|Partof:||World War II|
|Place:||North and Western Europe|
|Result:||1939 – 1940 – Decisive Axis victory|
1944 – 1945 – Decisive Allied victory
|Territory:||Partition of Germany (1945)|
|Commander1:||1939 – 1940|
1944 – 1945
Charles de Gaulle
|Commander2:||1939 – 1940|
Walter von Brauchitsch
Gerd von Rundstedt
Fedor von Bock
Wilhelm von Leeb
H.R.H. Umberto di Savoia
1944 – 1945
Gerd von Rundstedt
Günther von Kluge
|Strength1:||1939 – 1940|
1944 – 1945
|Strength2:||1939 – 1940|
1944 – 1945
1944 – 1945
1941 – 1945
The Western Front of the European Theatre of World War II encompassed Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and West Germany. The Western Front was marked by two phases of large-scale ground combat operations. The first phase saw the capitulation of the Low Countries and France during May–June, 1940, and consisted of an air war between Germany and Britain that climaxed during the Battle of Britain. The second phase consisted of large-scale ground combat, which began in June 1944 with the Allied landings in Normandy and continued until the defeat of Germany in May 1945.
Although the majority of German military deaths occurred on the Eastern Front, German losses on the Western Front were almost irreplaceable, because most of Germany's resources were being allocated to the Eastern Front. This meant that, while losses there could be replaced to some extent, very little replacements or reinforcements were being sent to the west to stop the advance of the Western Allies. The Normandy landings (which heralded the beginning of the second phase of the Western Front) was a tremendous psychological blow to the German military and its leaders, who had feared a repetition of the two-front war of World War I.
The Phoney War was an early phase of World War II 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, French troops stood facing them, whilst the British Expeditionary Force and other elements of the French Army created a defensive line along the Belgian border. 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 the Norwegian campaign when the Germans launched Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. In doing so, the Germans beat the Allies to the punch; the Allies had been planning an amphibious landing in which they could begin to surround Germany, cutting off Germany's supply of raw materials from Sweden. Finally, when the Allies tried to invade Norway, the attack was repulsed. The German Navy, however, suffered very heavy losses.
In May 1940, the Germans launched the Battle of France. The Western Allies (primarily the French, Belgian and British land forces) soon collapsed under the onslaught of the so-called "blitzkrieg" strategy. Strong elements of British and French forces escaped at Dunkirk, while the French Army returned to France via Normandy to surrender with 90,000 dead and 200,000 wounded. Fighting along the Front ended. The Germans began to consider ways of resolving the question of how to deal with Britain. If the British refused to agree to a peace treaty, one option was to invade. However, the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) had suffered serious losses in Scandinavia, and in order to even consider an amphibious landing, Germany's Air Force (the Luftwaffe) had to first gain air superiority or air supremacy.
With the Luftwaffe unable to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the invasion of Great Britain could no longer be thought of as an option. 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 some British contingents and a small American and Free French presence. 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 (14–15 July 1940). The raids for which the British awarded the "North-West Europe Campaign of 1942" battle honour were: Bruneval (27–28 February 1942), St Nazaire (27–28 March 1942), Bayonne (5 April 1942), Hardelot (21–22 April 1942), Dieppe (19 August 1942), Gironde (7–12 December 1942). 
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.
By the summer of 1944, when expectation of Allied invasion was freely admitted by German commanders, the disposition of troops facing it came under the command of OB West (HQ in Paris. In turn it commanded three groups: Wehrmacht Netherlands Command (Wehrmacht Befehlshaber Niederlande W.B.N.) covering the Dutch and Belgian coasts, Army Group B covering the coast of northern France with the German 15th Army (HQ in Tourcoing) in the area north of Seine, and the 7th Army (HQ in Le Mans) between the Seine and the Loire defending the English Channel and the Atlantic coast, and Army Group G with responsibility for the Bay of Biscay coast and the Vichy France, with its 1st Army (HQ in Bordeaux) responsible for the Atlantic coast between Loire and the Spanish border, and the 19th Army (HQ in Avignon) responsible for the Mediterranean coast.
