History Read Along – Inferno: The World at War, Chapters 23-24

We’re coming to the end of our summer read-along. This week’s chapters highlighted the final campaigns that ended the war in Europe with the Allied invasion of Germany and the fall of Berlin.

Some of the chapter details are quite rough. Kids – these chapter notes are family-friendly, but wait and read the book when you’re a little older.

Here are the notes for Chapters 23 and 24:

Chapter 23: Germany Besieged

  • By September 1944, most Allied leaders believed the war in Europe would end in a few weeks; Winston Churchill was the exception in the opinion.
  • Operation Market Garden started an ambitious attempt to secure a bridge over the Rhine River; the operation was planned and coordinated by British General Montgomery. Ultimate, after heavy losses, the objective failed.
  • With military disappointments, the Allied dreams of ending the war in 1944 faltered.
  • The port of Antwerp opened after fighting, giving the Allies another important supply base on the continent.
  • By about November-December 1944 the Allied line was on the western German defenses, but the Germans had had time to reorganize and prepared their own counterattack.
  • The winter conditions and mud created miserable conditions for the troops and health issues.

US troops, Battle of the Bulge
(Public Domain)

  • The Soviets were pleased with the western Allied offensive and prepared to launch their final attacks from the east during the following year.
  • On December 18, Operation Autumn Mist – a German offensive – hit the Allied lines and created a forty-mile wide breakthrough, beginning what would be known as Battle of Bulge.
  • The Allies pushed back the German advance but did not cut off their retreat. After that failed counter-attack, the German army and people realized the end and defeated loomed ahead.
  • In Italy, new Allied commanders introduced new tactics and by spring 1945 had pushed their armies across the Po Valley – just a little late to have a major effect on the war.

Quote of the chapter: “To be nineteen years old, to be nineteen and an infantryman, to be nineteen and fight for the liberation of France from the Nazis in the summer of 1944! …For that glorious moment, the dream of freedom lived and we were ten feet tall.” Edwin Wood, U.S. Soldier (page 558)

Chapter 24: The Fall of the Third Reich

  • In Hungary, the country’s leaders tried to surrender to the approaching Soviets, but the Nazis and local military (who supported Germany) held Budapest and fighting raged from street to street, killing thousands of soldiers and civilians.
  • In early 1945, American, British, and other western Allied troops entered Germany. Soldiers attitudes, behaviors, and reactions changed as they entered the “enemy country” Interactions with civilians became more violent, but the battles lost some of their ferocity in the west as many Germans surrendered during the fights.
  • The western Allied troops agreed with Stalin to move to the Elbe River and let the Soviets capture Berlin which greatly pleased the Soviet leaders.
  • From the east, Russia launched 6.7 million men in a front that stretched from the the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea.
  • In February 1945, the Allied chiefs of staff met on Malta and prepared strategy and information for the upcoming Yalta conference.
  • In Germany, Hitler changed generals, still hoping for a military miracle. Troops were executed for desertion or cowardice and young teens were put on the battle lines. The civilians braced for the end, many trying to flee to the western Allies rather than encounter the Russians.

Soviet Army captures Berlin, 1945
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R77767 / CC-BY-SA

  • The western Allies captured cities and advanced to the Elbe River and headed south, hoping to block a German final retreat to a mountain stronghold. Along the way, they found and liberated concentration camps.
  • Although Stalin took credit for the Russian advance, Marshall Zhukov actually coordinated the command of the front.
  • Russian commanders and troops wanted revenge and total destruction in Germany, leading to the routine brutality against civilians, little quarter in battle, and tenacious battlefield attacks.
  • At the gates of Berlin, the Russians launched frontal attacks, suffering heavy casualties and continuing to attack until they entered the city. Hitler committed suicide and street fighting erupted as the Soviets took the city; thousands died.
  • On May 2, 1945, German Lieutenant General Karl Wiedling surrendered Berlin.

Quote of the chapter: “I wanted to shout, to call to all our brothers, our soldiers, who are lying in the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Polish earth, who sleep forever on our battlefields, ‘Comrades, can you hear us? We’ve done it.'” Vasily Grossman, Soviet war correspondent on the march into Germany. (page 593-594)

Thoughts

In these two chapters, one of the things that stood out most to me was the contrast of warfare between the east and west. I’ve mused on this in previous posts, but it stands out particularly at the end of the war.

The Western Allies certainly had their share of atrocities on the battlefield or against civilians, but overall the commanders and military authorities tried to keep order and consequences for misbehavior. An idea of liberation can be found in some of the records and certainly in the memory of the fight across Europe.

The Soviet Allies had different motivations from the beginning. They had suffered significantly worse during the war, and most of their troops entering German were bent on revenge, plunder, and various forms of humiliation to their enemies or civilians.

Different ideologies were at work in this historic situation. The Eastern and Western Allies might have been working together, but the troops and their leaders had different ideologies, different worldviews. Those worldviews influenced how their war fronts were fought. The Soviets had less regard for life, more nationalism, and a commitment to more simply obeying orders after almost four decades of communism, central government, and suppressed religion. The Western Allies had more open societies and ideas, more value on life and liberty, and a sense of justice rather than all-out revenge; for some soldiers and leaders, religious beliefs – primarily stemming from Judeo-Christian doctrines – influenced their opinion and actions.

Your Opinion?

What stood out decisively to you? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments. Next week is our last week of reading, so if you are reading along be sure to finish the book!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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