Thursday, April 9, 2015

"The Last Battle" by Cornelius Ryan (1966)

Once there was an Irishman named Cornelius Ryan. He wrote military history books in the 1960's. He probably wrote a lot of them, but you only know him for his most famous books about the Second World War, "The Longest Day" and "A Bridge Too Far." Sadly, you were introduced to Ryan through the movies they made from these two books before you were old enough to care about books about World War II. They were the kind of 60's classics where men who died simply grabbed their chests and fell over instead of the modern, more realistic and gory depictions of battlefield deaths you know so well today. These movies helped you when you were still young to be able to get an overview of the war from a vantage point that was both informative of the larger strategic picture and also still very exciting. They were part of what helped make you into the wannabe historian you are today. Somehow one of Ryan's books about the war has eluded your attention for years now, probably because no one ever made it into a movie starring John Wayne and Sean Connery.

"The Last Battle" is the story of the fall of Berlin to the Russians in the spring 1945. Ryan's perspective tends to linger a bit too long on the Western Allies considering the Russians were the ones who took the city, not the Americans or British, and the title of the book is wildly inaccurate considering that the horrifically bloody battle for the Japanese island of Okinawa had only just begun when Berlin fell and the war in the Pacific theater still had months to go and thousands of lives to expend, but, nevertheless, the book still makes an outstanding read. Modern authors like Anthony Beevor, James Bradley, and Stephen Ambrose stand on Cornelius Ryan's shoulders.

Other authors have tackled the same subject as "The Last Battle," and one or two movies have been made abot it as well ('Downfall' is by far the best) but Ryan wrote his account just twenty years after the events. For some reason, two decades seems to be the  historian's 'sweet spot.' Somehow, that amount of time is just enough to allow much of the sentiment and blind tribalism to have worn off after historical events but not so much time that all of the participants have died off. Despite the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union were facing off at the height of the Cold War during the book's publication, Ryan was given access and full-length interviews with some of the Russian military's greatest commanders during the war. This is even more remarkable when you remember that '66 was only five years after construction of the Berlin Wall, and only four after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Very little communication existed between the academic minds of America and Russia in the 1960's. The history of the Eastern Front during WWII, which saw the vast majority of the fighting and the dying during the war, was almost completely unavailable to western historians.

The telling of the fight for Berlin is a huge undertaking. The Germans had been led to believe that the Third Reich could only fall in some kind of titanic struggle. They called it Gotterdamerung, or "the death of the gods", after Wagner's epic opera, and the Nazis were insistent that every single German would fight against the Russian onslaught. Consequently, "The Last Battle" is intensely depressing and violent in the extreme. But that's understandable.  It is, after all, the culmination of the bloodiest event in human history.

The grand scale of the battle forces Ryan to tell the story from multiple perspectives. With the story telling flair of a natural born Irishman, he unfolds the events through the eyes of some of the most influential leaders of the 20th Century as well as some of the lowliest civilians. Stalin, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Heinrici, and Zukhov lend their strategic bird's eye view while cloistered nuns, a mild mannered milkman, Communist resistance fighters, and a few fugitive Jews, stuck in hiding from the Gestapo for years inside the heart of Nazi Germany, relate how the events felt from a first hand perspective.

Berlin had never had an easy relationship with Adolf Hitler. Fewer than 30% of the city had voted for the Nazis in the '33 election which allowed Hitler to become the chancellor, the lowest percentage of any district in all of Germany. The cosmopolitan and liberal nature of the city didn't sit well with the racist, far right wing, exclusionary ideals of the Nazi party. Even at the height of his powwer, Hitler never could win over the hearts of the people of his capital city. Once he had conquered Europe, Hitler had plans to start all over again with Berlin  and rebuild the capital of the Third Reich into a new city, called Germania, constructed according to his own designs, with intimate assistance from his personal architect Albert Speer. Nevertheless, Berlin had become, in the eyes of every Allied soldier, the main target, the great prize whose capture or destruction must surely bring about the end of a terrible war.

