Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae:
The Assassination of Adolf Hitler
by Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
In the first three parts of this series we recounted 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 Heinrich Himmler; the liberation of Paris and Warsaw; the first engagements between Allied and German forces in northern Italy; Rommel’s defection to the Allies; the introduction of the jet fighter into modern warfare; and the entry of Allied troops into Germany itself.
In this chapter we’ll deal with the Anglo-American advanceinto Holland, the Soviet invasion of eastern Germany, the battle for Bologna and Florence, and the demise of Vidkun Quisling’s fascist puppet regime in Norway.
The Nazis had no need to conjure up imaginary ghosts as Halloween 1944 grew near; there were more than enough real terrors to haunt them— the Red Army steamrollering their troops in the east, the Anglo-Americans relentlessly marching forward in the west, their erstwhile Italian allies waging guerrilla war against them in the south, and on all fronts a never-ending stream of bombers flattening their cities and factories to the ground.
On October 22nd, 1944, Canadian advance units liberated Belgium’s most vital seaport, Antwerp. By taking the city back from the Germans the Allies accomplished two important strategic aims: (1) they secured a useful bridgehead for their impending November push into Holland; (2) they gained a supply base which would enable them to expand their foothold inside Germany.
Three days later, as American and French troops were starting a push on Strasbourg, the last major city in France still under German occupation, they got a grim taste of the horrors Soviet soldiers had already uncovered at Auschwitz and Treblinka. A reconnaissance patrol from the US 4th Infantry Division found the Natzweiler-Struhof concentration camp on the Franco-German border; though most of its original population of 700 guards and 40,000-odd inmates had long since been evacuated, enough prisoners remained there to paint a hideous picture of the immoral medical experiments which had been going on there in the three years it had been operating.
No one who set foot there after the camp’s liberation was unmoved by the inmates’ testimony of the barbarities they had endured. George S. Patton, one of the US Army’s toughest generals, made an impromptu inspection of the camp on October 26th and was practically in tears by the time he left; NBC radio newsman Red Mueller had to fight to contain his seething rage as he conducted a special live broadcast describing the ghastly conditions inside the camp’s walls. Eisenhower himself visited Natzweiler on October 28th and was sickened by what he found; as he himself would later recall in his autobiography, "I had never felt before, nor have I felt since, an equal sense of shock or disgust. That human beings of any nation could inflict this on their fellow men was appalling enough, but that these crimes were perpetrated by people with whom my family shared a common ancestry was intolerable."1
If anyone doubted that the men under Eisenhower’s command shared his outrage, they would have been cured of those doubts had they been in Strasbourg when Allied troops breached German defenses around that city on October 29th. As one captured Wehrmacht major later put it, "they fought as if they were possessed by devils… we thought they’d kill us all before the day was done.2" The last pockets of German resistance inside Strasbourg would surrender less than eighteen hours later.
Much to General Clark’s disappointment, Bologna and Florence were still in German hands at day’s end on October 30th. French troops, however, had succeeded in liberating Livorno and were steadily advancing towards Pisa; meanwhile, additional Allied troops had crossed the Franco-Italian border and established a toehold which stretched from Torino to the Swiss border.
On November 1st, Mussolini abruptly ordered the evacuation of his entire cabinet to Valtellina; sure that his RSI was only weeks if not days away from its final collapse, he made up his mind that it would go out in a blaze of glory. When word of his decision reached Berlin, Himmler sent Mussolini a two-page letter urging him not to lose hope: "The darkest hour, Duce, is the one before sunrise…we need only be firm and unyielding, and we will yet make our enemies crack.3"
To Mussolini’s wife Rachele, Himmler’s reassurances sounded like a ghastly joke at best— as far as she could tell, everything the Duce had worked for over the past 25 years was falling apart like wet paper. She heartily disagreed with her husband’s decision to make a last stand at Valtellina; she was convinced their family’s only hope for survival lay in fleeing to Switzerland. The Allied advance through northern Italy wasn’t her only reason for feeling this way— she had at last begun to suspect her husband’s affair with Clara Petacci and was anxious to get him as far away from the girl as humanly possible.
Her resolve was strengthened on November 5th when the US 5th Army finally attacked Florence, starting one of the bloodiest battles of the war. She went to husband’s office to urge him to give up the Valtellina idea; moments after she arrived, her suspicions about his relationship with Clara Petacci were confirmed when she saw Petacci standing in front of his desk tearfully pleading with him to let her accompany him to the fortress.
In a fury Rachele attacked Petacci, trying to claw her eyes out at one point; only the direct intervention of Mussolini prevented his wife and mistress from tearing each other’s throats out. Her energy spent, Rachele left the office, but not before giving her husband’s mistress the dire (and as it turned out, not entirely inaccurate) warning that she would meet her demise at the end of a rope.
