David Irving


The Gamble

It was a calculated risk that Hitler was taking, but he and his military advisers recognized that they had no choice.

Hitler himself reflected early in December 1944 that his own life was virtually spent in any case :  before World War I he had been too impoverished to enjoy it ;  during that war itself he had been consigned to the Flanders battlefields ;  afterward, he had committed himself body and soul to his fight for power.  Now a new war, more terrible than the first, had robbed the former infantryman turned F¸hrer of the fruits of success.  This is how Hitler viewed his career in retrospect.  He insisted that now his one aim was to fight the war through to a victorious conclusion that would make fresh passages of arms impossible in Europe for at least a century.  “Frederick II earned his title ‘the Great’ not because he was victorious, but because he did not despair in adversity ;  equally, posterity will come to recognize me because I too will never have surrendered after grievous misfortunes.”

Hitler had commenced an order to his commanders on November 25 as follows :  “This war will determine the survival or extinction of the German people.  It demands the unqualified commitment of every individual.  Even seemingly hopeless situations have been mastered by the blind courage and bravery of the troops, the stubborn steadfastness of all ranks, and by calm, unyielding leadership.”

This was not just a war to decide frontiers or systems of government ;  it was a war against the destruction of the German race.  In his view, the enemy had made their purposes quite plain.  Whether Germany was defeated or surrendered “unconditionally,” the Americans planned to convert Germany into “a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character”;  the plan drafted by Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, to that end had been secretly initialed by Churchill and Roosevelt in mid-September.  The American press had obtained and published it—a gift to Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda.(1)  He and Hitler proclaimed that the enemy leaders were agreed on the extermination of forty million Germans, for such would be the necessary outcome of the plan.  The resumption of the saturation bombing and firestorm raids seemingly added authority to the claim.  Over 2,200 tons of fire bombs were dropped by night on ancient Heilbronn, massacring 7,147 civilians within ten minutes.  On December 15—the very eve of the Ardennes gamble—Churchill announced in Parliament his approval of Stalin’s demands on eastern Poland ;  the Poles could in return have all East Prussia and much of eastern Germany, from which the Germans would be expelled—“Because expulsion is the most satisfactory and lasting means, so far as we are in a position to judge.”  “Earlier,” Hitler reminded his generals, “that kind of thing would have been dismissed as a propaganda slogan, as a propaganda lie.  Here we have it from the horse’s mouth, but even so it falls a long way short of reality, because if Germany collapses, Britain has no hope whatever of making a stand against bolshevism anywhere.”  From Guderian’s eastern Intelligence branch Hitler knew that Russian deserters had reported that Stalin had recently ordered that while the Red Army was to behave properly in Poland, in German territory the troops might loot and rob and “do as they pleased.”  The whirlwind Hitler had sown in 1941 was approaching.

To surrender on terms like these would be a betrayal of the three million Germans who had now been lost in battle or enemy air raids.  He had not invested billions of Reichsmarks in this war(2) just to see ten million Germans cast onto the winter roads of East Prussia and Silesia as refugees, while the unindustrious Poles confiscated their neat farms and homesteads.

But Hitler saw sound political and strategic reasons for launching his big winter counterattack, and in the west rather than the east.  The British and Americans were obviously experiencing supply problems ;  their armies were thinly spread along the five-hundred-mile western front ;  they were low in fuel and ammunition, and experiencing manpower shortages.  Keitel on the other hand planned to raise half a million new German troops by February 1945.  “Our position is no different from that of the Russians in 1941-42,” Hitler comforted his generals.  “They too were in the most straitened circumstances, but then they began to launch isolated offensives along our long battlefront—on which we ourselves were on the defensive—and slowly maneuvered us back again.”  Once the German public saw this process start there would be a great sigh of relief, and the young would volunteer enthusiastically for battle.  “And this I must say—our nation is as decent as one could ask for.  It would be impossible to find a better people than the Germans.”  He did not mention the difference between Russia in 1942 and Germany now :  that the ticking time-bomb left by the raw-materials crisis gave him only a limited number of months in which to succeed.

Recognizing that General Eisenhower’s command abilities were questioned by the British, Hitler hoped for most political gain by puncturing the enemy front where it was held by the U.S. First Army—which had already suffered heavy losses in the battle for Aachen.  In any case, the Americans had left only four or five divisions to hold a one-hundred-mile Ardennes front.  In his view, the United States was such a potpourri of inferior races, a country with so little tradition of heroic national sacrifice, that a great bloodletting here would invite fundamental political controversies across the Atlantic.  In short, the demeaning label applied by Goebbels and Rommel to the American troops in North Africa—“the Italians” of the western alliance—had stuck in his mind.  And what Stalin had done to the Italians at Stalingrad, Hitler would repeat with the Americans here in the Ardennes.  “If we succeed,” he explained on December 2 to Generals Hasso von Manteuffel and Sepp Dietrich, the two panzer army commanders involved, “we will have knocked out half the enemy front.  Then let’s see what happens !”  Most probably, he would then transport his spare divisions back to the eastern front in time to buttress it against the coming big Soviet offensive.

This meant a further gamble within the main one.  The chief of Guderian’s operations branch, Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, was confident about the strength of certain sectors of the eastern front—notably East Prussia, Warsaw, and Cracow—but Hitler knew that Stalin would not forever postpone the big offensive he was clearly preparing in the Vistula bridgeheads from Warsaw to Cracow.(3)  The gamble was, how long did Hitler have ?  On December 2, Army Group A predicted the Soviet attack within one week and asked that the moment the offensive began the navy, army, and air force destroy the numerous wooden bridges erected by the Russians over the Vistula.  Guderian believed the attack would be in mid-December, when the first frosts hardened the ground.  Russian prisoners gave “December 20” as the date.  Had the Ardennes offensive begun in mid-November as originally planned, the risk would have been less ;  but it had already been delayed nearly a month by logistics problems.  It was due to begin on December 16.  Guderian was sure Stalin would march westward the moment Hitler had committed his strategic reserve in the Ardennes.  But Hitler was equally convinced of the opposite—that while Stalin was not bluffing, he would wait until Germany and the Allies had exhausted their reserves in the west, just as he had waited in vain in 1940.