By the spring of 1945, Berlin was an overwhelmingly female city, a stark reminder that most of the men had disappeared in Hitler's war. Berlin was also a city in ruins, with huge swaths of the metropolis destroyed by years of intense Allied bombing. The vaunted "pinpoint accuracy" of the waves of 4 engine heavy bombers had proven to be overly boastful and had been replaced by the more practical and achievable area bombings and Berlin had become a favorite target for Allied planners. The Americans would bomb during the day and the British would bomb by night. Whole neighborhoods had disappeared in the destruction raining from the skies, entire families vanishing in nightly infernos. But every morning the people of Berlin would pull themselves out from their bomb shelters, subway stations, and basements, and begin making their way into the city to claw their way through the rubble to work. Despite hours long commutes on foot through bomb craters and the debris of a city crushed from above, secretaries still typed away at typewriters, telephone operators still connected calls, teachers still taught classes, and life somehow went on with as much resemblance to the old days as could be mustered. All the while, every German knew that their enemies were closing in. The Allied noose was tightening around Berlin and no amount of Goebbels' propaganda could deny it.

Given the Cold War era in which Ryan wrote the book, it is understandable that he spends a significant chunk of "The Last Battle" on the political details of how Germany came to be divided amongst the Allied conquerors after the war. Sometimes small, seemingly insignificant decisions made by relatively minor officers in the first half of the 1940's, would echo and magnify with time, reaping enormous ramifications on the 1966 geopolitical landscape of the Cold War. Even as impressive a personality as President Roosevelt was unable to stem the tide of events once they were in motion. He was insistent that American forces be given post-war occupation of northwestern Germany with access to sea ports and sea lanes on the Baltic coast. FDR was certain that Britain, with their long standing relationship with France and the Low Countries, should occupy the southern areas of Germany. The president was also clear that Berlin should sit astride the dividing line between the American and Soviet halves of their defeated opponent. It never occurred to Roosevelt that Berlin should be isolated like an island 100 miles inside Russian occupied territory. In the end, the president got none of his wishes.

General Eisenhower knew that he was not responsible for the political landscape of post war Europe, that was for his civilian commanders to decide, but he was also aware that he had a responsibility to consider the military implications of his decisions and those did not always dovetail with the desires of presidents or prime ministers. Eisenhower had decided that Berlin was not worth the casualties its capture would incur. He could not justify the shedding of American blood (one of his generals estimated that taking the city would cost the Allies 100,000 casualties) to take territory he damn well knew would only be handed over to the Russians after the war. Why not let the Red Army suffer the casualties for the territory they would soon occupy? Ike's planning was also greatly influenced by the rumors of a huge buildup of German forces in the southern areas of Germany, rumors of preparations for the last stand of the Nazis in the formidable Alps of Bavaria and Austria. So convincing were these rumors that Eisenhower had come to see Berlin as an insignificant distraction from his main task of destroying Hitler's armies in the field. Prime Minister Churchill, Field Marshall Montgomery, Generals Patton, Hodges, and Simpson were insistent that Berlin represented a psychological victory over the enemy and should be given supreme importance. Eisenhower was willing to entertain their passions... right until the last minute.

The race was on for Berlin, and every Allied commander wanted to get his forces there first and with the most. All along the 350 mile Western Front, 4.5 million Allied soldiers were swarming into the countryside east of the Rhine river. Eisenhower had given priority to Omar Bradley's front making Bradley the first American general in history to ever command four field armies at the same time. The Anglo-American forces were advancing faster than any military forces ever had. Some units were facing continued stiff resistance along the approach routes to the Elbe river and the outskirts of Berlin, yet they were still able to make progress of twenty miles a day! A few American units even crossed over the Elbe and were within 30 or 40 miles of the German capital. As German resistance stiffened on the other side of the river, however, Eisenhower unexpectedly gave the order for all of his forces to hold fast along the line of the Elbe, to cease their advance. American commanders and soldiers throughout Europe were heartbroken. Ike had decided to refocus Allied efforts on the rumored buildup in the Alps to the south, at the Eagle's Nest around Berchtesgaden, where it was widely believed Hitler and his hierarchy would make a final stand. Eisenhower would keep his best airborne units ready to drop into the capital in case the government suddenly collapsed, but otherwise he would leave the grand prize to the Russians.

