Nazi Delusion: Belief in the East–West Clash

Operation Unthinkable, Churchill’s plan to start World War III

In the final weeks of the war Army Group South had a heavy duty laid upon it. Its terrible task was to hold the Eastern Front while behind the defensive shield which it constituted the mass of Army Group E retreated out of Yugoslavia. Let us consider why Army Group South was called upon to make such a sacrifice.

At that late stage of the war there was no cohesive battle front in northern or central Germany. Red Armies from the 1st White Russian Front were fighting inside Berlin while the 1st Ukrainian Front had swept past the dying capital and had reached the River Elbe where its troops had linked up with the Americans. Where German Army Group North had once stood, a few shattered corps sought to contain the assaults of the Soviet Baltic Fronts and to maintain bridgeheads around the principal ports of Prussia and Kurland from which refugees were being evacuated to the western Baltic or Denmark.

Held distant from and, therefore, unable to influence the fighting in central Germany, Field Marshal Schoerner’s powerful Army Group held the western regions of Czechoslovakia. To his south stood another major German military force holding a line in eastern Austria from the Semmering mountains to Radkersburg. That force was the remnants of Army Group South which had been driven back out of Russia, across Hungary and into Austria. Neither Army Group Schoerner nor Rendulic’s Army Group South could support the other, for a salient created by Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front held them apart. Nor were those German groups strong enough, individually or collectively, to destroy the Russian salient.

In Yugoslavia, to the south of Rendulic’s Army Group, was Loehr’s Army Group E. This force, which had held the Balkans, was conducting a fighting withdrawal out of Yugoslavia, a task made difficult through a combination of factors. First, there was now such close co-operation between the Soviet armies and JANL, the Yugoslav National Liberation Army, that they struck Army Group E with co-ordinated, rapid and crushing blows. Secondly, Loehr felt a moral obligation to the Croat and Slovene peoples through whose lands he was retreating. His withdrawal would leave those populations undefended and at the mercy of the JANL which would exact a terrible revenge when it re-occupied Croatia and Slovenia. Not only were the peoples of those nations racial enemies of the Serbs who dominated the JANL, but they had demonstrated this racial hostility by fighting as Germany’s allies. In addition both nations had declared themselves to be free states and independent of Yugoslavia. Tito was determined to bring them back into the federation and would use the standard brutal, Bolshevik methods to achieve that goal.

For fear of the wrath to come, the mass of the Croat and Slovene peoples joined Loehr’s Army Group in its retreat. The great trek sought to reach and to cross the River Mur which marked the frontier between Austria and Yugoslavia. The Germans and their allies shared a naïve belief that once inside Austrian territory they would be safe. That Tito would cross the Mur in pursuit of his enemies seems, somehow, to have gone unconsidered.

The third factor working against Loehr was that Army Group C in Italy had signed an armistice with the Americans and the British. Through the gap which now yawned on Army Group E’s right flank poured crack units of the British Eighth Army heading towards Trieste and the Austrian province of Carinthia.

From the situation maps in his headquarters, Field Marshal Kesselring, Supreme Commander South, could appreciate the situation facing the armies of his command. Army Group E was isolated, but the gap on the right flank, although serious, was not critical. The British were not yet in sufficient strength to affect the withdrawal of Loehr’s right wing, but seemed to be content to hold a containing line behind which the bulk of their forces advanced into Austria.

Viewing the situation facing Army Group South, Kesselring could see that in the Semmering mountains in northern Styria the 6th Army was withstanding the Soviet assaults. In its sector the 2nd Panzer Army, forming the extreme right wing of Army Group South, was containing the Red Army along a line from Bad Gleichenberg to Radkersburg. The eastern wall was still holding, but Kesselring asked himself for how long? Intelligence had forecast that Tolbhukin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front would open an offensive strongly supported by a major effort by the JANL. Were the 6th Army and 2nd Panzer to collapse under those combined assaults, nothing could halt the enemy’s sweep across southern Sytria and Loehr’s armies would be trapped between Tolbhukin in the north and the JANL to the south.

If Army Group E was to be saved, the eastern wall in Styria had to be held until the formations at present in Yugoslavia were safe inside Austria. The task for the German commanders was to ensure that the troops manning the line between the Semmering and Radkersburg did hold fast. This would be difficult for it was obvious to the humblest private soldier that the end of the war could only be a matter of days. At that low military level the signs of dissolution were becoming more apparent. Food supplies were no longer reaching the front-line units. Rations had been cut and were cut again. Very little ammunition was coming forward. There were no new men to replace those who had been killed, who had been wounded, who had been taken prisoner – or who had deserted to the Reds. High Command was keenly aware of the unbearable pressures upon the soldiers to desert and to make an end to their sufferings. The commanders knew of the depression brought about by battle losses, short rations, the lack of news from home, the bitterly cold wet spring in the mountains, the unremitting strain of combat and the general hopelessness of the situation. Against all these negative factors could only be set the soldiers’ traditional loyalties to Fatherland, Führer, the regiment and their comrades.

