26 May 1940: The ten-day Battle of Dunquerque which would culminate in the flight of Allied forces from France across the North Sea to the British mainland began on this day in history.
After the winter-long stalemate nicknamed the ‘Phoney War,’ the German Army had moved with astonishing speed – not least, new research concludes, due to the quantity of amphetamines they were consuming – and meticulous planning, occupy the Low Countries and bypass the Maginot Line on which France had relied.
The capitulation of France within weeks had marked for Germany one of the most spectacular military victories in world history. As the Germans ploughed on toward Southern France and the calamity worsened, both French troops and the British Expeditionary Force found their efforts at counter-attacks frustrated and, to evade total encirclement, were compelled to retreat.
After a visit to Paris left him dismayed by the despondent state of French high command, Churchill began planning ‘Operation Dynamo,’ the evacuation of 338,000 troops by sea. Civilian fishing vessels and lifeboats (the ‘little ships’) were pressed into action to assist the Royal Navy.
The soldiers, strafed by the Luftwaffe, abandoned their weaponry and leapt homewards. Thousands of French troops were captured, to become prisoners of war. Almost all the best troops Britain and France had to offer had been either evacuated to the United Kingdom or had been killed.
The Germans sliced their way south, toward Paris, like a knife through butter.
Yet the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands led the Battle of Dunkirk – described by Churchill as a ‘miracle’ – to be received as a success back at home. Following the German capitulation in 1945, Dunkirk become emblematic of an indomitable British fortitude – and pluckiness.
16 April 1945: On this day in Berlin history, the Soviet Union unleashed three fronts from 45 miles east of Berlin to launch the “Battle of Berlin” – the last major offensive of WWII in Europe.
Under the command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the unyielding 1st Belorussian Front began its strategic offensive around 3:30AM with a devastating amount of artillery bombardment at the Seelow Heights on the banks of the Oder River (today’s natural border between Germany and Poland). Over 900,000 Red Army soldiers – with more than 20,000 tanks and artillery pieces – fought tenaciously against some 100,000 German soldiers and their over 1,000 tanks and guns.
After four days of fighting and after suffering tremendous losses of over 30,000 soldiers, Zhukov’s Front had forced its way through the outer defensive ring around Berlin and prepared to make a pincer attack to the north of the city. Meanwhile, Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian front was moving up with support from the southeast (the goal was to link up the 1st Belorussian with the 1st Ukrainian to establish a full encirclement of the city).
In short, taking a look at the total numbers as they were at the onset of the Battle of Berlin 75 years ago today, the 3 fronts (2nd and 1st Belorussian Fronts and the 1st Ukrainian Front) consisted of around 2.5 million men – with over 6,000 tanks, 25,000 pieces of heavy artillery and more than 7,500 planes – to attack the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich.
On the German side, their forces consisted of around 1 million ‘men’ (many of whom were teenagers or younger), 1,500 tanks and armored vehicles, around 10,500 artillery pieces and backed by more than 3,000 fighter planes.
The imbalance in forces was compounded by the fact that – according to the British historian Ian Kershaw, “Many Germans were young, ill-trained recruits, while the air-strength was purely nominal since so many planes were grounded through lack of fuel. Only the three concentric rings of deep-echeloned fortifications barring the path to the capital gave an advantage to the defenders.”
By the early morning hours of April 20th, Zhukov’s forces had taken Bernau bei Berlin (just outside the northern borders of Berlin) and at around noon, his units’ guns opened up fire directly on Berlin. It’d now only be a matter of days before the capital of the “Thousand Year Reich” would fall to the Red Army.
22 March 1944: On this day in Berlin history, Jimmy Stewart led the 2nd Bomb Wing attack on Berlin.
Stewart came from a family steeped in military tradition: his forefathers had served in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and in WWI. Before his initial draft into the Army, Jimmy had achieved his Private Pilot and Commercial certificate in 1935 and 1938.
