Eastern Approaches

August 1943–May 1945

We no longer fought for Hitler, or National Socialism, or for the Third Reich, or even our fiancées or mothers or families trapped in bomb-ravaged towns. We fought from simple fear. We fought for ourselves, so that we didn’t die in holes filled with mud and snow. We fought like rats.

A veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division in 19451

For all the advances made against the Germans in the west between D-Day on 6 June 1944 and the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945, postponed by the disaster at Arnhem in mid-September and the Ardennes counter-offensive in the winter, it was on the Eastern Front that the war against Germany was won. Between Operation Barbarossa and December 1944, the Germans lost 2.4 million men killed there, against 202,000 fighting the Western allies.2 The cost of inflicting such casualties was uneven: between D-Day and VE Day (Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945), the Russians suffered more than 2 million casualties, three times that of the British, Americans, Canadians and French fighting forces put together. It is worth considering whether democracies could ever have tolerated that level of sacrifice, or whether – as seems likely – it required the whole horrific apparatus of the NKVD and domestic terror to keep the Soviet Union in the war.

After the Wehrmacht’s convincing defeat at Stalingrad and the capture of Field Marshal Paulus’ Sixth Army in February 1943, and then the withdrawal with unacceptable losses – albeit fewer than the Russians suffered – at the battle of Kursk six months later the scene was set for a series of enormous Soviet offensives across the eastern part of the Eurasian land mass that were only to end with Germany’s surrender in Berlin in early May 1945, after Hitler’s suicide there on 30 April. In its 1943 summer offensive after the successful defence of Kursk, the Red Army recaptured Orel, Kharkov, Tagonrog and Smolensk, forcing the Germans back to the Dnieper river and cutting off the Seventeenth Army in the Crimean peninsula. Hitler came under pressure from Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and the Romanian dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu to evacuate the German and Romanian forces from the Crimea, which could have been used in the defence of Romania and Bulgaria, but his obstinate refusal to do so meant the fall of both countries in short order, and the eventual destruction of the army group there. Hitler had a scheme for the Crimea to become a solely Aryan colony from which all foreigners would be permanently banned, and he hung on to his dream for it long after military considerations dictated that they needed to be – at the very least – postponed.

Nicolaus von Below wrote of this period: ‘Hitler foresaw threatening developments on the Eastern Front earlier and with greater clarity than his military advisers, but he was determined with great obstinacy not to accede to the request of his army commanders to pull back fronts, or would do so exceptionally only at the last minute. The Crimea was to be held at whatever cost, and he refused to entertain Manstein’s arguments in the matter.’3 A quarter of a million troops were therefore lost to the German line. It did not affect the outcome of the war, of course, and perhaps only meant, as one historian has argued, ‘that large numbers of German soldiers ended up in Soviet captivity instead of being killed in the fighting’.4 Nonetheless, according to its own lights it was a strategic error. Like the decision to leave German troops on the Kerch peninsula in order to try to recapture the Caucasus one day, it was actuated by Hitler’s hope for a new assault on the southern USSR, long after such an attack was rationally possible.

For the German soldiers on the ground, in their long, bitter withdrawal from their high-water mark at Kursk, survival took on greater meaning than any lingering hopes of victory. For the Russians, liberating their cities and towns involved discovering the horrors of the German occupation. At Orel, which was a typical example, half the buildings and all the bridges had been destroyed, and there were only 30,000 survivors from a pre-war population of 114,000, the rest having been sent to Germany as slave labour or shot, or having died of disease or starvation.5 For sheer ghoulishness, little could beat the discovery of eighty-two headless corpses and eighty-nine human heads in Danzig’s Anatomical Medical Institute, however, where soap and leather had been manufactured from Russian, Polish, Jewish and Uzbecki corpses. The nearby Stutthof concentration camp had little problem providing the bodies – 16,000 prisoners died of typhoid there in one six-week period, for example – and human soap was in production when the Institute received official visits from the Reich education and healthcare ministers.6 Small wonder that the Red Army hardened its already rock-like heart still further against the enemy, encouraging it to see them as subhuman, and instilling a determination to punish all Germans – civilians as well as military – now that the jackboot was on the other foot. The innocence or otherwise of individual Germans was immaterial, because it was not so much they who were being punished as their husbands, fathers and sons. Human pity was now beside the point.

‘A series of withdrawals by adequately large steps would have worn down the Russian strength, besides creating opportunities for counter-strokes,’ General Kurt von Tippelskirch stated of this immediate post-Kursk period. ‘The root cause of German defeat was the way her forces were wasted in fruitless efforts, and above all, fruitless resistance at the wrong time and place.’7 Manstein did his best with a mobile defence across southern Russia – often at odds of seven to one – that seems to have been too subtle for Hitler, who constantly issued ‘Stand or die’ orders freezing the defensive lines, such as at Kharkov after the Soviets broke through on 3 August 1943.8

It took no fewer than seven conversations – often face to face after long flights – for Manstein to get Hitler’s permission to retreat to the line of the Dnieper.9 Falling back there, Manstein ignored Hitler and allowed Kharkov to fall on 23 August, putting his loyalty to his troops and the German people higher than that to OKW and his Führer. This was felt further down the line of command: Major-General Frederick von Mellenthin, Chief of Staff of the 48th Panzer Division which was retreating to the Dnieper, complained bitterly of the way that ‘During the Second World War the German Supreme Command could never decide on a withdrawal when the going was good. It either made up its mind too late, or when a retreat had been forced upon our armies and was already in full swing.’10

Given enough warning, the Wehrmacht was in fact excellent at strategic withdrawals. It made thorough preparations improving roads, bridges and river crossings; it camouflaged assembly areas and made precise calculations about what equipment could be moved and the amount of transport necessary, and about what needed to be destroyed; then command posts, headquarters, medical and veterinary posts were established to the rear before the withdrawal began; telephone lines were removed; supplies, rations and night-traffic control were organized; demolitions, roadblocks and mines were readied, and lines of resistance mapped out. (The problems were of course multiplied once the Wehrmacht was forced back on to German soil, because millions of panicky refugees wanted to escape the Red Army too.) The Wehrmacht was also expert in the policy of scorched earth, of which Army Group South’s retreat to the Dnieper between the end of August and October 1943 was the exemplar, and for which Manstein received an eighteen-year jail sentence in 1949. (He served only four years.) ‘The wide spaces of Russia favour well-organized withdrawals,’ recalled Mellenthin. ‘Indeed if the troops are properly disciplined and trained, a strategic withdrawal is an excellent means of catching the enemy off balance and regaining the initiative.’ Yet, for all its expertise, Hitler gave the Wehrmacht as little time as possible to organize such retreats, on those rare occasions when he authorized them at all.

The Kuban bridgehead on the Taman peninsula fell in October 1943, leaving the Caucasus safe for the Soviets and effectively turning the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake once more. ‘Towards the end of 1943 at the latest it had become unmistakably clear that the war had been lost,’ wrote General Halder. ‘Would it not have been possible even so to beat off the invasion and thus provide the basis for a tolerable peace? Had the “Fortress Germany” no hope of consuming the enemy’s strength on its walls? No! Let us once and for all have done with these fairy tales.’11 He was right; having taken on four of the world’s six greatest powers, Germany was doomed. Yet it was to take a further eighteen months of unimaginable horror and slaughter before the war finally came to an end. The blame for this can largely be put down to the efficiency, determination and obedience of the Wehrmacht. Had Hitler passed over ultimate decision-making to a committee of its best brains, and appointed Manstein as supreme commander of the Eastern Front, all that it would have meant at that stage was that the defeat would have taken longer and cost many more German and Russian lives.

Almost throughout this period the Germans inflicted higher casualties on the Russians than they received, but crucially never more than the Soviets could absorb. Attacks were undertaken by the Red Army generals without regard to the cost in lives, an approach which German generals could not adopt because of a lack of adequate reserves. ‘The Russians were five times superior to us poor but brave Germans, both in numbers and in the superiority of their equipment,’ complained Kleist from his Nuremberg cell in June 1946. ‘My immediate commander was Hitler himself. Unfortunately, Hitler’s advice in those critical periods was invariably lousy.’12 In Hitler’s defence, Alan Clark has pointed out that from December 1943 the Führer had been aiming at breaking the Allied coalition through emphasizing ‘the apparent impossibility of its task and the incompatibility of its members’, and that seen in this context his defence of every inch of territory in the east was perfectly explicable.13 Yet ever since November 1941 Stalin had been making speeches about Hitler’s aim of using fear of Communism as a way of splitting the Grand Coalition against Germany. The Soviet Information Buro (Sovinform) had been issuing statements since June 1942 lauding Russia’s alliance with the Western Allies, and there is plenty of evidence for how fully this was reciprocated in Britain and America.14 If Hitler had had a better understanding of the true nature of the alliance against him, he would have realized that its desire to extirpate him and his New Order would always be greater than any mutual suspicions and antipathies within it. To believe anything else was mere desperation, for as he had written in Mein Kampf: ‘Any alliance whose purpose is not the intention to wage war is senseless and useless.’

For all Kleist’s other legitimate complaints about his supreme commander, it was untrue that German equipment was inferior, except in sheer numbers. Guderian, who wrote the 1936 work Achtung-Panzer!, believed that two different types of tank were necessary in any attack, one to deal with tanks and the other with infantry. The five-man Panzer Mark III, produced from 1936, was used against other tanks, but its 37mm gun was not powerful enough against the British Matilda tanks in Africa, so Rommel used 88mm anti-aircraft guns against them there instead. In 1940 Hitler ordered the production of a 50mm, 350hp Mark III, which the manufacturers watered down to a 47mm gun. These, as well as Sturmgeschütze (self-propelled assault guns), were used in Operation Barbarossa, along with the far less powerful Panzer Marks I and II. Up to 1944, around 6,000 Mark IIIs were produced by different manufacturers. Twelve thousand Mark IVs were built with 76mm guns, which the Soviets thought ‘good for bad European weather, not for bad Russian weather’.15 In 1942 the Germans started producing Mark VI (Tiger) and then in 1943 Mark V (Panther) tanks.

Although the Russian tanks and self-propelled guns used diesel, only one German tank (the enormous Maus) did so, all the others being petrol-fuelled. Petrol was far more costly, flammable and rapidly consumed, yet Germany – which had the technology as Messerschmitts flew on diesel – for some reason stuck to petrol for her tanks. The Panther was a bigger and heavier copy of the Russian T-34, with a sloped front that encouraged ricochets. It entered the front line in July 1943 at Kursk, but faced a number of problems, mainly electrical and hydraulic. Weighing 45.5 tonnes with a crew of five and top speed of 46mph, it had 110mm of front armour (it was also covered with zimmerit cladding to foil magnetic mines and grenades), a 75mm cannon 15 feet long and a Daimler-Benz copy of the T-34’s engine. Some 6,400 were produced; along with the Panzer VI, known as the Tiger I, of which the Henschel company made 1,355, these were formidable weapons indeed.