On November 7th, 1944 Allied forces crossed the Belgian border into Holland, capturing Maastricht and Eindhoven in the first hours of their assault. That same day Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term as President of the United States, getting 91% of the popular vote in what still ranks as the most decisive electoral landslide in American political history.4
In Moscow, as part of ceremonies marking the 27th anniversary of the start of the 1917 Communist revolution, Marshal Georgi Zhukov was bestowed with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for the fifth time, making him the only Soviet citizen ever to accomplish that feat. In Greece, British troops placed Athens and Salonika under martial law to help the newly restored Greek government thwart an attempted insurrection by local Marxist guerrillas.
But perhaps the most dramatic story to unfold on this day was a rally in Oslo to demand the termination of the Norwegian puppet regime headed by Nasjonal Samling leader Vidkun Quisling. Though the rally was completely and brutally crushed in the end, it gave eloquent testimony to the spiritual strength of the Norwegian resistance and the deleterious effect of Hitler’s assassination on Germany’s efforts to maintain control of Norway.
In the days and weeks following Hitler’s death, Quisling’s power base had steadily eroded as German troops were gradually called home from Norway to plug the gaps which the Allies had forced open in the Reich’s defenses. Matters came to a head on November 6th, when the Gestapo arrested four students from Oslo’s largest university on charges that they had assaulted a German soldier. The arrests sparked outrage in the Norwegian capital, and just after sunrise on the morning of November 7th anti-fascist groups began assembling outside Nasjonal Samling party headquarters to call for the students’ release. By noon, more than 100,000 people were marching outside the building, chanting anti-Nazi slogans and singing the revered national anthem Ja vi elsker dette landet as they sought to compel the release of the young people they believed had been jailed on a false pretext.
Josef Terboven, Reichkommissar for Norway, was infuriated by this blatant act of defiance against German rule and ordered Waffen-SS troops in Oslo to disperse the crowds by any means necessary. At 2:10 PM, SS troops on foot and in armored vehicles began firing on the demonstrators; just a few minutes later the rally broke up as its organizers were either dead or sharing prison cells with the very people who they’d been hoping to liberate. But although Terboven had won the immediate battle, the long-term fight was not yet over— when word of the massacre reached Supreme Allied Headquarters, Eisenhower authorized the deployment of the British 52nd Air Portable Division and the US 13th Airborne Division to the port of Stavanger to aid the rebels in Oslo in their struggle to overthrow the Quisling puppet regime.
As Allied troops in Holland liberated the Hague and Rotterdam and encircled Arnhem, the citizens of Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Essen had a great feeling of foreboding about what the future held for them; after more than four years of daily air raids, they dreaded the prospect of street fighting between Allied soldiers and the Wehrmacht in their beautiful cities. The burgomeisters5 of all three towns pleaded with Berlin to send men and tanks to defend them against what now looked like an inevitable Allied assault from across the Dutch border.
Their requests were doomed to go unanswered; the regular German armed forces were swiftly and steadily disintegrating while the reserve force, the Volkssturm6, suffered from gaping inadequacies in both training and equipment. Thrown together as a last-ditch attempt to hold back the tide of Allied troops flowing onto the Reich’s sacred soil, the Volkssturm’s ranks included the elderly, boys too young to even lift a rifle much less fire one, and men who’d previously been rejected by the regular armed services for medical reasons.
On November 11th, the anniversary of the cease-fire that ended World War I, German resistance in Arnhem finally collapsed and Allied forces reached the outskirts of Amsterdam. Within hours, a torrent of civilian refugees was flooding the roads out of Essen and Dusseldorf, and by dawn on November 12th much of Cologne’s remaining population would also be fleeing to safety. Not even Goebbels’ passionate radio appeals to "make your cities into fortresses!" could persuade them to stay in their homes in the face of an impending Allied assault.
Sure enough, on the afternoon of November 13th, two Allied armored divisions rolled across the Dutch-German border towards Essen; as Volkssturm units made a fierce but unsuccessful effort to turn this thrust back, elements of the newly reconstituted Dutch army moved to hit the German rear flank. While these units had little short-term effect, in the long run they proved to be the straw that broke the back of Nazi resistance; by 5:00 PM Berlin time on November 17th Essen had fallen and most of Cologne was in Allied hands.
Back in Holland, Amsterdam fell on November 18th; just as had previously happened in France and Belgium, Dutch citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis were harshly punished for their actions. The lucky ones were merely humiliated; Anton Mussert, leader of the NSB7 fascist party and ruler of the German-backed puppet Dutch state, was caught trying to escape to Sweden and summarily executed by local anti-Nazi partisans for treason. In the next 48 hours, hundreds of NSB officials at all levels of the party would share his fate…
The rocky terrain of Norway, and the ferocity of initial German resistance to the Allied landings at Stavanger, made it difficult for the British 52nd Air Portable and the US 13th Airborne to gain a solid footing. Once that footing was secured, however, the way was cleared for the Allies to step up material assistance to the anti-Nazi partisans in Oslo. By November 20th all but a few miles of the southern coast of Norway were in Allied hands and the 52nd had also made solid inroads into the Norwegian interior.