In late 1941, the Army began hiring civilian pilots to ferry airplanes and perform other non-military duties. Stewart volunteered for flight training, earning him a pilot slot. After nine months as an instructor pilot, Stewart got a billet in a unit training up for deployment to England, the 703rd Bomb Squadron.
Stewart was recommended to be the commander for the 445th Bombardment group. Here, he would get to Europe and get his chance to join the fight. In 1943 he flew across the Atlantic in new B-24Hs and was given his first bombing mission in December of 1943. By early 1944, he had flown his 12th sortie into combat and helped lead an attack on Berlin itself on March 22nd. He would later take on targets deeper into Germany and was promoted to Major and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Jimmy Stewart was no doubt the most famous officer to serve in a combat unit in World War II and although shy, the Army took advantage of his notoriety by issuing press releases. A news release was sent out after his Berlin mission in which he was quoted commenting on the intensity of the flak and fighters. When asked if the mission was unusual, he responded with “Unusual? We hit Berlin, didn’t we?”
Alongside his acting career, Stewart continued to serve in the United States Air Force as a reserve officer. He rose to the rank of Brigadier General before retiring in 1968 after 27 years of service.
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Chiara Baroni.
It’s one of four events she has chosen to remember this March. Follow Our Blog to see what else she chooses.
2 February 1945: On this day in history, one of the most consequential battles of the Second World War – the Battle of Stalingrad – ends with the total defeat of Axis Forces. 6th Army Commander Friedrich Paulus surrenders and goes into Soviet custody, becoming the first German Field Marshal to be captured alive.
The battle had begun over five months before as part of the ‘Case Blue’ Summer offensives. The 6th Army was tasked with capturing Stalingrad and guarding the flanks of the army group invading the Caucasus oil fields. The city’s invasion began on the 23rd of August with a ruthless carpet bombing, turning the battlefield into flaming wreckage of twisted steel and listing concrete. When the 6th Army moved in, they were slowed to a crawl by bitter house-to-house resistance as the Soviets paid for time in their blood.
The battle would turn decisively when the Soviets launched a massive counterattack on the 19th of November. Through driving snow, they burst through the Romanian and Hungarian troops guarding the 6th army’s flanks and sealed them within Stalingrad. In response, Hitler ordered supplies to be airdropped into the city, but logistical difficulties led to a chronic lack of supplies, ammunition, and food.
Commander of the 6th Army, Friedrich Paulus had seen multiple reports of the building Soviet Armies at his flanks but had refused to believe their validity. Despite his soldiers running out of position in Stalingrad, he refused to debate Hitler’s orders or forcefully push for a breakout from the city.
With neither victory nor escape possible, Hitler expected Paulus to commit suicide. To harden his resolve, on 30th January, Hitler promoted him to Field Marshal, telling him that no one of this rank had ever been captured in German History. Ultimately Paulus’ Catholicism would not let him contemplate suicide, and he surrendered the next day. His remaining 91,000 troops would surrender two days later. Due to the terrible conditions in Soviet Gulags, barely 6000 would return to Germany.
This slice of On This Day in Berlin history was written by BBS Member Campbell Bews.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember in February. See what else made the cut on our blog.
26 January 1945: On this day in Berlin history, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler entered the Führerbunker under the gardens of his Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
With the bunker acting as the final headquarters for the Nazis, Hitler was joined by much of his senior staff – as well as dozens of medical and administrative personnel. In April, 1945 – nearing the end of World War II in Europe – his long-time lover, Eva Braun and propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels would also take up residence here.
The Führerbunker itself was actually a complex of two connected bunkers – the upper Vorbunker (1936), and the lower Führerbunker (1944). Made with the intention of withstanding the strongest known Allied bombs at the time, the Führerbunker was deeper underground than the Vorbunker (about 8.5 meters or 28 feet beneath the surface) and offered even more protection. The roof boasted almost 3 meters (9.8ft) of thick concrete.
