Although the Allied forces had advanced so much that the supplies could no longer catch up, it still threatened the German border, making Adolf Hitler uncomfortable. He decided to call for a large-scale offensive with the intention to cause heavy casualties and to divide the Allied forces, therefore cutting off certain Allied units of their supplies and surrounding others. Should the Allies be dealt a major blow in the west, Hitler thought, he would be in a much better position to defend against a likely winter offensive by the Russians. He realized it was a gamble, knowing that a failed major offensive might spell the final doom for Germany; however, “I am determined to hold fast to the execution of this operation, regardless of any risk,” he said, “even if the enemy offensives on both sides of the Metz and the imminent attack on the Rhine territory lead to great terrain and town losses.” Hitler believed that, due to his lack of understanding of the Allied command structure, that Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower must acquire permission from his superiors before committing major strategic changes, as for how the German war machine had operated. Such communications delays, Hitler thought, would give the surprise German offensive yet another upper hand.
“We gamble everything now”, Gerd von Rundstedt said when he had learned of Hitler’s order for a major offensive on the western front. “We cannot fail.”
The eventual plan was prepared by Alfred Jodl and presented to Hitler on 9 Oct. With some alterations, the plan was adopted and was renamed Wacht Am Rhein, “Watch on the Rhine”; this plan called for an attack by infantry to open a gap in the thinly defended Ardennes forest, allowing German tanks to punch through the gaps. The final destination was Antwerp, the newly acquired port that was critical in the Allies’ logistical operations. Knowing the Allies were intercepting German radio communications, the Germans also put up a major deceptive operation, Operation Greif, that further contributed to the Allied unpreparedness when the offensive was launched. First, the name of the offensive, Wacht Am Rhein, was highly misleading in that it was suggestive of a defensive operation, perhaps near the German city of Aachen. Then, a series of efforts by the daring and innovative Otto Skorzeny convinced the Allied forces to commit their forces at the wrong spots. The first of Skorzeny’s plans called for a Trojan horse mission with the 150th Panzer Brigade driving captured American and British tanks; the objective was the capture of bridges on the Meuse. Then German commandos were to be dressed in American uniforms and sent behind enemy lines; these English-speaking commandos were ordered to report Allied movements, change road signs, and even daringly pose as traffic duty soldiers and misdirect Allied trucks carrying soldiers and supplies. 44 of such commandos were sent, and only 8 returned at the end of the battle, achieving various degrees of success. Finally, Skorzeny also spread out rumors that German paratroopers were going to be dropped behind Allied lines. As these rumors grew, the outrageousness of these rumors grew as well, with several versions noting that paratroopers were to be dropped in Paris to seize Eisenhower. Immediately after the battle began, both real and dummy paratroopers under the command of Colonel Friedrich August von der Heydte were dropped to further “confirm” the rumors to confuse the Allied defenses. An unplanned achievement of this paratrooper rumor was that the Americans put up roadblocks at every road junction and checked every passerby for identification, dramatically slowing the transportation system that was so critical for the Allied war effort; even British General Bernard Montgomery was stopped and checked so many times that he later asked Eisenhower for an American identification card to speed up the process.
The troop preparations were disguised as much as possible as well. As fresh German troops arrived at Cologne for the offensive, the soldiers were told that these were replacement units for the front. Troops moved into the Ardennes under the cover of the night, and during the day the thick forest provided excellent cover. To prevent Allied interception of battle plans, in the final days’ communications were to be carried by officer couriers only.
Although Luftwaffe planes sent flying up and down the front lines drowned out most of the noise, heavy equipment noises were still reported by Allied troops. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel knew that further discoveries of the offensive preparations were unavoidable, so he issued a fake order that had the German troops in the Cologne and Bonn areas prepare for a suspected Allied invasion. Playing well into the Wacht Am Rhein misinterpretation, this order successfully downplayed any Allied suspicion of German preparing for an offensive.
The German units summoned for this Dec 1944 offensive (delayed from its original Nov target date) were:
• Josef Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army with two SS Panzer divisions. Dietrich was charged to move northwards and capture the final objective Antwerp.
• Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army, marching in the center toward Brussels.
• Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army in the south, offensively protecting the offensive’s left flank.
• Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army in the north, defensively protecting the offensive’s right flank.
