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A Chacun Son Boche:

The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917


by Chris Oakley


Part 8



Summary: In the previous seven episodes of this series we followed the events leading from the capture of vital German military papers in 1914 to the folding of the Second Reich in 1917; the Versailles-Geneva peace treaty that ended the First World War; the Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out much of the human race in the first months after the war was over; the establishment of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed attempts to get the United States into the League; the American shift towards isolationism during the 1920s; the start of the Great Depression; the rise to power of fascist regimes in Germany and Italy; the resurgence of Communism in 1930s Russia; the start of World War II; the Soviet campaign in Poland in the spring and summer of 1939; the Allied landings in mainland Italy; the fall of Mussolini; the start of Field Marshal Montgomery’s campaign to liberate Austria; German resistance to Allied efforts to cross the Rhine River; the Japanese invasion of China and the gradual breakdown of US-Japanese diplomatic relations that ensued as a result of that invasion; and the first phase of Imperial Navy preparations for a winner-take-all showdown with the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. In this segment we’ll follow the Allied breakout along the Rhine front in April of 1940 and the outbreak of guerrilla warfare against Soviet occupation forces in Poland.


When the Second World War began in September of 1938, British troops had marched off to battle whistling the cabaret hit "We’re Gonna Hang Out Our Washing On The Siegfried Line"; making good on that promise, however, was turning out to be easier said than done, given the political infighting among the Allied general staffs and the stubborn resistance of the Wehrmacht on its home soil. Nearly 18 months after the first shots had been fired along the Czech-German border, Churchill was getting frustrated with his troops’ inability to make it to the opposite side of the Rhine.

But things were about to change...


In late February of 1940 a Junkers transport plane carrying two Wehrmacht officers from Berlin to the German battlefront along the Rhine got lost in a fairly thick fog and landed in Allied territory as a result of a navigational error by the plane’s pilot. That alone would have been cause for concern at the Reichschancellery, but to add insult to injury one of the two officers was in possession of a series of papers that laid out in considerable detail the offensive moves the Wehrmacht intended to make when the winter was over and the spring thaw came to the Rhineland. When the officers realized what had happened, they tried to destroy those papers but were only partly successful; they were captured by a British patrol and the remains of those papers turned over to Allied intelligence officials for analysis.

The picture those remains presented, though inevitably somewhat incomplete, was clear enough to the Allies. The Wehrmacht planned to strike along as broad a front as its resources would permit; their immediate objective for the spring campaign, code-named Weserübung  ("Exercise Weser"), was to clear the Rhineland of Allied troops, with a longer-term goal of penetrating into neutral Belgium so that known and suspected weaknesses of the French fortifications along the Franco-Belgian border could be exploited and German divisions could invade northern France. One of the long-term objectives set by the German general staff for Weserübung was the penetration of the Ardennes Forest by Wehrmacht armored units-- which came as something a surprise to many of the senior Allied ground commanders, who had long assumed that the Ardennes were impassable to tanks.

General Sir Percy Hobart disagreed with conventional wisdom where the Ardennes Forest was concerned; to him, a German armored push through the Ardennes was not only possible, it was the only realistic option open to Berlin if the Wehrmacht didn’t want to run the risk of sustaining massive losses of men in trying to breach the Maginot Line. In fact, much of Hobart’s insistence on sticking with a mobile defense strategy had been based on the presumption that sooner or later German tanks would seek to breach the Ardennes barrier as the first move in a larger Wehrmacht campaign against the French.

British intelligence operatives inside the Third Reich quickly confirmed Hobart’s suspicions, uncovering evidence which linked the proposed Weserübung campaign to a bigger German strategic offensive whose ultimate aims were the capture of Paris and the extension of the Reich’s frontiers to the English Channel. The British agents had even found contingency studies on file at the German general staff headquarters in Berlin about the feasibility of having the Wehrmacht occupy Belgium’s neighbor Holland.

