President Franklin Roosevelt Suddenly Dies, April 12, 1945

franklin roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt – Wikipedia

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unexpected death from a stroke in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, was a huge shock to many people. He had been the president since 1933 and re-elected three times – the most of any president. During this long tenure he had led the nation through the Great Depression and into Word War Two.

Many Americans considered Roosevelt a father figure because he’d been the president for much of their lives. This was especially true for the young men fighting overseas against fascism in the Western European and Pacific theaters of WWII. There were many reports of American soldiers and sailors crying upon receiving word of his death.

American forces in the Pacific theater were fighting the Japanese in the Battle of Okinawa at the time of Roosevelt’s death. They U.S. had invaded that southern Japanese island on April 1st and the troops had made good progress until they had encountered a strong Japanese defensive line along Kakazu Ridge. The initial American assaults against it failed and the Japanese took advantage of this by distributing propaganda leaflets trying to discourage further attacks. They began with, “We must express our deep regret over the death of President Roosevelt.”

The Germans also took note of Roosevelt’s death in the European theater. The Western Allies had launched attacks across the Rhine River on Germany’s western border in March of 1945 which had destroyed Nazi Germany’s defenses on that front. The allied troops, under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe, were approaching Berlin from the west. On Germany’s eastern border, the Soviets were poised along the Oder River preparing to attack Berlin, which was only about 50 miles away.

Hitler knew there was little chance that his depleted forces could stop the Allies. But when he learned of Roosevelt’s death he became elated. He had always been inspired by Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia who had held out against overwhelming odds in the Seven Years’ War until the alliance against him unexpectedly dissolved after the Russian Empress Elizabeth died. Hitler thought Roosevelt’s death was a sign that the alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviets would now disintegrate. But Hitler soon found that Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, had no intention of betraying the Soviets by making a separate peace with the Nazis. On May 8, 1945, when Truman announced Germany’s unconditional surrender he said, “I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day.”

Roosevelt’s death also prompted responses from America’s allies in WWII.  When the American ambassador to the Soviet Union informed Stalin about it the Soviet leader said “President Roosevelt has died but his cause must live on. We shall support President Truman with all our forces and all our will.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who reportedly sobbed like a baby upon hearing of Roosevelt’s passing, gave a long eulogy for Roosevelt in the House of Commons a few days after his death. It concluded with, “For us. it remains only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.”

Churchill later wrote of Roosevelt:

“He altered decisively and permanently the social axis, the moral axis, of mankind by involving the New World inexorably and irrevocably in the fortunes of the Old. His life must therefore be regarded as one of the most commanding events in human destiny.”

Victory in Europe Day, 1945

Worldwide celebrations were held yesterday to celebrate the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, May 8, 1945, the day that Nazi Germany officially surrendered to the Allies and ended WWII in Europe. But while V-E Day is recognized as the official surrender date, important German armies had already surrendered.

On the Eastern Front, the Soviets had launched their attack on Berlin on April 16, and by the 25th they had completely encircled the city. German dictator Adolf Hitler had moved into his Führerbunker in Berlin on January 16. On April 30, after he was told that German forces defending the city couldn’t hold out any longer, he committed suicide. In a will he’d written on April 29, Hitler had designated Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who was also in the bunker, to succeed him as the new Chancellor of Germany.

On May 1 Goebbels sent General Hans Krebs to meet with General Vasily Chuikov, who commanded the Soviet troops in central Berlin, to negotiate terms of surrender. Chuikov rejected the offer and demanded that the Germans unconditionally surrender. After Krebs returned to the bunker and informed Goebbels of Chuikov’s reply, Goebbels committed suicide too. General Helmuth Weidling, the commander of the surviving German troops in Berlin, unconditionally surrendered on May 2.

On the Italian front, the western Allies had launched a massive attack against the Germans and their Italian fascist allies in northern Italy on April 6. The Allies succeeded in smashing through the Axis forces and on April 27 Italian resistance fighters captured Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and executed him the next day. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, the commander of German forces in Italy, surrendered on May 2.

In his will, Hitler had also  designated that German Admiral Karl Dönitz should become the new President of Germany and supreme commander of the armed forces. Dönitz set up his government at a German naval academy in Flensburg, in northern Germany near the Danish border. On May 4 the German troops he commanded in the Netherlands, Denmark and northwestern Germany surrendered to the opposing British forces. (Significant organized German resistance on the Western front had already ended on April 21, when the last of the German troops trapped in the Ruhr Pocket surrendered.)