Rumour, ever-present on the battlefield, has the power to affect morale for good or for bad. The bitter rumours which swept through the embattled battalions in the first days of May were soon confirmed. The Führer was dead. He had fallen in battle. Berlin, the Reichs capital, was in Russian hands. The Reds and the ‘Amis’ had joined forces on the Elbe and US armies were overrunning southern Germany. These were days of mental anguish.

Clearly the war was ending and at this time of fear and doubt many must have asked themselves what was the point in their holding on? Where was the sense in staying wet through, hungry and cold in a slit trench facing certain death when, in the darkness of the night, a short walk into the Soviet lines could bring release? With any luck the first Ivans would not be too trigger-happy. Old soldiers said that if you survived the first five minutes, if the Red Army infantry didn’t kill you on the spot, you were safe and then there would be warmth, food, rest and the certainty of surviving the war.

The senior military commanders, aware of the physical and emotional problems which beset their men, pondered whether they could keep their troops fighting until Loehr and his men had been brought out of the land of Yugoslavia. Suddenly, new rumours ensured that the soldiers would stand fast; firm as rocks against all the assaults of the enemy. The euphoria produced by the new rumour reached the trenches and the depression caused by the bad news of the first days of May was lifted immediately. The rumour was that the Anglo-Americans had formed an alliance with Germany. Hitler was dead and the Western Allies had made peace with the new German government. That these wild stories circulated and were believed as strongly at senior Army Group level as at the level of the ordinary grenadier shows that they were not the product of the military but that they had come from a source very close to the centre of power. ‘The evil that men do lives after them,’ declared Mark Antony. Even after Goebbels’ half-incinerated body had been removed from the Reichskanzlei for autopsy, one of his most successful propaganda ploys, based upon a political conviction which he shared with Hitler, was circulating and was being believed. The Goebbels propaganda story was nothing less than that America and Britain would break their alliance with Russia and would then ally themselves with Germany. The three nations would then turn against the Soviet Union.

Earlier chapters of this book have shown the reasoning behind the confidence on the part of Germany’s political leaders that such a clash must occur. It was, they declared, politically inevitable and lo, according to rumour, it had come to pass. As early as 28 April, OKW had ordered the number of German units to be reduced in those areas where US troops were no longer advancing or in which the Americans had given ground. The supernumerary German formations were then to be dispatched to the Eastern Front. Two days later, on 30 April, the orders from OKW were that the war was to be continued until the outcome of political moves had been resolved. Germany was playing for time. The understood inference was that hostilities would continue until the inevitable conflict between Russia and the Western Allies broke out.

The conviction of Hitler and Goebbels had been accepted at the most senior command level and repeated by the normally cautious OKW. Small wonder then that its words were more optimistically interpreted as they reached each subordinate echelon in the military hierarchy. The German armies had only to hold on and soon the Americans would be in the line beside them. The next step, that of driving back the Soviet forces, would be easy. The field commanders were supremely confident of that. They were aware of the terrible war-weariness that infected the Red Army. The German generals knew that the Red Army’s battle line was made up of tired, exhausted and dispirited soldiers at the end of a poor and unreliable supply line. Soon the German forces would be properly equipped from the abundant resources of their Anglo-American allies. Then, together with those forces, the revitalized German armies would go over to a general attack, would thrust aside the low-moraled Soviets and would set out, once again, and this time would achieve the ambition of carving out an empire in the east.

Following on from that basic rumour came others each more bizarre than the preceding one. One that was believed to the end was that in the west of Austria – in the high Alps – had been constructed an Alpine Fortress system inside which the German Army would gather new strength and would hold out until new secret weapons could be deployed. Underground factories within that Alpine Redoubt would construct aircraft and rockets to equip the men who would form the garrison. Other factories would turn out standard weapons, such as tanks and guns.

We all hoped that the Alpine Fortress would be more substantial that the Reichsschützstellung [the national defence system] which was little more than an anti-tank ditch topped with barbed wire. It was well-known that at some places in Austria the Ivans had crossed the Reichsschützstellung before work on it had been completed.

From my reading after the war I have learned that there was a conference in Graz in the first week of May. Kesselring realized that the East Front had to be held and so, although the capitulation was about to be signed in Reims, he issued orders that we in Austria were to carry on fighting. The imminent capitulation was to apply only to the armies fighting in the west.

