In the last two years of the war the Axis powers were on the defensive. Both in Europe and in Asia the Allies attacked with land forces along definite lines of march campaigns of the traditional kind.
But the way for these armies was made easier by two new factors in warfare: air power and modern propaganda, or psychological warfare. Air bombardment, at least until the atom bomb at Hiroshima, was never the perfect weapon that the prophets of air power had predicted.
But as the superior Allied air power grew and was used systematically to destroy enemy capabilities in critical materials like ball bearings, machine tools, locomotives, and oil—and as American airplanes dropped incendiary bombs on the relatively flimsy Japanese cities—air power did much to destroy the Axis will to resist. Intelligence achievements were also important: By 1943 the British were systematically reading most highlevel German coded messages, and the Americans were breaking Japanese military and diplomatic ciphers.
The attack by land on Germans, and Italy was pressed in three directions—by the Soviets from the east, and by the British, French, Americans, and other Allies from the south and west. In the south the Allies crossed from North Africa to Sicily in a successful amphibious operation (July 1943) within two months of their final victory in Tunisia. From Sicily they moved in another six weeks to the mainland of Italy at Salerno and Anzio.
These landings were costly, and troops were pinned down for weeks. German forces kept the Italian campaign going for longer than the Allies anticipated, but the Allied victories of the summer of 1943 were sufficient to put Italy out of the war. Top officers of the Italian army and others close to the king, helped by dissident fascist leaders, engineered a coup in July that brought about the fall and imprisonment of Mussolini and resulted in some negotiations between the Allies and the new government headed by Marshal Pietro Badoglio (1871-1956).
But the Germans were unwilling to abandon their Italian defensive line. A detachment of German troops rescued Mussolini in September 1943 and set him up as the head of a “fascist republic” in the North—a post in which he continued until he was executed by partisans in April 1945. In June 1944 the Allies succeeded, after
particularly severe fighting around Monte Cassino, in breaking through to Rome, which was declared an open city, and by August they were in Florence.
They could not effectively move further north, however, until the final collapse of the Germans in their heartland early in 1945. At a conference of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in Teheran in December 1943, the decision was made to open the long-delayed second front. The landings in France began on “D-Day,” June 6, 1944. The Allies’ choice of the Normandy coast surprised the German highcommand, who believed the landings would come farther north and east along the English Channel.
In their four years of occupation the Germans had fortified the French coastline, but the Allies had also used those four years to study, invent, and plan. Allied landing craft, amphibious trucks, naval and air support, artificial harbors, and a wellorganized supply system gained a beachhead for the allied land forces. From this beachhead, a little over a month after D-Day, they were able to break out at Avranches and sweep the Germans back across the Seine in a great flanking movement led by the American general George S. Patton (1885-1945).
A long-planned auxiliary landing on the French Mediterranean coast, to be followed by a march north up the Rhone-SaOne valleys, was launched on August 15, 1944, and met very little opposition. Everywhere the French Resistance movement welcomed the liberating forces, some of whom were heirs of the Free French of 1940. Paris, a symbol as well as a place, was liberated toward the end of August.
The Germans were beaten back but not disorganized. In July 1944 conservative elements, both military and civilian, attempted to assassinate Hitler to pave the way for negotiations. But Hitler survived the bomb intended for him, executed the plotters, and retained a firm grip on the German state by killing five thousand people suspected of complicity. The Allies were encouraged by their rapid successes in July and August to try to destroy the German armies before winter or cut them off from their homeland; however, Patton’s mechanized troops ran out of fuel. The new German pilotless planes and rocket-propelled missiles limited Allied use of Antwerp as a port of supply, and by late autumn the Germans had retired in good order to their own Siegfried line.
Though falling back, the Germans hoped, as in World War I. to prevent an assault on Germany itself. They still had an army of 10 million in the field. Hitler was pressing the development of the jet plane, which he hoped could still save Germany. To buy another winter, in late September 1944 he called up the last reserves, ordering all able-bodied males between sixteen and sixty into the service.
Not wishing to give Hitler the winter, Eisenhower ordered an airborne assault to leap over German defensive lines on the lower Rhine, but plans for a linked ground-air attack went badly, and the airborne army had to be rescued. The Allied offensive, having overreached its supplies, was now bogged down, and Hitler ordered a final counteroffensive sweep through the Ardennes forest on Antwerp, the Allies’ supply port. A German armored attack on December 16, with the advantage of fog, snow, systematic infiltration, and complete surprise, threatened to throw the Allies back in the Battle of the Bulge, just short of the German border, and completely surrounded an American airborne division at Bastogne. As the weather cleared, Allied air strikes and German fuel shortages stopped the German counter-advance.
Germany now had no more men or supplies to throw into the battle. German oil production had been given a deathblow, and tanks had to be hauled to the front by oxen. The catastrophic technique of firebombing was being used. The British put Dresden to the torch in a massive incendiary raid on February 13-14, 1945, with the loss of 135,000 lives, many of them refugees pouring in from the east, running from the Soviet advance.
