Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae:
The Assassinaton of Adolf Hitler
by Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
In the first two parts of this series we looked at Adolf Hitler’s death in the July 20th bombing; Hermann Goering’s takeover as new chancellor of the Third Reich and his subsequent overthrow by the Himmler-Bormann-Goebbels triumvirate; the Western Allies’ drive to liberate Paris and the Soviet push towards Warsaw; the defection of "The Desert Fox" Erwin Rommel to the Allied camp; and the Allied campaign in southern France. In this segment we’ll discuss the liberation of Paris, the capture of Warsaw by the Red Army, the Wehrmacht’s expulsion from the Ukraine, the first Allied engagements with German occupation forces in northern Italy, and the birth of the jet age.
A mood of euphoria bordering on religious rapture took hold of Parisians as the fabled bells of Notre Dame Cathedral began ringing at five minutes past noon on August 15th to signal that the City of Lights was at last free from Nazi occupation after four long years. Crowds gathered at Orly Airport to await the arrival of FFI leader Charles de Gaulle, who later that afternoon would return home from exile to be officially sworn in as provisional head of state for the reborn French Republic. While some women who’d had the grave misfortune to become romantically attached to German soldiers were subjected to public humiliation or worse, most Parisian ladies were wild with joy on this day; more than a few French hearts were lost to a GI or Tommy, who returned the affection with interest.
Inside Notre Dame, meanwhile, the Archbishop of Paris held a Mass of Thanksgiving to mark the end of German rule; the venerable cathedral’s pews were filled to overflowing, not only with Parisian citizens but also with Allied soldiers who felt the need for spiritual nourishment.
Back in London, General Eisenhower began making tentative preparations to transfer SHAEF’s headquarters from London to the French town of Reims; as Allied forces progressed closer and closer to the Franco-German and Franco-Belgian borders, he felt he could more effectively direct his troops if he were nearer to the battlefront.
48 hours after the first Allied troops arrived in Paris, Pierre Laval, nominal head of the Nazi-controlled Vichy puppet regime, was arrested by French resistance units and summarily executed for treason. Few mourned his demise; indeed, a well-known though possibly apocryphal story about de Gaulle has him supposedly telling an aide that "I wish I’d shot the worthless dog myself"1. That same day the last pockets of German resistance in Toulouse surrendered to the British army; the next morning American and French advance squads were on the outskirts of Orleans, the ancient city from which Joan of Arc had launched her fabled crusade in the 1420s.
On August 18th Soviet troops began assaulting the last pockets of Nazi resistance inside Warsaw. Polish Communist partisans and even some elements of the Polish Home Army joined them in the offensive. Stuka dive bombers, which had been the terror of the Polish capital five years earlier, were easy pickings for the Yak-7 and MiG-3 fighters that supported the Red Army offensive; even the trust Me-109s and Fw-190s that formed the backbone of the Luftwaffe fighter corps found it difficult to cope with the skill and ferocity of Red Air Force pilots.
By dawn on August 19th the only sector of Warsaw still under German control was the Royal Castle in the city’s Stare Miasto2 district, and it was soon surrounded by Polish partisans and Red Army tanks. Faced with the grim prospect of ending his days in a Soviet POW camp, the highest-ranking German officer still alive in Warsaw, SS-Oberführer Eduard Deisenhofer, chose instead to commit suicide— and most of the men under his command followed suit.
At noon that same day, Joseph Stalin personally announced the successful liberation of Warsaw by his troops. As yet he made no effort to impose Communist rule on the Polish capital; he still needed the Western Allies’ co-operation while the war with Germany was still on. Once the war was over, however, all bets were off…
By the time the last shots had been fired in Warsaw, Allieddivisions in Italy were gearing up to start pushing towards the headwaters of the Tiber River. Assisted by Italian partisan forces behind the lines along with reconstituted divisions of the new Italian army, they intended to slash away like cleavers at the dwindling remnants of Benito Mussolini’s puppet state. No less an authority than General Mark W. Clark, then the leading American military commander on the Italian front, predicted that Mussolini would be either "behind bars or dead"3 by New Year’s Day.
