward while his own reserves, the “airborne” divisions, were still trying to find trucks. He could do so because the Automotive Revolution had happened 40 years before and Bradley’s reserves were armored divisions.
The Infantry’s motto is “Follow Me!”, and whenever they get into trouble that phrase is usually followed by “Where are the tanks?” This could not have more true at the Battle of the Bulge, despite what the Airborne Mafia parrots daily. Troy Middleton’s infantry, who bore the brunt of the German’s Ardennes Offensive for the last 48 hours, were not going to be able to hold much longer without Bradley’s three armored divisions. The Tenth Armored Division moved to Bastogne where its Combat Command B provided the 101st the much needed firepower to prevent the lightly armed paratroopers from being rolled over by the German panzers like pierogi dough in my grandma’s kitchen. And the 7th Armored Division moved to St Vith where in true cavalry fashion they arrived on the evening of 17 December 1944 just in the nick of time to prevent its capture.
St. Vith was the junction of all of the roads between the Ambleve and Our Rivers, and no movement north or northwest out of the Ardennes was possible without taking the town. St Vith was a Day Two objective for the 9 ½ divisions of Erich Von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army.
The commander of Combat Command B of the 7th, Brigadier General Bruce C Clarke, arrived in town just as German reconnaissance units appeared on the hills just east of St Vith, the 106th Infantry Division’s headquarters. The commander of the 106th Infantry Division, broken by the entrapment and imminent destruction of two entire regiments of his division, turned the battle over to Clarke. With his tanks strung out in columns behind the town, Clarke immediately unsnarled the traffic jams and formed his men into a horseshoe shaped defense around the town and deftly incorporated retreating elements into the defense. The first of which was the 424th Regimental Combat Team, what remained of the 106th Infantry Division, and CCB of the 9th Armored Division, the only reason the 424th still existed. From the south, the 112th RCT was detached from the 28th Inf Division after its other two regiments withdrew east and south toward Bastogne and deeper into Luxembourg. The importance of St Vith was not lost on Eisenhower and he sent Clarke his reserve engineer battalion to further bolster its defenses.
BG Clarke, the 7th Armored Division’s CCB commander, took command of all of the combat units in St Vith: CCB and CCA of the 7th, the 424th, the 112th, the remains of the 14th Cavalry Group, Eisenhower’s engineers, and CCB of the 9th Armored Division, whose commander, also a BG, came to an understanding with Clarke. Eisenhower later called Clarke’s defense of St. Vith the “turning point of the battle”.
(The 7th’s actual division commander, Major General Robert Hasbrouck, spent the battle unscrewing the mayhem behind St Vith and fed Clarke units as they became available. Though lost to history now, Hasbrouck’s contribution in getting tanks and halftracks full of heavy infantry to Clarke was one of the only reasons Clarke held. Hasbrouck could have sped to St Vith to take over Clarke’s division sized command and left the odious and inglorious task of traffic cop to a less experienced subordinate, but instead stayed exactly where he was needed: generating combat power. Hasbrouck prevented Manteuffel from smashing Clarke and seizing the town in those critical early days of the battle.)
Clarke’s eclectic command held St Vith against overwhelming German force on 18, 19, and 20 December 1944. Their stand severely disrupted the German timetable and caused snarling traffic jams in the German rear areas. These traffic jams were so bad even Field Marshal Model himself couldn’t untangle them.) Although St Vith was threatened with encirclement because of German penetrations to its north and south, the 7th didn’t retreat until they were struck by an SS battalion of brand new German “King Tiger” super heavy tanks. This heavy battalion had wandered lost through the Ardennes looking for roads and bridges that could support its tanks great weight. For five days, it simultaneously assaulted any American units it encountered and “cleared” any German traffic jams in its way, both with equal fervor. Inevitably, the roads drew them to St Vith where they finally found a proper target to crush (and could do it before all of the King Tigers broke down).
On 21 Dec, the 506th SS Heavy Panzer Battalion struck and systematically destroyed the 7th’s much lighter Sherman tanks, whom could not penetrate the King Tiger’s armor anywhere at any nearly any range beyond muzzle blast. The other German units rallied to the King Tigers. Soon the town became a liability and Clarke was threatened with encirclement. In the late afternoon Clarke said, “This ground isn’t worth an acre a nickel to me”, and ordered the defenders of St Vith to fall back to the northwest to where the 82nd Airborne had established a defensive line. It took three days for the 82nd to round up enough trucks and get to the front, and though ordered to St. Vith by Eisenhower, never actually made it there. So when the Airborne Mafia tries to tell you that the 82nd was critical to the defense of St. Vith, as their 101st brothers were to Bastogne, you tell that lyin’ Bragg Bastard that there wasn’t a single paratrooper at St Vith, and its defense was primarily due to the efforts BG Bruce C Clarke and the mighty 7th Armored Division, “The Lucky Seventh”.
St Vith was an unimaginably important Day Two objective for the Germans. Along with the defense of Elsenborne Ridge by the 9th Armored, 2nd, 1st and 99th Infantry Divisions, St Vith was critical in preventing the Germans from breaking out north toward their objective, Antwerp. The Germans were pushing west when they wanted to go northwest, and though their offensive made for great drama, they were still going in the wrong direction and desperately trying to go around the American defenses now known as the “northern shoulder of the Bulge”. Because of the 7th Armored Division’s stand at St Vith, the Germans were four more days behind schedule and the 5th Panzer Army’s drive was all but stopped. Consequently, Model shifted the focus of the entire offensive further south around another vital crossroads, Bastogne.