Marching on the Rhine


IT WAS LATE January 1945 before the Americans and British were done with the Bulge battle, and ready to address operations of their own creation. Hitler’s offensive and its aftermath had already imposed six weeks’ delay upon the advance into Germany. Long before the Ardennes actions were over, however, Montgomery was once more urging upon Eisenhower the case for a concentrated punch at the Ruhr from the north, by his own 21st Army Group with Simpson’s Ninth U.S. Army under command. Bradley was disgusted. At a conference at SHAEF on 31 January, he told Eisenhower that since the Ardennes offensive and the publicity Montgomery had generated, “friendly and intimate co-operation between him and the Field-Marshal was out of the question. He stressed strongly the political importance in the United States of giving the big thrust to an American commander. At present his troops, and to some extent their families, were either indignantly loyal to him, or had had their confidence in the leadership severely shaken. Neither reaction, he said, was healthy.”

Russell Weigley has observed that, while Eisenhower never wholeheartedly committed himself to Montgomery’s cherished northern axis, he showed himself far more sympathetic towards it than the British commander allowed or than American generals thought reasonable. “If the field-marshal had not been too deficient in understanding and tolerance towards Ike to recognize this fact, he might have been able to exploit it to his advantage.” In the aftermath of the Bulge, Eisenhower accepted that Montgomery should be given the chance to make a big push. To Bradley’s fury, he agreed to place Ninth Army under British command until the Rhine was crossed. But he insisted that Montgomery’s offensive should be delayed until the second week of February, to give Bradley’s 12th Army Group the opportunity to recover ground in the Ardennes before the British moved.

Montgomery chafed at this. On the old Bulge battlefield, where First Army stood, the Germans were no longer in any position to go anywhere except backwards. “So far as I can see,” Montgomery wrote contemptuously to Brooke on 22 January, “the Ardennes battle is being continued for the sole reason of keeping Bradley employed offensively . . . I am not consulted in any way about plans for centre or south, or about plans for the front as a whole, and I have no idea what is the long-term plan . . . The real trouble is that there is no control and the three Army Groups are each intent on their own affairs.” The British Chiefs of Staff supported Montgomery’s view that Eisenhower’s armies possessed supplies sufficient only for one immediate big push, which should take place in 21st Army Group’s sector, on the Dutch–German border. In the spring of 1945, shortfalls in supply were still causing immense difficulties. Each month from December 1944 onwards, discharges from all the ports in Allied hands fell short of estimated capacity by 15 to 20 per cent. The British argued once more for giving priority to the northern axis.

At the Malta meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff which preceded the Yalta conference at the end of January, this issue caused some of the most bitter arguments of the war. It provoked Marshall to threaten resignation if the British did not fall into line with Eisenhower. America’s chief soldier “lit out so vigorously that he carried everything before him,” wrote Stimson admiringly. Men great and small were growing weary and fractious after years of war. The Americans’ patience with their allies was wearing thin. Strategy and national pride apart, Montgomery’s personal behaviour in the wake of the Bulge had been so outrageous that there was no possibility his aspirations would be heeded. There were now three Americans in north-west Europe for every British soldier. U.S. predominance was increasing daily. It is no exaggeration to say that, after the Ardennes battle, the Americans scorned Montgomery and anything he proposed. Malta gave Marshall the opportunity “to express his full dislike and antipathy to Montgomery.” The public courtesies of the alliance were maintained, but privately Eisenhower and his colleagues had had enough of 21st Army Group’s commander, and of British pretensions.

The British delegation at Malta understood this, even if it was gall and wormwood to them. “An unsatisfactory meeting with the Americans which led us nowhere and resulted in the most washy conclusions,” Brooke wrote after the war. “I did not approve of Ike’s appreciation and plans, yet through force of circumstance I had to accept them . . . we were dealing with a force that was predominantly American, and it was therefore natural that they should wish to have the major share in its handling. In addition there was the fact that Marshall clearly understood nothing of strategy.” Churchill advanced an impulsive proposal that his favourite general, Alexander, vastly better than Montgomery at rubbing along with the Americans, might replace Tedder as deputy Supreme Commander. The prime minister cherished a delusion that Alexander would put more spine into the direction of the ground campaign. This seemed unlikely, given Alexander’s notorious indolence. Posterity owes a debt to the American Chiefs of Staff for squashing such a folly. Unsatisfactory as might be the existing command structure, with its poisoned relationship between Montgomery and the Americans, it would now persist unchanged until the end.

The great captains of history have always been conscious of what the enemy might do, but they have focused chiefly upon their own intentions. It is one of the strangest aspects of the north-west Europe campaign that, even as Hitler’s armies sank to their knees, they retained psychological dominance on the battlefield. The most baleful consequence of the Bulge was that it reinforced Eisenhower’s fears about German counter-threats. “We must make certain,” he told Montgomery on 17 January, “that he [the German] is not free, behind a strong defensive line, to organize sudden powerful thrusts into our lines of communication. As I see it, we simply cannot afford the large defensive forces that would be necessary if we allow the German to hold great bastions sticking into our lines at the same time that we try to invade his country.” In other words, Eisenhower intended his armies to continue a cautious broad-front advance to the Rhine.

In the early years of the war, the German army conducted offensives of stunning daring: against the British and French in 1940; against the British and later the Americans in the North African desert; against the Russians in 1941 and 1942. German generals felt able to expose their flanks with impunity, because they faced adversaries who lacked the skill and imagination to exploit opportunities. On the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht was forced to change its attitude after Stalingrad and other dramatic envelopments showed how well the Russians had learned their lesson. In the west, however, the Germans were able to withdraw at their own speed from the Bulge, because the Allies made no attempt to cut them off. Allied commanders remained fearful about exposing their own flanks in attack, even when the Germans no longer possessed the resources or mobility to intervene with conviction. Eisenhower’s armies had suffered severe embarrassment in the Bulge battle. The Supreme Commander had no intention of exposing them to further setbacks. After the massive intelligence failure in the Ardennes, he felt no temptation to act aggressively upon the basis of the latest SHAEF assessment—that the German army in the west had shot its bolt. He refused to acknowledge that von Rundstedt’s armies were indeed, at last, on the ropes. He wrote, spoke and behaved as if the Wehrmacht was still the same enemy as that of Normandy.

Montgomery’s demands for boldness would deserve more respect from history if either the British or American armies had displayed the determination and fighting skills to make good his visions. Yet since September 1944 many Allied commanders had expressed dismay about the lack of aggression shown by their troops, save exceptional units such as the airborne and Rangers. After counter-attacking in the Bulge, the Allies had signally failed to seize the opportunity to translate the repulse of the German forces into their destruction. “The Germans appear to be beaten and beaten badly,” Gavin wrote in his diary on 3 February. “With better troops, I see no reason why we could not run all over them. The public will never know nor appreciate this. Our American army individually means well and tries hard, but it is not the army one reads about in the press. It is untrained and completely inefficient . . . certainly our infantry lacks courage and élan.”

Gavin was equally scornful about the manner in which trench foot had been allowed to assume epidemic proportions. He argued that while this was a genuine medical condition, it was preventable by good unit discipline—foot examination and changing socks. In truth, defective American winter footwear was the principal cause. In some formations, however, trench foot had undoubtedly become a convenient alternative to combat fatigue as a means of escaping from line duty. “Poor discipline was reflected by a high trench foot rate,” observed a U.S. Army post-war report, “as it was reflected by a high VD rate, a high court-martial rate and a high AWOL rate.” Several officers were relieved of their commands for failure to address trench foot effectively in the winter of 1944–45. A total of 46,107 cases were reported in Bradley’s armies between October 1944 and April 1945, around 9.25 per cent of all casualties, the equivalent of three combat divisions lost to Eisenhower. By contrast, and as the Pentagon noted with some chagrin, under far worse battlefield conditions the French army in the First World War suffered a 3 per cent trench-foot rate.

At the beginning of 1945, Eisenhower commanded seventy-three divisions in north-west Europe. Of these, forty-nine were infantry, twenty armoured and four airborne; forty-nine were American, twelve British, three Canadian, one Polish and eight French. A further seven American divisions reached the front by February, most of them fresh from the United States. On the other side, seventy-six German divisions were deployed in north-west Europe; a further twenty-four in Italy; seventeen in Scandinavia; ten in Yugoslavia; and 133 on the Eastern Front. This paper order of battle was, of course, misleading. The average German armoured division was now reduced to some forty tanks and self-propelled guns, compared with almost 300 in its British or American equivalents. On 6 February, the Wehrmacht reported a total manpower deficiency of 460,000 men. Many German soldiers would have been medically disqualified from service in the Allied armies. Even with their teenagers and cripples, most Wehrmacht formations mustered less than half the men of their Anglo-American counterparts. While the Allies were extravagantly equipped, the German army was starved of the most essential fighting material. Speer’s efforts yielded a final substantial delivery of new aircraft to the Luftwaffe, but since there were neither trained pilots nor fuel to get them airborne, this achievement was meaningless. Wehrmacht tanks and vehicles suffered flooded filters and clogged carburettors from “Moselle petrol,” a violet-coloured blend of gasoline and alcohol on which they were now dependent, and which made it necessary for tank crews to pre-heat their exhaust manifolds with blowtorches, at severe risk of fire. German tanks were designed to provide five hours’ reliable continuous running, a vital requirement on the battlefield, yet by now it was rare indeed for any armoured unit to be able to achieve this. “Our battery was still fully equipped, and receiving ammunition,” said Karl Godau, a gunner officer of 10th SS Panzer. “Gas, always gas was the problem.”

Godau’s unit profited from the fact that the Waffen SS was always first in line for whatever weapons and ammunition were available. In the Wehrmacht shells were in chronic short supply. Germany’s only dubious advantage was that of diminishing lines of communications. Despite the best efforts of the Allied air forces, rail links across the Reich were somehow kept open until the very end. But traffic flow was vastly reduced, and troop movements which should have taken hours required days amid diversions and persistent disruption. Panzer Lehr Division found itself stranded at Mönchengladbach for lack of fuel. The only way the formation could move to the front was to load every one of its vehicles on to railway flatcars, a desperately time-consuming process. A sergeant-major of 12th SS Panzer was appalled when his unit took delivery of brand-new tanks at Memmingen, to discover that there was no fuel with which to drive them into battle: “We had to blow them up without firing a shot.” The Germans were so starved of means of mobility that sometimes one tank towed another. Units found themselves forced to move into battle with a hotch-potch of commandeered transport, charcoal-fuelled vehicles, horse-drawn carts and—more often than not—men’s own two feet.

“It was ‘subsistence warfare,’ ” said Sergeant George Schwemmer of 10th SS Panzer. “Scrounging for ammunition and weapons. We were very, very envious of the Americans’ plenty.” Increasingly desperate measures were adopted to urge on Germany’s despondent defenders. Model promised extra rations for any unit which shot down a ground-attack aircraft, and ten days’ special leave for any man who accomplished such a feat with small arms. The reverse of the coin was reflected in a warning by the commander of 7th Parachute Division on 14 February: “The sternest measures will be taken against any further unauthorized rearward movements by individual soldiers or small units, of the kind that have been seen during the past two days.”

Sergeant Schwemmer took part in one of innumerable hopeless counter-attacks at the end of January on the U.S. Third Army’s front. His men left their carefully camouflaged foxholes with the deepest regret and began to advance across open ground. Devastating American automatic-weapons fire swept their ranks. “This is suicidal,” said the company commander, an amiable man who was the son of an Austrian hotel owner. He was killed minutes later. Schwemmer took over. He rallied the survivors and took shelter for a time in a shell hole. Then there was a lull in the firing, and they began to pull back. Heavy American shelling descended again. They sank into what cover they could find. The cold was terrible. When darkness fell, they stumbled towards the rear, only to be checked by a major who fiercely ordered them forward again. All night, they struggled to gain ground, until they lapsed shivering into a ditch, where they remained until dawn. Schwemmer spent the next month hospitalized with acute frostbite.

To launch the Ardennes offensive, Hitler had temporarily transferred forces from east to west while the Russians were comparatively passive. This process had been reversed when Stalin struck on the Vistula. German formations were hastening eastwards. “It is essential that the change in our priorities should be concealed from the enemy for as long as possible,” Keitel signalled to von Rundstedt on 22 January. “Every day is vital. OKW has available a range of options for feints and diversions to give the enemy the impression that the forces removed [notably Sixth SS Panzer Army] will be redeployed in Holland.” In reality of course, Ultra intelligence swiftly conveyed news of the German redeployment to American and British commanders.

A deserter from 12th SS Panzer told his captors on 16 January: “You could walk through to Cologne if you wanted. There is nobody to stop you.” Lieutenant Helmut Schmidt wrote of returning from leave in January: “When I reported back to my commander in the Eifel, it was plain to everybody that the end of the war was approaching. I said: ‘Hauptmann, it would make more sense for us to shift everything east against the Russians, and let the Americans keep coming here in the West.’ He answered: ‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.’ We scarcely knew each other, but not every officer was a Nazi, and he didn’t report me.” U.S. Ninth Army captured a report on two enemy sentries condemned to death in absentia, having disappeared from their posts and presumably deserted. The men were also sentenced to dismissal from the Wehrmacht and loss of their civil rights. “Sentence will be carried out,” declared German Fifteenth Army optimistically, “as soon as the two deserters return from captivity.” Patton interviewed a captured German commander, General Graf von Rothkirch, commanding the LIII Corps. The American asked the familiar question: why did the Wehrmacht continue to fight? He received the familiar answer: “We are under the orders of the High Command, and must carry on as soldiers in spite of personal opinions and beliefs.” A German staff officer from 331st Volksgrenadier Division told his American captors with some disdain that his comrades expected the Allies merely to continue to grind down German resistance through overwhelming firepower, “rather than attempt any bold and brilliant tactical stroke.”

