During World War II, the Western Front was the theater of fighting west of Germany, encompassing France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemberg, and Denmark.
1939 – 1941
Fighting on the Western Front was preceded with the Phoney War. Fighting began with Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, in April, 1940. The next month, 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 majority of the French Army surrendered without firing a shot. Fighting along the Front ended, and the German army began preparations to invade England.
Following the Luftwaffe’s defeat in the Battle of Britain, the invasion of England 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 English invasion of France.
1942 – 1943
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 and an American contingent. 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 American Eighth Air Force bombing Germany by day and the RAF Bomber Command bombing by night.
1944 – 1945
1944: Liberation of most of France and Belgium
Routes taken by the D-day invasion
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 bridge-head. Soon after, the Allies were racing across France. They circled around and trapped 250,000 Germans in the Falaise pocket. As so often happened on the Eastern Front Hitler refused to allow a strategic withdraw until it was too late. 100,000 Germans managed to escape through the Falaise Gap but they left behind most of their equipment with 150,000 who were taken prisoner. 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 Germans 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 in the South the American 6th Army Group commanded by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers. They were all under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander (American) 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. The French Resistance organised a general uprising and the liberated Paris took place on August 25 when general Dietrich von Choltitz surrendered ignoring orders from Hitler that Paris should be held to the last and to destroy the city.
The liberation of North France and Benelux countries was of special significance for the inhabitance 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.
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. But as the breakout took place during Operation Cobra at the western end of the bridge-head and as the US armies swung east they rapidly fanned 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 this was the strategy which was adopted.
The British 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. A British and Canadian force would punch through the German lines and up with the paratroopers. If all went well, the Allies would capture the port facilities in Antwerp and advance into Germany without any remaining major obstacles. The British and Canadian task force was able to link up with six of the seven paratrooper-held bridges, but was unable to link up with the troops holding the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The result was the destruction of the British 1st Airborne Division. It was "a bridge too far".
Fighting on the Western front seemed to stabilize. Starting in early September, the Americans began slow and bloody fighting through the Hurtgen Forest ("Passchendaele with tree bursts" -- Hemingway) to breach the Siegfried Line (Westwall).
The great port of Antwerp was liberated on September 4 by British 11th Armoured Division. However, it lay at the end of a long river estuary, and so it could not be used until its approaches were clear. The southern bank of the Scheldt was cleared by Canadian and Polish forces relatively quickly, but the island of Walcheren still remained. In the last great amphibious operation of the war in Europe, British Commandos and Canadian troops captured the island in the late autumn of 1944, clearing the way for Antwerp to be opened and the solution to the critical logistical problems the Allies were suffering.
In October the Americans decided that they could not just invest Aachen and let it fall in a slow seige, 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 prisoners on the German side.
German winter counter-attack through the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge)
American soldiers taking up defensive positions in the Ardennes during the 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. The attack started on December 16 in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. After initial successes in bad weather, which gave them cover from the Allied air forces, the Germans were eventually pushed back to their starting points by January 15, 1945.
1945: Invasion of Germany and Allied victory in Europe
The pincer movement of the Canadian First Army in Operation Veritable advancing from Nijmegen area of Holland and the US Ninth Army crossing the 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 the Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt to withdraw East behind the Rhine arguing that it would only delay the inevitable fight. He ordered him to fight where his forces stood.
By the time the water had subsided and the 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 achived at three points. one was an opportunity taken by US forces when the Gemans failed to blow up the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen one was taken "on the run" and one was planned.
- General Omar Bradley's US forces aggressive pursuit of the disintegrating German troops resulted in the capture of the Ludendorff bridge across the Rhine River at Remagen by the U.S. First Army. Bradley and his subordinates quickly exploited the crossing made on March 7 and expanded the bridge head into a full scale crossing.
- Bradley told General Patton whose US Third Army had been fighting throught the Palatinate, to "take the Rhine on the run". The Third Army did just that on the night of March 22 crossing the river just south of Mainz.
- In the North Operation Plunder was the crossing of the Rhine river at Rees and Wesel by the British Twenty-fifth Army Group on the night of March 23. It included the largest airborne operation in history codenamed Operation Varsity. At the point the British crossed the Rhine, it is twice as wide, with a far higher volume of water, than the points where the American crossed and Montgomery decided it could only be crossed safely with a carefully planned operation.
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. The U.S. Ninth Army, which had remained under British command since the battle of the Bulge went south as the northen pincer of the Ruhr encirclement.
The US 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. The German Group Army 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 met up with the Soviet forces near the River Elbe in mid-April. The first units to make contact were from the U.S. 69th Infantry Division of the First Army and the Soviet 58th Guards Division of the 5th Guards Army near Torgau, on the Elbe River on April 25. The rest of the American 12th Army group had fanned out to the East into western Czechoslovakia and Southeast into Notheast Bavaria. By V-E Day, the US 12th Army Group was a force of four armies (1st, 3rd, 9th, and 15th) that numbered over 1.3 million men.
The American 6th Army group fanned out to the Southwest passing to the east of Switzerland throught Bavaria into Austria and North Italy. Elements of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division were the first allied troops to arrive at Berchtesgaden which they secured along with the Berghof (Hitler's Alpine residence).
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 headquaters in Rheims Eisenhower took the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the western allies and Russia, from the German Chief-of-Staff, General Jodl, who signed the surrender document at 0241 hours. General Böhne announced the unconditional surrender of German troops in Norway. Operations ceased at 2301 hours Central European time (CET) on the May 8.