In the East, Stalin had assured the Anglo-Europeans that he too was not interested in Berlin. The difference was that Stalin lied. He had set two of his greatest generals on a race against one another to see who could take the city first. Marshals Zhukov and Koniev were wielding enormous forces against the last defenses the Nazis could throw at them. As hungry as the Americans and British were for the glory and honor of taking Berlin, the Russians were even more ravenous for revenge. Memories of the atrocities and massacres visited on their people by the Germans during the invasion of 1941 and evidence of abuse and ethnic cleansing during the subsequent years of occupation had driven many of the Red Army's soldiers to almost maniacal levels of obsession. It is useful here to remember that the Russians were the first ones to discover the existence of Nazi concentration camps. The citizens of Berlin would pay the price for Germany's sins. In April and May of 1945, Russian vengeance would be brutal.

The German defense against the Russians had been led for weeks now by, of all people, Heinrich Himmler. The chief of the Gestapo and the German SS had been placed in charge of Army Group Vistula by Hitler himself. He was wildly incompetent and completely unqualified for such a huge task. On March 22nd Himmler was replaced by General Gotthard Heinrici, a genius at defensive warfare and an unkempt officer who eschewed the stereotypical sharp dressed image of a German officer. Heinrici was not one of Hitler's favorites. His devout Christian faith was an ideological problem for all of the Nazi hierarchy and his insistence on ignoring clearly ludicrous orders was particularly galling to the Fuhrer, a man who was known for giving just such ludicrous orders. When Heinrici took over from Himmler, which suited Himmler just fine, he was appalled at the state of preparations. Nazi propaganda had made Berlin out to be an impregnable fortress. In reality, Heinrici found scant troops do to the job and almost no fortifications to speak of. He had performed miracles of defensive warfare before (famously saving the German withdraw from the gates of Moscow from becoming a rout) but this time it was clear to him that he was being asked to do the impossible.

To make his task even more difficult, Heinrici realized that he might well now be taking orders from lunatics and madmen, men who had lost all connection to reality.. After making his way through the ruins of Berlin Heinrici attended a staff meeting for the defense of the city. Hitler had made attendance mandatory. Heinrici would be briefing the German general staff as well as Hitler himself. The general knew it might mean his dismissal, as it had for the legendary Heinz Guderian, but Heinrici decided it was his duty to tell Hitler the blunt truth. The situation was bleak beyond description. Heinrici had neither the men nor the equipment to stop the Russians from breaking out of their bridgeheads and pouring over the river Oder. Suddenly the Fuehrer's underground bunker was filled with the voices of Hitler's cronies promising hundreds of thousands of men from the navy, the Gestapo, the Luftwaffe. They swore that they could stem the tide of the Russian advance and save Berlin. It was all fantasy. There was no hope. Yet Hitler, in the depths of his delusions, failed to even admit that his capital was even in any danger at all. He believed instead that the titanic Russian armies massing on his doorstep were merely some grand ruse, a feint intended to divert attention from the the true objective of the Russian offensive... Prague, Czechoslovakia! Heinrici and his personal aide left left the meeting with the distinct impression that they had been the only ones in the whole bunker who weren't completely insane.

