Tag Archives: World War II

Remembering D-Day, 6 June 1944 When The Allies Began Liberation of Europe

[Note this has been updated with new source information and the inclusion of Eisenhower’s message to troops on the eve of the invasion. MT 2024]

“Into The Jaws of Death”
U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944.
Photo:Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent
Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)

In June of 1944, Nazi Germany held total control over Western Europe except for Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland who remained neutral. However its invasion of Russia had collapsed at this point with the German army now forced to retreat. It had already been forced out of North Africa and Allied troops had landed in Sicily in 1943 and by 1944 were in Italy. Mussolini had been deposed in 1943, rescued by German paratroopers, and put in charge of a German supported puppet state in Northern Italy. The Germans knew the allies were planning a major invasion along the coast of France. The question was when and where.

Crossing the English Channel was going to be an enormous challenge. Despite what some want to believe, it was easier in concept that actual implementation. While cries of a second front had been going on for years, it required a vast amount of resources to pull off. You not only needed the men, but they all had to be trained, fed, and properly outfitted. Not just the foot soldiers but also the special units. Then you needed ships not only to bring them over to England, but camps to house them and continue their training. The Army Air Corp needed runways and facilities. The list goes on and on. Imagine a list of needed items that stretches, when laid out flat, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you get an idea of how enormous an operation this was going to be. And that is just on the planning and supply side.

Then the problem of getting men over to France was a major hurdle. Landing craft at the start of the war were not very good and unreliable. New ones would have to be devised (they were, the Higgins boats) that would allow troops to be dropped off as close to shore as possible. Then you needed accurate intelligence to tell you what the troops were going to face. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had put up every possible fortification on the beaches and the area around. From mines in the water to barbed wire to turrets filled with guns and German troops. Hitler wanted an Atlantic wall and Rommel was pretty darn close in getting it done.

Thanks to cunning deceptions, the Germans were led to believe the attack would be at Calais. They also did not figure the Allies would attack without a long clear window. And the North Atlantic is a tricky place where weather can be a good one day and stormy the next. Despite all the planning and training, nearly all the top leaders including Eisenhower knew how risky the operation was. And that once begun, it would not go to plan. And they had to consider the possibility the Germans would be able to repel and push back the invasion.

What made the difference was the sheer martial weight thrown at the Germans. With most field officers incapacitated or killed approaching beaches or not long after arrival, it was up to noncoms and ordinary soldiers to put their training and discipline to work. Unlike what was shown in movies, most of the troops did not land on beaches but in the water. Many drowned because the weight of the gear sunk them. Others were killed by gunfire, mortars, mines striking the craft. Yet despite all these odds especially when they landed on the wrong places, allied troops managed to push in and take on the Germans.

It was a bloody day and casualties were high (sometimes 70-80% in some units). One of the big blunders were not understanding the famous hedgerows. These were not hedges like you think of but thick and gnarly. Germans could hide in them and fire on soldiers below. And they were impassible even to tanks. Special ones had to be fitted out to go through the hedges to drive German soldiers out.

Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.

With Hitler’s armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.

On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.


“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is will-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower message to troops on 6 June 1944. It was sent out with the Order of the Day and distributed to 175,000 on the eve of the invasion. He also recorded the message so that others involved with D-Day would hear it as well. You can listen to it here.


By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.

For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.

Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery–for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France–D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.

National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia
Photo:Public Domain

The heroism and bravery displayed by troops from the Allied countries on D-Day has served as inspiration for several films, most famously The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also depicted in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).

Further Information & Suggested Reading

  1. Books

Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. 1992.

—. D-Day: June 6, 1944 — The Climactic Battle of WWII. Simon and Schuster, 1994.

—. The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II. 1998.

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. Macmillan, 2004.

Keegan, John. Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris; June 6 – Aug. 5, 1944; Revised. Penguin Books, 1994.

Ryan, Cornelius. Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D Day. Simon and Schuster, 1994.

2) Websites

McGrath, John. Normandy. history.army.mil/brochures/normandy/nor-pam.htm.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

Normandy Landings, Operations Overlord and Neptune. www.naval-history.net/WW2CampaignsNormandy.htm.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

World War II: D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy | Eisenhower Presidential Library. www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/research/online-documents/world-war-ii-d-day-invasion-normandy.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

Heijink, Eric. “Veterans Remember Normandy Invasion 1944.” Eric Heijink, normandy.secondworldwar.nl/index.html.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

3) Films & TV

The Longest Day. Darryl F. Zanuck Productions, 1962.
This is an excellent adaptation of the book. It is mostly accurate though there are some places where they decided to cut short what really happened or altered it for the film. Many of the actors who were in the movie served in World War II and at least one actor was actually part of the invasion.

