Western Front (World War II) explained

Conflict:Western Front
Partof:World War II
Place:North and Western Europe
Result:1939–1940 - Axis victory
1944–1945 - Allied victory
Combatant1: France
United Kingdom
United States
Free Polish

New Zealand
Italy (until 1943)
Maurice Gamelin
Maxime Weygand
Lord Gort (British Expeditionary Force)
Leopold III
Henri Winkelman
Dwight Eisenhower, (SHAEF)
Bernard Montgomery (21st Army Group)
Omar Bradley (12th Army Group)
Jacob Devers (6th Army Group)
Gerd von Rundstedt (Army Group A)
Fedor von Bock (Army Group B)
Wilhelm von Leeb (Army Group C)
H.R.H. Umberto di Savoia (Army Group West)
Adolf Hitler
Erwin Rommel
Gerd von Rundstedt
Walter Model
Albert Kesselring
Gustav-Adolf von Zangen

The Western Front of the European Theatre of World War II encompassed the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, and Denmark.[1] The Western Front was marked by two phases of large-scale ground combat operations. The first phase saw the defeat of France and the Low Countries during May - June, 1940, followed by Germany's aerial assault on Great Britain. The second phase of large-scale ground combat commenced in June 1944 with the Allied landings in Normandy and continued until the defeat of Germany in May 1945.

1939-40: Blitzkrieg

Phoney War

The Phoney War, was an early phase of the war marked by few military operations in Continental Europe, in the months following the German invasion of Poland and preceding the Battle of France. Although the great powers of Europe had declared war on one another, neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground.

While most of the German army was fighting against Poland, a much smaller German force manned the Siegfried Line, their fortified defensive line along the French border. At the Maginot Line on the other side of the border, British and French troops stood facing them, but there were only some local, minor skirmishes. The British Royal Air Force dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and the first Canadian troops stepped ashore in Britain, while western Europe was in a strange calm for seven months.

In their hurry to re-arm, Britain and France had both begun buying large amounts of weapons from manufacturers in the United States at the outbreak of hostilities, supplementing their own productions. The non-belligerent United States contributed to the Western Allies by discounted sales of military equipment and supplies. German efforts to interdict the Allies' trans-Atlantic trade at sea ignited the Battle of the Atlantic.


While the Western Front remained quiet in April 1940, the fighting between the Allies and the Germans began in earnest with Norwegian campaign when the Germans launched Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. This marked in the beginning of the end of the Phoney War.

Battle for Benelux and France

See main article: Battle of France.

In May 1940, the Germans launched the Battle of France. The Western Allies - primarily the French and British - soon collapsed under the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg. The British escaped at Dunkirk, while the French Army surrendered with 90,000 dead and 200,000 wounded. Fighting along the Front ended, and the German army began preparations to invade England.

1941-43: Interlude

Following the Luftwaffe’s defeat in the Battle of Britain, the invasion of Great Britain was cancelled. While the majority of the German army was mustered for the invasion of the Soviet Union, construction began on the Atlantic Wall - a series of defensive fortifications along the French coast of the English Channel. These were built in anticipation of a cross-channel British invasion of France.

Because of the massive logistical obstacles a cross-channel invasion would face, Allied high command decided to conduct a practice attack against the French coast. On August 19, 1942, the Allies began the Dieppe Raid, an attack on Dieppe, France. Most of the troops were Canadian, with an American and some British contingents. The raid was a disaster, and almost two-thirds of the attacking force became casualties. However, much was learned as a result of the operation - these lessons would be put to good use later in subsequent invasions.

For almost two years, there was no land-fighting on the Western Front with the exception of commando raids and the guerrilla actions of the resistance aided by the SOE and OSS. However, in the meantime, the Allies took the war to Germany, with a strategic bombing campaign the US Eighth Air Force bombing Germany by day and the RAF Bomber Command bombing by night.