Overall, the offensive force was 15 divisions weaker than originally called for, plus the fact that many of the troops were the last of Germany’s reserves being those who were too young or too old to be drafted earlier in the war. However, with the element of surprise, Field Marshal Walther Model believed that the 30 German divisions gathered still had an excellent opportunity to strike down the Allied forces on the western front.
The Initial Assault
Aided by weather that grounded most Allied air reconnaissance, the German offensive launched on 16 Dec in total surprise. Barrages by at least 657 artillery pieces along with 340 rocket launchers thundered at 0530 to stun the American defenders, and by 0800 the 5th and 6th German Panzer armies charged forward through the Ardennes at the Loshein Gap. The attack completely surprised the American defenders at the front lines as Jodl had strived for, with many troops surrendering or withdrawing in confusion. Eisenhower noted that combat fatigue played a major part in the initial surrenders and withdrawals:
“Confronted by overwhelming power, and unaware of the measures that their commanders have in mind for moving to their support, the soldiers in the front lines, suffering all the dangers and risks of actual contact, inevitably experience confusion, bewilderment, and discouragement.”
Despite Eisenhower’s statement suggesting that the Allied commanders were organized for such an offensive, the truth was that the surprise was nearly complete. “I told the Fuhrer on the first day of the attack that the surprise had been completely achieved,” Jodl said after the war. “The best indication was that no reinforcements were made in [the American] sector before the attack.” The only American who had the faintest prediction of a possible German assault was Colonel Dickson, an intelligence officer of the First Army. He observed the bolstering of German forces in the Ardennes region and thought it was possible for the Germans to launch a small-scale localized attack to increase morale in time for the Christmas holiday. However, even Dickson underestimated the strength of the attack.
Donald Bennett, an artillery officer claimed that to some of the frontline men had a sense that the invasion was coming, but it was the high command’s failure to recognize the threat that caused the initial losses. He recalled the German assault:
“[I] pushed my way through the disorganized units [with a Sherman tank], primarily infantry, running for the rear. All of them screaming that the [Germans] were closing in. It was one of the most heartbreaking and humiliating sights I had witnessed since driving through the wreckage at Kasserine Pass two years earlier.”
In Robert Merriam’s The Battle of the Bulge and Dark December, he claimed that post-war interviews with Eisenhower and Bradley indicated that both were taken completely by surprise with the German offensive through the Ardennes. However, in Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower said Bradley indicated to him that “he believed that the only place in which the enemy could attempt a serious counterattack was in the Ardennes region.” Conflicting accounts regarding this surprise attack such as this instance were attributed largely to politics and the need to save face.
On the second day, the American 7th Armored Division was able to halt Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army at St. Vith, further removing momentum from the 6th Panzer Army who already had a tough time driving their tanks through thick snow. General Bruce Clarke led his men to fight on bravely against overwhelming numbers for four days before turning control of St. Vith to the Germans, and even then they fell back to entrenched positions nearby to continue to hold back German advances. At Elsborn Ridge, a similar episode played as American troops (2nd Infantry and 99th Infantry Divisions) aided by heavy snow slowed the German advance.
Recall Hitler’s earlier assumption that Eisenhower would have to communicate the strategic shift to his superiors before he could cancel his current offensives to deal with the German attack; largely, the German leader was wrong. By the second day, Eisenhower had already set in motion the reinforcements to come to the area. Within a week 250,000 soldiers had arrived in the region, including the American veterans of the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions.
On 17 Dec, the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion surrendered to the 6th Panzer Army outside Malmédy near the Hamlet of Baugnez after a brief battle. A SS officer shot two of the POWs, and the rest of the soldiers followed suit with machine guns. After the 150 American prisoners fell, the Germans allegedly went around to kick each downed prisoner, and shot each that still showed sign of life with their sidearms, reported the 43 Americans who miraculously cheated death. The episode infuriated the Americans, and they called for killing all SS officers and troops on sight without giving an opportunity to surrender. Those responsible for this massacre at Malmédy were later tried and sentenced after the war.