Ambrose, Stephen. Band of Brothers. DreamWorks, HBO Films, Playtone, BBC, 9 Sept. 2001. HBO, www.hbo.com/band-of-brothers.
This miniseries is based on the book of the same name and includes interviews by the real people who were there. It does follow the book accurately though there are some small differences between the book and miniseries. The actors were in contact with their real counterparts and learned from them how they reacted to the battles they were in. I highly recommend you read both the book and watch the miniseries. The book goes into details not covered in the miniseries. Note for parents: There is a lot of violence depicted and uses very foul language at times (though it was toned down considerably from what was really used).

Saving Private Ryan. Directed by Steven Spielberg, DVD, Amblin Entertainment, Mutual Film Company, 1998.
While the story is fictional, it is based on real events that took place during World War II. This movie really shows graphically what happened on D-Day as the troops landed. Many movies shy away from showing the true horror of the day, so be warned as what is depicted is very graphic to show what happened to our brave soldiers who came under withering German fire.

 

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Remembering History: Battle of Midway (4-7 June 1942)

[This post has been updated for 2024 with better sources, links, and some punctuation corrections. MT]

Midway Atoll, 24 November 1941
Public Domain (Official U.S. Navy photo)

In June 1942 the Empire of Japan had become the dominant power in Asia and ruled a sizable empire. It acquired Formosa (Taiwan) in 1895, Korea in 1905, and Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo) in 1931. It invaded China in 1937 seizing control of key cities such as Shanghai, Nanking and Peking (Beijing). French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand) were invaded after the fall of France in 1940 to prevent it from being used by the Chinese to funnel arms. A treaty with German backed Vichy France made French Indochina neutral but within the Japanese sphere of power. British Hong Kong fell to the Japanese after 18 days of heavy fighting on Christmas Day in 1941. Fortress Singapore, so-called because it seemed impregnable to attack, would fall to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942. The Japanese avoided a frontal assault by coming through the less protected jungle at its rear. The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) was conquered by March 1942 and The Philippines would fall in May. Burma would also be taken over as well. To protect their position in Dutch West Indies they began attacking northern Australia to prevent it from being used as a staging area. With the old imperial powers gone and Japan firmly in charge, nothing seemed to be in the way of Japan. The Battle of Midway changed that.

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941 was considered a success in Japan, the United States was still in the game. The unexpected bombing of Tokyo on 18 April 1942 (The Doolittle Raid) and its ability to fight as shown at the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942) convinced Japanese leaders they needed to so demolish American morale they would not want to fight any further. They choose a small virtually unknown atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Midway to draw out the American fleet to be destroyed. Midway is aptly named and 1300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor and nearly halfway between Japan and the West Coast of the United States. Its strategic importance meant it was valuable for both sides. A military base was already there and seizing it from the United States would draw out their remaining carriers along with support craft to be destroyed. The plan was to send four carriers and support craft for the initial attack. Then a larger task force comprised of destroyers, support craft and troops commanded by Admiral Yamamoto would follow up to destroy the American ships than came to liberate Midway. A feint of attacking American outposts in the Aleutian Islands was used to distract the U.S. while it attacked Midway.

The Japanese, however, did not know that its code had been broken. A special naval intelligence unit called HYPO had broken it in March resulting in much of the plan becoming known to the U.S. A task force was assembled of three carriers (Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown) seven heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 15 destroyers, and 16 submarines would go out to meet the Japanese fleet. The Yorktown, already in badly need of repair, was patched up and its depleted aircraft and pilots scrounged up from whatever was available. In overall command was to have been Vice Admiral William Halsey but fell sick prior to the mission. Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, who headed up the escorts under Halsey, would command Enterprise and Hornet. Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher was in command of Yorktown.

On 4 June 1942, Admiral Nagumo aboard the carrier Akagi launched the initial air attack on Midway comprised of dive and torpedo bombers escorted by Zeroes. PBYs launched that morning from Midway would sight two Japanese carriers and radar picked up incoming Japanese fighters. Midway sent up unescorted bombers to delay the attack while the fighters remained behind to defend Midway. Midway came under heavy attack and its air interceptors took a heavy beating fighting the Japanese. Anti-aircraft fire from ground personnel proved to be more precise. Midway took a beating but was still functional and could launch planes.