Thus, up in the hills and mountains of northern Styria, fighting was carried on by soldiers unaware that the war was about to end. Their warrior spirit was bolstered by the belief that the ‘Amis’ were coming. Wireless reports seemed to confirm the rumour, for these told of an advance by troops of Patton’s Third Army into Sudetenland, the western provinces of Czechoslovakia. It was known that other US armies, pouring through Germany, had altered the direction of their advance from east to south-eastward. Obviously, those formations were hurrying to the eastern wall in Styria. It was only a matter of holding on for a few more days and then the advance guard of the ‘Ami’ army would roar up. As if to confirm these rumours the Red Army began a strong offensive on the Semmering. The truth was that the Soviets intended to break through the Muerz valley and to reach the River Enns, the halt line between the American and the Russian forces. If the Red Army could be in strength on that river line it would have trapped both German Army Groups, Loehr’s and Reundulic’s. More than that the Russians would have gained vast and important economic resources. Under the terms on which they intended to insist in their surrender document, it was not only the soldiers, their weapons and equipment which must be surrendered, but also all the factories and machines which had worked for the Third Reich. That was the true perspective.

The ordinary German soldiers, shivering in their sodden slit trenches on the Semmering, had a different perspective. They saw in the furious assaults of the Red Army proof that the Ivans were hoping to smash Army Group South before the Americans could arrive. The fiercer the assaults by the Russian infantry, cavalry and tank units, the more strong was the conviction of the German Landser that the ‘Amis’ were getting close. The rank and file of an army – of any army – are not privy to the details of military plans. Little information and few details are given to them. Their lives, their mental attitudes are determined not so much by accurate information imparted by their officers as by wild rumour and subjective reasoning. Thus, it was all too easy for them to accept without reserve the rumours which swept through the battalions and companies like wildfire and it is easy for us to see and to understand the hopes that were entertained by these lowly men.

It is less easy for us to comprehend how OKW could have so misread the situation or have been so duped by propaganda as to accept the myth of an American–British–German alliance as if it were a fact. It was the conviction of many senior commanders that a common hatred of the Nazi leadership was the only bond that held the Allies together. When that bond broke, as it must do with the Führer’s death, there would be no impediment to an alliance with the conservative elements of the German nation. That the Allied hatred was not confined to Hitlerism but extended to include those conservative elements – to the Army in particular – was just not understood by the generals. Such a concept was unthinkable.

The wish is father to the deed and the wishes of the military commanders of Army Group South were expressed in deeds of such naïvety as to be almost unbelievable. Major-General Gaedke, Chief of Staff of the Sixth Army, was directed by his commander to open discussions with General Patton, GOC Third US Army. The purpose of these discussions was to obtain passage for German troops through the Third Army front and across Austria. There, those newly arrived reinforcements would thicken the Sixth Army’s battle line. When that offer was rejected by Patton’s staff – the general refused to meet the German officer – Gaedke then requested medical supplies for the German units on the Eastern Front. That request, too, was turned down and the Chief of Staff returned to the Sixth Army, obviously baffled by the, to him, incomprehensible attitude of the Americans.

Certainly the senior officers of the 1st Panzer Division, holding the ground at Army Group’s southern end, were of the opinion that some arrangement existed. Their conviction was based on the fact that reinforcements to the division had arrived from Germany, had been allowed to pass freely through the American lines and had not been taken prisoner. That unusual fact, taken in conjunction with the orders then issued by General Balck, commanding the Sixth Army, for his units to head westward, fuelled the belief that the 1st Panzer Division was to make for the Alpine Redoubt where, obviously, it would meet up with the Americans.

On just a slightly less absurd level was the attempt by General Ringel to influence the speed of the American advance through Austria. Ringel set out for the Enns under orders to offer the US Command an unopposed advance through the German-held areas of central and eastern Austria, in order that they would form a bulwark against the Red Army. Presumably, in view of the anticipated Allied–German alliance, behind that American wall the mass of German forces in eastern Austria would be able to withdraw into the Alpine Redoubt.

The efforts of Balck’s Chief of Staff, Gaedke, to allow reinforcements to stiffen the eastern wall, Ringel’s attempt to speed the American advance and 1st Panzer’s belief of a regrouping in the Redoubt, seen from our perspective, were ludicrous projects; the unrealizable dreams of men unwilling to face facts. The German perspective was, as we have seen, based on the certainty that Capitalism and Communism are incompatible; that the voracious Russian Empire must fight against the Imperial commitments of Great Britain and the interests of the neo-Colonial Empire of America. Within days of the war’s end, Soviet acts in Europe, her increasingly threatening attitude and her support of Yugoslavia’s territorial demands for the Austrian province of Carinthia were the first signs of things to come. The reactions of the Anglo-Americans was not long in coming: a telegram to the Eighth Army contained the dire order that with immediate effect the Soviet military forces were to be considered as hostile.

Within two years of the end of hostilities the nations of Eastern Europe were under Soviet domination. Within three years the Berlin airlift had to be mounted to keep the population of that city free of Soviet control. Within five years the Anglo-Americans were at war with Korean and Chinese Communist forces in Korea.

It was an historical inevitability, Goebbels had declared, that the two opposed political systems must clash. Events had shown that the prophecy born of his perspective had not been false – merely premature.

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