Hitler’s conviction proved correct.  Not until mid-January 1945 did Stalin show his hand.  Hitler also won his second extraordinary gamble, on concealing his Ardennes intentions for three months from the enemy.  He had ordered absolute radio silence before the attack ;  no preparatory orders were to be conveyed by plane or transmitted even in code by radio ;  special war diaries were to be kept for the preparatory phase ;  potentially unreliable troops, like those born in the Alsace, were to be withdrawn from the front line ;  reprisals were threatened against the next-of-kin of any deserters ;  and any hint that the enemy had wind of the attack was to be reported immediately.

No hints came.  In the first twelve days of December 1944 there were only five known or probable desertions from the western front.  Hitler’s security measures proved almost perfect ;  besides, the renegades who had betrayed his moves in the past were now in Himmler’s custody awaiting trial.  Not until the second day of the actual offensive did an enemy aircraft suddenly sight “thousands of vehicles” massing in the mountainous Eifel plateau.  Hitler concluded that Eisenhower, Bradley, and General Bernard Law Montgomery had been living only in their own dreamworld of future campaigns.  “Perhaps,” he was to say, “there was also the belief that I might already be dead, or at least suffering from cancer somewhere—unable to drink or live on much longer, which would rule me out as a danger.”

The only order known to have fallen into enemy hands was one for the formation of a special reconnaissance unit in the west—about two battalions of volunteers with one common qualification :  an ability to speak American ;  captured American uniforms and equipment were also to be sent in.  Hitler—with his predilection for the adventuresome—had sent for SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny on October 21, told him that three captured German tanks flying German colors had been put to devastating use by the Americans in the fight for Aachen, and directed him to build up a phony “American” task force to seize key bridges across the Meuse River between Liege and Namur when the Ardennes attack began.  Other American-uniformed units were to spread alarm and confusion behind the American lines.

The rapid seizure of bridgeheads across the Meuse would be vital.  At a tightly restricted late October conference, Hitler had revealed his Ardennes plan to the chiefs of staff of Rundstedt and Model (Generals Westphal and Krebs) and informed them that the strategic object of the offensive would be to destroy enemy forces, not capture territory as such.  Model and his generals were urging that the knife be plunged in only as far as the Meuse, to excise merely the American forces massing for the attack on the Ruhr.  However, if the knife was forced right through to the coast at Antwerp, it would also trap the British armies in the Netherlands.  G–ring had promised two thousand planes for the attack.  Model and Rundstedt accepted this, but warned that they were not strong enough to reach Antwerp.  They favored the more limited solution—turning at the Meuse instead.  Throughout November the tactical controversy raged until Hitler, on the twenty-fifth, insisted that his own decision to go for the “big solution” was final.  The small solution might prolong the war ;  the big one might end it—at least in the west.  To use the General Staffs own jarring phrase, it was time for a Ganzer Entschluss, a “total decision.”  Therefore the Meuse must be forded by the second day and Antwerp itself captured by the seventh, for no bad-weather period could be relied on to last longer and keep Allied planes grounded.

Hitler jealously watched over the planning, from the infantrymen’s winter boots and blankets to the deployment of the formidable Jagd-Tiger tanks with their 128-millimeter guns.  He had remorselessly herded artillery units into the western front.  During November, 1,349 tanks and assault guns were sent to Rundstedt, and 1,000 more would follow before Christmas.  Snow-clearing troops were put on standby.  Special tanks had to be built to spread sand on the icy mountain roads.  Victory was certain :  he began drafting orders to ensure that this time no German soldiers set foot inside Paris—the germ center of the recent Wehrmacht defeat.  A special SS squad was detailed to round up and execute civic and Party officials in towns and villages that had surrendered too readily to the enemy.  Hitler dictated orders for the initial artillery bombardment to concentrate on the enemy-occupied villages and headquarters.  It was to be followed by a further one-minute barrage and by a saturation bombardment of the enemy artillery positions.  “There must not be one gun barrel that does not join in this artillery preparation !”  During lulls in the bombardment, the troops were to simulate infantry assaults (“Shouts of ‘Hurrah,’ and machine-gun bursts”) to get on the American defenders’ nerves.  Hitler had learned a vital lesson from the Russian June 1944 offensive against Army Group Center :  to conserve his tank strength, the initial breach in the enemy line would be made by the infantry with assault-gun support.  The panzer divisions would not follow until the following night ;  these were the “thousands of vehicles” the Allied spotter aircraft had sighted massing in the Eifel district.  On November 26, Hitler set December 10 as the first possible date ;  and at a conference with Model, Dietrich, Manteuffel, and Westphal on December 2 zero hour was fixed at 5:30 A.M.

Twice more the attack was postponed briefly, while the last supplies arrived.  The requested stockpile of 3.8 million gallons of gasoline had been built up, and more than the 50 trainloads of ammunition.  The morale of the troops was high.  Some 170 bombers, go ground-attack planes, and nearly 1,500 fighter aircraft were standing by.  Twenty-eight German divisions were about to fall upon only 5 American divisions.  At 3 P.M. on December 15, Hitler held a final war conference with Himmler and Rundstedt’s Chief of Staff, General Westphal.  Model wanted another postponement, but Rundstedt’s advice was to go ahead before their intentions were unmasked.  Hitler agreed, and at 3:30, Westphal telephoned the F¸hrer’s decision to Rundstedt’s command post nearby.  The Luftwaffe meteorologist forecast poor weather for several days.  The enemy air force would be virtually grounded.  Hitler telegraphed once more to Model forbidding him to turn the knife before crossing the Meuse.  He assured him that “if you comply with all these basic operational guidelines, a great victory is certain.”  The F¸hrer dined with his secretaries, sat talking with Bormann or Hewel, went briefly with Bormann to hear the latest war report from Colonel von Below and Major Johannmeyer at 1:10 A.M., and retired to bed at five-half an hour before the artillery barrage began—satisfied that no ugly surprises were in store.

