Published May 07, 2005
It's been 60 years since May 8, 1945 — Victory in Europe Day — when allied forces quashed Adolf Hitler's army for good, prompting a German surrender in World War II.
Now, men and women who experienced firsthand the war and all that went with it during the last days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich speak out. Watch "War Stories," hosted by Oliver North on the FOX News Channel on Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT.
The Beginning of the End
Around 1 p.m. on June 22, 1941, 3 million German soldiers smashed into the Soviet Union along a 1,100-mile front though occupied Poland. Supported by 3,600 tanks, 2,700 aircraft and 625,000 horses, Hitler's most ambitious invasion would mark the beginning of the end of his reign.
"We all owe an enormous amount that Hitler made this one huge, colossal, devastating blunder by taking on the Soviets," said historian Max Hastings (search).
What Hitler faced was Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader who butchered and imprisoned his own people by the millions. Hitler considered Stalin to be a great, significant man, and was pleased to measure himself against the Soviet leader.
"It was a terrifying experience to be a Soviet soldier because you were the servant of a tyranny as ghastly and as murderous in its way as that of Hitler," said Hastings, author of the book, "Armageddon: The Battle for Germany."
In Freiburg, Germany, then-15-year-old Joachim Fest (search) expected he would eventually fight for his country. His older brother, Wolfgang, had died in battle with the Soviets.
"There was the danger of being taken as a Russian prisoner of war. No one wanted that; everyone was afraid of that," said Fest. The author of "Inside Hitler's Bunker" noted that the German leader, however, had a "very good grasp of offensive positions" in war.
Hitler handpicked his field marshals for the three-pronged invasion: Ritter Von Leeb was ordered to seize Leningrad, Fedor Von Bock was directed to capture Moscow and Gerd Von Rundstedt was sent to Kiev in the Ukraine. For three months, Hitler's army, the Wehrmacht, marched eastward virtually unopposed.
As Von Bock's army reached the outskirts of Moscow in October 1941, Russian civilians like Pavel Beleyev and Maria Faustova answered the call to arms. Faustova was one of 30 girls from her town to become radio operators and Beleyev left Moscow to help defend the city.
In the north, Leningrad's 2.5 million citizens were besieged by Von Leeb. In the first three months, 60,000 people starved to death, including the family of then-15-year-old Nikolai Belousov (search); 1 million civilians eventually perished in the 900-day siege.
"When the Germans began the blockade, it was just horrible," Belousov said. "The worst was having to bury many of my friends and family."
In Moscow, the legendary Soviet winter helped Russian military strategist Georgi Zhukov launch a counterattack. As temperatures dipped below zero degrees, German supply lines froze to a halt. By December, with Wehrmacht casualties exceeding a half-million in the Moscow campaigns, Panzer Gen. Heinz Guderian asked Hitler for permission to retreat. But a furious fuhrer wouldn't have it. He later fired Guderian and Von Bock and replaced Von Rundstedt.
"He even had the crazy nerve to declare war on America," Fest said.
But in June 1942, during a visit to field marshall Carl Von Mannerheim in Helsinki, Finland, Hitler seemed to recognize his strategic error.
"We ourselves did not know exactly just how incredible this state [the USSR] was," Hitler said, according to recently released secret recordings of the conversation between the two men. "I only had this nightmare — but there is even more. Because a war on two fronts … would have broken us. Today we see more clearly than we saw at the time."
Bogged down in the siege at Leningrad and turned away at Moscow, Hitler next turned his sights on the industrial city of Stalingrad, the gateway to the oil-rich Caucasus.
The War of the Rats
At Stalingrad in the winter of 1942, 300,000 troops of 52-year-old Gen. Friedrich Von Paulus faced nearly a half-million battle-hardened Russians commanded by Zhukov and his comrade, Vasily Chuikov. They called it "Rattenkrieg" — war of the rats.
For five months, the German 6th Army fought an increasingly hopeless battle; frostbite, disease and hunger were rampant on both sides. From his East Prussia headquarters known as the "Wolf's Lair," Hitler categorically denied Paulus' request to surrender. "The army will hold its position to the last soldier and last cartridge," he ordered.
But on Feb. 1, 1943, Paulus surrendered and his remaining 91,000 troops became prisoners of Stalin's Red Army.
"I am convinced that, certainly after Stalingrad, he [Hitler] thought, knew, the war is lost, and now the end must be made as big as possible," Fest said.
After the 1943 defeat at Stalingrad, there was nothing but bad news from the Eastern front. Hitler became increasingly depressed, physically frail and isolated at Wolf's Lair.
"He didn't want to hear bad news," Fest said.