The pilots of the U.S. Navy Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), circa mid-May 1942, shortly before battle of Midway. They flew unescorted by fighters to attack the Japanese aircraft carriers. The slow moving planes were no match for the fast Zeros that attacked them. Not one torpedo they launched did any damage. However because of their bravery, the Zeros were out of position when the American dive-bombers arrived allowing them to bomb the Japanese carriers. Ensign George Gay was the only survivor.
Photo: May 1942
Source: Naval History and Heritage Command, digital ID NH 93595
Public Domain

Meanwhile scouting reports flying ahead of the American carriers placed the Japanese carriers at the extreme range for air attack. Making matters more difficult was the fact that Japanese scout planes had sighted the American fleet. Despite the extreme range, Spruance ordered the planes to be launched and increased the speed of the task force to close the distance. The torpedo squadrons left first but due to mechanical problems in launching the dive-bombers, had to fly unescorted. They would reach the Japanese and be quickly shot out of the sky by Japanese Zeroes and anti-aircraft fire. Not one torpedo launched did any serious damage.

Admiral Nagumo had a problem. His planes returned from Midway and were being re-armed for the next bombing run. But he had just gotten a report that the American navy was in the area. Its exact composition was unknown. So, he ordered a change in the ordnance for the attack planes. Instead of attacking land-based targets they would arm to destroy ships. The result was there was a lot of ordnance out on the deck on the carriers where this was being done. With the Japanese combat air patrol out of position having dealt with the torpedo squadrons they were not able to intercept the next wave of attack. American dive-bomber squadrons from Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown would seemingly arrive nearly at the same time. It was one of the greatest coincidences in military history. Three Japanese carriers–Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu–would be sunk that day.

Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a Yokosuka B4Y aircraft from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942.
Photo: Public Domain ( U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

The surviving carrier Hiryu counter-attacked by sending our air squadrons to attack any American carrier they could find. They found Yorktown and dropped three bombs heavily damaging the ship but not sinking it. Admiral Fletcher moved over to cruiser Astoria while it was being repaired. A second air attack an hour later would further damage Yorktown. She would later sink when being towed on 6 June by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine, which also sank the destroyer Hamman.

The Japanese believed they had turned the tide and would be able to go on with the Midway plan. They knew a huge fleet of destroyers and support craft was on the way. However, the Hiryu was found late in the afternoon. An air attack by Enterprise and Yorktown bombers resulted in four or possibly five bombs seriously crippling her. The fires prevented any planes taking off or landing. The crew would evacuate and later Hiryu would sink. Spruance, not wanting to risk exposure to Japanese forces and wanting to protect Midway would retire to the west. Admiral Yamamoto still wanted to invade Midway and proceeded on course. Had Spruance not changed course, the remaining two carriers of the American fleet would have been exposed to Yamamoto’s destroyers. Spruance would go after the stragglers. Yamamoto ultimately ordered the fleet back to Japan not knowing the full composition of the American forces that might be pursuing.

The U.S. Navy lost 1 carrier, 1 destroyer, 150 aircraft and 307 killed. Many of those killed were from the torpedo squadrons that lost 80% or more of their pilots. The Japanese lost 4 carriers, 1 heavy cruiser, 248 aircraft and 3,057 killed. It was a major victory for the U.S., but most Japanese would never learn the full details until after the war was over. The survivors of the sunken carriers and those aboard the ships that survived would be quarantined or sent on duty assignments far away from home. None of the senior officers would face any serious repercussions. Only those at the very top were informed as to what really happened. Only the Emperor and the top naval officers knew the full details. The public was told it was a great victory and the Imperial Japanese Army believed the navy was in good condition. However, Admiral Yamamoto and the other senior leaders of the Japanese Navy knew the truth. The United States would soon come out stronger than it had been before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For the United States it would prove the value of intelligence gathering and codebreaking. It would continue to be an important part of the war effort and would yield even more useful information down the road with dire consequences for Admiral Yamamoto. The code breaking led directly to his plane being shot down in 1943 as payback for Pearl Harbor.

(Please note this is a very condensed description of the Battle of Midway and had a lot more stages in it than reflected in this writing).

Sources:

Books

Lord, Walter Incredible Victory. First Edition, New York, Harper and Row, 1967.

Prange, Gordon William, et al. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. McGraw-Hill Companies, 1981.

Websites

Battle of Midway. www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1942/midway.html.

Significance, Battle of Midway-Location Outcome &. “Battle of Midway – Location, Outcome and Significance.” HISTORY, 17 Dec. 2019, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-midway.)

Michal. “The Battle of Midway.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans, 22 June 2017, www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/battle-midway.

Battle of Midway: June 4 – 6, 1942. www.cv6.org/1942/midway.

Movies & Documentaries

“Midway Is East.” Archive.org, 1952, archive.org/details/VAS_04_Midway_Is_East. This is episode 4 from the excellent Victory at Sea series which was shown in 1952-1953. Using archived footage along with excellent music, the series conveyed the scope of naval warfare in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Watch the entire series if you can.