The Tiger I weighed 58.9 tonnes, had an 88mm gun, five crew and a cruising speed of 24mph. At the Museum of Tank Construction at Kubinka, 40 miles south of Moscow, one can see a Tiger tank that has been fired upon by a T-34 at around 300 yards’ range, which merely left a 2-inch dent in its frontal armour. Except at point-blank range, or firing at its side-tracks, or unless a lucky shot hit the area between the hull and turret, the Tiger tank was well placed to smash the T-34.

The heaviest tank deployed in combat during the Second World War, at 68 tonnes, was the Tiger II. This had a five-man crew, a maximum speed of 22mph, no less than 150mm of armour (180mm on the front) and an 88mm cannon. By January 1944 some 487 Panzer VIB Tiger II or King Tiger tanks had been produced, using the same chassis specifications as the Panther. Unfortunately for the Germans, these therefore inherited many of the problems of the Panther. The 88mm gun could be found on the Elefant or Ferdinand assault gun (named after Ferdinand Porsche), which had also been deployed for the first time at Kursk. Fortunately for the Russians, only ninety of these were ever built. In response to the Panthers and Tigers, the Soviets produced the very heavy KV-85, which was the same as a KV-1 except for having an 85mm cannon. This was enough to penetrate German middle-sized tanks such as the Panzers Mark III and IV, but could also destroy Tigers and Panthers.

At a meeting with General von Thoma on 23 December 1940, Halder was told that the OKH had ‘Scanty information on Russian tanks’, which nonetheless were felt to be ‘Inferior to ours in armour and speed. Maximum thickness of armour 30mm. The 4.4cm Ehrhard gun penetrates our tanks at range of 300 metres: effective range 500 metres; safe at over 800 metres. Optical sights very bad; dim, limited range of vision. Radio control equipment bad.’16 Yet none of that was true of the new T-34 tank. Just as the Spitfire and Hurricane can be said to have saved Britain in 1940, so the T-34 tank saved Russia at Kursk and thereafter. First coming off the production line in 1938, the T-34/76 was easy to produce because the designer had created a welding tool for its armour sheets that women and children could also use. Its 6,000 parts were also reduced to 4,500 over the coming years. Before 1943, the T-34/76, the standard Soviet medium tank, had to get within 250 yards of a German tank with its 76mm gun and hit it from the side, whereas a German Tiger tank could destroy T-34s at a range of over a mile. (The T stands, rather unimaginatively, for Tank. Today, the Russians are up to the T-90.)

After Kursk, however, where the Russians took heavy losses before they were able to close with the enemy, they changed the calibre of the T-34’s 76mm gun to 85mm, which made a considerable difference because the 76mm gun could penetrate only 50mm thickness of enemy armour at 600 yards, whereas the 85mm could penetrate 90mm at that range. Keeping the same chassis, and thus the same powerful 500hp engine and most of the same spare parts, the T-34/85 also had five rubber wheels on each side rather than two, and, crucially, an enlarged turret that allowed the crew to be increased to five. This permitted the commander to direct operations, without having to double as a loader as in the T-34/76. This allowed the T-34/85 to fire from six to eight times per minute. The length and height of the two T-34 models were much the same, but every T-34/85 had a radio, whereas only the command tanks of the original version had been equipped with one. Although the 45mm armour thickness on its sides and 90mm on the front made the T-34/85, at 32 tonnes, 3½ tonnes heavier than the earlier model, its powerful engine meant that it could reach a top speed of 20mph, not much slower than the 21.4mph of the T-34/76. The later model also had two 7.62mm machine guns, and could drive 235 miles on a full tank of 690 litres of diesel (including the barrels attached to its outside). It carried seventy-four shells, 2,500 bullets and ten grenades inside, only marginally fewer than the ninety-two shells that fitted into the T-34/76’s magazine.17 When it was produced in enough numbers, therefore, Stalin finally had a campaign-winning weapon for 1944.

The lack of armour on the top of tanks – even Tigers had only 18mm – made them highly vulnerable to air attack and in built-up areas where they could be attacked from rooftops, as the Germans discovered in Stalingrad and the Russians in Berlin in 1945 (and fifty years later in Grozny). The 20mm SHAK-20 cannon on Soviet fighter planes could penetrate tank roofs, although the planes needed to attack almost vertically downwards in order to do so. With the Luftwaffe swept from the skies of Belorussia in the latter part of 1943, the German tanks there were immensely vulnerable. Tank for tank, however, they were still the best in the world. Had Hitler started the war much later, in 1943 or 1944, and if tank– and aircraft-production factories had been better protected and dispersed in a way that the Allies found harder to destroy, especially with Me-262 jet fighters protecting them from the Allies’ Combined Bomber Offensive, the Wehrmacht would have stood a far better chance of winning the war.

Between 22 and 30 October 1943, Russian forces crossed the River Dnieper in several places along a 300-mile stretch from the Pripet Marshes to Zaporozhe, and when Kiev fell on 6 November the northern flank of Army Group South’s defence of the river’s great bend was threatened too. On 27 and 28 December Manstein begged Hitler that the bend be given up, thereby shortening his line by over 125 miles, but he was refused permission to do so. ‘I am worrying myself sick for having given permission for retreats in the past,’ Hitler replied.18 By 2 January 1944, the Russians had advanced north of Kiev and were about to cross the pre-war borders of Poland.

Up in the north of the country, the Red Army launched a major offensive to relieve Leningrad south of the city on 15 January 1944, when General L. A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front and General Kirill A. Meretzkov’s Volkhov Front took advantage of the freezing weather to cross the Gulf of Finland and the iced-up lakes and swamps to attack the German Eighteenth Army on both flanks. After the bloodiest siege in human history, lasting 900 days, during which 150,000 shells and 100,000 bombs had fallen on the city and more than 1.1 million people had died, Leningrad was finally liberated on Monday, 17 January 1944. Novgorod fell two days later as the Germans recoiled rapidly. When General Georg von Kuchler withdrew Army Group North from its forward positions, Hitler replaced him with Model, who managed to persuade the Führer that a Schild und Schwert (shield and sword) strategy should allow minor withdrawals as part of a larger, planned counter-offensive. Nevertheless, by 1 March the Red Army had reached a line from Narva to Pskov to Polotsk. (Govorov attacked Finland in June, which came to terms in September, promising no longer to aid the hard-pressed German war economy.)

Model was able to persuade Hitler of things, such as the withdrawal, that other generals could not because the Führer admired him and was utterly convinced of his loyalty. He argued with Hitler to his face, but only on matters of military policy, and would not allow any criticism of Hitler at his HQ. Because he led from the front, constantly being seen in the front line, Model was popular with the troops in the way that a number of other German château-generals were not.

In January 1944 Hitler set a problem for OKH planners which threw light on the severe manpower problems that Germany was facing by then. Between the outbreak of war and late 1943 the standard German infantry division had consisted of three regiments totalling nine rifle battalions. Each regiment had twelve rifle and heavy-weapons companies, and a howitzer and anti-tank company, and the division itself also had a separate anti-tank and reconnaissance battalion too, which brought the average division size up to 17,000 men. In October 1943, however, divisions were reorganized to comprise three regiments of only two battalions each, bringing the average size down to 13,656 men. Yet only three months later Hitler was forced to ask OKH how divisions could be cut back to 11,000 men each, without its affecting firepower and overall combat strengths. The planners recognized that this was impossible, and put forward a compromise solution of divisions of 12,769 in size. This ‘1944-type’ infantry division had a higher proportion of combat to service troops – at anything up to 80 per cent – but the swingeing reductions in supply personnel and others were sorely felt. With Germany simply running out of soldiers by January 1944, while divisions still had to hold their sections of many miles of crumbling fronts, such demoralizing reorganizations were a potent foretaste of her coming disaster.

Manstein was attacked on the Dnieper on 29 January 1944 by the 1st Ukrainian Front under Zhukov and the 2nd Ukrainian Front under Konev, perhaps the best two Russian generals since Vatutin had been assassinated by Ukrainian nationalist partisans. A fierce struggle developed, called the battle of Korsun but scarcely heard of in the West; it lasted three weeks, during which two German army corps were cut off in a salient and were extricated by Manstein only at the cost of 100,000 casualties.19 The Russians then just moved on ahead, crossing the Bug and Dniester rivers. Such was its vast preponderance in both men and matériel that the Red Army could afford to engage the entire German force along a line, and then wait to see where the gaps appeared before striking again and again. Yet throughout this losing battle the Germans’ camaraderie and esprit de corps allowed them to continue to make withering counter-attacks, which any less resilient soldiers than the Russians could probably not have withstood. If Russian troops had broken and run in the way that Western troops sometimes did, for example in the opening stages of the battle of the Bulge, they would have been shot by the NKVD. ‘Who but us could have taken on the Germans?’ asked Konstantin Mamerdov, a Soviet soldier at this time.20 It was meant rhetorically, because the answer was: probably no one.

March saw Army Group South suffer a series of reversals, although these were not the fault of Manstein, who did the best he could under the thoroughly adverse circumstances. On the 4th his northern flank was battered by Zhukov, who over the next three days advanced 100 miles to the Warsaw–Odessa railway line. Nikolayev on the Bug fell on the 28th and two days later, on 30 March, Hitler dismissed Manstein, who in Basil Liddell Hart’s view, and that of many other military historians, had the finest strategic brain on the German – or perhaps any – side in the war. ‘You can almost look at the Soviet/German war during the period between 1942 and 1944 as a duel between Manstein and Zhukov,’ the distinguished historian of these campaigns John Erickson has stated. ‘It takes in Stalingrad, then Kursk and it all comes to a head in January and March 1944 when Manstein and Zhukov again duel in the Eastern Ukraine… These are the two striking, outstanding strategic thinkers, strategic planners, and strategic commanders of the first rank.’21But whereas Stalin had the sense to retain Zhukov, Hitler dismissed Manstein, who had been pressing for the creation of the post of commander-in-chief of the Eastern Front, and ought to have been given it himself, but instead he was never to see active command again. ‘I was in constant feud with Hitler about leadership ever since I took command of the army group until the end,’ Manstein later told his Nuremberg interviewer, blaming Himmler’s and Göring’s influence on Hitler, before also saying of Hitler in virtually the next sentence: ‘He was an extraordinary personality. He had a tremendously high intelligence and an exceptional willpower.’22

Manstein’s command of Army Group South – from early April 1944 renamed Army Group North Ukraine – was given to Model, who had been in command of Army Group North only since January and who was also promoted to field marshal, at fifty-three the youngest after Rommel. Kleist, who had been forced back into Romania by Konev and General Rodion Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front, was dismissed as commander of Army Group South Ukraine, and replaced by the brutal and unpopular Ferdinand Schörner on the same day that Manstein was sacked. Kleist diagnosed Hitler’s mentality at that stage as ‘more of a problem for a psychiatrist than for a general’. Speaking at Nuremberg, he gave the standard line that ‘I’m just a plain soldier and not given to analysing temperaments. He was the chief of state and I accepted that as enough.’23 He claimed to have suggested that Hitler give up the supreme command back in December 1943, and was sacked after ‘a very severe argument’ on 29 March 1944, and that ‘When Hitler shouted [at] me, I shouted twice as loud.’ True or not, he did diagnose an interesting trait of Hitler’s that others mentioned too, and which must have been dispiriting to those who worked closely with him, namely that ‘If you talked for two hours and you thought that finally you had convinced him of something, he began where you started just as if you had never said a word.’24 Such self-centredness and utter certainty in his own will and destiny might have been necessary to Hitler in becoming Führer, but it served his country – and thus ultimately himself – badly when it came to fighting a world war, which his enemies proved was done better according to a collegiate format than a dictatorial one.

