By March 1945, the Second World War had raged for five years and six months. Only the Axis Powers had welcomed it, yet over time all of the world's principal nations had found themselves drawn into a struggle which, for many of them, quickly became a fight to the death. The War had burned a path across three continents, two oceans, and had left in its wake a multitude of devastated cities, broken countries, and as many as 50 million dead. But in March 1945, an end was at last in sight.
In the East, the Soviet Union, who since 1941 had almost single-handedly confronted the full might of the Wehrmacht and in so doing had suffered such horrific losses, had finally beaten back the hated invader, overrun his territories in Poland and Prussia, and now stood poised on the borders of the Fatherland itself to deliver its final, vengeful blow.
In the West, the Armies of the United States, Britain and Canada had fought their way to the banks of the River Rhine; the last great obstacle separating them from Germany. Once they had breached this heavily fortified barrier, which had been such a symbol of the Germanic frontier since the days of antiquity, there would be little to impede their progress to Berlin.
Yet this was not the first time that they had attempted to cross it. In June 1944, the long-awaited Second Front had been opened on the beaches of Normandy, where, for six bitter weeks, the Allies were locked in a severe battle of attrition, gradually wearing down their enemy until his lines finally cracked, allowing the great weight of American and British materiel supremacy to spill out into the open country beyond. In late August, the German position in the West was in such disarray that a complete collapse seemed possible, with their armies, so depleted that they could only account for a small fraction of their full strength, existing in name only. The Allies, however, had pursued them through France and Belgium at such a pace that they outstripped their supply lines and were forced to halt for several days to await replenishment. This welcome respite allowed the Germans to perform the quite incredible feat of rallying their remaining forces and improvising a new defensive line, but even so, the consensus amongst the Allies was that it would only require one more blow from the hammer to shatter it.
Field Marshal Montgomery, commanding the British 21st Army Group in the North of the Allied line, accordingly proposed Operation Market Garden. This was an extremely bold plan, using three airborne divisions to secure a series of waterways across Holland, the last of which was the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem, to enable his 2nd Army to burst through the thin German line, advance straight into the heart of the Reich and end the War by Christmas. It failed. The plan had been entirely reliant upon German resistance crumbling upon first impact, but it remained firm and so delayed the 2nd Army through rearguard actions and counter-attacks that by the time they reached the Arnhem area, the British 1st Airborne Division, having suffered 80% casualties yet still holding open a possible bridgehead after an incredible nine days fighting in isolation against vastly superior armoured SS formations, was obliged to withdraw across the Rhine.
This rebuff effectively ended the hopes of the British to end the War in 1944, and the remainder of the year was spent tidying up affairs around their area. The worryingly exposed flanks of the 2nd Army, as a consequence of the advance to Arnhem, were made good, whilst the 1st Canadian Army fought a long, bitter, unglamorous yet vital battle to secure the approaches to the captured port at Antwerp, thereby considerably easing the desperate question of supplies. The approaches were cleared in November, but it remained impassable to shipping until the end of the month.
The arrogance and condescension of Field Marshal Montgomery towards his American peers was legendary, and it had almost reached its peak at this stage. Many of them were oddly pleased, therefore, to see his great thrust through Holland come to such an ungainly end. Yet they, in their turn, could do no better.
In the centre of the Allied line, the chief problem confronting General Bradley's 12th US Army Group was not so much the Rhine, in the first instance, as the Siegfried Line; Germany's "West Wall", a heavily fortified series of defensive works stretching from the Swiss border to Holland. General Patton's 3rd Army made moves towards it in September but became bogged down whilst trying to clear the fortress positions around Metz, failing to make a break-through and suffering greater casualties than the British had in Holland. On their left flank, at this same time, the 1st US Army attempted to penetrate the Siegfried Line around Aachen, but despite meeting little initial opposition, a slow and hesitant approach allowed the Germans to thicken their line and make the "Amis" battle hard for every metre. In November, having struggled on but making negligible progress, the 1st Army committed itself to the unnecessary battle to clear the Hürtgen Forest. Here, all their advantages of an overwhelming superiority of armoured, artillery and air power were made redundant in the dense woodland, allowing a relatively insignificant enemy force to extract a painful cost. An American officer commented at one point, "We are taking three trees a day, yet they cost us about 100 men apiece."
However much of a token effort it would have been, given its scarcely significant geographical location in the far south of the front, the Allies perhaps came closest to securing a crossing over the Rhine when General Leclerc's 2nd French Armoured Division, vaguely a part of the 7th US Army, made an audacious and quite unauthorised drive on Strasbourg in the last days of November. His men captured the city but failed to take the bridge over the Rhine at Kehl before it was blown.
If there had been a chance for the Allies to defeat Germany in 1944, highly doubtful as it was, it had ended in September with the failures to break-through at Arnhem and Aachen. Yet it was not until the subsequent thrusts in November that they began to accept the inevitable fact that Germany would not collapse before 1945.
The Allies, therefore, resigned themselves to their winter quarters, tidying up affairs in their own sectors and making preparations to renew the offensive in the following spring. As they were under the impression that the defeat of Germany was merely a formality, it came as a severe shock to them when, on the 16th December 1944, Hitler launched his last great offensive through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. His objectives, bold to the point of being impossible, were to drive a wedge between the British and American armies, cutting off the former from its supply lines to force its complete collapse, whilst giving the Americans such a bloody nose that if they did not seek peace, they would be thrown into such disarray as to buy Germany enough time to deal more satisfactorily with matters in the East.
It was a fantasy, yet at first the offensive went well. American opposition in the Ardennes consisted of a small number of over-stretched divisions, some of which were heavily depleted by their losses whilst others had never been in combat before. Hampered by a lack of information and, above all, air support due to bad weather, the sheer weight of the German onslaught swept them utterly away. The offensive eventually cut a 65 mile deep by 20 mile wide salient into the American front, but by this time the Allies were responding in force. Superb defensive actions by units that had been completely cut off, notably the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, hindered German progress, and, when the weather at last cleared, fighter bombers were able to do terrible damage to the exposed troops below. With Montgomery's blocking line holding firm in the north and Patton's 3rd Army, having performed a quite incredible feat of manoeuvre to enter the fray, attacking the salient in the south, the Germans, with their tanks running out of petrol, were forced to withdraw for fear of being cut off. American casualties in the Ardennes had been severe, the worst they had suffered in any battle throughout the entire campaign in Europe, but Germany had fared worse, and theirs were losses that could not be replaced. As a consequence of Hitler's last gamble, both his armoured reserve and a lot of experienced, first rate soldiers, who could have mounted a prolonged and vigorous defence of Germany in 1945, were lost.