Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Allies Triumph

Operation OverlordAfter the Battle of Kursk, the last lingering doubt about the Soviet forces was whether they could conduct a successful summer offensive.
It was dispelled in the first week of August 1943, when slashing attacks hit the German line north and west of Kharkov. On August 12 Hitler ordered work started on an east wall to be built along the Narva River and Lakes Pskov and Peipus, behind Army Group North, and the Desna and Dnepr rivers, behind Army Groups Center and South. In the second half of the month, the Soviet offensive expanded south along the Donets River and north into the Army Group Center sector. On September 15 Hitler permitted Army Group South to retreat to the Dnepr River; otherwise it was likely to be destroyed. He also ordered everything in the area east of the Dnepr that could be of any use to the enemy to be hauled away, burned, or blown up. This scorched-earth policy, as it was called, could only be partially carried out before the army group crossed the river at the end of the month. Henceforth, that policy would be applied in all territory surrendered to the Russians. Behind the river, the German troops found no trace of an east wall, and they had to contend from the first with five Soviet bridgeheads.
The high west bank of the river was the best defensive line left in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet armies, under Zhukov and Vasilyevsky, fought furiously to prevent the Germans from gaining a foothold there. They expanded the bridgeheads, isolated a German army in the Crimea in October, took Kiev on November 6, and stayed on the offensive into the winter with hardly a pause. The Tehran ConferenceAt the end of November, Roosevelt and Churchill journeyed to Tehran for their first meeting with Stalin. The president and the prime minister had already approved, under the code name Overlord, a plan for a cross-channel attack. Roosevelt wholeheartedly favored executing Overlord as early in 1944 as the weather permitted. At Tehran, Churchill argued for giving priority to Italy and possible new offensives in the Balkans or southern France, but he was outvoted by Roosevelt and Stalin. Overlord was set for May 1944. After the meeting, the CCS recalled Eisenhower from the Mediterranean and gave him command of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), which was to organize and carry out Overlord. The Tehran conference marked the high point of the East-West wartime alliance. Stalin came to the meeting as a victorious war leader; large quantities of U.S. lend-lease aid were flowing into the Soviet Union through Murmansk and the Persian Gulf; and the decision on Overlord satisfied the long-standing Soviet demand for a second front. At the same time, strains were developing as the Soviet armies approached the borders of the smaller eastern European states. In May 1943 the Germans had produced evidence linking the USSR to the deaths of some 11,000 Polish officers found buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. Stalin had severed relations with the Polish exile government in London, and he insisted at Tehran, as he had before, that the postwar Soviet-Polish boundary would have to be the one established after the Polish defeat in 1939. He also reacted with barely concealed hostility to Churchill’s proposal of a British-American thrust into the Balkans. German Preparations for OverlordHitler expected an invasion of northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944, and he welcomed it as a chance to win the war. If he could throw the Americans and British off the beaches, he reasoned, they would not soon try again. He could then throw all of his forces, nearly half of which were in the west, against the USSR. In November 1943 he told the commanders on the eastern front that they would get no more reinforcements until after the invasion had been defeated. In January 1944 a Soviet offensive raised the siege of Leningrad and drove Army Group North back to the Narva River-Lake Peipus line. There the Germans found a tenuous refuge in the one segment of the east wall that had been to some extent fortified. On the south flank, successive offensives, the last in March and April, pushed the Germans in the broad stretch between the Pripyats Marshes and the Black Sea off of all but a few shreds of Soviet territory. The greater part of 150,000 Germans and Romanians in the Crimea died or passed into Soviet captivity in May after a belated sealift failed to get them out of Sevastopol. On the other hand, enough tanks and weapons had been turned out to equip new divisions for the west and replace some of those lost in the east; the air force had 40 percent more planes than at the same time a year earlier; and synthetic oil production reached its wartime peak in April 1944. The Normandy InvasionOn June 6, 1944, D day, the day of invasion for Overlord, the U.S. First Army, under Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and the British Second Army, under Gen. Miles C. Dempsey (1896–1969), established beachheads in Normandy, on the French channel coast. The German resistance was strong, and the footholds for Allied armies were not nearly as good as they had expected. Nevertheless, the powerful counterattack with which Hitler had proposed to throw the Allies off the beaches did not materialize, neither on D day nor later. Enormous Allied air superiority over northern France made it difficult for Rommel, who was in command on the scene, to move his limited reserves. Moreover, Hitler became convinced that the Normandy landings were a feint and the main assault would come north of the Seine River. Consequently, he refused to release the divisions he had there and insisted on drawing in reinforcements from more distant areas. By the end of June, Eisenhower had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles ashore in Normandy. The Soviet Reconquest of BelorussiaThe German eastern front was quiet during the first three weeks of June 1944. Hitler fully expected a Soviet summer offensive, which he and his military advisers believed would come on the south flank. Since Stalingrad the Soviets had concentrated their main effort there, and the Germans thought Stalin would be eager to push into the Balkans, the historic object of Russian ambition. Although Army Group Center was holding Belorussia—the only large piece of Soviet territory still in German hands—and although signs of a Soviet buildup against the army group multiplied in June, they did not believe it was in real danger. On June 22–23, four Soviet army groups, two controlled by Zhukov and two by Vasilyevsky, hit Army Group Center. Outnumbered by about ten to one at the points of attack, and under orders from Hitler not to retreat, the army group began to disintegrate almost at once. By July 3, when Soviet spearheads coming from the northeast and southeast met at Minsk, the Belorussian capital, Army Group Center had lost two-thirds of its divisions. By the third week of the month, Zhukov’s and Vasilyevsky’s fronts had advanced about 300 km (about 200 mi). The Soviet command celebrated on July 17 with a day-long march by 57,000 German prisoners, including 19 generals, through the streets of Moscow. The Plot Against HitlerA group of German officers and civilians concluded in July that getting rid of Hitler offered the last remaining chance to end the war before it swept onto German soil from two directions. On July 20 they tried to kill him by placing a bomb in his headquarters in East Prussia. The bomb exploded, wounding a number of officers—several fatally—but inflicting only minor injuries on Hitler. Afterward, the GESTAPO (q.v.) hunted down everyone suspected of complicity in the plot. One of the suspects was Rommel, who committed suicide. Hitler emerged from the assassination attempt more secure in his power than ever before.


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