A classic example of this phenomenon came on 8 March 1944 when Hitler promulgated an order embodying his concept of ‘fortified localities’. Instead of retreating and remaining as part of the overall front line, he ordained that troops should defend themselves in cities and towns and be supplied by the Luftwaffe until they were relieved:

Fortified localities are intended to discharge the same functions as fortresses in the past. German army commanders therefore must allow themselves to become encircled, and in this way tie down the largest possible number of enemy forces. In this way they will also play a part in creating the prerequisite for successful counter-operations… The Commandants of the fortified localities should be selected from the very toughest soldiers, if possible of general’s rank.25

Although this strategy was attempting to make a virtue out of a necessity in some places, its main effect was simply to prevent troops from giving up untenable areas and staying within the main body of the army when a front collapsed. While it might have worked as a desperate measure in medieval times, in modern warfare it allowed precisely the mass encirclement that had led the Soviets to such a series of disasters during Barbarossa three years earlier. A Soviet disinformation campaign could not have put out instructions more helpful to their cause than this.

April 1944 – a month when the Luftwaffe was down to 500 combat aircraft on the Eastern Front, versus 13,000 Soviet warplanes – saw Marshal Fedor Tolbukhin clearing the Germans from the Crimea, with the fall of Sevastopol on 19 May, at a cost to the Reich of nearly 100,000 men.26 The Russians had reached the Dnieper in January, but by April they were over the Dniester and Prut rivers, into Romania and Poland and threatening the borders of Hungary. Odessa was evacuated on 10 April. In the spring of 1944, and especially after D-Day, Hitler completely failed to rationalize his line in the east, preferring to issue ‘Stand or die’ orders to his battlefield commanders. ‘His shrinking armies straggled along a front of 1,650 miles,’ records Max Hastings. ‘In the centre, divisions averaging only 2,000 men were holding sixteen-mile sectors of the line. Between July 1943 and May 1944, Germany lost 41 divisions in Russia – almost a million casualties between July and October 1943 alone, 341,950 men between March and May 1944.’27Yet all this was merely a prelude to the disaster that was to overtake Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, an engagement that can lay claim to be one of the most decisive campaigns in history.

This huge Russian summer offensive, timed for the moment when attention in the Reich would be most concentrated on events in Normandy, was launched on Thursday, 22 June 1944, the third anniversary of Barbarossa. The codename was chosen by Stalin personally, to commemorate his fellow Georgian, the great Marshal Peter Bagration of the 1812 campaign. The attack was supported by no fewer than 400 guns per mile along a 350-mile front connecting Smolensk, Minsk and Warsaw. Bagration was intended utterly to destroy Army Group Centre, thus opening the way to Berlin itself. The 3rd and 2nd Russian and 1st Belorussian Fronts had almost total air superiority, much of the Luftwaffe having been flown off westwards to try to deal with D-Day and the Combined Bomber Offensive. Rokossovky achieved surprise on 24 June when the tanks and guns of his 1st Belorussian Front suddenly appeared out of the swamps of the northern Pripet Marshes, supposedly impassable to heavy vehicles, but which his engineers had diligently prepared with wooden causeways.28

Much of the Third Panzer Army was destroyed in a few days. The hole created in the by then wildly overstretched German line was soon no less than 250 miles wide and 100 miles deep, allowing major cities to be recaptured such as Vitebsk on 25 June and Minsk – where 300,000 Germans were encircled and captured – on 3 July. Hitler’s strategy of ‘fortified localities’ had to be put into operation immediately at Mogilev, Bobruysk and elsewhere, with the predictable result that the Russians merely bypassed them and left them to be besieged by reserve troops, rather as the Americans were doing in the Pacific by ‘island-hopping’. By 3 July the Russians had moved forward 200 miles from their start lines. Army Group Centre had effectively ceased to exist except on paper, and instead a vast gap had appeared between Army Group South and Army Group North. For the Germans, Bagration has accurately been described as ‘one of the most sudden and complete military disasters in history’.29 Its importance cannot be underestimated. ‘Even in the months following the Allied invasion in Normandy,’ records an historian, ‘German casualties in Russia continued to average four times the number in the West.’30

Although they were exhausted by constant combat over many months, under-equipped, outnumbered and largely unsupported from the air, Army Group Centre might have remained intact had it not been saddled with tactics as illogical and untutored as that of ‘fortified localities’ and other related concepts that Hitler invented. Had the Führer visited the front more often, he might have seen for himself how Order No. 11, which called for ‘stubbornly defended strong points in the depth of the battlefield in the event of any breakthrough’, was a recipe for denuding the German line yet further, merely permitting further such breakthroughs.

Field Marshal Walther Model, by then nicknamed ‘Hitler’s fireman’, was appointed to Field Marshal Ernst Busch’s command of the 1.2 million men of Army Group Centre, while continuing to command Army Group North Ukraine, but he could do little to hold back the Russians. By 10 July, twenty-five of the thirty-three divisions of Army Group Centre were trapped, with only a small minority able to extricate themselves. The choice of the third anniversary of Barbarossa for the launch of Bagration was instructive: the destruction of Army Group Centre was in many ways the mirror image of what had happened in the early stages of Barbarossa, with strongpoints being encircled with bewildering speed by swarms of highly mobile opponents. Bagration lasted for sixty-eight days, and saw average German casualties of more than 11,000 per day. In the course of this vast Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle), the Russians punched the Wehrmacht in its solar plexus, regained Belorussia and opened the way to attack East Prussia and the Baltic States. Small wonder the year 1944 is regarded as an annus mirabilis in today’s Russia. During Bagration, the Soviets claimed to have killed 381,000 Germans, wounded 384,000, captured a further 158,000 and destroyed or captured 2,000 tanks, 10,000 guns and 57,000 motor vehicles.31 For all that is made of the Anglo-American victory in the Falaise pocket, this victory was over ten times the size, yet is hardly known in the West beyond the cognoscenti of military history.

On 14 July 1944, the Russians attacked south of the Pripet Marshes, capturing Lvov on the 27th. The Germans were therefore now back to their Barbarossa start lines of three years earlier. The offensives north and south of the Pripet Marshes meant that the Red Army was able to cross the pre-war borders of Poland and recapture Kaunas, Minsk, Białystok and Lublin, and by August they had crossed the River Bug. They stopped on the Vistula, outside Warsaw, because Model managed to check Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front to the east of the Polish capital. It is often assumed that the Russians stopped on the Vistula on 7 August for entirely political reasons, in order to allow the Germans to crush the Warsaw Uprising, but they had a good excuse to do so, for their 450-mile advance since 22 June had stretched their supplies and lines of communication to the limits.

At the celebrations in Moscow soon afterwards, 57,000 German POWs were paraded through Red Square, with many of the twenty-five captured generals at their head. The war correspondent Alexander Werth reported:

The Moscow people looked on quietly without booing and hissing, and only a few youngsters could be heard shouting, ‘Hey, look at the Fritzes with their ugly snouts,’ but most people only exchanged remarks in soft voices. I heard a little girl sitting on her mother’s shoulders say: ‘Mummy, are these the people who killed Daddy?’ And the mother hugged the child and wept. The Germans had finally arrived in Moscow. When the parade was over Russian sanitation trucks disinfected the streets.32

Churchill used the occasion of the destruction of Army Group Centre to make another quip at Hitler’s expense in the House of Commons, saying on 2 August, the tenth anniversary of Hindenberg’s death and thus of Hitler becoming undisputed master of Germany, ‘It may well be that the Russian success has been somewhat aided by the strategy of Herr Hitler – of Corporal Hitler. Even military idiots find it difficult not to see some faults in some of his actions… Altogether, I think it is much better to let officers rise up in the proper way.’33

There were a few scrawny scraps of comfort for Hitler, however. With the Red Army only 15 miles from the borders of East Prussia on 1 August, Model – outnumbered and outgunned, especially in the air – had nonetheless managed severely to maul the Second Tank Army and force the Soviets back 30 miles. During the ‘hurricane of fire’ from German assault guns, the following Russian wireless conversation was intercepted by the Abwehr:

A: Hold your position!

B: I am finished.

A: Reinforcements are moving up.

B: To hell with your reinforcement. I am cut off. Your reinforcement won’t find me here any more.

A: For the last time, I forbid you to speak openly over the wireless. I would prefer you to shoot your own people than allow the enemy to shoot them.

B: Comrade No. 54, perhaps you will grasp the situation when I tell you that I have nobody left I can shoot, apart from my wireless operator.34

Model’s victory, though relatively small-scale in the context of the overall situation, nonetheless earned him his Führer’s encomium as ‘the saviour of the Eastern Front’.35 On 31 August Hitler said at a conference: ‘I really think one can’t imagine a worse crisis than the one we had in the East this year. When Field Marshal Model came, the Army Group Centre was nothing but a hole.’36 Yet rather than giving him greater responsibilities there, or even perhaps command over the entire front, Hitler moved Model on to the Western Front later that same month, and there was yet another change of army group commanders.