By the time he was awakened, at 11:30 A.M. on December 16, the American front had been engulfed at many places along a seventy-mile sector between Monschau and Echternach, and the German infantry was already eight and ten miles inside enemy territory.  Jodl confirmed that they had taken the Americans completely by surprise.  A glow of confidence warmed the bleak bunker headquarters.  After Hitler had been tended by Drs. Morell and Blaschke for an hour, he went for a casual stroll with Bormann’s younger brother and lunched with the secretaries.  The thunder of gunfire could clearly be heard.  One of his staff stenographers wrote in his diary :  “When [Stenographer Ewald] Reynitz and I went over at 3 P.M. for the war conference, an imposing number of German fighter planes swept low overhead, and Major B¸chs [a Luftwaffe adjutant] ... turned to all of us as we excitedly watched our fighters roaring past after so many months of German air inferiority, and said challengingly, ‘Who dares say anything against the Luftwaffe now !’ . . . When we reached the conference room the F¸hrer was already there, contrary to his custom.  It was only too evident how delighted he was at the first magnificent news of our offensive.  Even before the conference the Reich press chief, Dr. [Otto] Dietrich, told us :  ‘Well—now at last you’re going to get something cheerful to take down !’  And so it was.”  To Hitler the battle was already as good as won.  That day he ordered the German navy to do everything possible to prevent British ships escaping from Antwerp before—and after—Sepp Dietrich’s SS Sixth Panzer Army got there.

It will serve no purpose to follow here the next month’s events on the Ardennes battlefields.  It is more interesting to see how opinion at the Eagle’s Nest, inspired by Hitler’s hardy optimism, persistently failed to grasp the harsh realities of the campaign.  Hitler’s tanks never recaptured Antwerp—perhaps he had deliberately set his armies’ sights too high.  Worse, they never even saw the Meuse, let alone crossed it.

What caused this tactical defeat ?  Some factors came as a shock to Hitler :  the Americans had established an unexpected main line of defense two or three miles behind their battle front ;  and they fought with inexplicable bravery.  But other factors should have caused less surprise.  The Luftwaffe radio operators newly transferred to man Sepp Dietrich’s tanks were unfamiliar with battle procedures.  The battalion of superheavy Jagd-Tiger tanks—each weighing seventy-two tons and equipped with 128-millimeter guns—sent by Hitler to block the roads on the northern flank against American forces concentrated around Aachen was not even deployed ;  Hitler learned twelve days later it had never crossed the Rhine.  “They must be insane !” he announced.  “If the enemy attacks our defenses with ten or twelve heavy tanks, there’s enough screaming to bring the house down ;  but when we’ve got twenty-four of the heaviest tanks in the world, they aren’t even used !”  Those tanks that did attack ran out of gasoline too soon, as they churned in low gear through the narrow, twisting valleys and defiles.  The fuel shortage was aggravated by the overmotorization of attacking divisions.  Convoys of empty trucks were following so they could be stuffed with booty.  The roads were blocked by blown bridges and by obstacles the Germans themselves had created in their retreat some weeks earlier.  Gasoline tankers could not get through, as immense traffic jams built up in the narrow roads leading to the battlefields.  Finally, although General von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army broke through first, Hitler continued to attach the Schwerpunkt to the SS Sixth Panzer Army—perhaps for political reasons.

Despite all this Hitler kept his eye on the strategic blessings of his counterstroke.  He betrayed no signs of disappointment at the offensive’s slow progress.  Within five days 25,000 American prisoners were taken and 350 enemy tanks claimed destroyed ;  the Allied air force was still grounded by the weather.  The Luftwaffe and paratroop support operations were rolling like clockwork.  Skorzeny’s “American” units were spreading consternation behind the lines.  There were signs among the Americans in Belgium of the same sort of panic that had gripped the Germans after the enemy breakthrough at Avranches that summer.  By December 22, Eisenhower had had to call off his attacks along the rest of the western front, and he even relinquished hard-won bridgeheads along the Saar.  Sixteen to twenty enemy divisions were estimated to be bearing down on the Ardennes battlefield, but Hitler’s slow advance on the Meuse had not yet been checked, and the weather was still against the Allies.  At a war conference Hitler chuckled :  “Mr. Churchill, now you must make a Ganzer Entschluss !”—and he mimicked the British prime minister’s speech impediment as he did so.

With an offensive against East Prussia and Silesia now, Stalin could immediately have disembarrassed his western Allies.  But apart from the continuing struggle in Hungary he made no move.

In Italy, France, Belgium, and Britain Communist underground movements were stirring at Moscow’s command.  Reports reached Hitler of open warfare between the pro-Stalin elements in Greece and the British troops.  After a luckless attempt to bring the warring factions to heel, Churchill flew out of Athens “with his tail between his legs,” mocked Hitler.  “And now he wants people to believe him capable of stopping the tide of bolshevism into Europe as a whole !”  Meanwhile Churchill’s frank Poland speech in Parliament had evoked a response which promised a storm to come.  At his Washington press conference Roosevelt was asked whether the Atlantic Charter—which Stalin’s annexation of eastern Poland so flagrantly violated—had ever existed in writing, and if so where ;  he replied that it had not.  This lie did nothing to still the Polish exiles’ discontent.  The Soviet attack on Sch–rner’s army group in Kurland, resumed on December 22, did not cause one German division to be withdrawn from the west.  (Nor was it any more profitable than the Red Army’s previous two attempts to capture this rump of northern Latvia.)  The Intelligence now reaching Hitler was that Stalin had attached outrageous political demands to the unleashing of his big offensive.  December 20, the date given by interrogated Russian prisoners as the one set for launching a Soviet offensive, had now passed.  Hitler slapped the map table at the Eagle’s Nest and crowed to his staff :  “You see, perhaps we’ve made it after all !”

On the seventh day of Hitler’s offensive, December 23, the skies cleared.  By day and by night the Allied air force regained control of the Ardennes battlefield.  The knife had now plunged forty miles into the enemy front ;  but the railroad stations in the German rear, at Koblenz, Gerolstein, and Bingen, were devastated, and Allied fighter-bombers created havoc on the roads.  General Patton’s Third Army had begun a counteroffensive on Rundstedt’s southern flank.  The 2nd Panzer Division was only five miles from the Meuse.  Hitler stood outside his blockhouse impassively watching as two thousand enemy bombers swarmed eastward over his head, glittering solemnly in the weak winter sun, spelling the end of his hopes of an easy triumph in the west.  Over lunch, his sharp-tongued secretary Christa Schroeder challenged him.  “Mein F¸hrer, we have lost the war—haven’t we ?”  He stonily replied that they had not.