Two early British raids for which battle honours were awarded were Boulogne (11 June 1940) and Guernsey (14 July, 15 July 1940). The raids for which the British awarded the "North-West Europe Campaign of 1942" battle honour were: Bruneval (27 February, 28 February 1942), St Nazaire (27 March, 28 March 1942), Bayonne (5 April 1942), Hardelot (21 April, 22 April 1942), Dieppe (19 August 1942), Gironde (7 December - 12 December 1942).[2] [3]

A raid on Sark on the night of 3/4 October 1942 is notable because after which a few days later the Germans issued a propaganda communiqué implying at least one prisoner had escaped and two were shot while resisting having their hands tied. This instance of tying prisoner's hands contributed to Hitler's decision to issue his Commando Order instructing all captured Commandos or Commando-type personnel be executed as a matter of procedure.

1944-45: the Second Front


See main article: Battle of Normandy. On June 6, 1944, the Allies began Operation Overlord (also known as "D-Day") - the long-awaited liberation of France. The deception operation had the Germans convinced that the invasion would occur at the Pas-de-Calais, while the real target was Normandy. Following two months of slow fighting in hedgerow country, Operation Cobra allowed the Americans to break out at the western end of the lodgement. Soon after, the Allies were racing across France. They circled around and trapped 250,000 Germans in the Falaise pocket. As had so often happened on the Eastern Front Hitler refused to allow a strategic withdrawal until it was too late. 100,000 Germans managed to escape through the Falaise Gap but they left behind most of their equipment and 150,000 were taken prisoner.

The Allies had been arguing about whether to advance on a broad-front or a narrow-front from before D-Day. If the British had broken out of the Normandy bridge-head around Caen when they launched Operation Goodwood and pushed along the coast, facts on the ground might have turned the argument in favour of a narrow front. However, as the breakout took place during Operation Cobra at the western end of the bridge-head, the 21st Army Group that included the British and Canadian forces swung east through Belgium, the Netherlands, and Northern Germany, while the U.S. Twelfth Army Group advanced to their south via eastern France, Luxembourg and the Ruhr Area, rapidly fanning out into a broad front. As this was the strategy favoured by supreme Allied commander Eisenhower and most of the rest of the American high command, it became the strategy which was adopted.

Liberation of France

On August 15 in an effort to aid their operations in Normandy, the Allies launched Operation Dragoon - the invasion of Southern France between Toulon and Cannes. The U.S. Seventh Army and French First Army making up US 6th Army Group rapidly consolidated this beachhead and liberated southern France in two weeks, and advanced north up the Rhone valley. Their advance only slowed down as they encountered regrouped and entrenched German troops in the Vosges Mountains.

The Germans in France were now faced by three powerful Allied army groups: in the north British 21st Army Group commanded by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, in the middle the American 12th Army Group commanded by General Omar Bradley and to the South the US 6th Army Group commanded by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers. By mid September 6th Army Group, advancing from the south, came into contact with Bradley's formations advancing from the west and overall control of Devers' force passed from AFHQ in the Mediterranean so that all three army groups came under the central command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces).

Under the onslaught in both the North and South of France, the German Army fell back. On August 19, the French Resistance (FFI) organised a general uprising and the liberation of Paris took place on August 25 when general Dietrich von Choltitz accepted the French ultimatum and surrendered to general Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, commander of the Free French 2nd Armored Division, ignoring orders from Hitler that Paris should be held to the last and to destroy the city.

The liberation of northern France and the Benelux countries was of special significance for the inhabitants of London and the south east of England, because it denied the Germans launch zones for their mobile V-1 and V-2 Vergeltungswaffen (reprisal weapons).

Unfortunately for the Allies, the Germans took special care to thoroughly wreck all port facilities before the Allies could capture them. As the Allies advanced across France, their supply lines stretched to the breaking point. The Red Ball Express, the allied trucking effort, was simply unable to transport enough supplies from the port facilities in Normandy all the way to the front lines, which by September, were close to the German border.

Operation Market-Garden

The British Field-Marshal Montgomery persuaded Allied High Command to launch a bold attack, Operation Market Garden which he hoped would get the Allies across the Rhine and create the narrow-front he favoured. Paratroopers would fly in from England and take bridges over the main rivers of the German-occupied Netherlands in three main cities, Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. British XXX (30) Corps would punch through the German lines and link up with the paratroopers. If all went well XXX Corps would advance into Germany without any remaining major obstacles. XXX Corps was able to link up with six of the seven paratrooper-held bridges, but was unable to link up with the troops near the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The result was the near-destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division. These events were summarised by Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning as "a bridge too far". The offensive ended with Arnhem in German hands and the Allies holding an extended salient from the Belgian border to the area between Nijmegen and Arnhem.

Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine

See main article: Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine. Fighting on the Western front seemed to stabilize, and the Allied advance stalled in front of the Siegfried Line (Westwall) and the southern reaches of the Rhine. Starting in early September, the Americans began slow and bloody fighting through the Hurtgen Forest ("Passchendaele with tree bursts"—Hemingway) to breach the Line.

The port of Antwerp was liberated on September 4 by British 11th Armoured Division. However, it lay at the end of a long Scheldt Estuary, and so it could not be used until its approaches were clear of heavily fortified German positions. The Breskens pocket on the southern bank of the Scheldt was cleared with heavy casualties by Canadian and Polish forces in Operation Switchback, during the Battle of the Scheldt. This was followed by a tedious campaign to clear a peninsula dominating the estuary, and finally, the amphibious assault on Walcheren Island in November. The campaign to clear the Scheldt Estuary was a decisive victory for the First Canadian Army and the Allies, as it allowed greatly improved delivery of supplies directly from the port of Antwerp, which was far closer to the front than the beaches of Normandy.In October the Americans decided that they could not just invest Aachen and let it fall in a slow siege, because it threatened the flanks of the U.S. Ninth Army. As it was the first major German city to face invasion, Hitler ordered that the city be held at all costs. In the resulting battle of Aachen, after a very hard fight, the city was taken, at a cost of 5,000 casualties on both sides, with an additional 5,600 German prisoners.

South of the Ardennes, U.S. forces fought from September until mid-December to push the Germans out of Lorraine and behind the Siegfried Line. The crossing of the Moselle River and the capture of the fortress of Metz proved difficult for the U.S. troops in the face of German reinforcements, supply shortages, and unfavorable weather. During September and October, the Allied 6th Army Group (U.S. Seventh Army and French First Army) fought a difficult campaign through the Vosges Mountains that was marked by dogged German resistance and slow advances. In November, however, the German front snapped under the pressure, resulting in sudden Allied advances that liberated Belfort, Mulhouse, and Strasbourg, and placed Allied forces along the Rhine River. The Germans managed to hold a large bridgehead (Colmar Pocket) on the western bank of the Rhine centered around the city of Colmar.

Winter counter-offensives

The Germans had been preparing a massive counter-attack in the West since the Allied breakout from Normandy. The plan called Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine") was to attack through the Ardennes and swing North to Antwerp, splitting the American and British armies. The attack started on December 16 in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Defending the Ardennes were troops of the U.S. First Army. After initial successes in bad weather, which gave them cover from the Allied air forces, the Germans' vanguard almost reach the Meuse River. the Germans were eventually pushed back to their starting points by January 15, 1945.

The Germans launched a second, smaller offensive (Nordwind) into Alsace on New Year's Day, 1945. Aiming to recapture Strasbourg, the Germans attacked the 6th Army Group at multiple points. Because Allied lines had become severely stretched in response to the crisis in the Ardennes, holding and throwing back the Nordwind offensive was a costly affair that lasted almost four weeks. The culmination of Allied counter-attacks restored the front line to the area of the German border and collapsed the Colmar Pocket.

Invasion of Germany

See main article: Western Allied invasion of Germany. The pincer movement of the First Canadian Army in Operation Veritable advancing from Nijmegen area of the Netherlands and the U.S. Ninth Army crossing the Rur (Roer) in Operation Grenade was planned to start on February 8 1945, but it was delayed by two weeks when the Germans flooded the river valley by destroying the dam gates upstream. During the two weeks that the river was flooded Hitler would not allow Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt to withdraw East behind the Rhine arguing that it would only delay the inevitable fight. Hitler ordered him to fight where his forces stood.

By the time the water had subsided and the U.S. Ninth Army was able to cross the Roer on February 23, other Allied forces were also close to the Rhine's west bank. Rundstedt's divisions which had remained on the west bank of the Rhine were cut to pieces in the battle of the Rhineland and 290,000 men were taken prisoner.The crossing of the Rhine was achieved at four points: One was an opportunity taken by U.S. forces when the Germans failed to blow up the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen, one crossing was a hasty assault, and two crossings were planned.

