Götterdämmerung and Aftermath

The Final Years of WWII

The collapse of the German Army Group Center in June and July of 1944 set the stage for the final campaigns in the northern half of the eastern front.

Though estimates vary widely, the losses in that campaign were nothing short of catastrophic. The Germans lost almost a half million men, close to 2,500 tanks and self-propelled guns, over 55,000 other vehicles, and the organizational resources of 25 divisions.

This campaign, called "Operation Bagration" by the Soviets, was their greatest victory against the German Army up to that point, and to celebrate 50,000 prisoners were paraded through Moscow on their way to a railhead for camps further to the east.

Not only were German losses close to 25% of their manpower on the eastern front, but the territory lost brought Soviet forces to the border of the Reich. Desperate battles ensued in East Prussia, while a large concentration of German forces was cut off in the Courland peninsula further north.

A pause followed this disaster, but it was only the calm before the storm.

Soviet forces, refitted and supplied, smashed their way from several bridgeheads on the Vistula River and advanced through Poland in January 1945.

Lacking any defense in depth, the German front disintegrated, with Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front pushing west almost 300 miles. Near the end of the advance, Soviet units breached the Oder-Neiße River line, establishing several bridgeheads against almost no German opposition and but 60 kilometers from Berlin.

Words of encouragement and faith in victory from German senior military and political leaders caused a delay in the evacuation of the area, with the resulting consequences that long lines of refugees clogged the roads while repeatedly strafed by Soviet aircraft or overrun by marauding Soviet armored columns. 

Moreover, the stream of refugees made it difficult for those German units still cohesive enough to fight to maneuver effectively.

The Germans left behind three major fortified cities, Thorn, Poznan and Breslau, which helped to slow the Soviet advance.

In addition, a large portion of German forces, remnants of three armies, were still in areas of East Prussia and Pomerania to the north of the Soviet route of advance. Stavka, the Soviet High Command, decided it was better to destroy these forces before launching any assault on Berlin and through much of February this was accomplished.

German losses had again been massive and the effort needed to rebuild units or create new ones had become extremely difficult. Yet, by early March, a new German front began to take shape along the Oder and Neiße Rivers. The stage was set for the final battle for the German Third Reich.

-- Battle of Seelow Heights and the Fall of Berlin, March-May 1945 Campaign Preparations: An Operational Overview By Russ Rodgers USAREUR Command Historian


Amidst all the hyperbole surrounding the  Anglo-American and Canadian invasion of enemy-occupied France in the Second World War, which claims that it was the “beginning of the end” of the German army, sight of an important, and much-overlooked fact is lost: Compared with the eastern front, it was a mere sideshow.

Objectively speaking, the real D-Day, the real “beginning of the end” for the Wehrmacht, and Nazi Germany, was the Soviet Operation Bagration, the codename for the Soviet 1944 Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation  fought between 22 June and 19 August 1944.

The Wehrmacht had 58 divisions in the west, of which only 11 were deployed against the D-Day landings.

At the same time, however, the Germans deployed 228 divisions in the east. Thus, the Germans had almost four times as many troops facing the Soviets. And they had less than one-20th of that number in Normandy. That alone is an indication of where their priorities lay.

At no time after 6 June, 1944, did the German high command contemplate transferring forces from the east to the west to counter the Normandy landings, but  46 divisions, including some from France, were redeployed to the eastern front.

Bagration showed, by the time the western Allies got around to launching their second front, which Stalin had been clamouring for since 1941, the Red Army almost didn’t need it

Operation Bagration, and the earlier eastern-front battles of Stalingrad and Kursk: Taken together, these battles broke the back of the Wehrmacht, and made ultimate victory over the Nazis possible.

Geographically, Operation Bagration, dwarfed the campaign for Normandy.

In four weeks, it inflicted greater losses on the German army than the Wehrmacht had suffered in five months at Stalingrad.

With more than 2.3 million men, six times the artillery and twice the number of tanks that launched the Battle of the Bulge, it was the largest Allied operation of World War II.

It demolished three Axis armies and tore open the Eastern Front. 

What if the invasion of France had taken place in 1943, rather than 1944?

Churchill and Roosevelt gave the idea little serious consideration; in fact, Churchill would have preferred to wait until 1945.

In August 1942, a 6,000-man force, mostly Canadian, had launched a raid on the French port of Dieppe. The result was total defeat, with a 60 percent casualty rate — the worst of any major battle of the entire war, for the Allies.

Partly as a result, the Allies spent the rest of 1942 and all of 1943 on an invasion of Vichy North Africa [Operation Torch, November 1942], followed by a landing in Sicily [July 1943] and an attack on the Italian mainland.

These offensives caused the fall of Mussolini and the collapse of the Italian army and navy; but the Germans were eventually able to establish the Kesselring Line south of the Po River, and stop the Allied advance for the rest of the war.

The seven-division Allied army that landed at Sicily was actually larger than the Normandy invasion force.

In 1943, Rommel's Atlantic Wall in northern France [machine-gun Bunkers, underwater barriers to block landing craft, and "asparagus" poles to prevent glider landings] was much inferior to the fortress that he had built by 1944.

Thus, a D-Day in June 1943 very likely would have succeeded, and the invading army would have broken out into France more rapidly than the 1944 invaders did.

The American and British armies could have conquered almost all of Germany.

There would have been no Yalta Conference, for Germany would have been defeated almost a year before.

Whatever post-war conferences did take place would have found Churchill and Roosevelt in a much stronger position relative to Stalin. Eastern Europe might still have been in a Soviet sphere of influence, but Communist hegemony would not have been enforced by a Red Army that occupied so many nations by the end of the war. 

The Ardennes offensive [the German name for the attack was "Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein" -Operation Watch on the Rhine

The American press called it the "Battle of the Bulge", to describe the way the Allied front line bulged inward due to the German advances- launched on 16 December 1944, intoxicated Hitler loyalists with revived morale.

The tables had at last turned. Belief in the Führer and in the Wunderwaffen, the miracle weapons such as the V-2, blinded them to reality.

It was a major gamble and the odds were stacked against Germany.

However, at a minimum, perhaps the war could be extended for another year or more and this would give time for German super-weapons to come online.

Seemingly invincible, large German Panzer columns surged westward. 

The latest German weapons technology was concentrated to this offensive: Mighty Königstiger tanks, a revolutionary new assault rifle, flying bombs and modern jet aircraft. 

The Germans even dispatched electric mini U-Boats, the Type XXIII, to support the offensive.

Respected British historian Barrie Pitt noted:

"The Nazi war machine swung into action utilizing as much as it could of the most up-to-date scientific knowledge available, and as the war developed, the list of further achievements grew to staggering proportions... the list is awe-inspiring in its variety".

Pitt stated while some German technology was less developed than imagined at the time, "some were dangerously near to a completion stage which could have reversed the war’s outcome".

The German attack was so grim that Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., not known for his faint-heartedness, confided to his diary on 4 January 1945:

"We can still lose this war".

Rumours spread that the US First Army had been completely surrounded and taken prisoner due to an anaesthetic gas.

There are many cases where the Nazi leadership, and specifically Adolf Hitler, would attempt to gain a psychological advantage by exaggerating German technological capabilities.

For example, when the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940, they seized the fortress of Eben-Emael in 24 hours, much to the astonishment of the Allies.

In a speech, Hitler attributed the success to a special weapon or "Angriffsmittel", whose character he would not divulge.

His announcement immediately created apprehension among the Allies, as well as speculation about the nature of the wonder weapon: Bombs containing liquid oxygen as well as a paralyzing and non-lethal nerve gas were both suggested as possibilities.

In fact, the legendary Angriffsmittel turned out to be nothing more complicated than a shaped explosive charge.

They thought that they could hold the world to ransom and take revenge for all that Germany had suffered. Veteran NCOs appear to have been among the most embittered.

Paris was about to be recaptured, they told each other with fierce glee.

Many regretted that the French capital should have been spared from destruction the year before while Berlin was bombed to ruins.

They exulted at the idea that history might now be corrected.


For the Offensive to be successful, four criteria were deemed critical by the planners:

- The attack had to be a complete surprise;
- The weather conditions had to be poor to neutralize Allied air superiority and the damage it could inflict on the German offensive and its supply lines;
- The progress had to be rapid. General Walter Model declared that the Meuse River had to be reached by day 4, if the offensive was to have any chance of success; and
- Allied fuel supplies would have to be captured intact along the way because the Wehrmacht was short on fuel. The General Staff estimated they only had enough fuel to cover one-third to one-half of the ground to Antwerp in heavy combat conditions.

The necessary fuel [four million gallons] and ammunition [fifty trainloads from the sacrosanct Führer reserve], above and beyond the current needs of the theater, were promisedby Hitler.

The Luftwaffe, Hitler assured his commanders, would support the attack of the ground forces with 1,500 fighters including 100 jets.

This was Hitler's original concept put into a directive. Except for the number and effective strength of units, it remained virtually unchanged until the offensive began on the morning of 16 December 1944.

On the eve of his offensive Hitler could point with satisfaction to the fulfillment of the basic prerequisites he had specified when he had
In the book entitled "Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's Ardennes Offensive, 1944-1945" by Danny S. Parker, he states  that the Germans had plenty of fuel, but they did not have the trucks to move it from the supply dumps east of the Rhine to the combat units.  

Quite obviously the German problem was transport rather than an overall shortage of fuel.

The Official History states:

"It was still possible even so to gather a substantial ammunition reserve for the Ardennes offensive, and after the war the supply officers at OKW were able to say that before the US counterattack on 3 January 1945 there was no shortage of artillery ammunition in the field.

"This statement merely reflects the rarefied and isolated view of the high headquarters, for despite the 100 ammunition trains of the special Führer Reserve the troops in the Ardennes operation did suffer from a shortage of ammunition".

Which is different than Hitler's promise by 50 train ammunition train loads.

Danny Parker writes:

"There had been some hope on the part of the German field com
manders that their attack force might advance off fuel supplies captured from the Allies. In actuality, this source failed to materialize".

The German Army's high command did not share this enthusiasm for the offensive in the west.

General staff officers feared that Hitler's strategic coup against the Americans in the Ardennes would weaken the Eastern Front at a decisive moment.

The plan was in any case vastly over-ambitious.

The operation was spearheaded by the Sixth SS Panzer Army of Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich and the Fifth Panzer Army of General Hasso von Manteuffel.

Yet the lack of fuel made it extremely unlikely that they would ever reach their objective of Antwerp, the Western Allies' main supply base..