To many men of the Allied armies, it seemed increasingly painful to risk their lives in the final stages. Lieutenant Howard Randall joined the U.S. 76th Division as a replacement platoon commander late in January. His first experience of bloodshed was prompted by a man who shot himself in the leg one night, to avoid attacking at dawn. “My flashlight revealed his greatly swollen calf with a gaping hole in it filled with bloody hamburger and bits of shiny bone. I could see steam rising from the wound as the brightened blood rushed through the hole . . . I stood up and found that my knees were weak. I thought to myself—Lord, if a little wound like that has such an effect on me, how will I stand up when blood is the order of the day?” Yet Lieutenant Tony Moody of the 28th Division marvelled at the courage with which some men endured horrifying wounds. On a night patrol in Colmar, a recently arrived replacement, a nineteen-year-old from Michigan named Dennis Wills, trod on a mine. He never screamed, nor indeed made a sound, while they laid him in a shelter half and struggled through the snow back to the American lines. He simply said resignedly: “I guess I’ll never jitterbug again.”

In a monastery on the edge of Eindhoven, a British maxillo-facial unit, known to its staff as the “Max Factors,” addressed the wounds inflicted by shrapnel, burns, blast. “The casualties themselves were uncomplaining beyond belief,” wrote Sister Brenda McBryde.

Those who were unable to speak, like the Guardsman who was being kept alive on eggnogs poured down his nasal tube, would hand me little notes: “Steak and chips tonight, Sis? Or shall we try the duck à l’orange?’ . . . One day a sergeant of the 51st Highland Division was carried in, propped upright on a stretcher by rolled blankets. “Let him fall back and he’s a goner,” the M.O. had warned the bearers. A flying chunk of mortar had carried his lower jaw clean away, and an emergency tracheotomy had been carried out. After resuscitation, he was on the operating table for two and a half hours while the surgeons removed the earth and grit of the ditch and shreds of khaki cloth from the pulpy mess which was all that remained below the sergeant’s upper lip.

As Sister McBryde dressed the man’s wounds later, she noticed by his bedside “a photograph of a good-looking young soldier in Scottish dress with his arm about the waist of a smiling girl . . . if this was our sergeant, his girlfriend was in for a shock.”

IN THE FEBRUARY drive to the Rhine, Allied forces were to advance across a front of some 250 miles. From Strasbourg south to the Swiss border, French divisions would hold firm in their positions on the upper Rhine. Further north the forces of Bradley and Montgomery, together with Patch’s Seventh Army, would close up to the Rhine through a series of river assaults and exploitations. Patton’s Third Army had furthest to go—some eighty miles. Simpson and Hodges, together with the British and Canadians, faced an advance of just over thirty miles. They knew it was overwhelmingly likely that the Germans would destroy all the Rhine bridges, but cherished hopes of a lucky break, a chance to seize at least one intact crossing which would enable them to push on across Germany without a pause.

Following the Bulge operations, twenty-one of the forty-seven U.S. divisions deployed on the Western Front were concentrated between the Hürtgen Forest and the Moselle. First Army began its attack on a front some ten miles wide, south of the Hürtgen and the Roer dams. Its units faced hard going through the thick woodlands of the Eifel before reaching open ground. On the eve of the new offensive, Bradley had to repulse a rash last-minute proposal from Eisenhower, to transfer several divisions southwards to finish off the Colmar Pocket. The German toehold there looked messy on the map, but was strategically irrelevant. Bradley lost his temper with SHAEF when this plan was telephoned to him during a meeting with Hodges and Patton. Patton said: “Tell them to go to hell and all three of us will resign. I will lead the procession.” Eisenhower backed off. The French, with American armoured support, finally closed the Colmar Pocket on 9 February.

Bradley’s attack began well, despite freezing weather. It was led by Ridgway’s airborne divisions, who showed all the dash in attack for which they were famous. By 4 February, the Americans were well inside the first defences of the West Wall. On the right, the U.S. VIII Corps at first made less headway against 9th Panzer Division before eventually gaining momentum. German counter-attacks delayed the advance, but lacked the punch to stop it. By 12 February the Americans had taken the town of Prüm, and closed up to the Prüm river.

The assault crossing of the Sauer river, which began on the night of 6 February, proved a painful experience. The same early thaw which so cheered the Germans on the Oder swelled the modest Sauer into a fast, treacherous fifty-yard-wide torrent. Under fierce German fire, assault boats drifted out of control or sank, troops were lost, engineers struggled to create pontoons. A dozen American-built bridges were broken. Private Charles Felix was at a battalion headquarters with his colonel, whom he much admired, on the night of 6 February, when VII Corps began its crossing. A signaller, Felix recorded the CO’s radio conversation with one of his platoon commanders as they confronted the difficulties of launching boats under German mortaring:

“Lieutenant, are you across yet?”

“We had to turn back. We were under heavy fire.”

“Where are you now?”

“We’re in the woods.”

“Lieutenant, you’ve got to get those men moving. You’re holding up the advance.”

“These men have had it, sir! They won’t budge for me or anybody else! I’ve tried everything! They won’t move!”

“Lieutenant, I know it’s tough up there, but you’re going to have to go over right now. The longer you wait, the worse it’ll be . . . quit screwing around.”

After a further altercation, the reluctant platoon set off. But it was a night of disasters across the whole front of the advance. Felix’s Colonel Rudd was enraged to discover that men were seizing litter handles to provide themselves with an excuse to get to the rear by carrying casualties. Rudd barred all riflemen from litter-bearing. He demanded court-martials for three men suspected of incurring self-inflicted wounds, and fumed when their company commander reported that since there had been no witnesses there was no evidence on which to charge them. The same company commander complained about the behaviour of his replacement riflemen: “They keep their heads down and won’t look up. They think if they just lie there, the krauts can’t see them. They’re getting killed without firing a shot.” In Private George Sheppard’s company of the 319th Infantry, one man killed himself to escape from the attack. “He overdid it,” said Sheppard laconically. “Some guys actually thought it was easier to die than to go on.” Patton delivered a personal reprimand to the commanding general of the 94th Division after its initial failure to cross the Sauer, remarking scathingly on the fact that his units had reported more non-combat than combat casualties.

Major William DuPuy personally briefed every platoon and squad commander of his battalion of the 357th Infantry for the Sauer crossing. DuPuy had inherited command a few weeks earlier, when his predecessor walked into the CP and announced that he couldn’t take it any longer. As H-Hour approached, DuPuy checked every sub-unit: “A few of the men we had to put into the boats at pistol-point. I suppose that is not an approved leadership technique.” When the boats reached the other side after taking the first wave across the river, “a lot of the engineers simply abandoned them and wouldn’t go across again. So my guys had to scarf up the boats and drag them right up the bank right across from the pillboxes, in the middle of the night. Those engineers were not brilliant. They probably thought they were in with a bunch of madmen.”

Yet it is important to match tales of men who gave way to fear with those of others who pressed on. Lieutenant William Devitt of the 330th Infantry saw his own sergeant spin and fall after a German machine-gun burst caught him. To the officer’s amazement, the sergeant then got up, held up his helmet in surprise to reveal two holes in it and ran on forward. Devitt reflected that not a man in the platoon would have held it against the NCO if he had said: “That’s enough. I quit. I’m leaving. I’ll see ya after this war’s over.”

Sergeant Tony Carullo’s company of 2nd Infantry got across the Sauer intact, but then ran into trouble among the German positions on the far side. They were pinned down when Carullo’s platoon commander, a Californian named Marvin Shipp, crawled over and said: “Come on, get up, we’re going to make it to the rail tracks.” The men reluctantly followed, but Lieutenant Shipp was shot a few minutes later. “He never even knew he’d just made it to captain,” said Carullo sadly. His platoon was enraged. They shouted at the German position: “Kommen sie hierher! Hände hoch!” When a German cautiously showed himself, a Pennsylvanian named Johnny Komer shot him at once: “We were all so mad because they’d killed our lieutenant.”

It was three days before the Sauer crossing was secure. Yet though the Americans suffered difficulties, they were able to keep moving. Hitler signalled his displeasure in the usual fashion, by sacking the commander of Seventh Army on 20 February. It is hard to see what any German general could have done better or differently, however, faced with attacks in such overwhelming strength. When the U.S. 5th Division crossed the Prüm on the night of 24 February, it met little resistance. For the first time, many Germans seemed ready to surrender without a fight. Patton’s formations broke through the West Wall on a front of some twenty-five miles, and were also making good progress further south. Walker, commanding XX Corps, staged an imaginative operation on the night of 23 February, when in advance of an attack by the 94th Division he sent 5th Ranger battalion to create a roadblock around Zerf, to prevent German reinforcements from intervening. The Rangers did the job with their usual drive and effectiveness. When the 94th Division’s advance stalled in the face of an ambush manned by the usual German mix of a tank, an 88mm gun and some infantry with fausts, the Rangers about-faced and attacked the Germans from the rear, driving them off. Patton’s men took Trier on 1 March, capturing a useful Moselle bridge intact. His XII Corps began to drive a deep salient into German Seventh Army. At last, the great pursuit commander’s offensive was achieving the sort of pace and drive he yearned for.

On the night of 9 February, after days of bitter fighting and some severe setbacks and losses, Hodges’s First Army finally gained possession of the Roer dams, focus of so much anxiety for five months. The Germans had not, as had been feared, demolished the structures. They merely opened the discharge valves to release a torrent which flooded the river valley for a fortnight. This delayed the start of Simpson’s attack, Operation Grenade, until the waters in front of his army’s positions subsided.

All along the Allied front, it was apparent that German resistance was weaker than the attackers had ever seen it. American units met Germans surrendering in substantial numbers without a fight. When the U.S. 90th Division captured six 120mm mortars, some paratrooper PoWs proved perfectly willing to instruct GIs on how best to use the tubes against their own people. Aggressive American formations were rewarded with dramatic rewards, above all on Third Army’s front. Patton himself stood on the road, urging his men forward with his usual theatricality and frequent losses of temper. When two armoured divisions became snarled at an intersection and an MP died in the consequent traffic jam, Patton insisted that the responsible corps commander should spend the next nine hours personally directing vehicles, to learn not to make the same mistake again. Such stories contributed to the Patton legend, and also to suspicions of his derangement. “There was something a bit scary about Patton,” observed Eisenhower’s son John. “To pretend to love war like he did, there had to have been a screw loose somewhere.”

When 4th Armored Division found itself facing little resistance, it raced north-eastwards. In one bound, it covered twenty-five miles, taking 5,000 prisoners and killing several hundred Germans for the loss of 111 of its own men, before reaching the hills above the Rhine. If only others had done likewise. “For a victorious army,” said Lieutenant Glavin, G-3 of 6th Armored Division on 22 February, echoing German opinion, “our divisions are too sensitive to their flanks . . . the result of this timidity is that we do not exploit local weaknesses, and unless the whole army moves forward along a broad front, nobody moves.” If every American formation had shown the same drive and enthusiasm as the best of Patton’s troops, the Allies might have secured their line on the Rhine weeks earlier. A major opportunity was missed on Hodges’s front because of Eisenhower’s commitment to Montgomery. Collins’s VII Corps was making dramatic progress towards Cologne when the order came to halt the drive, because it was time to pass the baton—and the necessary logistic support—to Montgomery, in accordance with Eisenhower’s undertakings to the British. A more flexible and imaginative commander—or one unconstrained by the demands of inter-allied relations—would have allowed Hodges’s forces to keep going to the river and delayed Montgomery for the necessary few days.

As it was, 21st Army Group’s big push south-east from Nijmegen, spearheaded by the Canadians, was launched as scheduled on 8 February. The attack, Operation Veritable, was a characteristic Montgomery setpiece. It began with a five-hour barrage by 1,034 guns, the heaviest of the war in the west. Five infantry divisions supported by three armoured brigades advanced on an eight-mile front with the Rhine on their left flank and the Maas on their right. The Germans had flooded much of the countryside and strongly fortified the area. They now drained their reserves to meet the attack, throwing in five divisions and the remains of Panzer Lehr. “Everybody hated Veritable,” said Brigadier Michael Carver. The British found the fighting tough and miserable from beginning to end.

In theory, only 30,000 Germans supported by seventy tanks were left to face the U.S. Ninth Army when it launched Grenade on 19 February. This began with a crossing of the Roer on a fifteen-mile front. There was a supporting artillery piece for every thirty-two yards. A vast smokescreen was laid over the crossings, rising 2,000 feet into the air. Yet as the Americans began to move, they found themselves floundering in the waterlogged morass left behind by the floods. When they reached the river proper, boats were swept relentlessly downstream by a five-knot current. Private David Williams of the 104th Combat Engineers was struggling with an assault boat when there was a blast close by and his leg went numb. Shrapnel had gashed open his upper thigh. His buddy Ray, beside him, cried out, “Dave, Dave, Dave—oh dear, oh dear,” slung him over his shoulder and carried him to the rear.

