Central Europe

– Central Europe –

By the early spring of 1945 events favored the Allied forces in Europe. The Anglo-Americans had by January turned back the Germans’ December counterattack in the Ardennes, in the famous Battle of the Bulge. The failure of this last great German offensive exhausted much of the Third Reich’s remaining combat strength, leaving it ill-prepared to resist the final Allied campaigns in Europe. Additional losses in the Rhineland further weakened the German Army, leaving shattered remnants of units to defend the east bank of the Rhine. By mid-March the western Allies had pushed to the Rhine along most of the front, had seized an intact bridge at Remagen, and had even established a small bridgehead on the river’s east bank.

In the east the Soviets had overrun most of Poland, pushed into Hungary and eastern Czechoslovakia, and temporarily halted at the German border on the Oder-Neisse line. These rapid advances on the Eastern Front destroyed additional veteran German combat units and severely limited Hitler’s ability to reinforce his Rhine defenses. Thus, as the western Allies completed their preparations for the final drive into the heart of Germany, victory seemed within sight.

The First Army’s drive from the Remagen bridgehead began with a breakout before dawn on 25 March. German Field Marshal Walter Model, whose Army Group B was charged with the defense of the Ruhr, had deployed his Hoops heavily along the east-west Sieg River south of Cologne, thinking that the Americans would attack directly north from the Remagen bridgehead. Instead the First Army struck eastward, heading for Giessen and the Lahn River, 65 miles beyond Remagen, before turning north toward Paderborn and a linkup with the Ninth Army. All three corps of the First Army participated in the breakout, which on the first day employed five infantry and two armored divisions. The VII Corps, on the left, had the hardest going due to the German concentration north of the bridgehead, yet its armored columns managed to advance 12 miles beyond their line of departure. The III Corps in the center did not commit its armor on the first day of the breakout, but still made a gain of 4 miles. The V Corps on the right advanced 5 to 8 miles, incurring minimal casualties.

By 1 April, when the trap closed around the Germans in the Ruhr, their fate was sealed. In a matter of days they would all be killed or captured. On 4 April, the day it shifted to Bradley’s control, the Ninth Army began its attack south toward the Ruhr River. In the south, the First Army’s III Corps launched its strike on the 5th, and the XVIII Airborne Corps joined in on the 6th, both pushing generally northward. German resistance, initially rather determined’ dwindled rapidly. By 13 April the Ninth Army had cleared the northern part of the pocket, while elements of the XVIII Airborne Corps’ 8th Infantry Division reached the southern bank of the Ruhr, splitting the southern section of the pocket in two. Thousands of prisoners were being taken every day; from 16-18 April, when all opposition ended, German troops surrendered in droves throughout the region. The final tally of prisoners taken in the Ruhr reached 325,000, far beyond anything the Americans had anticipated. Tactical commanders hastily enclosed huge open fields with barbed wire creating makeshift prisoner of war camps, where the inmates awaited the end of the war and their chance to return home. Also looking forward to going home, tens of thousands of freed forced laborers and Allied prisoners of war further strained the American logistical system.

Meanwhile, the remaining Allied forces north, south, and east of the Ruhr had been adjusting their lines in preparation for the final advance through Germany. Under the new concept, Bradley’s 12th Army Group would make the main effort, with Hodges’ First Army in the center heading east for about 130 miles toward the city of Leipzig and the Elbe River. To the north, the Ninth Army’s XIX and XIII Corps would also drive for the Elbe, toward Magdeburg, about 65 miles north of Leipzig, although the army commander, General Simpson, hoped he would be allowed to go all the way to Berlin. To the south, Patton’s Third Army was to drive east to Chemnitz, about 40 miles southeast of Leipzig, but well short of the Elbe, and then turn southeast into Austria. At the same time, General Devers’ 6th Army Group would move south through Bavaria and the Black Forest to Austria and the Alps, ending the threat of any Nazi last-ditch stand there.

As was the case throughout the campaign, the German will to fight was sporadic and unpredictable during the drive to the Elbe-Mulde line. Some areas were stoutly defended while in others the enemy surrendered after little more than token resistance. By sending armored spearheads around hotly contested areas, isolating them for reduction by subsequent waves of infantry, Eisenhower’s forces maintained their eastward momentum. A German holdout force of 70,000 in the Harz Mountains, 40 miles north of Erfurt, was neutralized in this way, as were the towns of Erfurt, Jena, and Leipzig. While the defenders attempted to slow the 12th Army Group’s drive, never was there any doubt about the ultimate outcome. The German nation was making its final efforts in the face of an opponent which had never been more potent, and in the end the sweep to the Elbe-Mulde line merely gave further testimony to the power and mobility of Eisenhower’s forces.

Every unit along the Elbe-Mulde line was anxious to be the first to meet the Red Army. By the last week of April it was well known that the Soviets were close, and dozens of American patrols were probing beyond the east bank of the Mulde, hoping to meet them. Elements of the First Army’s V Corps made first contact. At 1130 on 25 April a small patrol from the 69th Infantry Division met a lone Russian horseman in the village of Leckwitz. Several other patrols from the 69th had similar encounters later that day, and on 26 April the division commander, Maj. Gen. Emil F. Reinhardt, met Maj. Gen. Vladimir Rusakov of the Russian 58th Guards Infantry Division at Torgau in the first official link-up ceremony.

By the end of April the Third Reich’s twilight was turning to night. Its armies in tatters, Germany retained only a small fraction of the territory it had conquered a few years before. Of the land still under Nazi control almost none was actually in Germany. With his escape route to the south severed by the 12th Army Group’s eastward drive and Berlin surrounded by the Soviets, Adolf Hitler committed suicide on 30 April, leaving to his successor, Admiral Karl Doenitz, the task of capitulation. After attempting to strike a deal whereby he would surrender only to the western Allies-a proposal which was summarily rejected-on 7 May Doenitz granted his representative, General Alfred Jodl, permission to effect a complete surrender on all fronts. The appropriate documents were signed on the same day and became effective on 8 May.

Despite scattered resistance from a few isolated units, the war in Europe was over.

Source: US Army Green Book “Central Europe”