Adolf Hitler was fixated by dreams of dramatically reversing the fortunes of war and forcing Roosevelt and Churchill to come to terms. He, and leading members of the National Socialist political elite believed that the Allied structure of co-operation was about to come apart, and thus staked the future of Germany on such a hope.

Hitler had decisively rejected any suggestion of overtures to the Soviet Union, partly for the sound reason that Stalin was interested only in the destruction of Nazi Germany, but there was also a fundamental impediment.

Hitler suffered from strong personal vanity. He could not be seen to sue for peace when Germany was losing.

A victory in the Ardennes was therefore vital for every reason. But American doggedness in defence, especially at Bastogne, and the massive deployment of Allied air power once the weather cleared, broke the momentum of the attack within a week.

On Christmas Eve 1944, General Heinz Guderian, the chief of the army supreme command, OKH, drove to Führerheadquarters in the west.

After abandoning the Wolfsschanze, or Wolf's Lair, in East Prussia on 20 November 1944, Hitler had moved to Berlin for a minor operation on his throat. He had then left the capital on the evening of 10 December in his personal armoured train.

His destination was another secret and camouflaged complex in woods near Ziegenberg, less than forty kilometres from Frankfurt am Main, designated the Adlerhorst, or Eagle's Eyrie. Guderian, the great theorist of tank warfare, had known the dangers of such an operation from the start, but he had little say in the matter.

Although the OKH was responsible for the Eastern Front, it was never allowed a free hand. The OKW, the high command of the Wehrmacht [all the armed forces], was responsible for operations outside the Eastern Front. Both organizations were based just south of Berlin in neighbouring underground complexes at Zossen.

Despite having as quick a temper as Hitler, Guderian was very different in outlook. He had little time for an entirely speculative international strategy when the country was under attack from both sides. Instead, he relied on a soldier's instinct for the point of maximum danger.

There was no doubt where that lay. His briefcase contained the Intelligence analysis of General Reinhard Gehlen, the head of Fremde Heere Ost, the military Intelligence department for the Eastern Front.

Gehlen calculated that around 12 January the Red Army would launch a massive attack from the line of the River Vistula. His department estimated that the enemy had a superiority of eleven to one in infantry, seven to one in tanks and twenty to one in artillery and also in aviation.

Guderian entered the conference room at the Adlerhorst to find himself facing Hitler and his military staff, and also Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer SS who, after the July plot, had also been made commander of the Replacement Army. Every member of Hitler's military staff had been selected for his unquestioning loyalty:

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of staff of the OKW, was famous for his pompous servility to Hitler [behind his back he was known as "Lakeitel" - a pun on "lackey"].

Colonel General Alfred Jodl, who had a cold, hard face, was far more competent than Keitel.

General Wilhelm Burgdorf, Hitler's chief military adjutant and chief of the army personnel department controlling all appointments, had replaced General Rudolf Schmundt, who was mortally wounded by Stauffenberg's bomb at the Wolfsschanze.

Using the findings of Gehlen's Intelligence department, Guderian outlined the Red Army's build-up for a huge offensive in the east.

It had been reported that 225 Soviet infantry divisions and 22 armoured corps had been identified on the front between the Baltic and the Carpathians assembled to attack which would take place within three weeks.

Guderian requested that, since the Ardennes offensive had now ground to a halt, as many divisions as possible should be withdrawn for redeployment on the Vistula front.

Hitler stopped him.

He declared that such estimates of enemy strength were preposterous. Soviet rifle divisions never had more than 7,000 men each. Their tank corps had hardly any tanks.

"It's the greatest imposture since Genghis Khan," he shouted, working himself up. "Who is responsible for producing all this rubbish?"

Guderian resisted the temptation to reply that it was Hitler himself who talked of German "armies" when they were the size of a single corps, and of "infantry divisions" reduced to battalion strength. Instead, he defended Gehlen's figures.

To his horror, General Jodl argued that the offensive in the west should continue with further attacks. Since this was exactly what Hitler wanted, Guderian was thwarted.

It was even more provoking for him to have to listen at dinner to the verdict of Himmler, who reveled in his new role of military leader.

He had recently been made army group commander on the upper Rhine in addition to his other appointments.

"You know, my dear Colonel General," he said to Guderian, "I don't really believe that the Russians will attack at all. It's all an enormous bluff".

Guderian had no alternative but to return to OKH headquarters at Zossen. In the meantime, the losses in the west mounted.

The Ardennes Offensive and its ancillary operations cost 80,000 German casualties. In addition, it had used up a large proportion of Germany's rapidly dwindling fuel reserves.

Hitler refused to accept that the Ardennes battle was his equivalent of the Kaiserschlacht, the last great German attack of the First World War.

He obsessively rejected any parallels with 1918. For him, 1918 symbolized only the revolutionary "stab in the back" which brought down the Kaiser and reduced Germany to a humiliating defeat.

Yet Hitler had moments of clarity even  during those days.

"I know the war is lost," he said late one evening to Colonel Nikolaus von Below, his Luftwaffe aide.

"The enemy's superiority is too great".

But he continued to lay all the blame on others for the sequence of disasters. They were all "traitors", especially army officers. He suspected that many more had sympathized with the failed assassins, yet they had been pleased enough to accept medals and decorations from him.

"We will never surrender," he said. "We may go down, but we will take a world with us".

Horrified by the new disaster looming on the Vistula, Guderian returned to the Adlerhorst at Ziegenberg twice more in rapid succession.

To make matters worse, he heard that Hitler, without warning him, was transferring SS Panzer troops from the Vistula front to Hungary.

Hitler, convinced as usual that only he could see the strategic issues, had suddenly decided to launch a counter-attack there on the grounds that the oil fields must be retaken.

In fact he wanted to break through to Budapest, which had been surrounded by the Red Army on Christmas Eve.

Berliners, gaunt from short rations and stress, had little to celebrate at Christmas in 1944. Much of the capital of the Reich had been reduced to rubble by bombing raids.
The Berlin talent for black jokes had turned to gallows humour. The quip of that unfestive season was, "'Be practical: give a coffin".

The mood in Germany had changed exactly two years before, when rumours had begun to circulate just before Christmas 1942 that General Friedrich Paulus's Sixth Army had been encircled on the Volga by the Red Army.
The Nazi regime found it hard to admit that the largest formation in the whole of the Wehrmacht was doomed to annihilation in the ruins of Stalingrad and in the frozen Steppe outside. To prepare the country for more bad news, 
Josef Göbbels, the Reichsminister for Propaganda and Enlightenment, had announced a "German Christmas", which in National Socialist terms meant austerity and ideological determination, not candles and pine wreathes and singing "Heilige Nacht".
By 1944, the traditional roast goose had become a distant memory.

In streets where the facade of a house had collapsed, pictures could still be seen hanging on the walls of what had been a sitting room or bedroom. Messages from families were scrawled on gutted buildings to tell a son returning from the front that they were all right and staying elsewhere.

Nazi Party notices warned, "Looters will be punished with death''.


Air raids were so frequent, with the British by night and the Americans by day, that Berliners felt that they spent more time in cellars and air-raid shelters than in their own beds.

The lack of sleep contributed to the strange mixture of suppressed hysteria and fatalism.


Far fewer people seemed to worry about being denounced to the Gestapo for defeatism, as the rash of jokes indicated.

The initials LSR for Luftschutzraum, or air-raid shelter, stood for "Lernt schnell Russisch": Learn Russian quickly.

Most Berliners had entirely dropped the "Heil Hitler!" greeting. 

The most common greeting had become "Bleib übrig!" — Survive.

The humour also reflected the grotesque, sometimes surreal images of the time.

The largest air-raid construction in Berlin was the Zoo Bunker.

It was a vast ferro-concrete fortress, with Flak batteries on the roof'

The Zoo Flak tower [Flakturm Tiergarten], was a fortified Flak tower in Berlin.

It was one of several to protect the city from Allied bomber raids.

Its primary role was as a gun platform to protect the government building district of Berlin, and to be used as a civilian air-raid shelter.

It contained a hospital and a radio transmitter for use by the German leadership.

The Berlin Flak towers were originally built as a response to an attack on Berlin by a relatively small force of British bombers. Hitler ordered the construction of these towers after the first bomber attack on Berlin by the RAF on 25 August 1940.

AAlthough only 95 RAF bombers constituted the attack force, this was a grave domestic political embarrassment to Adolf Hitler, and in particular Hermann Göring, who had said  that Berlin would never be bombed.

The Zoo tower,  the first one built, was close to the Berlin Zoo, hence the name, and is the most famous of the Flak towers.

As all Flak towers, it  consisted of two towers, the Main G tower, which held the anti-aircraft armaments, and the L tower which held radar and detection equipment. 

The G Tower could accommodate 15,000 people The two were connected by a landline that was buried in the ground and protected.

The second floor was used to house the most priceless and irreplaceable holdings of 14 museums from Berlin, storing the Kaiser Wilhelm coin collection, the Nefertiti bust, the disassembled Altar of Zeus from Pergamon, and other major treasures.

During the Battle of Berlin, it acted as a citadel and by depressing its large anti-aircraft artillery, its garrison was able to provide support for ground operations against the encroaching Soviet Red Army.

The complex was so well stocked with supplies and ammunition that the military garrison believed that, no matter what happened to the rest of Berlin, the Zoo tower could hold out for a year if need be".

-- Ryan, Cornelius [1995]. "The Last Battle"

The rooms were climate controlled. On the third floor was an 85-bed hospital, used to treat wounded soldiers, shipped back from the front line. Famed Luftwaffe ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel had his leg amputated there in February 1945.

The Main G tower was crewed by 350 Anti-ircraft personnel, and assisted by Hitler Youth.

It measured roughly 70 meters by 70 meters. The walls were 2.4 meters thick, and the roof was 1.5 meters thick.

The two towers resisted all attempts to destroy them by air attack and ground forces. The Soviets used their largest artillery pieces, 203 mm Howitzers, which they withstood.

From 1943, there were four twin mounts of 12.8 cm Flak 40.  on the roof of the facility.

As bombers took to higher altitudes, these were the only guns that could hit them.

Each barrel could fire 10 to 12 rounds a minute, thus each twin mounted battery was rated to fire a maximum of 24 rounds a minute, and four twin mounts could fire as many as 96 rounds a minute.

The guns were loaded electrically, with the ammunition fed into hoppers.

Younger Nazi Youth, while officially not supposed to be combatants, assisted the military during the loading process.