He had begun rereading the Collected Letters of Frederick the Great, and found one letter written in the fifth year of what was to be a seven-year war :

I first went to war with the finest army Europe ever saw.  I now have a rabble ;  I have no commanders left, my generals are incompetent, the officers can’t lead, the troops are hopeless.

Yet Frederick had finally won through.  And it was this obdurate tenacity that alone assured victory :  “When all goes well people are on top of the world,” Hitler explained to a panzer general at 2 A.M. one morning.  “But when everything starts going wrong they just fold up and give in.”  So if Hitler’s troops now asked him, Why all this sacrifice ? he would answer, “The war cannot last as long again as it has already lasted.  Nobody could stand it, neither we nor the others.  The question is, Which side will crack first ?  And I say that the side that lasts longer will do so only if it stands to lose everything.  We stand to lose everything.  If the other side announces one day, ‘We’ve had enough !’ no harm will come to them.  If America says, ‘Cut !  Stop !  No more American boys for Europe !’ it won’t hurt them.  New York remains New York, Chicago remains Chicago, Detroit remains Detroit, San Francisco remains San Francisco.  Nothing changes.  But if we say today, ‘We’ve had enough, we’re packing up’—then Germany will cease to exist.”

This was the “cornered tiger” logic into which Allied insistence on unconditional surrender had forced him.  But it was not illogical, for cracks kept appearing in the monolithic enemy front.  Hitler learned secretly that Stalin was willing to negotiate with him now, before beginning his main eastern front attack.  But Hitler was no more inclined to throw in the towel than Stalin had been in 1941.  When Ribbentrop gamely offered to fly with his family to Moscow now, as a surety for Germany’s honest intent, Hitler begged him not to.  “Ribbentrop, don’t pull a Rudolf Hess on me !”  Stalin’s offer seemed to confirm that the Red Army was exhausted ;  and had not the General Staff proclaimed its confidence in the strength of the main eastern front ?(4)

Surviving documents indicate that both Guderian and Hitler were preoccupied with Hungary in December 1944, rather than with the rest of the Russian front.  Without Hungary there would be neither aluminum to build aircraft nor aviation fuel to fly them.  “This is why Hungary is so vital,” agreed Guderian.  Late in November Stalin committed two army groups to the fight for Budapest and western Hungary—the cornerstone of Hitler’s “minimum economic region”;  Hitler’s strategy was to force Stalin to throw even more weight into Hungary.  Now that Hungary was at stake, it did not occur to either Hitler or the Hungarians to declare Budapest an “open city”:  on December 4, Ferenc Sz·lasi sanctioned the house-by-house defense of the beautiful city in return for an undertaking by Hitler not to make a deal with Stalin at Hungary’s expense.  Throughout December the Soviet pincer attack continued.  General Friessner moved seventy thousand German and Hungarian troops into the city’s defenses.  On the twentieth the final Russian offensive began.  When Guderian arrived that day for two days of talks and a privileged invitation to tea at Hitler’s headquarters, Hungary was the first point on his agenda, followed by the need to reshuffle divisions southward along the eastern front ;  the other sectors in Poland, East Prussia, and Kurland were relegated to points 7, 10, and 11 of Guderian’s agenda.  But Hitler’s Hungarian strategy began to fail.  The Soviet thrust bypassing the city to the west met so little German resistance that Hitler dismissed Friessner and the Sixth Army’s General Fretter Pico on December 23 ;  by the twenty-fourth, Budapest was totally invested by the enemy.

It was Christmas Eve 1944, but at the Eagle’s Nest near Frankfurt—where Hitler was still directing the Ardennes battle—there was little respite.(5)  Not until December 26 did Guderian again arrive from Berlin.  Jodl’s diary and General Staff records show that Hitler agreed to move what meager forces he could to the Second Panzer Army holding the “Margaret line,” in Hungary, between the Drava River and Lake Balaton, in defense of the vital petroleum fields at Nagykanizsa ;  an infantry division would be moved from the west to Budapest.  Two more would follow to the main eastern front.  In particular, Guderian had sent out an order late on December 24 for the Fourth SS Panzer Corps, commanded by the redoubtable Herbert Gille, to entrain from Warsaw (Army Group A) to Hungary—where its two panzer divisions, “Death’s Head,” followed by “Viking,” would begin a counterattack on New Year’s Day to relieve the besieged city of Budapest.  As Guderian wrote on December 31 to his Hungarian counterpart :  “By deliberately taking a very grave risk on the rest of the eastern front we have done everything possible to restore firm contact with Budapest.”(6)

In the west, Model now estimated that 38 of Eisenhower’s 70 divisions were battling to contain the Ardennes bulge.  Hitler was cock-a-hoop.  “We have knocked out at least six or seven hundred enemy tanks ;  about six or seven divisions have presumably been completely destroyed.”  In the tank battle between Vaux and Grandmenil on December 27, Manteuffel destroyed 62 enemy tanks and captured 8.  But General Patton’s counterattack into the flank south of the bulge was causing concern ;  with the failure to reach the Meuse, Hitler lifted his prohibition on dealing with the tough American pocket of forces contained at Bastogne ;  and to ease the logjam in the Ardennes, he began plotting with Rundstedt a series of rapid blows along the denuded American front further south.

The first would be “North Wind”—an attack by eight divisions from the Saarbr¸cken region, designed to take from the rear the Americans advancing through northern Alsace.  The second would be toward Metz, to restore Germany’s iron-ore position.  “The purpose of all these attacks,” Hitler theatrically announced to his generals, “will mainly be to eliminate the Americans south of our [Ardennes] entry point—to destroy them bit by bit, to eliminate [ausrotten] them division by division.”  This would damage Eisenhower’s plans and reputation, and it would cost him heavily in fuel for regrouping and ammunition—all of which Eisenhower had to bring up over greater distances than Hitler.

If these body blows succeeded, then Manteuffel and Dietrich could resume their attack in the Ardennes.  “If not,” Rundstedt’s war diary recognized, “it will mean the end of our offensive operations and a transition to a defensive war of attrition.  But no matter what, the important result remains that for the time being we have rid the Rhine and Palatinate of the threat of an enemy offensive.”