West of Malmédy, the town of Spa at the north slope of the Hohe Venn mountain range held an Allied gasoline dump with 2,500,000 gallons of fuel. The troops of the First Army stationed there, including its command elements, did not imagine this peaceful little town would suddenly become the front until Dietrich’s Panzers rolled near the town. On 18 Dec, the 30th Division rushed in to reinforce the town’s defense and was able to save the town. The Americans were able to save their fuel depot, and perhaps more importantly, delivered a major blow to Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army to slow their forward momentum.
Attack on Bastogne
Bastogne was selected as a central logistical location; neither the Americans nor the Germans viewed it with much importance even days before the Ardennes Offensive was launched. However, as the German troops failed to reach the Meuse River as quickly as they originally wished, the German focus turned to the east side of the river to consolidate their gains thus far. Bastogne, a crossroads city, suddenly became strategically important. Hitler himself viewed the town as a threat to German communications and ordered a concentrated attack to take the town. The American 101st Airborne Division and part of the 10th Armored Division, totaling 18,000 troops, garrisoned the town as 45,000 Germans in three divisions surrounded the area on 21 Dec. On 22 Dec, German officers delivered a message from General von Luttwitz of the XLVII Panzerhops demanding the “honorable surrender” of Bastogne to save from “total annihilation”. This demand was actually against Hitler’s orders, as the German leader did not wish to allow the Americans to surrender. Brigadier General McAuliffe, commanding the troops at Bastogne in place of General Maxwell Taylor who was in Washington, responded:
To the German Commander:
The American Commander
“We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas,” noted McAuliffe. When Joseph Harper delivered the message to Luttwitz and Lieutenant General Bayerlein, the German commanders were rather confused at the meaning of the American slang (so were the British, in fact) but the arrogance in McAuliffe’s response was undeniable; the Germans took no time in pressing on their attacks. On 26 Dec the Fuhrer Escort Brigade disengaged their current targets to attack the narrow neck opening into the town of Bastogne. Meanwhile, Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army surrounded the town on three sides. Bastogne was surrounded with little supplies left for the Allied troops, and the enemy troops outside the town reached 8 divisions by 1 Jan 1945. German tactics, however, gave the Americans a fighting chance: Instead of attacking all fronts simultaneously at the surrounded Allies, the Germans attacked in a rather piecemeal fashion and fritted away their strength while giving the Allied troops the luxury of being able to shift men to and from different fronts. Once Eisenhower confirmed that the Meuse River crossings were no longer under any threat, a number of divisions were released to attack the German forces at Bastogne. The defenders of Bastogne held on until George Patton’s Third Army arrived in the region to alleviate some pressure on Bastogne. It only took Patton’s army 48 hours to march from their original positions in south-central France to Bastogne, and it surprised even Eisenhower. Patton’s secret was that as soon as he had learned of the offensive he had prepared his troops for a counterattack. When Eisenhower had finally given the order for Patton to counterattack, his troops moved out the next minute. The final major offensive against Bastogne was launched on 3 Jan, but with the III Corps breathing down the back of their necks, the offensive ended in failure.
Before Patton reached Bastogne to relieve the defenders, however, the defenders endured a hellish series of offensives. German shelling was never constant, but it came at frequent enough an interval that the exploding trees kept the defenders awake, eating away their morale slowly. “The sound was deafening and terrifying”, noted Stephen Ambrose in Band of Brothers, a story of the 101st Airborne Division’s Easy Company who held the lines at Foy near Bastogne. “[T]he ground rocked and pitched as in an earthquake.” The unusually brutal winter also played a factor; the sub-zero temperatures froze the oil in the trucks and the firing mechanisms of rifles.
After the weather cleared up, the men inside the besieged Bastogne received much needed air-dropped supplies totaling 800,000 pounds. Eisenhower believed that without the Allied air superiority that allowed the supply runs by air, the 101st Division, however capable and brave, would not have been able to hold the town against the German pressure.
With the arrival of the Third Army to the region, the Americans planned a counterattack on 29 Dec. The weather also cleared up in the last few days so that air support was now possible. P-47 fighters strafed German troops on the roads, and bombers raided supply dumps behind the lines. In response the Luftwaffe launched a great raid, Operation Bodenplatte, on 1 Jan 1945 against Allied airfields in France and the Low Countries, greatly limiting the air capabilities of the Allies in the short run while destroying or damaging 260 planes. However, this also came at a cost of 277 aircraft and 253 pilots. In the attack, the Allies lost 465 aircraft. The Luftwaffe was never able to mount another offensive in this scale again. “[O]ur losses were so high that a continuation of such attacks had to be given up”, noted Hitler in his personal journals.