Before the 12.8 cm Flak became available in sufficient numbers, the tower was armed with 10.5 cm Flak 38.

There was also a range of smaller [20mm and 37mm] anti-aircraft guns on the lower platforms.

The primary purpose of the Flak Towers was to protect Berlin
TWith the Luftwaffe and a well organised fire brigade, the levels of aerial attack damage the RAF and the USAAF expected to occur, as in other German cities, were prevented.
 RAF Bomber Command had been endeavoring to ignite firestorms in Berlin, but had been unable to do so.

There was the option to use the Tower as a command facility for the defence of Berlin by General Hellmuth Reymann, in charge of the city's defence, but he refused to move his headquarters there.

With Soviet and Polish troops entering Berlin in 1945, civilians moved into the Zoo tower to escape harm.

Soviet troops [150th and 171st Rifle Divisions] attacked across the Moltke Bridge covering the River Spree.

This was defended by German infantry and rockets, who were under pressure from Soviet tanks crossing the bridge, until the heavier anti-aircraft guns from the Zoo tower could gain line of sight through the smoke.

They destroyed the tanks and left the bridge covered in destroyed vehicles, which blocked further vehicles from crossing the bridge. The heavier 12.8 cm Flak 40 anti-aircraft guns obliterated Soviet armour, particularly when hitting it from the side.

As the Soviet armies advanced inexorably towards the centre of Berlin, around 10,000 German troops retreated to the Government district. 

During daylight hours on 30 April, the Soviets were unable to advance across the open areas in front of the Reichstag to attack the building because of heavy anti-tank fire from the 12.8 cm guns two kilometres away on the Zoo tower.

Katukov's 1st Guards Tank Army and Chuikov's 8th Guards Army had attacked into the Tiergarten from the south across the Landwehr Canal.

But the task of tackling the Zoo Flak tower was left to two regiments from the 79th Guards Rifle Division.

Storming it was out of the question, so on 30 April they sent German prisoners as envoys bearing an ultimatum written in pencil to the commander:

"We propose that you surrender the fortress without further fighting. We guarantee that no troops, including SS and SA men, will be executed".

On 1 May one of the prisoners eventually returned with a reply:

"Your note was received at 11 p.m. We will capitulate [tonight] at midnight. Haller, garrison commander".

According to Antony Beevor, Haller was not in fact the garrison commander and the reason for the long delay was to allow the forces in the Tiergarten area prepare a break-out that evening through the Soviet lines and away from Berlin. This they did, shortly before midnight. The civilians then left the facility.

Commander of 1.Flak-Division and Commandant of the Flak-tower, Generalmajor Otto Sydow organized a break-out from the Zoo [Tiergarten] position.

In "Berlin: Dance of Death" by Helmut Altner, Tony Le Tissier says that Helmut Altner saw Gen. Sydow in a tank in the break through at the Havel river on 1 May.

There was a pervasive atmosphere of impending downfall in personal lives as much as in the nation's existence.

The air-raid shelters, lit with blue lights, provided a foretaste of claustrophobic hell, as people pushed in bundled in their warmest clothes and carrying small cardboard suitcases containing sandwiches and thermos.

In theory, all basic needs were catered for in the shelters. There was a Sanitätsraum, with a nurse, where women could go into labour. The ceilings were painted with luminous paint for the frequent occasions during the air raids when the lights failed, first dimming then flickering off.

Water supplies ceased when mains were hit, and the Aborte, or lavatories, soon became disgusting, a real distress for a nation preoccupied with hygiene. 

For a population of around 3 million, Berlin did not have enough shelters, so they were usually overcrowded. 

Berliners suffered from an atavistic and visceral fear of the Slav invader from the east. Fear was easily turned to hate.

As the Red Army approached, Göbbels' propaganda harked on again and again about the atrocities at Nemmerdorf, when Red Army troops had invaded the south-eastern corner of East Prussia the previous autumn and raped and murdered inhabitants of this village.

The Nemmersdorf massacre was a civilian massacre allegedly perpetrated by Red Army soldiers in the late stages of World War II.

Nemmersdorf was one of the first pre-war ethnic German villages to fall to the advancing Red Army in World War II.

On 21 October 1944, Soviet soldiers reportedly killed many German civilians as well as French and Belgian non-combatants.

Nazi German authorities organized an international commission to investigate, headed by Estonian Hjalmar Mäe and other representatives of neutral countries, such as Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The commission heard the report from a medical commission.

It reported that all the dead females had been raped [they ranged in age from 8 to 84].

The former chief of staff of the German Fourth Army, Major General Erich Dethleffsen, testified on 5 July 1946 before an American tribunal in Neu-Ulm.

He said:

"When in October 1944, Russian units temporarily entered Nemmersdorf, they tortured the civilians, specifically they nailed them to barn doors, and then shot them.

"A large number of women were raped and then shot. During this massacre, the Russian soldiers also shot some fifty French prisoners of war. Within forty-eight hours the Germans re-occupied the area".

At the time, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry disseminated a graphic description of the events in order to inspire the German soldiers.

On the home front, civilians reacted immediately, with an increase in the number of volunteers joining the Volkssturm. A larger number of civilians responded with panic, and started to leave the area en masse.

To many Germans, Nemmersdorf became a symbol of war crimes committed by the Red Army, and an example of the worst behavior in Eastern Germany.

Sir Ian Kershaw is among those historians who believe that the Soviet forces committed a massacre at Nemmersdorf, although details and numbers are disputed.

The German Federal Archives [Bundesarchiv] contain many contemporary reports and photographs by officials of Nazi Germany of the victims of the Nemmersdorf massacre.

It holds evidence of other Soviet massacres in East Prussia, notably Metgethen.

General Günther Blumentritt, like most of those in authority, was convinced that the bombing raids on Germany produced a real "Volksgenossenschaft" or patriotic comradeship.

This may well have been true in 1942 and 1943, but by late 1944 the effect tended to polarize opinion between the hardliners and the war-weary.

Berlin had been the city with the highest proportion of opponents to the Nazi regime, as its voting records before 1933 indicate.

But with the exception of a very small and courageous minority, opposition to the Nazis had generally been limited to gibes and grumbles; the majority had been genuinely horrified by the assassination attempt against Hitler on 20 July 1944.

And as the Reich's frontiers became threatened both in the east and in the west, they drank in Göbbels' stream of lies that the Führer would unleash new "wonder weapons" against their enemies, as if he were about to assume the role of a wrathful Jupiter flinging thunderbolts as a symbol of his power.

Guderian's visit on New Year's Day coincided with the annual procession of the regime's grandees and the chiefs of staff, to transmit in person to the Führer their "wishes for a successful New Year".

That same morning Operation North Wind, the main subsidiary action to prolong the Ardennes Offensive, was launched in Alsace.

The day turned out to be a catastrophe for the Luftwaffe.

Göring, in a grand gesture of characteristic irresponsibility, committed almost 1,000 planes to attack ground targets on the Western Front.

This attempt to impress Hitler led to the final destruction of the Luftwaffe as an effective force. It gave the Allies total air supremacy.

The Großdeutscher Rundfunk broadcast Hitler's New Year speech that day.

No mention was made of the fighting in the west, which suggested failure there, and surprisingly little was said of the Wunderwaffen.

A number of people believed that the speech had been pre-recorded or even faked. Hitler had not been seen in public for so long that wild rumours were circulating. Some asserted that he had gone completely mad and that Göring was in a secret prison because he had tried to escape to Sweden.

Albert Speer, Reichminister for Armaments and War Production, wrote, "The failure of the Ardennes Offensive meant that the war was over".

General Gehlen's estimates of Soviet strength were certainly not exaggerated. If anything, they were well short of the mark on the threatened sectors.

The Red Army had 6.7 million men along a front which stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic. This was over twice the strength of the Wehrmacht and its Allies when they invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Hitler's conviction last summer that the Red Army was about to collapse had proved to be one of the most catastrophic miscalculations in history. The disasters of the previous year, above all the encirclement and destruction of Army Group Centre during Operation Bagration, were hard to forget.

On 9 January, after an urgent tour of the three main eastern fronts -Hungary, the Vistula and East Prussia- General Guderian, accompanied by his aide, Major Baron Freytag von Löringhoven, had again gone to see Hitler at Ziegenberg.

He presented the latest estimates of enemy strengths, both Gehlen's compilation and also those of the Luftwaffe commander, General Hans Seidemann.

Air reconnaissance indicated that there were 8,000 Soviet planes concentrated on the Vistula and East Prussian fronts.

Göring interrupted the army chief of staff.

"Mein Führer, don't believe that," he said to Hitler. 'Those are not real planes. Those are just decoys".

Keitel, in a sycophantic show of resolution, smashed his fist down on the table. "The Reichsmarschall is right", he declared.

The meeting continued as a black farce. Hitler repeated his view that the Intelligence figures were "completely idiotic" and added that the man who compiled them should be locked in a lunatic asylum. Guderian retorted angrily that since he supported them completely, he had better be certified as well.

Hitler refused out of hand the requests of General Josef Harpe on the Vistula front and General Georg-Hans Reinhardt in East Prussia to withdraw their most exposed troops to more defensible positions.

He also insisted that the 200,000 German troops trapped on the Courland peninsula in Latvia should remain there and not be evacuated by sea to defend the Reich's borders.

The Courland Pocket [Kurland-Kessel] refers to the Red Army's isolation of Axis forces on the Courland Peninsula from July 1944 through May 1945.

It was created during the Red Army's Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation, when forces of the 1st Baltic Front reached the Baltic Sea near Memel during its lesser Memel Offensive Operation phases. This action isolated the German Army Group North [Heeresgruppe Nord] from the rest of the German forces between Tukums and Liepāja in Latvia.

The Army Group remained isolated until the end of the war.
Kurland, Baltic Coast
25 January - 3 February 1945

During the Fourth Battle of Kurland, Major Josef William Sepp Brandner, commander of Sturmgeschütz Brigade 912, personally counter-attacked a Soviet breakthrough.

With only his headquarters of 3 guns, he continued without infantry support to pursue and rout the enemy units.

By the end of this action he had destroyed his 57th tank, his final tally rose to 66 by the wars end.

Awards: Knight's Cross on 17 January 1945, and Oak Leaves on 30 April 1945

Hitler's military advisors—notably Heinz Guderian, the Chief of the German General Staff, urged evacuation and utilisation of the troops to stabilise the front in central Europe.