The approach of the Red Army encouraged the anti-Communist Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) in Warsaw to attempt an uprising at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 August 1944 under their indomitable Generals Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski and Antoni Chruściel. The Poles understandably wanted to wrest control of their capital, and with it, they hoped, the sovereignty of their country, away from the Germans before the arrival of the Russians, who they correctly assumed had no more desire for genuine Polish independence than the Nazis. So while the Uprising was aimed militarily against the Germans, it was also aimed politically against the Russians, something that Stalin well understood.37 The result was as desperate and tragic for the Warsaw Poles as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had been for the Polish Jews in April 1943. The Uprising was crushed with maximum ferocity by the SS in sixty-three days, in scenes that can be seen in powerful contemporary film footage at the Uprising Museum in Warsaw today. When it began, only 14 per cent of the Home Army were even armed, with only 108 machine guns, 844 sub-machine guns and 1,386 rifles.38

On 26 August Churchill met the Polish Commander-in-Chief General Władysław Anders at his HQ in Italy. Anders had been imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison in his time, and was under no illusions: as he told Churchill, ‘Stalin’s declarations that he wants a free and strong Poland are lies and fundamentally false.’ Anders then spoke about the way the Soviets had treated Poland in 1939 and about the Katyń massacre before exclaiming, ‘We have our wives and children in Warsaw, but we would rather they perish than have to live under the Bolsheviks.’ According to the minutes taken by Anders’ aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Prince Eugene Lubomirski, Churchill replied: ‘I sympathize deeply. But you must trust [us]. We will not abandon you and Poland will be happy.’39 He probably meant it at the time, but was no longer really in a position to make such a promise considering that a Red Army of 6.7 million men was poised to march right across Poland.

The courage and ingenuity of the Poles during the Uprising were truly remarkable. When the Germans cut off the water supply to the city, the Poles bored wells by hand. On 1 September 1,500 defenders had to retreat from a position at Stare Miasto (Old Town), using the sewers accessible from a single manhole in Krasinski Square. ‘A few gas-bombs through the manholes or an outbreak of panic in the tunnels would be enough to prevent anyone getting out alive,’ recorded Bór-Komorowski. ‘Besides, how could the entry of 1,500 into the sewers be concealed when the manhole by which they must enter lay concealed only some 220 yards from the enemy positions?’40 He nonetheless gave the order, since the defenders ‘had nothing more to lose’. So, leaving the Old Town completely defenceless in the event of a German surprise attack, the entire force, along with 500 civilians, their wounded and 100 German prisoners, went down the manhole. ‘Slowly, very slowly, the queue of waiting people disappeared,’ wrote Bór-Komorowski,

Each person held on to the one ahead. The human serpent was about 1½ miles in length. It moved slowly. There was no time for rest periods, because room had to be made for the others who were waiting by the manhole. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the line moved forward, for the water had now almost completely drained away and the mud had been replaced by a thick slime which gripped their legs up to the calf. The soldiers had had no sleep at all for several days and their only food had been dry potato flakes. The rifles slung round their necks seemed unbearably heavy and kept clattering along the tunnel walls… The last soldier in the queue entered the manhole just before dawn.41

When the Stukas, artillery, tanks and finally infantry attacked the positions the next morning, initially believing the Poles’ silence to be merely a ruse to conserve ammunition, the Germans found their quarry gone. The Poles had escaped, at least for the present.

The Uprising led to the systematic destruction of 83 per cent of the city of Warsaw by the Waffen-SS, yet when in early September the Red Cross arranged an evacuation, only 10 per cent of the population of one million elected to leave the city. Although they initially had only seven days’ supply of ammunition, the Home Army fought for more than nine weeks, until 5 October. Since the destruction of any future opposition to a Communist regime in Poland suited Stalin well, he refused the USAAF and RAF permission to land in Soviet-held territory, thus severely hampering their ability to drop supplies of food and arms to the Poles, although efforts were nonetheless made. In all 15,200 insurgents were killed and 7,000 wounded before Bór-Komorowski was forced to surrender. Yet German losses were high too: some reports claim as many as 17,000 died.42 Himmler’s revenge was to send 153,810 Polish men, women and children to the concentration camps, from where only a handful were to emerge alive.43

Only after the Uprising had been completely crushed in early October did the SS withdraw from Warsaw, and it was not until mid-January that the Red Army crossed the river and took over the smoking ruins of the city. It had been an epic struggle, which sometimes tends to be skated over in Anglo-American histories of the war. As an historian of Poland, Norman Davies, has pointed out, however, the Warsaw Uprising ‘engaged twice as many [soldiers] as did the attack on Arnhem; it lasted ten times longer; and it caused five times as many casualties. What is more, the fate of an Allied capital was at stake. And three times as many civilians were killed as in the entire London Blitz.’44

On 27 December 1944 Stalin wrote to Roosevelt to complain that the Western Allies were effectively supporting Polish democrats, whom he characterized as ‘a criminal terrorist network against Soviet officers and soldiers on the territory of Poland. We cannot reconcile with such a situation when terrorists instigated by Polish emigrants kill in Poland soldiers and officers of the Red Army, lead a criminal fight against Soviet troops who are liberating Poland, and directly aid our enemies, whose allies they in fact are.’ To describe Polish democrats as the allies of the Nazis shows Stalin’s attitude towards Poland at the time, only two months before the Yalta Conference at which Roosevelt and Churchill took at face value his promises for Polish self-determination.45 Of course Stalin was not fighting the war for democracy; indeed, as Richard Overy points out: ‘The greatest paradox of the Second World War is that democracy was saved by the exertions of Communism.’46 Stalin was fighting to protect the October Revolution and Mother Russia, and lost twenty-seven million Soviet citizens in the process. Yet before sympathy is invoked for the USSR, as opposed to the long-suffering Russian people, one should recall the terrible, cardinal errors made by her leadership. The Nazi–Soviet Pact itself, the dispositions of troops far too close to the new border, the refusal to believe myriad warnings of Barbarossa from a myriad different sources: all these blunders and many more can be laid directly at the door of Stalin and his Politburo. Hitler had done quite enough in his career to prove how utterly untrustworthy he was long before the Nazi–Soviet Pact was signed in August 1939, yet as Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out: ‘Not to trust anybody was very typical of Josef Stalin. All the years of his life did he trust one man only, and that was Adolf Hitler.’

While the Poles were being crucified in Warsaw, on 20 August 1944 Marshal A. M. Vasilevsky began his drive to clear the Germans out of the Balkans, which saw spectacular successes as the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts crossed the Prut river and attacked Army Group South Ukraine in Romania. With Hitler desperate to retain control of the Romanian oilfields, without which his tanks and planes would be forced to rely on failing synthetic-fuel production within the Reich, he could not withdraw the Sixth Army (reconstituted in name after Stalingrad), twenty divisions of which were therefore entrapped in a giant pocket between the Dnieper river and the Prut by 23 August. On that same day, Romania surrendered, and soon afterwards changed sides and declared war on Germany: 100,000 German prisoners and much matériel were taken and by 31 August the Red Army was in Bucharest. Despite having advanced 250 miles in ten days, it then actually speeded up, crossing 200 miles to the Yugoslav border in the next six days, and to within striking distance of Budapest by 24 September.

On 25 August Model was posted off to the west to replace Kluge both as commander of Army Group B and as commander-in-chief west, the posts Rommel and Rundstedt had held on D-Day. In the calendar year 1944, therefore, Hitler had appointed his ‘fireman’ to command each of the three major army groups in the east, and for a short period the Army Group North Ukraine too, as well as the two senior posts in the west. It was an extreme example of how Hitler tended not to leave his generals in commands for long enough for them to grasp more than the essentials. Only one month into Model’s command in the west, he was relieved of it when Rundstedt was recalled from disgrace, although he retained his command of Army Group B, in which position he defended the Scheldt estuary for eighty-five days, defeated the British and Poles at Arnhem and commanded the Ardennes offensive.

Rundstedt’s career was equally pitted with examples of the Führer’s caprice. His first forced retirement had taken place before the war even started, in October 1938 after he had supported non-Nazi generals during the Wehrmacht rearmament programme that he headed. Recalled to command Army Group South in June 1939, he was one of the twelve field marshals appointed on 19 July 1940. When in December 1941 he refused to obey Hitler’s ‘Stand or die’ order at Rostov, he was dismissed. Four months later he was appointed commander-in-chief west, but was removed from command on 6 July 1944 after trying to persuade Hitler to adopt a mobile defence rather than fighting for every town and village in France. After his recall that September, and being given his old job back, he was sacked once again after advising one of Hitler’s Staff officers to ‘Make peace, you fools!’ in March 1945. Rundstedt’s four dismissals were exceptional, but Guderian was sacked twice, in December 1941 and March 1945, and the movement of senior personnel on the Eastern Front in 1944 resembled a merry-go-round, made more complicated by the renaming of the army groups as the geographical situation worsened.

Bulgaria, which up to this point had been at war solely with Britain and France, made the inexplicable and suicidal decision also to declare war against the USSR on 5 September 1944, only to collapse within twenty-four hours after the Russians crossed the Danube. She then joined the Allies on 8 September. Further south, Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front marched on Belgrade, aided by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav partisans, taking it on 20 October. ‘The results of Nazi barbarity, by now sickeningly familiar, greeted Russian liberators and more than 200 mass graves had been filled with slaughtered Slovaks.’47

Hitler insisted on Army Group F staying in Greece for as long as possible, which meant that it could not help much in the defence of Yugoslavia, where, in order to avoid being cut off, Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, the German Supreme Commander in south-east Europe, was forced westwards via Sarejevo as the Russians established a bridgehead over the Danube on 24 November and encircled Budapest on Christmas Eve. The Hungarian capital held out bravely, if in vain, through terrible privations until mid-February 1945. The frustrations of the Red Army besiegers were taken out on the women of Budapest, with mass rapine in scenes that were to be repeated across eastern Europe, and especially in Germany.

Meanwhile, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were liberated from Hitler’s yoke between 10 October and Christmas 1944, only to fall beneath Stalin’s for the next forty-four years. Guderian, who had been appointed OKH chief of staff in June, attempted to get the twenty veteran divisions of Army Group North – a powerful manoeuvrable striking force – out of west Latvia so that it could reinforce the hard-pressed German units defending East Prussia to the south, but he was prevented from doing so by Hitler. So when the Russian 1st Baltic Front reached the Baltic Sea and took Memel, Army Group North was trapped, with no land route back to East Prussia. Hitler had effectively created a ‘fortified locality’ out of the whole western part of Latvia. Between September and November 1944 the German Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies were forced to retreat into Baltic enclaves at Memel and Kurland, but Hitler would not evacuate them, because he said he needed the Baltic coastline to continue to import Swedish iron ore and to test a new generation of undetectable, indefinitely submersible U-boats that were faster underwater than the Allies’ convoys. Hitler now hoped to win the war by marooning the Anglo-American armies on the Continent without supplies. He later insisted that, although some divisions could evacuate, the Kurland bridgehead must be held by an entire army. Thus his forces were trapped in the Kurland pocket, which the Red Army perceptively came to regard as a gigantic POW camp maintained for them by the Wehrmacht, and so did not force it to surrender until the end of the war.48 (The U-boats never came on stream in sufficient quantities either.) As 1944 ended, it was understandably hailed as ‘The Year of Ten Victories’ by the Soviets, who had seen an unbroken run of success since the relief of Leningrad that January.