“The Battle of Midway (Short 1942) ? 6.1 | Documentary, Short, War.” IMDb, 14 Sept. 1942, www.imdb.com/title/tt0034498. This is a documentary made in 1942 right after the battle with John Ford directing. It uses actual footage and uses actors to voice over parts of accounts of the sailors and aviators that participated. It is available (for free) from some streaming services like Tubi. You can also view it on YouTube (the version linked here is the colorized version, not the original Black & White).

The Federal File. “Destination Point Luck Voices From Midway – Battle of Midway WWII Documentary.” YouTube, 24 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vqpk4Rmfbm8.

Midway. Directed by Jack Smight, The Mirisch Corporation, Universal Pictures, 1976. This 1976 movie starring Charlton Heston uses old stock footage and pushes the real historical figures in the background while pushing a fictional story line. While entertaining, many will find it lacking in a lot of real historical depth. The subplot involving Heston’s son in the movie makes it more of a soap opera at times. Worth watching to see some great actors but not so much if you are looking for something that will relate the real story of the battle.

Midway. Directed by Roland Emmerich, Summit Entertainment and others, 2019. This 2019 version significantly was better in terms of better effects and depicting events leading up and the Battle of Midway itself. Most of the characters are based on historical ones. Reviews were mixed on this one. Some thought it was a decent movie but the story itself was not compelling. Rotten Tomatoes has it as 42% like it and IMDB users rate it as 6.7. It is certainly more historically accurate and shows the Japanese side (with actual Japanese actors speaking Japanese).

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Remembering History: German & Italy Sign Pact of Steel (22 May 1939)

The signing of the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939 in Berlin
Photographer unknown
Public Domain/WIkimedia Commons

On 22 May 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance that became known later as the Pact of Steel. This began the formal military and political alliance between the two countries. Initially Japan was to be part of the agreement but there was disagreement on the focus of the pact. Germany and Italy wanted it aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the Soviet Union to be the focus. The agreement was signed without Japan but would later join in September 1940.

Shop for books on Mussolini at Amazon

The agreement brought together two countries that opposed each other in World War I. It also required each country to come to the aid of the other if it were in armed conflict with another nation. Neither party could make peace without the agreement of the other. One of the assumptions of the agreement was that war would start in three years at the latest. Italy needed the time to get its war production into high gear. The agreement was for ten years but there was some concern within the Italian government the agreement would suppress Italian autonomy. The agreement was still signed despite these objections, which also came from Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Read Count Ciano’s War Diaries

Hitler, however, would soon declare his intentions of invading Poland. Mussolini was not happy he was not consulted on this, nor about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Italian forces did not commit fully to war until June 1940 when German forces had defeated British and French forces with lightning speed. Italy seized Nice as its prize. Other countries it tried to invade proved more difficult. Greek partisans brought the Italian force to a halt. Germany would intervene to help there and in Yugoslavia where Italian troops also pushed back by partisans. A disastrous attack on British Egypt from Italian Libya required German assistance as well. The economic consequences of the war were bad for most Italians generating widespread resentment that would lead one day to Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943.

Sources:

—. “The Pact of Steel Is Signed; the Axis Is Formed.” HISTORY, 19 May 2021, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-pact-of-steel-is-signed-the-axis-is-formed.

—. germanhistorydocs.org/en/nazi-germany-1933-1945/the-pact-of-steel-the-signing-of-the-german-italian-military-alliance-in-the-new-reich-chancellery-may-22-1939.

Axis Alliance in World War II. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/index.php/content/en/article/axis-powers-in-world-war-ii.

—. “Pact of Steel.” Wikipedia, 17 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pact_of_Steel.

World War II Ends in Europe (8 May 1945)

German Instrument of Surrender signed on 7 April 1945 effective 8 May 1945.
Original source: U.S. Government Employee
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

It was a day long anticipated for both Great Britain and the United States. After years of hard fighting on both land and sea, the war against Germany was at an end. 8 May 1945 all German troops in Europe laid down their arms and surrendered. In formerly occupied cities and throughout Britain and the United States, celebrations broke out. Flags and banners were hung, people gathered in the streets, many went to church to give thanks to God for this wonderful day to finally arrive. Nazi flags, banners, and reminders of their former occupiers were quickly taken down and destroyed. The hard work of rebuilding would begin soon and for many countries that had suffered under Nazi occupation, it would take time. Germany in many areas would have to be rebuilt from the bombardment that had destroyed many cities. American and German prisoners of war were released and sent back home.