Hitler refused, and ordered the German forces in Courland, the Estonian islands Hiiumaa and Saaremaa to hold out, believing them necessary to protect German submarine bases along the Baltic coast.

Hitler still believed the war could be won. 

he hoped that Dönitzs new Type XXI U-Boat technology could bring victory to Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic, forcing the Allies out of Western Europe.

This would allow German forces to focus on the Eastern Front, using the Courland Pocket as a springboard for a new offensive.

There is a little-known episode from the war ,and the only place it is entioned is in Earl F. Ziemke's "Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East" [Barnes & Noble 1996]. Ziemke gives as his source Alfred Jodl's War Diary [Tagebuch] from 16 Sepember 1944.

This was the same time that Finland was pulling out of the war. Hitler thought very highly of the Finns, and their departure after over a year of mulling it over must have had an effect on him.

The Finns were negotiating through the Soviet Ambassador to Sweden, Madame Alexandra Kollontay.

This is sheer speculation: During those talks between Finland and the Soviets, which were prolonged over several years and which everyone realized were increasingly real as the war got further along, the Soviets  may have dropped some hints that they would be willing to at least discuss a separate peace with Hitler.

Kollontay, for instance, could have seen her growing progress with the Finns and said something along the lines of, "You are being quite reasonable, why don't you talk to Adolf and have him send somebody along that I can work with next time we meet, too?"

However, nothing is known about those talks or any mention during them of Germany, and it is sheer speculation. However, it is difficult to see where else any serious thought of peace talks with Stalin could have arisen at that point.

By that point, the vulnerability of Army Group North had become critical, and General Ferdinand Schörner requested permission to withdraw.

It was the prudent military course, and Schörner was one of the Generals that Hitler knew was a fanatic and would not request a withdrawal unless it were absolutely critical.

When faced with such a reasonable request, Hitler approved more often than is commonly realized [and also often made completely insane decisions to hold hopeless positions against all  military logic].

Schörner showed up at Hitler's East Prussian headquarters to get approval.

Ziemke writes:

"As always, Hitler was reluctant to approve a retreat. With inverse logic, he argued that III SS Panzer Corps on the outer flank between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland would not be able to get away in any event.

"He also claimed that the Soviet Union had peace feelers out, and he needed the Baltic territory to bargain with".

Ultimately, Hitler did approve the withdrawal, probably only because it was Schörner requesting it.

There is one more curious entry that is the only other reference to this incident:

"That night [16 September] General Heinz Guderian told General Georg-Hans Reinhardt that because 'great things' were in progress in foreign policy' [the alleged Soviet peace feelers?],

"Hitler 'absolutely had to have a success either at Third Panzer Army or at Army Group North'.

"The 'instant' that he could see that the attack was not going to succeed, Reinhardt was to report it to Hitler and  get ready to transfer the divisions to Army Group North".

The parenthetical question is Ziemke's, who apparently found this to be curious, too.

These passages raise all sorts of questions that have no answer. The possibility that Hitler may have been fabricating the occasion of peace talks is always possible. However, this is a very rare incidence where Hitler mentioned anything like this.

More likely, Madame Kollontay said something off-hand to the Finns, who, knowing that they would face casualties from kicking the Germans off their territory as part of any peace deal of their own, gave Hitler some kind of indication that a peace deal was also possible to include Germany.

Since there is no other reference to this particular talk of peace, it obviously went nowhere even though Hitler's troops did solve their short-term problems in the north.

This incident may help explain why Hitler was so adamant about keeping troops in the Courland pocket long after they ceased to have any use there.

Hitler's refusal to evacuate the Army Group resulted in the entrenchment of more than 200,000 German troops largely of the 16th Army and 18th Army, in what became known to the Germans as the "Courland Bridgehead".

Thirty-three divisions of Army Group North  -commanded by Ferdinand Schörner- were cut off from Prussia and spread out along a front reaching from Riga to Liepāja.

On 15 January 1945, Army Group North was renamed Army Group Courland [Heeresgruppe Kurland] under Colonel-General Dr Lothar Rendulic.

Heinz Guderian got Hitler’s permission to withdraw 7 divisions from Courland, however, Hitler refused to consider a total withdrawal.

On 8 May, Germany's Head of State and President Karl Dönitz ordered Colonel-General Carl Hilpert -the Army Group's last commander- to surrender, however, they were in "blackout" and did not get the official order before 10 May, two days after the capitulation of Germany, beings one of the last German groups to surrender in Europe.
Hilpert, his personal staff, and staffs of three Armies surrendered to Marshal Leonid Govorov, the commander of the Leningrad Front. At this time, the group still consisted of the remnants of 27 divisions and one brigade.

By 12 May, approximately 135,000 German troops surrendered in the Courland Pocket. On 23 May, the Soviet collection of the German troops in the Courland Pocket was completed.

Guderian, disgusted with this "ostrich strategy", prepared to take his leave.

Hitler, suddenly trying to charm him, said:

"The Eastern Front has never before possessed such a strong reserve as now. That is your doing. I thank you for it".

"The Eastern Front," Guderian retorted, "is like a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse".

Ironically, Göbbels had used exactly the same simile in 1941 about the Red Army.Just over twenty-four hours later, Guderian's staff at Zossen received confirmation that the attack was now hours rather than days away.

Red Army sappers were clearing minefields at night and tank corps were being brought forward into the bridgeheads. Hitler ordered that the Panzer reserves on the Vistula front should be moved forward, despite warnings that this would bring them within range of Soviet artillery. Some senior officers began to wonder whether Hitler subconsciously wanted to lose the war.

By the beginning of 1945 the personnel, technical equipment and weapons of the Soviet army reached the highest level in all the war years

On the Soviet-German front the Soviet Army had 6.7 million people, 107.3 thousand guns and mortars, 12.1 thousand tanks and self-propelled artillery installations and 14.7 thousand war aircraft; it outnumbered its foe 5:1 in men, 15:1 in artillery, 5:1 in tanks  and 3:1 in aircraft.

A powerful defense system had been set up between the Vistula and the Oder by the Hitler Command, consisting of seven borderlines and a great number of fortified lines and positions.

On the front from Warsaw to Jaslo defense was maintained by the main forces of the "A" army group numbering up to 560,000 soldiers and officers, some 5,000 guns and mortars, 1,220 tanks and storm guns. The army group was backed by 630 war aircraft. It was decided to use strong frontal blows, above all, to be delivered by the tank troops to split the enemy's grouping into two parts, crushing the main forces.

The troops had to advance at high speed and arrive before the enemy could capture the defence lines. These actions are known as the Vistula-Oder Operation.

The Operation, which Hitler had dismissed as an imposture, started on the morning of 12 January. Initially the offensive was planned to begin on 20 January or later. But the date was changed because on 16 December the Germans  struck a blow at the American-British units in the Ardennes.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned to the head of the Soviet government Josef Stalin for hel..

Soviet troops opened fierce fire on the enemy, causing heavy losses. To avoid being surrounded, the Germans began to retreat.

On 16 January, the Soviet troops began to press the enemy along the entire 250-km front line. It took them six days to force their way farther to the West, covering 150 km.

On 17 January, the Soviet troops liberated the cities of Radomsko, Czestochowa, and  the capital Warsaw though Hitler's orders were that the city should not be surrendered whatever the cost.

To mark the liberation of the Polish capital the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet established the medal "For the Liberation of Warsaw", which was conferred on more than 682 thousand Soviet and Polish soldiers and officers. 


Soviet historians always tried to maintain that Stalin was planning to launch the attack on 20 January, but then, when he received a letter from Churchill on 6 January begging for help, he gave the order the next day to advance the attack to 12 January, even though the weather conditions were unfavorable. 

his was a gross misrepresentation of Churchill's letter.

It was not a begging letter to save the Allies in the Ardennes. He had already written to say that the Allies were now "masters of the situation" and Stalin knew perfectly well from his liaison officers in the west that the German threat there had collapsed by Christmas.

Churchill was simply asking for information on when the Red Army was going to launch its great winter offensive, because the Kremlin had resolutely refused to reply to such requests, even when Soviet liaison officers were kept abreast of Eisenhower's plans.

The Vistula offensive, planned since October, had been prepared well ahead: One Soviet source even says that it had been possible "to start the advance on 8-10 January".

Stalin was therefore more than happy to give the impression that he was saving his Allies from a difficult situation, especially when he had reasons of his own for pushing forward the date. 

The Crimean conference at Yalta was imminent and Stalin wanted to make sure that his armies controlled the whole of Poland by the time he sat down with the American and British leaders.

His law could be imposed ruthlessly on Polish territory purely because it constituted the immediate rear area to his operational troops.

Anyone who objected could be classified as a saboteur or fascist agent.

Finally, there was a much more down-to-earth reason for bringing the great offensive forward. Stalin was worried that the predicted change in the weather for the beginning of February would turn hard ground to mud and therefore slow up his tanks.

In the late afternoon of Monday 15 January, "because of the big advance in the east", Hitler left the Adlerhorst at Ziegenberg to return to Berlin on his special train.

Guderian had been forcefully requesting his return for the last three days. At first, Hitler had said that the Eastern Front must sort itself out, but finally he agreed to halt all activity in the west and return.

Without consulting Guderian or the two army groups involved, he had just issued orders for the Großdeutschland Corps to be moved from East Prussia to Kielce to shore up the Vistula front, even though this meant taking it out of the battle for at least a week.

Hitler's journey by rail to Berlin took nineteen hours. He did not entirely neglect domestic matters. He told Martin Bormann to stay at the Obersalzburg for the time being, where he and his wife kept Eva Braun and her sister Gretl Fegelein company.

The next twenty-four hours proved that the Soviet armies which had broken through the Vistula front were indeed advancing at full speed. Each seemed to outbid the other.

The rapid advances of Zhukov's tank armies were partly due to the simplicity and robust construction of T-34 tank and its broad tracks, which could cope with snow, ice and mud.

Even so, the mechanic's skills proved at least as important as cavalry dash, because field workshops could not keep up.

Russia's T-34 Tank: The Weapon That Crushed Hitler and Won World War II?

In 1942, careworn Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler lamented to his military intimates at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia,:

"If I had known that there were so many of them, I would have had second thoughts about invading".”

The “them” he was referring to were the famed Soviet Red Army T-34 battle tanks that had come as such a nasty surprise to the Nazis in the summer of 1941 and then went on to become a major reason for the Panzers being halted at the gates of Moscow.

