The Western Front of the European Theatre of World War II encompassed the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, and Denmark. The Western Front was marked by two phases of large-scale ground combat operations. The first phase saw the defeat of France and the Low Countries during May - June, 1940, followed by Germany's aerial assault on Great Britain. The second phase of large-scale ground combat commenced in June 1944 with the Allied landings in Normandy and continued until the defeat of Germany in May 1945.
The Phoney War
, was an early phase of the war marked by few military operations in Continental Europe
, in the months following the German invasion of Poland
and preceding the Battle of France
. Although the great powers
had declared war
on one another, neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground.
While most of the German army was fighting against Poland, a much smaller German force manned the Siegfried Line, their fortified defensive line along the French border. At the Maginot Line on the other side of the border, British and French troops stood facing them, but there were only some local, minor skirmishes. The British Royal Air Force dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and the first Canadian troops stepped ashore in Britain, while western Europe was in a strange calm for seven months.
In their hurry to re-arm, Britain and France had both begun buying large amounts of weapons from manufacturers in the United States at the outbreak of hostilities, supplementing their own productions. The non-belligerent United States contributed to the Western Allies by discounted sales of military equipment and supplies. German efforts to interdict the Allies' trans-Atlantic trade at sea ignited the Battle of the Atlantic.
While the Western Front remained quiet in April 1940, the fighting between the Allies and the Germans began in earnest with Norwegian campaign
when the Germans launched Operation Weserübung
, the German invasion of Denmark
. This marked in the beginning of the end of the Phoney War.
Battle for Benelux and France
In May 1940, the Germans launched the Battle of France. The Western Allies — primarily the French and British — soon collapsed under the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg. The British escaped at Dunkirk, while the French Army surrendered with 90,000 dead and 200,000 wounded. Fighting along the Front ended, and the German army began preparations to invade England.
Following the Luftwaffe
’s defeat in the Battle of Britain
, the invasion of Great Britain was cancelled. While the majority of the German army was mustered for the invasion of the Soviet Union
, construction began on the Atlantic Wall
— a series of defensive fortifications
along the French coast of the English Channel
. These were built in anticipation of a cross-channel British invasion of France.
Because of the massive logistical obstacles a cross-channel invasion would face, Allied high command decided to conduct a practice attack against the French coast. On August 19, 1942, the Allies began the Dieppe Raid, an attack on Dieppe, France. Most of the troops were Canadian, with an American and some British contingents. The raid was a disaster, and almost two-thirds of the attacking force became casualties. However, much was learned as a result of the operation — these lessons would be put to good use later in subsequent invasions.
For almost two years, there was no land-fighting on the Western Front with the exception of commando raids and the guerrilla actions of the resistance aided by the SOE and OSS. However, in the meantime, the Allies took the war to Germany, with a strategic bombing campaign the US Eighth Air Force bombing Germany by day and the RAF Bomber Command bombing by night.
Two early raids British for which battle honours were awarded were Boulogne (11 June 1940) and Guernsey (14 July, 15 July 1940). The raids for which the British awarded the "North-West Europe Campaign of 1942" battle honour were: Bruneval (27 February, 28 February 1942), St Nazaire (27 March, 28 March 1942), Bayonne (5 April 1942), Hardelot (21 April, 22 April 1942), Dieppe (19 August 1942), Gironde (7 December - 12 December 1942).
A raid on Sark on the night of 3/4 October 1942 is notable because after which a few days later the Germans issued a propaganda communiqué implying at least one prisoner had escaped and two were shot while resisting having their hands tied. This instance of tying prisoner's hands contributed to Hitler's decision to issue his Commando Order instructing all captured Commandos or Commando-type personnel be executed as a matter of procedure.