Although Hitler attempted to make life underground more comfortable by bringing in furniture and oil paintings from the Chancellery, conditions were nonetheless desperate. The bunker laid underneath the water table of Berlin, creating a very damp environment and the unremitting noise from the bombings would make sleep difficult.
By April 16, 1945 the Soviet Red Army would enter Berlin, marking the beginning of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. As Soviet troops encircled the city, Hitler’s final visit to the surface above occurred on his birthday – April 20, 1945 – when he awarded young boys from the Hitler Youth the Iron Cross medal for bravery.
Less than forty hours after marrying Eva Braun in the bunker, Hitler and his new wife eventually committed suicide on April 30, 1945.
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Chris Moniz.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this January. See what else makes the cut on our blog.
Monday, June 18, 1945 at the White House in Washington D.C.
At 3:30PM Truman called a meeting to order with his Joint Chiefs and other top civilian cabinet advisors from the War Department. Among those in attendance was U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall who spoke up immediately after the meeting got underway and claimed that the only course to defeat Japan was to embark on the same kind of ground invasion that had brought the Nazis to their knees in Europe. He presented a two-phase invasion that would begin at the island of Kyushu at the southern end of Japan’s mainland, just 350 miles from Okinwa.
The Allied Expeditionary Forces would strike on November 1, 1945 (D-Day in the Pacific).
When it came to predicting Allied casualties, there was no way to exactly estimate the true number, but Marshall believed that the invasion would be as difficult as Normandy. The General estimated American casualties to be around 30,000 in the first 30 days of Operation Downfall. Another estimate at the Pentagon included the invasion of both southern and northern Kyushu, as well as Japan proper, to be around 220,000 casualties. And finally, in a memorandum on June 4, 1945, written by General Thomas Handy of Marshall’s staff, it stated that the United States would save no less than 500,000 to 1 million lives by avoiding the invasion all together (showing that figures of such magnitude were being discussed at the highest levels).
Whatever the outcome might be, Marshall summed up the situation by saying, “It is a grim fact that there is not an easy, bloodless way to victory in war.”
It was obvious to everyone in Truman’s cabinet that victory would come at a heavy price. They continued to fear that the Japanese would not surrender without a long and bloody struggle. By this point in the war they had already been severely punished, practically defeated, but they continued to show no signs of yielding – no signs of surrendering unconditionally to the Allies. If one looks at the Battle of Okinawa, for example, which was coming to an end at this time, the battle itself was painting a bloody portrait of just how ferocious Japanese resistance could be. The fighting had been raging on since the beginning of April, killing over 10,000 Americans in combat, wounding anywhere between 38,000 to over 55,000, and entrenched in the jungles and caves of the island more than 100,000 Japanese chose to perish over surrender. For Truman and his cabinet, these were startling figures and conditions since they continued to indicate how much of a last ditch battle the Japanese could put up, as well as the kind of battle they could put up on their home islands in man to man combat. Moreover, Okinawa could be taken as an indicator that Japan needed dyer measures to defeat it.
Truman went around the room and listened to each man give his opinion about a course of action for a ground invasion. By the end of the meeting, there was a unanimous agreement that it should happen within the next four months.
The most interesting moment of the meeting probably came at the end when Truman turned to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy who had pretty much let his boss, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, do all the talking during the meeting. “McCloy,” the President said, “Nobody leaves this room until he’s been heard from….Do you think I have any reasonable alternative to the decision (on the invasion) which has just been made?” McCloy then turned to Stimson, who said, “Say what you feel about it.”
“Well, I do think you’ve got an alternative,” McCloy said. And I think it’s an alternative that ought to be explored and that, really, we ought to have our heads examined if we don’t explore some other method by which we can terminate this war than just by another conventional attack and landing.”