VE Day in London, 8 May 1945. Crowd is at Whitehall waiting to hear from Winston Churchill.
Source: Imperial War Museum
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

German troops tried, if possible, to surrender to British or American forces. They believed they would be better treated and a better chance of living. The Soviets had a reputation for being particularly nasty to captured German officers and soldiers. In Salzburg, Austria the two oldest sons of Captain Georg von Trapp, later to be immortalized in The Sound of Music, found their home they left behind when the family fled Austria to Italy (their tale, to be recounted later, is a fascinating one). They learned their home had been occupied by none other than Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the hated SS and under whose leadership the Final Solution had been carried out. The Trapp family would later give their home to a religious order that lives there to this day.

The war would linger a day longer in the East. The Soviets continued to battle small pockets of resistance in Silesia until they surrendered. This marked the end of hostilities in Europe for the Russians, who consider 9 May 1945 their day to celebrate the defeat of Germany. Stalin announced the end on a radio broadcast: “Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.”

 

Sources:

—. “Allied Nations Worldwide Celebrate V-E Day.” HISTORY, 7 May 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/victory-in-europe.

Chen, C. Peter. “Germany’s Surrender.” WW2DB, ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=152.

Imperial War Museums. “What You Need to Know About VE Day.” Imperial War Museums, www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-you-need-to-know-about-ve-day.

Swick, Gerald, and Gerald D. Swick. “V-E Day 1945: The Celebration Heard ’Round the World.” HistoryNet, 4 Oct. 2021, www.historynet.com/v-e-day-1945-the-celebration-heard-round-the-world.

—. “Victory in Europe Day.” Wikipedia, 9 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victory_in_Europe_Day

Remembering History: Hitler Commits Suicide;War in Europe Nearly Over (30 April 1945)

U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes announcing Hitler’s death
2 May 1945
Original source: U.S. Army
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

On 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler–the leader and founder of the 1,000 Reich–committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun in the underground bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery. It would lead to the end of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945 when Germany unconditionally surrendered to Allied powers.

Since the defeat of German forces in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, it had become increasingly apparent that Allied forces had turned the tide. Germany had been pushed out of North Africa at this point, faced Allied armies in Italy, and of course on 6 June 1944 the Allied invasion of Europe had occurred. An attempt on his life was unsuccessful in July 1944 (he was saved when the briefcase with the explosive was pushed under a heavy table) but resulted in imprisonment and executions for many who were involved. Field Marshal Rommel was forced to commit suicide rather than a public court martial.

Hitler had become more erratic, and many were concerned with his mental state. After withdrawing to the underground bunker in January 1945, he met with Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels. By 22 April 1945 though he realized the war had been lost with Soviet troops now in Berlin. On 23 April, Goering seeing that Hitler was encircled in Berlin, tried to take over as his presumed successor. Hitler stripped him of his powers and orders his arrest (this was futile since Goering surrendered himself to American forces). Himmler also had hopes of succeeding Hitler. In April, he was negotiating through a Swedish diplomat and with the Americans. When Hitler learned of this, he was stripped of his powers and his arrest ordered. Himmler tried to escape posing as an ordinary soldier but was caught and arrested. He committed suicide by taking poison.

By the end of April most of his aides and lieutenants (with some exceptions such as General Krebs) had deserted him with only Goebbels and Martin Bormann staying along. Albert Speer had declined to carry out Hitler’s orders to carry out a scorched earth policy in Berlin. Believing Germany had been unworthy of his genius and allowed themselves to be defeated, he decided to commit suicide. He married his long-time mistress Eva Braun in the early hours of 29 April 1945. He then dictated his last will and political testament that justified what he had done.  The will itself is quite short while the separate political testament that laid out a defense of his life and work, as well as appointing those who would lead the German government after his death.

In the afternoon of 30 April 1945, Hitler pointed a gun to his head (though he may have taken poison as well) and committed suicide while Eva took poison. Their bodies were burned, in accordance with his instructions, in the Chancellery garden. Goebbels transmitted a message to Admiral Karl Doenitz that Hitler had died and appointed him Reich President. Six hours later Goebbels and his wife committed suicide after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

Hitler’s death was broadcast on 1 May 1945 by Hamburg Radio. On 2 May 1945, German troops in Italy surrendered (it was signed on 29 April 1945) and Berlin surrendered to Russian Marshal Georgi Zhukov. More surrenders of German forces would follow. German forces in Denmark, the Netherlands, and northwestern Germany surrendered to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery on 4 April 1945 (effective the next day). The German Ninth and Twelve armies surrendered to U.S. forces.

