(WAR in EUROPE, 1941-45 – continued)

home | 1901-WW2 Index

WAR in EUROPE, 1941-45 (7 of 10)

previous | next

The Last Full Year of War: 1944

In early January the Soviet army crossed into what had been German-dominated Poland. The Polish government-in-exile in London ordered its underground army in Poland to cooperate fully with the Soviet army, and it asked for a discussion with the Soviet Union on all outstanding questions. The Soviet Union rejected such discussions. This included discussions using US or British intermediaries, because, it said, conditions had "not yet ripened to a point where such good offices could be utilized to advantage."

Hitler, meanwhile, was reluctant to accept terribly unpleasant reports. In January, Hitler dismissed intelligence figures on the size of Soviet forces given him by one of his best generals, Guderian. Hitler said that whomever compiled the figures should be put into a lunatic asylum. General Guderian retorted that since he agreed with them completely that he had better be sent there as well.

In early April, Soviet forces began their offensive against the Germans in the Crimea. A Soviet Special Commission, meanwhile, pronounced the Germans guilty of the killings at Katyn forest. In May 1944, Roosevelt delegated a US investigation of that matter to George Earl – a family friend, a former Governor of Pennsylvania, and his emissary to the Balkans. Earl's investigation concluded that it had been the Soviet Union that committed the atrocities, but Roosevelt refused to accept this and labeled the evidence as German propaganda. Earl was on the verge of having his findings published. Roosevelt ordered him to keep his report secret, and he sent Earl on assignment to American Samoa for the rest of the war.

By now, German armies had retreated from Crimea and the Caucasus region. There were nationalities Stalin thought had been too friendly with the Germans, and he labelled entire societies as reactionary. He deported Kalmyks, Chechens, the Ingushi, Karachai, Balkars and also Tatars from the Crimea. The majority of the men from these areas were away, serving in the military, many of them away at the front. Stalin's police – the NKVD – led some 119,000 soldiers in rounding up old men, women and children, putting them into box cars and trucks diverted from the war effort. Soldiers of these minorities at the front were also rounded up. And the minorities were dumped in Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In his anti-Stalin speech in 1956, Nikita S. Khrushchev (a Ukrainian) described the deportations and said that Stalin would have deported the Ukrainians too, but there were too many of them.

soviet poster

The Soviet view: "Czechs, Slovaks, Poles! The Red Army brings you liberation from the fascist yoke!"

After the Normandy Landing

The Allied invasion at Normandy began on June 6, while Soviet troops were moving into Romania and Hungary and while British and Americans troops were moving into Rome. Mobile warfare was on-going again, and Allied airpower dominated the skies over Normandy, and in the first week of the invasion the Allies established a 60-mile-wide beachhead and drove 20 miles inland. Allied casualties were about 15,000 of their force of around 150,000 making the assault. The British captured Normandy's town of Caen on July 9, and the Americans broke out of their beachhead positions on July 25.

The Soviet Union began its summer offensive, code-named Bagration, in June. In five weeks the Soviet army drove almost 500 miles through Belarus, Ukraine and Eastern Poland and destroyed thirty German divisions. In early July, the largest armored engagement of all time took place. The Soviet Union had around 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,400 aircraft against a German force of around 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 1,800 aircraft and 800,000 men. The Germans lost between 50,000 and 57,000 men.

As the Americans were driving toward Paris, the German resistance against Soviet troops in Poland stiffened. In early August the Soviets were stopped just short of Warsaw. Encouraged by Soviet broadcasts and eager to strike against the Germans, Poland's Underground Army rose against the Germans occupying Warsaw. These were not Stalin's people. He would not have wanted them acquiring any credit in defeating the Germans. Into October the Soviet army did not advance into the city while the Germans were crushing the uprising, and Hitler retaliated against the rising by ordering Warsaw to be systematically destroyed.

Allied forces had moved into Paris on August 25. On August 31 the Soviet army had entered Romania's capital city, Bucharest. In September, the Soviet army entered Bulgaria unopposed. In October Soviet forces reached the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade. And in early November they reached the suburbs of Hungary's capital – Budapest.

On October 5, the British invaded Greece as German troops were leaving. The Communist led anti-fascist "liberation" army, the EAM-ELAS, rejected Britain imposing controls on their country. The British tried to unite the EAM-ELAS and the more conservative Greek Democratic National Army, but the EAM-ELAS refused to disband. A civil war arose, with the EAM-ELAS taking control of Greece except for Athens, where British troops held sway and angry people expressed their desire for national independence by filling the streets and chanting, "Roosevelt, Roosevelt."

With success in warfare and unparalleled casualties, the Soviet Union now faced the issue of restraint and forbearance against the Germans, many of whom were of the working class to which the Communist Party was so devoted. In entering German territory the policy was, instead, retribution in the form of plunder and rape. One officer, Lev Kopelev, protested this policy. He was rebuked by his commanding officer, Colonel Zabashtansky, who denounced Kopelev's humanitarianism as weakness. Zabashtansky spoke of the need to hate and to take a terrible revenge on the Germans, including children, so that the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the Germans would remember. The Soviet soldier needed an incentive to go on fighting said Zabashtansky, by which he meant that Soviet troops should be free to take from the Germans what goods and women were available and not to worry about shooting any irate Germans in the process. If German women and children are killed, well, that is war. Humanitarianism, he said, was for after the war, when one could theorize about how things should be.