Massing along the river Oder, waiting to pounce on Berlin, was a Russian army unlike anything humans have ever seen, and hopefully unlike anything we will ever see again. Ryan's description deserves to be quoted at length.
"In the ranks were troops who had stood at Leningrad, Smolensk, Stalingrad and before Moscow, men who had fought their way across half a continent to reach the Oder. There were soldiers who had seen their villages and towns obliterated by German guns, their crops burned, their families slain by German soldiers. For all these the assault had special meaning. They had lived for this moment of revenge. The Germans had left them nothing at home to return to; they had nowhere to go but forward."
Marshall Zhukov began this assault with the greatest artillery barrage of the entire war. So many heavy guns were flinging explosives against the German defenses that they created their own weather front. A hot wind blew through the streets of Berlin that night, pushed forward by Russian artillery and accompanied by the unmistakeable rumble of the war marching inexorably nearer. The Russians took longer than they thought to break through the defenses but eventually they smashed through by sheer weight of numbers. Vengeance was in the mind of every soldier and every commander. Casualties were hardly any concern. Nothing could stop the onslaught.

Meanwhile, the last full scale Allied bombing of Berlin began on the night of April 20th, Hitler's birthday. The British bombed at night while the Americans continued the destruction into the morning hours of the 21st. American aircraft would not return to the skies of Berlin in such numbers until the Berlin Airlift three years later. The last American bomb fell on Berlin (the 636th raid on the city in four years of constant bombing) at 9:30 AM, and promptly at 11:30, the Russians began a full scale artillery barrage on the city center. The shells fell amongst civilians heading for work, amidst women queuing up for groceries and other rationed goods, on streets filled with children drinking in the fresh air after suffering a terrible night hiding from bombs. As a birthday present to the fuhrer, the Russians had made the capital of the Third Reich the front lines of the greatest war in history.

No one could now maintain the denial that the city would become a battle ground. Still Hitler refused to allow the evacuation of civilians. Instead he ordered that everyone, regardless of age or disability be thrown into the fighting. No city had experienced this level of imminent dread, this fear of total annihilation since Carthage 2,000 years before. This was the end result of the insanity of invading Russia in 1941. Hitler's chickens, as they say, were coming home to roost. Sure, Germany had a few of their legendary generals left, but their armies were gone. They had melted in the snows outside Moscow, vanished in the crush of the disaster at Stalingrad, and disappeared in the thunder of guns at Kursk.  Any veteran units of major significance Hitler ordered into the battle for Berlin were pure fantasy. They simply did not exist. He might as well have been ordering divisions of unicorns or armies of elves into the fight. The once mighty Wehrmacht had been bled dry. There was nothing left. Meanwhile the Red Army had only grown smarter and stronger with every mile and every battle. The Russians had grown in strength and professionalism to become a juggernaut that was poised to crush the Third Reich. Stalin's military, which had struggled against Finland six years earlier whose Nordic soldiers were equipped with wooden skis and deer rifles, was now poised to defeat an legendary enemy who could field futuristic jet fighter planes and ballistic missiles.

The violence and depravity of the taking of the city was almost unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands died and incalculable numbers were raped. Children and the elderly were forced to fight the Russians with almost no weapons at all. The Red Army showed no quarter. The city was utterly destroyed. So enormous was the disaster that some of the ruins still remained after the fall of the Berlin Wall half a century later.

Hitler's madness had spelled disaster for Germany and her people. He could have spared them, the ones whom he had convinced were the master race. But he preferred to watch them all burn. He could have capitulated at any time. Unconditional surrender would have been far more preferable to the storm of destruction and rape that characterized the Fall of Berlin. But in his madness and delusion, he had now convinced himself that the people themselves had failed him, rather than the other way around. Hitler's capital city fell only a few days after he put a bullet into his own head. The remains of Berlin would go on to become the flashpoint for 50 years of Cold War tensions between the two greatest Super Powers in the world, The Soviet Union and the United States of America. Two nations which had grown to such power and influence because that was what the world had needed in order to crush the cancer of the Nazis.

You hope and pray that the world never sees anything like the Battle for Berlin ever again. It is hard to understand why that level of violence is ever needed in this world. But maybe is was a warning to all humanity in the moments before we unleashed the power of nuclear weapons. Maybe the Last Battle is what saved the world not just from the Nazis... but from complete destruction. Maybe the very violence of the Second World War is what kept us from eventually starting a third. If so, it may have been worth it... but only barely.

On to the next book!