Sources:

Books

Snyder, Lewis: Encyclopedia of The Third Reich, Marlowe & Company, New York, 1976

Internet

“Adolf Hitler | Biography, Rise to Power, History, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Apr. 2024, www.britannica.com/biography/Adolf-Hitler/World-War-II.

Sullivan, Missy. “Adolf Hitler Commits Suicide in His Underground Bunker.” HISTORY, 29 Apr. 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/adolf-hitler-commits-suicide.

Chen, C. Peter. “World War II Database: Your WW2 History Reference Destination.” WW2DB, ww2db.com.

 

Remembering History: Mussolini Caught Fleeing Italy and Executed (28 March 1945)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

Attempting to flee Italy into Austria dressed in a Luftwaffe coat and hat, the deposed dictator of Italy–Il Duce–Benito Mussolini was caught by partisans along with his mistress Clara Petacci. The partisans executed him and Petacci, transported their bodies to Milan, and hung them upside down so that everyone (especially his supporters) could see he was dead. He ruled Italy from 1925-1943, when he was deposed and subsequently imprisoned. He was rescued by Hitler’s forces and made the puppet leader of the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. With German troops in retreat, he hoped to avoid being captured by either British or American forces. Pictures of his body being hung upside down in Piazzale Loreto in Milan would be spread to prove that Il Duce was no more.

Sources:

Sullivan, Missy. “Benito Mussolini Executed.” HISTORY, 26 Apr. 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/benito-mussolini-executed.

“Benito Mussolini.” Biography, 21 Feb. 2024, www.biography.com/political-figures/benito-mussolini.

KateL. “Death of the Duce, Benito Mussolini.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans, 27 Apr. 2020, www.nationalww2museum.org/death-of-benito-mussolini.

Remembering History: Hitler Learns War Is Lost (22 April 1945)

Berlin June 1945 (Carl Weinrother 1898–1976)
German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons

By April 1945, victories by Allied and Russian forces had reduced the once formidable German state to a shadow of its former self. Due to increased Allied air attacks on Berlin, Hitler had relocated his headquarters from the Reich Chancellery to the Fuhrerbunker, an underground complex that would serve as the command center for the remnants of the Third Reich earlier in the year. 19th April saw the Soviet Army mobilize its troops to encircle Berlin. Hitler had gone above on 20 April 1945, his 56th birthday, to award the Iron Cross to boys from the Hitler Youth.

It was on 22 April 1945 that Hitler, in an afternoon meeting, learned that Soviets were entering the northern suburbs of Berlin meeting no resistance. It enraged Hitler, who denounced the Army, and made him realize the war was lost. Hitler decided to stay in Berlin rather than flee south.

Sources:

Britannica.com
HeritageDaily.com
History.com

Remembering the Munich Agreement of 1938 where both England & France Betrayed Czechoslovakia

[This is an updated version of an earlier article on this topic]

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it! “(George Santayana-1905)

Nevile Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Count Ciano
29 Sep 1938 (German Federal Archives)

The Munich Conference of 1938 saw both Britain and France abandon its ally Czechoslovakia forcing them to cede part of their territory to Germany to avoid war. Let’s look at what the situation was in 1938 and why this happened.

By 1938 there was no doubt anymore about the intentions of Germany’s Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. European nations were generally worried about a major war and to that end the two biggest powers in Europe -France and Great Britain- sought to avert it. It was based on the experience of the First World War in which millions had died. The aftermath of that war was a sentiment that total war must be averted at all costs. So far all of Hitler’s violations of treaties, such as occupying the Rhineland in 1936, had caused no major retribution even if it was a major violation of the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had agreed to in 1918. Nor had rearming Germany, also a violation of the treaty, caused any significant reaction.

While worldwide opinion of their open antisemitism was negative, they successfully held the 1936 Olympics in Germany. This despite the fact Germany was a fully authoritarian state ruled by the Nazi Party. All private schools (including religious ones) were shuttered forcing all children to go to the public school. All major corporations and businesses that were controlled by Jews were systematically targeted and forced to sell to Germans backed by the Nazi Party. All media was likewise controlled and could only report exactly what the Reich Propaganda Ministry told them to report. Movies, radios, and newspapers repeated only what was allowed to be reported or dramatized. American movies, in order to be shown in Nazi Germany, had to comply with Nazi rules which prohibited showing Jews in a positive light, criticize German policy in any way, or show any theme the Nazi Party objected to.