Drs. Matthew Hughes and Chris Mann in their 2002 work 'The T-34 Russian Battle Tank" note:

“The presence of the T-34/76 in 1941 proved to be a rude shock for the Germans. Compared to other Soviet tanks, the T-34 was able to take on and destroy the best of the German panzers. In various modifications, and despite some setbacks, the T-34 held its own until the war’s end in the ruins of Berlin in 1945”.

Hitler’s Lament

There were also the shocking production numbers to consider. Hitler lamented his decision to invade the vast Soviet Union, but it was too late to reverse his course.

During 1939-1945, the Third Reich had produced 19,938 tanks. Even with the best of Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer’s most streamlined methods, the Soviets still outnumbered them, with 53,552 T-34 tanks alone sent from factories to the battlefields of Eastern Europe.

In addition, the Germans had an obsession with more and more unique models, while the Soviets relied mainly on the T-34.

Thus, if one of their mobile units broke down, the Nazis might have difficulty in finding spare parts, while the tankers of the Red Army could literally scour any battlefield and find parts for their damaged T-34s. In the end, this was a clear advantage over their “more mechanized” foes.

In Speer’s 1970 memoirs, "Inside the Third Reich:, there appears this interesting passage:

“Very often, directly after one of these conferences, Hitler would lecture his military advisers on the technical knowledge he had just acquired. He loved to present such pieces of information with a casual air, as if the knowledge were his own.

“When the Russian T-34 appeared, Hitler was triumphant, for he could then point out that he had earlier demanded the kind of long-barreled gun it had.

"Even before my appointment as Minister of Armaments, I had heard Hitler in the Chancellery garden, after a demonstration of the Panzer IV, inveighing against the obstinacy of the Army Ordnance Office which had turned down his idea for increasing the velocity of the missile by lengthening the barrel.

“The Ordnance Office at the time presented counterarguments: The long barrel would overload the tank in front, since it was not built with such a gun in view. If so major a change were introduced, the whole design would be thrown out of balance.

“Hitler would always bring up this incident whenever his ideas encountered opposition.

‘I was right at the time, and no one wanted to believe me. Now I am right again.’

When the Army felt the need for a tank which could outmaneuver the comparatively fast T-34 by greater speed, Hitler insisted that more would be gained by increasing the range of the guns and the weight of the armor. In this field, too, he had mastered the necessary figures by heart”.

The T-34: Something Special

In July 1941, the Germans first encountered the T-34 and discovered to their horror that its gun could knock out their own armored fighting vehicles at longer ranges than their own guns could effectively reply. The T-34 combined punch with mobility in a single superb package. Notes Hughes and Mann:

“The T-34 had firepower, armor protection and mobility far superior to other tanks then in service. In particular, its broad tracks and low ground-bearing pressure meant it could keep going on soft ground where German tanks often became bogged down—crucial for warfare on the Eastern Front….

“The T-34 was something special. Widely regarded as the most influential tank design of World War II, it was probably the best also.…

"Tank design has always been a complex compromise between firepower, protection and mobility. Most tanks have had to sacrifice one or more of these factors in favor of the other, yet in the T-34 the Soviet designers achieved a perfect balance—no compromises had been made”.

The 76.2mm gun on the T-34 had a real hitting power to it by the armament standards of the day, and its radical new sloping armor gave it unusual protection.

Its superior Diesel engine and Christie suspension system provided superb cross-country performance as well.

Later, an 85mm gun and even heavier armor were added to the same basic chassis, which was in itself a remarkable engineering feat.

“Indeed, the T-34/85 makes the strongest claim of any of the T-34 family for the title of best all-around tank of any stage of the war", wrote Hughes and Mann.
“The design has also proved to be remarkably durable.

"It remained the Soviet main battle tank until the mid-1950s, and the Bosnian Serbs were still using T-34/85s during the fighting in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Such longevity in a modern major weapon is unprecedented”.

The T-34 was, quite literally, the main weapon of war that blunted the formerly invincible Nazi war strategy.

Designed and proto-typed during 1939-1940 as Nazi Germany’s Panzers were overrunning the plains of Poland and then Northwestern Europe, about 1,200 T-34s were ready for use on 22 June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa.

The majority of these early T-34s were manufactured at “Tankograd”, the popular name for Chelyabinsk, east of the Ural Mountains in Soviet Asia, where two factories from Leningrad and Kharkov had been evacuated to begin work anew.

Production of the T-34 continued after World War II. The construction of the tank was a relatively simple process, and it had proven itself during wartime to be an effective combination of numerous design features. The SU-85 and SU-100 assault guns were later variants of the original T-34 design.

The tank had a V-2-34 V-12 cylinder, liquid-cooled Diesel engine at the rear of the vehicle with a capacity of 38,880 cubic centimeters. Its maximum output was 500 hp at 1,800 rpm.

It had a dry multiplate clutch and 5F1R gearbox with front-sprocket drive and clutch-and-brake steering. The tank had mechanical brakes and a track width of 500mm, a wheel size of 825mm, 12/24 volt/electrics, plus a 450- [later 650]- liter fuel capacity. Its armor was 65 to 100mm thick, and it sat a crew of four.

The initial design had the 76.2mm main gun, and from late 1943 [following the Battle of Kursk that the Red Army won over the Germans in the greatest tank encounter to date] the T-34/85 packed the heavier 85mm gun in the main turret.

Germany and Russia Race to Design the Best Tank

The overall length of the T-34 was 5,920mm excluding the gun barrel. The width was 2,950mm, the height was 2,600mm, and the weight was 26,500 kilograms.

As noted by Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel’s deputy in the German Armed Forces High Command structure, Hitler was quick to respond to the challenge that the T-34 presented to the Reich’s outdated panzer arm.

“He created the Ministry for Weapons and Munitions under [Fritz] Todt [later Speer], leaving only the building of airplanes and ships with the Air Force and the Navy.

“From then on Hitler determined the monthly quota as well as the direction and scope of all production down to the last detail. … Hitler’s astounding technical and tactical vision led him also to become the creator of modern weaponry for the Army.

"It was due to him personally that the 75mm anti-tank gun replaced the 37mm and 50mm guns in time, and that the short guns mounted on the tanks were replaced with the long 75mm and 88mm guns. The Panther, the Tiger and the King Tiger [Tiger II] were developed as modern tanks at Hitler’s own initiative”.

Thus, the Red Army’s overwhelming success with the T-34 dramatically influenced the armored design of its major opponents on the battlefield for the rest of the war. This development, moreover, was also felt by the Western Allies in northwestern Europe during 1944-1945, when the new German panzers fought there.

Initially, the Soviet Union had been behind both the West and the Reich in the development of armor, but this changed as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and his Red Army High Command [later Stavka] evaluated the lessons learned from fighting the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the Finns in the disastrous Russo-Finnish War of 1939-1940.

By 1941, they had caught and surpassed both the Germans and their future Allies with the magnificent T-34.

Hitler’s improvements preceded the Battle of Kursk, which the Nazis were determined to win, especially after their catastrophic loss at Stalingrad earlier in 1943.

In his 1970 memoir, "Khrushchev Remembers", former Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev wrote of Kursk:

“The enemy, too, was confident of victory. Later I saw an order we captured from a demolished German armored unit. It contained a message addressed to the German troops which went something like this:

'‘You are now waging an offensive with tanks far superior to the Russian T-34s. Until now the T-34 has been the best tank in the world, better even than our own, but now you have our new Tiger tanks. There is no equal to them. With such a weapon you warriors of the German Army cannot fail to crush the enemy'.

" Their new tanks were very menacing indeed, but our troops learned quickly how to deal with them. At Kursk, we won a battle which tipped the balance of the war in our favor.… It was decisive in determining the defeat of Hitlerite Germany.…" 

The T-34 had played the major role once again.

Early T-34s enjoyed a high level of craftsmanship in their manufacture.

The T-34’s design bureau head was Mikhail Koshkin, and his deputy was Alexsandr Morozov, who was in charge of building the power train. The suspension team was led by Nikolai Kucherenko and P. Vashiev, while the armor layout of the new tank was the responsibility of M. Tarshinov.

The first wooden model of the prototype, designated the A-20, was presented to the Defense Council of the Soviet of People’s Commissars in Moscow in May 1938.

The initial A-20 design led to its successor, the A-32, which was an up-armored version, which led in turn to the T-34. The final tank’s secondary armament was a 7.62mm co-axial Degtaryev DT machine gun in the hull, fired by a gunner who sat next to the driver.

Like the American Sherman tank, the T-34’s engine was mounted in the rear of the vehicle, and was flanked by cooling radiators on each side.

The T-34’s road speed was an impressive 34 mph, and its cross-country speed was between 10-15.62mph depending on the grade and roughness of the ground being covered.

The tank’s operational range was 290 miles, and the use of Diesel fuel reduced the risk of fire. With its transmission located in the tank’s rear, the crew compartment was more spacious, since the drive train did not pass through it.

The primary gun’s 76.2mm ammunition was stored on the walls of the T-34, while more rounds were also found in bins sunk into the hull flooring, as well as in ammo racks on the sides of the turret. The rear of the turret also contained the drums for the vehicle’s secondary armament of the vehicle, the DT 7.62mm machine gun.

Russia’s Railroad Network Allowed for Strategic Placement of the T-34

The vast numbers of T-34s produced went to the front with the crews that would use them via the network of railroad lines that also helped Mother Russia win the war. Thus, the Red Army was able to concentrate huge numbers of tanks at battles like Stalingrad to turn the tide in their favor.

In combat, in addition to fighting Nazi armor one-on-one, the T-34s also served as infantry armored personnel carriers, since the Red Army had no real APCs as such on the front lines.

The tanks left the factory with a dark green-painted finish and were later camouflaged, in some cases with a smattering of white paint.

Communist Party political officers [the commissars that Hitler had ordered shot on sight when captured] encouraged their men to paint patriotic slogans on the sides of the T-34s.

The T-34 was also shipped by rail across the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian Railway to smash the Japanese Kwantung Army in Mongolia in the late summer of 1945.

Afterward, the tanks would fight the Americans in Korea during 1950-1953. They were also used by the Arab nations against the Israeli Defense Forces during the Six-Day War in June 1967 and again in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

-- Towson, Maryland, freelancer Blaine Taylor is the author of "Mercedes-Benz Parade and Staff Cars of the Third Reich" and the forthcoming "Volkswagen Civil and Military Vehicles of the Third Reich" and "Apex of Glory: Mercedes and Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich", both to be published in 2004.

