History Podcasts

How were middle ranking Nazis known to the allies before the end of the war?

How were middle ranking Nazis known to the allies before the end of the war?


We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

According to Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding near the end of WW2 the allies created a large database… known as CROWCASS, of war criminals which they intended to target once victory was achieved.

Rudolf Hoess was listed with his name spelt slightly wrong, and his age and other details slightly off. However the list did identify him correctly as commandant at Auschwitz.

How easy would it have been for allied agents in in Berlin to obtain this kind of information? Were Nazi "H.R." type records within allied reach - via spies - during the war? Presumably Auschwitz was a fairly secret project and you couldn't just thumb a public directory or follow the news in order to learn the personal details of Auschwitz's commandant.


CROWCASS was initiated after the war was essentially won and the Allies had the resources of Germany and everyone in it at their disposal. They had hundreds of thousands of people in prisons and camps and gigantic interrogation teams. German officers and leaders were interned in special prisons and subjected to round the clock interrogation. Many German files, archives and records had been captured and were used to systematically identify Germans who had been in units associated with war crimes.

The British, in particular, have a long history of assembling intelligence files on people and organizations and throughout the war made comprehensive efforts to profile and itemize individual members of the Nazi organizations that they considered in any way significant. It was actually the British who mainly created, operated and developed CROWCASS. The director in charge of the CROWCASS effort was a British spy named Lieutenant Colonel Richard Frederick Luck.


If there were Allied spies in Berlin during the war, they would have been seeking information of more immediate value. The CROWCASS lists were not finished until 1947, so there would have been plenty of time to use German records after the war.

One source that may have contributed was the card-index at Bletchley Park. That indexed every name, place, ship, and anything else mentioned in any decoded German signal: those decodes were what was called "Ultra" intelligence. Given the name of a concentration camp, for example, it was easy to look up everyone who'd ever been associated with it in a signal. Source: Station X, by Michael Smith.


There was lots of spying and surveillance being done by the military, producing copious amounts of often quite mundane data that was then analyzed for its military usefulness. All it took was to make it someone's job to look through that same data for evidence of war crimes.


I think your answer is best illustrated with examples on a case-by-case basis.

Sometimes the "middle-managers" would be known to Allied intelligence based on direct information gathering schemes. Other times some persons might be known to the individuals involved. For example, many of the events we'd call war crimes had witnesses- perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Sometimes these individuals had the chance to speak out about their experiences. Lastly, the Germans helped in their own way as well: the Wehrmacht, the SS, and the Gestapo (like any other organizations) produced tremendous amounts of paperwork which could be examined and understood if captured by intelligence officers. They even produced paperwork that documented war crimes, because some such actions were sometimes ordered by higher authorities, and those orders leave a trail of documentation.

A good example to look into would be the investigation of the Stalag Luft III murders. Stalag Luft III was a prisoner of war camp for Allied aviators. The prisoners there conducted a series of breakout attempts, the most famous one documented in the book The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill. This event resulted in 76 escapees, of whom 73 were recaptured and 50 were subsequently murdered as a warning to other prisoners not to attempt further breakouts.

The investigation into these murders has been throughly documented. This event is somewhat unique in that a special investigative task force was tasked with solving just these murders, but the kind of investigation that ensued has common themes with others that occured during and after the war.

I have only read the short description given in The Great Escape, but according to the wiki page above there are whole books and television programs about the investigation. My recollection about the investigation (which is inevitably going to be somewhat wrong) was that:

  1. The Allies first knew the murders had taken place because the remaining prisoners at Stalg Luft III were informed that 50 of their 76 comrades had been killed attempting to escape. This seemed outrageously high to the prisoners.

  2. The prisoner's suspcions were further confirmed when they were delivered the cremated remains of their escaped comrades. These urns were normally supposed to have the place of cremation as well as the name of the person, but some urns did not have locations and some of the urns that did have names were inconsistent with the official story they were told.

  3. The circumstances they were given- that all 50 escapees were shot while running away after being ordered to stop- made little sense. These were men who fully expected not to make it back to neutral or allied territory (one of the primary aims of the escape attempt was to tie up German units who would otherwise be contributing to the war effort). Once the gig was up, they would be expected to surrender specifically to avoid being shot and killed.

  4. After the war captured documents had shown that Hitler had ordered the murder of a large number of prisoners as retaliation for the escape attempt. These orders were passed onto Himmler, who in turn passed orders onto the local Gestapo branches in the areas where the escapees were caught. This provided a paper trail that fingered many of the invidiuals involved with the murders.

  5. During the investigation, the Allies found eye-witnesses who could corroborate when and where the recaptured prisoners were last seen alive, and in some cases who they were last seen with. These hints were critical in finding the right people to interrogate.

  6. The big break in the case came when a captured Gestapo officer was caught in a lie during many difficult interrogations. He was pretending to be someone who he was not. Once caught, the Allies knew he must have knowledge of some of these events, and he ended up fingering other members of the Gestapo who had been involved. Armed with this knowledge the investigators could then track down these other individuals- some of whom were still in custody and others who were still in Germany or the surrounding countries- and in turn get more confessions. The Gestapo had issued many of its people with fake identities to use in the event that Germany lost the war, so a difficult part of this investigation was matching who they already had in custody with their true identities.

Databases such as the one you cite would have been useful tools for corroborating the existence of individuals and their positions within the German power structure, but there was a lot of old-fashioned detective work that went into bringing German war criminals to justice.


The Quiet Death of a Nazi

Spiegel conducts last and only interview with Nazi Officer, Martin Sandberger.

April 15, 2010 -- He must have been convinced that no one wanted to find him anymore. His name, Dr. Martin Sandberger, was printed for all to see on the mailbox next to the gray door of his apartment in a Stuttgart retirement home, until he died on March 30, 2010.

For years, amateur historians on the Web noted that a man named Martin Sandberg, born August 17, 1911, was the "highest ranking member of the SS known to be alive." But Sandberger's whereabouts were unknown to the public, until SPIEGEL tracked him down just before his death.

This is the chronology of a search in the winter of 2009/2010, and of an encounter with the last major war criminal to have worked in the SS's murdering machinery.

Hiding in Plain Sight

In May 1945, when the Third Reich was in ruins, Sandberger was arrested. He was a colonel and model pupil of SS leader Heinrich Himmler a US military court subsequently convicted him of mass murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. In 1951, his sentence was reduced to life in prison, but he was released seven years later. After that, he disappeared.

There has been no word from Sandberger since then, nor do any more recent images exist of the man. The last available photo, taken in 1948, depicts him as a sullen-looking defendant during his war crimes trial in Nuremberg.

And then there it was, 60 years later -- a nameplate in a Stuttgart nursing home. Is it possible that someone like Sandberger, guilty of the mass murder of Jews, gypsies and communists, could have disappeared for half a century, undisturbed and unquestioned, in the middle of a country where there are 270 accredited journalists at the trial of John Demjanjuk, a presumed guard at the Sobibor death camp?

"What, he's still alive?" says a stunned prosecutor in Stuttgart, after typing the search term "Sandberger" into her computer and coming up with an impressive list of reference numbers for closed investigations and witness summons in murder cases. Sandberger's address was always known to the authorities. It's just that no one had looked for him in almost 40 years.

And when new evidence came available after the fall of the Iron Curtain, no one tried to reopen any case against Sandberger.

The door of the apartment on the ground floor of the retirement home opens onto an old man sitting in an armchair. He sits near the window, surrounded by bound collections of Swabian folk tales, black-and-white photos of his ancestors and an old television set.

The man who appears in old photos as a dashing SS colonel with a prominent chin and imperious gaze is now in the last few weeks of his life, a thin, fragile old man. Sandberger, who is 98 at the time of the interview, doesn't hear well, doesn't see well and complains about pain in his legs. He says: "I'm too old. I don't want to do it anymore."

It's obvious, however, that his mind is still active. Where was Sandberger during the last half century? Does he still remember the images from the war: the march to the East at the rear of the northern army group, the years he spent between the Baltics and Russia, the assault boat on Lake Peipus, the Jews kneeling in front of freshly dug pits?

Sandberger closes his eyes, threatening to fall asleep at any moment. "He was doing very well just now," says the woman who is keeping him company on this afternoon. A sudden feeling of weakness, presumably. "Just keep on asking questions," she says.

Sandberger opens his eyes again and says, in a squeaky voice and with a strong Swabian accent: "What I remember is completely irrelevant."

A Poster Child of the Elite

Historians say that Sandberger's death represents the closing of the last door into the shadowy realm of the SS state. In his standard work Die Generation des Unbedingten (An Uncompromising Generation), historian Michael Wildt describes Sandberger, a brilliant lawyer, as a poster child of the elite, academically trained type of perpetrator who, acting on orders from the Reich Security Head Office, organized systematic mass murder in the east -- as the spearheads of genocide. "They weren't the little wheels in an anonymous machinery of extermination. Instead, they were the ones who designed the concepts and built and operated the machines that made the murder of millions of people possible."