The advancing Allies were becoming bolder about using darkness. The U.S. 30th Division staged a highly successful night attack on Altdorf, which they took almost without loss. However, when they tried another such operation on 26 February, two tanks at once tipped into unseen craters, in what turned out to be a minefield. German fire then brewed up two Shermans, and the flames brilliantly illuminated the attackers. American gunners spotted armoured movement on their left flank and knocked out four tanks. These were British mine-clearing flails, attached for the assault, which had strayed off-course in the darkness. A single day’s fighting on 27 February, attacking the town of Königshafen, cost one U.S. regiment nine tanks.

Many officers and men felt desperately tired. “It has been quite bloody awful for days,” Lieutenant-Colonel George Turner-Cain wrote in his diary on 2 March, “we have fought day and night . . . I am extremely tired and very nervy.” He added a few days later: “It is quite time I left command, as I am no longer fit to conduct stiff operations.” Even in retreat, the Germans remained unimpressed by Allied tactics: “Infantry do not press forward energetically,” observed an Army Group B report. “They merely follow the armoured forces and occupy ground. There are long pauses after the objective of a given attack has been taken. They are very sensitive about exposing their flanks.”

When the 92nd Reconnaissance Squadron of 12th Armored Division entered the little town of Linderburgerhof near Trier, in seconds the German defenders brewed up three light tanks leading the column. Private Frank Rumph dashed into the house nearest his wrecked vehicle. A Sherman roared forward, only to be knocked out at once. Its commander, the only survivor, crouched behind its immobilized hull. Rumph yelled at the man to join him. The two Americans retired into the cellar and munched some dried carrots they found there, until at evening more American light tanks arrived to rescue the survivors of the armoured party. Next day infantry cleared the place street by street, as so often proved necessary.

The British found the experience of fighting their way through the Reichs-wald forest especially painful. “The Reichswald was the nastiest battle we had fought since Normandy,” said Lieutenant Edwin Bramall. The Germans had constructed five successive lines of defence, manned chiefly by paratroopers. Flooded ground on both flanks forced the British and Canadians to advance on a narrow front. The thick woodland was almost impenetrable to tanks. Foliage jammed turret traverses. The Shermans were anyway unable to use their armament effectively—it was too dangerous to fire high-explosive shells lest they hit trees above their own infantry. The tanks were also highly vulnerable to faust ambushes in the dense cover. Lieutenant Kingsley Field, commanding a Churchill troop of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, was enraged when a British infantryman mistook his tank for a German and fired a PIAT bomb at it. Field sprang down from his turret and kicked the man. Shellbursts among the tree canopy caused many infantry casualties from splinters. The movement of supplies was a nightmare in the cold and mud. The rain scarcely abated for a single day.

The British 7th Somersets set off from Nijmegen aboard Shermans on the evening of 9 February, in a heavy downpour. The sky was lit up by flames from a brief and unusual German air raid on the Dutch town. The infantrymen clung to the tank hulls in sodden misery, fearful of falling off into the path of the vehicle behind. The rain was interrupted only by sleet. Early on the morning of the 10th, the column paused for the men to drink a few cans of self-heating soup. Private Len Stokes found that his hands and feet were utterly numbed, “at the last stage before frostbite.” They rode onwards all that day, and in the middle of the night reached the Reichswald. They crossed their start line at 1600 hours on 11 February, under orders to take the village of Hau. The attack stopped for a time, when the leading company reached a crossroads which was under heavy artillery fire. “Everyone was exhausted,” Stokes wrote in his diary, “the conditions were appalling—cold, wet and sleet, very dark between farms.” Eventually they all fell asleep on the floor of a farmhouse. The battalion reached its objective, but spent the following day and night under incessant mortar and shellfire. Late on 14 February, they were attacked by three German tanks with infantry support. The British had seen the Germans forming up, but were unable to make wireless contact with their supporting artillery. Stokes was sent as a runner to the rear, to pass map references orally. He had gone only sixty yards under German fire when he met the battalion commander, moving forward in a Bren-carrier to see for himself. The colonel dismounted, sprinted forward, checked the positions, ran back to his radio and called down devastating artillery fire which crushed the German advance in its tracks. Such was a typical single-unit action in Germany in February 1945.

The 21st Army Group’s month-long battle in the Reichswald became as miserable an experience as that of the Americans in the Hürtgen. Dai Evans, a private in 53rd (Welsh) Division, saw his neighbour looking ashen after a German mortar “stonk” and called to him: “What’s up, Frank? Are you hit?” The man replied simply: “No. I’ve shit myself.” His mates helped to get his trousers off, and wiped him with grass as best they could. Here was an uncommonly vivid demonstration of comradeship. Nor was it only private soldiers whose fears overcame their bodily processes. Soon after, as the platoon advanced Evans was dismayed to see their officer fall, apparently wounded. “It’s my ankle,” he said. Evans looked at the lieutenant’s leg and could see no blood. The officer said again: “I think I’ve sprained my ankle. I can’t go on.” Evans “suddenly realised that he was a bundle of nerves, scared almost out of his mind.” The private said, “You’d better stay there, sir. I’ll tell the stretcher-bearers where you are,” and marched onwards with the leaderless platoon. Evans was honest enough also to record, as few unit war diaries ever recorded, an occasion when his platoon simply ran away. They were in the midst of a Reichswald attack when he suddenly found himself alone. He called out by name to some of his squad. Nothing happened. “In the end, I had to give up the search and admit that they had done a bunk . . .”

On 14 February, Montgomery reported to Brooke that the British were opposed by all or part of four parachute, three infantry and two panzer or panzergrenadier divisions: “This is a pretty good party.” Three weeks later, he acknowledged grimly: “It is tough going, and many of the enemy paratroops refuse to surrender even when they have run out of ammunition, and have to be shot.” Allied soldiers often felt unembarrassed respect for German courage. One night, an enemy patrol crossed a river in front of the 6th Cameronians. The Germans were obliged to withdraw after being fired on, leaving a wounded man under the British bank. When daylight came, the British were amazed to see a German soldier run down to the far bank, launch a rubber boat, paddle furiously across under machine-gun fire, seize the wounded man and return unscathed. “It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Lieutenant Cliff Pettit admiringly. “Every night, we kept wondering when the Germans were going to pack it in,” said Captain John Langdon of 3rd Royal Tanks. “I can’t say one felt sorry for them. Our object was to kill them. Theirs was to kill us. But they fought fairly against terrific odds.”

Allied armour found itself increasingly impeded by rubble in towns devastated by heavy bombing. The city of Cleve, for instance, became a much more difficult obstacle after the Allied air forces had visited it. Mistakenly, 1,384 tons of high explosive had been dropped instead of the incendiaries requested by the army. “Bomb craters and fallen trees were everywhere,” recorded a British officer, “bomb craters packed so tightly together that the debris from one was piled against the rim of the next in a pathetic heap of rubble, roofs and radiators. There was not an undamaged house anywhere, piles of smashed furniture, clothing, children’s books and toys, old photographs and bottled fruit were spilled in hopeless confusion into gardens from sagging, crazy skeletons of homes.” Ruins provided better defensive positions for surviving Germans than undamaged buildings. One platoon of the 7th Somersets found a Panther tank crunching relentlessly towards its positions. A PIAT operator, Private Hipple, crawled to the edge of a bomb crater and was preparing to fire at the great brute from a range of twenty-five yards when the Panther’s gun went off. The blast, at point-blank range, blew the hapless soldier into the bottom of the crater. Astonishingly, he recovered and crept upwards again with his PIAT. He fired several bombs which seemed to strike the Panther, without disabling it. The German occupants, however, were sufficiently discomfited to beat a retreat.

Overall statistics showed that the Allies were suffering only modest casualties. But, for those unlucky enough to serve at the tip of the spear, there were some terrible days. On 26 February, the Canadian Cameron Highlanders were attacking in the Rhineland between Calcar and Udem. The attack began in mud and darkness, and the Camerons in their vehicles found themselves under heavy fire. One of their company commanders, Major David Rodgers, jumped down from his Kangaroo (a turretless Sherman used as an infantry carrier) and ran into the nearest house defended by German paratroopers, which he cleared alone before his men reached him. He did the same with a second house, killing four of the enemy and capturing a dozen. He returned to his battalion headquarters to report, and found the CO dead, his intelligence officer severely wounded and the position being sprayed by enemy automatic weapons. Rodgers, accompanied only by his batman, ran headlong across open ground to a house from which the Germans were firing, kicked open the door and pressed the trigger of his Sten gun. It clicked dead. The magazine was empty. He grabbed his pistol and started firing, wounding two Germans and causing the other occupants to surrender. He went on to clear the rest of the house room by room, killing or wounding nine Germans and capturing twelve. He then returned to assume temporary command of his battalion, and toured each of its company positions on foot to ensure its security before he handed over to the unit second-in-command. For his morning’s work Rodgers was recommended for a Victoria Cross, though he received only an immediate DSO. Once again, it was shown how the behaviour of a single determined man could influence the outcome of a battle, if he was fortunate enough to survive to complete the business. “Bomber” Harris once memorably remarked that “any action deserving of the VC is, by its nature, unfit to be repeated as an operation of war.”

The 156th Brigade of the British 52nd (Lowland) Division suffered a less happy outcome of an action a few days later. The Scots were committed on 7 March to attack the village of Alpon, just short of Wesel on the Rhine, the last German pocket west of the river. The British assault battalions spent the night before the attack under German shellfire. Next morning, the unit attacking the village, 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers, soon became stuck among the houses, against energetic resistance from troops of First Parachute Army, supported by two self-propelled guns. The 6th Cameronians started the battle in some disarray. Their commanding officer had been blown out of his jeep for the second time in a week and was unfit for battle. His replacement was crippled by malaria, but insisted on conducting the operation. The battalion’s officers were thoroughly unhappy about attacking over ground they had been unable to reconnoitre and where the enemy’s strength was unknown. The Cameronians were ordered to carry out a flanking movement around Alpon, but in the first hours two of their platoons became entangled in fighting in the village itself, and lost several men before being pulled back.

A mile or so away, men of the 4th KOSB were advancing to join the Cameronians’ attack. “As usual, the rough plan on paper looked delightfully simple and free of snags,” wrote one of its platoon commanders, Peter White, “a feeling that was helped by one’s normal wishful thinking . . . that Jerry would have pulled back over the river by the time we arrived to do battle. To add to the dejected look of the sections trudging up the road, it was a chilly, raw day, and rain began to fall and soak into our clothing. I wondered if a newspaper reporter would have described us as ‘straining at the leash to be at the enemy, with morale at a new high.’” The Scots were deeply respectful of the tenacity of the Germans. When the KOSBs reached their objective, they found “one young German still firing his MG with his jaw shot off and standing in a trench on the body of a dead comrade.”

That night, the attack on Alpon was resumed under cover of darkness. The three fighting companies of 6th Cameronians were given widely separated objectives. D Company reached its destination without opposition and dug in. A Company ran into serious trouble on a railway embankment, which was raked by German machine-gun fire on fixed lines. At one point, its commander had his map shot out of his hands. The company finally withdrew when it lost radio contact with battalion HQ, and the time drew near for a scheduled British bombardment of its position.

C Company got across the railway tracks in a single dash, but halted short of a road that its commander had been told was the British boundary with the U.S. Ninth Army, which was alleged to be conducting a parallel attack. No Americans appeared, due to a breakdown of communications. C Company found itself exposed, some 400 yards behind the German front, with only forty-five minutes to dig in before dawn broke on 9 March. There was no time to create effective foxholes. Germans began to appear, including a Volkswagen field car which the Scots shot up. A tank clattered forward. The Cameronians loosed two PIAT bombs, which bounced off the hull. Supported by tank fire, German paratroops then assaulted and overran the British positions piecemeal. By 1000 it was all over for C Company. It had lost twenty-seven men killed and wounded. The other sixty surrendered.

At 156th Brigade headquarters, there was chaos. The divisional commander turned up in person, raging. Uncertainty about the whereabouts of the U.S. Ninth Army resulted in a decision not to allow any artillery support on the southern flank, lest shells fall upon the expected Americans. Radio contact had been lost with all the Cameronians’ companies. Poor weather made it impossible to call for air support. A request for tanks was refused, because the situation was so confused. Tensions became apparent between all the senior officers involved—indeed, they had lost control of the attack. The brigade commander paced the floor wretchedly, telling his staff that the divisional commander had taken the battle out of his hands. To compound the gloom, the BBC nine o’clock news announced that the U.S. Army had captured Alpon, when in reality the British were still struggling unaided to secure the village.