Once the Allies had crossed the Rhine, the British fanned out Northeast towards Hamburg crossing the river Elbe and on towards Denmark and the Baltic. British and Canadian paratroopers reached the Baltic city of Wismar just ahead of Soviet forces on May 2. The U.S. Ninth Army, which had remained under British command since the battle of the Bulge went south as the northern pincer of the Ruhr encirclement.

The U.S. 12th Army Group fanned out, the First Army went north as the southern pincer of the Ruhr encirclement. On April 4 the encirclement was completed and the Ninth Army reverted to the command of Bradley's 12th Army Group. German Army Group B commanded by Field Marshal Walther Model was trapped in the Ruhr Pocket and 300,000 soldiers became POWs. The Ninth and First American armies then turned east and pushed to the Elbe River by mid-April. During the push east, the cities of Frankfurt am Main, Kassel, Magdeburg, Halle, and Leipzig were strongly defended by ad hoc German garrisons made up of regular troops, Flak units, Volkssturm, and armed Nazi Party auxiliaries. Generals Eisenhower and Bradley concluded that pushing beyond the Elbe made no sense since eastern Germany was destined in any case to be occupied by the Red Army. The Ninth and First Armies stopped along the Elbe and Mulde Rivers, making contact with Soviet forces near the River Elbe in late April. U.S. Third Army had fanned out to the East into western Czechoslovakia, and Southeast into eastern Bavaria and northern Austria. By V-E Day, the U.S. 12th Army Group was a force of four armies (First, Third, Ninth, and Fifteenth) that numbered over 1.3 million men.

End of the Third Reich

The U.S. 6th Army Group fanned out to the Southwest passing to the east of Switzerland through Bavaria into Austria and North Italy. The Black Forest and Baden were overrun by the French First Army. Determined stands were made in April by German forces at Heilbronn, Nuremberg, and Munich but were overcome after battles that lasted several days. Elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division were the first Allied troops to arrive at Berchtesgaden, which they secured along with the Berghof (Hitler's Alpine residence). German Army Group G surrendered to U.S. forces at Haar, in Bavaria, Germany on May 5, 1945. Field Marshal Montgomery took the German military surrender of all German forces in Holland, Northwest Germany and Denmark on Lüneburg Heath an area between the cities of Hamburg, Hanover and Bremen, on the May 4 1945. As the operational commander of some of these forces was Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the new Reichspräsident (head of state) of the Third Reich this signaled that the European war was over.

On May 7 at his headquarters in Rheims, Eisenhower took the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the western Allies and the Soviet Union[4], from the German Chief-of-Staff, General Alfred Jodl, who signed the surrender documenthttp://en.wikisource.org/wiki/German_Instrument_of_Surrender_(7_May_1945) at 0241 hours. General Franz Böhme announced the unconditional surrender of German troops in Norway. Operations ceased at 2301 hours Central European time (CET) on May 8. On that same day Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, a head of OKW and Jodl's superior was brought to Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov in Karlshorst and signed the instrument of surrenderhttp://en.wikisource.org/wiki/German_Instrument_of_Surrender_(8_May_1945) that was essentially identical to that signed in Reims with certain additions requested by the Soviets.[5]

The 1944-45 campaign in hindsight

While the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces represented a resounding success of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union[6], the path to this outcome was influenced by the strategic decisions of both sides. In retrospect, it is clear that particular factors and choices strongly affected the pace and course of the campaign on the western front.