Sandberger was the last living member of the leadership of the special commandos in Himmler's murdering system. He used to appear, whether in Tallinn or Verona, as a demigod in the field-gray uniform of the SS. A total of 5,643 executions were carried out under his command on Estonian soil during the first year alone of the Nazi occupation. At the height of the power bestowed upon him by Hitler, all it took was Sandberger's signature to order the execution, behind the Eastern Front, of what he called "a subject of absolutely no value to the ethnic community."

In the Christian retirement home in Stuttgart, however, Sandberger expects compassion. He pays dearly for acts of charity: A two-and-a-half-room apartment in the home costs him a base rent of €2,519 ($3,375) a month. Nursing care costs extra. For residents who are still sufficiently lively, the facility offers a sauna, physical therapy, shopping sprees and three-course meals, including delicious food from the "Land of Swabian Pockets."

Sandberger has meals brought to his room. The physical therapist also visits, at about three in the afternoon. Otherwise he reads with a magnifying glass or, once a week, allows himself the luxury of a reader. The woman usually reads him uplifting passages from the Bible.


Founder of the Gestapo in 1933, Minister of the Economic Four-Year Plan, Reichsmarschall (senior to all other Wehrmacht commanders), named Hitler’s successor in 1941, deputy to Hitler in all of his offices.

A former ace fighter pilot in World War I, he received the Blue Max and was commander of the fighter wing that included Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron.


Will We Ever Know Why Nazi Leader Rudolf Hess Flew to Scotland in the Middle of World War II?

On the night of May 10, 1941, a Scottish farmer named David McLean found a German Messerschmitt airplane ablaze in his field and a parachutist who identified himself as Captain Alfred Horn. McLean's mum was soon serving him a cup of tea by the cottage fireside, but their surprise guest was no ordinary Luftwaffe pilot. Incredibly, he was Rudolf Hess, a longtime Hitler loyalist, to say the least. Hess joined the Nazi party in 1920, stood with his friend Adolf Hitler at the Beer Hall Putsch, and served in Landsberg prison -- where he took dictation for much of Mein Kampf. As deputy Fuhrer, Hess was positioned behind only Hermann Goering in the succession hierarchy of the Nazi regime that had Europe firmly under the heel of its jackboot.

Hess's appearance on Scottish soil, a self-described mission of peace just weeks before Hitler would launch his ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union, was one of the war's strangest incidents. The search for explanations began on the morning after and has roiled on now for 75 years, spawning theories both intriguing (World War II might have ended differently) and bizarre (the man wasn't Hess at all but a body double.) The truth is likely as interesting as any of the fantasies—but it's still not entirely certain what happened 75 years ago.

The fuselage from Hess' plane, now on view at the Imperial War Museum (Wikimedia Commons) A photo taken of Hess plane where it crashed in Scotland (Wikimedia Commons)

The Hess flight was remarkable in itself. He left an airfield near Munich in a small Messerschmitt fighter-bomber a little before 6 p.m., flying up the Rhine and across the North Sea. Hess displayed considerable skill by navigating such a course alone, using only charts and maps, on a foggy dark night over largely unfamiliar terrain—all while  avoiding being shot down by British air defenses. By 10:30, Hess was over Scotland, out of fuel, and forced to bail out just 12 miles from his destination.

That unlikely site was Dungavel House, home of the Duke of Hamilton. Hess hoped to make contact with one of the highly placed British figures who, unlike Churchill, were willing to make peace with the Nazis on Hitler's terms. Hess believed that Hamilton headed a faction of such people and immediately asked his captors to be taken to him. But Hess was misinformed. Hamilton, who wasn't home that night but on duty commanding an RAF air base, was committed to his country and to its fight against Germany.    

The unlikely envoy's mission quickly took a turn for the worse. When granted a meeting with Hamilton the next day Hess's pleas fell on deaf ears. Worse for Hess, he denied from the start that Hitler knew anything of his mission, which meant that the British afforded him none of the diplomatic respect to which he thought he'd be entitled. Instead he was imprisoned, and by the night of June 16, the obvious failure of his mission left Hess so mentally shattered that he attempted suicide by hurling himself down a flight of stairs.

Hess spent the war in British hands, confined in various locales including (briefly) the Tower of London and a military hospital at which he was even allowed guarded drives in the country. He was visited frequently by intelligence officers eager for secrets and by psychiatrists eager to plumb the Nazi mind—which in Hess's case increasingly showed serious signs of mental illness. The psychiatric examinations were rooted less in concern for Hess's mental health than in the hope that this fanatically devoted Nazi could provide them valuable insights about how the criminals ruling Germany, including Hitler himself, thought.

Hess was transferred back to Nuremberg for the post-war trials in October, 1945, where he escaped the hangman but was sentenced to life in prison. He spent the rest of his long life, 46 years, as Prisoner Number 7 in Spandau where he lingered long after the other Nazis were freed. Hess was the facility's only prisoner for more than 20 years, his term ending only when the 93-year-old was found hanging from a lamp cord in a garden building in August 1987. The suicide was denounced as a murder by those, including Hess's own son, who suspected he'd been silenced.

But Hess's death didn't end the questions. Had he really come alone? Had someone sent him to Scotland or had someone sent for him?

News of Hess's flight was a bombshell in Berlin, and Nazi authorities quickly moved to disassociate him from the regime. The German public was quickly told that Hess suffered from mental disturbance and hallucinations.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist who knew much about such tactics, feared that the British would use Hess as part of a devastating campaign targeting German morale. He worried in his private diary on May 14 that the German public was “rightly asking how such a fool could be second to the Fuhrer.” 

But the furor gradually died down. Though Hess held a powerful title, his actual influence in the Nazi hierarchy had waned dramatically by 1941, so much so that some have speculated that his flight was born of hopes to regain Hitler's favor by delivering him an agreement with the British. Instead his departure simply consolidated the power of his ambitious and manipulative former deputy Martin Bormann.

Yet a persistent theory has suggested that Hess's ill-fated peace mission was actually carried out with Hitler's knowledge—and the understanding that he'd be disavowed as insane if it failed.

In 2011, Matthias Uhl of the German Historical Institute Moscow unearthed some purported evidence for this claim. Hess's adjutant, Karlheinz Pintsch, had handed Hitler an explanatory letter from Hess on the morning after the flight, and Uhl discovered a report featuring Pintsch's description of that encounter in the State Archive of the Russian Federation.

Pintsch claimed that the Hitler received his report calmly. The flight occurred "by prior arrangement with the English,” Pintsch wrote, adding that Hess was tasked to "use all means at his disposal to achieve, if not a German military alliance with England against Russia, at least the neutralization of England."

This version aligns well with Soviet claims dating back to Stalin himself that British intelligence services had been touch with Hess and duped him into the flight. In fact they may align too well, for the statement was produced during the decade when Pintsch was an often-tortured Soviet prisoner and its language smacks of Cold War propaganda terminology—suggesting the Soviets coerced the version from Pintsch.

Indeed other witnesses reported a very different reaction from Hitler. Inner circle Nazi Albert Speer, waiting outside Hitler's office during the meeting, described the Nazi leader's reaction as “an inarticulate, almost animal out-cry” of rage.  “What bothered him was that Churchill might use the incident to pretend to Germany's allies that Hitler was extending a peace feeler,” Speer wrote in Inside the Third Reich. “'Who will believe me when I say that Hess did not fly there in my name, that the whole thing is not some sort of intrigue behind the backs of my allies? Japan might even alter her policy because of this,'” he quotes Hitler, while also noting Hitler's hope that Hess might luckily crash and die in the North Sea.

Speer discussed the flight with Hess himself 25 years later when both were incarcerated in Spandau. “Hess assured me in all seriousness that the idea had been inspired in him in a dream by supernatural forces,” he said. "We will guarantee England her empire in return she will give us a free hand in Europe." That was the message he took to England— without managing to deliver it. It had also been one of Hitler's recurrent formulas before and occasionally even during the war.”

British historian Peter Padfield explores the “British duped Hess” theory in Hess, Hitler & Churchill. As with much of the Hess affair definitive evidence is lacking but a few tantalizing possibilities exist. Padfield has unearthed intriguing nuggets from period sources: the diary of a well-placed Czech exile who'd viewed a report suggesting an English trap, reports of Soviet spies who'd uncovered now untraceable evidence of the same. In 2010 the son of a Finnish intelligence agent who'd been on Britain's payroll claimed that his father was involved in the plot.

The official records that have been made available, perhaps not surprisingly, reveal no such role for the British intelligence services. The most plausible motivation for such a plot, were it ever to have existed, was that the British hoped it would convince Hitler to scrap or at least postpone an invasion of Britain a peace settlement would make such a drastic and dangerous step unnecessary and free him to focus on the battle against his most hated enemy—the Soviet Union.

MI5 files declassified in 2004 suggest that Hess did have his adviser Albrecht Haushofer pen a letter to Hamilton in 1940, suggesting that a neutral site meeting could advance secret peace talks. British intelligence intercepted that letter, investigated (and exonerated) Hamilton for being part of a pro-peace Nazi plot, and seriously considered the possibility of replying to set up a double-cross.

But they dismissed the scheme and simply let the matter drop without ever knowing that Hess was the man behind the communication, the official files suggest.

