1945: Victory in the west


Over the past decade, Peter Caddick-Adams has established himself as a leading historian of land warfare in the second half of World War II. 1945: Victory in the West completes a trilogy in which the author has already covered the Normandy campaign and the Battle of the Bulge.

He argues that the final hundred days of the war in the West, between the end of the Ardennes offensive and the German surrender, are often covered quite superficially in histories of the conflict.

In truth, individual episodes during the spring of 1945, such as the crossing of the Rhine at Remagen, the vast airborne operation (involving more than 16,000 Allied paratroopers) known as Operation Varsity, and the capture of Hitler’s Berchtesgaden retreat, are well known. Readers are likely to be less familiar with the bloody and destructive slogging match in which Allied forces captured successive population centres from Cologne to Munich.

Caddick-Adams has woven these episodes together into a compelling narrative of the war’s brutal end-game. The 25-page bibliography, listing interviews, archives, and museums, as well as a wealth of published sources, testifies to the breadth and depth of the author’s research. He has walked the ground, often with veterans of the conflict as his guide, and discovered surviving physical traces of the battles in the woods and ditches of the region.

The book presents the campaign on two levels, interweaving the experience of troops on the ground with the high-level decision-making of the commanders. Here are vivid pen portraits of the key players – Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Patton – alongside less well-known figures such as US General Jacob Devers and the French Marshal Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, liberators of the Colmar Pocket on the west bank of the Rhine.

We meet soldiers who were to become famous in different walks of life, such as the future film-maker Mel Brooks, a combat engineer who characteristically described himself as hating both combat and engineering, and Robert ‘Killer’ Runcie, the tank commander who later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Caddick-Adams’ assessments are balanced and judicious. Eisenhower receives his due as supreme Allied commander. Memorably, the author compares him to the keystone of an arch, holding together a diverse coalition of Allied leaders under immense stress.

Caddick-Adams vigorously rebuts the familiar claim that Western forces should have aimed to beat the Soviet forces to Berlin in April 1945. He argues that Ike was sensible to focus instead on a broad front advance that steadily destroyed the German military machine. Competing to reach the capital first made no sense, given that Stalin had by far the larger numbers of troops in the right place.

Strongest feature

The strongest feature of the book is its ability to evoke the conditions faced by those who fought their way into Germany. The author reminds us of the practical difficulties they faced as they tried to keep moving through adverse weather and changing terrain. He is particularly good at describing locations, from the frozen woods of the Vosges mountains to the glutinous mud of the Reichswald Forest and the unforgiving waters of the fast-flowing Rhine.

LEFT General Dwight D Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior to D-Day, 1944. On the Western Front, he preferred a broad advance to steadily destroy the German military machine as opposed to a race with the Soviets to Berlin.
General Dwight D Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior to D-Day, 1944. On the Western Front, he preferred a broad advance to steadily destroy the German military machine as opposed to a race with the Soviets to Berlin. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The weaponry of both sides is assessed in authoritative fashion. We learn about the respective merits of the MG-42 machine-gun and the Bren gun, about the river-crossing technology of swimming tanks, amphibious Buffalo vehicles and DUKWs, and what it was like to be inside an Allied tank on the receiving end of a Panzerfaust warhead.

Eye-witness accounts by Allied participants give a vivid sense of how soldiers felt as they advanced into hostile enemy territory. Caddick-Adams begins his narrative with the horrific experience of the US 7th Infantry Regiment, known as the Cottonbalers, stumbling on a minefield in the German border village of Utweiler, and then being subjected to withering enemy fire.

Moving across enemy-held territory, soldiers did not know what to expect. They might be welcomed by white flags of surrender or face fierce resistance, either from diehard Nazis with little to lose, or from Germans who feared reprisals from a still active and vigilant SS. Even when the Reich was demonstrably doomed, fanatical agents of the regime continued to execute anyone who showed signs of defeatism. In a final throw of the dice, a ragtag army of teenage Hitler Youth members and elderly men in the Volkssturm – a kind of Nazi Home Guard – was pressed to make a futile last stand.

The horrors uncovered by Allied units as they came on Nazi prison camps, with their dead or barely living inmates, are related in unflinching detail. Descriptions of slave-labour sites within Germany are a reminder that the crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich extended well beyond the much more intensively chronicled killing sites in the East. The shock and anger of the liberators, who were wholly unprepared for the appalling sights they witnessed, is fully documented.

Caddick-Adams’ style is pacy and engaging, if idiosyncratic. Perhaps because of the sheer number of individuals and actions referenced in the text, at intervals we are given reminders such as ‘Kurt Hedina, the wounded Fallschirmjäger NCO we last met being felled by shrapnel…’ and ‘Let us rejoin Third Army, now across the Rhine and nearing Aschaffenburg, the battle we have just examined.’

It should be said that the coverage is weighted more heavily towards the American experience than that of the other Allied contingents. Caddick-Adams is clear about the areas on which he has not focused. The critical role of air support is not neglected, but it is viewed from the ground troops’ perspective rather than that of the air crews. The author has also excluded discussion of the Soviet advance in the East.

For this, and for more on the German experience of defeat, readers have various options, including John Erickson’s The Road to Berlin and Ian Kershaw’s The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45. These provisos aside, Caddick-Adams’ latest volume certainly succeeds. This is the most vivid and detailed narrative of the subject that we are likely to see.

1945: Victory in the west, Peter Caddick-Adams, Hutchinson Heinemann, hbk (£30), ISBN 978-1529151701.