1944-45: the Second Front
On June 6
, the Allies began Operation Overlord
(also known as "D-Day
") — the long-awaited liberation of France. The deception operation had the Germans convinced that the invasion would occur at the Pas-de-Calais
, while the real target was Normandy
. Following two months of slow fighting in hedgerow
country, Operation Cobra
allowed the Americans to break out at the western end of the lodgement
. Soon after, the Allies were racing across France. They circled around and trapped 250,000 Germans in the Falaise pocket
. As had so often happened on the Eastern Front
Hitler refused to allow a strategic withdrawal until it was too late. 100,000 Germans managed to escape through the Falaise Gap
but they left behind most of their equipment and 150,000 were taken prisoner.
The Allies had been arguing about whether to advance on a broad-front or a narrow-front from before D-Day. If the British had broken out of the Normandy bridge-head around Caen when they launched Operation Goodwood and pushed along the coast, facts on the ground might have turned the argument in favour of a narrow front. However, as the breakout took place during Operation Cobra at the western end of the bridge-head, the 21st Army Group that included the British and Canadian forces swung east through Belgium, the Netherlands, and Northern Germany, while the U.S. Twelfth Army Group advanced to their south via eastern France, Luxembourg and the Ruhr Area, rapidly fanning out into a broad front. As this was the strategy favoured by supreme Allied commander Eisenhower and most of the rest of the American high command, it became the strategy which was adopted.
Liberation of France
On August 15
in an effort to aid their operations in Normandy, the Allies launched Operation Dragoon
— the invasion of Southern France between Toulon
. The U.S. Seventh Army
and French First Army
making up US 6th Army Group
rapidly consolidated this beachhead
and liberated southern France in two weeks, and advanced north up the Rhone valley. Their advance only slowed down as they encountered regrouped and entrenched German troops in the Vosges Mountains
The Germans in France were now faced by three powerful Allied army groups: in the north British 21st Army Group commanded by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, in the middle the American 12th Army Group commanded by General Omar Bradley and to the South the US 6th Army Group commanded by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers. By mid September 6th Army Group, advancing from the south, came into contact with Bradley's formations advancing from the west and overall control of Devers' force passed from AFHQ in the Mediterranean so that all three army groups came under the central command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces).
Under the onslaught in both the North and South of France, the German Army fell back. On August 19, the French Resistance (FFI) organised a general uprising and the liberation of Paris took place on August 25 when general Dietrich von Choltitz accepted the French ultimatum and surrendered to general Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, commander of the Free French 2nd Armored Division, ignoring orders from Hitler that Paris should be held to the last and to destroy the city.
The liberation of northern France and the Benelux countries was of special significance for the inhabitants of London and the south east of England, because it denied the Germans launch zones for their mobile V-1 and V-2 Vergeltungswaffen (reprisal weapons).
Unfortunately for the Allies, the Germans took special care to thoroughly wreck all port facilities before the Allies could capture them. As the Allies advanced across France, their supply lines stretched to the breaking point. The Red Ball Express, the allied trucking effort, was simply unable to transport enough supplies from the port facilities in Normandy all the way to the front lines, which by September, were close to the German border.
The British Field-Marshal Montgomery persuaded Allied High Command to launch a bold attack, Operation Market Garden
which he hoped would get the Allies across the Rhine and create the narrow-front he favoured. Paratroopers would fly in from England and take bridges
over the main rivers
of the German
in three main cities, Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. British XXX (30) Corps would punch through the German lines and link up with the paratroopers. If all went well, the Allies would capture the port facilities in Antwerp
and advance into Germany
without any remaining major obstacles. British XXX Corps was able to link up with six of the seven paratrooper-held bridges, but was unable to link up with the troops near the bridge over the Rhine
. The result was the destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division
. These events were summarised by Lt Gen. Frederick Browning
as "a bridge too far
". The offensive ended with Arnhem in German hands and the Allies holding an extended salient from the Belgian border to the area between Nijmegen
Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine
Fighting on the Western front seemed to stabilize, and the Allied advance stalled in front of the Siegfried Line (Westwall) and the southern reaches of the Rhine. Starting in early September, the Americans began slow and bloody fighting through the Hurtgen Forest ("Passchendaele with tree bursts"—Hemingway) to breach the Line.