This article originally appeared  on Warfare History Network



Once the weather cleared, Shturmovik fighter bombers, "Jabos" for Jagdbomber, were able to support the headlong advance.

On 16 January, the Soviet troops began to press the enemy along the entire 250-km front line.

It took them six days to force their way farther to the West, covering 150 km.

On 17 January, the Soviet troops liberated the cities of Radomsko, Czestochowa.

The small German garrison in Warsaw did not stand a chance.

The thrust of the 47th Guards Tank Brigade up to Sochaczew from the south and the encirclement of Warsaw from the north by the 47th Army meant the garrison lost contact with its parent formation, the Ninth Army.

General Harpe's staff at Army Group A warned OKH in Zossen on the evening of 16 January that they would not be able to hold the city.

Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, the head of the operations department, discussed the situation with Guderian.

They decided to give army group headquarters a free hand in the decision, and Guderian signed the signals log with his usual "G" in green ink.

But in the Nachtlage [Hitler's midnight situation conference] the proposal to abandon Warsaw was reported to Hitler by one of his own staff before Guderian's Deputy, General Walther Wenck, brought the subject up.

Hitler exploded. "You must stop everything!" he shouted. "Fortress Warsaw must be held". But it was already too late and radio communications had broken down.

A few days later Hitler issued an order that every instruction sent to an army group had to be submitted to him first.

On 18 January  the troops of the 1st Ukrainian and the 1st Belorussian Fronts met in the area of Szydlowiec. This allowed the Soviet troops to launch an assault along the frontline of over 500 km and break through the German defense lines on the Vistula.

The fall of Warsaw led to another bitter row between Hitler and Guderian, who were still arguing over Hitler's decision to move the Großdeutschland Corps.

Guderian was even more furious to hear that Hitler was transferring the Sixth SS Panzer Army not to the Vistula front, but to Hungary.

Hitler, however, refused to discuss it. The withdrawal from Warsaw was, in his eyes, a far more burning issue.

The Soviet Army was moving rapidly toward German borders.

On 19 January Martin Bormann returned to Berlin. The next day, he recorded in his diary:

"The situation in the east is becoming more and more threatening. We are abandoning the region of Warthegau. The leading tank units of the enemy are approaching Katowice".

It was the day that Soviet forces crossed the Reich border east of Hohensalza.


On 25 January 1945, in spite of Himmler's lack of military experience, Hitler appointed him as commander of the hastily formed Army Group Vistula [Heeresgruppe Weichsel] to halt the Soviet Red Army's Vistula–Oder Offensive into Pomerania. Panzer general Heinz Guderian considered Himmler's appointment "idiocy" and regarded the officers Himmler chose to organize the defense as "uniformly incapable of performing their allotted tasks". 

Guderian had originally planned to execute a major offensive against the 1st Belorussian Front, cutting off the leading elements of Georgy Zhukov's forces east of the Oder. The Soviet forces were to be attacked from Stargard [Pomerania] in the north as well as from Glogau [Silesia] and Guben [Brandenburg] in the south.

In order to carry out these plans, he requested that the Courland Pocket be evacuated to make available the divisions trapped there, removed troops from Italy and Norway, and involved Sepp Dietrich's 6th Panzer Army which had been intended for counter-attacks in Hungary.


Preussisch Stargard, East Prussia, February 1945

Following the departure of the platoon's two other vehicles, after expending all their ammunition, the single Jagdpanther of Oberfeldwebel Hermann Bix remained to cover the withdrawal of all supporting infantry in the area.

Hidden behind a muck heap, with only twenty armour piercing and five high explosive shells remaining he made the attacking Soviet Shermans pay a heavy price, destroying sixteen of their number before he too fell back out of ammunition.

In a meeting with Guderian Hitler insisted that Courland be held and that the army continue with its planned attacks in Hungary.

Himmler established his command centre at Schneidemühl, using his special train,"'Sonderzug Steiermark", as his headquarters. The train had only one telephone line, inadequate maps, and no signal detachment or radios with which to establish communication and relay military orders.

Himmler seldom left the train, only worked about four hours per day, and insisted on a daily massage before commencing work and a lengthy nap after lunch.

The attack was launched on 16 February 1945, but could make little headway against Pavel Alexeyevich Belov's 61st Army and Semyon Bogdanov's 2nd Guards Tank Army.

Zhukov responded by redirecting two Soviet tank armies against the German forces.

Within five days, tanks of the Red Army had reached the Baltic, trapping the German forces, who sought to escape by sea. Himmler was unable to devise any viable plans for completion of his military objectives. Under pressure from Hitler over the worsening military situation, Himmler became anxious and unable to give him coherent reports.

Hitler was unwilling to admit that his choice of commander had been inadequate.

After an intense argument with Guderian, who insisted on a change of command of the Army Group Vistula, Hitler assigned Walther Wenck to Himmler's headquarters to take over command of a limited counter-offensive; Hitler then observed that it was not possible for him to move the troops needed for Guderian's planned double pincer attack from neighbouring regions. 

When the counter-attack failed to stop the Soviet advance, Hitler held Himmler personally liable and accused him of not following orders.

Himmler's tenure as a military commander ended on 20 March, when Hitler replaced him with General Gotthard Heinrici as Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Vistula.

By this time Himmler, who had been under the care of his doctor since 18 February, had fled to a sanatorium at Hohenlychen.

Hitler sent Guderian on a forced medical leave of absence, and he reassigned his post as chief of staff to Hans Krebs on 29 March. Himmler's failure and Hitler's response marked a serious deterioration in the relationship between the two men. By that time, the inner circle of people which Hitler trusted was rapidly shrinking.

The operation was a complete failure for the Germans, however, it convinced the Soviets to postpone their attack on Berlin while Pomerania was cleared in the East Pomeranian Offensive.

By the end of January the Soviet troops reached the Oder, forced it and captured a position to the north and the south of Küstrin

The Vistula-Oder operation was of paramount military and political importance. The Soviet troops with the participation of the 1st Polish Army and guerillas liberated a considerable part of Polish territory.

War moved on to German territory and was waged now 60 km from its capital.

To oppose the advancing Soviet troops the Hitler Command had to transfer 29 divisions and 4 brigades from other directions of the Soviet-German Front, from inside of Germany and from the Western Front and to stop its offensive in the west. In this way the Soviet Army helped its Allies.

While in Italy the stalemate continued, the "race for Berlin" between East and West convinced Hitler that the two world hemispheres must within months be at war with each other, a war from which Germany would emerge as the 'lachender Dritte'. 

His analysis was correct in all but one essential detail: The time scale. 

Had his war lasted a full seven years, he might have reaped the Cold War rewards that fell to his successors. 

Yet Hitler had good reason to expect them to come sooner.  Until the very last days of his life his Intelligence experts nourished his beliefs with evidence of the coming conflict.


Against all odds, a final Focke Achgelis Fa-223 'Drache' helicopter was completed in February 1945 at Tempelhof Airport, and was almost immediately dispatched on a special mission, the details of which remain murky to this day, to Gdansk, then known as Danzig, on the express orders of Adolf Hitler.....

On 25 February 1945, the Fa-223, was ordered to fly to Danzig.

It took off from Tempelhof the next morning to proceed on its mission, flown by Leutnant Helmut Gerstenhauer, possibly the Luftwaffe’s premier helicopter pilot, accompanied by two other pilots.

Plagued by bad winter weather, Allied bombing attacks, and having to search for fuel, the helicopter's pilot did not arrive on the outskirts of Danzig until the evening of 5 March, having flown the perilous last leg of the journey directly over the Russians’ heads, making it impossible to fly into the centre of Danzig as ordered.

While awaiting orders on where to proceed, the crew got word that a fighter pilot had gotten lost in a snowstorm and had made a crash landing.

Lt. Gerstenhauer took off in the Fa-223 and proceeded to search the area.

The helicopter crew spotted the downed Me-109 with the injured pilot still in the cockpit.

They rescued him and flew him back to the base for medical attention.

By this time, Danzig was falling to the Russians, and the Fa-223's crew took off to try to reach a safer haven. When they found fuel stockpile, they realized that the Allies push had captured or destroyed all the friendly airfields along their projected route.

After topping the tanks off, they loaded a 55 gallon drum of gasoline and a hand pump on board, and overflew the Soviet forces.

They finally put down at the German base at Werder, on 11 March 1945, after an aerial odyssey covering more than 1,500 kilometers [932 miles], and logging 16 hours, 25 minutes of flight time.

"We have invisible aircraft, submarines, colossal tanks and cannon, unbelievably powerful rockets, and a bomb with a working that will astonish the whole world.

"The enemy knows this, and besieges and attempts to destroy us. But we will answer this destruction with a storm and that without unleashing a bacteriological war, for which we are also prepared....

" All my words are the purest truth. That you will see. We still have things that need to be finished, and when they are finished, they will turn the tide".

-  -Adolf Hitler, 13 March 1945, addressing officers of the German Ninth Army

How high Hitler set his chances we do not know. 

On 15 March he was inspiring Albert Kesselring, Rundstedt’s successor, with promise of a great "defensive victory" coming. 

By 28 March 1945, Germany’s position was militarily hopeless.  

The civilian evacuation of Königsberg and Danzig was in full swing.

Counter Attack at Königsberg 

German forces encircled in the fortress town of Königsberg by 3rd Ukranian front prepare to break through the besieging Soviet lines to re-establish supply line to the Baltic.

Here some Stug III assault guns moved up to their assembly area next to the town's World War One memorial.

From here the attack was launched 
on 18 February 1945 and successfully opened a supply corridor which remained in place until 8 April 1945.

In Hungary and Pomerania the counterattacks in which Hitler had vested his hopes had failed dismally. 

In the west one disaster overtook another. 

It was clear that the Ruhr was about to be encircled. Whole companies of German troops were throwing away their weapons and deserting. 

There were reports that German civilians had actually helped the Americans cross the Main near Frankfurt and were dancing with them in the streets at night. 

Genera Karl Koller confided to Göring: 

"My own faith in our army commanders and in our striking power is exhausted". 

He regarded the southern American operation as strategically the most dangerous:  it was the old French interwar strategy of thrusting eastward astride the Main toward Czechoslovakia so as to slice Germany in two.

The speed of events in the west stunned Hitler, who had been confident that in the east a great German defensive triumph lay in store. 

On 25 March 945, Hitler told Gauleier Fritz Sauckel he believed the war was lost. Defeat seemed certain to all but the most blindly loyal. 