One other strategic success of these weeks should not be overlooked :  as Field Marshal von Weichs, Commander in Chief Southeast, wrote in his diary on December 30, 1944 :  “The auspicious return of our troops from Greece ... is akin to a great battle won.”  The soldiers of General L–hr’s Army Group E had force-marched up to a thousand miles from the torrid heat of the Mediterranean to the midwinter snowstorms of the Croatian mountains and had still managed to fight off the Russians, Bulgarians, and Communist partisans harrying their flanks.  Had Hitler delayed his secret oral order to Weichs to evacuate Greece in August, or had L–hr shown less resolution in adversity, the entire army group would have been lost.

Crossing this last high plateau of his fortunes, Hitler still radiated determination, the nameless energy of a Messiah, to his visitors :  Sz·lasi noticed it ;  Bormann cultivated it ;  Guderian succumbed to it.  But he had aged :  his back was bent, his spine had lost its symmetry (Scoliosis);  his face was haggard and his voice quavered ;  his hair was gray, and the famous moustache—which he clung to as he did to his “postman’s cap” in spite of all Eva Braun’s remonstrances—was snow-white.  Admiral Heinz Assmann wrote :  “His handclasp was weak and soft, all his movements were those of a senile man ;  only his eyes retained their flickering gleam and penetrating look.”  His “midday” conference rarely began before 5 P.M.;  after that his doctors ordered him to sleep three hours each day.  He went for frequent strolls in the snow around his bunker.  Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, found the convalescent F¸hrer’s manner “even tamer and kindlier than before”;  Blaskowitz, conferring with him about “North Wind” on December 28, observed that his left shoulder drooped and his hand was shaking ;  Baron von Steengracht felt he “still put a brave face on, but he was frail and his hand trembled.”  Indeed, Hitler could now hardly write ;  since December a trusted civil servant had had to forge his signature on official citations and awards.  All this worried Martin Bormann badly.  Professors Eicken and Morell, and the SS doctor, Stumpfegger, examined Hitler on the thirtieth and found him medically recovered from his operation ;  and his throat was well enough for him to prerecord that day his radio speech for New Year’s Eve.  But the speech itself lacked the wit and bite of his earlier annual addresses.  Goebbels may have told him later that the public missed any references to the new weapons or campaigns which might yet bring them the promised victory.

This was as well, for at the end of the plateau there was an abyss.  G–ring’s Luftwaffe delivered its grand slam attack on January 1, 1945, with 1,035 fighters and fighter-bombers attacking the enemy airfields in the Low Countries.  Five hundred planes were claimed destroyed, but G–ring also lost 277 planes, nearly two-thirds of them to his own antiaircraft guns, which had not been warned.  Hitler was unimpressed.  In 1944 Allied heavy bombers had dropped a hundred times more bombs on Germany than G–ring had on Britain in 1940.  This proved what he had all along said about the value of the four-engined bomber.  The Luftwaffe’s aircraft were powerless against them.  The 217 rocket-propelled Me-163 interceptor aircraft built and launched had claimed only 5 bombers ;  Hitler ordered Me-163 production canceled.  Antiaircraft artillery alone could defend Germany now.  Meanwhile the devastation of the railway and canal system was resulting in crippling coal, steel, and munitions shortages.  At a meeting with Hitler on January 3, Speer blamed G–ring and the Luftwaffe ;  but others blamed Speer himself.  Martin Bormann brought to Hitler’s attention convincing reports that Speer had misled both the Gauleiters and Hitler on the real output figures of the arms and aircraft factories.

The transport, munitions, and fuel crises were directly affecting Hitler’s strategy.  Coal was piling up in the Ruhr pitheads, but the railroads could not carry it to the factories.  The loss of France, Lorraine, and Belgium had cut German steel output by the autumn from 3,100,000 to 2,000,000 tons a month ;  but the colossal air attack on German transportation since mid-October had cut Ruhr production alone from 700,000 to only 400,000 tons in November.  There were frustrating side effects on the new secret weapons Hitler had relied on to turn the tide in the eleventh hour :  prefabricated sections of the secret Mark XXI submarine could not be brought to the assembly points because of wrecked canals.  In November only 9 instead of 17 had been assembled, and in December only 18 instead of 28, because now air raids had stopped submarine-battery production too.  How right Hitler had been to press his “lunatic” demand late in 1939 for keeping Germany’s air frontiers as far apart as possible !  “Herr Beck and his memoranda !” he scorned.  “Those gentlemen wanted to fight in the pre-airpower age !”  He could not even strike back equally at Eisenhower’s transportation.  “We can’t rely on the V-1 or V-2 bombardment alone.”(7)  On January 8 he again insisted on equipping the Me-262 jet aircraft with 500-kilo bombs to disrupt the enemy’s railroads and dockyards behind the western front.

Hitler’s counterattacks were also failing.  “North Wind” caused Eisenhower momentary alarm—he abandoned hard-won ground and even contemplated evacuating Strasbourg after Himmler, commanding Army Group Upper Rhine, succeeded in throwing a bridgehead across the fast-flowing Rhine north of the city ;  but the enemy sidestepped fast enough to escape encirclement in Alsace.  In Hungary, Gille’s relief attack slowed to a halt six days later, still short of Budapest.  On January 3—even as Hitler was debating the transportation crisis with Speer, Goebbels and Dr. Albert Ganzenm¸ller, the transport minister—Britain’s Field Marshal Montgomery began his carefully planned offensive on the northern flank of the Ardennes bulge ;  Patton was still relentlessly attacking it from the south.  Hitler—whose generals had now claimed to have destroyed 1,230 Allied tanks in the battle and captured 400 guns and 24,000 American prisoners—decided to cut his losses.  At a conference with Hitler and G–ring on the seventh, Rundstedt asked the F¸hrer to authorize Model’s request to pull back the westernmost attack spearhead, the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps ;  Hitler agreed, and decided that if he was not to lose the initiative entirely, he must also pull out Sepp Dietrich’s SS Sixth Panzer Army to establish a tactical reserve while he could, for there was no knowing what the enemy might do with the divisions he could now release from the Ardennes battlefield.  This order—Hitler’s tacit admission that he had lost the Ardennes gamble—was issued from the Eagle’s Nest at 2 A.M. on January 8, 1945.

