It is time for another history lesson. This week I am going to once again catch everyone up with what was happening in around the rest of Europe during the time of my grandfather’s stories.
My last history lesson began with the rise of the Third Reich and saw them advance very quickly through France, Poland, and the Netherlands in 1939 and 1940. I talked about the advance in June of 1941 into Ukraine and the Soviet Union. I talked about how they reached as far as North Africa and Greece. I also mentioned that by September of 1942 they were on the doorsteps of the Caucus mountain ranges. I concluded my lesson with the turning point- the battle of Stalingrad that ended with German retreat in early February of 1943. There are a few turning points in the war, but to me, none were bigger than the horrific street by street fighting for Stalingrad.
The second part of my history lesson now focuses on the retreat and the fall of the Third Reich.
After Stalingrad, Germany’s resources were very thin. The Americans and the British had landed in North Africa and pushed the famous tank commander Rommel out of the desert.
The allies were now wanting to make a major landing on mainland Europe. In 1942 there was a failed landing attempt in Dieppe France, led mostly by Canadians and British Special Forces.
The Allies chose to land in Sicily in July of 1943. They came by air and sea. Tanks landed by amphibious vehicles, airborne troops jumped from planes the night before the assault and the Navy lay siege from the sea. By August of 1943 Sicily was under Allied control. By October of 1943 parts of southern Italy including Naples was also under Allied control. The fall of Sicily and Italy brought the end to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
In the East, Stalin and the Red Army began to push the Germans back at every turn. Everything moved rather quickly and the retreat at times was very disorganized. In returning to my grandfather`s story that is why very suddenly in September of 1943 my grandfather and his family fled Ukraine with the retreating German Army. It is also why during the retreat when my grandfather was on the train with his family that it took so long. Every new location they would quickly have to flee and try to find a different way into German held territory – the Russians were at every turn.
One other thing to note is that when they could the Germans destroyed everything. Every front-line city turned to rubble. Every train car, every factory and every abandoned vehicle was destroyed. This policy in history has been referred to as ‘Scorched Earth.’
In June of 1944 of course the Allies landed in Normandy and would have a goal of Berlin by Christmas. Now of course that didn’t play out, the failed operations of Market Garden in fall of 1944 would see to that, but the end at this point was inevitable.
The Germans in December of 1944, did launch one last effort to push back the Allies to the coast. This battle is famously known as The Battle of the Bulge or simply Bastogne. My grandfather would fight in Bastogne and his story during this fight will be told soon. It ended in January of 1945.
The Americans would then cross the Rhine in February of 1945. After crossing into Germany they began to slow their advance. Many historians believe this was on purpose for the American advisors didn’t want to take on Berlin. The reasoning was simple it was going to be a brutal battle. It was now evident that Hitler was going down with the ship; every last Nazi had to be removed. Germany needed to be completely dismantled. But the cost for taking the city was going to be high.
Thus, it was left to Stalin. The battle for Berlin would cost the Russians over 100,000 lives of their 2.5 million strong. Over 120,000 Germans soldiers lost their lives in the fighting. The battle began on April 16th and ended May 2, 1945.
Hitler became surrounded in his bunker and would take his own life on April 30, 1945. A great movie to watch about the final days in the German bunker is Downfall. It won best foreign film at the Oscars and Bruno Ganz is eerie portraying Hitler. Definitely worth watching. You really get to see how mad he was and how people worshiped him to the bitter end.
After the war, Europe was a mess. Everything was destroyed. To understand the magnitude of the destruction I recommend reading Tony Judt’s book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Probably one of the best books ever written on the Second World War and the aftermath.
So why explain all of this and how does it relate to my grandfather’s story? I hope that it gives context to the time he grew up in. I also hope it gives some insight to how conflicted this time was.
Next up in my grandfather’s story I will share the story of Bastogne.