However those files are far from complete. Some of the intelligence files on the Hess affair are known to have been 'weeded,' or destroyed. Whatever information they held is lost—but other classified files remain and have yet to be released.

Conspiracy theorists suspect that the documents could contain not only transcripts of interrogations but correspondence between Hess and other figures including George VI. But Douglas-Hamilton, who has written his own book on the Hess affair, suspects they won't embarrass prominent Britons who really did want to deal with Hess but rather they'll likely confirm the standard story.

“The evidence shows Britain had an honorable record in fighting the Third Reich and did not swerve from that position,” he told The Scotsman. “Excessive secrecy with regard to the release of relevant material has, and can serve to, obscure that reality.”

In recent years a few other secret files have emerged. In 2013 a U.S. auction house offered an astounding folder of documents, still marked top secret, some 300 pages that appear to have been authored by Hess himself during his wartime captivity and carried with him to the Trial of the Major War Criminals in Nuremberg. They had been missing ever since.

The files are shrouded in a Hollywood-style intrigue who got their hands on them, and how exactly, and why did they then simply give them away to the current seller for nothing via an anonymous phone call? But the papers themselves tend to dispel mysteries rather than raise them, and that’s assuming that the contents are genuine. The auction house made some scans and transcripts of them public for the sale, and it’s unclear if they ever changed hands. In one of the digitized documents, Hess described his interview with Hamilton on the morning after his flight in a passage that perhaps provides the best window into the workings of the mind that conceived this unusual attempt.

“The British cannot continue the war without coming to terms with Germany…By my coming to England, the British Government can now declare that they are able to have talks…convinced that the offer by the Fuhrer is genuine,” the files note.  

But the rulers of Great Britain were convinced of no such thing. Former Foreign Secretary Lord Simon, the highest-placed person known to have met Hess, interviewed him on June 10 a few days before his first suicide attempt. "Hess has come on his own initiative,” Simon wrote of the meeting. “He has not flown over on the orders, or with the permission or previous knowledge, of Hitler. It is a venture of his own.”

With that Hess was simply locked up for the rest of his long days, though Winston Churchill, writing in The Grand Alliance, claimed at least some distress at his fate.

“Whatever may be the moral guilt of a German who stood near to Hitler, Hess had, in my view, atoned for this by his completely devoted and frantic deed of lunatic benevolence,” he wrote. “He came to us of his own free will, and, though without authority, had something of the quality of an envoy. He was a medical and not a criminal case, and should be so regarded.”

RELATED: During his captivity Hess often suspected that his meals were being poisoned. Incredibly, food packets that he wrapped and sealed at Nuremberg for future analysis have been sitting in a Maryland basement for 70 years.


D-Day Generals: Allied Leaders of Operation Overlord

Born in Texas and reared in Kansas, Eisenhower graduated sixty-fifth in the West Point class of 1915. It was called ‘‘the class the stars fell on’’ including Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, sixty-one of the class’s 164 second lieutenants achieved general-officer rank during their careers, an astonishing 37.2 percent ratio.

Lieutenant Eisenhower was assigned to San Antonio, Texas, where he met Mamie Doud, whom he married in 1916. During World War I Eisenhower was largely engaged in training units of the U.S. Army’s nascent tank corps. However, his considerable administrative and political skills were soon noted, and he was promoted to major in 1920—a rank he held until 1936. ‘‘Ike’’ was first in his Command and Staff School class, and he was an early selectee for the Army War College. His supporters and contemporaries included leaders such as Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, Leonard T. Gerow, and George S. Patton.

Interwar assignments included duty in the Panama Canal Zone and France before joining MacArthur’s staff in Washington and the Philippines, where the former tanker and infantryman learned to fly. MacArthur said of Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower, ‘‘This is the best officer in the army’’ and predicted great things for him. Such praise from the megalomaniacal army chief of staff was almost unprecedented.

In 1940–41 Eisenhower commanded a battalion of the Third Infantry Division and served as division and corps staff officer. He was promoted to full colonel in March 1941, and as chief of staff of the Third Army he enhanced his reputation during extensive maneuvers involving nearly half a million troops in Louisiana. By year end he was a brigadier general— exceptional progress, considering that he had been a major for sixteen years.

In the War Plans Division, Eisenhower renewed his acquaintance with Marshall, then chief of staff, reporting to him on plans and operations. Within a few months Eisenhower pinned on his second star and was addressing joint operations with the navy and other Allied forces. The foundation was being laid for Eisenhower’s eventual appointment as supreme commander for the invasion of France.

Meanwhile, Eisenhower represented the United States during British planning for bringing American forces in the United Kingdom. In June 1942 Eisenhower was appointed to command U.S. Army forces in the European Theater of Operations, but almost immediately he moved to the Mediterranean to conduct offensives in North Africa and Sicily during 1942–43. There he gained greater knowledge of U.S. and Allied forces and personalities, including Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, Adm. Bertram Ramsay, and Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery.

As a lieutenant general, Eisenhower commanded the Allied invasion of French Morocco in November 1942, pursuing the campaign to completion six months later. By then he was a four-star general, directing the conquest of Sicily in the summer of 1943 and landings on the Italian mainland that summer and fall. He was appointed Allied supreme commander for Neptune-Overlord on Christmas Eve of 1943 and, after extensive briefings in Washington, he replaced Britain’s Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan at COSSAC, establishing SHAEF headquarters in London in January 1944. Many of the American and British commanders he had known in the Mediterranean assumed crucial roles in SHAEF, enhancing Anglo-American coordination.

Still, it was no easy task. Apart from Marshall (who had been promised the slot by President Roosevelt), Eisenhower may have been the only American who could have operated the sometimes testy coalition so well. (Assertions that the Allies might have fallen out except for Eisenhower’s acumen are gross exaggerations Britain was in no position to conduct the war alone.) Relations with Montgomery were particularly strained at times, but U.S. dominance in manpower and materiel required an American as theater commander. Though criticism was leveled at Eisenhower for his lack of combat experience and his highly political orientation, the results proved the wisdom of his selection. He was, after all, manager of perhaps the most political coalition of all time, involving as it did military and diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.

The original date for D-Day was 5 June 1944, but unseasonably rough weather forced a reconsideration. Eisenhower accepted the optimistic assessment of Group Captain J. M. Stagg, the chief meteorologist, who called for about thirty-six hours of decent weather over the sixth. Though concerned that the first landing waves would be isolated ashore with insufficient strength to repulse German counterattacks, Eisenhower felt justified in proceeding with Overlord. The order was issued at 0415 on 5 June, and at that point the process became irrevocable. ‘‘No one present disagreed,’’ Eisenhower recalled, ‘‘and there was a definite brightening of faces as, without a further word, each went off to his respective post to flash out to his command the messages that would set the whole host in motion.’’

Eisenhower toured the Normandy beaches shortly after D-Day, observing the massive movement of U.S., British, and Canadian forces driving inland. He was awed seeing firsthand the necessary logistical network, such as the Pluto Pipeline. He was accompanied by his son John, a newly minted second lieutenant who had graduated from West Point on 6 June.

As the AEF rolled across western Europe, Eisenhower had to balance Allied priorities rather than pursue American interests. Anglo-American fortunes under Eisenhower were almost uniformly successful, excepting the ill-fated airborne assault into Holland in September and the surprise German offensive in the Ardennes in December. At year’s end Eisenhower was promoted to General of the Army. He was Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 1944 and again received the accolade as president in 1959.

Despite his demonstrated success, Eisenhower’s overall strategy has been criticized. He seemed to lack a grasp of Blitzkrieg warfare—as practiced by such aggressive commanders as Joseph L. Collins and George S. Patton— in favor of a more measured approach. In focusing on destruction of the Wehrmacht, he missed opportunities to isolate major portions of the German army from Hitler and thereby hasten the end of the war.

Immediately following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Eisenhower was faced with Soviet intransigence in not releasing Allied POWs ‘‘liberated’’ from German prison camps. He made at least one effort to convince the Truman administration to press the matter with Premier Joseph Stalin, but upon being rebuffed, he acceded to his superiors’ wishes. Consequently, thousands of American and other POWs remained Soviet pawns and hostages. Similarly, Eisenhower was accused of knowing about maltreatment of German prisoners, but evidence indicates that the deaths of large numbers of them had been due to insufficient food and shelter rather than a policy of eradication.

Returning to the United States in June, Eisenhower was feted wherever he went. He became army chief of staff later that year, succeeding George Marshall, and oversaw demobilization of millions of soldiers. He retired in 1948, became president of Columbia University, and wrote a best-seller, Crusade in Europe.

Eisenhower’s retirement was short-lived. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, commanding NATO from 1950 to 1952. However, the politically astute supreme commander already had been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. He declared himself a Republican and was elected thirty-fourth president of the United States in 1952. His immediate priority was concluding an armistice in Korea, which was accomplished in July 1953 with back-channel threats to use nuclear weapons. However, as commander in chief he was again faced with prospects of communist refusal to repatriate all POWs, and he may have left as many as eight thousand U.S. and United Nations personnel in captivity because the Chinese and Soviets would never admit to holding them.