In addition to providing material assistance to the anti-Quisling insurgents, the Allies dispatched covert operations cells to Oslo to strengthen their manpower. Two OSS teams functioned as reserve units for the guerrilla forces, while SOE psychological warfare groups helped the rebels distribute anti-Quisling propaganda. The Soviets were also active in Norway, supplying guns and explosives to Norwegian Communist partisan bands.
By November 23rd, the anti-Quisling forces controlled all but a few dozen blocks of Oslo, while advance squads from the US 13th Airborne had crossed the Otra River and were pushing steadily towards the Norwegian capital. It was about this time that the US 17th Airborne mounted a diversionary attack on Bergen; despite fears that the battle for the strategically vital seaport would be a bloodbath, the Americans were able to secure it with only minor casualties after 36 hours.
Quisling and his subordinates barricaded themselves inside their offices at Nasjonal Samling party headquarters, but the writing was on the wall for their puppet regime. On November 26th Allied troops entered Oslo and joined anti-Nazi Norwegian partisans in assaulting the last pockets of Axis resistance in the capital. In one of the most ferocious street battles of the Second World War, the very Waffen-SS that had crushed the November 7th rally were themselves wiped out as they tried in vain to hold on to the last thin sliver of territory still under German control.
At 6:17 AM local time on the morning of November 28th, Vidkun Quisling’s body was found in his office at Nasjonal Samling party headquarters. Rather than risk trial and execution for betraying his countrymen, the Norwegian fascist leader had chosen to kill himself by taking poison8. At 9:00 AM London time an elated King George VI personally telephoned the Norwegian government-in-exile to inform them that Oslo had been liberated.
That afternoon, Winston Churchill invited King Haakon VII to 10 Downing Street; over glasses of brandy from the British prime minister’s personal stock, the two Allied leaders toasted the Norwegian capital’s emancipation from four grim years of Nazi rule. It was just a matter of time, Churchill confidently told Haakon, before the rest of Norway was similarly freed.
More good news was soon to come for the Western Allies; on December 1st, Florence finally surrendered to American troops. That same day Allied forces in western Germany took Koblenz and Frankfurt and advanced to within ten miles of Munich. In the east, Soviet divisions attacked Dresden and Cottbus while Czech resistance cells launched an uprising against the Nazis in Brno. During this revolt Dr. Joseph Tiso, leader of the German-backed Slovak puppet state, mysteriously disappeared from his office in Bratislava, touching off what would become one of the great mysteries of the postwar era.
Himmler’s already precarious mental state deteriorated even further as the Anglo-American armies drew closer and closer to Berlin. Like Hitler had before him, he made the mistake of relying on Dr. Theo Morell’s medications to cope with illness; given his tendency towards hypochondria, and given also that Dr. Morell’s medical skills were at best open to debate, it’s hardly surprising that the Reichschancellery had taken on what would later be called "the ghastly air of a mausoleum, a charnel house, and an insane asylum all rolled into one"9.
On December 3rd Allied troops in Norway accepted the surrender of the German garrison in Trondheim. The next day Norwegian infantry units under British command started a major push on Namsos; once that port was secured, there were plans in the works for similar offensives to retake Tromso and Narvik. Narvik was an especially alluring prize for the Allies, for with its liberation they would symbolically erase the stigma of their ignominious retreat from that same city in 1940.
The few foreign embassies still operating in Berlin had seen the writing on the wall and were gradually shutting down; first to go was the Slovakian embassy, which closed its doors on December 5th. The next day the Portugese and Irish embassies followed suit; by December 8th the skeleton staff of Mussolini’s RSI legation had fled to Switzerland to avoid an otherwise inevitable execution for treason at the hands of their fellow Italians. The Japanese ambassador to Germany, Colonel Hiroshi Oshima, chose to commit ritual suicide rather than endure the disgrace of being captured or forced to flee Berlin like a common bandit.
On December 10th the 2nd British Army took Bremen while American infantry and tanks reached the outskirts of Munich. During this advance the Americans found themselves playing the highly ironic role of rescuing Hermann Goering from the sanitarium where he’d been confined since the Himmler coup; a US Army field medic who examined the Reichsmarschall found that he was in a precarious mental state thanks to a combination of frequent injections of barbiturates and his own lifelong use of morphine and heroin. He was quickly moved to an Allied military hospital under maximum security and started on a rigorous detoxification program.