Deep snow drifts blanketed Hitler’s headquarters.  It was 20 F. In Poland, the ground had frozen, but Stalin had still not begun his big push from the Vistula bridgeheads toward Berlin.  On January 3 the General Staff’s eastern expert, General Gehlen, announced :  “Various signs indicate that the attack has again been postponed to mid-January.”

When General Guderian came to Hitler’s headquarters on January 9, the F¸hrer speculated :  “If the Russians aren’t attacking, then it’s for political reasons.”  Guderian seconded that :  “It’s because of the British.”  But he now expressed extreme alarm about the eight-hundred-mile front between the Carpathian Mountains and the Baltic, where the Russians—ignoring Hitler’s attempt to lure their reserves south into Hungary—had built up an immense superiority in tanks, artillery, and troops.  Guderian had just visited General Josef Harpe—commanding the army group astride Warsaw—and now fearlessly put to Hitler Harpe’s proposals for the army group to fall back on a “given word” from the winding Vistula River line to a more economical one ;  this would create two strong groups of reserves for a counterattack after Stalin’s big offensive began.  Guderian’s adjutant later wrote a dispassionate account of the heated argument that followed :

Guderian was very spirited and waded in with gusto.  His program was in effect that we should give up and move the forces farther west.  Guderian showed on the map how critical Harpe’s situation at Cracow was. . . . The Baranov bridgehead salient was being continually reinforced by the Russians ;  reconnaissance planes had sighted innumerable tanks and aircraft.  For twenty miles the front line was stretched to breaking point.... From the mountains up to as far as Warsaw the army group had only six divisions.  That was far too few, they could never halt a serious attack....

A “given word” had therefore been prearranged, upon which the troops in the German salient were to be pulled back to a shorter chord line.... Hitler was curt and skeptical, and belittled everything.  He kept repeating that the Russians didn’t have much—their formations were exhausted, they hadn’t any tanks, and to talk of superiority was nonsense.  He minimized the Russian enemy and exaggerated our own strength in a most irresponsible manner.  He began to tear the general’s arguments to shreds.  When he raised his voice, the others fell silent.  Guderian explained the situation and again mentioned the “given word” plan.  After a few words Hitler interrupted :  “Out of the question.  Where a German soldier is, there he stays !”  Guderian tried to talk him around, but in vain.

Guderian’s object had been to win the entire Sixth SS Panzer Army from the west for the eastern front, but Hitler would grant him only two divisions.  “The others present listened in silence,” concluded the adjutant’s account.  “Only G–ring butted in once or twice.”

Hitler’s reasons for rejecting Guderian’s appeal on January 9 are plain from the fragments of stenographic record.  Firstly, if Stalin’s attack was due in mid-January, it was too late to begin rethinking their strategy ;  secondly, he believed that with nine panzer and three panzer-grenadier divisions (sited north and south of Cracow, southwest of Warsaw, and in East Prussia) Guderian already held sufficient in reserve to stave off the threat ;  thirdly, he was inspired by the fortifications dug by the Gauleiters and east Germans over the last months ;  and fourthly, as he admitted in private to his own adjutants the next day, “I always shudder when I hear talk of ‘withdrawing here’ in order to be able to ‘operate there’;  I’ve been hearing that tune for two years now, and every time it’s been a disaster.”

Guderian’s statistics failed to impress Hitler either.  The German army already had 3,000 tanks and assault guns in the east ;  by Hitler’s reckoning, Stalin would need a 3 to 1 superiority to begin an offensive (although his own superiority in the Ardennes had fallen far short of that in December).  “At any rate, they don’t have nine thousand tanks.”  As for artillery, if Stalin really had “150 guns per kilometer” he must have 20,000 in his bridgeheads altogether, which was absurd.  The hordes of Soviet divisions listed by the General Staff reminded Hitler of “Chinese divisions”:  each probably had only a few thousand men.  Here Guderian could retort that his own panzer divisions each had only 70 or 80 tanks compared with 250 in June 1941.  When the general bewailed the crippling ammunition shortage—“If only we could get the ammunition now, we could put up a tremendous showing !”—Hitler lectured him :  “Now you see what nobody wanted to see at the time :  the potential harm of our retreats in the east.  From our factories down there”—pointing to the Donets Basin—“we would probably already be supplying the eastern front with two or three million shells a month.  But people told me, ‘What’s the point, just for a few iron-ore mines !’  And the front line was shorter then than it is now.”

That evening, January 9, an army adjutant gave Hitler the first documented hint that Stalin’s attack was imminent.  “Over the last few days there have been continued heavy movements into the Baranov bridgehead [across the Vistula].  The impression there is that they are going to start soon after all.”

Over the next two days the warning signs multiplied :  “ice-bridges” were being laid ;  minefields were being cleared ;  and radio monitoring posts heard of reinforcements being moved up.  Prisoners confirmed that the offensive would begin between the eleventh and sixteenth.  The Russian artillery was in place, and the infantry had taken up its assault positions.  So Hitler learned on the eleventh ;  before he fell asleep at 4:20 A.M. the next morning, he probably had word that an all-out hour-long Russian artillery bombardment had just taken place in the Baranov bridgehead ;  and when he rose at noon Jodl’s adjutant, Colonel Heinz Waizenegger, came almost at once to announce that after a further hour-long barrage between 7 and 8 A.M.  Stalin’s great offensive had begun.  At the Eagle’s Nest they now wondered, Was this the Russians’ last desperate exertion ?  Or would still further attacks follow ?

Hitler was still on the western front.  Two of his secretaries—the young but widowed Frau Junge and the elderly Frau Wolf—had just returned from leave and lunched with him at two.  Frau Junge had hitched a truck ride through Munich the morning after British bombers had blasted the city with two thousand tons of bombs, and her emotional description made his blood boil.  “In a very few weeks this nightmare will suddenly stop,” he pronounced.  “Our new jet aircraft are now in mass production.  Soon the Allies will think twice about flying over Reich territory.”