Eisenhower was reelected in 1956. He left office in January 1961, succeeded by another World War II veteran, John F. Kennedy. Finally retired in fact as in name, he lived in Pennsylvania and wrote three more books, including the popular At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends (1967).

Eisenhower was portrayed by Henry Grace in The Longest Day. Grace, who was cast in the part because of his resemblance to Ike, appeared in no other films, though he was a set designer for more than twenty years.

D-DAY GENERALS AND COMMANDERS: BERNARD LAW MONTGOMERY

The British field marshal and Allied ground forces commander for Operation Overlord. As an American military encyclopedia of the 1970s mildly noted of Montgomery, ‘‘Modesty was not among his virtues.’’

Born into the large family of an Anglican bishop, Montgomery adopted a strict regimen that remained with him throughout his life. A teetotaler and nonsmoker, he was always known as a hard worker in any endeavor. He married at thirty-nine but lost his wife after barely ten years, being left with a son.

Montgomery entered the army in 1908 and served in France, where he was badly wounded. The appalling waste of men and materiel he saw in the Great War profoundly affected his military philosophy, and he applied himself assiduously to improving the British army. He attended staff college and gained some notoriety by rewriting the infantry training manual.

At the outbreak of the second war Montgomery was a major general commanding the Third Infantry Division, evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940. Montgomery’s talents were well spent in training programs over the next two years. He combined physical conditioning with mental toughness and was considered ruthless in weeding out substandard officers. Though he was involved in planning the disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 1942, he was posted to the Middle East before it was executed.

Now a lieutenant general, Montgomery assumed command of the Eighth Army that summer and immediately made his presence known. He enjoyed mixing with his troops, believing that combat soldiers should see their commander as often as possible.

With the priceless benefit of almost complete intelligence on German operations, Montgomery began planning his first set-piece battle. In lateOctober 1942 the Eighth Army smashed through Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s lines in eastern Libya, winning a notable victory at El Alamein. However, the ‘‘Desert Fox’’ eluded destruction with a skillful withdrawal. Axis forces in North Africa were pursued over the next several months, before complete Allied victory was achieved in Tunisia during early 1943

Subsequently Montgomery participated in the Sicilian campaign, clashing with his American Allies more than once. His fabled rivalry with Gen. George Patton was born in Sicily, though the Briton was usually one echelon above Patton (i.e., corps to army, army to army group). Next Montgomery led the Eighth Army into Italy in September, remaining until year’s end, when he was recalled to Britain.

In preparation for D-Day, Montgomery was given a dual responsibility— command of Twenty-first Army Group and overall Allied land commander for Overlord. As in Africa, he made a point of visiting each major command so he could see and be seen by the troops. Despite his usual caution and frequent personality clashes, he shared Eisenhower’s decision to launch the invasion on the night of 5 June (see: D-Day Timeline: The Invasion of Normandy). The difference was that Eisenhower reluctantly did so ‘‘Monty’’ was eager to step off, regardless of weather.

Montgomery went ashore on D+2, directing his formations toward Caen, which he pledged to deliver in days but that resisted for a month. Meanwhile, Gen. Omar Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group with Patton’s new Third Army broke out of the landing area, beginning an encirclement of major German forces in the Falaise pocket in August. Simultaneously Montgomery conducted a methodical advance toward the vital port of Antwerp, Belgium, and advance that took three months. Even then, German command of the Scheldt Estuary prevented Allied shipping from offloading until near the end of November. Consequently, Anglo-American logistics were complicated beyond expectations, and in September Eisenhower assumed the role of ground commander, a move the Briton resented.

Nevertheless, Montgomery was promoted to field marshal in September he became more intransigent. He insisted on a northern thrust into Germany, with his Twenty-first Army Group receiving most of the fuel and supplies available to the Allied Expeditionary Force. Bradley continued his advocacy of a broader approach, maintaining pressure along the front and seeking or creating greater opportunities. Montgomery’s firm advocacy gained sway, however, leading to Operation Market-Garden, the daring but disastrous air-ground attack in the Netherlands.

During Germany’s surprise attack over the Christmas season in the Ardennes, the Allies were hard pressed to contain the early advances. Because Montgomery assumed command of most American units north of the ‘‘bulge,’’ he publicly claimed that he had ‘‘saved’’ the U.S. force from destruction. He made a bad public relations situation worse by insisting that he regain his role as overall ground commander, but he soon realized he was fighting a losing battle. Subsequently he served well as Eisenhower’s subordinate.

Following Germany’s collapse Montgomery was named commander of the British occupation forces. A year later he became his nation’s senior soldier, as chief of the Imperial General Staff, a post he retained until the end of 1949. He spent most of the next decade as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, leading NATO in the depths of the Cold War. In 1946 he was created Viscount Montgomery of Alamein.

Montgomery retired in 1958 and devoted much time to writing. His self-serving Memoirs did little to endear himself to his former American colleagues. Some Britons also expressed dissatisfaction, most notably Adm. Sir Bertram Ramsay, who faulted Montgomery for the delay in seizing the approaches to Antwerp.

In his own memoir Eisenhower was gentle on ‘‘Monty,’’ saying that his major strengths were the confidence of his troops and his ‘‘mastery of the prepared battle’’ (essentially the only kind Montgomery ever fought). Eisenhower regarded his colleague as cautious and noted that he ‘‘consistently refused to deal with a staff officer from any headquarters other than his own.’’ In summary, the supreme commander hedged his literary bets by declaring Montgomery as ‘‘acceptable.’’

D-DAY GENERALS AND LEADERS: SIR BERTRAM HOME RAMSAY

Bertram Home Ramsay enjoyed two careers in the Royal Navy, serving in both world wars. The son of an army officer, he joined the navy in 1898, at the age of fifteen. During the First World War he spent much of the conflict conducting the Dover patrol, attaining the rank of captain. He improved his professional standing with tours at Naval War College in the late 1920s and the Imperial Defense College during the early 1930s, his studies alternating with normal career duties.

Ramsay remained on active duty until 1938, when he retired as a vice admiral. However, his experience was badly needed when war began, and he was recalled to the colors. He found himself in familiar waters as Flag Officer Dover, and in that capacity he oversaw the tremendously difficult evacuation of British and French forces from Dunkirk in May–June 1940. The rescue of 338,000 allied troops brought Admiral Ramsay immediate attention he was knighted for that contribution to Britain’s defense.

Though still officially on the retired list, Ramsay was second in command of the British portion of the North African landings in Morocco during November 1942. His contribution to Operation Torch included a significant amount of the planning, and he was partly responsible for coordinating the staff work of the British and American navies. Ramsay’s previous experience was particularly helpful here, as he had been among the first in the Royal Navy to qualify as a staff officer. He continued his joint operations success in helping plan Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. During the landings he commanded one of the amphibious task forces.

Finally restored to the active list that year, Ramsay was recalled to Britain, where he was named overall commander of Operation Neptune, the naval portion of the Normandy invasion. It was a huge task, involving not only transporting elements of three allied armies to a hostile shore but arranging for shipping, scheduling, logistics, gunfire support, and myriad other details. Of all the senior officers at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, Ramsay received the least public acclaim, but he was content to continue working largely behind the scenes. Eisenhower considered Ramsay ‘‘a most competent commander of courage, resourcefulness, and tremendous energy.’’

By the end of 1944 Ramsay had moved his headquarters to Paris, where he could better conduct seaborne support of the advancing allied armies. On January 2, 1945, he was traveling to a joint-service conference when his aircraft crashed on takeoff. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was sixty-two years old. He was briefly portrayed by John Robinson in The Longest Day.

D-DAY GENERALS AND LEADERS: TRAFFORD LEIGH-MALLORY

Trafford Leigh-Mallory earned a Cambridge honors degree in history before joining the army. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and commanded an observation squadron in 1918 one of his pilots received the Victoria Cross. Leigh-Mallory’s leadership style was regarded as somewhat abrasive, but he proved he could get results. After the war he continued in Army Co-Operation Command, but his ambition was well known he was regarded as an astute service politician.

By 1940 Leigh-Mallory was an air vice marshal commanding No. 12 Group of RAF Fighter Command. Based on airfields north of London, 12 Group was dedicated to defense of the industrial Midlands as well as protection of convoys off Britain’s central east coast. Leigh-Mallory’s advocacy of ‘‘big wing’’ tactics to inflict maximum damage on the Luftwaffe resulted in serious disagreement with Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park, his opposite number in No. 11 Group. Park’s squadrons, based in Kent and along the south coast, relied on No. 12 Group to cover their fields while they intercepted inbound raids. The extra time necessary to assemble big wings often meant damage to No. 11 Group bases. After the Battle of Britain, LeighMallory’s political influence brought him command of No. 11 Group, with the transfer of Park to the Mediterranean and the retirement of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding as Fighter Command’s leader.

Leigh-Mallory worked closely with Dowding’s successor, Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas. They initiated an offensive policy, sending fighter sweeps and bomber escorts over France. Such an operation during the Canadian amphibious raid on Dieppe in August 1942 prompted one of the largest air battles of the war.

