Downfall 1945, by Steven J. Zaloga

Downfall 1945: The Fall of Hitler’s Third Reich covers the final five months of World War II in Europe, with the focus on the Battle of Berlin from April 19 to May 8. Here readers get to learn about the final Manichean struggle (as Zaloga put it) between Hitler and his enemies, and how this delayed the inevitable collapse of the Third Reich at the cost of millions of lives and the destruction of German homeland.

I found this book to be one of the best published by Osprey, in terms of content and layout, out of the other dozen or so I own. Sometimes you need a source for quick reference, and that’s Osprey specialty, which they deliver here with maps, illustrations, format, and index. This organization, combined with Zaloga succinct writing style, brings the history to life.

Early sections set up the strategic situation in Germany at the start of 1945. Set backs in the 1944, like Germany’s allies (Romania, Finland, etc.) joining the Soviets, and the failed Ardennes Offensive, make it clear Germany is going to lose the war. A table showing the delivery of Armored Fighting Vehicles to each front emphasizes the decline in German fighting capability. With this background information, readers unfamiliar with the fall of Nazi Germany can read this book with little or no prior knowledge to the historical context.

Old hats like myself will find see this book as a great quick reference source. The book gives complete Orders of Battle for each army in late April and early May 1945.  Entire sections describe the major Allied and German commanders, the differing strategies between the Soviet, American, and British forces. This is juxtaposed with the factions within the German high command and their attempts stave off destruction as long as possible.

With all of the players and their armies in place, Zaloga then sets the campaign in motion, starting with the American-British assault on the Ruhr Pocket and the race to the Elbe in west Germany followed by the Russian attack Seelow Heights in the East. The climax of the campaign, of course, is the Battle of Berlin.

Prior to this, Zaloga articulated how Wehrmacht generals were all but hamstrung by strict doctrine from Hitler and the Nazi inner circle to forsake mobile warfare, and make places like Berlin into a fortress (festung) for the final stand. Had the Wehrmacht been given more control over their armies, lives could have been saved, more Germans–civilians and solider alike–could have made it to western Allied lines for surrender.

Throughout this grim narrative are photographs of the Reichstag and the Reich Chancellery shot up, a blown panzer turret in the middle of a street, abandoned armored vehicles, and other scenes of carnage. Another table showing the Soviet and German casualty rates April 16 to May 8 completes this part of the story.

Then we have the denouement; the Allies overcoming the last of the German resistance, civilian uprisings against elements of the Waffen-SS, the Prague uprising, and other conflicts during the final surrender of German forces.

Zaloga ends the book with the final cost of the war: Had the Nazi High Command negotiated a peace earlier, millions could have been saved.  By one estimate, 4.8 million Germans died throughout the war, but 1.28 million Germans died in from January to May 1945 alone. In the meantime, the Red Army lost 631,633 soldiers, with nearly 2.3 million wounded in those final five months.

This moral is clear: strict adherence to ideology and near-religious fantasy killed and wounded millions of people and destroyed entire countries. Gotterdammerung.

Zaloga leaves the reader with a little bit of hope. World leaders who learned lesson from World War II’s devastation helped prevent the Cold War from becoming hot.

There is only one part of the history which may seem missing: the Battle of the Halbe south of Berlin. The map on page 59 distinguishes The Halbe Pocket in orange with lines indicating German troop withdrawals to that region. What happened there is given only cursory treatment.

Overall, Downfall 1945: The Fall of Hitler’s Third Reich is complete. New readers will  grasp new information because of the book’s format and concise writing style. Scholars, amateur and profession alike, will have an easy reference book, and may learn facts they didn’t know before.

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