Meanwhile the Cameronians’ B Company had launched its own attack. One platoon successfully crossed 200 yards of open ground to reach its objective, a factory. But as soon as Jocks entered the yard the Germans fired on them, severely wounding the platoon commander. His men spent the rest of the day pinned down in the factory’s outdoor earth latrines. By the time another platoon followed across the open ground, the Germans were thoroughly awake. The rear two sections and platoon HQ were almost wiped out by machine-gun fire. The platoon commander, nineteen-year-old Cliff Pettit, found himself pinned down in a gully with some twelve survivors, alongside a dozen German prisoners. “We were completely surrounded,” he said. When they attempted to reach cover, several prisoners as well as six Cameronians were shot down. Pettit was left with just six men of the thirty with whom he had started the day.

At 1900 that evening, the Germans withdrew under orders. Hitler had acknowledged that the west bank of the Rhine was no longer defensible. Alpon was the last significant British action on the near shore. That night the Allies heard heavy explosions as the river bridge ahead of them was blown. Sixth Cameronians had lost four officers and 157 men. Next day, 10 March, the battalion searched the battlefield for its dead. They found one officer of C Company, Lieutenant Ken Clancey, still alive but mortally wounded. He was the third son of his parents to die in the Second World War. Bill Kilpatrick, Cliff Pettit’s platoon sergeant, was awarded a DCM for fighting on through the battle after being three times wounded.

Cliff Pettit felt afterwards that his first serious action exposed the inadequacy of his training. He had been taught how to handle setpiece operations, but was at a loss about how to behave when command broke down. “I’d no idea how to operate with tanks. I had no wireless training. I felt very conscious of the lack of flexibility in British Army tactics. We had not learned nearly enough about how to cope with unexpected situations.” Nor, it seemed, had his senior officers. The brigade commander was sacked after the battle. The 6th Cameronians were relieved that their CO returned to take over command from his incompetent temporary replacement. The men of 4th KOSB, who had seen hard fighting on the Cameronians’ flank, were infuriated to hear the BBC describe the German stand at Alpon as “of nuisance value only.” In reality, this little battle for an obscure German hamlet displayed the defenders’ usual energy and determination, together with familiar shortcomings among the attackers. Here, once again, was a situation in which the Allies had been unable effectively to employ the huge paper advantage of their firepower. There was never an easy way to win the struggle for Germany, but bungling on the scale which took place at Alpon on 8 and 9 March 1945 contributed mightily to the Allies’ difficulties.


AS THE ARMIES drove deeper into Germany, many American and British soldiers recoiled from the human misery they beheld. “I do loathe all this destruction and suffering,” Captain David Fraser wrote home on 15 March.

I haven’t got at all the right temperament for war. I loathe the sufferings of the old and the children, of whatever nationality. It is only possible to hate from a distance. You know people chuckle and say “1000 more bombers over somewhere last night” with glee, but when one sees the results one feels nothing but pain. Please don’t misunderstand me—I know very well that the Germans started it . . . They deserve it back and it’s probably no bad thing that they’ve had it—but it’s still impossible to relish the sufferings of civilians.

It was a nice question whether the young British officer would have considered twenty-five-year-old Maria Brauwers deserving of his sympathy. She found it harder than most to accept impending defeat, because she had been an ardent Nazi. Brought up in a village near the Dutch border, her family found modest prosperity under Hitler, after much hardship in the 1920s. From 1941 to 1943, she served as a National Socialist propaganda worker in Poland, before coming home to marry a factory book-keeper fifteen years older than herself, and giving birth to a son. In December 1944, they were living near Jünkerath on the Moselle, thirty miles west of Frankfurt. “I was very disheartened,” she said. “I had so much idealism, I had believed so much in Hitler. Now, one could only pray.” They had watched the war come closer by the day. In December, the German armoured columns had streamed past, full of hope, on their way north to participate in the Ardennes offensive. Then occasional bombs began to fall on the town, one of which destroyed the house next door. As her husband August bicycled home from work one day, an American fighter machine-gunned the road. August fled into the forest, and came home full of anger about the cruelty and unfairness of such behaviour. Knowing that worse must come, like many of their neighbours the couple dug a shelter in the woods. By late December, they were spending most nights in it. When American shells began to land near by, the shelter became their home. Maria’s husband left the woods only to search for food.

One night, in the darkness they heard repeated cries of “August! August!” Maria said: “Don’t answer. They want to conscript you again.” They huddled together with the baby, very frightened. Then a torch shone in their faces and a shocked voice exclaimed “Maria!” It was her brother Berndt. His Wehrmacht unit was retreating through the area. The local pastor had told him where his sister was hiding. Now, he began to cry. He had not even known that Maria had a child. He was overcome by the spectacle of his own loved ones cowering in a hole in deep snow. His unit was immobilized for lack of fuel. “You’ve got to get out,” he said, “across the Rhine. This is a battlefield!” Berndt stayed two days with them. He purloined two cans of Wehrmacht petrol to enable them to bribe a passage across the river. One night, somebody stole the stolen fuel. Berndt spent most of their hours together asleep. When at last they parted, he said blankly: “The war’s lost. We’re never going to see each other again,” and disappeared back to his unit, with which he fought until the last days of Berlin.

The family camped in the frozen woods until February, tearing up sheets to make diapers for Hermann the baby, washing in the snow. The artillery fire grew in intensity. A farmer finally took pity and allowed them to sleep in his cellar, giving Maria milk from his cows. Parties of filthy, exhausted soldiers occupied positions close by, bringing lice. Maria was horrified to find the crawling misery upon her baby. They cursed the Americans: “What are they doing here, when they’ve got all the space they need back home?” Some men denounced Hitler. Maria still blamed the Treaty of Versailles. She learned that her home had received a direct hit and was now a ruin.

At last, on 6 March, as she climbed the steps out of the farmhouse cellar to visit the lavatory, she heard the squealing clatter of tank tracks. She felt so overwhelmed by relief that fighting was finished that she fell back down the stairs. “It’s over, it’s over,” she cried. August said more cautiously: “Maybe it’s true that the Americans are here, but the war isn’t finished.” A brusque American voice called down to the cellar for them to come out. They filed out into the daylight, clutching their fears. A U.S. officer lifted aside the baby’s shawl and said something kindly. Maria felt reassured. Later, however, she was shocked by the carelessness with which GIs behaved in the houses. When she saw that men were using washbasins to relieve themselves, she demanded of their sergeant: “Is this how gentlemen behave?” The man laughed and shrugged: “It’s how soldiers behave.” Her son Hermann contracted tuberculosis after his experiences, and suffered for years from the consequences of malnutrition.

Many Germans were shocked by the ruthlessness with which their own soldiers behaved towards civilian homes and possessions. The CO of the 17th SS Artillery Regiment felt obliged to draft an order reminding his men that they were no longer fighting in occupied territories, where licence was permitted: “The reputation of the Waffen SS cannot tolerate the confiscation of bicycles and horse teams at pistol point. It seems to me that some NCOs and other ranks have still not recognized that they are in their own country again.” Civilians were shocked to discover that their own forces ruthlessly bombarded German towns and villages occupied by the Americans and British.

Twenty-two-year-old Katharina Minniger spent seven days in the cellar of her family home in the village of Hausbach as battle raged around it. A Wehrmacht Nebelwerfer battery was deployed close by, provoking fierce counter-fire and air attack from the Americans. In a lull, Katharina ventured out to ask an officer what was happening, and realized that the end was close. The mortar teams were packing to go. A soldier who had been billeted in the Minniger house bade her a wistful farewell. The soldiers could not hitch up one tube, and abandoned it in their garden. Infantrymen began to trickle through the village towards the rear, some wounded, some sobbing, some riding horses. Many were terrified boys. Bizarrely, the civilians found themselves trying to calm the soldiers’ fears. Katharina’s elder sister Maria played draughts with one teenager in their cellar. Shell-severed telephone lines lay strewn across the road. The American bombardment began again. Dragging a wounded man with her, Katharina returned to the cellar.

They lay there through the night, listening to intermittent shelling and screaming. Then she heard a noise above, and went cautiously to investigate, thinking that it was the Americans. Two ashen-faced young soldiers, who had been billeted in the house, were begging sanctuary. “It’s been terrible up here,” said one, “as bad as I’ve ever seen. There’s not much left.” They all went underground again, and huddled shaking with terror. A few hours later, on 21 March, the Americans came. The soldiers filed upstairs clutching a white flag and were marched off to captivity. Every window in the Minniger house was shattered by blast, but the structure survived. Katharina received permission to feed the stock. The Minnigers’ cow survived, but the fields were littered with dead animals and dead men. Other civilians emerged from their refuges to shuffle about in shocked silence. The stench of death was terrible, and most people held pads over their noses and mouths. The nearby woods which they loved so well were blackened and stripped of leaf, many trees torn to stumps. Katharina was horrified to see fragments of a man hanging from a branch. A headless soldier hung over the fence outside their home. Yet her chief emotion was an overwhelming surge of relief.

In the middle of February, retreating German troops seeped through the little village of Dorweiler, a few miles east of the Moselle near the Luxembourg border. Twenty-two-year-old Hildegarde Platten watched them fearfully—“They were in a terrible state, a gun painfully towed by a single ox.” Since 1940, life in the village had been miserably dreary, with all the young men away and social life suspended. Her father had always predicted that the war would “end in tears.” Fugitives came to the village from bombed cities, desperate to barter their remaining possessions for food, or to find sanctuary. It was a poor district, and Hildegarde was the only child of a smallholder with a few cows, pigs, chickens and an ox plough for his three small fields. One morning, a retreating soldier said: “We’re pulling out. You’d better go and hide in the woods.” At first, they were reluctant to leave their stock, and sat in the cellar as desultory shells began to fall from American guns six miles away, on the far side of the Moselle. Devout Catholics, they prayed constantly. At last, they followed most of their neighbours to a nearby slate quarry, where they took refuge through the nights, returning at daybreak to milk the cows. One morning Hildegarde got home to find every window broken. Dough which she had left to settle on the kitchen sill was strewn with splintered glass. Another day, she discovered a terrified sixteen-year-old German deserter cowering in the cellar. As she returned to the quarry, she suffered the unnerving experience of being shelled by a battery directed by a Piper Cub overhead. She hid in a crater, because someone had told her that the same place was never hit twice.

Then came a morning when a villager came to the quarry and announced “The Amis are here.” They made their way cautiously into the village, led by a man bearing a white flag. There was no firing, but they found a hive of American activity. Tents were being pitched, soldiers were washing and cooking. In her own house, she was shocked to find a GI frying eggs with the family’s cherished silver cake-knife. Another was wearing her favourite shawl. “That’s mine,” she said. “No,” the man replied easily, “it’s mine.” Her father said wearily: “These are only the first. There will be many more. Say nothing.” Then he sat down outside and burst into tears. “So this is what my whole life has been for,” he exclaimed brokenly, “losing everything.”

When the Americans left, they had wilfully damaged nothing, though they removed all the family’s portable valuables, especially cameras and watches. The villagers of Dorweiler learned to count their blessings, however. At least there had been no battle among their homes. At nearby Bucholz, a group of Waffen SS fought to the bitter end, defending roadblocks on both sides. At Beltheim, one officer and a handful of men held out until American gunfire obliterated every building around them. “Ridiculous . . . ridiculous,” said Hildegarde Platten. Yet when she and her parents heard afterwards about what had happened in the east, the family recognized its good fortune.

SOME ALLIED SOLDIERS were merely bemused by their first encounters with German civilians. Others recoiled. Soon after Dai Evans and men of 53rd (Welsh) Division occupied billets in a house, “the farmer went into a spiel we were to hear so often in the months to come: how he had hated the Hitler regime; how he had never agreed with the Nazis. He even hinted that he and his wife had been in danger due to their outspoken animosity towards the local Nazi officials. We soon learned to treat such statements in the way we treated those of the French who bragged of their activities with the Resistance.”

The Allies strove to find means by which their soldiers might distinguish Nazis from the rest of the civilian population. A notable example of the perils of enlisting psychologists in the service of armies may be found in an intelligence circular sent to all British commands, summarizing identifiable Nazi traits: “undue acceptance of parental authority, with a resultant docility to those above and an expected right to dominate those below; exaggerated awkwardness or shame on the subject of tender relations between parents and children . . . the over-valuation of male friendship and masculinity associated with a social depreciation of the female sex . . . a marked unconscious tendency to read one’s own traits or impulses into the actions of others, to seek scapegoats.”

At the age of twenty-one, Staff-Sergeant Henry Kissinger of the U.S. Counter-Intelligence Corps found himself running the city of Krefeld, rounding up Gestapo agents and Nazi officials. Although he himself had grown up in Germany, “this was the one period of my life when I felt completely American. I even thought I had lost my accent.” Yet he cherished a fierce determination not to allow himself to be angry with the Germans: “I felt that I had seen what it was like to be discriminated against. It seemed wrong to go back and do to the Germans what they had just done to us.”