Mussolini must have feared Clark might be right, for in the days since Hitler’s funeral Il Duce had been busily planning his escape abroad. Germany had already offered him asylum, and there was also a possibility for him of fleeing to Switzerland— in his Socialist years Il Duce had made many escapes to that country when Italian authorities were cracking down on civil unrest. He even briefly toyed with the fanciful idea of undergoing plastic surgery and disappearing into New York City’s immense Italian community.
Some of his advisors, however, thought the Duce should make a last stand against the Allies to set an example for future generations of fascists to draw inspiration from. They set to work at a deserted World War I-era fortress in the town of Valtellina, stockpiling supplies and equipment so that the fortress could operate as a bunker if and when the time came for Mussolini and his inner circle to fend off Allied attack.
The Duce’s mistress, Clara Petacci, had sworn to stay by his side to the very end, complicating matters for those working on the Valtellina fortress— and making her a target for partisan squads that wanted to assassinate both her and Mussolini.
On August 21st the last pockets of German resistance in Orleans surrendered to the Americans. In southern France Allied infantry and tank divisions continued to work their way towards Varennes, the city which had been designated as the juncture point for the forces deployed as part of Operation Anvil to link up with their comrades from Operation Anvil. Even down in the Balkans, whose rocky terrain made military operations a nightmare for invader and defender alike, there was good news as British forces worked with Greek partisans to push the Germans out of Greece.
However, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill felt a vague sense of unease about Poland. Their intelligence sources warned them of growing tension in Warsaw between the Home Army and the Polish Communists— a tension exacerbated by the Soviets’ heavy-handed presence in the Polish capital. While not eager to alienate their wartime ally unnecessarily, both leaders felt it was crucial that Stalin be made to understand he could not impose his will on Poland unilaterally.
On August 24th, Roosevelt met with Soviet ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin and asked him to remind the Kremlin thatit was under obligation to let the Polish people freely choose their own postwar government. Churchill said much the same thing the next day to Fedor T. Gusev, the USSR’s ambassador in London, and added that His Majesty’s Government would be glad to mediate talks between the two Polish exile governments and Moscow if Comrade Stalin wanted it.
Stalin’s response to his fellow Allied leaders was polite but noncommittal, saying only that he would take their concerns under advisement. In reality, he’d already made up his mind that the Poland which emerged from the ashes of World War II would be a Marxist state.
General Thadeusz Bor-Komorowski may not have known of Comrade Stalin’s intentions, but he certainly must have suspected them, for on August 25th he sent a stern letter to Wladislaw Gomulka and Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov stating point-blank that if any attempt were made to force a Communist regime on Poland, he and his supporters would resist by every means short of armed conflict. And even armed conflict, he hinted, was not entirely out of the question if the Communists failed to respect the will of the Polish people.
Fearing that civil war would engulf Poland if Bor-Komorowski made good on his threats, the Allies hastily arranged a summit between the exile government in London and Gomulka’s own Moscow-backed central committee in Lublin. While the summit was able to prevent armed clashes between the competing exile governments, it didn’t manage to accomplish much else— in fact, the question of Poland’s political future was still being debated when the Third Reich collapsed in December of 1944.
By the first week of September most of France was under Allied control and partisan cells in Luxembourg and Belgium had stepped up their attacks on German occupation forces in those countries in anticipation of the moment when they too would be liberated. But attention would soon be focused southward on Italy, where the US 5th Army had advanced to within fifteen miles of the medieval Tuscan city of Siena.
On September 8th, one year to the day after King Victor Emmanuel III’s government had formally surrendered to the Allies, the 5th Army encountered two Wehrmacht divisions and a battalion from Mussolini’s puppet army southeast of Siena. The Nazi and RSI4 forces soon found themselves surrounded and trapped inside a steadily shrinking pocket; the ensuing five-week clash, which would be immortalized in the American press as "the Battle of the Bulge", would cost the Axis 60,000 dead and nearly 200,000 either wounded or captured.
By the beginning of October, most of Siena was in Allied hands and French troops based in Corsica had started landings at the seacoast town of Livorno. General Clark then set an ambitious goal for his men of capturing Bologna and Florence no later than October 30th.
As ambitious as Clark was, however, Montgomery had even grander plans in mind with regard to the Allied campaign in northwestern Europe. He had noted that along some sectors of the front Allied troops were less than fifty miles from the Franco-Belgian border; with an airborne strike at just the right place and time, the way might be opened for the simultaneous liberation of Belgium and Luxembourg. If they were particularly fortunate, the Allies might even succeed in establishing a small foothold in Germany itself.