One anecdote remained in Frau Junge’s memory of that day, and it illustrates Hitler’s bantering manner with his immediate entourage.  His dog Blondi urgently needed to go out, and sprang delightedly through the bunker door with the manservant summoned for the purpose.  “Amazing what little things can please a dog,” Frau Junge remarked, at which Hitler laughed, adding :  “Not to mention us human beings too !  I was once on the road for hours on end with my men, and I had to go on to Magdeburg to open the first stretch of autobahn there.  But when my convoy of cars was spotted, more and more cars would fall in behind.  It was often quite impossible to make an urgently necessary stop in some wood or other and be alone.  And when we reached this autobahn there was almost a calamity.  Hour after hour we drove on, dying for a break, but everywhere they were lining the autobahn—Hitler Youth, League of German Girls, Brownshirts, SS, the lot—I had no idea the Party had so many formations.  I felt at that moment it was too many.  Br¸ckner and Schaub sat petrified with masklike faces next to me.  I had to keep standing, too, with a fixed grin.  Then Br¸ckner suddenly reminded us :  ‘Mein F¸hrer, I had your special train sent to Magdeburg station !’  How glad we were to see that train.”

Julius Schaub cupped his hand over one ear and grunted in appreciation of the story.  “Mein F¸hrer do you remember The Elephant at Weimar !”  “Ja,” Hitler laughed.  “That was an old-fashioned hotel prewar, but well managed.  My regular rooms had running water but no bathroom or W.C., so I had to walk down this long corridor and vanish into the little room at the end.  It was sheer purgatory every time, because when I left my room word spread around the hotel like wildfire, and when I emerged from the awkward closet they were all waiting to cheer me and I had to give the Hitler salute and a rather embarrassed smile all the way back to my room.  Later on I had that hotel rebuilt.”  As Frau Junge afterward wrote, it was as though there was no war and Hitler had no cares.  “But those who, like us, knew him well, recognized that he had recourse to such small talk as a kind of anesthetic to distract him from the losses of territory, equipment, and human life of which every hour brought fresh report.”

At Hitler’s main war conference that day, January 12, the news was that Marshal Konev’s powerful infantry and tank forces had swept through the three German divisions containing the Baranov bridgehead and had already advanced ten miles westward.  By the next day they had advanced twenty miles ;  nothing was halting the onrushing enemy.  The German panzer divisions had been split up and mauled, and now after a two-hour artillery barrage by 350 batteries a new deluge of tanks and infantry hit the eastern flank of East Prussia.  On the fourteenth the two other Vistula bridgeheads also debouched into southern Poland south of Warsaw, and a second offensive began against East Prussia, this time on the southern flank.  The deadline for the offensive here was known, and the Germans drenched the massing Russian forces and artillery with shells, briefly throwing Marshal Rokossovski’s forces off balance.  But although 245 enemy tanks had already been destroyed, by the fifteenth the whole eastern front was ablaze, and it was clear that the enemy had achieved his strategic breakthrough.  Kielce in southern Poland fell.  Warsaw, still in German hands, was bypassed to the north and south.  Hitler, aghast at the sudden collapse after his armies in Kurland and East Prussia had held off the enemy so well before, admitted to Colonel von Below, one of his most trusted adjutants :  “We have no hope.”  Only a miracle could save Germany now.

Stalin had committed 180 divisions to his front in Poland.  Hitler had 133 in the east, but 30 were in the Kurland and Memel pockets and 28 were in Hungary.  Stalin’s “divisions” had barely more than 4,000 men, but his superiority in aircraft, tanks, and guns was overwhelming.  On the fourteenth, Guderian at last cabled an appeal to Hitler to transfer the war’s Schwerpunkt to the eastern front.  Hitler held a last conference with Rundstedt and Model on January 15, instructing them to hold off the Allies for as long as possible.  At 6 P.M. he drove with his staff to the station and boarded his special train.  At 7:15 P.M. he held another war conference.  Five minutes later Guderian again telephoned, appealing for “everything to be thrown into the eastern front.”  (In fact, Hitler was to order over forty divisions moved to the east over the next six weeks.)  As the train gathered speed toward Berlin, one of his staff the SS colonel who was later to fulfill Hitler’s last and hardest order—remarked within his hearing :  “Berlin will be most practical as our headquarters :  we’ll soon be able to take the streetcar from the eastern to the western front !”(8)  Hitler laughed wanly at this witticism, and the rest of his staff joined in.

1 The full Morgenthau Plan approved by “F.D.R.” and “W.S.C.” provided for any people trying to flee Germany’s frontiers to be gunned down by armed guards ;  a long list of categories of officials was to be summarily executed.  A photocopy of the thirty-page document is in my possession.

2 The German finance minister’s papers reveal that Wehrmacht costs from September 1, 1939, to November 30, 1944, had totaled 398,760 million Reichsmarks ;  a further 199,700 million had been spent on the civil sector.  Against this, the Reich had raised only 288,550 million Reichsmarks by direct and indirect taxation and by occupation charges.

3 Hitler emphasized this to the new Hungarian leader, Ferenc Sz·lasi, when they first met on December 4.
      The General Staff’s insouciance of early December about the eastern front is understandably muted in postwar memoirs.  But in captivity in August 1945 Major General Burkhart Mueller-Hillebrand was overheard telling a fellow general how Guderian had summoned the chiefs of staff of the eastern armies to an OKH conference at Zossen on December 5 :  “First there was a tremendous grubfest with enough food to burst, and then a binge.  Guderian stayed until 2 A.M., by which time they were standing on the tables.  I was revolted.”  Every evening the OKH, including the operations branch, were drunk as lords, he said.

4 See the statement of Colonel von Bonin, chief of the General Staff operations branch, as quoted by the navy on December 1, 1944.

5 The manservant’s duty-register shows that on December 24, 1944, Hitler lunched with his two middle-aged secretaries, invited Keitel, Jodl, Burgdorf, Buhle, Scherff, Bormann, and Fegelein to tea, slept three hours, then dined with the same secretaries and his dietician until the midnight war conference.  An SS major wrote the next day :  “After a short break, we worked on during the night.  Supper last night was quite good.  Field Marshal Keitel made a speech, short and sweet, then we all sat around a candlelit Christmas tree for a while before going back to work.  This morning I ran into the Chief [Hitler].  He shook my hand, asked about the family, and even remembered that we have two children and that the daughter was born the day I joined him.  I could do and sacrifice anything for this man.”

