It’s been 75 years ago since the largest war in human history, World War II, ended. To commemorate this watershed, I’m doing a mini-series here on the blog. The first post has dealt with the conferences in Yalta and Potsdam that decided the post-war order. This one is about the final military campaigns in Europe.
The final act began in the west with the Allied landing in Normandy and the subsequent liberation of France, in the east with the annihilation of the German Army Group Center in Operation Bagration and the following Soviet advance through eastern Europe. In 1945, the Western Allies reached and crossed the Rhine against a disintegrating German army, whereas the Soviets made the final assault on Berlin. Obviously, I’ll discuss some board games along the way. As World War II is the most popular historical subject for board games, I had to pick very selectively. Let me know your favorite games on the end of World War II in Europe in the comments!
From Normandy to the Bulge
The Western Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. They slowly fought their way into the interior of France until they broke through the German lines in Operation Cobra. The following exploitation of the breakthrough – compounded by the Allied landings in the south of France, Operation Dragoon – brought the Allies close to the borders of Germany. The only large natural barrier remaining was the Rhine. The Allies attempted to cross it in a joint assault of airborne and armored forces (Operation Market Garden), but were defeated – not least by their own over-optimistic planning. The Race to the Rhine was over. The board game of the same name (Jaro Andruszkiewicz/Waldek Gumbienny, Phalanx) takes an interesting look at the campaign from the interior of France to the Rhine: All players take the roles of Allied generals (Montgomery, Bradley, and Patton). However, it is no cooperative game: Whoever crosses the Rhine first (and maintains a line of communication) wins. This special focus on the line of communication also recalls the immense logistical challenge of supplying an advance as fast as that of the Allies through France, especially considering that many of the French and Belgian ports were still held by German soldiers and that the Western armies based on the industrial wealth of the United States needed a lot more fuel, ammunition, and food than their Axis and Soviet counterparts.
After Market Garden, the advance on the Western front turned into a slug. Allied cautiousness contrasted with a reawakened German fighting spirit – and the Germans had much more experience in fighting. Hitler decided to capitalize on the halt to the Allied advance and launch his own counter-attack in December, when the overcast skies prevented the Allies from using their superior air force. The German offensive – named the „Battle of the Bulge“ for the dent it created in the Allied line – was spectacularly unsuccessful, but as it presents the only time that American forces faced a major German offensive, it occupies a special place in the American collective memory. Unsurprisingly, it has also received an immense amount of coverage by board games, including an edition of the most mainstream World War II game of them all: Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge (Larry Harris Jr., Avalon Hill).
From Bagration to the Oder
All of these operations pale in comparison to the titanic struggle in the east. On June 22, 1944 – exactly three years after the initial German invasion of the Soviet Union – the Red Army launched Operation Bagration, a massive attack on the German positions in Belorussia. As the Germans had expected a thrust much further to the south, the Soviets achieved surprise as well as immense superiority in both numbers and equipment. They overran the German positions, put the German forces closer to the Baltic coast with their backs to the wall, and advanced into Poland. It was the most dramatic operational defeat an army of Germany had ever suffered.
In the meantime, the Soviets additionally launched the southern offensive the Germans had dreaded originally. As the German forces were falling to pieces under Bagration anyway, they could not stop the Soviets in the south either. Now the Soviets had reached the river Vistula in Poland, close to its capital Warsaw. The leading Polish resistance group, the Polish Home Army, launched a large-scale uprising in Poland, hoping that they would liberate Warsaw together with the Red Army. Stalin, however, ordered the Soviet armies to halt before Warsaw, and the Polish resistance was slaughtered by German occupation troops. There are several possible explanations for the halting order, ranging from a deliberate decision to use the Germans to get rid of the (mostly anti-communist) Polish resistance to Soviet supply problems after advancing for about six hundred kilometers in less than two months. Possibly a further thrust through Poland would have been possible for the Soviets, but Stalin diverted resources further southeast for an attack into Axis Romania. The offensive there not only denied the Ploiesti oil fields to the Axis, it also turned Romania into a Soviet-aligned country. Stalin, always aware that military means are used for political ends, made his moves for the post-war order. The front in the east then fell mostly dormant (aside from the bloody struggle for Hungary from late fall on) until January 1945.
By then, the Germans’s last attempt at offense had failed at the Bulge. They had lost many of their last fresh troops and modern equipment there, so the Eastern Front was held by inexperienced troops with little heavy weaponry. The Soviet Vistula-Oder offensive beginning in mid-January swept those away with ease. As Hitler had – once more – prohibited any preventive withdrawals, the German troops (and civilians) in East Prussia were cut off. The East Prussians therefore got the first taste of a Red Army bent on vengeance for the mass murder and devastation committed by Germans in their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of civilians attempted to make their way west, be it on foot over the frozen waste of the Frische Nehrung peninsula (within reach of Soviet artillery) or on hopelessly crowded ships, several of which were sunk by Soviet submarines.
Civilians hardly ever feature prominently in wargames. An exception to that – and at the same time a glimpse into the limitations – is Königsberg: The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Stefan Ekström, Revolution Games). Its original edition (published by Three Crowns) made extensive use of refugee counters trying to escape the Soviets. However, in the subsequent Revolution Games edition, these were abstracted into a Random Events table to shorten the game (and save an additional countersheet). Still, I commend the designer for going beyond the purely operational. I’d love to see this in more games, even though it might make for less comfortable gaming.