On the same day of the great German air raid, Eisenhower called for the Third Army to attack from the south while Bernard Montgomery’s troops were to move in from the north. South of Bastogne, the German troops that originally surrounded Bastogne defended against the counterattack gallantly. In the north, the German troops there continued to apply pressure to Bastogne as Montgomery’s assault never came; the British general objected to launching his part of the offensive as he had believed that his men were not equipped to deal with the cold weather. With the counterattack missing its northern pincer, Eisenhower was unable to trap the German forces in the pocket, and most of the Germans escaped, though leaving behind most of the heavy equipment. Montgomery did not commit his forces until 3 Jan, by then it was too late to surround the majority of the German troops. Americans such as General Omar Bradley was appalled by Montgomery’s inaction, and later in the war, many Americans refused to work with the British general. This was a critical event in the later tension between Montgomery and his American counterparts. To mend the relationship between Americans and the British after the war Eisenhower noted that he had given Montgomery the order that the British would only attack when Montgomery had gathered enough force. However, in hindsight, it was unlikely that Eisenhower would have issued such a vague order when coordinating such an important counteroffensive.
A renewed German offensive was launched in the first week of Jan 1945 in an attempt to keep the Allied troops off-balance. Perhaps suggestive of the name of the operation, the 6th SS Mountain Division and the 7th Parachute Division were transferred southwards from Norway and Netherlands, respectively, to bolster this offensive. A southern pincer column was also launched, with the goal of cutting off the southern maneuver room on the Alsatian plain. The offensive relied on a surprise element, and the Germans did not enjoy surprise this time around. The operation was detected by American intelligence early and prepared defenses that held on to all militarily-important locations, including the city of Strasbourg. Strasbourg was, actually, planned on being abandoned temporarily so that American forces could reach around and cut off German supply lines, stranding German troops within the city. However, Charles de Gaulle furiously protested against such a decision in fear that his own political status would be damaged if this French city would fall. Giving in to de Gaulle’s’ demands, Eisenhower changed his plans and defended Strasbourg successfully against this German offensive.
The Battle Ends
By the end of the first week of Jan 1945, the German forces had not reached their objectives, and the commanders knew that the momentum they enjoyed initially had long been lost. The command decision from Berlin on 8 Jan to transfer the 6th SS Panzer Army back to Germany for refitting for future assignments on the Russian front spelled the end of the actual German offensive. Nevertheless, the Germans had fought with much greater strength and determination than what the Allies believed possible at this stage of the war, but like the Allies out of Normandy, they had outrun their supplies and the ammunition and fuel were running out. Because the offensive was so secretive during its planning stages, even the German soldiers thought the Wacht Am Rhein was a defensive operation, therefore a bulk of the massive amounts of supplies were placed at the east side of the Roer River. As a result, it created unnecessary delays in getting the supplies out to the rapidly advancing armies. Hitler, however delusional at this stage of the war, was not exempt from this realization even though the reports at his desk outlined relatively light losses in men and tanks. He took the advice of the field commanders and ordered a withdrawal on 7 Jan (when he was first approached with a recommendation to withdraw by General von Manteuffel in late Dec, Hitler refused immediately). By 16 Jan, the Allied forces regained a bulk of the territory held before the Bulge offensive, and on 23 Jan St. Vith was retaken. The German offensive was officially declared a failure by the Allied forces on 28 Jan 1945.
The final tally of military casualties was stunning. The Allies suffered 76,890 casualties (with 8,607 Americans killed) and lost 733 tanks; the German forces suffered an estimated 68,000 casualties with 12,000 killed and lost about the same number of tanks. Among the Americans, about 10% of the total casualties were in the 106th Division, while the 28th Division suffered dearly as well. While the total losses were roughly equal on each side, the Germans had lost a greater percentage of the available men and equipment than the Allies. The men and equipment lost were nearly impossible for Germany to replace at this stage of the war.