Dönitz sent General Alfred Jodl to Reims, France, on May 6 with an offer to surrender all German forces fighting the Western Allies. But the Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, threatened to break off all negotiations unless the Germans agreed to an unconditional surrender of all German troops, including those still fighting the Soviets on the Eastern Front. Dönitz had no choice but to accept Eisenhower’s terms and authorized Jodl to sign surrender documents the next day, May 7.

German surrender, May 8, 1945
German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in Berlin, May 8, 1945 (Wikipedia)

But Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin wasn’t happy about the German surrender in Reims. His Soviet armies, after all, had done the bulk of the fighting in the war and had suffered millions of casualties. He claimed the Soviet representative at Reims had lacked the authority to sign a surrender document and demanded that the Germans also surrender directly to the Soviet forces in occupied Berlin. So on 8 May Dönitz sent General Wilhelm Keitel to Berlin to sign the “official” unconditional surrender with Soviet General Georgy  Zhukov and other Allied representatives. Because it was signed late at night, and it was already May 9 in Moscow, Russia celebrates May 9 as Victory Day.

The Strategic Importance of the D-Day Invasion

Omaha Beach, D-Day
Omaha Beach, D-Day, June 6, 1944 (Wikipedia)

This year, 2014, is 70th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of Western Europe – the attacks in Normandy, France, popularly known as D-Day. The media will undoubtedly repeat the claim that the liberation of Europe from the Nazis depended upon the operation’s success. But that’s debatable.

A few weeks after D-Day, on June 22, 1944, which was the third anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration. It was a major assault on the Eastern Front that virtually destroyed German Army Group Center. It was the biggest defeat of German forces during WWII and liberated most of the western Soviet Union from the Nazis.

While Operation Bagration was in progress, the Soviets launched the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive from Ukraine in July against German Army Group North Ukraine (formerly called Army Group South). They succeeded in encircling the German XIII Army Corps and killing or capturing most of its 45,000 men. This attack eventually reached the outskirts of the Polish capital of Warsaw and the border of Romania.

These decisive defeats made it obvious to Hitler’s allies that they were on the losing team. Romania switched sides in August and joined the Allies, and in September Finland and Bulgaria did the same. Romania subsequently launched an offensive in Central Europe against the Germans and their remaining ally Hungary. Bulgaria attacked the Germans in the Balkans, and the Finns went after them in Lapland.

The only significant military success the Nazis achieved in the summer of 1944 was on the Mediterranean Front, and even that was limited. They continued to impede the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula that had started with the Allied landings in southern Italy in the fall of 1943. The Allies broke through German defenses and captured Rome on June 4, 1944, but most of the German forces were able to escape a bit to the north and form another formidable defensive line.

After the summer of 1944 the Germans had no chance of stopping the Soviets. Their intelligence on Soviet military planning was practically nonexistent while the Soviets had developed very effective tactics. The Germans were outnumbered by at least 3 to 1, and the latest Soviet tanks and planes were as good or better than theirs.

The D-Day landings in Normandy fulfilled a promise U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had made to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to open a second front in Western Europe in order to take some pressure off of Soviets. But even after the Normandy landings, about 60% of the German army’s manpower remained dedicated to the Eastern Front.

Still, the success of D-Day undoubtedly shortened the war by creating another front for the Germans to defend. And the quicker end to the war meant a quicker end to the Holocaust. The landings also permitted Allied troops to overrun the German V-1 and V-2 rocket launching sites in Western Europe. Some also have argued that the Germans would have been able to deploy more of their new jet planes if the war had lasted longer. But the round-the-clock bombing campaign by the U.S. and Britain against German industry, coupled with the loss of German access to the Romanian oil fields, made fuel very scarce for the Luftwaffe’s planes.

The bottom line is that by 1944 the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis inevitable – with or without the D-Day landings. By the end of 1944 the Soviet armies on the Eastern Front were about three times larger than all of the Allied armies in Western Europe. And by the end of the war the Soviets had killed about nine times more Germans than the U.S. and British combined. If the success of the D-Day landings assured the liberation of Western Europe, it was more likely a liberation from the threat of Soviet occupation after the war.

 

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