21 March – Today in German History

1918

  • On March 21, 1918, near the Somme River in France, the German army launches its first major offensive on the Western Front in two years.

    At the beginning of 1918, Germany’s position on the battlefields of Europe looked extremely strong. German armies occupied virtually all of Belgium and much of northern France. With Romania, Russia and Serbia out of the war by the end of 1917, conflict in the east was drawing to a close, leaving the Central Powers free to focus on combating the British and French in the west. Indeed, by March 21, 1918, Russia’s exit had allowed Germany to shift no fewer than 44 divisions of men to the Western Front.


    Erich Ludendorff.

    German commander Erich Ludendorff saw this as a crucial opportunity to launch a new offensive. He hoped to strike a decisive blow to the Allies and convince them to negotiate for peace before fresh troops from the United States could arrive. In November, he submitted his plan for the offensive that what would become known as Kaiserschlacht, or the kaiser’s battle; Ludendorff code-named the opening operation Michael. Morale in the German army rose in reaction to the planned offensive. Many of the soldiers believed, along with their commanders, that the only way to go home was to push ahead.


    Michael began in the early morning hours of March 21, 1918. The attack came as a relative surprise to the Allies, as the Germans had moved quietly into position just days before the bombardment began. From the beginning, it was more intense than anything yet seen on the Western Front. Ludendorff had worked with experts in artillery to create an innovative, lethal ground attack, featuring a quick, intense artillery bombardment followed by the use of various gases, first tear gas, then lethal phosgene and chlorine gases. He also coordinated with the German Air Service or Luftstreitkrafte, to maximize the force of the offensive.


    By the end of the first day, German troops had advanced more than four miles and inflicted almost 30,000 British casualties. As panic swept up and down the British lines of command over the next few days, the Germans gained even more territory. By the time the Allies hardened their defense at the end of the month, Ludendorff’s army had crossed the Somme River and broken through enemy lines near the juncture between the British and French trenches. By the time Ludendorff called off the first stage of the offensive in early April, German guns were trained on Paris, and their final, desperate attempt to win World War I was in full swing.

1941

  • The last Italian post in East Libya, North Africa, falls to the British.
General Henning von Tresckow

1943

On March 21, 1943, the second military conspiracy plan to assassinate Hitler in a week fails.


Back in the summer of 1941, Major General Henning von Tresckow, a member of Gen. Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center, was the leader of one of many conspiracies against Adolf Hitler. Along with his staff officer, Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, and two other conspirators, both of old German families who also believed Hitler was leading Germany to humiliation, Tresckow had planned to arrest the Fuhrer when he visited the Army Group’s headquarters at Borisov, in the Soviet Union. But their naïveté in such matters became evident when Hitler showed up—surrounded by SS bodyguards and driven in one of a fleet of cars. They never got near him.


Tresckow would try again on March 13, 1943, in a plot called Operation Flash. This time, Tresckow, Schlabrendorff, et al., were stationed in Smolensk, still in the USSR. Hitler was planning to fly back to Rastenburg, Germany, from Vinnitsa, in the USSR. A stopover was planned at Smolensk, during which the Fuhrer was to be handed a parcel bomb by an unwitting officer thinking it was a gift of liquor for two senior officers at Rastenburg. All went according to plan and Hitler’s plane took off. The bomb was set to go off somewhere over Minsk. At that point, co-conspirators in Berlin were ready to take control of the central government at the mention of the code word Flash. Unfortunately, the bomb never went off at all as the detonator was defective.


A week later on March 21, on Heroes’ Memorial Day, (a holiday honoring German World War I dead), Tresckow selected Col. Freiherr von Gersdorff to act as a suicide bomber at the Zeughaus Museum in Berlin, where Hitler was to attend the annual memorial dedication. With a bomb planted in each of his two coat pockets, Gersdorff was to sidle up to Hitler as he reviewed the memorials and ignite the bombs, killing Hitler along with himself and everyone in the immediate vicinity. Schlabrendorff supplied Gersdorff with bombs that had a 10-minute fuse.


Once at the exhibition hall, Gersdorff was informed that the Fuhrer was to inspect the exhibits for only eight minutes in which this was not enough time for the fuses to meltdown.

1945

  • During World War II, Allied bombers began four days of raids over Germany.
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