Ten days after the remnants of the Weserübung papers fell into Allied hands, the British and French general staffs convened a joint conference in London to discuss General Hobart’s proposed plan for  what was basically a Weserübung in reverse-- an Allied push through the Ardennes into German territory followed by a series of attacks on the more vulnerable points in the Siegfried Line. By this time the Belgians had been secretly alerted to the German plans for an invasion of Belgium, and King Leopold was steadily moving away from his previous policy of strict neutrality in the war between Germany and the Anglo-French coalition in favor of a more pro-Allied stance. However, the Belgian army was hampered by its relatively small size and the fact that much of its equipment was obsolete or becoming so; thus, it would largely play a secondary role in the initial stages of the Allied campaign in the Ardennes.

Churchill gave his final approval for the Ardennes offensive, code-named Operation Spectre, on March 16th. The French government signed off on the plan the next day(though not without a certain amount of protest from some of the more conservative factions of the French general staff), and with that the wheels were set in motion for the offensive that would change everything on the Western Front.


While the French and British armies were gearing up to face the Wehrmacht on the battlefield, French and British diplomats were waging a cold war against Germany behind closed doors in Scandanavia in hopes of shutting off the flow of iron ore from neutral countries like Norway to the Third Reich. Churchill and Daladier both knew that minus the supply of raw iron ore which came her way from the Scandanavian countries, the Reich wouldn’t have been able to keep its war effort going as long as it had; they also understood cutting off this supply would go a long way towards ensuring final Allied victory.

Allied diplomatic efforts in Finland came to nothing. Though officially its government was a non-belligerent in the Second World War, unofficially much of that government was privately sympathetic towards the Third Reich; Finland had recently lost a short but quite fierce border war with the Soviet Union and saw in Germany its best hope for regaining the territories it had been forced to relinquish to Moscow at the end of that border conflict. Therefore, it was in  Finland’s best interest to keep the beleaguered Wehrmacht from being defeated.

The Allies had considerably better luck with Norway-- after being presented with credible evidence that Germany was considering an invasion of his homeland to secure total control of its iron ore supplies, Norwegian king Haakon V decided that perhaps the time had come to rethink his country’s policy towards Germany. On April 1st,  1940 Norway suspended iron ore shipments to the Reich, prompting a torrent of enraged protests from Hitler. Joseph Goebbels denounced Haakon VII as "a treacherous lout"1 and predicted the Norwegian king would face "the most dire consequences"2 if he did not reverse the decision and resume the ore shipments to Germany.

On April 5th Hitler, in an attempt to bully Norway into ending its suspension of the ore shipments, sent the Luftwaffe to bomb the Norwegian capital Oslo and the port of Trondheim. Hitler’s gambit backfired to the fifth power; the day after the bombing raids Norway broke off diplomatic relations with Germany and agreed to let the British government station units of the Royal Marines, the British Army, and the RAF on Norwegian soil to defend the country against the threat of German invasion.

The bombing raid also had a negative effect on Germany’s relations with its northern neighbor Denmark. Until the Luftwaffe attacks on Oslo and Trondheim, Danish king Christian X had been at great pains not to take sides in the struggle between the Anglo- French alliance and the Third Reich; after the bombing raids, however, he began to adopt a more overtly pro-Allied tilt to his foreign policy and opened negotiations for a mutual defense pact between London and Copenhagen. In short, it seemed as if everything which could possibly go wrong for the Nazis was going wrong....


...and on April 6th, 1940 their strategic situation in the West deteriorated still further as the Allies launched Operation Spectre. Hobart’s "Weserübung in reverse" hit the Germans like a punch in the jaw, breaching the Wehrmacht’s defenses in the West at their most vulnerable point and opening a corridor through which the Allied armies under Hobart’s and Georges’ command could push further into German territory. Thanks to Spectre, the Anglo-French forces on the western front could now finally get across the Rhine-- and they did on April 12th, just six short days after the offensive began.

The Third Reich was now fighting for its life, confronted with the prospect of meeting the same fate it had tried to impose upon Czechoslovakia in 1938: destruction as a nation. But rather than accept responsibility for leading Germany to the brink of disaster or open peace negotiations with the Allied governments, Hitler chose to blame his predicament on his generals, sacking many of them and ordering the rest to fight on even if(some might say especially if) their positions at the front were hopeless.

