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Excerpted from An Album of Memories by Tom Brokaw Copyright © 2001 by Tom Brokaw. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
From Part II: The War in Europe
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Europe is a stable, economically prosperous continent where the political and financial communities are engaged in historic cooperation. Six decades ago, however, less than an American lifetime, Europe was deeply divided by Fascist ambitions, ruthless military aggression, and fanatical political allegiance. Poland was the first country to fall, prompting Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany but without rushing to Poland’s side.
In 1939 and 1940 Finland fell to the Soviets, who needed a buffer against Germany’s voracious appetite. Germany in turn invaded Norway and Denmark. British and French troops joined Norwegian troops in a stiff initial fight, but the Allies were forced to withdraw by Hitler’s pressures on their own countries.
In the spring of 1940, when Germany was making its lightning strikes into the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, the Nazis had 2.2 million troops in uniform, nine motorized divisions, and ten panzer divisions protected by 3,500 combat aircraft. The Allies–France, Great Britain, and the lowland countries–actually had more men in uniform, more tanks, and more than 1,400 combat aircraft. But they had no common defense strategy and no unified political will.
By June 1940 German troops controlled Paris, and France was humiliated into accepting a puppet government. Charles de Gaulle, one of the few senior French officials to flee, went to London, where he declared in a broadcast to the French people: “This war has not been settled by the Battle of France. This war is a world war. . . . Whatever happens the flame of resistance must not and will not be extinguished.”
Great Britain, however, was not a safe sanctuary. Shortly after defeating France, Hitler began what came to be known as the Battle of Britain, opening with a bombing campaign designed to so diminish British airpower that an invasion would be possible. By then the British had a new, formidable weapon in their arsenal: the bulldog will and powerful rhetoric of Winston Churchill, who had replaced the pliable Neville Chamberlain as prime minister. As John F. Kennedy said later, Great Britain was alone in the late summer of 1940 in resisting the Führer’s thirst for conquest.
The British people had what Churchill would call “their finest hour” in withstanding a withering bombing attack from July to September. The British Royal Air Force was a fierce picket line in the skies against German bombers, and the English people maintained their legendary reserve during the bombing raids that struck at the heart of their capital.
An American in London became the voice of the British people in his daily broadcasts. Edward R. Murrow, a dashing young CBS broadcaster with no traditional journalistic training, brought the war into the homes of Americans by standing on rooftops or recording the hurried footsteps as Londoners filed into Underground–subway–stations during bombing raids. His reports, which began “This is London . . . ,” were at once conversational and grave, as if from a troubled friend.
By the fall of 1940 the war had expanded to North Africa, where the Italians had invaded Egypt but were driven out by a much smaller British force. Italy was proving to be an ineffective military ally for Germany, bungling an invasion of Greece as well.
Nonetheless, nothing diminished Hitler’s confidence or appetite for conquest, and by early 1941 he had sent his forces into Greece, Yugoslavia, and Romania. His brilliant field commander Erwin Rommel mobilized the Afrika Korps to invade Egypt and head for the Suez Canal. In a series of campaigns that seesawed back and forth across the desert, neither side was able to gain a decisive advantage until July 1942, when the British Eighth Army, under the command of General Bernard Law Montgomery, stopped Rommel’s advance at El-Alamein.
In the United States FDR signed the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941, likening Great Britain to a neighbor whose house was on fire. The president was supplying a garden hose without haggling over the price, fully expecting to get it back once the fire was out. It was part of his genius to reduce complicated and controversial matters to homilies understandable by every level of American society. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States would become much more than a friendly neighbor with a garden hose. It would be fully involved, fighting for its life and values.
In June 1941 Hitler made what would prove to be one of his most hubristic–and flawed–decisions. He invaded the Soviet Union, opening a second major front for Germany. By December Nazi troops were within reach of the Moscow city limits. Other German units lay siege to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), initiating a battle that would continue for two and a half years and cost the Soviets an estimated million and a half lives.
By 1942, while the Germans continued their Soviet offensive, the U.S. Eighth Air Force was forming in England. Major General Dwight David Eisenhower took command of the new U.S. European Theater of Operations. British bombers attacked Cologne, Germany, in the first 1,000-plane raid of the war.
By the fall the Allies had invaded North Africa with Operation Torch, the first step in establishing a launching pad for the invasion of Sicily and Italy and Montgomery had begun his counterattack of El-Alamein. At the same time Soviet forces began a counterattack against German troops fighting for Stalingrad. When the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad, they had lost 300,000 troops.
In January 1943 Roosevelt, Churchill, and de Gaulle met in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. Although still on the defensive for the most part, they agreed to seek unconditional surrender from the Axis powers. They also agreed to begin strategic bombing against Germany and, with the North African campaign complete, to commence the invasion of Sicily. But on the larger question of an invasion of Europe across the English Channel, the Allied leaders deferred a decision. Meanwhile, the fighting in the USSR was raging, with both sides committing millions of troops and mammoth armored divisions to epic battles. Slowly the Soviets were turning the Germans back, at great cost to both nations.
By mid-summer the Allies under Eisenhower invaded Sicily. In September the invasion of mainland Italy began with almost no opposition. By then FDR and Churchill had agreed that in 1944 they would launch Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe across the Channel.
As the fighting in Italy became more intense in the late autumn, German troops replaced Italians, sometimes by imprisoning or extinguishing them. The Italian government had forced Mussolini from power and was secretly negotiating with the Allies. But the Germans were determined to defend their southern flank, and the Italian topography of mountains and rivers was ideal for establishing defensive positions.