On 12 January 1945, the Russians unleashed a massive offensive along the entire front from the Baltic Sea in the north down to the Carpathian mountains in the south, against what was left of the new German Central Front, made up of the seventy divisions of Army Group Centre and Army Group A. Planned by Stalin and the Stavka, but particularly by Zhukov, this giant offensive primarily comprised, from south to north: Konev’s 1st Ukrainian, Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian, Ivan Chernyakovsky’s 3rd Belorussian, Ivan Bagrayan’s 1st Baltic and Andrei Yeremenko’s 2nd Baltic Fronts, no fewer than 200 divisions in all.49 Faced with this onslaught, wildly outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans conducted an impressive fighting retreat of almost 300 miles, losing Warsaw on 17 January and leaving isolated garrisons at Thorn, Poznań and Breslau that had no real hope of relief.

Almost one million German citizens were sheltering in or around the pleasant city of Breslau in Lower Silesia, which was not a fortress in the conventional sense despite attempts after August 1944 to build a defensive ring at a 10-mile radius from the city centre. ‘Women and children must leave the city on foot and proceed in the direction of Opperau and Kanth!’ blared loudspeakers on 20 and 21 January 1945, effectively expelling the civilian population into 3-foot snowdrifts and temperatures of –20 Celsius. ‘The babies were usually the first to die,’ records the historian of Breslau’s subsequent seventy-seven-day defence.50 For all the horrors of the siege – 26 per cent of Breslau’s fire brigade perished, for example – the Aviatik cigarette factory somehow continued to make 600,000 cigarettes a day, which was good for morale. Ammunition and supplies were parachuted in by the Luftwaffe, but these often fell into the Oder or behind the Russian lines. Lower Silesia’s famously brutal Gauleiter, Karl Hanke – who executed Breslau’s mayor for suspected defeatism – chose the cellars under the University Library to use as his bunker. He wanted to blow up the library to provide additional cover above him, but feared that the flames from its 550,000 books might spread dangerously.51(A Gauleiter perishing from the burning of books would have had its own pleasing irony.) In the event Breslau surrendered only on 6 May 1945, with troops throwing their weapons into the Oder and changing into civilian clothes. The siege had cost the city the lives of 28,600 (that is, 22 per cent) of its 130,000 soldiers and civilians. A few days before Breslau’s capitulation, Hanke – whom Hitler appointed as Himmler’s successor as Reichsführer-SS in his will – changed into an NCO’s uniform and flew in a Fieseler Storch plane from the Kaiserstrasse airstrip. He was shot by Czech partisans when trying to escape in June 1945.

Zhukov reached the Oder river on 31 January 1945 and Konev the Oder–Neisse Line a fortnight later, before finally halting due to their long lines of supply and communications. ‘Logistics is the ball and chain of armoured warfare,’ Guderian used to say, and, having long worked to their advantage, these long lines would now occasionally work in the Soviets’ disfavour. Hitler’s dispositions continued to make Germany’s strategic situation worse. Guderian recalled after the war that the Führer had refused his advice to bring the bulk of the Wehrmacht stationed in Poland back from the Hauptkampflinie (front line) to more defensible positions 12 miles further back at the Grosskampflinie (defensive line), out of range of Russian artillery.52 Disastrously, Hitler’s orders meant that the new defensive lines, only 2 miles behind the front, were badly hit by the Soviet guns, wrecking hopes for a classic German counter-attack to develop. ‘This was in absolute contradiction of German military doctrine,’ notes an historian of the campaign.53Hitler’s insistence on personally approving everything done by the Staff was explained to Guderian with words so hubristic as to invite retribution from the gods: ‘There’s no need for you to try and teach me. I’ve been commanding the Wehrmacht in the field for five years and during that time I’ve had more practical experience than any gentlemen of the General Staff could ever hope to have. I’ve studied Clausewitz and Moltke and read all the Schlieffen papers. I’m more in the picture than you are!’54

A few days into the great Soviet offensive in the east, Guderian challenged Hitler aggressively over his refusal to evacuate the German army in Kurland, which had been completely cut off against the Baltic. Speer vividly recalled walking across the heavy, hand-woven rug in Hitler’s massive office in the Reich Chancellery to the table top of blood-red Austria marble, ‘striated with the beige and white cross sections of an ancient coral reef’. When Hitler refused Guderian’s request to evacuate the trapped army across the Baltic, as ‘he always did when asked to authorize a retreat’, the OKH Chief of Staff lost his temper and addressed his Führer with what Speer described as ‘an openness unprecedented in this circle’. Speer thought that Guderian might have been drinking with the Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Oshima beforehand, but whatever the reason he stood facing Hitler across the table, ‘with flashing eyes and the hairs of his moustache literally [sic] standing on end’, saying, in ‘a challenging voice’: ‘It’s simply our duty to save these people, and we still have time to remove them!’ Hitler stood up to answer back: ‘You are going to fight on there. We cannot give up these areas!’ ‘But it’s useless to sacrifice men in this senseless way,’ continued Guderian. ‘It’s high time! We must evacuate those soldiers at once!’ According to Speer, ‘Hitler appeared visibly intimidated by this assault,’ more by its tone than by the arguments themselves, and although the Führer of course got his way, ‘The novelty was almost palpable. New worlds had opened out.’55

In January 1945, as the Red Army’s Vistula–Oder operation rolled forward and Warsaw was about to fall, three senior members of Guderian’s OKH planning Staff – a colonel and two lieutenant-colonels – were arrested by the Gestapo and interrogated about their seeming questioning of orders from OKW. Only after Guderian spent much time and energy intervening were the lieutenant-colonels freed, although the colonel was sent to a concentration camp. ‘The essence of the problem lay in Hitler’s Führer-system of unquestioning obedience to orders clashing with the General Staff’s system of mutual trust and exchange of ideas, against a background of Hitler’s class consciousness and genuine distrust of the General Staff following the failed putsch.’56

At a two-and-a-half-hour Führer-conference starting at 4.20 p.m. on 27 January 1945, Hitler explained his thinking with regard to the Balkans, and in particular the oilfields of the Lake Balaton region in Hungary. Attended by Göring, Keitel, Jodl, Guderian, five other generals and fourteen other officials, he ranged over every front of the war, with the major parts of the agenda covering weather conditions, Army Group South in Hungary, Army Group Centre in Silesia, Army Group Vistula in Pomerania, Army Group Kurland, the Eastern Front in general, the west, ammunition allotments, Allied advances in Italy, the north, the situation at sea, and political and personnel questions.57 ‘Our main problem is the fuel issue at the moment,’ Guderian told Hitler, who replied: ‘That’s why I’m concerned, Guderian.’ Pointing at the Balaton region, he added, ‘If something happens down there, it’s over. That’s the most dangerous point. We can improvise everywhere else, but not there. I can’t improvise with the fuel.’58 He had been speaking of the importance of keeping hold of the Balkans, largely for its copper, bauxite and chromium deposits, as well as oil, since mid-1943.59 The Sixth Panzer Army, reconstituted after its exertions in the Ardennes offensive, was ordered to Hungary, from where it could not be extracted.

Defending Hungary accounted for seven of the eighteen Panzer divisions still available to Hitler on the Eastern Front, a massive but necessary commitment. By January 1945, the month that the battle of the Bulge was lost, Hitler had only 4,800 tanks and 1,500 combat aircraft in the east, to fight Stalin’s 14,000 and 15,000 respectively.60 The Red Army’s 12 January offensive finally came to an end a month later on the lower reaches of the River Oder, a mere 44 miles from the suburbs of Berlin. It had been an epic advance, but had temporarily exhausted the USSR. Yet his troops’ proximity to the German capital gave Stalin a greatly increased voice at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea, called to discuss the endgame in Europe, and to try to persuade the Soviets to undertake a major involvement in the war against Japan.

Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin met only twice, at the Teheran Conference in November 1943 and the Yalta Conference in February 1945, although they maintained a very regular correspondence. The first letter was sent by Roosevelt soon after Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, and the 304th, also sent by him, was dated 11 April 1945, the day before he died. By the time of Yalta it was Roosevelt who was making all the running attempting to keep the alliance together. With the Red Army firmly in occupation of Poland, and Soviet divisions threatening Berlin itself when the conference opened, there was effectively nothing that either FDR or Churchill could have done to safeguard political freedom in eastern Europe, and both knew it. Roosevelt certainly tried everything – including straightforward flattery – to try to bring Stalin round to a reasonable stance on any number of important post-war issues, such as the creation of a meaningful United Nations, but he overestimated what his undoubted aristocratic charm could achieve with the homicidal son of a drunken Georgian cobbler.

Addressing Congress in March 1945, Roosevelt reported that Yalta ‘spells the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balance of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries – and have always failed.’ This was a quite exceptionally idealistic, or perhaps naive, way to have interpreted Yalta, but it is quite possible that Roosevelt believed what he was saying when he said it. A far more realistic approach to dealing with Stalin had been adopted by Churchill in Moscow in October 1944, when he took along what he called ‘a naughty document’ which listed the ‘proportional interest’ in five south-east European countries. Greece would be under 90 per cent British influence ‘in accord with the US’ and 10 per cent Russian; Yugoslavia and Hungary were 50–50; Romania would be 90 per cent Russian, 10 per cent British; and Bulgaria 75 per cent Russian and 25 per cent ‘the others’. Stalin signed the document with a big blue tick, telling Churchill to keep it, and generally stuck to the agreements.61

Despite his attempts to charm Stalin at Yalta, FDR could also be sharp with the marshal if necessary: on 4 April 1945 he wrote to Stalin: ‘I have received with astonishment your message of April 3 containing an allegation that arrangements which [sic] were made between Field Marshals Alexander and Kesselring at Berne, “permitting the Anglo-American troops to advance to the East and the Anglo-Americans promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms”.’ Stating that no such negotiations had taken place, Roosevelt concluded: ‘Frankly I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment towards your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions and those of my trusted subordinates.’62 (Yet representatives of Alexander and Kesselring were indeed meeting in Berne, and indeed the British War Cabinet held a meeting on 12 April where the first item on the agenda was proposals from Berne concerning British POWs.63 It was understandable if Stalin, who had no representatives present, was nervous lest deals were being done between the Germans and the Anglo-Americans behind his back.) Within a fortnight Roosevelt was dead, and Harry S. Truman took on the burdens of the war presidency, but any hopes this raised in the breasts of the Germans, especially Goebbels, were dashed when it soon became clear that Truman would listen to the advice of the same man who had been directing American military strategy since 1939, General George C. Marshall.