His proposed assault, designated Operation Toadstool, called for two American divisions, the Polish Parachute Brigade, and two British divisions to make landings along the southern edge of the Ardennes Forest; the Poles would then combine with one of the American divisions to push towards Liege and Malmedy while the other American division would team up with the British forces on a rapid thrust into Luxembourg. The field marshal’s belief was that the sheer boldness of the assault would send the Germans scrambling to stop it, clearing a path for British, American, Canadian and French ground troops to surge up to the Belgian border to link up with the paratroopers. Eisenhower’s top aide, General Omar Bradley, regarded this plan as "going a bridge too far"5; however, Montgomery persuasively argued that the rewards which stood to be reaped from implementing the plan were well worth the risk.
Operation Toadstool began just after midnight on September 17th, 1944 as the first wave of Allied paratroopers touched down just a mile from where German panzers had broken through the Allied lines to enter France back in 1940. Just as Montgomery predicted, Wehrmacht forces were soon racing to blunt the surprise Allied thrust. What he couldn’t have predicted, however, was that things were about to happen in Poland which would simplify his task…
Having been instrumental in the overthrow of Hermann Goering as chancellor of the Third Reich, Otto Skorzeny now turned up to wreak havoc with the Red Army’s advance through Poland. On September 19th, he and a team of Russian-speaking SS saboteurs attacked the Red Army forward command post at Pabjanice; this marked the beginning of a surprise German blitzkrieg thrust that knocked the Soviets off-balance and would be recorded as the last major Wehrmacht offensive on the Eastern Front in the Second World War, Fall Nibelung("Case Nibelung").
For the next ten days, the world held its collective breath as Soviet and Polish troops staged a desperate counterattack against the surging Waffen-SS thrust. Debates over the country’s postwar political administration were put on the back burner— all that mattered was making sure the Nazis didn’t capture Warsaw for the second time in five years.
While the Germans were able to seize some parts of Lodz, they were unable to crack Soviet defenses around Warsaw, and by the morning of September 29th their foothold in Lodz was starting to weaken as well. Elements of the new Romanian army joined Soviet and Polish forces in launching a four-column assault against the weakest part of the German lines; by October 1st the last pockets of Nazi resistance in Lodz had been crushed.
During Fall Nibelungen’s last days, proof of the atrocities the Nazis had committed in their efforts to rid Europe of the Jews finally began to surface. On September 30th, an advance patrol of Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front discovered the SS death camp at Auschwitz; unable to believe the horrifying stories his men were telling him, Konev drove to the camp to look for himself and was horrified by what he saw: "It was hell on earth." he told war correspondent Pavel Troyanovsky of the army newspaper Red Star.
One of the camp’s liberated inmates, Dutch teenager Anne Frank, would have agreed with Marshal Konev on that score. Having been arrested by the SS along with her family a month earlier, she’d come to regard Auschwitz as the physical embodiment of everything evil in the world; in her gloomiest moments, she’d even held the fear that she might die there.
Before too long, American and British soldiers would experience the same kind of horrified shock as they began encountering the western outposts of the Third Reich’s extermination system…
But that was in the future. For the present the news out of western Europe was all positive; the last German holdouts in Siena were being cornered, nearly all of Luxembourg was free thanks to Operation Toadstool, Allied troops in the Ardennes had taken Bastogne, and the last remnants of the Wehrmacht occupation forces in France were retreating towards Brussels. On October 2nd, SHAEF headquarters received a dispatch saying that Allied troops had encircled Malmedy and were less than three miles outside Liege. Montgomery’s gamble was paying off.
In addition to the classic sounds of battle such as the roar of cannons and the ping of ricocheting bullets, a new noise was heard for the first time in the late summer and early fall of 1944: the low scream of turbojet engines. The Gloster Meteor,originally deployed as a defensive aircraft to guard British cities against the V-1 rocket bomb, was distinguishing itself as an implacable (if somewhat clumsy) enemy of the Me-109 and Fw-190. To counter the Meteor’s attacks on its remaining fighter units, the Luftwaffe unleashed the Messerschmitt Me-262, whose Jumo 004 turbines and 30-mm cannons made it a formidable adversary for the Gloster jet.