Kennan in Moscow

In 1944, George Kennan returned as a diplomat to the US embassy in Moscow. He was moved by the sight of the suffering of the Russian people, and he was disturbed by the hatred that had been whipped up against the Germans. He saw German prisoners of war, many of them boys, marched through the streets of Moscow, pushed from the rear, stumbling, some falling from exhaustion. They were part of the 2.38 million Germans taken prisoner between 1941 and 1945, many of them to be worked to death. The Germans had penned up multitudes of captured Soviet soldiers and let them starve to death. Now it was the Soviet Union's turn to obliterate their prisoners – some of them Hungarians and Romanians.

Kennan was disturbed by what he saw of the Soviet government. He found the Soviet regime tough as ever on ideological non-conformity. He found himself and others representing the Allies as treated guardedly and with suspicion.

Stalin's regime still considered the West a threat. Stalin was afraid of his people finding how much better foreigners lived and being infected with foreign ideas – as Russian officers had been influenced by the French during the Napoleonic War just before they tried to overthrow Alexander I. The Communist Party in the Soviet Union had a new slogan. "The war on fascism ends, the war on capitalism begins."

Kennan's boss at the US embassy in Moscow, Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, was as pessimistic about Stalin as Kennan, and he was upset over Stalin's position on Poland. Harriman foresaw a handpicked government in Poland with nothing approaching democratic choice.

Kennan favored complaining to Washington and making "it plain to our public" that Russia "was unwilling to submit her future actions to the judgment of international society." Kennan wanted to "disillusion our people."


The war for Germany was already as good as lost. The German soldier was sacrificing himself for nothing. But soldiers were still duty-minded, as they had been trained as boys in the Hitler Youth. "Tell my mother I died like a soldier," a youthful German in uniform might say to a friend as his life drained away.

The common people of Germany continued to look to Hitler with hope. They tended to blame people around Hitler. They blamed their military. Rather than disgust and bitterness aimed at Hitler, common Germans aimed their disgust and bitterness at enemy bomber pilots.

Allied bombing against Germany's oil supply was now crippling Germany's air force, and it was slowing Germany's production of explosives and rubber. But overall, German production was rising. The Germans were dispersing their industry and putting damaged plants back in operation sooner than the Americans had expected. The Allied attempt to curtail ball bearing production proved futile, while the chance of an airman surviving his tour of duty was about 34 percent.

A few persons wanted to stop the madness. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was along them. So too was Lieutenant Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg. With no means of ridding Hitler by legal means and some men of power and influence seeing Hitler as a terrible menace, an assassination attempt was in the making.

Rommel was among the plotters, and when Stauffenberg almost assassinated Hitler by a bomb in July 1944, the German people wondered why the plot had not been discovered before it was carried out.

In August, when Romania removed itself from the war and signed an armistice with the Soviet Union, the German people were shocked at what they perceived to be Romania's betrayal. By now Paris had been taken by the Allies, and some Germans had begun hoping for a miracle to save them from defeat.

Talk of victory had declined among the Germans, and some Germans began hoping for a quick negotiated peace. Those families with sons and brothers engaged in combat continued to follow military events closely, and Germans in front of the advancing Russians were afraid, but others were giving up. The morality cherished by the churches was breaking down, as people felt that their world was falling apart and as families were suffering from prolonged separations.

In September the Allied bombing was finally crippling Germany's economy. Weapons production was in steep decline. Germany's fuel was in such short supply that horse-drawn transport was being used to move goods from railheads to supply depots. Germany's railways would soon be barely functioning. Locomotives lacked coal, and railways were not adequately distributing coal power for the coming winter.

In October, Hungary's regent, Miklós Horthy, decided to take Hungary out of the war. Hitler had been disgusted with Hungary's weak support and believed that this had been caused by Jewish cultural influences. Hitler sent troops to occupy Hungary, and there they began rounding up Jews and sending over 700,000 Hungarian Jews to the death camp at Auschwitz.

The Germans were firing rockets at Britain, and they had the first jet fighter planes, but the rockets were ineffective, and pilots of the jet aircraft were overwhelmed by a great number of American P-51 fighters piloted by better trained pilots – the training of German pilots having been curtailed because of a lack of fuel.

Hitler had a plan for a counter offensive on his western front. He was under the illusion that he could strike a hard enough blow against the Americans that they would want to withdraw from the war, and he believed he could drive the British to another evacuation like the one at Dunkirk in 1940. His new offensive had been planned for the end of July. Then it had been postponed to November. The Germans finally struck on December 16, with 30 rebuilt divisions that Hitler believed would have made little difference on the Eastern Front. The attack became known as the Battle of the Bulge. It lifted the morale of the German nation – Hitler's illusions being contagious.  But by January the counter-offensive was halted. The Germans had lost another 80,000 killed, wounded or missing. The Americans had suffered 70,000 similar losses. And each side had lost about 700 tanks.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.