The port of Antwerp was liberated on September 4 by British 11th Armoured Division. However, it lay at the end of a long Scheldt Estuary, and so it could not be used until its approaches were clear of heavily fortified German positions. The Breskens pocket on the southern bank of the Scheldt was cleared with heavy casualties by Canadian and Polish forces in Operation Switchback, during the Battle of the Scheldt. This was followed by a tedious campaign to clear a peninsula dominating the estuary, and finally, the amphibious assault on Walcheren Island in November. The campaign to clear the Scheldt Estuary was a decisive victory for the First Canadian Army and the Allies, as it allowed greatly improved delivery of supplies directly from the port of Antwerp, which was far closer to the front than the beaches of Normandy.
In October the Americans decided that they could not just invest Aachen and let it fall in a slow siege, because it threatened the flanks of the U.S. Ninth Army. As it was the first major German city to face invasion, Hitler ordered that the city be held at all costs. In the resulting battle of Aachen, after a very hard fight, the city was taken, at a cost of 5,000 casualties on both sides, with an additional 5,600 German prisoners.
South of the Ardennes, U.S. forces fought from September until mid-December to push the Germans out of Lorraine and behind the Siegfried Line. The crossing of the Moselle River and the capture of the fortress of Metz proved difficult for the U.S. troops in the face of German reinforcements, supply shortages, and unfavorable weather. During September and October, the Allied 6th Army Group (U.S. Seventh Army and French First Army) fought a difficult campaign through the Vosges Mountains that was marked by dogged German resistance and slow advances. In November, however, the German front snapped under the pressure, resulting in sudden Allied advances that liberated Belfort, Mulhouse, and Strasbourg, and placed Allied forces along the Rhine River. The Germans managed to hold a large bridgehead (Colmar Pocket) on the western bank of the Rhine centered around the city of Colmar.
The Germans had been preparing a massive counter-attack in the West since the Allied breakout from Normandy. The plan called Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine") was to attack through the Ardennes and swing North to Antwerp, splitting the American and British armies. The attack started on December 16 in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Defending the Ardennes were troops of the U.S. First Army. After initial successes in bad weather, which gave them cover from the Allied air forces, the Germans' vanguard almost reach the Meuse River. the Germans were eventually pushed back to their starting points by January 15, 1945.
The Germans launched a second, smaller offensive (Nordwind) into Alsace on New Year's Day, 1945. Aiming to recapture Strasbourg, the Germans attacked the 6th Army Group at multiple points. Because Allied lines had become severely stretched in response to the crisis in the Ardennes, holding and throwing back the Nordwind offensive was a costly affair that lasted almost four weeks. The culmination of Allied counter-attacks restored the front line to the area of the German border and collapsed the Colmar Pocket.
Invasion of Germany
The pincer movement of the First Canadian Army
in Operation Veritable
advancing from Nijmegen area of the Netherlands
and the U.S. Ninth Army
crossing the Rur
(Roer) in Operation Grenade
was planned to start on February 8 1945
, but it was delayed by two weeks when the Germans flooded the river valley by destroying the dam gates upstream. During the two weeks that the river was flooded Hitler would not allow Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt
to withdraw East behind the Rhine arguing that it would only delay the inevitable fight. Hitler ordered him to fight where his forces stood.
By the time the water had subsided and the U.S. Ninth Army was able to cross the Roer on February 23, other Allied forces were also close to the Rhine's west bank. Rundstedt's divisions which had remained on the west bank of the Rhine were cut to pieces in the battle of the Rhineland and 290,000 men were taken prisoner.
The crossing of the Rhine was achieved at four points: One was an opportunity taken by U.S. forces when the Germans failed to blow up the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen, one crossing was a hasty assault, and two crossings were planned.
- General Omar Bradley's US forces aggressive pursuit of the disintegrating German troops resulted in the capture of the Ludendorff bridge across the Rhine River at Remagen by the U.S. First Army. Bradley and his subordinates quickly exploited the crossing made on March 7 and expanded the bridgehead into a full scale crossing.