The Soviets had been pushing on relentlessly ever since Stalingrad. In the campaign of 1943, while the Western Allies were busy in Italy, the Soviets won back most of their own territories that had been lost in 1941 and 1942. They kept up the pressure during the winter and started an early spring campaign in the south.
By the autumn of 1944 the Soviets had been able to sweep across Romania and Bulgaria to a juncture with the 1L.goslav communist guerrillas under their leader Marshal Josip Broz, called Tito (1892-1980), and were ready for the attack on Hungary. In the center and north, they had recovered all their own territory and were ready to attack Germany across Poland from the east. Poland, caught between the advancing Soviets and the retreating Germans, was devastated.
In August the provisional government of Poland in London ordered a mass uprising in Warsaw. The battle within Warsaw continued until October, when the Germans at last succeeded in crushing it, at the cost of more than 200,000 Polish casualties. The Soviets, on the outskirts of the city, did not intervene, waiting for the Polish Resistance to be destroyed so that they might create their own collaborators. This was the last German victory.
The rapid conclusion of the battle of Germany followed. The Soviets had not stopped for winter but had pressed on through Poland to menace Berlin early in March. The Western Allies broke through the Siegfried line in February, crossed the Rhine, and entered the heart of Germany. Early in February 1945, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt held another summit conference, this time at Yalta in the Crimea, and confirmed final plans for the conquest of Germany.
It was plain that the Germans could not hold out for long. The Allied planners wanted to settle peacefully which areas of Germany each of them would occupy and govern after the German defeat. The decision was reached to give the Soviets the honor of taking Berlin, a decision that, in effect, confirmed their hold on Poland as well. At the time this view seemed to recognize the fact that during the two years of successful offensive against the Germans, the Soviets had pinned down many more German divisions than had the Western Allies.
Stalin further demanded that Germany pay $20 billion in reparations, with half the sum to go to the war-torn Soviet Union. The Soviets fought their way into a Berlin already pulverized by the air power of the Western Allies. Hitler and his former mistress shot themselves in his bunker suite, and their bodies were covered with gasoline and burned.
The war Hitler had unleashed in Europe killed 17 million soldiers and 18 million civilians at the lowest extreme. No European war in history had been so destructive, so corrosive to the doctrine of progress and to the concept of human beings as rational. As fuller details of the war, suppressed by censors during the heat of battle, became known to the public, the sense of elation in victory was also seriously compromised by the awareness of how unpredictable and how devastating war had become.
The Allied advance into Germany had revealed for the first time the full horror of Nazi treatment of slave laborers from conquered lands, of political opponents, of homosexuals, and of peoples styled “inferiorby Nazi ideology, in particular Jews, Poles, and Gypsies. One after another the concentration camps were liberated in Germany, Austria, and Poland, and the names of Auschwitz, Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Nordhausen. Mauthausen, and others, came to be associated with a savage war of genocide directed especially against the Jews.
Hitler’s “new world order” had brought with it the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of Jewish life in central Europe. as Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, applied modern technology to achieve “the Final Solution,” the extinction of Jews in order to end “the Jewish problem.” Near Auschwitz, in Poland, upwards of 2 million people were killed in gas chambers and crematoria in under three years, with twelve thousand executed in a single day. Others died in medical experiments, from starvation, and from firing squads armed with machine guns. By the end of the war between 6 and 7 million Jews had been slaughtered in the Holocaust. Jewish life and culture had, in large measure, ceased to exist in Austria, Germany, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and the Ukraine.
The effects of the Holocaust were devastating. Efforts to cover up, account for, or explain away such monstrous behavior would corrode political and social life for generations. The nations that received Jewish immigrants—Britain, the United States, Canada, and others—benefited enormously. Displaced Jews, and Zionists who had long dreamed of a homeland in Palestine, would create a new Jewish state, Israel, leading to a state of almost constant undeclared war in the Near and Middle East. The diaspora of the Jews would enrich new societies in ways the racist theories of Hitler could never have imagined.
After the war many people would ask why Germans who knew of the systematic killing of Jews had not protested it; why the Soviets, as they moved into Poland, had not stopped it; why the Western Allies had not made them early targets of liberation; why the pope had not spoken out; or why the Jews themselves had not organized more systematic resistance within the camps. There is little agreement on these questions, though little disagreement about the magnitude of the deaths and the importance of the questions those deaths give rise to.
On May 8, 1945, Churchill and Harry S Truman (1884-1972)—who had become the American president on Roosevelt’s death that April—announced the end of German resistance, the day of victory in Europe, V-E Day. It was symbolic of difficulties to come that Stalin was offended because the Western Allies had accepted a formal surrender at Reims in France. He chose to announce separately, on the Soviet Union’s part, the final victory over Germany, and not until the next day.