This week in the War, 16–22 April 1945: Birthday in the bunker

Heinrich Himmler presents Hitler with a specially printed luxury edition of Mein Kampf to mark the Fuehrer’s 50th birthday on 20 April 1939 [Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H28988/ Hoffmann/ CC-BY-SA 3.0]

Hitler’s birthday, 20 April, was a special day in the Nazi calendar and normally a cause for parades and festivities across the German Reich. Not long before the beginning of the war, 20 April 1939, Hitler had celebrated his 50th birthday. The photograph to the left shows SS-Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler marking that occasion by presenting his Fuehrer with a specially printed edition of Mein Kampf.

This week in the war, on 20 April 1945, Hitler spent his birthday in the bleak concrete environment of the Fuehrerbunker, several meters beneath the surface of his capital.

Visitors included Keitel, Jodl, Ribbentrop, Speer, and Bormann. Hitler expressed his determination to remain in Berlin and fight to the end.

Göring was there, ready to head off to Karinhall where his butler had organized the shipping out of his boss’s art treasures. Himmler called by to pay his respects then left, secretly intent on negotiating a ceasefire with the Western Allies.

Hitler’s birthday dinner was a quiet affair that evening, with only Eva and himself and his secretaries attending.

 

 

 

 

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This week in the War, 9–15 April 1945: Death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral procession, 14 April 1945 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 12 April 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia—the so-called ‘Little White House.’

America had lost the man who had steered the country through the Great Depression, and the world had lost the man who had taken centre stage in the most destructive war in history, one of the Big Three, and a man who had chosen sides from the outset with Lend-Lease and his famous ‘garden hose’ analogy.

Roosevelt died less than a month shy of seeing an end to the war in Europe, and four months before the Japanese would surrender and the world would enter the nuclear age.

‘The Little White House’—Roosevelt’s home in Warm Springs, Georgia [Public domain]

Ever suspicious, Stalin suggested an autopsy to see whether the president had been poisoned.

Churchill cabled Eleanor Roosevelt, expressing sorrow at losing ‘a dear and cherished friendship.’

In the Fuehrerbunker, Hitler was jubilant. He equated Roosevelt’s death to the death of the Russian czarina, Elizabeth, which had brought an end to the Seven Years’ War and given a last minute victory to Frederick the Great.

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This week in the War, 2–8 April 1945: Hitler settles scores with the Abwehr

20th century martyrs, Westminster Abbey, left to right: Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer [Author: T. Taylor, GNU Creative Commons Share Alike 2.5 Generic]

This week in the war, on 8 April (some say 9 April) 1945, Hans von Dohnanyi was hanged at Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

On the following day, 9 April 1945, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Major General Hans Oster, and Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer were hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Hans von Dohnanyi, the son of a Hungarian composer and his pianist wife, had opposed the Nazis since the 1930s. During World War II, he served in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, and was involved in the unsuccessful plot to smuggle a bomb onto Hitler’s plane, which was returning from Smolensk.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris headed the Abwehr, hated the Nazis, and secretly aided the Allied course throughout the war. He is thought to have provided behind-the-scenes support for the July bomb plot against Hitler.

Hans Oster belonged to the Abwehr and had conspired against Hitler even prior to the beginning of the war.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian and was fiercely anti-Nazi. His writings were banned by the Nazis and he was eventually forbidden to speak. He was recruited into the Abwehr (by von Dohnanyi) and, as a member of the German resistance movement, he was party to various plots against the regime.

“No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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This week in the War, 26 March–1 April 1945: Hitler goes into his bunker

Fuehrerbunker: Entry into the bunker complex, with the old Reich Chancellery in the background [Bundesarchiv Bild 183-V04744]

On 1 April 1945, Adolf Hitler vacated his apartments and his headquarters in the Reich Chancellery and descended into his bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery gardens: the Fuehrerbunker.

From then on, he lived below ground and only occasionally ventured to the surface, the last time being on his birthday, 20 April (on which day he was 56 years old).