East Prussia was only the first act of this human tragedy. Millions of Germans in the east ran from the Red Army in the following months, often meeting death from freezing, starvation, or the Soviet pursuers on their way. Those who did not flee were subject to looting and physical abuse. An immense number of women – estimates run between hundreds of thousands to two millions – were raped.
Militarily, the Soviet offensive made it to the river Oder, around 50km away from Berlin. Then the flanks of the Soviet spearhead were threatened both from north and south, and Marshal Zhukov opted to secure these first. The final push for Berlin had to wait.
Compared to the Bulge, the Soviet offensives of winter 1944/1945 have met with little attention in board games. One notable exception is Red Storm over the Reich (Ted Raicer, Compass Games) – another game to include German refugee counters. These may be an impediment to the German operations, but can by no means be ignored – making sure the refugees make their way to a port nets the German player valuable victory points.
To the Rhine and Beyond
Germany’s forces were now spent not only materially but also morally. Especially the soldiers on the Western Front often had enough of the war. It was clearly lost at this point (although some of the more fanatic Nazis in the armed forces disagreed, waiting for the Führer to perform a miracle and until then demanded undiminished loyalty to the war effort). The Americans and British were regarded to treat prisoners of war well (in most cases), and at this point the question seemed only if to be captured by them now, later by the Soviets, or die. Many German soldiers were inclined to the former and surrendered quickly when the Western Allied advances on a broad front resumed again from February on.
Only the Rhine posed a major natural obstacle to the Allied forces in the west now. The retreating Germans were tasked with blowing up all bridges over the river, but failed to do so at Remagen when an American vanguard arrived. The pleasantly surprised Americans rushed to take advantage of it. They removed the remaining explosives (under German fire) and scrambled to the eastern bank of the Rhine. Within the next ten days, several divisions were moved beyond the Rhine using the bridge.
The Rhine is the also focal point of Beyond the Rhine (Dean Essig/John Kisner/Roland LeBlanc, Multi-Man Publishing). The full campaign begins with the Allied offensive losing momentum in September 1944 and ends, well, beyond the Rhine. The river presents a massive obstacle in the game, and when and where your engineers can cross it might win or lose the game for the Allies.
From then on, nothing was left to the Western Allies but to mop up the remaining German forces. The resistance against them crumbled everywhere. Even a dash to Berlin seemed possible. However, Allied high commander Dwight D. Eisenhower opted against it: On the one hand, Berlin was within the Soviet zone of operations as agreed upon by the political leadership of the respective countries. On the other, taking a city as large as Berlin around which the last remaining fighting forces of Germany were concentrated would have meant a large amount of Allied casualties, and the democracies of Britain and the United States were not keen on expending any more than the minimal amount of blood necessary for victory. Instead, the Allied spearheads secured the Ruhr, reached the Baltic Sea to prevent the Soviets from liberating Denmark, and dashed into Bavaria in search of the mythical “Alpine Redoubt” where they thought the Nazis might make a last stand.
Berlin, Torgau, and the End
So the last battle fell to the Soviets. By mid-April, they were ready for their offensive. The Red Army had improved a lot since 1941 – both in terms of materiél and leadership. They had used both in their tremendous successes over the last year. But now Zhukov grew impatient and, forgoing all operational creativity, just launched a massive assault on the German positions at the hills behind the Oder, relying on his vast numerical superiority in men, tanks, artillery, planes. It was enough. The Soviets sustained heavy losses, but they pushed the Germans back and advanced on Berlin. By the end of April, the city was surrounded. The Red Army methodically cleared it street by street, getting ever closer to the political center – Hitler’s bunker and the Reichstag building. The Soviets reached both by April 30. Hitler committed suicide. The picture of Soviet soldiers hoisting the red flag on the Reichstag is emblematic of the end of the war – and also serves as the box cover for Berlin: Red Victory (Kurt Martin/Ray Tapio, Critical Hit), the most detailed individual game on the last large battle of World War II in Europe.
A few days before the Red Army took Berlin, the Soviet forces who had gone further southwest reached the Elbe. There, on April 25, 1945, Soviet and American vanguard troops met close to the town of Torgau. The armies of east and west had converged. Most of the last pockets of German resistance were taken care of over the next few days. Hitler’s successors unconditionally surrendered on May 8, 1945. The war in Europe was over.
1944: Race to the Rhine (Jaro Andruszkiewicz/Waldek Gumbienny, Phalanx)
Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge (Larry Harris Jr., Avalon Hill)
Unconditional Surrender! (Salvatore Vasta, GMT Games)
Königsberg: The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Stefan Ekström, Revolution Games)
Red Storm over the Reich (Ted Raicer, Compass Games)
Beyond the Rhine (Dean Essig/John Kisner/Roland LeBlanc, Multi-Man Publishing)
Berlin: Red Victory (Kurt Martin/Ray Tapio, Critical Hit)
For a solid overview over both fronts, mostly told from the perspective of ordinary soldiers, see Hastings, Max: Armageddon. The Battle for Germany 1944—45, Pan Books, London 2005.
As with all matters on Germany and the Second World War, the respective volume in the magisterial series of the Military History Center of the German Armed Forces is the definitive work: Müller, Rolf-Dieter (ed.): Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. Band X/1. Der Zusammenbruch des Deutschen Reiches 1945. Die militärische Niederwerfung der Wehrmacht, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 2008 (in German, English translation forthcoming).