By mid-March 1945, Hitler had found a new scapegoat to blame for the coming victory of the Jewish–Bolshevik hordes: it was all the fault of the German Volk itself. By that stage he positively invited the retribution that the Aryan race was about to undergo at the hands of the Russians, believing that it had been the people’s weakness as human beings that had led to the disaster, rather than his own strategic errors. He even said as much, at least according to Albert Speer’s later testimony, stating with consummate nihilism on 18 March:

If the war should be lost, then the Volk will also be lost. This fate is unavoidable. It is not necessary to take into consideration the bases the Volk needs for the continuation of its most primitive existence. On the contrary, it is better to destroy these things yourself. After all, the Volk would then have proved the weaker nation, and the future would exclusively belong to the stronger nation of the east. What would remain after this fight would in any event be inferior subjects, since all the good ones would have fallen.64

Mere survival by then was, for Hitler, Darwinian a priori proof of Untermensch status, and the utter destruction of Germany was preferable to her domination by Stalin. Although there must be some doubt that Speer interpreted Hitler correctly about the Soviets, whom he had only ever referred to with contempt as ‘barbarians’ and ‘primitives’, there was none about the order the Führer gave to his Gauleiters, Reichskommissars and senior commanders the very next day, 19 March, entitled ‘Demolitions on Reich Territory’, in which he commanded that ‘All military transport, communication facilities, industrial establishments, and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory that could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the continuation of the war, be destroyed.’65

Fortunately this order was not carried out by Speer at all, and by Nazi officials only sparingly according to the level of their fanaticism. If it had been carried out to the letter, the German people could hardly have survived the winter of 1945/6, which was harsh enough for them as it was. ‘I think the Wagner ideology of Götterdämmerung [Twilight of the Gods] had an influence on Hitler during the last few months,’ Walther Funk told his Nuremberg psychiatrist in May 1946, ‘and everything had to go down in ruins with Hitler himself, as a sort of false Götterdämmerung.’66 Yet Speer should not be commended too highly on the back of this one action, or rather inaction. It had been he who commanded the vast army of slave labourers that produced German armaments in barbarous conditions. ‘Just as the Nazi state rested on a basis of total brutality and corruption,’ recorded Alan Clark, ‘so the parts of the army machine, the actual weapons with which the soldiers fought, Tigers, Panzers, Nebelwerfers, Solothurns [anti-tank rifles], Schmeissers, came from the darkened sheds of Krupp and Daimler-Benz; where slave labour toiled eighteen hours a day, cowering under the lash, sleeping six to a “dog kennel” eight feet square, starving or freezing to death at the whim of their guards.’67Although Speer’s deputy, Fritz Sauckel, was hanged at Nuremberg, the life of the urbane, middle-class but above all seemingly apologetic Speer was spared.68

It was extraordinary, considering that the war’s outcome had not been in doubt since the destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into the spring of 1945. As many as 400,000 Germans were killed in the first five months of 1945 – entirely unnecessarily, as the chances of Germany winning the war were negligible for the whole of that time.69 General Schörner’s newly re-created Army Group Centre, for example, was still fighting around the town of Küstrin on the Oder in April 1945. Similarly the 203,000 men representing the remnants of Army Group North, renamed Army Group Kurland, kept fighting into May, showing astonishing resilience in the face of utter hopelessness and retaining military cohesion until the moment that they were marched off into a ten-year captivity spent rebuilding the infrastructure of the Soviet Union that they had destroyed. If one visits the railway stations of Kursk, Volgograd and other Russian towns and ‘hero-cities’ today, one can still see their handiwork.

The Sixth Panzer Army halted the Russian advance down the Hungarian valleys into Austria for as long as its fuel could last out during March 1945, but finally Vienna fell to Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front on 13 April. Hitler’s headquarters had by then adopted a policy of lying to army group commanders, as General Dr Lothar Rendulic, the last commander of Army Group South (a term revived the previous September), discovered when he received orders on 6 April to hold Vienna at all costs. Rendulic was given to telling his troops: ‘When things look blackest and you don’t know what to do, beat your chest and say: “I’m a National Socialist; that moves mountains!” ’70 Since that wasn’t working on this occasion, he asked OKW ‘how the continuation or termination of the war was envisaged’, only to ‘receive the answer that the war was to be ended by political measures’.71 This was clearly untrue, and Rendulic surrendered near Vienna in May. (Further to illustrate how much Hitler moved his senior officers around, in the first five months of 1945 Rendulic commanded Army Group North in East Prussia in January, Army Group Centre the same month, Army Group Kurland in March and Army Group South in Austria in April.)

In the north on the Baltic coast, the Germans were in a dire situation because of Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group Kurland (formerly Army Group North) in Latvia. Yet with both Zhukov and Rokossovsky bearing down on more than 500,000 trapped Germans after 16 February 1945, the German Navy – at tremendous cost – pulled off an evacuation that was far larger even than that of Dunkirk in 1940. No fewer than four army divisions and 1.5 million civilian refugees were taken from the Baltic ports of Danzig, Gotenhafen, Königsberg, Pillau and Kolberg by the Kriegsmarine, and brought back to Germany. Under constant air attack, which claimed every major ship except the cruisers Prinz Eugen andNürnberg, the German Navy had pulled off a tremendous coup. The Soviet Navy was surprisingly enough a grave disappointment throughout the Second World War, but one of its submarines, the S-13, sank the German liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea on 31 January 1945, and around 9,000 people – almost half of them children – perished, representing the greatest loss of life on one ship in maritime history.

Taking overall command of the great final offensive against Berlin itself, Marshal Zhukov gave up his 1st Belorussian Front to Vasily Sokolovsky, and took over an army group combining both that and Konev’s front, reaching Berlin on 22 April 1945 and encircling it three days later. On Wednesday, 25 April, units from the US First Army, part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and from the 1st Ukrainian Front met up at Torgau on the Elbe. With the lines of demarcation between the Allies having been agreed even before the Yalta Conference, but reconfirmed there, it fell to the Russians to fight the battle of Berlin. It is perfectly possible that Simpson’s US Ninth Army, which was on the Elbe only 60 miles west of Berlin on 11 April, eleven days before the Russians reached it, could have attacked the city first. It had crossed 120 miles in the previous ten days, and the Germans were not putting up the level of resistance in the west that they were in the east.72 But, for all the theorizing after the war – and Montgomery’s and Patton’s complaints during it – that the Western Allies should have taken Berlin instead of the Russians, the British, Americans, Canadians and French did not have to suffer such a vast number of casualties in that final desperate struggle (although had it come to it they would have fought the engagement in a less costly way).

Bradley’s assessment to Eisenhower was that a Western attack on Berlin would cost 100,000 casualties, which he considered ‘a pretty stiff price for a prestige objective’.73 This figure is almost certainly too high. Konev later stated that the Red Army lost 800 tanks in the battle for Berlin, and it is thought that Russian casualties amounted to as many as 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded, although these figures could probably have been smaller – not least through fewer friendly-fire incidents – if Stalin had not been in such a hurry to capture the capital as soon as possible, regardless of the human cost involved,74 and it also encompasses all the fighting from the Baltic to the Czech border including the crossings of the Oder and Neisse rivers.75 One of the main reasons for Stalin’s haste was that his spy chief, Lavrenti Beria, had discovered that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Dahlem, a south-western suburb of Berlin, housed the German atomic research programme, where they hoped to find scientists, equipment, many litres of heavy water and several tonnes of uranium oxide.76 Stalin therefore promoted an ill-concealed race between the rivals Zhukov and Konev as to who would take south-west Berlin first.

Berliners love black jokes and during the terribly deprived and dangerous Christmas of 1944 their Yuletide advice was ‘Be practical: give a coffin’; another was ‘Enjoy the war while you can, the peace will be terrible.’ The constant Allied air raids were bad, but worse was the knowledge that a 6.7 million-strong Red Army was massed on the Reich’s borders from the Baltic to the Adriatic, with their city as the ultimate goal. This was significantly larger than the army with which Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, an awesome achievement of the Stavka, albeit greatly aided by the United States’ Lend-Lease scheme, under which more than 5,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, many thousands of lorries, 15 million pairs of boots and prodigious quantities of food, supplies, arms and ammunition were shipped to the Soviet Union. Valued at $10 billion in total and representing 7 per cent of the USSR’s total output, this allowed the Russians to concentrate production on areas where they were most efficient. (The debt was finally repaid in 1990.) 77So, when they wished one another Prosit Neujahr! (Happy New Year!) for 1945, few Berliners clinked glasses. The irony was not lost on them that, before the war, their liberal city had been the most anti-Nazi place in Germany, yet now it faced destruction because of its most prominent resident, who had returned from the Wolfschanze on 20 November 1944 and since 16 January had been living in the bunker beneath the Old Chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse. (Although the bunkers under the New Chancellery were more spacious, the Old Chancellery ones 50 feet below street level were chosen as they were deemed safer.) Once there, Hitler indulged himself in fantasies about the Allies falling out with each other once their armies met.78 Although he has often been accused of moving phantom armies around on maps in the bunker, and making hollow declarations of coming victory, this was in part the fault of the sub-standard communications centre. Unlike the well-appointed Wolfschanze, his Berlin bunker had only a one-man switchboard, one radio transmitter and one radio telephone, and even that depended on a balloon suspended over the Old Chancellery.79 Officers were reduced to telephoning numbers taken at random from the Berlin telephone directory, the Soviet advance being plotted by how many times the calls were answered in Russian rather than German.

‘What troops and subordinate commanders appreciate is that a general should be constantly in personal contact with them,’ Wavell wrote in his book Generals and Generalship in 1941, ‘and should not see everything simply through the eyes of his staff. The less time a general spends in his office and the more with his troops the better.’ Although of course Hitler was a head of state rather than merely a general, for the last two and a half years of the war, ever since Stalingrad, the German people had seen almost nothing of him. He took most of his information from his Staff and from personal meetings with hard-pressed generals who almost all had to visit him rather than he them, in contrast to Churchill and Brooke who regularly flew out to talk with Allied commanders. In equally stark contrast to Churchill, Hitler never visited a bomb-site; instead the curtains in his Mercedes-Benz were closed as it sped past them. The last time Hitler appeared in semi-public was on his fifty-sixth and last birthday on 20 April 1945, when he congratulated a line-up of Hitler Youth fighters who had distinguished themselves in fighting. One of these children, Arnim Lehmann, recalls the Fuhrer’s weak voice and rheumy eyes as he squeezed their ears and told them how brave they were being. Analysis of the film footage with modern, computer-assisted lip-reading techniques for speech recognition confirms that he went down the line with an exhortation such as ‘Well done’, ‘Good’ and ‘Brave boy’ for most of the fighters, who look as if they were barely in their teens.