There was still some drama to be played out:

12 April: The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the brief hope on Hitler’s part that Roosevelt’s death would trigger Britain and the United States to join Germany in the war against the Soviet Union;

23 April: Goering’s attempt to seize power from Bavaria and his subsequent fall from grace;

28 April: The discovery that Himmler had been making peace overtures with the western powers and his subsequent disgrace;

30 April (in the early morning hours, just after midnight of 29 April): Hitler marries his long-time mistress, Eva Braun, in a civil ceremony in the Fuehrerbunker;

30 April: Hitler’s death by suicide.

 

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This week in the War, 19–25 March 1945: Copenhagen—triumph and tragedy

Memorial at the site of the Jeanne d’Arc School in Copenhagen with flowers and wreaths laid down by the RAF on 21 March 2015, seventy years after the school was accidentally bombed [Author: Lklundin, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International]

This week in the war, on 21 March 1945, RAF and USAAF bombers carried out a precision raid against the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Gestapo had chosen to set up its headquarters in the former headquarters of the Shell Petroleum Company and kept the records on the Danish resistance movement on three floors in the centre of the building. The challenge facing the bomber crews was to destroy the records without harming the Danish prisoners who were locked up on the top floor or destroying the cells in the basement where more Danish resistance fighter were being kept and tortured.

Gestapo HQ at the Shellhus in Copenhagen, following the RAF raid, 21 March 1945 [Public domain]

The raid successfully destroyed the records along with almost a hundred Gestapo personnel with a very small number a casualties among the prisoners, many of whom escaped and were smuggled out of the country to neutral Sweden.

Tragically, one of the attacking aircraft crashed onto the Jeanne d’Arc School and some of the following aircraft interpreted the resulting blaze as their target and released their bombs.

Many nuns and over eighty schoolchildren were killed.

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This week in the War, 12–18 March 1945: RAF attacks the Schildesche viaduct

The Schildesche viaduct, March 1945 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 14 March 1945, the RAF’s 617 Squadron launched a daytime raid against the Schildesche viaduct near Bielefeld, on the railway line linking Hanover to Hamm. The viaduct dated from 1847.

A large section of the viaduct was destroyed.

A new type of bomb, the ‘Grand Slam’ or so-called earthquake bomb—designed by British engineer Barnes Wallis of Dam Buster fame—was used for the first time.

Avro Lancaster of 617 Squadron drops a 22,000 pound Grand Slam on the viaduct at Arnsberg, 19 March 1945 [Public domain]

Weighing 22,000 pounds, the bomb was almost twice the size of its predecessor, the ‘Tall Boy,’ which was also designed by Barnes Wallis.

After a similar but unsuccessful raid against the viaduct at Arnsberg, another RAF ‘Grand Slam’ raid demolished part of the Arnsberg viaduct on 19 March.

 

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This week in the War, 5–11 March 1945: The bridge at Remagen

The Ludendorff bridge over the Rhine between Erpel (foreground, east bank) and Remagen (background, west bank) after it was captured by US forces, 7 March 1945 [Public domain]

On 7 March 1945, units of the 9th Armoured Division of General Courtney Hodges’ US First Army arrived at the German town of Remagen on the west bank of the Rhine. To their surprise, the Ludendorff railway bridge, which connected Remagen to the town of Erpel on the opposite bank, was still standing. The Germans on the Erpel side subsequently detonated the explosives that had been fixed to the bridge but the main charge failed to explode. The bridge remained in place.

The American vanguard raced across. By nightfall, US forces had expanded and strengthened their bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Rhine.

In a fury, Hitler dismissed Field Marshal von Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief of German forces in Western Europe and ordered the execution of officers deemed responsible for failing to destroy the bridge.

In the days that followed, Hitler threw everything he had against the Ludendorff bridge, from V-2 rockets to the jet-propelled Arado Blitz bombers, but failed to bring down the bridge. It collapsed on its own on 17 March. By then, the Allies had constructed pontoon and Bailey bridges and were firmly established across the Rhine.

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