Almost all German attempts to deploy “werewolf” groups, to wage guerrilla war behind the lines against the Western allies, failed miserably. Ten-year-old Jutta Dietze and her schoolmates in Saxony were instructed not to approach a certain local wood, because werewolves were digging in there, but when the time came and the Americans arrived, there was no resistance. It was the same across much of Germany. Helmut Lott, a fifteen-year-old junior Hitler Youth leader in Griessen, near Frankfurt, was mobilized for the Volkssturm in January. He was initially excited by the promise of a chance to fire live ammunition, and became even more so when he found that he was an instructor for his eighty-strong group, which included his own grandfather. Reality proved disappointing. They possessed only dummy fausts, a single MG42, and two machine-pistols. “For the first time, I sensed the absurdity of what we were doing.” His father, an infantry captain who was also a Nazi Party member, was taken to hospital suffering from wounds he had received in Courland. When the boy went to visit him, proud in his uniform, and described the preparations to resist the Allied armies, his father exploded: “Now I really believe the war is lost!” he said. “This is ridiculous. Stay as far away from it as you can.” The boy was deeply shocked: “I still thought we could win.” His Volkssturm unit was never mobilized, for there were no weapons to arm the men, “and I doubt whether they would have obeyed a call-up anyway.” The boy was only grateful that he and his family survived unscathed when the Americans came.

Almost the only visible success for werewolves was the assassination of the American-appointed mayor of Aachen on Palm Sunday 1945. Other isolated attempts were made: on 16 March Dr. Alfred Meyer, gauleiter of Westphalia, appealed to the local SA commander for “a few selected personnel of 17 and over . . . fanatical Nazis who will not hesitate to make the supreme sacrifice, to offer their lives. Absolute secrecy [is necessary] even to their immediate families. I expect every district leader to designate three men who fulfil the above specification. The selected men should be equipped with clothing which can stand abuse, strong shoes, one change of underwear, eating and cooking utensils, food coupons and identity cards. Heil Hitler!” There is no evidence of any response to this appeal. The guerrilla concept was alien to the German military tradition. Only a few teenagers fulfilled Berlin’s hopes. Peter Carrington of Guards Armoured once took over a farmhouse for his squadron headquarters and relegated its German occupants to the cellar. On waking next morning, “I was dismayed to look out of the window and see the German son of the house attempting to fix a charge to my jeep. I decided to commit an atrocity. I gave the family five minutes to clear out, told my sergeant-major to pour ten gallons of petrol on the house, and put a match to it.” Carrington, epitome of English aristocratic good nature, recalled bathetically, but without evident regret: “The fire went out.”

As the German armies fell back mile by mile and day by day, one of Captain Karl Godau’s gunners in 10th SS Panzer, a gloomy Westphalian, observed: “I’m going to end up defending the rabbit hutch at the end of my garden.” A relative of Heinrich Himmler serving at a corps headquarters in the west continued to proclaim noisily: “Those who weaken must be broken!” But his commander eventually found these protestations intolerable, and had the officer transferred. During the last months, even in a crack regiment such as the Grossdeutschland, morale became perilously fragile. Lieutenant Tony Saurma’s loader jumped down from their tank during an action, supposedly to clear their gun. Once on the ground, he mysteriously disappeared. The crew heard a Russian propaganda loudspeaker urging seductively: “Come this way, comrade—this way to freedom.” Saurma assumed that the loader had seized the opportunity to desert. His troop sergeant, a Mecklenburger, often teased him: “Aren’t you afraid of dying?” Saurma said afterwards: “When a soldier had time to think, he began to brood about home, even to think of killing himself. I always tried to keep my men busy, so that they did not have the opportunity to brood. I kept talking to them. Sometimes one felt that their nerve had gone. Some would talk about shooting themselves.”

In the frenzied movements of those last months, tanks of the Grossdeutschland once found themselves engaging the Russians from the railway flatcars on which they had been brought to the battlefield. At night, when the tanks leaguered to rearm and perform maintenance, the crews now had to provide their own local defence, for they lacked panzergrenadiers to do the job for them. Rations shrank. They found themselves obliged to eat the army-issue cheese which everyone detested, because there was little else. Some days, there was only bread.

Once, after Saurma’s troop had spent a night on a serious drinking binge, he sensed them to be on the edge of mutiny. “For God’s sake, let’s end this,” they said. The young officer gathered his tank crews together and harangued them: “You were born—some time you’re going to die,” he said. “In between, there is a parabola of life, which has its good moments and its bad ones. You must not think of yourselves, but of others who depend on you. You can’t just give up.” Heaven knows what Saurma’s men thought of these lofty sentiments, but they fought on. Between 15 January and 22 April 1945, his division suffered an astounding 16,988 casualties, 170 per cent of its strength. In the three years of its existence, the Grossdeutschland lost 50,000 men and 1,500 officers.

“Most German soldiers realize the hopelessness of their country’s predicament,” observed a Soviet intelligence report on 2 March, “but a few still express faith in victory. There is no sign of a collapse in enemy morale. Germans still fight with dogged persistence and unbroken discipline, and some prisoners express their pride about this. A captured company commander said: ‘We must hold to the last man.’ A soldier named Viktor Schubert said: ‘The war will end this year, and we shall win it.’ ” It is hard to deny bemused respect to Germans capable of addressing Soviet intelligence officers in such terms in the spring of 1945.

The Ardennes was the last large-scale armoured battle Hitler’s armies fought on the Western Front. Thereafter, the Wehrmacht was obliged to fight a campaign against the Americans and British which was overwhelmingly dependent upon footsoldiers with hand-held anti-tank weapons. There was no further scope for grand strategy, because Germany possessed no more choices about how or where to fight. A few officers were already discreetly telling their men to go home, and more did so with every week that passed. Commanders instructed to fight to the last round frequently interpreted this as meaning the last artillery shell. Even where tubes and ammunition still existed, lack of trained personnel and prime movers critically hampered the deployment of heavy guns. Units overwhelmingly composed of untrained replacements lacked the tactical skills to mount counter-attacks. So incompetent were some novice armoured crews that, when they collected new tanks direct from the factories, they frequently ditched or crashed them on the road to the front.

“I have four divisions, facing 22 Soviet divisions with two in reserve,” the officer commanding the Hermann Göring Parachute Corps reported to OKH on 12 March. “Each of our divisions is holding six miles of front. I have 41 tanks and self-propelled guns against four tank brigades. I have 58 artillery pieces against 700. In the first two months of 1945 the Corps has lost 37,000 men; of 106 grenadier companies, 45 are commanded by NCOs, the remainder by young and untrained officers. The average company changes its entire personnel in 9 to 12 days.”

On 13 March, the Luftwaffe’s Luftflotte 6 reported that it possessed fuel for its aircraft to make just one sortie apiece, and pleaded for further supplies before the Russians launched their next offensive. It was impossible, said Luftflotte 6’s commander, to take any action at all against the enemy’s Oder bridgeheads without more fuel: “In this sixth year of the war, the Luftwaffe requires from the army understanding and co-operation on supply issues.”

Many soldiers had become desperate to escape from the war, if they could only identify an opportunity to surrender. On 17 March, twenty-two-year-old Corporal Henry Metelmann lay over his elderly rifle and watched with considerable bewilderment as the American Seventh Army advanced on Speyer. “The whole cavalcade looked like a Sunday school outing. What a strange army! Infantry spread out in line with tanks.” Metelmann came from a working-class Hamburg family and was an ardent Nazi when he marched into Russia as a volunteer with the Wehrmacht in 1941. Three years later, his idealism had evaporated. He yearned only to survive. He had been transferred to an improvised unit in the west after being wounded in the east. As they paused in Speyer, housewives pleaded with them not to fight in the town. When he laid down his faust by a wall, it disappeared. Women in the vicinity merely giggled when he begged for its return. The soldiers discussed among themselves what to do next, and agreed to surrender as swiftly as possible.

When they heard American tanks a few cobblestoned streets away, they retired to the cellar of the nearest house, took out cards and played the first of many games of Skat. The young son of the house eventually came in, contentedly munching a chocolate bar which a GI had given him. Their moment had come, the soldiers decided. They stepped apprehensively into the street. Some chattering women laughed and said something about “Hitler’s last hope.” The men hung a white towel on a broomstick, and walked cautiously forward until they met two Americans strolling towards them with hands in their pockets. Metelmann said, “Surrender! Surrender!,” and was disconcerted when the enemy soldiers hastily turned and fled. Five minutes later, some infantry and armoured cars appeared, told the German to drop his broomstick and herded the prisoners into willing captivity. When they ate their first American rations, these half-starved men decided “that with food and beverages of that quality and quantity, we could have conquered the world.”

“SINCE THE ISSUE of the Yalta communiqué,” suggested a Second Army Intelligence Report on 22 February, “the very hopelessness of Germany’s fate after the war may be one of the reasons for the continuance of a struggle which daily becomes more desperate. Death is better than slavery. Smashed cities are better than seeing them handed over to the Poles or occupied by the Allies.” A German company commander fighting near Oppeln, Lieutenant Patteer, addressed his men: “Friends, this isn’t about our lives any more, it’s about the fate of Germany. We soldiers must prove that we are real Germans. Imagine what the fate of our own families will be if the Russians get to them. It will mean death.” Likewise Lieutenant Hummel: “Men, we must fight to the end, or we’re all dead anyway. Think of East Prussia and what the Bolsheviks are doing there!” Within the British Army, a marked class division influenced attitudes towards the tide of Soviet vengeance now sweeping into Germany. “Other ranks” had been incited by their own country’s propaganda and by a fashionable sense of socialist solidarity to regard the Russians and “Uncle Joe” with enthusiasm. Many of their officers did not share this view. David Fraser, a twenty-five-year-old captain of the Grenadiers, wrote in disillusionment to his family on 25 February, after hearing news of the Yalta conference: “It fills me with utter gloom . . . Poland has been sold, which one knew would happen but is nonetheless disgusting and humiliating when it occurs . . . All this has been ratified, and yet are the very things against which . . . we went to war.”

Fraser felt little animosity towards the Germans, but profound hatred for the Soviets: “I cannot see that this war has or will have accomplished anything except a military decision as unimportant as a victory in one of the dynastic wars. The root evil still flourishes, and everybody knows and daren’t say. Wretched Europe!” Fraser could never remove from his mind the belief—entirely correct, but in 1945 still keenly disputed—that the Russians, rather than the Nazis, had murdered thousands of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940. “To most [of our officers],” he wrote, “this possibility, let alone likelihood, was often regarded as near-disloyal to the Allied cause if mentioned. I had bitter arguments with friends, who were not stupid but were determined to believe only good of those who were fighting the same enemy.”

AT THE SUMMIT of the Nazi leadership, fantasy still held sway. At one of Hitler’s conferences in February, Speer drew Dönitz aside and sought to persuade him that the military situation was now hopeless, that steps must be taken to mitigate the catastrophe facing Germany. “I am here to represent the Navy,” responded the Grand-Admiral curtly. “All the rest is not my business. The Führer knows what he is doing.” Even at a much humbler level in the nation’s hierarchy, fantastic delusions persisted. After Cologne fell, Sergeant Otto Cranz of the 190th Infantry was surprised to hear one of his comrades insist mechnically, yet with utter conviction: “My Führer must have a plan. Defeat is impossible!” Even as Königsberg stood besieged in February, Dr. Hans von Lehndorff wrote in his diary: “Most people are still convinced that the Führer’s present conduct of the war is in accordance with a pre-determined plan. And the fact that the Russians have already reached the Oder, and we are now living on a little remote island, is hardly realised.”

General von Thadden, commanding the ruins of the 1st Division in East Prussia, met a local artist who expressed his delight in the extraordinary scenes he was able to paint amid catastrophe. Von Thadden asked where the artist’s family was. They were still at home and quite well, said the man easily.

“But isn’t there too much shelling going on? The Russians are no more than a thousand yards away from you.”

“That’s true. The top storeys have had one or two hits. But we live on the ground floor.”

The general suggested that the artist should evacuate his family.

“Do you think that’s necessary, Herr General?”

“Necessary? That depends on . . . your feelings towards your family.”

To such a perversion of rationality had Nazism brought an entire generation of Germans.


VANITY AS MUCH as military necessity caused Montgomery to lavish extra-ordinary care and resources upon his crossing of the Rhine. It was plain that this would be the last great setpiece operation of the campaign. Twenty-first Army Group’s commander intended it to be a fitting memorial to his own achievement. No fewer than 37,000 British and 22,000 American engineers were deployed to conduct the river crossing. For the assault, the British Second Army collected 118,000 tons of supplies, and the U.S. Ninth 138,000 tons. Landing craft, amphibious DUKWs and Buffaloes in profusion were trucked or driven to the crossing points at Wesel. One American and one British parachute division were to assist in securing the far bank, but here they would descend only two thousand yards beyond the front, rather than sixty miles as at Arnhem.

An operation on this scale, and of this complexity, required laborious preparation. A party of Intelligence Corps NCOs, drinking tea in their cosy farmhouse billet, were irked to receive a visit from a gunner officer, who told them that next day a battery of medium artillery would be digging in outside their door. “ ‘Mind you,’ said the gunner amiably, ‘you’re very welcome to stay, provided you don’t mind squeezing up a bit. The windows will fly out with the blast, of course, and we’ll probably lose a good deal of the roof.’ ”

Having reached the west bank of the river on 10 March, Twenty-first Army Group proposed to cross, together with the U.S. Ninth Army under command, on the 24th. For two weeks, Montgomery’s forces planned, briefed and amassed matériel. Perhaps this was unavoidable. But, with the Wehrmacht in ruins, it seemed to many Americans then, and to history since, regrettable that so many men dallied for so long. As early as 7 March, when Collins of VII Corps met Hodges beside the Rhine in the newly captured ruins of Cologne, he told First Army’s commander that he hoped the Allies would not sit tight in front of the river, giving the Germans a chance to recover. Bill Simpson urged Montgomery to allow Ninth Army to make a fast crossing at Urdingen, where there were few German troops. The field-marshal turned him down flat.