‘I have the impression that a very heavy battle lies ahead of us,’ said Stalin as he opened the last planning session for the capture of Berlin, and he was right. Yet he had 2.5 million troops, 6,250 tanks and 7,500 aircraft to throw into this enormous final assault, and on Monday, 16 April 1945 around 22,000 guns and mortars rained 2,450 freight-car loads of shells at the German lines, which were also blinded by a mass of searchlights shone at them.80 The Russian gunners had to keep their mouths open when they fired, in order to stop their eardrums bursting. Within six days the Red Army was inside Berlin, but the desperate fighting in the streets and rubble there cut down their advantages, and increased the Germans’. The Wehrmacht’s lack of tanks mattered less in the built-up areas, and hundreds of Soviet tanks were destroyed in close fighting by the Panzerfaust, an anti-tank gun that was very accurate at short range. The German Ninth Army under General Theodor Busse in the south of Berlin and the Eleventh Army under General Felix Steiner in the north would now try to defend a city with no gas, water, electricity or sanitation. When Steiner, who was outnumbered ten to one, failed to counter-attack to prevent Berlin’s encirclement, he was subjected to a tirade from Hitler.

The last direct order to be personally signed by Hitler in the bunker was transmitted to Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner at 04.50 on 24 April. Now in private hands, the original reads:

I shall remain in Berlin, so as to play a part, in honourable fashion, in the decisive battle for Germany, and to set a good example to all the rest. I believe that in this way I shall be rendering Germany the best service. For the rest, every effort must be made to win the struggle for Berlin. You can therefore help decisively, by pushing northwards as early as possible. With kind regards, Yours, Adolf Hitler81

The signature, in red pencil, looks remarkably normal, considering the circumstances. Four days earlier, Hitler’s birthday had found Schörner – who was admired by Hitler as ‘a political soldier’ – speechifying to a group of officers at his command HQ in a Czech hotel called Masarykov Düm near Königgrätz, about how they needed to live up to the Führer’s great trust. Schörner, who had large numbers of men shot for cowardice, was named in Hitler’s will as the new head of the Wehrmacht, but nine days later he deserted his army group and flew off in a small aircraft in civilian clothes to surrender to the Americans. He was handed over to the Russians and kept in captivity until 1954. In all about 30,000 death sentences for cowardice and desertion were handed down by the Germans on the Eastern Front in the last year of the war, two-thirds of which were carried out.

The Red Army had long been shooting anyone captured in SS uniform, and those SS men who had discarded it nonetheless could not escape the fact that their blood group was tattooed on their left arms, one inch below the armpit.82 John Erickson speculates that it was this knowledge of certain death ‘which kept many formations at their post during the dark days of the battles for Berlin, but, just in case, the military police remained vigilant to the last, ready to hang or shoot suspected deserters’.83 Spreading defeatism was also a capital offence: after a short mockery of a trial by the SS or Gestapo, those suspected of it for whatever reason were hanged from the nearest lamp-post, with signs around their necks stating ‘I have been hanged because I was too much of a coward to defend the Reich’s capital’, or ‘I am a deserter; because of this I will not see the change in destiny’, or ‘All traitors die like this one’.84 It is thought that at least 10,000 people died in this manner in Berlin – the same as the number of women who died (often by suicide) after having been raped by the Red Army there.85

Because of this horror, the Germans fought on with an efficiency that was utterly remarkable given the hopelessness of the situation. Yet at Berlin, as at Stalingrad and Monte Cassino, the indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment created fine opportunities for the defenders, of whom the city had 85,000 of all kinds. As well as the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS and Gestapo contingents, there were several foreign volunteer forces (especially French Fascists) and the desperately under-armed Volkssturm (home guard) battalions made up of men of over forty-five and children under seventeen. Many of the 3,000 Hitler Youth who fought were as young as fourteen, and some were unable to see the enemy from under their adult-sized coal-scuttle helmets.

The looting, drunkenness, murder and despoliation indulged in by the Red Army in East Prussia, Silesia and elsewhere in the Reich – especially Berlin – were the inevitable responses of soldiers who had marched through devastated Russian towns and cities over the previous twenty months. ‘Red Army troops loathed the neatness they found on the farms and in the towns of East Prussia: the china lined up on the dressers, the spotless housekeeping, the well-fenced fields and sleek cattle.’86 The women of Germany were also about to pay a high personal price for the Wehrmacht’s four-year ravaging of the Soviet Motherland. ‘Altogether at least 2 million German women are thought to have been raped,’ records the historian of Berlin’s downfall, Antony Beevor, ‘and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape.’87 In Berlin alone, 90,000 women were raped in the last few days before the city surrendered.88 As one Red Army veteran joked, he and his comrades used to ‘rape on a collective basis’.

Not only German women suffered. Polish women, Jewish concentration-camp survivors, even released Soviet female POWs were raped at gunpoint, often by up to a dozen soldiers. Because Order No. 227 had decreed that Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were traitors, gang rapes of Russian female POWs were permitted, even actually arranged.89 Age, desirability or any other criteria made virtually no difference. In Dahlem, for example, ‘Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were raped without pity.’ The documentary and anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and indisputable; the Red Army, which had behaved so heroically on the battlefield, raped the women of Germany as part of their reward, with the active collusion of their officers up to and including Stalin. Indeed he explicitly excused their behaviour on more than one occasion, seeing it as part of the rights of the conqueror. ‘What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors?’ Stalin asked Marshal Tito about the ordinary Russian soldier in April 1945. ‘You have imagined the Red Army to be ideal. And it is not ideal, nor can it be… The important thing is that it fights Germans.’90 As well as for the sexual gratification of the soldiers, mass rape was intended as a humiliation and revenge on Germany. If the men of the Wehrmacht had sown the wind in Operation Barbarossa, it was their mothers, sisters and daughters who were forced to reap the whirlwind. Yet it is perfectly possible that the Red Army would have brutalized the Germans even if they had not envied their enemies’ prosperity and wanted revenge. When the Red Army entered Manchuria in August 1945 there was widespread rape of Japanese and non-Japanese people, even though the USSR had not been at war with Japan and had not been invaded by her.91

It was not the Red Army alone that indulged in this form of warfare against innocents. In North Africa and western Europe, the US Army stands accused of raping an estimated 14,000 civilian women between 1942 and 1945, and although there were arrests and convictions, nobody was ever executed for raping a German woman. Furthermore, what punishment was meted out seems to have been decided on racial lines; although blacks made up only 8.5 per cent of the US Army in the European theatre, they accounted for 79 per cent of those executed for rape. Yet, for an overall perspective, Russian soldiers were not reprimanded for rape and 14,000 rapes over three years of war hardly equates with two million in one city.92

The issue of how many Russians – military and civilian – died during their Great Patriotic War was an intensely political one, and the true figure was classified as a national secret in the USSR until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead of exaggerating the numbers in order to excite the sympathy of the West, as might be expected of someone so well attuned to the use of propaganda, Stalin in fact minimized them in order to hide Soviet post-war weakness, and his own gross profligacy with human life, especially after making such monstrous errors in the early stages of the struggle.93 In 1946 he gave a figure of only seven million dead. As part of his deStalinization programme, Nikita Khrushchev admitted in the 1960s to a number ‘in excess of twenty million’. A General Staff commission in 1988–9 reported that the ‘irrecoverable losses’ of the Red Army alone – that is, those who died in action or from wounds, illness or accidents or were killed as POWs or shot for cowardice – had numbered 8,668,400, with a further eighteen million medical casualties from wounds, illness, frostbite and so on. Yet even this figure has been called into question by the leading scholar of the Russian war, John Erickson, over ‘methodology, the genuineness and objectivity of data, the manner of its interpretation and much else’.94 Figures compiled by General G. F. Krivosheev in 1997 seem to be much more reliable. These indicate that the Soviet Union mobilized 34.476 million people in the years 1941–5, including those already under arms in June 1941. Of that vast figure, 11.444 million died.95 In the chaos of June 1941 many were slaughtered but few records were kept. The evacuation and displacement of such immense populations meant that the local military commissariats could not keep their card-indexes up to date, and with unregistered partisan activity, multiple counting for complex administrative reasons and many people dying of their wounds soon after the end of hostilities it is next to impossible, even free of political pressure, to arrive at an accurate final figure so long after the event. The ones chosen by Richard Overy, of eleven million military losses, eighteen million other casualties and civilian losses of around sixteen million killed, are probably as good as any and better than most. The aggregate figure of around twenty-seven million Russians killed is therefore probably best, which in a conflict that claimed the lives of fifty million people means that the USSR lost more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

How would such genocide be punished? At 3.30 p.m. on 12 April 1945 the British War Cabinet discussed how to deal with German war criminals. The (hitherto unpublished) notes taken of this meeting by the Additional Cabinet Secretary, Norman Brook, became available in 2008 and show that the Minister of Aircraft Production, Labour’s Sir Stafford Cripps, disagreed with the policy that the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, set out for a large-scale trial, saying that it ‘mixes politics and judicial decision with disadvantage to both’. Preferring the summary execution without trial of the senior Nazis, Cripps argued that either the Allies would be criticized for not according Hitler a real trial, or they would ‘give him a chance to harangue’ with the result being ‘neither proper trial nor political act’ but the ‘worst of both worlds’. The Secretary for War, P. J. Grigg, pointed to the ‘very large numbers, hundreds of thousands’ of suspected war criminals who had fallen into British hands, whereupon Churchill suggested a ‘Trial of [the] Gestapo as a body first. Then proceedings against selected members,’ adding that it was ‘Not proposed to arraign them all.’ The Lord Chancellor, Lord Simon, then said that Roosevelt’s Special Counsel, Samuel Rosenman, had made it clear that the US ‘won’t agree to penalties without trial’, prompting Churchill to say, ‘And Stalin insists on trial.’ The historian in Churchill was unconvinced, however, and advanced the idea of a ‘Bill of Attainder not an impeachment’, such as that used to execute Charles I’s adviser the Earl of Strafford in 1640 without the need for a trial.

The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, believed that ‘This mock trial is objectionable. It really is a political act: better to declare that we shall put them to death.’ Churchill agreed, insisting that ‘The trial will be a farce.’ Turning to the wording of the indictments, and the the defendants’ right to be given access to defence barristers, the Prime Minister argued: ‘All sorts of complications ensue as soon as you admit a fair trial. I agree with the Home Secretary that they should be treated as outlaws. We should however seek agreement of our Allies… I would take no responsibility for a trial – even though the United States wants to do it. Execute the principal criminals as outlaws – if no Ally wants them.’96 Field Marshal Smuts thought that Hitler’s summary execution might ‘set a dangerous precedent’ and that there was an ‘Act of State needed to legalise Hitler’s execution’. Churchill added that allowing Hitler the right to make judicial arguments against his own execution ‘apes judicial procedure but brings it into contempt’, upon which Morrison interjected, ‘And makes certain that he will be a martyr in Germany.’