A staunch vegetarian, Hitler was also a hypochondriac. One of his personal physicians injected him with drug concoctions to improve his nerves and circulation. The doctor pressed Hitler to go to Obersalzberg occasionally to recuperate. About 500 miles west of Wolf's Lair, Obersalzberg, carved into the German Alps in the village of Berchtesgaden, was a palatial fortress used by the Nazi elite.
Hitler took Eva Braun (search) as his mistress there.
"It was dangerous to talk about it in any way, it was secret," said Myrthie Schneider, who, 19 years old at the time, worked as an assistant cook there. "Outwardly, it was not known that Eva Braun existed … her parents were not at all in agreement with her becoming Hitler's mistress and for a long time, they did not visit her at the mountain complex. And then, Hitler commanded the parents to come."
As Hitler acted out a bucolic life with Eva and posed for pictures with young German children, however, his factories at places like Treblinka, Dachau and Auschwitz were murderously operating at full capacity. More than 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others deemed unfit for his Aryan nation would die unimaginable deaths.
Plot to Kill Hitler
The German generals knew that after D-Day (search) — the day the allies invaded the beaches of Normandy, June 6, 1944 — the game was up. But what they didn't realize, Hastings said, was "the only way to save the German people from the ghastly agony that must come from fighting yard by yard over German soil, which is what happened."
In July of 1944, some of Hitler's generals attempted to assassinate him.
"Hitler never again trusted the Germany army or its generals but it is fantastic, that here was what was regarded as the best army in the world, and it couldn’t even come up with an effective plot to assassinate one man, who was not even particularly well-guarded," Hastings said.
On July 20, 1944, aided by a small handful of co-conspirators, Col. Claus Von Stauffenberg had planted a bomb beneath a heavy oak table at Wolf's Lair. Hitler was bent over the maps on the table when the bomb exploded.
"Hitler had come out unscathed, except that his eardrums had burst, but his suit was completely filthy and his pants were completely destroyed," said Hans Fehrs (search), who joined the German Waffen SS, or Schutzstaffel, at the age of 21.
A shaken Hitler thought it was divine providence he survived. He rounded up, tortured and executed Von Stauffenberg and thousands of those he called traitors and conspirators. Security checks at Obersalzberg were reinforced.
Battle of the Bulge
Against his general's advice, Hitler ordered a desperate winter offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge.
By December 1944, allied forces had pierced some 500 miles into the heart of Hitler's "fortress Europe." Rome had been liberated in June, Paris in August and now they were at Germany's doorstep. Some thought the war would soon be over.
But Hitler was focused on recapturing the Belgian port city of Antwerp, which he lost to British Gen. Bernard Montgomery in September.
"The Arden offensive, which became the Battle of the Bulge, was Hitler's personal baby," Hastings said. "He decided that he would launch a great counteroffensive in what he called 'the season of fog and snow.'"
Hitler's army didn't have enough fuel or ammunitions and the German generals were opposed to the attack because they knew that if they attacked Americans, they would feel that country's wrath.
But on Dec. 16, at 5:30 a.m., about 250,000 German troops, cloaked in the dense fog, roared across an 85-mile front to eastern Belgium and northern Luxembourg. They were led by Gen. Gerd Von Rundstedt, whose orders were to cut through Belgium, cross the Meuse River, turn northwest and capture Brussels and Antwerp.
"The Arden came as a terrible shock to the Allies," Hastings said. "They couldn’t see what the point was of the Germans attacking the Arden. So they failed to remember that all through the war, Hitler had a penchant of huge, completely irrational operations that simply fit in with his own mad design."
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (search), the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, quickly sensed this was more than a "local attack" and called for reinforcements. The 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were on their way and Gen. George Patton, 90 miles away in France, would soon join them.
As Patton and his troops raced north, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe's 101st Airborne Division arrived at the crucial junction of Bastogne to begin their legendary defense of the small Belgian town. By Dec. 20, 18,000 Americans were surrounded by German Gen. Hasso Von Manteuffel's 5th Panzer Division.
The harshest winter in 50 years kept aircraft from helping allied troops involved in the battle but on Dec. 23, the skies cleared. The day after Christmas, Patton's troops relieved the 101st at Batogne. Brutal fighting at the Bulge would go on for another three weeks but Hitler's last gamble had failed.
"By the winter of '44, somewhere in his tormented psyche, he [Hitler] knew the game was up," Hastings said. "And he was as willing to settle for a final act, which was a bloodbath, worthy in his eyes of the cataclysm of the Third Reich."
Despite allied victory in the month-long Battle of the Bulge (search), some 200,000 casualties were left on both sides put together; 100,000 Germans, killed, wounded or captured; 81,000 American casualties, including 23,554 captured and 19,000 killed; and 1,400 British casualties, 200 of which were deaths.