Yet on 7 March events took a hand. As 9th Armored Division headed towards Remagen, south of Bonn, they learned that the Ludendorff rail bridge, which ran across the river between a low ridge on the west bank and a sheer cliff on the east side, was still intact. Just before 1300, the lead American platoon commander reached high ground overlooking the river and saw German troops still retreating across the bridge, a formidable structure of three arches supported by four stone piers, landmarked at each end by sooty, mock-medieval towers. Wooden planking had been laid across the twin rail tracks, to ease the passage of marching soldiers. Two hours later, 9th Armored’s commander decided to risk the bridge being blown while his men were crossing, and ordered his infantry to storm it. A German civilian told them they had better hurry: he had heard that it was to be demolished at exactly 1600. The Americans believed that they had an hour in hand.

Yet it was already 1600 when men of the 27th Armored Infantry, led by Lieutenant Karl Timmerman, reached the bridge approaches under small-arms fire from the towers. There was a heavy explosion. When the debris settled, the smoke and dust cleared, the Americans saw that the bridge was holed somewhat, but still standing. Timmerman ordered his men to push on across it. Pershing tanks provided fire support, while three engineers followed the lead riflemen, cutting every wire they could see. With amazingly little difficulty, Timmerman’s company was soon across the 350-yard span. Two of his platoons deployed to cover the bridge’s eastern approaches, while one began to climb the steep cliff overlooking the river. 9th Division’s commander ignored orders to divert most of his formation to another bridge across the Ahr river, and threw the rest of his armoured infantry across the Rhine at Remagen. When III Corps heard the news at 1630 that men were holding a crossing, 9th Armored was formally ordered to exploit the opportunity.

Not everyone rejoiced, however. Eisenhower’s G-3 from SHAEF, that unconvincing officer General Harold “Pinky” Bull, happened to be visiting Bradley when word of Remagen reached 12th Army Group. Bull recalled a staff study which showed that a Rhine crossing between Coblenz and Cologne offered scant opportunities for exploitation on the eastern side. He said as much, declaring brusquely that Remagen was the wrong place for First Army to cross the river. Bradley exploded: “What in hell do you want us to do—pull back and blow it up?” A telephone call to the Supreme Commander yielded more sensible orders for 12th Army Group: “Hold onto it, Brad. Get across with whatever you need—but make certain you hold that bridgehead.” Eisenhower suggested committing four or five divisions. Yet even as Americans streamed triumphantly across the precarious bridge at Remagen, Bull persisted with his stubborn objections. He displayed the mindset which made the Allied advance across Europe such a cautious affair. Even as the Americans reinforced at Remagen, Eisenhower made plain his intention to close up his armies at the river, before allowing any grand exploitation on the east bank. He remained fearful that, as long as some German forces survived on the western side of the Rhine, the potential existed for another unpleasant surprise, a counter-attack across an exposed American flank. Any senior German officer would have heaped scorn on this notion. But SHAEF regarded the threat most seriously.

AT HITLER’S headquarters in Berlin, the atmosphere grew ever more frenzied. Like exhausted jugglers, Germany’s commanders struggled to sustain their efforts to rush formations across the Western Front. On 2 March, Hitler inveighed perversely against von Rundstedt’s proposal to move men south from the 21st Army Group sector: “It just means moving the catastrophe from one place to another.”

Hitler responded to news of the Remagen crossing in his usual fashion—by sacking von Rundstedt as commander in the west. The haughty old man was replaced by Kesselring, “Smiling Albert,” an implausible former airman turned general, who had nonetheless conducted a stubborn fighting defence of Italy for eighteen months. Kesselring now found himself concluding his military career by presiding impotent over a catastrophe. His initial task was to deploy every available man against the Remagen bridgehead. In the first twenty-four hours, the Americans had pushed across 8,000 men, supported by tanks and anti-aircraft guns. Thereafter, huge traffic jams built up on the west bank, as units surged towards the bridge under German artillery fire. On 13 March, the engineers insisted on closing the Ludendorff entirely, to repair the serious structural damage inflicted by the initial German demolitions. Troops continued to cross the river near by, using landing craft and rafts. Surviving Luftwaffe aircraft and even German frogmen attacked again and again in the hours of darkness. They were frustrated by American guns and searchlights.

On 15 March, the battered Ludendorff bridge suddenly collapsed into the river with a thunderous roar, killing twenty-eight of the engineers working on it and injuring many more. By now, however, its loss scarcely mattered. By 21 March, five engineer pontoons were open across the Rhine at Remagen. Elements of nine German divisions were concentrated north of the American positions on the east bank. Yet these formations were desperately weak, and deployed piecemeal. Men like Captain Walter Schaefer-Kuhnert of 9th Panzer recognized that “what we were doing was no longer fighting a war in any proper military sense.” His unit was able to move only by night. Air attack had destroyed most of its vehicles and killed all his battery’s radio-operators and telephonists. They retreated across the Rhine at Düsseldorf just as the U.S. First Army crossed at Remagen. Schaefer-Kuhnert’s regiment was ordered to proceed to Frankfurt, but within a few miles was urgently redirected, to support a counter-attack through the hills against the American bridgehead. Desperately short of fuel, they were reduced to begging a few litres here, a few there, at the gates of factories they passed on the road. Somehow, they reached the Remagen battlefield, sited their guns in quarries a few thousand yards from the river, and opened fire on 10 March. Model himself arrived. The stocky little field-marshal strode about behind the front, overseeing the battle with increasingly visible desperation. The Germans were doing their utmost, but their commander knew that this was not enough. The American bridgehead was invulnerable to Model’s enfeebled formations.

Meanwhile further south, on 13 March Patton launched his own attack south-eastward across the Moselle. Four days later, Third Army had trampled over the remains of the German First and Seventh Armies. American armour passed through the infantry and began a dramatic drive across the Saarland. As Patch’s U.S. Seventh Army attacked north-eastwards through the last remaining sector of the West Wall still in enemy hands, Patton’s men were already pushing far behind the German front. The attackers faced local spoiling actions, which could change nothing but only inflict delay. Moving east out of Neustadt towards Speyer on 23 March, for instance, the spearhead of 10th Armored Division met a Panther and promptly blew off its turret.

A young American armoured engineer officer ran alone on foot ahead of the tanks, looking for a way round the barricades blocking the road. The lead tank drove through an underpass before being hit. The Americans spotted two panzerjäger, covered by infantry, tucked in beside a nearby building. A Sherman fired at them and missed. Its next shell did better, hitting one of the German armoured vehicles at the junction of its gun and shield, jamming the recoil mechanism. The German tried to retire, but lost a track to another shell. The panzerjäger collided with its mate, wedging it against a wall. Both German armoured crews bailed out and fled, except one driver who remained in his seat, concussed by the first hit. As the Shermans engaged the infantry with their machine-guns, the commander of the leading American tank collapsed in his turret, shot by a rifleman. His tank pulled aside, allowing its successor to overtake and drive on. This little firefight had lasted only four minutes. The Americans now drove on into Speyer in thick fog which reduced visibility to a hundred yards. They suffered a steady trickle of casualties for some hours before the town was secured.

Such small encounters, repeated again and again every day along the front, made hard pounding for the men of the Allied vanguard. Yet it was plain that organised resistance was collapsing. Patton’s spearheads were moving fifteen to twenty-five miles a day. Third Army collected 68,000 prisoners and Seventh Army 22,000 in the Saarland–Palatinate operation. Patton’s men suffered 5,000 casualties, Patch’s some 12,000. This was a small price to pay for rolling up a major part of the surviving defences of central Germany.

THERE WERE FEW jokes in the north-west Europe campaign, and indeed it was never easy to be funny about events which were matters of life and death. But the U.S. Army relished to the utmost the spectacle of Montgomery’s forces preparing to stage a huge, formal military pageant on the Rhine, more than two weeks after its own soldiers had crossed seventy miles further south. It was true that the bridgehead at Remagen did not diminish the need for Allied forces to secure big crossings north of the Ruhr. Montgomery’s Operation Plunder had not become redundant. But the Americans’ spectacular achievement robbed Plunder of glamour and glory.

Patton twisted Montgomery’s tail by staging another assault crossing of his own, on the middle Rhine at Nierstein and Oppenheim, just south-west of Frankfurt, on the night of 22 March, twenty-four hours before Montgomery’s big moment. Third Army’s 5th Division met negligible resistance. On the morning of 23 March, Patton triumphantly telephoned 12th Army Group and announced: “Brad—don’t tell anyone, but I’m across . . . I sneaked a division over last night. But there are so few Krauts around that they don’t know it yet. So don’t make any announcement.” Patton’s bulletin to 12th Army Group further taunted the British, by describing how his forces had crossed “without benefit of aerial bombing, ground smoke, artillery preparation and airborne assistance,” all of which 21st Army Group was employing on a prodigious scale.

For ten days before Montgomery’s forces crossed, a smokescreen shrouded the Allied bank of the river at Wesel, to conceal troop and vehicle movements from German artillery observers. A massive bombardment preceded H-Hour. At 2100 on the evening of 23 March, 51st (Highland) Division staged a diversionary crossing near Rees. The Scots traversed the great river in seven minutes and were soon secure on the eastern bank, having met slight resistance. At 0200 on the 24th, the main crossing began north-west of Xanten, led by 15th (Scottish) Division, even as the first wave of 120,000 men of Simpson’s Ninth Army launched their own American landing craft. Tracer flew overhead, to guide the course of the assault vessels amid the fierce current. The U.S. 30th and 79th Divisions suffered just thirty casualties in crossing the great river which had been the focus of so many Allied hopes and fears for so long. The Germans had abandoned the attempt to defend the Rhine shore against overwhelming firepower, and dispatched many of the Wesel defenders to the Remagen perimeter.

Yet an easy success for Montgomery was now succeeded by an equally spectacular shambles. The 21st Army Group’s commander had determined that, alongside the amphibious assault on the Rhine, Allied parachute forces should be committed. Eisenhower gave him not only the British 6th Airborne, which had done so well in Normandy, but also a division of Ridgway’s U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps. Their task was to secure the higher ground behind the river, together with six bridges over the River Issel. To ensure that the airborne landing did not disrupt the artillery preparation, the paratroopers and gliderborne forces were committed only after the river crossings had been made, at 0900 on 24 March. This was the last great airborne operation of the Second World War.

Whatever surprises the Allies had been able to inflict on the Germans elsewhere on the Rhine, at Wesel for weeks the defenders had anticipated Montgomery’s crossing. The amphibious assault units profited greatly from the Germans’ transfer of forces to Remagen. But behind the river bank, beyond reach of significant damage from the British bombardment, the Germans had deployed formidable anti-aircraft power. Some 357 German flak positions—about a thousand gun barrels—had been identified. Four wings of RAF Typhoons mounted a standing anti-flak patrol through the attack. Yet, as the great airborne armada approached for Operation Varsity, ferocious ground fire rose to meet it. The British gliders, in particular, suffered severely. It was a painful irony that, despite the negligible losses of the waterborne divisions, on 24 March the American 17th Airborne took some 1,500 casualties, including 159 men killed. The British lost 1,400 men, including a quarter of their glider pilots, out of 7,220 landed. Forty-four transport aircraft were destroyed and 332 damaged. Twenty-two of the seventy-two C-46 aircraft dispatched were lost. “The casualties to glider pilots and their passengers, though by no means light, were not sufficient to affect the course of the battle, though the loss of equipment was serious,” concluded a British after-action report soothingly. Yet about half the gliders in the American sector and 60 per cent in the British zone suffered flak damage. Their passengers found the experience of the assault horrendous, and remain bitter that it has received so little attention from posterity.

The American 17th Airborne, making its first drop into battle, was to seize the Diersfordter Forest, from which it was feared that the Germans could fire upon the river crossings. The original plan called for the commitment of the U.S. 13th Airborne as well, but shortage of aircraft caused them to be excluded. The men of the 17th took off from twelve airfields around Paris after a hefty pre-dawn breakfast of steak, eggs and apple pie. Their formations rendezvoused with those of the British 6th Airborne over Brussels, then swung north-east for the last 103 miles of the approach to the river, where Eisenhower, Churchill, Brooke and a host of other Allied luminaries waited to witness this last great spectacular of the Anglo-American campaign.

Private Patrick Devlin of 6th Airborne’s Royal Ulster Rifles attended mass the day before he boarded his platoon’s glider for the Rhine. He had just returned from home leave in County Galway, after surviving the Normandy campaign. His mother begged him to stay snug in Ireland, “but to me it was all a big adventure which I would not have missed.” A sniper by trade, for this operation he preferred to carry a Bren gun. On the runway at Rivenhall near Col-chester, he and his mates kicked a football before take-off. Then he dozed, not discontentedly, through the three-and-a-half-hour flight into Germany.