- Bradley told General Patton whose U.S. Third Army had been fighting through the Palatinate, to "take the Rhine on the run". The Third Army did just that on the night of March 22 crossing the river with a hasty assault south of Mainz at Oppenheim.
- In the North Operation Plunder was the crossing of the Rhine river at Rees and Wesel by the British 21st Army Group on the night of March 23. It included the largest airborne operation in history codenamed Operation Varsity. At the point the British crossed the Rhine, it is twice as wide, with a far higher volume of water, than the points where the Americans crossed and Montgomery decided it could only be crossed safely with a carefully planned operation.
- In the Allied 6th Army Group area, the U.S. Seventh Army assaulted across the Rhine in the area between Mannheim and Worms on March 26. A fifth crossing on a much smaller scale was later achieved by the French First Army at Speyer.
Once the Allies had crossed the Rhine, the British fanned out Northeast towards Hamburg crossing the river Elbe and on towards Denmark and the Baltic. British and Canadian paratroopers reached the Baltic city of Wismar just ahead of Soviet forces on May 2. The U.S. Ninth Army, which had remained under British command since the battle of the Bulge went south as the northern pincer of the Ruhr encirclement.
The U.S. 12th Army Group fanned out, the First Army went north as the southern pincer of the Ruhr encirclement. On April 4 the encirclement was completed and the Ninth Army reverted to the command of Bradley's 12th Army Group. German Army Group B commanded by Field Marshal Walther Model was trapped in the Ruhr Pocket and 300,000 soldiers became POWs. The Ninth and First American armies then turned east and pushed to the Elbe River by mid-April. During the push east, the cities of Frankfurt am Main, Kassel, Magdeburg, Halle, and Leipzig were strongly defended by ad hoc German garrisons made up of regular troops, Flak units, Volkssturm, and armed Nazi Party auxiliaries. Generals Eisenhower and Bradley concluded that pushing beyond the Elbe made no sense since eastern Germany was destined in any case to be occupied by the Red Army. The Ninth and First Armies stopped along the Elbe and Mulde Rivers, making contact with Soviet forces near the River Elbe in late April. U.S. Third Army had fanned out to the East into western Czechoslovakia, and Southeast into eastern Bavaria and northern Austria. By V-E Day, the U.S. 12th Army Group was a force of four armies (First, Third, Ninth, and Fifteenth) that numbered over 1.3 million men.
End of the Third Reich
The U.S. 6th Army Group fanned out to the Southwest passing to the east of Switzerland through Bavaria into Austria and North Italy. The Black Forest
were overrun by the French First Army
. Determined stands were made in April by German forces at Heilbronn
, and Munich
but were overcome after battles that lasted several days. Elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division
were the first Allied troops to arrive at Berchtesgaden
, which they secured along with the Berghof
(Hitler's Alpine residence). German Army Group G surrendered to U.S. forces at Haar, in Bavaria
, Germany on May 5
. Field Marshal Montgomery took the German military surrender of all German forces in Holland, Northwest Germany and Denmark on Lüneburg Heath
an area between the cities of Hamburg
, on the May 4 1945
. As the operational commander of some of these forces was Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz
, the new Reichspräsident
(head of state) of the Third Reich
this signaled that the European war was over
On May 7 at his headquarters in Rheims, Eisenhower took the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the western Allies and the Soviet Union, from the German Chief-of-Staff, General Alfred Jodl, who signed the surrender document at 0241 hours. General Franz Böhme announced the unconditional surrender of German troops in Norway. Operations ceased at 2301 hours Central European time (CET) on May 8. On that same day Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, a head of OKW and Jodl's superior was brought to Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov in Karlshorst and signed the instrument of surrender that was essentially identical to that signed in Reims with certain additions requested by the Soviets.
