The title Max Hastings chose for his history of the final year of World War II in Europe conveys something of the gripping drama he manages to create in this well-researched and fascinating work. In parallel to his later book Retribution about the last year of World War II against the Japanese, Armageddon focuses on the final year of World War II in Europe. His technique and style are very similar in both books. He begins each chapter with an overview of a topic (such as “the Bulge” or “Stalin’s Offensive” in Armageddon) and then supplements his summary with two categories of anecdotes: testimonies by relatively unknown “little people,” whose millions of stories compose the total history of the war, and analyses of the actions and judgments of the military and political leaders involved.
As The Washington Post pointed out in its review, “the months between September 1944 and May 1945 were among the cruelest and most destructive Europe had ever seen.” Hastings helps you get a sense of the horror of the battles, their brutality, the exhaustion of the soldiers, and the suffering of the citizenry. And all of it sounds fresh, even though you may have read these stories time and again (or watched them on the History Channel). The Washington Post review calls this book “magisterial” and it seems to be no exaggeration.
After the success of the Normandy Landing and subsequent breakout, it appeared in autumn of 1944 that the western Allies could roll into Germany with only slight opposition. That view proved to be woefully inaccurate for several reasons.
First, the allied generals had little competence in wars of rapid maneuver.
Second, allied soldiers were much more interested in surviving the war than their Nazi opponents, who man for man, proved to be much more competent soldiers. Hastings writes: “The defense of Germany against overwhelming odds reflected far more remarkable military skills than those displayed by the attackers, especially when all German operations had to be conducted under the dead hand of Hitler.”
Third, bickering among the allies exacerbated the problem, but the American General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s skill and tact overcame the biggest obstacles. The British General Bernard Montgomery comes across as very petty and egotistical, but fairly competent at a plodding strategy. Hastings says he “was a cleverer man and a far more professional soldier than [Eisenhower], but his crassness towards his peers was a fatal impediment to greatness.”
A fourth reason for the western allies’ tardiness was Hitler’s December offensive that produced the Battle of the Bulge, which came as a total surprise to the complacent allies.
Montgomery made a major strategic mistake in failing to secure the approaches to Antwerp, the largest port in Western Europe after it fell with little resistance. The port lies 50 or so miles from the sea on the River Scheldt. The Germans quickly occupied both banks of the river to prevent ships from reaching the port. It took several months of hard fighting to dislodge them from their positions, which they defended with substantial competence. The allies suffered from substantial supply shortages because the only ports available to them were the small channel ports in Normandy and Pas de Calais. Not until the approaches to Antwerp were secured in early 1945 could the allies bring to bear their enormous advantage in material and fire power.
The slowness of the western Allies’ progress caused great hardship among the conquered people of Nazi-occupied countries. The Dutch in particular had to suffer through their “Hongerwinter” at near starvation subsistence. Eisenhower persisted in a very cautious “wide front” approach, especially after the spectacular failure of Montgomery’s Market Garden attempt at rapid penetration of the German front. As German Field Marshal von Paulus, surveying the ruin of his country from a Soviet prison cell observed contemptuously, “If the British and Americans had not dilly-dallied so much, we could have got this whole thing over a great deal sooner.”
Hastings acknowledges the greater importance and weight of the war in the East conducted by the Soviets. He credits the Soviets with being much more competent that the western allies with maneuvering large armies, particularly in conducting encircling movements. He also emphasizes the extraordinary differences between the eastern and western “allies” in missions, behavior, discipline, suffering, willingness to accept casualties, and awareness to accomplish political as opposed to purely military goals.
Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union have we in the West had access to documentary evidence of the details of the horror of the war in the East. Hastings does not in any way exculpate the Germans, but he pulls no punches when describing the behavior of the Soviet army as it flooded into Eastern Europe and Germany. Moreover, he lays the blame for their barbaric behavior right at the top of the Soviet state.
The Soviets were particularly cruel to the Poles as well as the Germans. The Soviet army camped just outside of Warsaw and made no move to prevent the Germans from slaughtering the Polish resistance. They even refused to allow the western allies to land planes that dropped supplies to the Poles.
The Soviet army became an efficient fighting machine largely through instilling fear among its fighters. Political commissars were always just behind the front to shoot any soldiers who thought it might be safer in the rear. The Soviet front line troops feared their own officers more than the Germans. The NKVD recorded shooting 157,000 Soviet soldiers for desertion or cowardice in 1941-42 alone!
Amazingly, the Wehrmacht continued to fight effectively to the very end, even in the West, although many soldiers attempted to surrender to the British or Americans rather than to the Soviets. Hastings contrasts the Germans – who fought on bitterly even after the war clearly was lost, with the Japanese, who ultimately surrendered the home islands without firing a shot. Even in the last month of the war, the SS and the Hitler Jugend fought suicidally.
The fate of the German civilians can also be contrasted with that of the Japanese, who, once they surrendered, underwent a rather benign occupation. The Germans surrendered only after nearly all their cities had been reduced to rubble. Ironically, the first subchapter of the final chapter is entitled “Retribution,” the title of Hastings’ subsequent book about the final year of the war against Japan. Hastings details the plight of the Germans living in East Prussia near the end of the conflict. More than 2 million were “ethnically cleansed” from that area, and more than a million perished in their efforts to reach the West. The German civilians feared the Soviet army, with good reason. The Soviets systematically looted and raped wherever they went. The first Russians to enter Germany actually raped, then crucified on barn doors, the women of the first village they captured.
Hastings finds interesting, but does not criticize, Eisenhower’s decision not to race the Soviets to Berlin. The Yalta agreements had already ceded that part of Germany to the Soviets, who suffered more than 300,000 casualties in taking the German capital. The western allies had no stomach for losing that many men for purely political goals. The loss of many additional British and American lives would have accomplished nothing unless their governments were ready to repudiate their Yalta agreements so soon after making them and risk provoking a new war against the Soviets. Stalin, on the other hand, was willing to incur extraordinary losses to get what he wanted. He goaded two of his marshals, Zhukov and Konev, to vie for the honor of taking Berlin, even at the cost of many unnecessary lives. Hastings points out that for every British or American who was killed in the war, more than 30 Soviet citizens perished!
Hastings also details the plight of prisoners of both the Germans and the Soviets with many gruesome anecdotes. Less than 10% of the Germans taken prisoner at Stalingrad ever returned home. Perhaps the saddest of all fates befell Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans: those “lucky” enough to survive the war were often shot by the NKVD or sentenced to 25 years in the Gulag for “collaborating,” i.e., not fighting to their death.
The western allies were hardly blameless, conducting a strategic bombing offensive designed to destroy whole cities and being guilty in several incidents of killing of prisoners. Nevertheless, their record of atrocities pales in comparison with either the Nazis or the Soviets.
This review does not do justice to Hastings’ book because, in the interest of (relative) brevity, I cannot cite or effectively summarize its many personal anecdotes that add color, depth, and credibility to his narrative. This is a very good book; in fact, Norman Davies, in No Simple Victory, cites it as one of the best books on the war.
Published by Knopf Publishing Group, 2004