6 I have seen no documentary evidence that Guderian expressed concern for the main eastern front comparable to his concern about Hungary until early 1945.  The General Staffs subsequent failure to prevent the Soviet invasion in mid-January resulted in many durable postwar legends ;  aided by Jodl’s little-known diary, by the fragmentary stenograms and Admiral Voss’s digests of Hitler’s daily conferences, and by the manservant’s visitors’ record, I have done my best to untangle these legends.  There is no contemporary evidence to support Guderian’s 1951 version, which has him at the Eagle’s Nest on December 24 for the sole purpose of pleading with Hitler to transfer the defensive Schwerpunkt from west to east and Hitler snubbing him—“The eastern front must manage with what it’s got.”  Not until January 14—two days after the Soviet invasion began—did Admiral Voss report from Hitler’s conference that “[Guderian] has now asked the F¸hrer to transfer the war’s Schwerpunkt to the eastern front.”

7 Allied-held Antwerp had been under continual rocket attack and flying-bomb bombardment since October 1944.  Damage was severe.  On December 17 one V-2 rocket killed seven hundred people in the packed Rex cinema, half of them soldiers.

8 This was SS Colonel Otto G¸nsche.


p. 739   Hitler’s reflection that his life was already spent :  see his conversation with the Hungarian Fascist leader Sz·lasi, December 4, 1944.

p. 740   (footnote)  The figures are from a financial survey of the previous five and one quarter war years prepared by the finance ministry on November 30, 1944 (T178/16/2913 et seq.).

pp. 740-41   The quotation is from Hitler’s secret speech of December 28.

p. 741   According to the invaluable naval staff diary, December 1, 1944, Colonel von Bonin expressed great confidence in the German defensive strength along the eastern front, “especially in the areas of East Prussia, Warsaw, and Cracow.”

p. 743   On the planning of the Ardennes offensive, I used interrogations of Westphal, Jodl, Keitel, Koller, Manteuffel, and Buchs ;  the diaries of Jodl, Commander in Chief West, the OKW, and the naval staff, Jodl’s notes on F¸hrer conferences (1787-PS);  Wilhelm Scheidt’s manuscript and various published monographs.

p. 744   On the gasoline allocation for the offensive, see Jodl’s diary, November 10 and December 18.  From the OKW diary, January 4, 1945, it is clear that in fact more that the amount requested was supplied ;  but the actual consumption was higher than foreseen.  It was precisely with this fear in mind that Keitel—who was responsible for fuel allocation —had ordered Rundstedt and others on December 7 to take stern action against unauthorized motorization of the troops (T77/778).  The effect of the emphasis on the western front was grave in the east.  From the draft General Staff war diary (T78/339) we learn that General von Greim’s Sixth Air Force had only enough fuel reserve for about three major combat days by January 5, 1945.

p. 745   The excessive gasoline consumption is mentioned in the naval staff diary as early as December 17, 1944—Day Two of the offensive.  See Hitler’s postmortem account of their errors on December 28, 1944 (Heiber, page 746);  SS General Bach-Zelewski, who attended the speech, stated that Rundstedt thanked Hitler for the “harsh but just” criticism (U.S. Army manuscript B-252 :  “Fourteenth SS Corps in Nov.-Dec. 1944”).

p. 746   The navy’s Captain Wolf Junge heard Hitler’s mocking words to Churchill and mentions them in his manuscript.

p. 747   The quotation is from Hitler’s talk with General Wolfgang Thomale, December 30, 1944 (Heiber, pages 779 et seq.).

p. 747   Under CSDIC interrogation on May 23, 1945, Milch said, “Hewel, the representative of the foreign office with the F¸hrer, told me of Stalin’s offer of negotiations fourteen days before the Russians staged their offensive on the Vistula front” (SRGG 1255C).

pp. 747-48   In addition to the German version of Hitler’s talk with Sz·lasi and Baron KemÈny’s version in Himmler’s files, two Hungarian versions exist (T973/1 and /14).

p. 752   Gehlen’s Intelligence report of January 3, 1945, is in file H3/179.

pp. 752-53   For Guderian’s visit to Hitler on January 9, 1945, I used—with caution—his own memoirs and the IfZ file ZS-57, and with greater confidence the fragmentary remarks by Hitler in his war conferences later that day and on January to and 27, and a manuscript by Colonel Freytag von Loringhofen (Guderian’s adjutant) found among the general’s papers for me by his son.

p. 753   For Germany’s overconfidence in the eastern fortifications, see e.g., Jodl’s speech to allied military attachÈs in Berlin on January 13, 1945, 4 P.M. (T77/775/0754 et seq.) and the OCMH interrogation of Bonin.

p. 754   The conversation is recorded in Traudl Junge’s manuscript.

p. 755   Gehlen assessed Stalin’s attack strength at :  225 rifle divisions, 22 tank corps, 29 other tank formations, and 3 cavalry corps.  But at Yalta Stalin—who surely had no reason to play down his contribution—stated he had only 180 divisions in Poland.  Were Guderian and Gehlen hoodwinked by the Russians ?  And as far as the Soviet divisions’ strengths are concerned, General S.M. Shtemenko wrote in the Russian history, The General Staff in the War Years (Moscow, 1968):  “At the time our divisions averaged only about four thousand men each.”

p. 755   Guderian’s cable to Hitler, dated January 14, 1945, is in the war diary of the General Staff operations branch (annexes, T78/305/6032 et seq.).  He reported that Army Groups A and Center were fighting desperate defensive battles and that the enemy had now succeeded in making a strategic breakthrough from the western part of the Baranov bridgehead.  “I therefore request the immediate transfer of several panzer and further infantry divisions from the west to the eastern front.”  And see naval staff war diary, January 14 for Admiral Voss’s account.

pp. 755-56   Jodl records Guderian’s phone call in his diary.  It was followed by a telegram at 7:30 P.M., dictated by telephone to Hitler’s train at 2:25 A.M., repeating the demand for reinforcements for Army Group A.  Traudl Junge recorded Otto G¸nsche’s witticism.