4 April – Today in German History

1918

  • During World War I, the Second Battle of the Somme, the first major German offensive in more than a year, ends on the western front.

    On March 21, 1918, a major offensive against Allied positions in the Somme River region of France began with five hours of bombardment from more than 9,000 pieces of German artillery. The poorly prepared British Fifth Army was rapidly overwhelmed and forced into retreat. For a week, the Germans pushed toward Paris, shelling the city from a distance of 80 miles with their Big Bertha cannons. However, the poorly supplied German troops soon became exhausted, and the Allies halted the German advance as French artillery knocked out the German guns besieging Paris. On April 2, U.S. General John J. Pershing sent American troops down into the trenches to help defend Paris and repulse the German offensive. It was the first major deployment of U.S. troops in World War I. Several thousand American troops fought alongside the British and French in the Second Battle of Somme.


    By the time the Somme offensive ended on April 4, the Germans had advanced almost 40 miles, inflicted some 200,000 casualties, and captured 70,000 prisoners and more than 1,000 Allied guns. However, the Germans suffered nearly as many casualties as their enemies and lacked the fresh reserves and supply boost the Allies enjoyed following the American entrance into the fighting.

  • On this day in 1918, German forces in the throes of a major spring offensive on the Western Front launch a renewed attack on Allied positions between the Somme and Avre Rivers.The first stage of the German offensive, dubbed Operation Michael, began March 21, 1918; by the first days of April, it had resulted in a gain of almost 40 miles of territory for the Germans, the largest advance in the west for either side since 1914. After the initial panic, the Allies had managed to stabilize and strengthen their defense, stopping the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30 and continuing their hardy defense of the crucial railroad junction and town of Amiens, France, just south of the Somme.

    With a bombardment by more than 1,200 guns and a total of 15 divisions sent against only seven of the enemy’s, the Germans attacked in force at Villers-Bretonneux on April 4. Again, British and Australian troops reacted with panic in the face of such an onslaught but soon rallied to drive back their attackers. At the same time, French divisions made their own advances along the front running between the towns of Castel and Cantigny, to the south of Villers-Bretonneux.


    Also on April 4, German military officials announced that their attacks in the Somme region had claimed a total of 90,000 Allied prisoners since March 21. The following day, Erich Ludendorff, chief of the German general staff, formally closed down the Michael offensive; the second phase of the attacks, Georgette, would begin four days later in Flanders.

1941

  • In North Africa, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel captured the British held town of Benghazi.

1945

  • During World War II, U.S. forces liberated the Nazi Concentration Camp Ohrdruf in Germany.

1945

  • Hungary was liberated by the Soviet Union.

1949

  • The United States and 11 other nations establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual defense pact aimed at containing possible Soviet aggression against Western Europe. NATO stood as the main U.S.-led military alliance against the Soviet Union throughout the duration of the Cold War.

    Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate rapidly in 1948. There were heated disagreements over the postwar status of Germany, with the Americans insisting on German recovery and eventual rearmament and the Soviets steadfastly opposing such actions. In June 1948, the Soviets blocked all ground travel to the American occupation zone in West Berlin, and only a massive U.S. airlift of food and other necessities sustained the population of the zone until the Soviets relented and lifted the blockade in May 1949. In January 1949, President Harry S. Truman warned in his State of the Union Address that the forces of democracy and communism were locked in a dangerous struggle, and he called for a defensive alliance of nations in the North Atlantic. NATO was the result. In April 1949, representatives from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal joined the United States in signing the NATO agreement. The signatories agreed, “An armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all.” President Truman welcomed the organization as “a shield against aggression.”


    Not all Americans embraced NATO. Isolationists such as Senator Robert A. Taft declared that NATO was “not a peace program; it is a war program.” Most, however, saw the organization as a necessary response to the communist threat. The U. S. Senate ratified the treaty by a wide margin in June 1949. During the next few years, Greece, Turkey, and West Germany also joined. The Soviet Union condemned NATO as a warmongering alliance and responded by setting up the Warsaw Pact. The military alliance between the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe satellites in 1955.


    NATO lasted throughout the course of the Cold War, and continues to play an important role in post-Cold War Europe. In recent years, for example, NATO forces were active in bringing an end to the civil war in Bosnia.

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2 April – Today in German History

1941 

  • German Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, resumed his advance into Cyrenaica. The advance was the beginning of the recapture of Libya by the Axis forces.

1944 

  • The Soviet Union announced that its troops had crossed the Prut River and entered Romania.
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28-29 March 1942 – Bombing of Lübeck

Lübeck Cathedral burning following the raids.