After the war, many German leaders were interviewed for their takes on how the Ardennes Offensive had played out. The officers in Berlin believed the offensive was operationally sound as the surprise was completely achieved, and the offensive was only held back by the Allied air superiority. The field commanders saw a different picture, however. The field commanders overwhelmingly thought that operationally it was impossible to maneuver the units as the units were all controlled directly by Berlin, especially the 6th SS Panzer Army, which reported to Hitler himself. The 6th SS Panzer Army was so misused that this fact alone, had it been remedied early, could have turned the tide of the war. During the first seven crucial days of the offensive, the 6th was sitting in a logistical nightmare, sitting in poor and muddy roads in a major traffic jam. Their forward forces were also unable to open a gap for the tanks to charge through if the German tanks were able to do so. Many German field commanders were aching to redeploy these idling tanks elsewhere but were bound by Hitler’s orders. Then there were the inept leaders on the battlefield, characterized by Dietrich, who fought bravely and fiercely but overall lacked the capacity to command such large bodies of troops; they only reached their positions on their unquestioned loyalty to the Nazi leadership. The American leaders attribute the German failure largely to the ability for Allied leaders to recover from the initial surprise and the bravery of American troops at key locations such as St. Vith and Spa.
After reaching the Vistula River Aug 1944, Soviet troops had slowed its advance, building up men and supplies in eastern Poland before launching the next offensive. On 12 Jan 1945, a large invasion force of 163 divisions with a total of 2,203,000 men, 4,529 tanks, 2,513 self-propelled guns, and 13,763 artillery pieces, supported by about 5,000 aircraft, was launched for the Vistula-Oder Offensive. The attacking force consisted of Marshal Georgi Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front and Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Facing the attack was Colonel General Josef Harpe’s German Army Group A, consisted of three armies (4th Panzer Army, 9th Army, and 17th Army) totaling 400,000 men, 1,150 tanks, and 4,100 artillery pieces.
The first attack in the offensive took place at 0435 hours on 12 Jan with Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front forces attacking out of the bridgehead at Baranów, Poland against positions held by troops of XLVIII Panzer Corps of German 4th Panzer Army; after a heavy artillery barrage, infantry followed up with probing attacks. At 0830 hours, the Soviet 1st Byelorussian Front launched its attack from the Magnuszew bridgehead (by Soviet 5th Shock Army and 8th Guards Army) and Pulawy bridgehead (by Soviet 33rd Army and 69th Army) following a heavy artillery barrage; as they opened gaps in German 9th Army’s defenses, tanks of Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army and 2nd Guards Tank Army were sent in to penetrate into the German rear, moving toward Lódz and Sochaczew, respectively. At 1000 hours, the second round of artillery barrage began at Baranów, and four hours later the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front launched a second attack, this time overwhelming the German lines and creating several gaps. On the same day, the Soviet 1st Army, 61st Polish Army, and 47th Army encircled Warsaw, Poland.
Over the course of the following few days, many German defensive positions in eastern Poland became cut off, but by the time Soviet forces reached Kielce, they had suffered serious casualties and needed time to regroup. On 14 Jan, Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front crossed the Nida River and moved toward Radomsko and the Warta River in central Poland.
On 15 Jan, Adolf Hitler intervened with tactical decisions and ordered the Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland to counterattack from East Prussia, Germany toward the positions held by the German 4th Panzer Army; this counterattack was launched against the advice of German General Heinz Guderian. The counterattack was repulsed by troops of the 1st Byelorussian Front, forcing the attackers to withdraw to the southwest.
In the evening of 16 Jan, German troops evacuated from Kielce. On the following day, 17 Jan, Warsaw was captured by Soviet troops. Hitler was furious at the abandonment of Warsaw after he had given the order to fight until the last man; he issued the order for the arrest of Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, head of the Operations Branch of the German Army High Command, and for the sacking of both General Smilo von Lüttwitz of German 9th Army (to be replaced by General Theodor Busse) and General Walter Fries of XXXXVI Panzer Corps.
On 17 Jan, Konev received orders for his Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front to march toward Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) and capture the industrial region of Upper Silesia. En route, his troops captured Kraków unopposed on 19 Jan.
On 18 Jan, Soviet troops reached Lódz, Poland, capturing the city on the following day.