The 1944-45 campaign in hindsight
While the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces represented a resounding success of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union
, the path to this outcome was influenced by the strategic decisions of both sides. In retrospect, it is clear that particular factors and choices strongly affected the pace and course of the campaign on the western front.
- The Allied deception as to where the D-Day landings would take place was very successful, with the majority of the German command convinced the landings would take place at Calais. For their part, the Germans underestimated Allied willingness to risk an amphibious assault over a route longer than the shortest path across the English Channel. While the Allies meticulously planned the landings, they failed to assess the countryside immediately beyond the beaches, which resulted in the Germans very successfully using the hedgerow country (Bocage) as a system of natural defensive works that took the Allies two months to clear at a staggering cost in infantry casualties. Historians have also asserted the U.S. Army should have landed on the eastern end of the Normandy beaches and formed the northern wing of Allied forces in Northwest Europe. The primary argument in support of this is that the mobility of American forces could have been better used in the more open terrain and most direct route to Berlin that the northern approach offered. As it was, the pre-invasion basing of troops in England determined the arrangement of the landing forces.
- While the Germans had reason to occasionally doubt Allied military proficiency, it is clear the Germans too often underestimated Allied competency. In its most damaging expression, this habit of underestimation led to the rejection of any notion that the Allies might have broken German military ciphers, most famously the Enigma code. The ability to monitor German military communications was an Allied strategic asset of the highest order. Less dramatically, the Germans often underestimated Allied troop proficiency, a habit that resulted in occasional sharp defeats for overconfident German units.
- Manpower strongly affected the course of the campaign. The German ability to form a cohesive defensive line (the so-called "Miracle in the West") after the disaster their forces endured in Normandy was due almost entirely to the ability of the German Ersatzheer (Replacement Army) to quickly deploy large numbers of new troops. These inexperienced troops were paired with seasoned cadres who swiftly transformed the replacements into combat units sufficiently competent to defend fortified positions. Thus, while the Allies took large numbers of German prisoners during their advance from Normandy to the German border, they underestimated the ability of the Germans to reconstitute their forces under very disadvantageous circumstances. The Allies also seriously underestimated the infantry casualties their forces would suffer in Northwestern Europe and the number of divisions that would be required to win the campaign. British manpower shortages became so grave that two infantry divisions had to be disbanded, while the Americans were forced to shake excess personnel out of their logistical and Army Air Force units in order to bring rifle units up to strength. Shortages of American manpower were strongly aggravated by a tendency to attack head-on regardless of circumstances, a habit that was particularly in evidence during the months of fighting in the Huertgen Forest. The Allied logistical crisis that dominated their operations from September through December had the further pernicious effect of limiting the number of divisions in England that could be moved onto the continent to reinforce the front, since the Allies were only able to supply a limited number of divisions east of the Seine River. After the Allies mastered the logistical crisis, the Americans diverted divisions bound for the Pacific Theater to Europe in a belated realization that more divisions were needed for operations in Europe.
- While the Germans achieved strategic surprise with their offensive in the Ardennes, the Panzer divisions that had been so painstakingly rebuilt could have been more profitably used to defend the Siegfried Line and the Rhineland, or perhaps, in the defense of Berlin against the Red Army. The German thrust failed to shatter their enemies' alliance and cost Germany high casualties and equipment losses it could ill-afford. This folly was repeated in Alsace in January, but with the added disadvantage this time that the Allies were expecting the attack.
- The Allies made serious errors and questionable uses of their forces several times during the course of operations in 1944–45.
- *Upon breaking out of Normandy in August, the Americans committed two armored divisions to operations in Brittany when armored units were direly needed for the pursuit of the German army across France. While the port of Brest, France was ultimately captured by the Americans, it consumed the operations of an American corps for an entire month and ultimately did little for the Allied effort because the Germans so thoroughly destroyed the port before it was captured.
- *Out of fear that two wings of their forces might collide, the Allies failed to definitively close the Falaise Gap in August, allowing trapped German forces an escape route to the east. Although the operations around Falaise trapped a considerable number of German prisoners, experienced German leadership cadres evaded Allied forces and were available to reconstitute a cohesive front line along the Siegfried Line.