Dr. David Tibbs of 13 Para was moved by the “wonderful spirit of the men.” Yet not all were eager for action. The night before the assault, the doctor was woken twice to deal with self-inflicted wounds. He also found himself ministering to an Irishman who displayed a urethral discharge and suggested himself as a VD case. Tibbs was confident that the man had used toothpaste to simulate the symptoms. “Here’s your tablets,” he told his patient brutally. “Tomorrow you jump, clap and all!” The paratroopers were assured that the opposition would have been flattened by air and artillery strikes. The medical teams, however, were briefed to expect heavy casualties.

At the airfield, Tibbs and his comrades were a trifle disheartened to hear that their American pilots had never before carried paratroopers. The fliers inquired innocently about the long cylinders attached to parachute packs and clipped beneath the fuselage—“Are those things explosives?” Yes indeed, said the British, bangalore torpedoes. At that moment, the whole plane lifted and there was a resounding thud as the bangalores were dumped on the tar-mac. A head leaned out of the cockpit: “Just testing the clips!” the pilot cried cheerfully. The frightened doctor shook his fist at the American, and helped the signals officer to reattach their dangerous cargo. When most of Lieuten-ant Peter Downward’s platoon were already aboard their Dakota, a young soldier suddenly broke down and announced that he could not go on. Downward took the boy aside and remarked that, since he would be one among 8,000 men of 6th Airborne dropping, the odds were that he would make it. “Also, that as a young man he would hate himself if he looked back on this act of cowardice. He had to think of his family. How would they feel, to have a son labelled a coward by a court martial?” The boy boarded the aircraft, jumped, survived, and afterwards thanked his officer, little older than himself.

One of Downward’s men, Porrill, relieved the monotony of the long flight by serenading the aircraft with his mouth organ. As David Tibbs’s C-47 approached the dropping zone, the doctor was horrified to see through the door a long stream of men descending into a thick forest. Their dispatcher gestured at their own stick to jump. Tibbs’s sergeant, No. 1 in the C-47’s doorway, shook his head violently, pointing down at the trees and a row of pylons. Then the landscape cleared, and they threw themselves into the air. The doctor watched curiously as a German 88mm gun crew beneath him loaded and fired their piece. He hit the ground 200 yards from the battery. Seeing two paras close by, he pointed to the enemy guns. Weighed down with equipment, the soldiers waddled towards them with agonizing sluggishness. But every German eye was on the sky. The British threw grenades and successfully rushed the guns.

Colonel Edson Raff and 700 men of his U.S. 507th were dropped two miles off target, because their transport pilots were confused by haze. Marching through the woods towards their rendezvous, he chanced upon a German artillery battery, which his “Ruffians” immediately stormed, killing most of the gun crews. By 1400, Raff’s men had secured all their objectives. Brigadier-General William Miley, commanding the 17th, was also landed miles from his intended dropping zone and separated from his staff. Indeed, all he could initially see on the ground were three soldiers and a container labelled as a .30 calibre machine-gun. The general took the weapon and the soldiers in charge, and started his battle commanding a single machine-gun crew, which opened a brisk fire on the enemy.

At least part of the 507th had landed where it was intended. By contrast, Colonel James Coutts’s entire 513th Parachute Infantry suffered an awkward trip. First, while still in the air their C-46 transports passed over a German flak belt. Twenty-two American aircraft were shot down in flames, the nightmare mitigated only by the fact that all their paratroopers were able to jump before the C-46s crashed. The undamaged aircraft dropped their men not on the designated DZ-X, but on 6th Airborne’s glider landing zone at Hammelkiln, which was under heavy German fire. The American paratroopers found themselves engaging enemy gun positions even as gliders crashed in around them. Ridgway was so dismayed by the readiness with which the C-46s had caught fire that he gave orders that the type was never again to be used for carrying paratroopers into action.

This was the most ambitious glider operation of the war. The British Hamilcars carried loads of eight tons. 6th Airborne’s glider lift alone landed beyond the Rhine 4,844 men (dead and alive), 342 jeeps, 348 trailers, three gun trailers, seven Locust tanks, fourteen lorries, two bulldozers, eleven Bren-carriers, nineteen five-hundredweight cars, fifty-nine portable motorcycles, 127 heavy motorcycles, sixty-eight bicycles, twenty field cycles, ten 4.2-inch mortars, two 75mm guns, fifty six-pounder anti-tank guns, twelve seventeen-pounders, and two twenty-five-pounders.

Lieutenant Jack Curtis Goldman flew an American glider carrying the combat surgical team of 17th Airborne. As they approached the landing zone, he could catch only glimpses of the ground through holes in the vast riverside smokescreen. They cast off and approached the LZ undamaged, “but then as we were about six or eight feet off the ground, it sounded as if a giant popcorn machine had exploded in the back of the glider—machine gun bullets ripping our fuselage to shreds.” He was sickened to feel the glider’s wheels bumping over the bodies of dead paratroopers. At last they shuddered to a halt. The occupants leaped out and ran to the shelter of a belt of trees. When Goldman got there, he found that he was so shaken that instead of bringing his Thompson gun, he was clutching a big can of fruit cocktail. Lacking anything else useful to do, he sat down and ate it. It was two hours before gunfire subsided sufficiently for him to return to the glider and retrieve his weapon and equipment. He saw lying in the wreckage the bodies of several men whom he knew well. He unclipped the reserve parachute from a dead man and later sent the silk to a girl in Brownfield, Texas. She took it as a proposal of marriage.

One British platoon leaped from a glider as it shuddered to a halt, deployed around the wreckage and opened a brisk fire. A British loudspeaker broadcast a hasty message: “You are in friendly territory . . . cease firing . . . you have been dropped short of your target.” Harry Pegg’s glider of the Royal Ulster Rifles crashed disastrously. He was one of only three men out of thirty-two who were unwounded. American medics who came to their aid reported grimly that they had recovered sixteen unattached legs from the wreckage. “It was chaos,” said Pegg. As most of his platoon was dead, he found himself acting as bodyguard for the battalion CO. He remained concussed for the rest of the day. Private Harry Clarke of 2nd Ox & Bucks was appalled by the dead and wounded strewn around the wrecked gliders: “At the front of one burning aircraft was its pilot, still wearing his headphones, arms outstretched and forming the shape of a crucifix in the flames.”

Pat Devlin’s glider was one of only five in his battalion which got down undamaged. His stick jumped out to find themselves on the right landing zone, but a thousand yards from their objective, a T-junction just west of Hammelkiln. He saw some Germans by a farmhouse and threw himself down with his Bren, too late to get a shot at them. Someone shouted: “Tanks!” Spotting two big half-tracks packed with Germans, Devlin fired a long burst, and heard screams as their heads disappeared beneath the hulls. The vehicles sped on past the British, leaving the Irishman pleasantly elated. He had emptied seventeen twenty-round magazines since landing. He felt that, whatever happened next, he had made a small dent in the German Army. He called to his sergeant, a Belfast Protestant: “Geordie, we’d better start moving to the objective.” Picking up a fistful of empty magazines and his gun, which had jammed from overheating, he trotted forward. There was a burst of fire. Suddenly, he suffered a jolt and gave an exclamation, dropped the Bren and fell flat. Devlin had been hit in the right side and forearm. “It felt as if somebody had struck me a severe blow across the small of my back with a big stick. The pain wasn’t too bad, like a nagging toothache, but I couldn’t move.” He was disturbed, however, to find his thigh soaking wet. Would he bleed to death? Then he realized that a bullet had pierced two condensed-milk tins in his side-pack. A glider pilot crawled past. Devlin begged the man to drag him into a ditch. The flier ignored him and moved on. Then McCrea, one of his platoon mates, appeared and pulled him into cover, observing: “This’ll serve you bloody right for playing silly soldiers.” Devlin was a volunteer. No Irishman faced conscription.

There was another shout of “Tanks!” McCrea promptly disappeared. Two German armoured cars dashed past, their hulls draped with wounded. One crashed into a wrecked glider near by and was shot to pieces by the British. A German officer slid into the ditch beside Devlin and sat clutching his head in his hands in shock, muttering repeatedly: “Deutschland kaputt.” Two other Germans walked forward with their hands in the air. McCrea returned, excusing himself for abandoning him by saying: “You don’t hang around when there’s tanks about!” Devlin was taken to an aid post.

David Tibbs, 13 Para’s doctor, found himself some 400 yards from his intended landing point. He walked across the field towards the rendezvous, gazing in horror at crashed gliders and dead men in scores. He later found twenty-four of his own battalion hanging dead in their harnesses in the forest where they had been misdropped. The CO of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was shot by the Germans, like Tibbs’s comrades, as he hung helpless from the trees in his harness. The enraged Canadians stormed the neighbouring town of Schnappenburg, giving short shrift to those Germans they encountered on their passage, though in truth it was no more rational to expect mercy for a paratrooper in transit than for a bailed-out tank crew. The business of war is not to give the enemy a fair chance, but to do everything possible to deny him one.

Tibbs came upon the corpse of a staff-sergeant to whom he was much attached, turned over the man’s body and was repelled by the sight of an earwig crawling out of the man’s nose. He thought: this is the reality of war. Tibbs had just begun to treat British wounded when a tall, distinguished-looking German Army doctor presented himself and gave a smart salute. “Good morning,” said the man in English. “Why have you been so long? We have been up all night waiting for you.” For some hours, the British and German medical teams worked beside each other: “We got on well. The Germans were always pretty good on these occasions.” “The landing zone was a pretty horrific sight. People were deeply upset—about a third of our gliderborne element were casualties.”

Peter Downward was overwhelmed by the spectacle of parachutes in the thousands filling the air, each one differently coloured to denote whether it bore man, ammunition or medical supplies. Every company commander of 13 Para possessed a hunting horn, and sounded this as he hit the ground in differing Morse letters to summon his men. One of Downward’s NCOs inquired after his health, and only then did he realize that the lieutenant was bleeding from a tiny fragment of shrapnel which had struck his nose during the drop. He was lying among his men, peering cautiously over the rim of a ridge to pinpoint his position, when his attention was distracted by the spectacle of his colonel, Peter Luard, cantering up to him astride a large captured German farm horse. “For God’s sake, Downward—there’s your objective!” Luard pointed. “Take it!” Thus inspired, the young officer got up and sprang forward with his platoon towards a barn which he found already occupied by men of the battalion. “Things were starting to fall into place amid this absolute mayhem.” As he stood among the casualties at the regimental aid post, he saw a popular Canadian officer lying motionless on a stretcher. Downward said how sorry he was to see that the boy had been killed. This provoked an angry cry from the stretcher: “I’m not fucking dead—I’ve been hit and I can’t bloody well move.” The young man was paralysed for the rest of his life.

The third American unit of 17th Airborne, 194th Glider Infantry, landed in the right place, at the cost of twelve C-47 towing aircraft shot down and almost every glider damaged. The men, led by the relatively elderly forty-five-year-old Colonel James Pierce, spewed out of the wreckage to find themselves instantly engaged with German flak-gunners, who depressed their weapons to fire at the airborne soldiers on the ground. By the time the shooting stopped, the 194th had captured forty-two guns, ten tanks, two mobile flak-wagons and five self-propelled guns.

One of the stranger cargoes in 6th Airborne Division’s gliders was a team from the British intelligence organisation SOE. Two British officers were landed with a group of agents, mostly Polish, whom they were instructed to infiltrate into the German lines, with orders to gather information as far forward as they could get. Major Arthur Winslow reported that he had taken one man to the forward British positions and left him in the hands of the local company commander, to penetrate the German line as best he could: “I cannot say I was altogether hopeful about his chances.” He left three more Poles on a road near Osnabrück. “They had shown a certain amount of doubt about getting away,” he said, but finally each agent in turn kissed the British officer on both cheeks and started walking towards the last fragment of Hitler’s empire. Winslow watched “three rather forlorn-looking figures disappear into the blue.” Nothing is known of their fate.

General Matthew Ridgway, who had characteristically decided to jump with 17th Airborne, almost became its last casualty of the Rhine operation. Late on the night of the 24th, the two jeeps carrying him and his aides left a meeting with the British and were driving back to the American zone. Suddenly, they saw Germans in front of them. The paratroopers hastily stopped and jumped out of the vehicles. There was a brisk firefight, in which a German grenade landed among the Americans. Ridgway’s jeep took most of the blast, but a fragment wounded the general in the arm and shoulder. The Germans retired, no doubt as surprised and shaken as the Americans. The Americans crowded into their surviving jeep, and reached the 17th CP unscathed. Ridgway needed major surgery on his arm, but pronounced himself too busy to have the grenade fragment removed until the war was over. He suffered severe discomfort from it through the weeks that followed. Airborne command was no sinecure.

IF MONTGOMERY’S Rhine operation was plodding and over-insured, those who crossed the water could be grateful that their objectives were gained at small price. But the casualties incurred by the airborne assault were out of all proportion to its contribution. Gliders were never again employed in war. Operation Varsity was a folly for which more than a thousand men paid with their lives—almost as many as 1st Airborne lost killed at Arnhem. Once again, a baleful reality had been permitted to steer events: the airborne divisions existed, and consumed rations. So they had to be used. Thereafter, however, for the remaining weeks of the campaign American and British paratroopers fought as infantry.