The hours Hitler spent with them increased, for they alone still displayed the kind of caged fanaticism that might even now see Germany through her misfortunes. 

As the end approached, old scores were settled all around—by Göbbels against Ribbentrop, by Bormann against Speer, by Speer against Göring, and by Robert Ley against "that petty and pitiable" Heinrich Himmler. 

On 20 March, Hitler had relieved the Reichsführer of command of Army Group Vistula.  "The Führer saw through Himmler," wrote Ley. 

"I had a long talk with the Führer at the time, in which he bitterly complained of Himmler’s disobedience, dishonesty, and incompetence".

Fundamental to Hitler’s predicament was that many of his generals and ministers were already secretly preparing window-dressing for the war crimes trials they regarded as inevitable.

Gotthard Heinrici, the mild-mannered, church-going general Hitler was forced to appoint as Himmler’s successor -for want of any better commanders- lacked the wholehearted commitment of a Ferdinand Schörner or Walter Model 

Model held out with Army Group B in the encircled Ruhr pocket until his guns had fired their last ammunition;  he then took his own life to cheat the enemy. 

Hitler spent the last week in March 1945 purging his followers of the faint of heart. 

Hans Lammers, his chief of Chancellery, came for the last time on the twenty-seventh and mentioned his high blood pressure;  Hitler sent him to Berchtesgaden on sick leave. 

On 29 March he dismissed General Guderian too, fearing that when the crisis came his poor health would produce a breakdown similar to his collapse in the Moscow winter of 1941. 

General Hans Krebs, a young and tough idealist strongly reminiscent of Kurt Zeitzler in his heyday, took over as Chief of the General Staff. 

Heinrich Himmler had also fallen from grace, for the SS Sixth Panzer Army in Hungary under SS General Sepp Dietrich had not only failed in its big counter attack north of Lake Balaton, but had been routed and thrown back onto the Austrian frontier.  Nothing could stop the Russians from pouring into Vienna;  the Hungarian oil fields were lost. 

"If we lose the war, it will be his fault",  Hitler raged, and ordered that as a punishment Sepp Dietrich’s principal divisions were to be stripped of their brassards and insignia for three days. 

Himmler was packed off to Vienna to issue a stern reprimand to his Waffen SS generals.

Guderian’s dismissal resulted from a similar defeat just east of Berlin. 

Hitler had clung to the ancient city of Küstrin to deny its important Oder bridges and road junctions to the Russians;  since mid-March he had been preparing a limited counter-attack toward Küstrin from his own Frankfurt bridgehead, hoping to destroy the enemy assault forces massing for the attack on Berlin. 

But before General Theodor Busse’s Ninth Army could begin the counter-attack, the Russians struck and encircled Küstrin completely;  Busse’s own attack on 22 March failed, but Hitler insisted that it must be repeated immediately. 

General Heinrici, Himmler’s successor as army group commander, came to the Bunker in person on 25 March to argue for Küstrin to be abandoned to the enemy so that he could conserve what ammunition and gasoline he had for the big defensive battle looming ahead. But again Hitler insisted on a policy of attack. 

A purely defensive stance would allow the Russians to pounce at will—the German reserves would be tied down in hasty repair jobs, and then Heinrici would begin clamoring for new reserves all over again. 

"Since the enemy will always be stronger than us", Hitler wearily reminded him, "they will then ultimately break through and that will be your downfall". 

Their only hope was to throw rapid punches at the enemy before they were ready to attack, delaying them week after week while Hitler stockpiled ammunition for the major battle. 

Most Russian strength was massing south of Küstrin—particularly artillery.  Hitler admitted that a renewed counter-attack here would be a gamble, but with the necessary faith, he insisted, it would succeed.

The new attack began on 28 March. The German tanks reached Küstrin’s outskirts, but once again the infantry failed to follow through and the tanks were brought back. 

Against Hitler’s explicit orders the Küstrin garrison then broke out to the west, knifing through Russian lines which Heinrici and Busse had described as impenetrable. 

Hitler summoned General Busse to the Bunker and informed him of his displeasure.  Guderian loudly and intemperately defended him, purpling with rage. Hitler cleared the Bunker conference room and advised Guderian:  "You need sick leave. I don’t think your heart can stand the strain. Come back in six weeks".

Along the Oder, Marshal Zhukov had assembled over 750,000 troops for the offensive;  farther south along the Neisse Marshal Konev had 500,000 more under his command. 

Additional Soviet forces were approaching from the battlefields of East and West Prussia, but Hitler believed that the attack might begin without them, because the Russians were determined to reach Berlin before the Americans.

On the day after Guderian’s dismissal Hitler issued a clear-sighted appraisal of the situation "now that we have failed to shatter the enemy preparations by counterattack". 

He demanded a fanatical defense effort by Army Group Vistula, from General Heinrici himself right down to the youngest recruit. 

In particular Hitler ordered Heinrici to construct a "main battle line" two to four miles behind the present front line—a bitter lesson he had learned from the Americans on the dawn of his own Ardennes offensive. 

The moment the Russian offensive was seriously anticipated, Heinrici was to fall back on this second line;  the huge enemy artillery bombardment would then fall on the empty trenches of the original front line. 

Heinrici was also ordered to resite his artillery farther back, where it could saturate the countryside between the present front and the “main battle line” when the Russian attack began.

Unaware of this Hitler Order of 30 March 1945, Cornelius Ryan in "The Last Battle" gives Heinrici the credit for this stratagem.

Doctors were unanimous in agreeing that his sanity remained intact until the end:

Even though his eyes became so poor that he had to put on his spectacles even to read documents typed on the special big-face typewriters. 

"Looking at the whole picture", General Jodl told his interrogators, "I am convinced that he was a great military leader. 

"Certainly no historian can say that Hannibal was a poor general just because ultimately Carthage was destroyed". 

Admiral Dönitz, himself no simpleton, unreservedly echoed this judgment on Hitler.

Spring brought good news for Hitler.

Hundreds of the new jets ere now reaching the squadrons. 

Jet reconnaissance planes had repened the skies over England and Scotland



The Arado Ar 234 B Blitz [Lightning] was the world's first operational jet bomber and reconnaissance aircraft.

The first Ar 234 combat mission, a reconnaissance flight over the Allied beachhead in Normandy, took place 2 August 1944.

With a maximum speed of 735 kilometers [459 miles] per hour, the Blitz easily eluded Allied piston-engine fighters.

While less famous than the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters, the Ar 234s units provided excellent service, especially as reconnaissance aircraft.

It was the last Luftwaffe aircraft to fly over Britain during the war, in April 1945.

Hitler's Final Plan to Win World War II

by Warfare History Network
18 March 2018

On 18 October 1944—the 131st anniversary of the Battle of the Nations’ victory over Napoleon in 1813—Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler stepped up to a microphone to make a national radio address announcing the formation of the Nazi Party-controlled Volkssturm, or People’s Militia.

The new Volkssturm drew inspiration from the old Prussian Landsturm of 1813–1815, that fought in the liberation wars against Napoleon, mainly as guerrilla forces. Plans to form a Landsturm national militia in eastern Germany as a last resort to boost fighting strength were first proposed in 1944 by General Heinz Guderian, chief of the General Staff.

The Army did not have enough men to resist the Soviet onslaught. So, additional categories of men were called into service, including those in non-essential jobs, those previously deemed unfit, over-age, or under-age, and those recovering from wounds.

The Volkssturm had existed, on paper, since around 1925, but it was only after Hitler ordered Martin Bormann to recruit six million men for this militia that the group became a physical reality. The intended strength of "six million" was never attained.

Standing with him was the new Chief of the General Staff, General Heinz Guderian; Dr. Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin; and Gauleiter [Regional Leader] Erich Koch.

The site of the address was at Bartenstein, East Prussia, on Koch’s turf, and he was already organizing his own local forces to fight the Red Army coming from the East.

Creating the Volkssturm From the Ashes of Operation Valkyrie

Guderian had come into office the day after the failed bomb explosion to kill Adolf Hitler, and the latter had virtually lost most of his faith in the regular German armed forces to win the war.

The radical Nazis—Dr. Josef Göbbels, Dr. Robert Ley, Himmler, and most of all Reich Leader and Secretary to the Führer Martin Bormann—were urging Hitler to turn to the very force that had brought him to power in the first place: the Nazi Party and its various organizations.

What all of them feared most was a second 1918-style collapse of the German state from within, an internal-type revolt that had toppled Kaiser Wilhelm II when the German Army was still fighting in the field on the Western Front.

It was their belief that the Party had rebuilt the state from that catastrophe starting anew in 1933, and now—11 years later—a similar program of rejuvenation was to be the order of the day.


This time, there would be no home front failure, and thus on 25 September 1944, Hitler, through the use of his familiar "Führer Decree", announced the creation of the Volkssturm and Himmler’s control of the organization; Bormann would be in charge of the administrative issues.

Thus, right from the start, there was the divided leadership that would plague the VS until the very end of its days in the defense of smoldering Berlin—in which it played at least half a part.

Hitler, like his rival, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had the leadership style of giving several different men the same functions, believing that competition would make them perform better and get the overall job done faster. This was also the overall leadership principle of the Nazi Party as a whole.

Bormann’s VS

The key individual, from inception to ultimate VS demise, was Bormann.

In his unique position of being at the Führer’s elbow night and day, he had Hitler’s ear on virtually everything and thus was able to convince Hitler to create the VS along the lines of the 1813 Home Guard, and also to place it under Lammers’s Reich Chancellery.

Bormann believed that only the Party could run the VS properly and ensured that service in it was mandatory for all civilian German males between the ages of 16 and 60.

This included the all-important Class of 1928—those who would turn 17 in 1945—the 550,000 boys of Artur Axmann’s Hitler Youth, literally the final remaining military manpower pool of Nazi Germany. The older men were veterans of World War I or those who had already fought in World War II and been wounded.

The VS would be organized on the model of the 42 Gaue, or Regions, of the Third Reich, all controlled by Bormann as virtual domestic dictator while Hitler ran the war.

This had been the setup ever since Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and thus Bormann understood his task thoroughly, governing the Reich via teleprinter, telegraph, radio, and telephone from wherever Hitler’s “Führer Headquarters” happened to be.

He would rule the VS through the Gau, Kreis [county], and Ortsgruppenleiters [town leaders].

In Bormann’s mind, the VS would fight like the sturdy Japanese in the Pacific: To the last man, bullet, and breath.

The nature of Bormann’s vision for the VS was unity overall, Party control, and formations based on the members’ place of residence.