Late that year Leigh-Mallory followed Sholto Douglas as commander in chief Fighter Command. A year later he was named commander in chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, which would support Overlord. However, as a ‘‘fighter boy’’ Leigh-Mallory came into conflict with the Anglo-American bomber commanders, Arthur Harris and Carl Spaatz, who were opposed to diverting Royal Air Force and Eighth Air Force bombers from strategic targets in Germany. Eisenhower said of LeighMallory, ‘‘He had much fighting experience . . . but had not theretofore been in charge of air operations requiring close co-operation with ground troops.’’

On 30 May Leigh-Mallory confided his doubts about the wisdom of the U.S. airborne phase of the invasion. Concerned about what he considered unsuitable landing grounds and German strength in the drop zones, he envisioned ‘‘a futile slaughter of two fine divisions.’’ Leigh-Mallory estimated casualties of 50 percent among paratroopers and 70 percent among glider infantry, losses that would leave the survivors too weakened to hold out until relieved by Americans from Utah and Omaha beaches.

Eisenhower considered the prospects soberly but decided that previous experience did not support so pessimistic an assumption. Consequently, he telephoned Leigh-Mallory and subsequently sent him a letter confirming the decision to drop as planned. Eisenhower’s judgment was proven correct though the airborne troopers were badly scattered, their casualties were sustainable.

In November 1944 Leigh-Mallory was named commander in chief of the Southeast Asia area of operations. On takeoff from England his transport plane crashed, and Leigh-Mallory was killed.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Normandy Invasion. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to D-Day.

You can also buy the book by clicking on the buttons to the left.


Hitler’s Greatest Mistake Ever: The Halt Order at Dunkirk?

Without Hitler's halt order, the beaches of Dunkirk would have become a giant POW cage.

Key Point: Why did Hitler issue the halt order? No one knows for sure.

War movies tend to depict the battles a nation wins—not the ones it loses.

So with a blockbuster Hollywood movie on Dunkirk hitting the silver screen this July, one would think that Dunkirk was a British victory.

In fact, Dunkirk was the climactic moment of one of the greatest military disasters in history. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, an army of more than three hundred thousand British soldiers was chased off the mainland of Europe, reduced to an exhausted mob clinging to a flotilla of rescue boats while leaving almost all of their weapons and equipment behind.

The British Army was crippled for months. If the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had failed, and the Germans had managed to conduct their own D-Day invasion of Britain, the outcome would have been certain.

So why do the British celebrate Dunkirk as a victory? Why is it called the Miracle of Dunkirk when another such miracle would have given Hitler the keys to London?

Consider the situation. In just six weeks during the spring of 1940, Britain and France had been crushed. When Hitler invaded France and the Benelux countries on May 10, 1940, the Allies were totally off balance. The cream of the Franco-British armies, including much of the ten-division-strong British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had been stationed in northern France. The plan was for them to advance into northern Belgium to stop a German advance, because that was the route the Germans took in 1914. Unfortunately, the German panzer spearhead divisions struck in the center of France, through the weakly defended Belgian and Luxembourg Ardennes forest. Quickly penetrating through the wooded hills, their tank columns turned north to cut off the Allied forces in Belgium from behind, while other German forces—backed by paratroopers—seized Holland and squeezed the Allies from the other direction.

Plagued by disorganization and lethargic leadership, the Allies tried to retreat from Belgium back to France. But it was too late. On May 19, the hard-driving panzer divisions had reached Abbeville, on the English Channel. The bulk of the Allied armies were trapped in a pocket along the French and Belgian coasts, with the Germans on three sides and the English Channel behind. Meanwhile, other German column raced for Paris and beyond, rendering any major French counterattack nothing more than a mapboard fantasy.

The British did what they always when their armies overseas get in trouble: start seeking the nearest port for an exit. With a typical (and in this case justified) lack of faith in their allies, they began planning to evacuate the BEF from the Channel ports. Though the French would partly blame their defeat on British treachery, the British were right. With the French armies outmaneuvered and disintegrating, France was doomed.

But so was the BEF—or so it looked. As the exhausted troops trudged to the coast, through roads choked with refugees and strafed by the Luftwaffe, the question was: could they reach the beaches and safety before the panzers did? There were four hundred thousand British and French troops to evacuate, through a moderate-sized port whose docks were being destroyed by bombs and shells. Even under the best of conditions, it would have taken more time than the Allies could rightfully expect for those troops to be lifted off the beaches.

Despite the general Allied collapse, the British and French troops defending the Dunkirk perimeter fought hard under constant air attack. Nonetheless, had Hitler’s tank generals such as Heinz Guderian had their way, the hard-driving panzers would have sliced like scalpels straight to Dunkirk. The beaches would have become a giant POW cage.

Then on May 24, Hitler and his high command hit the stop button. The panzer columns were halted in their tracks the plan now was for the Luftwaffe to pulverize the defenders until the slower-moving German infantry divisions caught up to finish the job.

Why did Hitler issue the halt order? No one knows for sure. Hitler had fought in that part of France in World War I, and he worried that the terrain was too muddy for tanks.

Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering assured him that his bombers and fighters could do the job. There were concerns about logistics, or a potential French counterattack. Or maybe it was just that Hitler, that perennial gambler, was so dazzled by his own unexpected success at the dice table of war that he lost his nerve.

Whatever the reason, while the Germans dithered, the British moved with a speed that Britain would rarely display again for the rest of the war. Not just the Royal Navy was mobilized. From British ports sailed yachts, fishing boats, lifeboats and rowboats. Like the “ragtag fleet” in Battlestar Galactica, anything that could sail was pressed into service.

France has been ridiculed so often for its performance in 1940 that we forget how the stubbornness and bravery of the French rearguards around Dunkirk perimeter allowed the evacuation to succeed. Under air and artillery fire, the motley fleet evacuated 338,226 soldiers. As for Britain betraying its allies, 139,997 of those men were French soldiers, along with Belgians and Poles.

As they heaved themselves into the boats under a hail of bombs, the soldiers cursed the RAF for leaving them in the lurch. They couldn’t see above the tumult above the clouds where the RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires hurled themselves against the Luftwaffe. Weakened by losses during the French campaign, the RAF couldn’t stop the German air assault. But they at least could hamper it.

The evacuation was incomplete. Some forty thousand troops were captured by the Germans. The Scotsmen of the Fifty-First Highland Division, trapped deep inside France, were encircled and captured by the Seventh Panzer Division commanded by Erwin Rommel. The BEF did save most of its men, but almost all its equipment—from tanks and trucks to rifles—was left behind.

So why did the British treat Dunkirk as a victory? Partially it was out of necessity. The British public needed some good news now that their world had fallen apart. Yet despite Churchill’s rousing rhetoric about the battle, he knew that pseudo-victories would never defeat Hitler. “Wars are not won by evacuations,” he told the House of Commons.

The best answer is that the successful evacuation of the cream of the British Army gave Britain a lifeline to continue the war. In June 1940, neither America nor the Soviets were at war with the Axis. With France gone, Britain, and its Commonwealth partners such as Australia and Canada, stood alone. Had Britain capitulated to Hitler, or signed a compromise peace that left the Nazis in control of Europe, many Americans would have been dismayed—but not surprised.

A British writer whose father fought at Dunkirk wrote that the British public was under no illusions. “If there was a Dunkirk spirit, it was because people understood perfectly well the full significance of the defeat but, in a rather British way, saw no point in dwelling on it. We were now alone. We’d pull through in the end. But it might be a long, grim wait…”

Their patience and endurance were rewarded on May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.


The Post-War World

The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.

-Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014

Of 3.6 million prisoners of war, only several hundred thousand are still able to work fully. A large part of them has starved, or died, because of the hazards of the weather. . . . The camp commanders have forbidden the civilian population to put food at the disposal of the prisoners, and they have rather let them starve to death.

-Letter to defendant Wilhelm Keitel
from Alfred Rosenberg

The Holocaust was the Nazi effort to destroy the Jewish people. At first, Jews were forced to wear yellow armbands. Then, they lost their citizenship and were banned from public places. After that, Jews were forced to live in cramped, dirty ghettos with insufficient water and sanitation systems, where they were denied food and medicine. The Nazis' final solution was sending Jews to concentration camps to be killed.

The Holocaust was the Nazi effort to destroy the Jewish people. At first Jews were forced wear yellow armbands. Then they lost their citizenship and were banned from public places. After that, Jews were forced to live in cramped, dirty ghettos with insufficient water and sanitation systems, where they were denied food and medicine.

The Holocaust was the Nazi effort to destroy the Jewish people. At first Jews were forced wear yellow armbands. Then they lost their citizenship and were banned from public places. After that, Jews were forced to live in cramped, dirty ghettos with insufficient water and sanitation systems, where they were denied food and medicine.

The idea which I have developed in this pamphlet is a very old one: it is the restoration of the Jewish State. . . .

We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so. . . .

No one can deny the gravity of the situation of the Jews. Wherever they live in perceptible numbers, they are more or less persecuted. Their equality before the law, granted by statute, has become practically a dead letter. They are debarred from filling even moderately high positions, either in the army, or in any public or private capacity. And attempts are made to thrust them out of business also: "Don't buy from Jews!"


