Drive to the Elbe
The unqualified success in the north was the signal for all Allied armies to begin the victory sweep through Germany. While approving a plan for the Ninth and First armies to encircle the Ruhr, with the former remaining under Montgomery’s command, General Eisenhower directed that as soon as the Ruhr was secured, the Ninth Army was to revert to Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group. Bradley’s armies then were to make the main Allied effort along the Erfurt-Leipzig-Dresden axis to link up with the Russians.
The Third Army began to exploit its Rhine crossing on March 25, and the next day seized a bridge across the Main River near Frankfurt and entered the outskirts of the city. On March 29, the First and Third armies linked their bridgeheads near Wiesbaden. The Seventh Army in the meantime made an assault crossing of the Rhine on either side of Worms before daylight on March 26. Other troops of the army crossed near Mannheim, and on April 1 entered Heidelberg. Alarmed lest the French be denied a major role in the push through Germany, General de Lattre speeded the attack preparations of his First Army, crossed the Rhine before daylight on March 31 near Speyer, and turned southeastward toward Stuttgart.
The reaction of the German High Command to the advances of the Sixth Army Group was typical of that all along the front. Hitler and his entourage in OKW seemed incapable of comprehending the extent of German losses and reverses. Unable to make additional troops available, OKW insisted nevertheless that Army Group G counterattack northward to cut off the Sixth Army Group columns. When this proved impossible, OKW relieved the group commander. Hitler had already tried to form a Volksturm (People’s Army), but in almost every case these untrained, ill-armed, poorly equipped troops put up little fight. He called now for the formation of an underground army of “Werewolves” to fight the invading armies by any and all methods. It was a dramatic appeal, but it produced few tangible results.
In the north, Simpson’s Ninth Army and Hodges’ First Army swept rapidly toward a juncture on the east face of the Ruhr industrial area near Paderborn. The drive gained speed from the fact that the Army Group B commander, Field Marshal Model, had disposed his remaining defenses facing southward against the Remagen bridgehead and thus was ill prepared for the First Army’s push to the east. What was more, the First Army drive severed all contact between the forces of Army Group B and Army Group G. Similarly, Army Group H north of the Ruhr was powerless to stop the eastward push of the Ninth Army. Though the commander, General Student, begged permission to fall back behind the Weser River and to withdraw forces from the Netherlands to help build a new line, Hitler and OKW rejected the requests. Armored spearheads of the two American armies met at Lippstadt, 17 miles west of Paderbom, on April 1 to complete what General Eisenhower called “the largest double envelopment in history.” Caught in the Ruhr pocket was all of Army Group B with its Fifth Panzer and Fifteenth armies and part of Army Group H’s First Parachute Army.
After attempting without success to break out of the pocket, first to the north and then to the south, Field Marshal Model settled down to fight to the end, hoping thereby to tie up as many Allied troops as possible. But the end was not long in coming. On April 14, the Americans cut the pocket in two. Two days later the eastern half collapsed, and on April 18 all the remaining garrison surrendered. The final count of prisoners exceeded 325,000. Model himself was reputedly a suicide. A new United States army headquarters, the Fifteenth under General Gerow, former 5th Corps commander, came forward to supervise the final mopping up, while the First and Ninth armies continued to the east.
As all Allied armies spread out over Germany, their advances exceeded even those of the great pursuit across France. Drives of 35 to 50 miles a day were not uncommon. Armored divisions usually led the way, but infantry units too, the men mounted on attached tanks or tank destroyers or riding trucks normally used to tow artillery, made rapid dashes. Many towns and villages lay undefended. All that stood in the way of capturing others were roadblocks hastily constructed of heavy logs. Demolished bridges caused the greatest delays, but with the Germans able to form no solid line even behind sprawling streams like the Weser, infantrymen quickly paddled across in assault boats to form a bridgehead while engineers often in less than half a day constructed pontoon bridges that tanks and other vehicles might use. White flags raised by an apathetic and supine citizenry flew from every building. In most cases the Germans put up a half-hearted resistance and then merely waited for the Allied flood to roll over them. In others some local commander might instill his troops with special bravado and bring on a fierce little engagement in the midst of an otherwise unimpeded advance. This happened at Kassel and left the city in ruins. It happened also at Heilbronn on the Neckar River, where the Seventh Army required a week to reduce the city. It happened too in the Harz Mountains, where contingents of the First Army also found themselves involved for a full week in a real war again.
On the Reichsautobahnen, the superhighways with which Hitler had laced the country for moving his military forces, Allied columns roared up all four lanes, while crowds of dejected German prisoners or ragged but exuberant slave laborers of almost every nationality in Europe marched westward down the median strip. Some units overran vast caches of money and works of art looted by the Nazis from all corners of occupied Europe. Others came across walking skeletons who somehow had survived the Nazi concentration camps and mute but grim evidence of human extermination factories. Supplying the far-ranging motorized columns was a tremendous, fantastic task. The most critically needed supplies-gasoline, rations, and ammunition-usually came in by cargo planes to newly captured airfields. Heavily laden trucks with headlights ablaze in disdain for whatever might remain of the Luftwaffe roared through the night on the autobahns. Trucks often had to make 700-mile round trips to railheads along the Rhine. The first two rail bridges built across the river were opened on April 8 at Wesel and on April 14 at Mainz.
