Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945
“In 1944-45, the Germans and Russians had one attitude toward casualties, and the rest of the allies, besides Russia, another. Stalin’s commanders looked forward to the last phase of their struggle for Europe with their customary indifference to death and suffering, save insofar as these influenced the Red Army’s ability to fight its next battle. The leaders of Germany had conducted a romance with death for more than a decade. They still cherished hopes of final victory, though it was already plain that Hitler would settle almost equally willingly for a climactic bloodbath worthy of the Third Reich’s place in history.” But the Western allies looked at matters quite differently. After Normandy, they saw the last year as mopping up. Many soldiers wanted to take as few chances as necessary. Generals, too. So Ike moved his armies slowly East, protecting his flanks and softening up targets–a town, a bridge, a ridge, a field, a forest–with a great deal of air bombardment and mortar fire. At last the tanks and infantry would advance.
Once, in the last year of the war in Europe, “the weary remnants of I SS Panzer Corps found themselves approaching the little town of Troisvierges, just inside Luxembourg, on their retreat into Germany. ‘We could not believe our eyes,’ said Captain Herbert Rink, one of its battle-group commanders: ‘Down in the town stood the entire population along the main street, flowers and drinks in hand. They were clearly waiting for the liberation forces . . . We did not have much time, if we wanted to beat the Americans to the town . . . We raced out of the forest . . .turned down the main street, keeping a watch to the south, and drove slowly past the waiting people . . . Never in my life have I seen people so quiet and embarrassed. They did not know what to do with their flowers. They looked at the ground. Their hands sank in a helpless gesture.'”
The weather inflicted much misery upon the combatants before enemy action was added. It was the wettest winter in Holland since 1864. “Some people begin to believe that Our Dear Lord has become pro-Nazi,” wrote a Dutch doctor. Incessant rain reduced the battlefield to a quagmire, on which the movement of men and supplies was a Sisyphean task. The concentration of millions of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of trucks and armored vehicles among the waterlogged fields and woods of north-west Europe made a mockery of mobility. The simplest military operation became a movie translated into slow motion. The living conditions of infantry in the forward positions resembled those of Flanders thirty years earlier. British boots and serge battledress were notoriously pervious to damp. Sodden canvas web equipment stiffened. Mold and rust became endemic. Men sniveled relentlessly with common colds and ‘flu, even without more violent threats to their well-being. They were required to become creatures of the wilderness, perpetual campers and boy scouts, living in foxholes which allowed their occupants to sleep sitting, but seldom to lie prone. Every soldier spent far more time digging than shooting. It required the labor of many weary hours to contrive a hole deep enough to shelter a man effectively from shellfire. Within days of creating such a refuge, he was required to move on and repeat the process. Men were permanently filthy and wet, and often frankly demoralized.”