McCloy began saying that he agreed with the topic of easing ‘unconditional surrender’ (something discussed earlier in the meeting) to let the Japanese retain their monarch, Emperor Hirohito. McCloy then brought up the Manhattan Project, the nearly three year old plan being carried out to develop a bomb out of the elemental forces of the universe – a nuclear weapon. He believed that the United States should tell the enemy of the bomb, and if Japan did not surrender, it would be used. He said, “I think our moral position would be better if we gave them a specific warning of the bomb.”
The response, as McCloy remembered the conversation: “We don’t know that it will go off; suppose it doesn’t go off; our prestige will be greatly marred.”
McCloy then responded by saying, “All the scientists have told us that the thing will go. It’s just a matter of testing it out now, but they’re quite certain from reports I’ve seen that this bomb is a success…”
Truman concluded matters by stating that this should be explored further, but decisions with regard to the bomb could not be made until it was tested successfully. Truman then ordered the Joint Chiefs to move ahead with plans for a ground invasion of Japan, an order that would begin the process of putting more than three quarters of a million Americans in man to man combat.
Bibliography of Quotations
Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6
McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5
It was 75 years ago today – February 11, 1945 – that the original “Big Three” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin – would meet together for the final time with the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, which was the second of three WWII wartime summits between the three heads of government of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
The key points on the agenda at Yalta were major questions related to military tactics in the Pacific War and post-war politics in Europe. The Soviets pledged to join the war against Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe, and Germany was to be divided into four occupation zones (which involved the French) and the establishment of a “United Nations” organization was also agreed upon.
Yet, the question of Poland and its borders would dominate much of the eight day summit, as it would five months later when the ‘new’ Big Three would arrive at Potsdam for their final wartime summit. At Yalta, Poland’s western frontier was left undefined, but it was agreed that it would receive “considerable” territorial compensation from Germany, while Stalin ‘pledged’ to permit free and democratic elections in Poland based on the Atlantic Charter that had been signed in 1941. Yet, as soon would become the case, massive intimidation, electoral fraud and a wave of persecution would be unleashed under communist cadres that had the protection of the occupying Red Army throughout Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Historians claim that it was finally made obvious to Churchill at Yalta that nothing could change the reality that Stalin had conquered Poland and would thus decide its future, realizing that it wouldn’t be long before it was a fully pledged Soviet satellite state.
After the final pictures were taken, Churchill would say goodbye to his close friend, President Roosevelt, whom he had a very special bond with, for the final time, and leave Yalta deeply embittered, realizing that the cause for which Great Britain had entered the war – a free Poland – had been lost.
In short, the Yalta Conference divided Europe between those states that were under the rule of the Red Army and those that were to join the West in one association or another (de facto, not formally). It would also divide Germany ostensibly into occupation zones, but ultimately into separate states.
Thus, it’s largely accepted among historians that Yalta ignited the beginning of the Cold War that would last for the next half century.
Smyser, William R. (1999). From Yalta To Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-06605-8
On a cold, February afternoon in Munich 77 years ago today, 21 year old Sophie Scholl, a pioneer and active member within the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, was found guilty of high treason and beheaded by a guillotine in Munich for distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich with her brother, Hans.
For decades, she’s been seen as a leading figure of the resistance movement against the policies of the Nazi government, having demonstrated a profound amount of courage and a great deal of social dissent in a controlled society of violent repression, censorship, and conformist pressure. At her trial she said the following:
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
The Nazi court allowed no testimony for Scholl and the other defendants; this quote was her only defense.
In 2003 the government of Bavaria placed her bust in the Walhalla Temple, something that would’ve been inconceivable when it opened in the 19th century (let alone during the Nazi period). Later that year, the German television network ZDF invited people from around Germany to participate in the so-called “Unsere Besten” (Our Best), a nationwide competition to choose the top ten most important Germans of all time. Young voters helped Scholl and her brother to finish in fourth place, above the likes of Einstein, Bach, Goethe, and Bismarck.
Else Gebel, who shared a cell with Scholl, recorded her last words before being taken away to be executed:
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause…? It is such a splendid sunny day, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted…”
The highly anticipated ‘unconditional surrender’ is finally signed by the Government of Japan: Today, 73 years ago: Sunday, September 2, 1945 on the USS Missouri in the Tokyo Bay.
