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.
Memorial to Ernst von Harnack at the von Harnack family grave site in Berlin [Author: Axel Mauruszat, Creative Commons Share Alike 4.0 International]
This week in the war saw the execution in Plötzensee Prison of the German Social Democrat politician Ernst von Harnack.
In 1933, von Harnack had voiced his opposition to the new Hitler-led government, describing it as ‘without goodness or grace.’ [Quoted by Martin Gilbert in his book Second World War (Stoddart, 1989)].
Like many that were executed by the Nazis in the final months of the war, von Harnack was accused of involvement in the 20 July bomb plot against Hitler.
Marines burrow into the beach at Iwo Jima with Mount Suribachi in the background, February 1945 [Public domain]
This week in the war, on 19 February 1945, US Marines landed in force on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, only seven hundred or so miles from Tokyo.
The landing was supported by the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance. Six battleships provided firepower for the initial bombardment of the beach defenses.
The ensuing 5-week battle cost over 6,000 American lives and the lives of almost the entire Japanese garrison of over 20,000 troops. (Only about 200 Japanese soldiers were captured, many of them badly wounded. There were no civilians on the island.)
The invasion of Iwo Jima gave the USAAF emergency landing/refueling strips for B-29s returning from raids upon Japan—although the cost in lives has since been considered a heavy price to pay.
The photograph of US Marines raising the American flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi became the most famous picture of the entire Pacific theatre and inspired the statue at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington County, Virginia.
Notice outside the reconstruction site of the Frauenkirche in Dresden [Public domain; author: Sir James]
This week in the war, between 13 February and 15 February 1945, bombs from RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF rained down on the ancient city of Dresden in eastern Germany—–a result, in part, of an agreement between the ‘Big Three’ reached at the Yalta conference
Architecturally baroque and famous for its china, the city had been spared the air raids that had ravaged so many German cities further to the west.
By the time the Dresden attack was over, between 20,000 and 30,000 of the city’s citizens lay dead. (Wartime and early postwar estimates put the death toll vastly higher.) To this day, there is still considerable debate as to whether or not the bombing could be justified on military grounds. For an in-depth discussion, see Frederick Taylor’s Dresden (HarperCollins, 2004).
Infantry advance through the Reichswald during Operation Veritable, 8 February 1945 [Public domain]
This week in the war, 8 February 1945, saw the launch of Operation Veritable
. The Canadians headed south from Nijmegen, aiming to dislodge the Germans from the west bank of the Rhine.
The Red Army had already crossed the Oder at a number of places and were only sixty miles from Berlin.
That night in the capital of the Reich, Hitler admired a model that had been built to show the planned postwar reconstruction of Linz—a city dear to the Fuehrer’s heart and the location of the planned Fuehrermuseum. Hitler still made a show (an outward show, at least) of being optimistic about the future.
Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta conference, February 1945 (Molotov is visible on the left) [Public domain]
This week in the war saw the start of the Yalta conference between the big three, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. (De Gaulle was not invited.)
The conference took place at Yalta in the Crimea between 4 and 11 February 1945. The purpose was to lay out the groundwork for postwar Europe—Poland in particular.
Stalin agreed to free elections in Poland (a promise that he later broke) and, in their turn, the Russians obtained agreement from Britain and the United States to use their air superiority to bomb lines of communication in the east of Germany, notably in the Berlin-Dresden-Leipzig area. (This would doom Dresden which, at that point, had suffered only minor damage from bombardment from the air.)
Soviet soldiers talk with children just liberated from Auschwitz concentration camp, January 1945 [Public domain]
This week in the war, on 27 January 1945, Soviet troops arrived at Auschwitz.
Belsen would eventually be liberated by British troops and Dachau by the Americans, and both of those camps would become well known to the public in Britain and America. But Auschwitz and its numerous satellite camps was destined to stand out by virtue of the enormity of scale.
Of Jews murdered in the Third Reich during World War II, a million were murdered in Auschwitz alone. So were many thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of Soviet POWs, Poles, gay men, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others whom the Nazis saw as enemies or undesirables.
27 January is now commemorated as International Holocaust Memorial Day.