D-Day: The Beginning of the End for Nazi Germany

The road to the invasion of Nazi-controlled France began more than two years prior to its actual execution. In its early stages, the invasion plan was a British operation called Roundup, which would move troops onto the mainland in the event of a German collapse. When the United States entered the war, the idea was resurrected as a combined British-American operation to cross the English Channel and pierce Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defenses.

Roundup had to wait, however, in favor of Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of North Africa. After Torch, the Allies began planning Operation Overlord, as Roundup came to be known, and fixed the target date for May 1, 1944.

The Germans also had been preparing. They knew that the Allies must invade France in order to carry the ground war into Germany. The Germans’ major unanswered questions were when and where the Allies would storm ashore. Most German strategists felt that the target would be the Pas-de-Calais area, where the English Channel was narrowest. Therefore, the strongest defenses were constructed there.

The German forces in Western Europe, commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, consisted of Army Groups B and G. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commanding Army Group B, was given the responsibility of throwing the Allied invasion force back into the sea.

Opinions on the best method of defeating the Allies differed greatly. Rundstedt and others advocated a central reserve that would be used to repel the invaders after their intentions were known. Rommel challenged that plan because he believed that Allied air superiority would prevent the central reserve from conducting an effective counterattack. The time to defeat the invasion force, Rommel believed, was when it first hit the beaches. To that end, he worked to have the strongest units stationed along the coastline and built coastal batteries and strongpoints, augmented by thousands of anti-invasion obstacles and millions of mines.

The result was a compromise between these two conflicting philosophies on defense, causing neither to be effective. Another factor that hampered the German defensive posture was that they, unlike the Allies, had no supreme military commander, so rivalries occurred between the individual departments, and there were numerous overlapping responsibilities.

D-Day was originally scheduled for June 5, 1944. SHAEF arrived at this date by considering two factors–moonlight and tide. H-hour would be near sunrise, when the amphibious troops would have a rising tide, which would enable them to land close to obstacles without coming ashore on top of them. The paratroopers needed a full moon for visibility. The days with the proper tide-moonlight formula closest to the target date were June 5, 6 and 7. The 5th was chosen for D-Day to allow a buffer in case the attack needed to be postponed.

An unprecedented level of security was imposed on the Allied army to prevent information leaks. Despite those efforts, some breaches of security still occurred. Those incidents were minor in the grand scheme of things, but they raised anew the myriad questions in the Allied planners’ minds. Had every detail been covered and sufficiently deliberated? General Dwight D. Eisenhower, describing the situation, said, The mighty host was tense as a coiled spring. When the fateful month of June finally arrived, that human spring was ready to release its energy against the Germans defending the coast of Normandy.

With June, however, arrived the discouraging prospect of terrible weather. In fact, the weather was so bad that General Eisenhower was forced to postpone the invasion by one day. When the SHAEF staff members met to review their options, they were faced with the grim reality that June 6 did not look much better than the original D-Day. The meteorological report gave a thin ray of hope that a lull in the storm would allow enough time to launch the invasion, but no one could say whether the follow-up of the operation would be possible. The decision was a tough one, but the invasion would go ahead.

Meanwhile, almost providentially, critical errors in the German defensive structures allowed them to be taken completely by surprise. Due to the bad weather, the German navy canceled its usual patrol of the English Channel. Also, a practice drill scheduled for June 6 was called off. The German meteorological services were unaware of the break in the weather. On the eve of the attack, many of the top German leaders were absent from their commands. Rommel was in Germany visiting his wife on her birthday, and several officers were some distance away in Rennes or on their way there for a war-game exercise.

The assault on Normandy began at 12:15 a.m., when the pathfinders for the American airborne units left their planes and parachuted to earth. Five minutes later, on the other side of the invasion area, the British pathfinders made their jump. The pathfinders were specially trained to find and mark the drop zones. The main airborne assault was to commence within the hour.

The airborne attack became confused because of stiff winds and the evasive flying of the transport planes when they encountered anti-aircraft fire. As a result, the paratroopers were scattered over a wide area and most missed their drop zones, some by as much as 20 miles. Other complications were caused by the terrain, and the worst terrain was on the Cotentin Peninsula. The Germans, expecting diversionary attacks in Normandy and Brittany, had laced the open fields with anti-personnel and glider stakes and flooded the low areas. The flooding caused the most trouble for the Americans of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions.

The airborne units were to secure the flanks of the amphibious assault. That meant capturing bridges, crossroads and coastal batteries. After accomplishing those tasks, the paratroopers had to withstand any German counterattacks.

Widely scattered, the paratroopers fought little battles in the dark that were fierce and quick–preludes of what was to come. The troopers began to coalesce and organize their efforts. In addition to the many small victories, three significant successes were achieved. The first occurred within 15 minutes of the initial assault, when a group of British glider infantry captured key bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal. Later, members of the U.S. 82nd captured the valuable crossroads at the town of Ste. Mère Eglise. Just before the amphibious assault, paratroopers of the British 6th Battalion captured the coastal battery at Merville.

As the airborne units struggled to achieve their goals, the great fleet made its way across the channel to its appointment with destiny. The Allied fleet assembled first in Area Z, nicknamed Piccadilly Circus, approximately 10 miles southeast of the Isle of Wight. From there the individual invasion forces sailed in a southwesterly arc toward their prospective beaches. Leading that grand armada were the minesweepers. Behind them followed a vast array of naval vessels of every conceivable type. Never before had such a fleet been assembled. Including the landing craft carried on board, the combined Allied invasion armada numbered up to 5,000 ships. Approximately 160,000 men were to cross the English Channel and land at assault beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Each landing area was divided into sections designated by letters, which were further subdivided into areas designated by colors. Each unit, therefore, had a specific place to land and a corresponding mission for its assigned area.

The first areas of French soil wrested from German control were the Isles-St.-Marcouf, located three miles off Utah Beach. SHAEF became concerned that these islands could be used as sites for heavy guns. The men of the U.S. 4th and 24th Cavalry squadrons were designated to take the islands prior to the main invasion. The assault teams found only land mines. The Germans had left the Iles-St.-Marcouf unoccupied.

Around 5 a.m., the German shore batteries opened a sporadic fire on the approaching fleet. At the same time, the German navy made its sole contribution, firing torpedoes from T-28, Möwe, Falcke, and Jaguar of the 5th Torpedo Boat Flotilla from Le Havre and sinking the Norwegian destroyer Svenner.

For the majority of the assault troops, however, the war had not begun yet. After spending as long as 48 hours aboard the various transport ships, many of the men were miserably seasick. Some could not imagine anything worse than they were already experiencing. On the other hand, there were some who were itching to go, particularly the veterans of the 1940 debacle at Dunkirk, who were about to make a comeback.

The naval bombardment began around 5:45 a.m. The air attack followed. The naval and air bombardments were designed to destroy the beach guns and obstacles, pin down the enemy and provide shelter for the ground troops on the open beaches by making craters. Both, however, largely failed in their objectives. Because of poor visibility caused by low cloud cover and smoke, it was decided that the bombers would delay the release of bombs 30 seconds to avoid hitting the assaulting troops. As a result, the bombs fell inland and missed their targets. Although the naval bombardment was more accurate, it was not much more effective against the hardened German gun emplacements.

The weather also was partially responsible for causing some of the assault craft to miss their assigned landing areas. Additionally, many of the landing craft and amphibious tanks foundered in the rough sea. In the Omaha area, most of the craft carrying artillery and tanks intended to support the incoming troops sank in the high waves.

At Utah Beach, a strange stroke of good fortune occurred when the assault craft encountered a southerly current that caused them to land in the wrong sector. The shore batteries that would have contested a landing in the original area would undoubtedly have taken a heavy toll. The landing at the new sector was virtually unopposed.

Despite that good fortune, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., of the 4th Infantry Division had a tough decision to make. The planned landing area fronted two exits from the beach the Americans now faced only one. Should they push north and divert the support waves to the correct area, or should they remain on this relatively quiet beach and use the single exit? Roosevelt, the eldest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt and a cousin of the current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the only general officer to land in the first wave. After conferring with his battalion commanders he decided to start the war from here and gamble on the one exit he had rather than trying for the proverbial two in the bush.

Twelve miles east of Utah, the men landing at Omaha Beach encountered the fiercest resistance anywhere on June 6. The Overlord planners expected Omaha Beach to be lightly defended. Allied intelligence had reported that a low-quality static division was defending that area. Somehow the presence of the crack 352nd Infantry had gone undetected. The high bluffs at Omaha also gave the defenders an excellent vantage point with crisscrossed fields of fire.

The approach to the beach was a race against death. Many of the landing craft never made it to shore they either were hit by artillery or struck mines. Those that survived long enough to discharge their troops often did so in water over the heads of the soldiers who raced toward the open ramps. German strong points zeroed in on the men who made it to the beach and took cover behind beach obstacles and disabled landing craft. Although casualty rates varied, most were high. Within 10 minutes of hitting the beach, Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, suffered 96 percent killed or wounded.