Lord Simon then pointed out that, as the Americans and Russians wanted a trial, ‘We must therefore compromise or proceed unilaterally.’ By that stage of the war the latter option was almost unthinkable, yet he proposed publishing a document that put the British case against Hitler and then executing him ‘without opportunity of reply’. This would be based upon the Allied pronouncement of 13 March 1815 that had declared Napoleon beyond the law, which he recalled having taken place after the battle of Waterloo rather than three months before it. Churchill then stated that he ‘Will not agree to [a] trial which can only be a mock trial’, and the Secretary of Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, asked whether ‘If Hitler is a soldier, we can refuse to give him quarter?’ Churchill concluded the discussion by saying that Simon should liaise with the Americans and Russians ‘to establish a list of grand criminals and get them to agree that these may be shot when taken in the field.’97 In the event this expedient was not adopted, and instead the long process of putting the senior surviving Nazis on trial was established by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which for all its drawbacks did lead to justice being seen to be done.

The circumstances and macabre atmospherics of Hitler’s death in his bunker were truly weird, made weirder by his decision to marry his girlfriend just before they killed themselves.98 ‘It’s lucky I’m not married,’ Hitler had said on the night of 25 January 1942. ‘For me, marriage would have been a disaster… I’d have had nothing of marriage but the sullen face of a neglected wife, or else I’d have skimped my duties.’99 Eva Braun felt the same, having before the war sighed to the Daily Telegraph’s Berlin correspondent, ‘It is too bad that Hitler became Reich Chancellor – or else he might have married me.’100 The official who conducted his wedding to Eva Braun on Sunday, 29 April 1945 was Walter Wagner, the deputy surveyor of rubbish collection in the Pankow district of Berlin.101 One of the many bizarre aspects of the ceremony was Wagner’s asking the couple, in accordance with Nazi marriage law, whether they were both Aryan.102 (They answered in the affirmative.) When she signed the register, Eva began her surname with a B, before it was pointed out to her ‘that her new name begins with H’.103 In more than one sense it was a shotgun wedding: Eva was worried about what people would make of her if Hitler didn’t marry her, so in order to conform to bourgeois sensibilities she finally got her man. Just before the wedding the groom had dictated his Last Will and Testament to his secretary Traudl Junge, a predictable spew of anti-Semitism and self-justification. Junge was at the wedding reception, and recalled thinking to herself: ‘What will they raise their champagne glasses to? Happiness for the newly married couple?’

After testing a cyanide capsule on their Alsatian bitch Blondi – who they obviously felt did not want to live in a post-Nazi Germany either – Eva swallowed one and Hitler shot himself at about 3.30 p.m. on Monday, 30 April 1945. The bunker’s guards first guessed that Hitler was dead when they saw his Staff’s cigarette smoke coming out of the ventilation shafts; he had been a fanatical anti-smoker.104 When Winston Churchill was told the next day of the German official broadcast stating that Hitler had died ‘fighting with his last breath against Bolshevism’, his comment was: ‘Well, I must say that he was perfectly right to die like that.’ Lord Beaverbrook, who was dining with him at the time, observed that the report was obviously untrue.105 By coincidence, the issue of The Times of 1 May that carried the news of Hitler’s death had a small report mentioning that the Americans had reached the small Austrian border town of Braunau, where the Hitler story had begun fifty-six years earlier.

It took units as hardened as Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front to force their way into the capital of the Reich, which was defended street-by-street all the way up to the Reichstag and the Reich Chancellery. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov – the hero of Stalingrad, commander of the Eighth Guards Army and now of Soviet forces in central Berlin – recalled the Germans’ attempted capitulation, which took place at his command post on May Day. ‘At last, at 03.50 hours, there was a knock at the door, and in came a German general with the Order of the Iron Cross around his neck, and the Nazi swastika on his sleeve.’106 General Hans Krebs, whom the Führer had appointed chief of the OKH General Staff in Guderian’s place the previous month, was indeed straight out of Nazi central casting. ‘A man of middle height, and solid build, with a shaven head, and scars on his face,’ recalled Chuikov. ‘With his right hand he makes a gesture of greeting – in his own, Nazi, fashion; with his left he tenders his service book to me.’ Speaking through an interpreter, although it later turned out he was fluent in Russian from his three postings as a military attaché in Moscow (where he had once been embraced by Stalin), Krebs said: ‘I shall speak of exceptionally secret matters. You are the first foreigner to whom I will give this information, that on 30 April Hitler passed from us from his own will, ending his life by suicide.’ Chuikov recalled that Krebs paused after that, expecting ‘ardent interest in this sensational news’. Instead Chuikov replied calmly: ‘We know this.’ In fact he had not known it at all, but was ‘determined that I would meet any unexpected moves calmly, without showing the least shadow of surprise, and without drawing any hasty conclusions’. Since Krebs had brought only an offer of a negotiated surrender with a new government of which Dönitz was president and Goebbels chancellor, Chuikov – under orders from Zhukov and the Stavka – refused and demanded an unconditional surrender. Krebs then left to report to Goebbels, but just before leaving he said, ‘May Day is a great festival for you,’ to which Chuikov answered, ‘And today why should we not celebrate? It is the end of the war, and the Russians are in Berlin.’107 After Krebs had told Goebbels the news, they both committed suicide, their remains being thrown in with those of Mr and Mrs Hitler. (Goebbels’ corpse was identified by the Russians from the special boot be wore for his club foot.) The next day, on 2 May, Berlin surrendered, and six days later so did all German forces throughout the now defunct Reich.

The famous photograph of the red flag being waved over the Reichstag in 1945 was taken by the twenty-eight-year-old Ukrainian Jew Yevgenny Khaldei with a Leica camera. The flag was actually one of three red tablecloths that the photographer had, in his words, ‘got from Grisha, the bloke in charge of the stores at work. He made me promise to bring them back.’ The night before he left Moscow for Berlin, Khaldei and a tailor friend of his father’s had ‘spent all night cutting out hammers and sickles and sewing them onto the cloths to make Soviet flags.’ It was thus a tablecloth that was flown, somewhat precariously, over the devastated Berlin that day. ‘What do you mean, you left it on the Reichstag?’ Grisha cried when Khaldei explained to him what had happened. ‘Now you’re really going to get me into trouble!’ The Tass picture editor spotted that the young soldier, ‘a boy from Dagestan’, who was propping up his flag-waving comrade, had watches on both wrists, clear indication of Red Army looting, and he made Khaldei airbrush that detail out of the photo.108

Although Zhukov was relegated after the war to a series of minor commands by a suspicious and jealous Stalin, his eminence and popularity in the West did at least allow him to escape the fate of 135,056 other innocent Red Army soldiers and officers, who were condemned by military tribunals for ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’. A further 1.5 million Soviet soldiers who had surrendered to the Germans were transported to the Gulag or labour battalions in Siberia.

On 24 June 1945 an enormous victory parade was held in Red Square, in which over 200 captured Nazi standards were laid on the ground outside Lenin’s tomb, with Stalin standing on the balcony above. The scene outdid anything from Ancient Rome, with the mass of enemy banners – which can be seen today in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow – laid at the feet of the all-powerful conqueror. There can be no doubt, despite the numbers killed, who was the greatest territorial victor of the Second World War. For Britain, the victory brought near-bankruptcy, national exhaustion and years of grinding austerity. The British Empire, until then the proudest on earth since Ancient Rome, and for which Churchill himself had explicitly fought, had to be dissolved, with India being granted independence exactly two years after the end of the war against Japan. France also lay in the dust for over a decade. Nor did the war add any territorial acquisitions to the United States, which wished for none. Yet the war left the USSR battered but militarily supreme, in control not only of the whole of her pre-war territory, but also that of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, the eastern half of Germany and large parts of Austria, including Vienna. Yugoslavia and Finland were effectively client states, and a Communist insurgency in Greece might easily have turned that country into one too. When Stalin visited the tomb of King Frederick the Great of Prussia during the Potsdam Conference of July 1945, well inside the Russian zone of control, it was pointed out to him that no tsar had ever extended the Russian Empire so far westwards. His gruff reply: ‘Alexander 1 rode through Paris.’

Germany, a nation that had unleashed no fewer than five wars of aggression in the seventy-five years after 1864, needed to have the warlike instinct burnt out of her soul. Only the horrors and humiliations of 1945 – Germany’s ‘Year Zero’ – could achieve that. The macabre final scenes had to be played out, with Goebbels reading Thomas Carlyle’s Frederick the Great to Hitler in the bunker as the Red Army closed in. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Heydrich’s successor Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the propagandist Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg and the six others could be hanged at Nuremberg, but Hitler could only die by one hand to make his defeat complete: his own. ‘The destruction and human misery in 1945 is barely describable in its scale,’ the historian of the German war economy records.109 Some 40 per cent of German males born between 1920 and 1925 were dead or missing when the war ended; eleven million Wehrmacht soldiers were in POW camps, and some of those in Russia were not destined to return for up to twelve years; 14.16 million ethnic Germans were forced out of their homes in eastern and central Europe, with 1.71 million dying in the process. In some major German cities, over half the housing stock had been rendered uninhabitable; hunger hit a population that until the autumn of 1944 had not wanted for food.110 Hitler would not have cared about any of this, of course, as the German people had by their very defeat shown themselves unworthy of his leadership. Had he not warned them in his recorded radio address of 24 February 1945: ‘Providence shows no mercy to weak nations, but recognizes the right of existence only to sound and strong nations’?

The remains of Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels family (Joseph and Magda had murdered their six children) were at last physically destroyed during the night of 4 April 1970. The bodies had been buried at a Smersh (military counter-intelligence) base in Magdeburg in East Germany in February 1946, which twenty-four years later was about to be turned over to the locals as surplus to requirements, and construction work was due to take place there. So potent a symbol were the mortal remains thought to be for neo-Nazi revanchists – even though the ‘skulls, shin-bones, ribs, vertebrae and so on’ were in ‘an advanced state of decay, especially those of the children’ – that the USSR’s Chairman of State Security Yuri Andropov ordered that they be burnt with charcoal, crushed to dust, collected up and then thrown into a river.111 So the remains were reincinerated and the ashes gathered into a canvas rucksack. ‘We walked to a nearby hillside,’ Vladimir Gumenyuk, the leader of the three-man detail charged with the task, told Russia’s NTV television station years later. ‘It was over in no time at all. I opened up the rucksack, the wind caught the ashes up into a little brown cloud, and in a second they were gone.’112

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