The lack of predictability in where the Allies may choose to make their invasion landings necessitated substantial dispersion of the German mobile reserves that contained majority of the panzer troops. Each army group was allocated its mobile reserves. Army Group B had the 2nd Panzer Division in northern France, 116th Panzer Division in the Paris area, and the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy. The Army Group G, considering the possibility of an invasion on the Atlantic coast, had dispersed its mobile reserves, with the 11th Panzer Division located in Gironde, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich refitting around the southern French town of Montauban, and the 9th Panzer Division stationed in the Rhone delta area.
The OKW retained a substantial reserve of such mobile divisions also, but likewise these were dispersed over a large area: the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was still forming and training in Netherlands, the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend and the Panzer-Lehr Division were located in the Paris-Orleans area, since Normandy coastal defence sectors or (Küstenverteitigungsabschnitte KVA) were considered the most likely areas for an invasion. The 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen was located just south of Loire in the vicinity of Tours.
See also: NW Europe campaign command tenures.
See main article: Operation Overlord. On 6 June 1944, the Allies began Operation Overlord (also known as "D-Day") – the long-awaited liberation of France. The deception plans, Operation Fortitude and Operation Bodyguard, 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 encircled around 200,000 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. Approximately 150,000 Germans were able to escape from the Falaise pocket, but they left behind most of their irreplaceable equipment and 50,000 Germans were killed or 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.
On 15 August 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, the 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 19 August, 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.
Major German units in the French southwest that had not been committed in Normandy withdrew, either eastwards towards Alsace (sometimes directly across the US 6th Army's advance) or into the ports with the intention denying them to the Allies. These latter groups were not thought worth much effort and were left "to rot", with the exception of Bordeaux, which was liberated in May 1945 by French forces under General Edgard de Larminat (Operation Venerable).
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 4 September by British 11th Armoured Division. However, it lay at the end of the 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. On 16 November the Allies started a large scale autumn offensive called Operation Queen. With its main thrust again through the Hurtgen forrest, the offensive drove the Allies to the Rur River, but failed in its core objectives to capture the Rur damns and pave the way towards the Rhine. The Allied operations were then succeeded by the German Ardennes offensive.
See main article: 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 Britain and take bridges over the main rivers of the German-occupied Netherlands in three main cities, Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. British XXX Corps would punch through the German lines along the Maas-Schelde Kanal and link up with American paratroopers in Eindhoven. If all went well XXX Corps would advance into Germany without any remaining major obstacles. XXX Corps was able to advance beyond 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. The offensive ended with Arnhem remaining in German hands and the Allies holding an extended salient from the Belgian border to the area between Nijmegen and Arnhem.
See main article: Battle of the Bulge. 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. Initial successes in bad weather, which gave them cover from the Allied air forces, resulted in German penetration of over 50miles to within less than 10miles of the Meuse river. However, having been taken by surprise, the Allies regrouped and the Germans were stopped by a combined air and land counterattack which eventually pushed them back to their starting points by January 25, 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.
See main article: Western Allied invasion of Germany. In January 1945 the German bridgehead over the river Roer between Heinsberg and Roermond was cleared during Operation Blackcock. Next 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 280,000 men were taken prisoner. With a large number of men captured, the stubborn German resistance during the Allied campaign to reach the Rhine in February and March 1945 had been costly. Total losses reached an estimated 400,000 men.
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 forces captured Bremen on 26 April after a week of combat. 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 as well as pushing elements east. XIX Corps of the Ninth Army captured Magdeburg on 18 April and U.S. XIII Corps to the north occupied Stendal.
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.
See main article: End of World War II in Europe. 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, while the French 2nd Armoured Division seized the Berghof (Hitler's Alpine residence) on May 4. 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 7 May at his headquarters in Rheims, Eisenhower took the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the western Allies and the Soviet Union, from the German Chief-of-Staff, General Alfred Jodl, who signed the first general instrument of surrender 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 8 May. 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 another instrument of surrender that was essentially identical to that signed in Rheims with two minor additions requested by the Soviets.
While the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces represented a resounding success of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, 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.