- *Although British forces conducted a brilliant pursuit across northern France that resulted in the liberation of the critically important port of Antwerp in early September, they failed to promptly clear the Scheldt Estuary of Germans. The Germans immediately grasped the significance of the Scheldt Estuary and moved in troops to conduct a lengthy defense. The Allied failure to swiftly clear the Scheldt Estuary meant the port of Antwerp could not be used until November 28, and strongly contributed to the lengthy logistical crisis that hamstrung Allied operations for four months. Operation Market-Garden was a double failure in the sense that the resources used for it would have been more profitably committed to clearing the Scheldt Estuary instead of carving out an extended salient that did nothing but extend an already over-extended Allied front line.
- *Despite grave shortages of riflemen, American operations in front of the Siegfried Line, particularly in U.S. First Army's area, were characterized by bloody frontal assaults. Stubbornness and misplaced notions that the U.S. Army could not allow itself to abandon unprofitable operations saw five infantry divisions shredded in the Huertgen Forest fighting, with the attack being abandoned only in December after the Germans attacked into the Ardennes. The concentration of divisions in the Huertgen Forest–Aachen area also forced a corresponding lack of concentration along the Ardennes front, with the result that only four U.S. divisions were initially available in the Ardennes to parry a German offensive that was 26 divisions strong.
- *When, in November, the Allies enjoyed significant success in 6th Army Group's area, General Eisenhower refused to reinforce the success and even forbade his commanders in the south to attempt to assault across the Rhine in the area of Strasbourg while the German defenses were in shambles. This lack of bold enterprise was a by-product of General Eisenhower's decision to conduct limited-objective attacks on a broad front even though the Allies lacked a sufficient number of divisions to both man a broad front and concentrate enough combat power in chosen areas to achieve breakthroughs. And there were other instances of cautious Allied generalship.
- *After crossing the Rhine, Allied force deployments were tainted by misplaced priorities, lack of firm direction from supreme political echelons, and to some extent, by exaggerated fears of German capabilities. When American troops reached the Elbe River in mid-April, General Eisenhower unilaterally decided that Berlin was no longer a significant military objective. The official U.S. Army history has defended this decision by stating that Eisenhower knew that Berlin would be within the Soviet zone of post-war Germany and saw no reason to fight for land that would have to be given to the Soviets after the war. Other histories of the campaign have been less generous, assessing that it was a political decision which sacrificed certain military advantages. Eisenhower pointed out to Patton that it was of no military strategic value and would take up a lot of resources to occupy and asked Patton "Who would want it?" Patton replied "I think history will answer that question for you." Unswayed by Patton, Simpson or even Churchill, Eisenhower ordered U.S. forces to halt along the Elbe and Mulde rivers. Thus, these spearheads were practically immobilized while the war raged on for three more weeks. Simultaneously, General Bradley considered the Germans trapped in the Ruhr Pocket to be the most significant threat and committed surprisingly large numbers of U.S. troops to collapse (as opposed to containing) the pocket instead of reinforcing his troops at the Elbe River. As a consequence of Eisenhower's decision, the British 21st Army Group was ordered to drive northeast in the direction of Hamburg instead of proceeding due east in the direction of Berlin. Finally, the Allies proved curiously gullible about German propaganda claiming the existence of a "National Redoubt" in the Alpine hinterlands of Bavaria and Austria. Fearing a large-scale last stand by the Nazis in this so-called redoubt, General Eisenhower directed no less than three field armies to clear southern Germany at a time when the largest groups of German forces stood to the east, not the south, of General Eisenhower's troops. Fortunately for the Allies, the German Army of April 1945 was in no position to exploit troop concentrations and movements of questionable merit.
Thus, while the Allies enjoyed a great victory, on occasion their prosecution of the campaign afforded their German adversaries opportunities that prolonged the fighting unnecessarily.
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