On October 5th, the first all-jet air battle in human history was fought in the skies over Liege. A group of Meteors flying escort for an RAF tactical bombing raid against the main Wehrmacht outposts in the city encountered a gaggle of Me-262 on their daily combat air patrol; although the German aircraft had better firepower, the British planes held the numerical advantage and the engagement ended with the Glosters having shot down thirteen Me-262 at the minimal cost of just two Meteors destroyed.
The United States would be too late to bring jet aircraft into the war in Europe, but in early 1945 the Air Corps introduced a fighter that would play a crucial part in the final battles of the war with Japan: the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, a highly capable tactical aircraft in which famed ace Richard I. Bong would score the first air combat kill by an American jet pilot. In the meantime, American flyers would be trained in special two-seat Meteors on loan from the RAF.
On October 10th, 1944 the last pockets of German resistance in Malmedy surrendered to the US Army. Within hours, the New York Times would print headlines that signalled the start of the Third Reich’s death throes:
YANK, BRITISH FORCES CROSS REICH FRONTIER
Berlin Claims Trier Holding Out Against Allied Thrust
As with many of Berlin’s other claims, the story that Trier was holding out would be proven false; once American and British advance units had crossed the Moselle into Germany, Trier had in fact given up after only a brief struggle. Though Goebbels and his propaganda machine tried frantically to hide it, the Allies had established a toehold on German soil.
Though publicly Stalin took the news in stride, behind closed doors he was alarmed. Because of Fall Siegfried, the Western Allies had gotten a head start in the race to Berlin; if they were to reach the German capital before the Red Army, it would give Washington and London the advantage in post-war political discussions regarding Germany’s future.
He exhorted Zhukov and Konev to redouble their efforts against the Germans on the Eastern Front, determined that the lost time be made up as swiftly as possible and the Red Army get to Berlin first. But the discovery of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps on the Eastern Front had introduced an unforeseen complication into Soviet war plans; the time required to provide medical care for the camps’ former inmates, arrest those who operated them, and verify the atrocities that had taken place inside their walls would further slow down the Red Army’s march across Europe.
By October 13th Allied troops had taken Liege and reached the outskirts of Brussels; at Waterloo, where Napoleon’s militarycareer had met its ignominious demise in 1815, Field Marshal Walter Model ended his own career, choosing to commit suicide rather than be captured by Allied troops or Belgian partisans. In neighboring Holland, Dutch resistance groups closely tracked the Allied advance through Belgium and eagerly awaited the day when their own country would be free of the Nazi oppressor.
Himmler was infuriated by these developments and, as Hitler had before him, blamed the German general staff for the defeats the Allied powers were inflicting on an ever-weaker Reich. His mental state, highly precarious to begin with, deteriorated still further and he began to drop ominous hints that he might take his own life if worst came to worst.
Leon DeGrelle, one time Belgian fascist leader turned Waffen-SS division commander, had already made use of the suicide option. On October 21st, as Soviet troops were closing in on the remnants of his Walloon volunteer unit, he blew his brains out with his service pistol. His death was greeted with mixed emotions back in his former homeland: while the majority of his fellow Belgians were happy to be rid of him once and for all, at the same time they regretted his suicide had deprived them of the opportunity to make him answer for his collaboration with the Nazis.
In Tokyo, new Japanese prime minister Mamoru Shigemetsu read with alarm the latest set of dispatches from his country’s embassy in Berlin. Without exception they all pointed to one dire conclusion: barring an 11th-hour miracle, Germany’s final defeat was inevitable. Shigemetsu understood all too well what that meant— once the Reich had fallen, it wouldn’t be long until the Allies started massing their forces in the Pacific for an invasion of Japan sometime in 1945…
Footnotes1 Collins and LaPierre, Is Paris Burning?.
2 Polish for "old town".
3 Quoted in an interview for the August 23rd, 1944 edition of the official US Armed Forces newspaper Stars & Stripes.4 Republica Sociale Italiano, the official name for Mussolni’s puppet government.
5 Quoted from an interview with Bradley by Cornelius Ryan for his 1966 book Bridge To The Rhine.