The last factor was all important in his view, as he believed that it was critical to the fighting success of the VS as a combat unit that would be called into action when the enemy arrived at the edges of their towns and cities, most of which had been officially declared “fortresses” by the Führer anyway.

The Führer Decree of 25 September gave the Gauleiters the power to organize the VS in their domains, which included more than 800 counties in the Reich proper.

The average age of those who served [the national oath-taking was conducted on 12 November 1944] was between 45 and 52, and Bormann -aping Hitler, here– refused to call up women, unlike the Soviets.


Of those men who were called up, most were white-collar workers, unaccustomed to the harsh life of a soldier in the field.


The brief history of the Volkssturm [the 1944 mobilization of German civilian males between the ages of sixteen and sixty to form a national militia to resist the Allies] is well known. 

Early on, war crimes prosecutors as well as scholars maintained that the Volkssturm failed to help stem the Allied advance because it was poorly led and trained, badly equipped, and composed of those who were physically and chronologically unable to withstand the rigors of combat.

The general conclusion was that the militia was a tragic example of what state tyranny and fanaticism could create when faced with a national emergency. 

However, the Volkssturm was not t simply a vehicle that the party cynically hoped it could ride to regain domestic power and influence lost during the war. 

True believers, first and foremost Martin Bormann, viewed the German civilian militia as the instrument through which victory would be salvaged or, at worst, defeat averted. 

Why would zealots believe that military amateurs could defeat Germany's more numerous and better armed adversaries? 

Because they insisted that a racially superior people, convinced of its superiority, could not and would not admit defeat.

To the contrary, they argued that Germans, motivated by effective propaganda and inspired by the party leadership, could be mobilized to fight so fanatically that their enemies, lacking in racial superiority and without similar fanaticism, would choose to make peace. 

Bormann and others, sincerely saw the militia as Germany's last best weapon.

Ideology played a vital role in the creation of the Volkssturm and it continued to be a factor in how the organization evolved and performed. 

However, Bormann learned at the outset that ideology had to be employed selectively. For example, the notion that aroused racial nationalism would bring victory implied using the Volkssturm to spearhead a German resistance movement. But resistance in the guise of partisan warfare stripped those prosecuting it of combatant status. 

Fearing that partisan war would expose all German citizens to unrestricted Allied military reprisals, and mindful that this threat had a negative effect on the public's acceptance of the Volkssturm, Bormann fought for the militia's designation as a military formation.

Marksmanship vs Anti-tank Weapons

On 27 November 1944, Himmler took command of Army Group Upper Rhine, thus making him Bormann’s first serious rival for power, as both wanted to succeed Hitler as Führer.

Each reasoned that if they were able to win the war for Germany, they would accede to the mantle, and there was, indeed, some logic in their positions. As it turned out, Himmler’s tenure as commander was brief, as he proved to be completely incompetent in the position.

Even though Bormann irritated Himmler by referring to the units as "my VS", it was a top SS man—General Gottlob Berger—who was chief of staff of the Volkssturm and who reported directly to Himmler, not Bormann.

altIndeed, it was Berger who announced that the VS would be trained and ready for combat against the Russians and Western Allies no later than 31 March 1945.

In training, Berger wanted individual rifle marksmanship stressed for the civilian warriors, while Bormann opted instead for small anti-tank weapons to defeat the masses of Russian T-34s and American M-4 Sherman tanks.

In the end, Bormann prevailed, and in this instance his view was militarily sound as events were to prove, especially in the defense of Berlin and other German cities.

The citizen-soldiers trained on weeknights and for six hours on Sundays, and what rifle training was provided was given by SA Chief of Staff Wilhelm Schepmann’s brown-shirted Stormtroopers.

Schepmann had wanted a real wartime role for the SA ever since 1939, and he saw the VS as a way of achieving it at the expense of the SS [its hated rival since 1934], the Party, and the German Army [which it had wanted to replace as early as 1930].

Hitler and Bormann, too, saw this danger, and they were not about to let Schepmann achieve an ambition that had eluded the murdered SA leader Captain Ernst Röhm in the Blood Purge of 30 June 32  July 1934.

Thus, Schepmann would be allowed to arm and train the VS but not lead it.

On 26 September 1944, Schepmann was appointed Chief of Staff for the German Volkssturm’s Shooting Training [Inspekteur der Schießausbildung im Deutschen Volkssturm].

Nor would Dr. Josef Göbbels in his capacity as Hitler’s appointed Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War.

Despite the famous wartime newsreels of the leather-coated Propaganda minister reviewing VS troops passing on parade, his role with the Volkssturm was really quite minimal,

The National Socialist Motor Corps led by Erwin Kraus, provided courier motorcyclists and truck drivers to transport the VS men to their sites, as well as units of the Nazi Flieger Korps [NSFK].

“Wars Were Winner-Take-All Affairs”

It seemed that every Party organization wanted its finger in the VS pie, and for a very simple reason, then and now still incomprehensible to those in the West:

The Nazis believed that the war could still be won!

First, from Hitler on down, the true Nazis took it as an article of faith that racially pure Germans of good stock would defeat the tainted Slavs from the steppes of Russia and the corrupt Americans, British, and Canadians from the West.

Dr. Göbbels’s propaganda screamed its slogans:

"Never again, 1918! Our walls may break, but our hearts never"”

The citizen-soldiers of the Third Reich—indoctrinated as true believers—would also be fighting for their own homes and families on German soil, and the threat from the East.

As one historian put it, “Wars were winner-take-all affairs”


To the Nazis, negotiations equaled weakness and surrender. In this respect, Hitler, Bormann, and Göbbels were far more “Nazi” than either or both Himmler and Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, who in the end in 1945 wanted to treat with the enemy.

Thus, especially after the failure of the 20 July assassination attempt—when, in their eyes, the traitors had been unmasked—the Nazis wanted to renew—not end—the fighting.

It is significant to note that more people in Europe died after 20 July 1944, than in all of the five years of war before it.

“Scorched Earth”

To the Nazis, the VS was both a valid and rational response to the events of 1944-1945, just as the rise of the Party itself had been to the fall of Imperial Germany in 1918-1920.

Indeed, if anyone’s morale would collapse, it would be that of the Allies, not the German people led by the Nazi Party under Hitler.

Ironically, too, as the German armies retreated—and this included the battered Waffen SS as well—so, too, did the power of the Party increase within the borders of the pre-1939 Greater German Reich; thus, as Himmler lost power, Bormann gained it.

By the spring of 1945, Himmler ceased to be a real factor in VS power struggles.

He was replaced in these battles by Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, who was working hand in glove with the German armed forces—mainly the Regular Army—to prevent the Führer’s decreed “scorched earth” policies designed to make the Third Reich an industrial wasteland of no use to any conquering army.

Speer—unlike hardliners Himmler and Göring—was not a true Nazi in the Hitler-Göbbels-Bormann mold and saw for himself a role as the rebuilder of the Fourth Reich under the auspices of the Western Allies at least.

The Volkssturm’s Ties to the Wehrmacht

In the end, however, Bormann’s concept of the Volkssturm was undone by the very people he wanted to protect it from the most, and from whom he expected the least danger—the officers and men of the German Army in whose sphere of operations the individual VS units fell.

The primary reason for this was that the Party simply could not and did not supply the VS with the weapons, uniforms, and supplies that it needed, while the regular military most often did.

Wherever the VS and the military worked well together, the morale was good, absenteeism down, discipline maintained, and training heightened. Thus, much to his chagrin, Bormann was faced with a situation in which the Army delivered where the Party had failed.

The reason for this, too, was that—unlike the higher ranks of the officer corps, which was, by and large, monarchist in belief and background—the lower ranking officers and most enlisted men were Nazis to the core. To them, the attempt to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944, was a disgrace to the good name of Germany.

Indeed, the Army was intimately involved with the Volkssturm from its very beginning. It was the Army that provided both the Panzerfaust [a shoulder-fired rocket similar to the U.S. “bazooka”] and Panzerschreck [“Terror of the Tanks”] anti-tank weapons that stopped many an enemy tank in its tracks. In the end, the Panzerfausts were the only weapons that were available to the VS in abundant supply for combat.

Recognizing the VS as a Legitimate Fighting Force

One fear that all VS men shared was that, without uniforms, they would simply be shot out of hand by the enemy for being partisans or terrorists behind the lines, particularly if they were confused with Dr. Ley’s proposed post-war Werewolf organization. They also disliked the Party’s brown uniforms, as they feared that Red Army troops would be more likely to kill them and refuse to take them prisoner.

Some even served in civilian clothes, overcoats, and hats, with but a Volkssturm armband and a pay book to identify them officially as Volkssturm men. Negotiations were conducted with the Western Allies to recognize the VS as true combatants, and these were successful, but not, significantly, with the Soviets.

The VS in Combat

In combat in the East, the VS formations were at the disposal of Guderian, and here they gave a good account of themselves, even halting the Red Army advance at Gumbinnen in East Prussia late in 1944 and elsewhere, but in the West they gave up at places like Remagen when they saw the German Army retreat as well.

Here, they served under Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt, Walther Model, and Albert Kesselring.

The Volkssturm's combat performance in the East was far more successful than earlier studies indicate. 


The kind of war being waged there made racial ideology more persuasive to Germans convinced that they were fighting for their national survival and a badly outnumbered German army proved willing to train and use them on that front. 

The mediocre performance of the militia in the West is explicable for the opposite reasons. Army indifference and the widespread belief that the western Allies were not bent on their annihilation convinced Volkssturm units, left mostly on their own or led by incompetent party hacks, to flee or surrender. 

VS casualty rates were sometimes as high as 70 to 80 percent, while other units panicked and fled. In the East, some 650,000 VS men saw action, but when Nazi Party officials fled at the approach of the Red Army, so did the VS. When the Army left the VS as rear-guard units, not too surprisingly, they returned to their homes rather than die in this manner.

In the West, some 150,000 VS men served and had helped to man the West Wall fortifications, as well as hold the Upper Rhine, but in the end, the VS had not achieved Himmler’s or Bormann’s goal. It is estimated that a million VS “troops” were taken prisoner by war’s end, and thousands more were killed and wounded.


True, the Volkssturm was a legal militia, not partisan guerrillas, but the Nazis were simply wrong about both their People’s Militia’s motivation and desire to fight to the bitter end, and also their enemies’ sense of moral outrage against Nazism and determination to totally defeat the Third Reich—no matter how long it took or at what cost.