Compounding the situation were the problems the demolition teams encountered while clearing paths through the beach obstacles. The Germans soon became aware of the activities of the engineers and made special targets of them. Worse, the engineers’ own comrades often took cover behind the very obstacles about to be blown. The demolition teams had only been able to clear 5 1/2 lanes across the entire Omaha Beach area before the second wave arrived. As the tide came in, covering the obstacles, only one of those lanes could be marked. That meant that the next wave of fresh troops to come ashore would have to endure the same hazards as the first. Because of the high rate of casualties under withering German fire, many of the units on the beach found themselves leaderless. Incoming troops only added to the confusion.

One eyewitness to this seemingly complete disaster was war correspondent Ernest Hemingway. He described the dismal scene of burning tanks and landing craft and of the shocked, dead and dying troops that had stopped at the waterline. The…[assault] waves lay where they had fallen, he said, looking like so many heavily laden bundles…between sea and first cover.

As the debris of war piled up with the arrival of each succeeding assault wave, for many it seemed that their worst fears–complete failure of the landing–had been realized. By morning some considered evacuating the survivors and diverting the reinforcements to either the Utah or British sectors.

West of Omaha Beach was Pointe du Hoc, a rocky outcropping with almost vertical cliffs where a large coastal battery was believed to be situated. The U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion was charged with destroying the battery. What many thought impossible the Rangers achieved–they scaled the 100-foot cliffs under heavy fire. Once on top, though, they found that the guns were not there after all.

If the American experience at Utah was the best and at Omaha the worst, the experiences at the three British beaches were somewhere in between. The British came ashore after a longer bombardment and at a later H-hour. Because of the later H-hour, the troops landed on a higher tide and closer to the beaches, giving them a shorter assault run, possibly saving the British from high losses similar to those at Omaha. Commando units were used to cover the flanks of the British beaches. Also, two midget submarines, X-20 and X-23, were used to mark flanks and guide landings in Operation Gambit.

Like the engineers at Omaha, the British frogmen encountered numerous difficulties clearing the beach obstacles. As the first and later waves made their runs, it appeared that the invasion was going to be a rough show. It turned out, however, that the offshore obstacles were the toughest resistance some of the British troops encountered. Resistance from the German defenders was sporadic across all three of the British landing areas. In some places opposition was light in others, it was murderously heavy. The 1st Hampshire Regiment landed in the teeth of the right flank of the German 352nd Infantry Division on the west side of Gold Beach. The Hampshire were nearly wiped out as they left their landing craft and struggled ashore. In most places, however, units were able to strike inland shortly after H-hour.

Of the three British beaches, the Canadians at Juno had the greatest difficulty. They had a delay of 25 minutes due to rough seas before their landing ordeal began. Upon hitting the beach, they found that many of the strongpoints had not been knocked out, and the fighting was intense. But as difficult as the fighting was, it was also brief. Within half an hour the Canadians were off the beach. Within a short time the sector could even be described as quiet, and the support waves had little trouble getting to shore. Before long, Gold and Juno beaches were linked by a single continuous front.

The smallest of the five Allied assaults was at Sword Beach, the easternmost landing area. The invasion there started without serious opposition, but each succeeding wave came under heavier mortar fire. Despite the growing resistance, the British moved steadily inland.

At 9:30 a.m., Sword Beach was the scene of the only German daylight air attack of the entire invasion. Prior to the Allied assault, the Germans had strengthened their home air defenses by withdrawing most of the aircraft in France. As a result, the only planes left within range of Normandy when the invasion began were two Focke-Wulf Fw-190As of Fighter Wing 26, flown by Lt. Col. Josef Pips Priller and Sergeant Heinz Wodarczyk, who strafed the beach at an altitude of 50 feet before escaping through a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire.

All in all, the initial phase of the British landing was extremely successful. By the end of the morning, elements of all three of the British divisions had advanced several miles inland. As the pockets of German resistance were isolated or melted away, it looked as if the British would have no trouble reaching their D-Day objectives. Yet already some units had run into trouble. The commandos were unable to connect all of the beaches together, and the Germans were beginning to regroup.

The German reaction to the Allied invasion was slow and confused. The airborne assault was believed to be only a diversionary action. When the Seventh Army, positioned in Normandy, was put on alert, few of its commanders knew what they should do. Rundstedt ordered the activation of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth and Panzer Division Lehr and simultaneously sent word of his actions to Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, German supreme headquarters), asking for permission to use the two divisions. The 21st Panzer Division was in the immediate vicinity of the landings at Juno and Sword. The 21st had been on alert and ready to move throughout the early morning hours but had received no orders. Around 5:30 a.m., the 21st’s commander could wait no longer and ordered his unit into action against the British 6th Airborne on the Orne River. The orders finally came four hours later. The 21st was instructed to counterattack Sword Beach. That meant that the Germans must extract themselves from the fight with the paratroopers and move around the strategically vital town of Caen to get into position for the counterattack. Completing that maneuver took the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. Confusion seemed to reign in other parts of the front as well. The commander of the 352nd Infantry Division believed that the situation at Omaha was completely under control and that the Americans would soon be defeated. He decided then to commit his reserves to other areas.

On Omaha Beach, soldiers who had previously been paralyzed with fear came out of their shock and began to move inland. Instrumental in shaking the paralysis were a few brave soldiers who defied enemy fire and inspired the others to advance.

The U.S. Navy supplied critical fire support for the soldiers attempting to move off the beaches and take the commanding positions along the bluffs from their German defenders. Some destroyers came in so close to shore with their supporting fire that they risked running aground. Slowly, painfully, the men at Omaha began to overcome the German strongpoints that had previously pinned them down.

The officers at OKW were not convinced that the Normandy landing was the primary Allied thrust. They still feared a landing at Calais to the north, and the Allied advances in Italy seemed more distressing. Rundstedt was not permitted to commit the armored reserve. To the officers at OKW, the news did not warrant disturbing Hitler from his sleep. As was his habit, the Führer had gone to bed at 4 a.m., and no one dared wake him until more was known. Around 10 a.m. the officers found the courage to disturb him, and a conference was called. As the leader of Nazi Germany heard the sketchy news of the invasion, he remained convinced that the Normandy attack was only a diversion. Rundstedt’s request to use the armored divisions was never mentioned. The panzer units were finally released around 3 p.m.–much too late to do any good.

In the meantime, the only serious German counterattack on D-Day was preparing to get underway. The 21st Panzer had become splintered while moving into position and was unable to attack the British in full force. At the same time, the British had logistical problems of their own to deal with and were unable to take advantage of the Germans’ delayed reaction.

The clash finally occurred north of Caen at Périers and Biéville, hamlets that commanded the local high ground. The attack was over in a few minutes. The British had been able to establish defensive positions prior to the arrival of the German tanks, and they stopped the tanks’ advance with the help of naval gunfire. The Germans then withdrew and dug their tanks into positions outside Caen. That defensive move effectively stopped the British southward drive.

The infantry support element of the 21st had moved west of Caen and missed the battles at Périers and Biéville. Instead, the infantry drove north through the gap between Juno and Sword beaches. The tank commander of the 21st was unaware of the gap and never acted to exploit it. A follow-up attack was ordered in the evening with the combined panzer force, only to be foiled by a scheduled glider reinforcement drop. Through the course of the day, the 21st lost almost half its tanks.

By evening, despite earlier optimism, the 352nd was hard pressed to hold back the flood of invaders. All day it had been fighting the Americans at Omaha and the British at Gold. Now, with its reserves committed and its casualties high, the effectiveness of the once crack unit had ebbed.

The end of June 6 saw the Allies firmly established in Hitler’s Europe. At Utah, the VII Corps had penetrated a good five miles with only light casualties. The V Corps at Omaha, suffering 2,500 casualties, held a precarious one-mile-deep strip of coastline–yet the Americans were in control of their turf. The 2nd Rangers also held a small piece of territory at Pointe du Hoc. Even though this was a pointless attack, it had drawn some of the reserves of the 352nd away from where they might have been employed more effectively. The entire British Second Army had lost less than 3,000 men and had penetrated as much as ten miles in some places.

The Allies, however, had failed to achieve many of their goals. The British had not taken Caen and would not do so for another month. The city of Bayeux also was not taken. None of the invasion forces had reached their day-one objective lines, and there remained dangerous gaps between the Omaha­Gold and Juno­Sword areas. At Utah, the 4th Division still had not linked up with all of the 82nd Airborne, and the 1st and 29th divisions at Omaha were in danger of being thrown back into the sea if a concerted attack could be mounted against them.

The Germans, however, remained in the dark as to the Allies’ true intentions. Still believing that another invasion was to come at Pas-de-Calais, the commanders held the Fifteenth Army in reserve. It was not used until too late to make any difference at Normandy. Even though the 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr divisions had been initially dispatched, they were held during the critical moment when their presence could have made a difference for Germany. The two quality units the Germans had at Normandy, the 352nd Infantry and the 21st Panzer, had suffered heavy casualties in the course of the day’s fighting. The Germans were able to contain the invasion of the first day but were never able to regain any ground. Air superiority and logistical capability were the telling factors in the Allied success.

Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had failed to hold back the Allied invasion. The invaders were not destroyed on the beaches as Rommel had hoped, nor were they thrown back into the sea as Rundstedt had planned. The Germans kept the Allied army contained for two months. When the breakout occurred in August, there was no holding the Allies back. From that point, Nazi Germany had only nine months more to live.

This article was written by David R. Jennys and originally appeared in the May 󈨦 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.


Which Country Was Instrumental in Winning World War II?

Russia on Saturday marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, a day after its erstwhile Western allies in the fight against Nazi Germany.

It was the continuation of a tradition dating to the era of Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, who dismissed the Nazi surrender to the Western allies signed in Reims, France, on May 8, 1945, insisting on another signing of the capitulation the next day in the German capital, Berlin, which had fallen to Soviet forces.

That isn’t the only difference between how the wartime allies remember a conflict that remains, for some, a dominating, albeit shifting, cultural reference point in contemporary national identities.

Subsequent politics and propaganda, reassessments and the emergence of new wartime facts, as well as changing cultural tastes and the immediate needs of political leaders and peoples of the day, have altered memory. They also have changed over time how the end of the devastating struggle is marked, as well as how it is remembered, say historians.

Russia has celebrated victory in what it calls “the Great Patriotic War” every year since 1945, but commemoration has undergone a makeover. Parades were often staged without tanks and missiles rumbling across Red Square under the baleful eyes of septuagenarian and octogenarian Communist Party secretaries.

Under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, Victory Day has become a bigger and more militaristic affair, one in which advanced military hardware has been showcased, and Stalin has been lauded in a recasting of patriotism.

But this year, thanks to the coronavirus, the big Moscow celebration scheduled for the 75th anniversary of VE Day was canceled. It was much the same in the rest of Europe, which saw governments shelve plans for brass bands and packed crowds, military parades, concerts and street parties.

Some things never change, though.

In his book Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, British military historian Max Hastings notes that each of the victorious nations "emerged from the Second World War confident in the belief that its own role had been decisive in procuring victory.”

Who the key player was in the defeat of the Nazis in Europe remains an issue — canceled celebrations and the pandemic notwithstanding.

While most see the United States as having played the crucial role in vanquishing Adolf Hitler, the British, according to polling data released this week, see themselves as having played the biggest part in the war effort — although they acknowledge that the Nazis would not have been overcome without the Soviet Union bleeding Germany’s Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.

US credited

In contrast, Americans, Germans and the French believe the U.S. war effort ultimately was the most significant contribution in achieving victory in Europe, according to a survey conducted by British pollster YouGov. Recent polls conducted in Russia, however, show Russians are convinced they’re the ones deserving the main credit for Hitler’s defeat — a reflection, possibly, of the huge death toll the country suffered in the war.

An estimated 25 million to 31 million Russians were killed in the conflict — 16 million of them civilians, and more than 8 million from the Red Army. Russians also point to the fact that Soviet forces killed more German soldiers than their Western counterparts, accounting for 76 percent of Germany’s military dead.

Some military historians say death tolls and the number of casualties shouldn’t be seen as reflecting necessarily what was crucial in the defeat of the Nazis. The Allied victory was more complicated than the heroic sacrifice of Soviet soldiers. Historian Anthony Beevor told Britain’s The Times newspaper that Stalin was more callous than Western leaders, who tried to minimize casualties.

“The Red Army dispatched militiamen into attacks without any weapons and basically expected them to stop Panzer divisions with their own bodies,” he said. “They were suffering a 42 percent fatal casualty rate. They just threw away a quarter of a million lives.” Others say Western attitudes toward the Soviet Union are colored by the fact that Stalin concluded a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939 that was instrumental in allowing the Nazi leader to unleash a world war, before turning his attention to Russia.

The U.S. mobilized about the same number of troops as Russia but fought on more major front lines — not only in Europe but also in the Pacific and North Africa. American war production — its ability to churn out astounding numbers of bombers, tanks and warships — was possibly the key war-winning factor, say some historians, who point out American factories produced more airplanes than all of the other major war powers combined.

US supplies

And without U.S. supplies, the Soviet war effort would have been massively diminished. America supplied Stalin with 400,000 trucks, 2,000 locomotives, more than 10,000 rail rolling stock and billions of dollars' worth of warplanes, tanks, food and clothing. At the same time, the U.S. also supplied nearly a quarter of Britain’s munitions.

“We were lucky to have America as an ally,” Russian historian Anatoly Razumov told VOA recently. He said American technology and supplies formed the base of Russia’s war effort. “And we want to close our eyes to that. It’s shameful! Sometimes I talk to ordinary people who don’t want to understand. We were together during the war. How would it be if we hadn’t had this help? It was not a victory of just one country over Hitler. It was a victory of the whole world over him.”

That view was echoed 75 years ago by Winston Churchill, Britain’s iconic wartime leader, when at 3 p.m. (London time) on May 8, 1945, he broadcast to the British people to announce victory in Europe.

He recapped his nation’s lonely stand against Hitler in 1940, but he highlighted the gradual appearance of “great allies” in the fight, suggesting victory had been achieved because of a combined effort. “Finally,” he said, “the whole world was combined against the evildoers, who are now prostrate before us.”

Churchill concluded his broadcast: “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. … Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the king!”

Britons allowed themselves a respite Friday from coronavirus woes to mark VE Day. The celebration was a more muted and stationary affair than had been planned, as it was in neighboring France and elsewhere in Europe. Parisians waved the French tricolor from balconies. Britons had tea parties in their gardens and along their streets — making sure they remained a safe distance from each other as they raised a glass to the countless individual sacrifices that led to victory in Europe in 1945.

Queen's broadcast

How the war was won — who deserves the lion’s share of credit — seemed lost at the moment of quiet celebration and as they listened to a broadcast by Queen Elizabeth, who, like other Western leaders, used wartime sacrifices to inspire hope in the fight against the coronavirus now. Weaving the themes of wartime endurance and success, she said Britain was still a country that those who fought in WWII would “recognize and admire.”


The Nuremberg Trials

After the Nazis lost the war, 24 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich were tried before a series of military tribunals held by the Allied forces. Ernst Kaltenbrunner was among them.

Kaltenbrunner held as much power in the party as Heinrich Himmler or Reinhard Heydrich, but he was not as recognizable.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Defendants Wilhelm Keitel (left), Ernst Kaltenbrunner (middle), and Alfred Rosenberg (right), talk during a trial recess.

Kaltenbrunner had missed the opening day of the trial due to a brain hemorrhage that he suffered during interrogations. He was wheeled into court after several weeks of recovery and, according to Jewish American psychiatrist Leon N. Goldensohn, was received coolly by his war-time colleagues.

Goldensohn was tasked with monitoring the mental health of the Nazi defendants during the trials and did so through candid interviews with the war criminals.

“I am thought of as another Himmler. (smiles) I’m not. The papers make me out as a criminal. I never killed anyone.”

Ernst Kaltenbrunner

When Ernst Kaltenbrunner spoke, Goldensohn noted that his “calmness and well-mannered attitudes” were of face-value only and actually “indicative of a capacity for harsh, ruthless action, if such would have been the possibility.”

His measured tone broke once when he spoke against Soviet Russia’s supposed plot to take over Europe — the reason, Kaltenbrunner claimed, behind the Nazi’s brutal European occupations.

Kaltenbrunner suffered another brain hemorrhage during the trials which took him out of court until January 1946, when he was well enough to state his plea.

Kaltenbrunner preached about Germany’s right to self-defense against the looming Soviet invasion and he denied any involvement in the Holocaust. He pled “not guilty.”

Wikimedia Commons Nazi SS Leader Ernst Kaltenbrunner and others at the Nuremburg trials where 24 Nazi commanding officers were tried for atrocities against Jewish people during the war.

Kaltenbrunner called the prosector’s claims to his “destruction of Jewish life” as not “in accord with the evidence nor with the truth.” He argued that any orders regarding the concentration camps came from the RSHA before he was even appointed to that office. He added that he was only guilty of supporting the Reich’s defense against the Soviet Union.

But prosecutors found clear evidence of frequent conferences between Kaltenbrunner’s office, the RSHA, and executives of the SS Wirtshaft and Verwaltungshauptamt which controlled the internal administration of the concentration camps. This made it unlikely that Kaltenbrunner was unaware of or uninvolved in the holocaust.

Not to mention there were photos of Kaltenbrunner in his Nazi uniform visiting the deadly Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria with a group of SS leaders.

AFP/Getty Images After Nuremburg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner was executed by hanging.

On Sept. 30, 1946, the International Military Tribunal convicted Kaltenbrunner of two out of the three charges that had been thrown against him — he was ruled guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. For this, the tribunal sentenced him to death by hanging.

He was swiftly executed the next month along with eleven other Nazi co-defendants, making him the highest-ranking SS commander to have ever received justice for his heinous crimes.

After reading about Ernst Kaltenbrunner, discover more prominent Nazi figures like Ernst Röhm, the early Nazi leader who rivaled Hitler — and was executed for it. Then, check out Irma Grese, one of the Nazis’ most feared guards known as the “beautiful beast.”