As Germany re-armed, it looked to expand its frontiers and bring into being a Greater Germany. Hitler was Austrian and both countries had close ties sharing a common language and culture. Many in Austria already supported such an idea long before the Nazi’s came into power. The Nazi’s had tried in 1934 in supporting a coup attempt, but it failed. By 1938 Germany was in a better position. Politicians and groups sympathetic to Hitler and unification in Austria were loudly calling for it. Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg hoped that a referendum on the issue set for 13 March 1938 would resolve it. Hitler instead threatened to invade and through his agents asked him to resign. The referendum was canceled and on 12 Mar 1938, German troops entered Austria and were unopposed. The long-wanted Anschluss had finally occurred. Neither Great Britain nor France was willing to offer any assistance to stop it from happening. In fact, many  supported it in those countries.

Sudetenland 1938-1945
Stamp Collecting World (via Wikipedia)

About the same time, Hitler was also claiming that German-speaking people living in Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia wanted closer ties with Germany. And that if this land was not given to Germany, it would have to be done by force. Needless to say the Czechoslovakian government was alarmed especially after what happened to Austria. Leaders in both Britain and France were becoming alarmed that this could spiral into a general war. The position of both governments was to avoid total war; they did not want another World War I that devastated Europe. This policy of appeasement had many supporters in politics, academia, and the media. Those who argued against it were called warmongers, or worse. The problem was that both countries had signed treaties with Czechoslovakia that if they were attacked, their enemy became theirs. Hitler knew this and stepped up the pressure.

Hitler ordered his generals to come up with a plan to attack Czechoslovakia. It was set to commence in October. Meanwhile Czechoslovakia tried to gauge the support it had and found Poland would only assist if the French did. And the French were reluctant to support Czechoslovakia if it meant direct conflict with Germany. Britain was also cool on the idea and forced President Benes to accept an arbitrator. Benes feeling he had no choice, gave in to the idea. Lord Runciman was sent to Prague on 3 August 1938 to persuade Benes to accept a plan for Sudeten Germans. In public both powers appeared to support Czechoslovakia but in private made it clear they would not go to war with Germany over the Sudetenland. As German forces appeared to be poised to invade, it was clear to both London and Paris something would have to give.

Hitler continued upping the pressure by giving speeches that blamed the crisis in Sudetenland on Czechoslovakia. He denounced the state as illegitimate, that it was targeting the German speaking people for extermination, and many other things as well. German media was full of stories that depicted the heroic German people in Sudetenland as suffering and that other nationalities would be targeted as well. Hitler made it clear that the situation could no longer be tolerated, and that Germany was prepared to resolve it if either Czechoslovakia or the other powers involved failed to stop the atrocities. German troops were poised to resolve the situation. And Hitler surmised both the British and French would deal to avoid war.

With Europe seemingly on the edge of war, this precipitated the Munich Conference of September 1938. Without consulting with Czechoslovakia, British leader Neville Chamberlain and French president Edouard Daladier decided to resolve this situation by agreeing that any territory in the Sudetenland that had over fifty percent German speaking people would be given to Germany. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, also at the conference, argued for a German military presence along with an international commission to resolve disputes (this was a German proposal but felt that it was better made by the Italians).

It was formally agreed to on 30 Sep 1938. Czechoslovakia was presented with this agreement and had no choice but to accept or face immediate invasion. Czechoslovakia found itself totally alone and the two powers-Britain and France-who had pledged to protect them now abandoned them to their fate. They had no choice but to accept but left an awful taste in their mouths knowing they had been betrayed. It would end with President Benes resigning in October knowing his country was to be invaded by Germany. This would occur in March 1939. The Germans would hold the Sudetenland until 1945.  Chamberlain would proclaim later, upon arrival in Britain, that he delivered “peace for our time.”  Daladier more or less concurred and later France would sign a non-aggression pact with Germany.

Aftermath

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving to enthusiastic crowds of his triumph upon returning to Britain. Waving a paper signed by Hitler, he pronounced peace in our time. Hitler later chuckled that the agreement he signed with Chamberlain meant nothing.
Image: winstonchurchill.org

Germany acquired not only territory but the industrial resources that it needed (raw ore, steel and iron production, electrical plants). Czechoslovakia was diminished as a result. While many in public in Britain and France heralded the agreement as avoiding war, there were warnings it was wrong. Winston Churchill was critical of the deal and how they had abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The British Labor Party opposed the deal as well. A view began to emerge and would continue long after, that Britain and France wanted to get out of the military pact as they were not ready for war. Was Hitler bluffing or not also is discussed as well. The evidence is that Germany could have invaded but got what it wanted without firing a shot. And it was handed to Hitler on a platter by two powers that in the last war had been Germany’s enemies. It could not have been a greater present for Hitler.