Alan Brooke expressed relief when he got Churchill safely home after witnessing the crossings at Wesel. He had been alarmed by the old statesman’s eagerness to expose himself to German fire, his exultation when the odd shell landed near him. “I honestly believe that he would have liked to be killed on the front at this moment of success,” Brooke wrote in his diary. “He had often told me that the way to die is to pass out fighting when your blood is up and you feel nothing.” Yet if Churchill had reached a stage of his life at which personal survival seemed unimportant, younger men did not share his indifference. Exploitation beyond the Rhine by the American and British armies proved embarrassingly sluggish. Once again, the Allies found themselves engaged in sharp fighting against remnants of such formations as 116th Panzer. Town by town and village by village, the Allies pressed on into the surviving strongholds of the Reich, halting where they met opposition, bombarding the defenders into submission whenever this was possible. The effectiveness of German resistance in the west was diminishing daily, but there always seemed just enough men and just enough guns to sustain some kind of defence. “With hindsight,” observed Kurt von Tippelskirch sagely, “following the breaching of the Rhine, the last symbolic and military obstacle in the west, it becomes difficult to perceive any purpose in the continuance of the war. But the struggle continued, because there was no one who would or could end it, as long as the man who had begun it all remained at his post.”

A few, a very few Allied soldiers enjoyed the battles in Germany. “My only experience of war was being on the winning side,” said Captain John Langdon, a twenty-three-year-old officer with 3rd Royal Tanks. “It may sound a terrible thing to say, but I found it all terrifically exciting. I loved it.” Most of his comrades did not. “There was an impatience, even desperation to get this thing over,” said Major John Denison of 214th Brigade. “The liberation of Germany is a sight to see,” wrote George Turner-Cain, “hardly one stone left upon another, furniture taken out and burnt, china and bottles all broken. I do not like to see this kind of action, and do not encourage my men to do it. It is the Canadians and Yanks who are determined to create such havoc.” Every soldier supposed that excesses were the prerogative of some army other than his own.

They all hated street fighting. Supporting artillery, so effective in open country, became almost irrelevant. Among houses tactical radios, unreliable at the best of times, ceased to function at all. Tanks were vulnerable to grenades or petrol bombs dropped from above on to the turrets, always their most vulnerable points. The whole weight of endeavour fell on the infantry. “Clearing a town is an arduous process which cannot be hurried,” observed a British briefing note. Men were told to leave behind packs which caught on windows, and warned that German paratroopers customarily occupied ground floors and cellars of houses. Clearing a street, infantry squads covered each other as they ran from house to house, sometimes grenading and sub-machining every room before entering. It was a laborious business which became ever more painful as the same routine had to be repeated through towns and villages across Germany, wherever resistance was met.

WILHELM PRITZ had endured a terrible war: two years on the Eastern Front and three wounds as an infantryman, before he gained the merciful deliverance, as it seemed to him, of a posting as a heavy mortar NCO with the 766th Regiment in Saarland. They blew up their remaining tubes and escaped across the Rhine north of Heidelberg in March 1945, suffering the bitter reproaches of civilians west of the river: “So—you’re quitting and leaving us to face the enemy.” When a Kettenhunde—military policeman—tried to herd him into the ranks of a battle group on the east bank, Pritz said simply: “Try to stop me and I’ll kill you.” He and some fifteen other stragglers banded together for protection against further MPs and began walking towards Heidelberg. At first, they also led a horse pulling a 37mm gun, but they wearied of this burden, and abandoned horse and gun in a shed. At the small town of Schlecheim, they took refuge among the local inhabitants in the cellar of a house. They had made up their minds to surrender. But surrender could be intensely dangerous.

Early next morning, 1 April, they sent a small boy into the town to look around. He returned to report that American troops were already searching houses. The civilians with them insisted that the soldiers should pile their weapons in another room, which they did. They were frightened, “but nothing to what we would have been if we had been facing the Russians.” At last, an American shouted from up the stairs: “Kamerad! Kommen!” They filed out of the cellar, hands high. A GI briskly removed their watches and medals. An American officer demanded in perfect German: “So what are we going to do with your Hitler and your Himmler?” “You can do what you like as far as I am concerned,” said Pritz wearily. He felt a surge of relief that his own war was over.

In the last weeks of the war, there was a dramatic increase in attrition from fausts. In Normandy, these had accounted for just 6 per cent of British tank losses, rising to 9 per cent in Belgium and Holland, 7 per cent in western Germany—and a startling 34 per cent east of the Rhine. Statistics were similar for American armoured units. Crews adopted increasingly desperate methods to protect their tanks, shielding them with sandbags and bundles of logs laced with chicken wire. When the U.S. 3rd Division captured a cement factory at Stolberg, crews ignored warnings that overloading hulls could wreck suspensions, and mixed concrete to lay on the front of their Shermans. “They would grab at any straws,” wrote an armoured officer, “they were desperate to survive.”

By February 1945, new tanks were being sent into service which belatedly matched those of the Germans. The British Comet and American Pershing were formidable weapons, with heavier protective armour and bigger guns. Infantry had to be warned to stand well clear of the Pershing’s high-velocity 90mm cannon when it fired, because of the terrific blast deflected by the muzzle brake. The Pershings fought their first battle in Cologne, and amazed the Germans by their ability to fire on the move, with gyro-stabilized gunsights.

Yet, to the very end of the war, it was remarkable how much damage well-handled enemy tanks inflicted upon the Allied juggernaut. On 30 March, a troop of King Tigers from a German armoured school encountered a column of Shermans advancing along a road with half-tracks loaded with infantry, and three tank destroyers. As the Americans approached a road junction, the Tigers cruised down the line in the opposite direction. “Observers said it looked more like a naval engagement than a land battle.” One Sherman hit a Tiger on the thin armour above its engine compartment, and another German crew bailed out when hit by a white phosphorus smoke shell, convinced that its Tiger was on fire. But the Americans suffered appallingly: seventeen Shermans, seventeen half-tracks, three trucks, two jeeps and a tank destroyer were knocked out in a matter of minutes.

Complaints about the quality of infantry replacements became a strident chorus in the last weeks, as both Americans and British scraped the manpower barrel. A U.S. rifle company commander, Lieutenant Jack M. Brown, lamented the quality of soldiers joining his unit: “The men as a whole are not well trained . . . They will not return enemy fire. They are not fit physically or mentally.” Brown described how an NCO came back from a patrol, complaining that his men went to ground and refused to move when friendly artillery fire was heard passing overhead. “A private came to the First Sergeant recently and complained of having nervous indigestion. He wanted to go on sick call, and as a result was evacuated. Upon questioning this man, I found that the ripple of friendly artillery fire was making him nervous . . . several men suddenly develop aches, pains etc on outpost duty, and request to be relieved. Someone has scared these men to death.”

Likewise in British units, the quality of replacements caused exasperation. David Tibbs ruefully contrasted the paratroop volunteers he had known in Normandy with newcomers in 1945. “Under stress, not infrequently they fell apart morally.” Lieutenant Roy Dixon said: “There was a certain reluctance towards the end to do anything exciting.” Major Bill Deedes: “The willpower to keep going forward under fire weakened as time went on. You don’t become ‘battle-hardened.’ One of the tank commanders we worked with had been brewed up three times. Inevitably, the nerve weakens. We weren’t nearly as good in 1945 as we had been in 1944.” The desperate shortage of British replacements made it necessary to break up more units and send their men to new regiments, creating unhappy misalliances. The 6th Cameronians were fiercely proud of their Scottish Calvinist lineage. When thirty Catholics arrived one day as replacements, they were not made welcome. The Protestant riflemen marched out behind an Orange banner, singing that anthem of intolerance “The Sash My Father Wore.” A bitter sectarian brawl broke out behind the lines. A young officer who tried to intervene was brushed aside by a man saying simply: “You bugger off—this is nothing to do with you.”

Given the desperate need for infantry, the U.S. Army hastily extended the use of African-Americans in combat roles. Their behaviour inspired some encouraging reports from field commanders. Major Roderick R. Allen reported: “they are performing very well. There has been no running away, and there have been some individual acts of heroism which were awarded the Bronze Star.” But others remained sceptical. Brigadier-General Fred Ennis, a senior officer of 12th Armored Division, reported: “We are having disciplinary trouble with some of them along sexual lines, and it would be distinctly helpful if we had latitude in plucking out the trouble-makers.” Lieutenant-Colonel Wells, commanding 66th Armored Infantry, said: “The colored troops as yet are definitely not first-line combat troops, but their performance has been good at sentry and outpost work. They have been very alert and will shoot at anything, but I would say that they are more jumpy than white troops.” It was scarcely surprising that African-Americans incurred problems in combat roles after generations of cavalier, even brutal treatment at the hands of the U.S. Army.

AS THE BRITISH fought their way into Osnabrück in the last days of March against some dogged resistance, a sergeant medical orderly went forward to treat a wounded German and was promptly shot. Shortly afterwards, the defenders sent a message to the British lines apologizing for the mistake, and said that the man had been taken to the city hospital. David Tibbs climbed into a jeep with the battalion padre, a driver and an immense red-cross flag. They drove unimpeded through the German line and into the city, through a vast throng of refugees, a hand pressed down hard on the jeep’s horn. “The devastation was enormous.” At the hospital, they found a dozen British wounded in one ward—most, as a German officer told them with bleak satisfaction, PoWs who had fallen victim to British shelling. Bill Webster, the man they had come to see, had been hit in the neck, and lay paralysed. The German surgeon who was treating him said he thought the sergeant had a chance of making a recovery, and indeed he later did so. The British visitors drank schnapps with the mother superior and the colonel in command. They toasted an early end to the war. Then they drove unscathed back to the British lines, amid spasmodic explosions as the retreating Germans blew up their ammunition dumps.

An officer of the Highland Light Infantry advancing into Osnabrück told a man to escort a young German prisoner to the rear. Hearing a shot, he asked who had fired. The same soldier answered: “It was me, sir. He kept saying ‘I die for my Führer, I die for my Führer’ . . . well, the bugger’s dead. Aye, he is.” The officer resignedly ordered the man back to his post.

On every side, the Germans were cracking, the Allied sense of victory was growing. Attacking an enemy-held village at the head of a troop of Crocodile flame-throwing tanks, Lieutenant Andrew Wilson felt himself gripped by an “unfeeling madness”:

He looked for places where the enemy might still be hiding. There was a wooden shed. As the flame hit it, the wood blew away in a burning mass, and there in the wreckage was the body of a Spandau . . . The gunner gripped his trigger. Swinging the turret down the front of the burning village, he began firing off the seventy-five at point-blank range. Where, oh where, was the infantry? As always in action, he lost count of time. Wherever he swung the cupola, he saw fire and smoke and the track of destruction . . . Then all at once it was over. By the barn a little group of grey-clad Germans appeared, without helmets or weapons, waving a sheet on a pole. He gave the order to stop firing and opened the hatches. The air was full of smuts and the sickly-sweet smell of fuel. He made a sign for the Germans to come out into the open. They moved slowly. At first there were ten; then there were 30 or 40. In the hush of the moment, he felt a great elation; if ordered, he could have driven through the smoking village and right on to the enemy’s divisional headquarters. Nothing could have stopped him; he couldn’t be harmed. Then the infantry came swarming into the village, dodging the mortar shells which the enemy had started dropping now. In the confusion, the Germans began to bring out their wounded, blinded and burned, roughly bandaged beneath their charred uniforms. Some of them looked at the Crocodile. What were they thinking? He went back to refuel, and remembered his letters. One was from his mother. It said: “We are proud of you.”

Total casualties in the British 21st Army Group for February and March were 5,180 men killed, 21,170 wounded and 2,850 missing. Such numbers did not indicate fighting of great intensity, by the standards of the European war. Yet they represented the equivalent of thirty-five or forty infantry battalions lost to the British order of battle. The overwhelming preponderance of Americans was still increasing. On 15 December 1944, there were 3.24 million men in Eisenhower’s armies, including 1,965,601 U.S. troops in Europe, 810,584 British, 293,411 French and 116,411 Canadians. On 4 February 1945, overall Allied strength had risen to 3.38 million. By the end of March, there were four million uniformed men under Eisenhower’s command, of whom 2,550,037 were American and 866,575 British. In these final weeks of the war, at last the divide between the manpower commitment of the Western allies and that of the Soviets was narrowing. Churchill feared that the world would soon forget the scale of Britain’s sacrifice. He told the Cabinet Office: “Get me the best figures available of the losses sustained by the English in this war . . . Another calculation which might be made would refer to the loss of cockneys. Would it perhaps be true to say the citizens of London, military and civil, have lost more than the whole of the British Empire?”

The prime minister received in response statistics of relative mortality among the Western allied nations in the Second World War: by April 1945, one in 165 Englishmen had died, one in 130 Londoners, one in 385 Australians, one in 385 Canadians, one in 175 New Zealanders and one in 775 Americans. The Western allies possessed no idea of how many Russians had been killed, and no one in Moscow was likely to tell them. The dying was not over yet, but at last the men of the Allied armies were beginning to dare to hope that they might live. By April 1945, Captain David Fraser spoke for millions of his comrades when he observed: “The sense that, with luck, one might be able to see the end became a dominant emotion.”

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