In the north the British Second Army bridged the Weser on April 5 and reached the Elbe by April 24. Despite stiff resistance along the Dortmund-Ems Canal, a column on the British left advanced to Bremen by April 20, there to fight a week-long battle against a group of diehard defenders. The columns on the right jumped the lower Elbe on the last two days of April, and on May 2 took Lubeck without opposition, thereby cutting off the peninsula of Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark. The great port of Hamburg surrendered the next day, also without a fight.
The Canadian First Army, driving to cut off the Germans in the Netherlands, engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of all during the first few days of April. From a Rhine bridgehead near Emmerich one column established a bridgehead over the Ems River on April 8, and then ran into one sharp fight after another en route to the naval bases at Emden and Wilhelmshaven. To the west another column driving due north from Emmerich quickly reached the North Sea, cutting what remained of German forces in the northeastern Netherlands into ineffective pockets. Still a third force farther west jumped the Lower Rhine on April 12, cleared Arnhem two days later, and reached the IJsselmeer on April 18. Four days later, Allied commanders, all too aware of the misery already besetting the Dutch people for lack of food, suspended attacks on the promise of the German high commissioner for the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, that he would avoid wholesale flooding of the lowlying country. After a meeting between SeyssInquart and Eisenhower’s chief of staff on April 30, the Allies began a program to deliver food and supplies to the hard-pressed Dutch, but the Germans in the Netherlands refused to surrender so long as the German government had not capitulated.
In the Allied center troops of the First and Ninth armies were already on their way to the Elbe even before the final capitulation in the Ruhr pocket. Armored spearheads of the Ninth Army reached the river near Magdeburg on April 11, and the next day established a bridgehead less than 75 miles from Berlin. The Germans reacted stiffly, even calling in the almost defunct Luftwaffe in troublesome numbers, and forced abandonment of the bridgehead on April 14, but a second bridgehead established the preceding day held fast. This bridgehead constituted no more than a threat, for by this time General Eisenhower had abandoned any idea of driving on Berlin. Since mid-March, Soviet forces had stood on the Oder River, only 28 miles east of the capital, with the apparent ability to take it whenever they chose. In view of this situation, Eisenhower decided to concentrate instead on defeating the German forces in central Germany and on driving into the south where rumors picked up by Allied intelligence seemed to indicate that the Germans were creating a last-ditch defensive position in the Alps, the so-called National Redoubt. The Ninth Army was to halt at the Elbe, Eisenhower directed, and the First Army at the Mulde, a tributary of the Elbe, there to await contact with Soviet armies from the east. The First Army took Leipzig on April 18. Already an armored division had bypassed the city to reach the Mulde River. Patrols sent out by both the First and the Ninth armies made contact with forward Soviet units on April 25, while the first formal meeting between United States and Soviet divisional commanders took place near Torgau on the following day.
Meanwhile, the Third Army had pressed on to the Czechoslovakian border. With the First and Ninth armies established on their final objectives, Eisenhower directed the Third Army to sideslip southward for drives into Czechoslovakia, Bavaria, and Austria close beside the Seventh Army. The attack picked up momentum on April 22 and began to make the usual rapid gains at extremely low costs in men. One day, for example, the entire Third Army lost only 3 men killed, 37 wounded, and 5 missing while taking 9,000 German prisoners. Breaking through hastily improvised defenses on the Isar and Inn rivers, contingents of the Third Army on May 4 seized Linz, Austria. Others pushed into Plzen (Pilsen), already in the hands of Czech partisans.
The two armies of General Devers’ Sixth Army Group meanwhile had swung southeastward from their Rhine bridgeheads to sweep to the Swiss border and eventually to enter Austria and link with Allied forces in northern Italy. In addition to a hard fight at the Neckar, troops of the Seventh Army had to battle three days for Nurnberg but took the city on April 20. The French swept through the Black Forest on the east bank of the Rhine, and on April 22 took Stuttgart. As the Seventh Army headed into southern Bavaria and the Austrian Tirol to forestall any establishment there of a National Redoubt, both armies crossed the Danube on April 22. Munich ( Munchen) fell on April 30 and Salzburg ott May 4, and with the aid of Austrian partisan guides a column pushed to the Brenner Pass on the same day. Berchtesgaden, site of Hitler’s mountain retreat, also fell on May 4. The myth of a National Redoubt exploded, Nowhere was there evidence that the Nazis had made preparations for a last-ditch stand.