By now it was apparent that, barring a sudden 11th-hour reversal of fortune on the Western Front, the Anglo-American forces would win the race for Berlin. It was just a question of which flag would be raised over the Brandenburg Gate first— the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, or the Tricolore. Nonetheless, Stalin was determined to make sure his troops got their share of the spoils from Nazi Germany’s final defeat. With this in mind, he exhorted Molotov to do everything humanly possible to ensure that any Allied postwar occupation plans concerning Germany included provisions for unrestricted Soviet access to Berlin’s eastern sectors.
The German forces in Denmark were now hopelessly cut off from the Fatherland; most of the Danish-German border regions, including the vital seaports of Flensburg and Kiel, were held by British and Canadian troops and those few sectors still controlled by the Germans were being subjected to relentless Allied air and sea interdiction. Adding insult to injury, Danish resistance groups had escalated their attacks on the German occupation forces to such an extent that Wehrmacht and SS troops could no longer even leave their barracks.
In a desperate attempt to break this logjam Himmler ordered his most trusted Waffen-SS general, Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner, to launch a three-column assault aimed at breaking through the Allied front lines and retaking Kiel. But Steiner’s attack was a failure— and a catastrophic failure at that; with the Luftwaffe practically non-existent by this time, his troops and armor were sitting ducks for the air strikes that preceded the inevitable Allied counterthrust. Compounding this disaster was a breakdown in communications that prevented critical reinforcements from reaching Steiner until it was too late to accomplish anything. When word got back to Berlin of Steiner’s ruinous defeat, it destroyed what was left of Himmler’s sanity.
In a tirade that left an indelible impression in the minds of those unfortunate enough to hear it, the Nazi ruler denounced his fellow Germans as "vermin" and "cowards of the worst, the most degenerate kind" who had failed him at the Reich’s most criticalhour. He told his companions that he would fight to the bitter end, and with his last bullet he would kill himself.
That end would come even sooner than Himmler feared; even as the dead from the failed Steiner attack were being buried, the Allied armies were moving into position for the start of their final assault on Berlin. General Eisenhower had given the green light for Operation Faust, a four-pronged assault on the Reich capital, to begin no later than December 13th. British, Canadian, Dutch, Belgian, and Polish forces would sweep on Berlin from thenorth; in the west, American ground and air attacks would pound away mercilessly at the city’s defenses until they cracked; and in the south, a combined French-American assault force would move to prevent the surviving senior officials of the Nazi hierarchy from escaping the Allied dragnet.
A 20th century Gotterdammerung was about to unfold…
For Mussolini the end had already come. The day before Allied forces took Bremen, the Duce had been captured by Italian partisans as he was trying to flee the besieged Valtellina fortress to make the safety of the Swiss border; in compliance with the Badoglio government’s 1943 surrender agreement with the Allies, he was promptly handed over to the US 5th Army, who incarcerated him at a military prison near Milan. His arrest hammered yet another nail into the coffin of the Axis cause; with him in jail and his old friend Adolf Hitler long since dead, there could be no doubt that their brand of fascism was extinct.
In Japan, Hirohito and his Imperial court nervously awaited the inevitable moment when the Third Reich ceased to exist and the Allies started turning their full wrath on the Japanese home islands. They would have been even more edgy had they known about the revolutionary weapon that was in the final stages of its development in the New Mexico desert; after almost two and a half years’ constant work, the Manhattan Project, America’s top-secret research program aimed at producing a practical atomic bomb, was on the verge of achieving its goal. Though its original raison d’etre of getting the bomb before the Nazis did had long since been rendered moot by the Third Reich’s collapse, those involved with it now had new motivations for their efforts— the desire to hasten the end of the war in the Pacific and the need to provide America with a means of countering postwar Soviet expansionism…
1 Eisenhower’s parents were of German descent. 2 Bridge To The Rhine.
3 The letter is now preserved with English and Italian translations at the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz.
4 The closest any American presidential candidate has been able to come to that mark since then was in 1972, when incumbent Richard Nixon captured 87% of the popular vote to turn back Democratic challenger George McGovern. Roosevelt’s thrashing of his Republican opponent, then-New York State governor Thomas E. Dewey, proved so embarrassing to the GOP candidate that Dewey retired from the political scene shortly after his term as governor expired in 1947.
5 German for "mayor"
6 German for "Home Guard".7 Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging, literally "National Socialist Movement". Mussert’s ideology was heavily influenced by both Hitler and Mussolini.
8 There was a rough plan in the works for Quisling and his three top associates to escape to Germany via plane, but it never came to fruition. For a look at how a successful Quisling escape might have affected the final days of the war in Europe, see David C. Isby’s "Fugitive Tyrant: Vidkun Quisling’s Flight to Germany, 1944" in the Peter G. Tsouras-edited alternate history essay anthology The Rastenburg Options: Alternate Consequences of the July 20th Bombing, copyright 2004 by Greenhill Books.
9 Bullock, Himmler: A Study In Tyranny.