The first major bombing by the Royal Air Force Bomber Command was conducted against the port city of Lübeck. The city dated back to the Hanseatic days, thus many buildings were made of wood. 234 Wellington and Stirling bombers dropped about 400 tons of bombs. Though German defenses were light, 12 of the RAF bombers were still lost in the attack. The damage inflicted was heavy. The first of three waves of bombers used the new blockbuster bombs to blast over the building roofs and windows, allowing subsequent bombers and their incendiary bombs to contents inside of buildings on fire. 1,468 buildings were destroyed, 2,180 were seriously damaged, and 9,103 were lightly damaged; together, this represented 62% of all buildings in Lübeck. Initial German reports showed 301 killed, 3 were missing, and 783 were wounded, but actual deaths might be as high as 1,000; 15,000 people, or 10% of the city’s population, were displaced. After seeing footage of the destruction, German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary “[t]he damage is really enormous, I have been shown a newsreel of the destruction. It is horrible. One can well imagine how such a bombardment affects the population”.

Smaller-scale raids were conducted against Lübeck subsequently. On 16 July 1942, 21 Stirling bombers were dispatched to bomb Lübeck; 8 aircraft reached the city and 2 were lost. On 24-25 July 1943, 13 Mosquito aircraft bombed Lübeck as a diversion for the main target of Hamburg. On 15-16 September 1943, 9 Mosquito aircraft bombed Lübeck as a diversion for the main target of Kiel. On 2-3 April 1945, Lübeck was hit by RAF bombers manned by training crews.

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28 March – Today in German History

HMS Campbeltown wedged in the dock gates.

1942

  • On 28 March 1942, British forces launched one of the most daring operations of the Second World War. Now known as Operation Chariot was an attack on the docks at St Nazaire in German-occupied France. It was a feat of cunning and daring that helped to shape the war at sea. St Nazaire was targeted because the loss of its dry dock would force any large German warship in need of repairs, such as Tirpitz, sister ship of Bismarck, to return to home waters by running the gauntlet of the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy and other British forces, via the English Channel or the GIUK gap.

1945

  • Germany launches the last of the V-2 rockets against England.
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24 March – Today in German History

1918

  • On March 24, 1918, German forces cross the Somme River, achieving their first goal of the major spring offensive begun three days earlier on the Western Front.

    Operation Michael, engineered by the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Ludendorff, aimed to decisively break through the Allied lines on the Western Front and destroy the British and French forces. The offensive began on the morning of March 21, 1918, with an aggressive bombardment.


    The brunt of the attack that followed was directed at the British 5th Army, commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough, stationed along the Somme River in northwestern France. This section was the most poorly defended of any spot on the British lines, due to the fact that it had been held by the French until only a few weeks before and its defensive positions were not yet fully fortified. Panic spread up and down the British lines of command, intensified by communications failures between Gough and his subordinates in the field, and German gains increased over the subsequent days of battle. On March 23, Crown Prince Rupprecht, on the German side of the line, remarked that The progress of our offensive is so quick, that one cannot follow it with a pen.


    The next day, German troops stormed across the Somme, having previously captured its bridges before French troops could destroy them. Despite having resolved to concentrate on weaker points of the enemy lines, Ludendorff continued to throw his armies against the crucial villages of Amiens which had a railway junction and Arras which the British and French were instructed to hold at all costs hoping to break through and push on towards Paris. By that time, German troops were exhausted, and transportation and supply lines had begun to break down in the cold and bad weather. Meanwhile, Allied forces had recovered from the initial disadvantage and had begun to gain the upper hand, halting the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30.


    On April 5, Ludendorff called off Operation Michael. It had yielded nearly 40 miles of territory, the greatest gains for either side on the Western Front since 1914. He would launch four more offensive pushes over the course of the spring and summer, throwing all of the German army’s resources into this last, desperate attempt to win the war.

2015

  • On March 24, 2015, the co-pilot of a German airliner deliberately flies the plane into the French Alps, killing himself and the other 149 people onboard. When it crashed, Germanwings flight 9525 had been traveling from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany.

    The plane took off from Barcelona around 10 a.m. local time and reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet at 10:27 a.m. Shortly afterward, the captain, 34-year-old Patrick Sondenheimer, requested that the co-pilot, 27-year-old Andreas Lubitz, take over the controls while he left the cockpit, probably to use the bathroom. At 10:31 a.m. the plane began a rapid descent and 10 minutes later crashed in mountainous terrain near the town of Prads-Haute-Bleone in southern France. There were no survivors. Besides the two pilots, the doomed Airbus A320 was carrying four cabin crew members and 144 passengers from 18 different countries, including three Americans.

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