The Germans fall back in increasing disarray

A Churchill tank crew and US Airborne troops in Munster, 4 April 1945.

A Churchill tank crew and US Airborne troops in Munster, 4 April 1945.

A Sherman tank of the Royal Scots Greys, 7th Armoured Division, crossing the Dortmund-Ems Canal, 4 April 1945.

A Sherman tank of the Royal Scots Greys, 7th Armoured Division, crossing the Dortmund-Ems Canal, 4 April 1945.

The German forces in western Germany were now falling back in some disorder. The German High Command struggled to comprehend what was going on and Hitler resorted to re-arranging his generals and armies.

General Blumentritt was commander in Holland, ordered to delay the Allied advance in the north. He would soon be given a much larger role in command of “Army Group Blumentritt”, a miscellaneous collection of German units in northern Germany extending all the way up to the Baltic. It was another consequence of Hitler’s continual re-organisation of his forces that increasingly denied the reality of the situation:

The battles now beginning east of the Rhine were often obscure to us. Without an air force and with only a few tanks, without supplies, we could no longer fight as ably as formerly.

The means of communication failed, there was often no communication with the corps and divisions of the Army, and many units had to act independently. Also communications with the higher echelons of command grew worse and worse. For days no orders came, often the sectors of the Army were suddenly altered, divisions were taken away, new units brought up.

Firm tactical leadership was no longer possible, reconnaissance failed to an increasing extent and we frequently did not know where the enemy was.

General Günther Blumentritt

Field-Marshal Kesselring had taken over command in the west on the 10th March, relieving Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, who once again had fallen out of favour because he spoke the truth. At the time Kesselring gave every impression that he still believed in ‘final victory’, demanding the severest measures to shore up discipline. In his post war memoirs he painted a different picture:

The enormously costly battles of the last half-year and constant retreat and defeat had reduced officers and men to a dangerous state of exhaustion. Many officers were nervous wrecks, others affected in health, others simply incompetent, while there was a dangerous shortage of junior officers.

In the ranks strengths were unsatisfactory, replacements arriving at the front insufficiently trained, with no combat experience, in driblets, and, anyway, too late. They were accordingly no asset in action. Only where an intelligent commander had a full complement of experienced subalterns and a fair nucleus of elder men did units hold together.

… The supply situation was bad; in some areas critical. Complicated by uncertainty as to the arrival of supply trains, it made wrong distributions inevitable. The railway network was badly battered, and if further stretches of line were put out of action, could no longer be reckoned with.

Furthermore, symptoms of disintegration were perceptible behind the from which gave cause for uneasiness. The number of ‘missing’ was a disquieting indication that a rot was setting in.

Field-Marshal Kesselring

'No Way Out'. Sgt J D Eilbeck uses a portrait of Adolf Hitler to make a 'no exit' sign at 156th Brigade HQ, 3 - 4 April 1945.

‘No Way Out’. Sgt J D Eilbeck uses a portrait of Adolf Hitler to make a ‘no exit’ sign at 156th Brigade HQ, 3 – 4 April 1945.

On the ground the eventual outcome seemed ever more inevitable but pockets of German resistance still had to be overcome. This meant that the death and destruction continued as ever, although increasingly the Germans suffered worst:

The Germans, letting go the Rhine, fell back in retreat, leaving road blocks and detachments of men to engage us in delaying actions. Sometimes during the following week, the enemy dug in to make a desperate stand only to have large numbers of its men throw down their arms and stream towards us in surrender. After a disorganized rout, collapse and retreat, more road blocks were thrown up and the wounded German Army fell back still farther.

One of the delaying actions made by the Germans, though of short duration and of obvious uselessness, stands out as one of the more ghastly episodes of the war.

We were advancing down a road in convoy when a German tank drove out of a grove of trees, fired point-blank, killed two of our men, and then retreated from sight again. The convoy halted and two of our rifle companies went forward and surrounded the little grove that contained, they discovered, a platoon of German soldiers in deep foxholes. The German tank kept swivelling and firing, and after a while four of our own tanks came up. Each from a different direction sprayed the tiny stretch of woods with long streams of flaming gasoline.

Within a few seconds the place became an inferno, and the shrieks and screams of the Germans could be heard through the high curtains of fire. A few, in flames, tried to crawl through, but they were mowed down by our machine- guns.

Within a half hour we went on, and all that was left of the little wood was a deep bed of glowing golden coals, hideous to see and to think about in the spring sunlight.

The countryside grew extremely hilly and wooded; small towns, flying surrender flags, lay hidden in hollows. In the swiftness of pursuit, one company by mistake often seized another company’s town and had to double back to take its own objective. The convoy of trucks rushed into the towns; the infantrymen hopped down, cleared out the snipers, rounded up the prisoners, jumped into the trucks again and set out for the next town. Some days, in this fashion, as many as thirty miles were covered.

See Lester Atwell: Private

Universal carriers of the 4th King's Shropshire Light Infantry, 11th Armoured Division, pass through the burning village of Levern, 4 April 1945.

Universal carriers of the 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, 11th Armoured Division, pass through the burning village of Levern, 4 April 1945.

Young German prisoners captured by 11th Armoured Division in the village of Levern, 4 April 1945.

Young German prisoners captured by 11th Armoured Division in the village of Levern, 4 April 1945.

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