One officer who fell particularly afoul of Hitler’s wrath was a colonel named Erwin Rommel, a tank commander who had been entrusted with the job of blunting an Anglo-French thrust towards Wiesbaden. In spite of Rommel’s best efforts, the Allied drive managed to get through and encircle the city; Hitler never forgave Rommel for the armored units’ defeat at Wiesbaden and sacked him less than twelve hours after the last pockets of German resistance in that city fell to British forces. But as humiliating as Rommel’s dismissal was for him, a still worse fate loomed-- on April 16th, four days after the first Allied advance units crossed the Rhine, he was arrested and shot by the Gestapo on trumped-up charges of desertion, leaving the Wehrmacht with one less skilled armored officer just when it needed all the tank experts it could get.3

In the weeks following the Allied breakout from the Rhine, the deterioration of the Nazis’ strategic position on land was matched by a corresponding decline of their air and naval capabilities. With a number of airfields on German soil now in Allied hands, British and French warplanes were able to strike at Berlin with increasing frequency and intensity as well as blast those air bases still under German control; in the North Sea and the Baltic, Anglo-French naval strength was choking off the Reich’s maritime supply routes-- and, more importantly, narrowing the operational range of Germany’s U-boat fleet and keeping the German navy’s surface warships bottled up just when Berlin had been hoping to supplant Britain as the dominant naval power in the Atlantic.


While the war between the Anglo-French alliance and the Third Reich was building to a climax in the West, in the East a guerrilla war had begun against the Soviet occupation forces in Poland. During the winter of 1939-1940, Polish anti-Communists had been covertly gathering weapons and supplies in preparation for the day when they might strike a blow against the Red Army; now, that day was here. At the direction of Thadeusz Bor-Komorowski, a Polish army officer who had distinguished himself in the defense of Poznan before that city fell to the Soviets, a group calling itself the Polish Home Army of Liberation launched a fierce insurgent campaign against the Soviets. Using tactics that had previously been devised for Poland’s 1918-21 war of independence against the USSR and were now being adapted for the new era of mechanized warfare, the Home Army struck at the Red Army at every opportunity.

One of their first major attacks came a week after the Anglo-French breakout along the Rhine; a Home Army strike unit numbering at least two dozen men hit the office of the NKVD station chief in Warsaw, killing five of the station chief’s senior staff and badly wounding the station chief himself. Many of the Polish partisans were themselves killed or wounded in the attack, but the raid was a jolt to Soviet military morale-- up until then the senior staff for the Red Army occupation forces in Poland had been sure they’d been totally successful in suppressing any impulse toward resistance in the hearts of the Polish people. Stalin was furious at this lapse in security and ordered the summary dismissal of dozens of Red Army and NKVD personnel in the aftermath of the raid.4

Though the Home Army’s ranks were made up mainly of Polish Catholics, they also included a considerably large number of Polish socialists who felt betrayed by the totalitarian brand of Marxism Stalin had instituted in his own country and was trying to impose on theirs. As the Home Army grew in numbers and effectiveness, it even succeeded in enticing some disaffected Russian soldiers to defect to the partisans’ side. Until the fall of Stalin’s regime, the Polish guerrillas would continue to pose a major problem for the Red Army high command in Moscow-- and inspire resistance movements in other parts of eastern Europe under Soviet occupation.


By the end of April Allied troops in Germany had advanced to within 50 miles of Berlin and Hitler’s mental state, which had been precarious even before the Anglo-French breakout along the Rhine, would deteriorate still further as British and Italian advance units in southern Europe finally breached the Austrian border and started to hammer away at the Wehrmacht divisions defending the approaches to Vienna and Salzburg...


To Be Continued



[1] Quoted from the April 2nd, 1940 edition of the official Propaganda Ministry newspaper Der Angriff.

[2] From an April 3rd, 1940 radio broadcast by Goebbels.

[3] Rommel had briefly gone home to help his wife evacuate to Berlin; though Hitler had no concrete proof the colonel intended to desert his post, he used the fact that Rommel had inadvertently forgotten to file a proper emergency leave request as a pretext for ordering Rommel’s arrest for desertion. The Nazi dictator’s vengeful attitude towards Wehrmacht officers he judged to have failed or betrayed him was one of the most brutal aspects of his rule over Germany.

[4] And they were the lucky ones; Stalin also had at least two surviving officers from the Warsaw NKVD station shot for desertion.


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