On 20 Jan, Colonel General Ferdinand Schörner replaced Colonel General Josef Harpe as the head of German Army Group A. On 22 Jan, after four days of confusion and racing to prevent envelopment, the remnants of the German 4th Panzer Army successfully fled to the Oder River; by that time, Soviet forces had already reached the river at a few spots also, establishing several bridgeheads. On 25 Jan, Posen, Germany (now Poznan, Poland) became the target of a new Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army and 8th Guards Army attack, starting a long period of brutal street fighting in that city. Also on 25 Jan, General Friedrich Schulz of German 17th Army requested permission for his remaining 100,000 men to withdraw from Katowice, Poland, which was refused; he requested the same again on the following day, finally receiving authorization from Schörner. On 27 Jan, Soviet troops reached the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. German 17th Army completed its evacuation of Katowice in the night of 27 Jan, and troops of the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front entered the city on 28 Jan. On 31 Jan, Soviet troops captured Kienitz, Germany on the west bank of the Oder River.
After the offensive had generally stalled since 31 Jan, on 2 Feb 1945 the Soviet Stavka declared the operation complete. Although Zhukov realized that Berlin, only 70 kilometers to the west, was only lightly defended at this point, he was a supporter of the Stavka’s decision to stop the offensive, for that the parallel offensives in East Prussia and Pomerania should be brought to a conclusion to secure the northern flank. General Vasily Chuikov was among the chief proponents of continuing the offensive, but this group would not get their wish. According to Soviet history, the offensive cost the Soviet forces 43,476 killed and 150,715 wounded, while killing 150,000 and capturing 70,000; these statistics should be taken in the consideration that Soviet reports at the time tended to under-estimate Soviet casualties and over-estimate that of the Germans.
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Windsor, England (CNN)The masses roared, as they always do on such occasions, and under a cloudless English sky in the historic town of Windsor, there was a new beginning.
It was a royal wedding like no other; a gospel choir sang, Dr. Martin Luther King was quoted in a rousing address and a young couple was united in a marriage that will change a venerable institution forever.
Greeted by cheering crowds, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex emerged from St. George’s Chapel and kissed on the steps as the sun shone down.
The marriage of the sixth in line to the throne to Meghan Markle, a biracial American, saw the British monarchy transform into something more representative of its people than it has been before.
On the cobbled streets of Windsor, among the snaking river of people who turned out to celebrate, there was a sense from many that the newest member of the royal family had reinvigorated “The Firm.”
“It’s good there’s diversity in the royal family, it means a lot,” said Abha Trivedi, a Californian who had relocated to London two weeks ago and slept overnight on a chair for a prime spot of the royal procession.
Daljit Sidhu, of South Asian heritage but from Langley near Windsor, echoed such sentiments.
“As Asians it’s important,” the 41-year-old said. “I was born and bred here, but you were always different. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have thought this would happen.”
Pageantry with majesty
The German government wants to extend six military missions, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen pushed for more Bundeswehr interventions, but not everyone backs the move.
The German government wants to expand and adapt its foreign military missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Mali, Angela Merkel’s Cabinet agreed on Wednesday. The German parliament will have the final say, as it does on all of Germany’s military operations.
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told public broadcaster ARD on Wednesday morning that the Bundeswehr needs to redirect its efforts in Iraq after the successful defeat of the Islamic State (IS) militia in the country. The focus would now be supporting Iraq’s reconstruction efforts.
“It’s in our interests that it becomes a stable country over the years,” she said.
Von der Leyen claimed that the Bundeswehr mission to train the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, which is due to end at the end of April, had been “a great success,” and pushed to expand it. In the future, the Bundeswehr would also maintain a presence in Baghdad and Irbil, where it would advise on building ministries and providing soldiers with medical supplies, the defense minister said.
Germany would also continue to fly reconnaissance missions with its Tornado fighters and keep refuelling planes in Iraq. The total number of troops involved in the Iraq mission would drop to a maximum of 800.
MP questions Germany’s motivation
The Bundestag will now have to vote on the proposed Bundeswehr extensions and expansions. While approval is likely due to support from CDU and Social Democratic (SPD) politicians, the two parties that will make up Germany’s long-awaited government, the measure will not be without dissent.
Alexander Neu, security policy spokesman for the Left party, expressed skepticism about the underlying purpose of Germany’s planned capacity-building mission in Iraq.