Czechoslovakia was doomed by the pact. In October 1938, it was forced to hand over under the Vienna Award territory in its south to Hungary and a small concession to Poland. In March 1939, after Slovakia seceded to become a pro-German state, Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia accede to German occupation, which it did. Czechoslovakia then became a protectorate of the Third Reich. Churchill’s warning had come true. With his policy of appeasement now deemed a total failure, Neville Chamberlain realized that it was time to mobilize for war. The French would likewise prepare (but so entrenched was the avoidance of total war doctrine failed to act when it had the option to do so when most of the German army was invading Poland). In September 1939, World War II would officially begin with the invasion of Poland and declaration of war by Britain and France on Germany.

Both Chamberlain and his French counterpart would live to see how badly it would turn out. After war broke out, Chamberlain’s popularity fell and would resign as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940 and replaced by Winston Churchill though remained in the Cabinet. He would die in November 1940. Édouard Daladier, who was under no illusions as to Hitler’s goals (but knew support for standing up to Hitler was thin), had resigned his position in March 1940 but was still minister of defense when Germany invaded. He would be arrested and charged with treason by the German supported Vichy government and imprisoned. He would be imprisoned in several places, including the Buchenwald concentration camp and ended up in Itter Castle in Tyrol with other French dignitaries until liberated on 5 May 1945 after the Battle of Itter . He would return to the Chamber of Deputies after the war, served as mayor of Avignon, and died in Paris in 1970.

 

Sources

 “Munich Agreement | Definition, Summary, and Significance.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998, www.britannica.com/event/Munich-Agreement.

Mullen, Matt. “Munich Pact Signed.” HISTORY, 28 Sept. 2020, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/munich-pact-signed.

Munich Agreement. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/timeline-event/holocaust/1933-1938/munich-agreement.

The British Policy of Appeasement Toward Hitler and Nazi Germany. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/neville-chamberlain.

 “Munich Agreement.” Wikipedia, 13 Jan. 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munich_Agreement.

Remembering History: Auschwitz Liberated by Soviet Army (27 Sep 1945)

Child Survivors of Auschwitz, 1945
Public Domain (via Wikimedia)

On 27 Jan 1945, Soviet Union troops liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. In doing so, it revealed the horrors the Germans had perpetrated there. Auschwitz was a series of camps designated I, II, and III with also smaller satellite camps. Auschwitz II at Birkenau was the place where most of the exterminations at Auschwitz were done. Using four “bath houses,” prisoners were gassed to death and cremated. Prisoners were also used for ghastly medical experiments overseen by the infamous Josef Mengele (the “angel of death”).

As the Red Army approached, the SS began a murder spree and blew up the crematoria to try to cover up the evidence. When the Red Army finally got there, they found 648 corpses and 7,000 starving camp survivors. They also found six storehouses full of men’s and women’s clothes and other items the Germans were not able to burn before they left.

News Articles

How a Catholic pastor saved hundreds of his Jewish neighbors in the Warsaw Ghetto (Catholic News Agency, 27 Jan 2021)

For More Information:

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum
Brittanica.com
History.com
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Yad Vashem

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Remembering History: Siege of Leningrad Broken (12 Jan 1943)

 

The fire of anti-aircraft guns deployed in the neighborhood of St. Isaac’s cathedral during the defense of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, its pre-Soviet name) in 1941.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

After German troops invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, one of their top cities to take control of was Leningrad (former St. Petersburg, then Petrograd). As the second largest city in the Soviet Union (and its capital under the Tsar’s), it held significant importance. In August 1941, German troops surrounded the city so nothing could get in or out. This also cut off the Leningrad-Moscow railway. The residents built anti-tank fortifications and defended the city with the resources they had. Hitler decided to wait them out in a siege hoping to break down the will of the residents. Some limited supplies were able to get in but not enough for all its residents. Starvation, disease, and injuries mounted up. They did manage to evacuate about a million elderly and young people out of the city but that left 2 million to deal with the dire situation.

Food was rationed and any open space was used to plant food.  On 12 January 1943, Soviet troops punched a hole rupturing the German siege allowing supplies to come in one Lake Ledoga. A Soviet counteroffensive on 27 Jan 1944 brought the siege to a complete end after 872 days. The Russian army lost, captured or missing 1,017,881 and 2,418,185 wounded or sick. 642,000 civilians died during the siege and, 400,000 during evacuations.

Sources:

Soviet forces penetrate the siege of Leningrad. (2009, November 16). HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/soviet-forces-penetrate-the-siege-of-leningrad

Dean, M. (2020, October 21). Siege of Leningrad | World War 2 Facts. World War 2 Facts. http://www.worldwar2facts.org/siege-of-leningrad.html#siege-of-leningrad-losses

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