The Western Front, 24th March 1945



Winston Churchill talking with men of the 15th (Scottish) Division on the 23rd March

Winston Churchill watches the progress of the battle

Winston Churchill with Montgomery and Brooke taking lunch on the western bank of the Rhine

Volksturm prisoners guarded by a British soldier

German prisoners await transportation across the Rhine


On the 27th March, Field Marshal Montgomery sent a message to General Eisenhower which, in his characteristically self-important way, did not ask for instructions from the Supreme Commander on the future conduct of the advance, rather he dictated how he himself intended to run the campaign. With the 9th US Army protecting his right flank, Montgomery cheerfully declared his intention to advance on the River Elbe and then hopefully take Berlin. Eisenhower was furious, not merely at his presumption to usurp his command and dictate overall strategy, but also his supposition that the 9th Army would remain under British control now that the Rhine had been bridged. He sent a message back, stating that 9th Army would be restored to the command of General Bradley, and that he, in the centre of the Allied line, would conduct the main thrust with the four armies of his 12th Army Group. Montgomery was relegated to the menial task of simply protecting the American left flank.


General Eisenhower then went one further. On his own initiative and without any prior consultation of President Roosevelt, and certainly not Winston Churchill, he telephoned Stalin to clarify the demarcation lines; assuring him that he intended to halt his advance on the River Elbe, 40 miles west of Berlin, leaving it and all that remained to the Russians. It was a decision which dismayed Churchill, for it condemned Eastern Europe to Russian rule; merely exchanging one tyrant for another. In 1945, Russian domination of that area was clearly becoming an incontrovertible fact, yet, with the benefit of hindsight, history has also been equally critical of Eisenhower, imagining that an Allied advance on Berlin would not only have spared those Germans from the horrors of Soviet occupation, but it would also have had a dramatic impact on the Cold War landscape which followed. Such an advance was certainly possible because, even though the Western Allies were much further from Berlin than the Russians, the resistance in front of them was far less formidable, indeed many Germans were only resisting so tenaciously in the East because they hoped to keep the Russians at bay until the British and Americans could reach them.


There is a suspicion that Eisenhower made the decision to halt on the Elbe solely because an advance on Berlin could only be undertaken by Montgomery and his 21st Army Group, and, with relations between them at their lowest, Eisenhower would not grant him the opportunity to enter Berlin in triumph, stealing the glory for the War's end from the Americans. It seems doubtful that Eisenhower, a politically sensitive and very practical man, would have made so immature a decision, particularly when he had a not inconsiderable record of acceding to Montgomery's will whenever the situation demanded it. Yet it has to be wondered whether he would have contented himself with just the west bank of the Elbe if General Bradley's 12th Army Group had been on the Allied left flank, and not the British.


History, however, may have been unkind to Eisenhower. It was estimated that an offensive in the direction of Berlin would result in 100,000 casualties, and few at this late stage in the War had the stomach for such an expenditure of life. It was not widely appreciated at the time that a Cold War would follow and what serious implications would arise from it, and so the capture of Berlin appeared to offer little more of a prize than a feather in the cap of the general commanding the assault and an opportunity for his troops to parade through its shattered streets. Furthermore, any dash by the Western Allies to Berlin would certainly have been countered by the Russians, raising the possibility of a serious if not catastrophic incident when then two sides met.


Russia had fought the War on wholly political grounds and was fully committed to achieving its goals. Eisenhower had no interest in the acquisition of territory, the precious resources of the surrounding land or a buffer zone between East and West; he desired only the military defeat of Germany and the collapse of its government, and so it made no sense for him to advance beyond the Elbe and risk a disaster by going a step too far, as General MacArthur was to do in the Korean War.


Eisenhower, nevertheless, made a thoroughly political decision soon into the advance beyond the Rhine. Seriously concerned that Russian forces would not be so obliging as to halt on the Elbe but could push on to "liberate" Denmark, he removed Montgomery from his humiliating flank protection role and instead gave him the objective of reaching the Baltic coast before the Russians arrived, thus shielding Denmark from Soviet occupation, and, consequently, the Baltic and North Seas from Soviet domination. The 6th Airborne Division was to be in the vanguard of Montgomery's advance.