Thought of the day – should Eisenhower have tried to beat Zhukov to Berlin in 1945? 

As the Wehrmacht’s ability to fight crumbled in the fact of two massive armies approaching from east and west, it became clear that the number was up for Nazi Germany.  The only issue to sort out was how the Allies were going to finish off their mutual enemy.  Division and occupation of Germany had already been resolved but as battlefields tend to fluctuate from one day to the next, it wasn’t clear how the capital would fall.  There was no formal agreement about who should lead the fight but Eisenhower decided that the Western Allies shouldn’t bother capturing a city they would only have to hand over to the Soviet Union after the fighting. 

Big Mistake. 

Field Marshal Montgomery was a cautious commander who only attacked when he knew he could win and there was much criticism of his lack of advance after the Normandy Landings.  It was a whole month before the battle to liberate France was recommenced in earnest but that month proved critical in securing a beach-head from where many supplies could be gathered.   

The Allies advance through France was swift, particularly after the closure of the Falaise Pocket which opened up the road to Paris allowing the next stage of the plan – liberation of the low Countries which offered better port facilities compared with the French ports currently in Allied hands.  Operation Market Garden was drawn up by Montgomery: a bold strategy to land forces behind enemy lines and seize several important bridges so that the advance into Germany could continue unimpeded and all but collapse the Wehrmacht’s ability to resist. 

Alas the Germans suspected such an advance and the area had been heavily reinforced as is was anticipated that a bigger thrust would be sent through the area.  The Allied plans came apart as the initial successes were swept aside by Wehrmacht counter attacks and many casualties were inflicted on both sides giving a much needed morale boost to the Germans.  This caused Eisenhower to adopt a more cautious strategy and further exacerbated a prickly relationship between himself and Montgomery. 

The Allies adopted a “broad front” strategy, marching uniformly into Germany at the same pace neutralising targets as they advanced whilst the Red Army thrust towards Berlin.  Although several Generals such as Patton continued to speak out for the Americans and British to reach Berlin first, these were deflected in favour of the broad front strategy – not least as it would prevent the Germans from regrouping south where the situation was less stable and the terrain both forested and mountainous. 

So the Red Army got to Berlin in March 1945 and after a months’ worth of fighting, finally captured the city suffering thousands upon thousands of casualties.  Hitler committed suicide whilst many of his compatriots fled west to surrender to the Americans and British.  But the even greater prize was what lay in Berlin itself… 

So the reason I think that Eisenhower should have tried to beat Zhukov to Berlin lies in two parts: the German Atomic Bomb and the German Archives. 

It was German scientists who lay much of the groundwork for nuclear physics, people like Einstein and Heisenberg had a sound grasp of the principles.  Whilst many escaped west to avoid the Nazis, many others remained working on the superweapons that Hitler thought might win him the war.  The Allies knew from an early stage that something was in the works – French uranium was shipped into Germany, Norwegian heavy water was shipped into Germany and certain tubular alloys were despatched from Sweden.  The American Airforce provided much assistance in the Battle for Berlin but it is believed that they were trying to find Germany’s nuclear factory and put it out of commission.  Alas they were unsuccessful as the Soviets found much of the materials for themselves helping their atomic bomb efforts.  Together with the intelligence gathered from sympathisers like Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, Stalin exploded his atomic bomb in 1948. 

Which leads us on to the German Archives.  The Nazis were meticulous record keepers and their ability to keep tabs on their citizens unparalleled.  They alone knew the extent of Soviet spy penetration in Europe and kept most suspect individuals under some form of surveillance.  It was therefore in the Soviet’s best interests to grab as many of these files as possible to prevent the Allies seeing who these people were.  The Nazi’s also sponsored a great many other research programmes on a wide range of scientific topics – biology, physics, chemistry, genetics, eugenics etc and given the lack of Soviet progress in these areas, this greatly boosted their fledgling programmes.  Although the Allies launched Operation Paperclip to gather as much knowledge as possible (the capture and turning of Werner von Braun was quite the success), more had been lost to the Soviets. 

Had Patton and Montgomery been unleashed on Berlin by their cautious Commander-in-Chief or had Market Garden gone another way, the prizes of Berlin would have been that of the Allies.  Stalin wouldn’t have gotten the atomic bomb for another decade at the very least allowing the Allies the upper hand in various negotiations.  Soviet spy networks would have been rolled up and the Soviet Union isolated as it became clear that Stalin had no intention of honouring promises made at Yalta.   

With an isolated Soviet Union, the Berlin Airlift would still have happened but Chairman Mao after winning the Chinese Civil War wouldn’t have had a powerful backer in the form of Stalin and would have had to cut some sort of deal with the West lest the atomic bomb be used on Chinese cities without fear of reprisal.  And in Korea too – the North Koreans would have lost the war and the Chinese might well not have invaded in defence of their ally leading to one single country on the 38th Parallel. 

It’s likely that there would be a Soviet atomic bomb by 1955 but by this point the American, British and French stockpiles would be more than enough to ensure nuclear supremacy and with Stalin dead, who knows how the cold war would have unfolded; would we have had Khrushchev as premier?  Would Molotov and Zhukov been dismissed and ignored for their rest of their lives? Are we likely to have seen the McCarthy trials which of course allowed Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon come to prominence?