Thus, while the Allies enjoyed a great victory, on occasion their prosecution of the campaign afforded their German adversaries opportunities that prolonged the fighting unnecessarily.[50] [51]


Further reading

Notes and References

  1. German deployments to the Western Front (including North Africa and Italy) reached levels as high as approximately 40% of their ground forces, and 75% of the Luftwaffe. During 1944, there were approximately 69 German divisions in France and in Italy there were around 19. (Approximate data is given because the number of units changed over time as a result of troop transfers and arrivals of new units.) Source-Axis History Factbook, "The Second World War" by John Keegan. According to David Glantz http://www.strom.clemson.edu/publications/sg-war41-45.pdf, In January 1945 the Axis fielded over 2.3 million men, including 60 percent of the Wehrmacht’s forces and the forces of virtually all of its remaining allies, against the Red Army. In the course of the ensuing winter campaign, the Wehrmacht suffered 500,000 losses in the East against 325,000 in the West. By April 1945, 1,960,000 German troops faced the 6.4 million Red Army troops at the gates of Berlin, in Czechoslovakia, and in numerous isolated pockets to the east, while 4 million Allied forces in western Germany faced under 1 million Wehrmacht soldiers. In May 1945 the Soviets accepted the surrender of almost 1.5 million German soldiers, while almost 1 million more fortunate Germans soldiers surrendered to the British and Americans, including many who fled west to escape the dreaded Red Army.,
  2. http://www.regiments.org/wars/20ww2/eur-nw42.htm North West Europe 1942
  3. http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/mediawiki-1.5.5/index.php?title=Dieppe Dieppe
  4. Germans played for time in Reims. Original emissaries had no authority to surrender to any of the Allies. New York Times, May 9, 1945
  5. Keitel is defiant at Berlin ritual. The New York Times. May 10, 1945
  6. For further reading, see R. Overy's Russia's War, Penguin Press, 1999, ISBN: 9780140271690, and Glantz and House's When Titans Clashed - How the Red Army stopped Hitler, ISBN: 9780700607174.
  7. Weigley, Russell F., Eisenhower's Lieutenants, pp. 52–53.
  8. Weigley, p. 370.
  9. Weigley, pp. 350, 355, and 687–688.
  10. Hastings, Max: Armageddon, p. 422.
  11. Hastings, pp. 58–59, 67, 69, 78–79, and 80–81.
  12. Hastings, p. 68.
  13. Weigley, pp. 337–343.
  14. Hastings, pp. 15–16, 22, 32, 57, and 61.
  15. Hastings, pp. 33, 152, and 185–186.
  16. Weigley, pp. 350–351, 354–355, 373, 659, and 663.
  17. Weigley, pp. 368–369 and 728–729.
  18. Weigley, pp. 368–369, 370, 415–416, and 420.
  19. Hastings, pp. 179, 189, and 193.
  20. Hastings, p. 236.
  21. Weigley, p. 285.
  22. Weigley, pp. 201–209.
  23. Weigley, pp. 293, and 350–354.
  24. Hastings, p. 19.
  25. Weigley, pp. 293, and 351.
  26. Hastings, p. 19–20.
  27. Hastings, pp. 61 and 134.
  28. Weigley, pp. 368–369 and 728–729.
  29. Weigley, p. 285.
  30. Hastings, p. 68.
  31. Clarke, Jeffrey J., and Smith, Robert Ross: Riviera to the Rhine, pp. 437–445.
  32. Hastings, pp. 29–30, 65, 93, and 193.
  33. Hastings, pp. 148–149.
  34. Weigley, pp. 375 and 659.
  35. Hastings, pp. 71–72, 235, 366, and 423.
  36. Weigley, pp. 286, 668–669, and 729.
  37. Hastings, pp. 24 and 418.
  38. Weigley, pp. 673–674, 677–678, 680, 688, 699, and 716.
  39. Hastings, pp. 420–421, and 424.
  40. Weigley, p. 687.
  41. Hastings, pp. 340 and 425.
  42. Weigley, pp. 698–699 and 716.
  43. Weigley, pp. 684–685.
  44. MacDonald, p. 406.
  45. Weigley, p. 685.
  46. In The Russo-German War, historian Albert Seaton noted "The remarkable aspect of this sudden change of strategic aim is that Roosevelt and the United States Chiefs of Staff should have left this final stage of the war to the discretion of a single individual who, although a soldier of distinction, may at that time have been lacking in political acumen and an understanding of the aims and methods of the Soviet Union." (Page 563).
  47. Beevor, Antony, Berlin—The Downfall 1945, Author's Cuts: Chapter 12: "Waiting for the Onslaught".
  48. Weigley, p. 674.
  49. Weigley, p. 716.
  50. Hastings, pp. 63, 65, and 72.
  51. Weigley, pp. 729–730.