“Beneath the cipher of reconstruction and strengthening security forces, of course it’s about the politics of influence,” Neu told DW. “Anyone who builds up security forces of course has a significant influence on the political direction of the country. In Iraq it’s about limiting the influence of Iran on the Iraqi army. That’s the reason behind the German engagement,” he argued.
He also criticized why Germany was involved in Iraq in the first place. “Who expects us to take part? The US? It is completely irrelevant what the US wants,” Neu said. “Germany has its own sovereign interests.” Since December 2015, German Tornados have been flying reconnaissance missions to support the US military operation against Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, known as Operation Inherent Resolve.
“When it comes to Iraq, one could say that the Iraqi government has made this invitation — but in Syria it is not at all clear that there is a basis under international law, and, of course, the Bundeswehr is operating in Syria with the deployment of Tornados over Syrian territory,” Neu added. “That definitely does not conform to international law.”
His words took aim at Defense Minister von der Leyen’s interview, in which she had underlined the international legal basis as it pertained to Germany’s mission in Iraq. “We have the invitation of the [Iraqi] prime minister, and we are there shoulder to shoulder with the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and many other countries,” the defense minister said. Syria was not discussed in the interview.
The never-ending Afghanistan mission
Von der Leyen also used Wednesday’s interview to call for an expansion of the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan, where Germany has contributed to NATO missions for the past 17 years.
Von der Leyen described the Bundeswehr’s contribution to NATO’s two missions (ISAF from 2001 to 2014; Resolute Support since 2015) as a “story of progress on the one side, but of course also setbacks.”
The defense minister argued that the educational opportunities for children, the status of women, health care and infrastructure in Afghanistan had all improved over the years, but that Afghanistan’s own army, now comprising some 350,000 soldiers, was still struggling to keep the country safe. The Afghan military controls around 60 percent of the country, though Taliban fighters still have managed to carry out attacks on government facilities — as well as on the German Embassy in Kabul.
Up until now, the Bundeswehr has kept a maximum of 980 troops in the country, though von der Leyen wants to raise that limit to 1,300.
Mali: the most dangerous mission
Meanwhile, the Bundeswehr is to send an extra 100 soldiers to join the United Nations’ mission in Mali, increasing the German contribution in the western African nation to a maximum of 1,100 officers. The proposal came in a joint letter to the Cabinet from von der Leyen and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel seen by news agency dpa.
The Bundeswehr has been part of the Mali mission since 2013, when the UN sent troops to help maintain a peace agreement that was set in place after a French military operation against Islamist rebel groups in the north of the country. There are a total of 12,000 UN soldiers in the country, as well as 1,700 UN police officers. Some 100 soldiers have been killed in Mali so far, with hundreds more seriously injured.
Neu argued that the Germany was allowing itself to be dragged into the conflict without properly reflecting on its origins. “These are conflicts that the West also has to take some of the responsibility for,” he said. “The situation in Mali can’t be explained without talking about NATO’s toppling of the regime in Libya. It was only after that the problems in Mali began. For me it doesn’t seem credible to send more troops there without even mentioning the fall of [Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi and drawing the consequences from that.”
Germany also is planning for a year-long extension of the Bundeswehr’s contribution to the UN mission in Darfur, South Sudan, and its contribution to the NATO Sea Guardian mission in the Mediterranean, which is supposed to secure shipping routes.
Germany currently has a total of 3,900 soldiers in active operations around the world.
Can the Bundeswehr manage?
In recent months, the German military has been dogged by stories of equipment shortages and underfunding, leading to a general perception that the Bundeswehr is under-prepared in Europe. Some soldiers have already criticized von der Leyen’s new ambitions.
The Darmstädter Signal, a “critical forum of citizens in uniform” that views itself as a military watchdog organization, said the army would struggle to fulfill the extra commitments. “No, it won’t manage it,” spokesman Florian Kling told broadcaster SWR. “We don’t even have the planes to get our soldiers to the foreign missions. The situation with personnel and equipment is so tight that the Bundeswehr is actually close to collapse.”
Kling also said that expanding the mission in Iraq would make it more dangerous for German soldiers. “Where troops are in movement, they will be in danger of touching mines and being attacked by terrorists,” he said. “It can really only end badly.”