Aboard the deck of the ship named after President Truman’s beloved home state – the USS Missouri – Japanese officials arrived to sign the surrender documents that would finally and officially bring World War II to a close.
The scene surrounding this ceremony in Tokyo Bay was awe-striking.
With a fleet of navy ships anchored in the Bay, while American flags rippled in the wind, the colossal figure that was General Douglas MacArthur conspicuously appeared aboard the USS Missouri.
Today, it might be hard for us to understand the aura surrounding General MacArthur at that time. Called to active duty in the U.S. Army as major general, and named as the commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) as early as July 1941, Americans would collectively come to see him as a kind of God – an infallible God – who had averted failure on several occasions and led successful campaigns – primarily in the Philippines – all the way up until the end of WWII in the Pacific.
The General only stood around 5 feet 9 inches tall, but many have said that – if you’d stood in his presence – it would’ve felt as if he were standing around 6 feet 6 inches tall. And he had all the props: The open collar shirt, the sun glasses, the crunched hat, and pipe. Furthermore, he took unclear directives and interpreted them in his own way. General Douglas MacArthur was the modern day ‘American Caesar.’
As the ‘American Caesar’ stood on the Missouri’s deck monitoring the proceedings, his face was so expressionless that he looked as though he was – as historian A.J. Baime would say – “(already) a bust that would sit in a museum.”
Finally, after it’d been proclaimed by President Roosevelt in 1943, reconfirmed by President Truman at Potsdam in the summer of 1945, slightly revised in the second week of August 1945, and finally ‘agreed to be accepted’ on August 14, 1945, unconditional surrender was a signature away.
The Japanese government (on behalf of the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mamoru Shigemitsu – and on behalf of the Japanese armed forces, Yoshijiro Umezu) officially accepted the Potsdam Declaration by signing the highly anticipated unconditional surrender on this day: Sunday, September 2, 1945.
World War II was now over. Victory in Japan – or V-J Day – could officially be celebrated, and General Douglas MacArthur had now become the supreme ruler of 80 million people in Japan.
Three full days had passed since the United States, United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union had jointly submitted their formal reply to Japan’s terms of unconditional surrender that they had issued on August 10th (see our blog post from August 10, 2018).
Finally, at 6:10 PM, Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes received a message from Switzerland’s Department of State. It was what the world had been waiting for: Japan’s acceptance of the terms of surrender.
Secretary Byrnes then rushed to the White House to deliver the document to President Truman.
Just before 7:00 PM, newsmen pushed into Truman’s office to listen in on what the President was about to say. Indeed, there was a lot of excitement in the air. World War II had killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians; it was the worst catastrophe that had ever struck the human race. It was now over – and everyone crammed into the Oval Office knew that the right side had won.
The photographers’ lights nearly blinded the President as he stood up from behind his desk, holding the document in his right hand.
All the top aides, advisers, and heads of his administration sat or stood around him. Even his beloved wife, Bess, was seated just a few feet away.
Truman looked as if he had just emerged from a bandbox. His double-breasted navy blue suit was neat and pressed – his style was immaculate for such a moment.
“All in!” a Secret Service man announced.
Truman glanced at the clock.
At exactly 7:00 PM, with his shoulders squared, he began reading slowly and clearly from the document in his right hand.
“I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government,” the President announced. “I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.”
He went on to announce General Douglas MacArthur’s role as supreme allied commander over Japan, and that the proclamation of VJ-Day (Victory in Japan) would have to wait until the formal signing of the unconditional surrender.
In any event, World War II was now essentially over.
The hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers who were preparing to go to Japan to engage in man-to-man combat could now breathe a sigh of relief.
As was reported in the papers the next day, one jubilant soldier in Washington DC flung his arms around a civilian shouting, “We’re all civilians now!”
Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6
McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5