Hitler Now a 'Dreadful Site'
Stalin was determined to wreak total destruction upon Germany and by February 1945, led by field marshal Georgi Zhukob, Red Army troops were only 45 miles from the German capital. Hitler, in a downward spiral, sought refuge in his Berlin bunker. One of his staff members described him as "a dreadful sight … saliva frequently dripped from the corners of his mouth."
But Hitler continued send in tens of thousands of soldiers — every able body between the ages of 16 and 60 — to slaughter.
"I was 15 at the time. My mother was alone in Breslow and the news reached that Russians had invaded Silesia," said Armin Lehmann, a then-devoted Hitler youth member since the age of 10. "I was never afraid of death. But I was afraid of dying, just from what I saw. The Russians were soldiers, too, but they slaughter, which means they let you die a little slow death."
Meanwhile, Sgt. Joe Regan of Iowa, a ball-turret gunner in a B-17, was in the thick of the allied bombing missions over Germany — action that rivaled any Hollywood movie.
"We were going, doing 360s over Dortmund, Bahn, Cologne … it was heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns," Regan said. "So we were just getting the devil shot up. [We] could see planes going down on both sides of us. I thought, 'My gosh, these are not going to be milk runs.' We had 32 holes in the plane when we got back. But … from then on, we kept going a little deeper into Germany."
As Regan's plane took fire, those aboard bailed out. Regan landed deep behind enemy lines, less than 50 miles from the Russian front. Separate from his crew, Regan managed to evade capture for five days, then the inevitable happened.
"I saw somebody coming up the road. I thought, 'well, maybe it's a Russian' … this guy walked up to me and said, 'Rusky?'" I said, 'No,' I said, 'American flier' … he said, oh, 'Americanisch flieger ya, com.' So he didn't even take his gun off his back, he didn't search me or anything … I just walked with him up the road."
Regan on April 1 was taken to a prisoner of war camp at Nuremberg, the unholy shrine of Nazi Germany and home to spectacular party rallies.
Dr. Eckart Dietzfelbinger, the scientific assistant at the documentation center museum at the former Nazi Party rally grounds, took "War Stories" on a tour of the stage upon which Hitler rose to power.
"The Nazis transported their messages from here," Dietzfelbinger said. "And from here, from this point exactly, Hitler declared in 1938 he would attack Czechoslovakia."
But that was at the height of Hitler's power. Even as a POW, Regan knew Hitler's days of glory were numbered.
"We thought surely we'd get liberated at Nuremberg," Regan said. "Patton was just around the hill from us."
Crossing the Shrine
On March 7, 1945, 8,000 soldiers of the American 9th Armored Division crossed the Rhine River, the last natural barrier into the German heartland. The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen had been left intact by the Germans. There, a 19-year-old Joachim Fest came face-to-face with the Americans in a battle later portrayed in the famous movie, "The Bridge at Remagen."
"At the corner, I ran into a GI and he immediately yelled, 'hands up!' And I also said 'hands up!' for him. But then other American soldiers showed up right away and I was taken captive," Fest said. "And the next day, we drove to Attichi, a famous prisoner camp, central camp near Paris where about, almost half a million German soldiers had been brought together in very primitive tents and accommodations."
Meanwhile, Patton's Third Army reached the Rhine on March 22, 1945, on its way to Berlin. And with mounting pressure from Washington, Gen. Eisenhower decided to leave Berlin to the Soviets and cabled Stalin to let him know. Patton didn't take the news well.
"He had a couple little tears in his eyes," Patton's driver, Sanza, said of his boss when he was told not to proceed. "I think that's what he fought for, you know. It hurt him, I guess … he didn't get Berlin, or he didn't get Rommel. If he'd have let him go, he'd have went to Russia."
It had already been decided that Berlin was going to be in the middle of the Soviet zone; Eisenhower didn't see the point in putting more lives at risk for a symbolic victory with little meaning left. Patton could only watch the Soviet advance to the city he'd dreamed of conquering.
On the western front, the Allies encouraged the German troops to surrender; Patton's Third and Gen. Alexander Patch's 7th Armies continued to meet stiff resistance. Meanwhile, the American Regan had been forced to march about 60 miles from a POW camp in Nuremberg to Stalag7A in Moosburg, just outside of Munich.
"It was a hell hole. It was filthy and overcrowded," Regan said of his new camp. "As a matter of fact, I heard one time there was 135,000 prisoners of war in that camp."
But on April 29, Patton's Third Army smashed through the prison gates to rescue the prisoners.
A Birthday From Hell
After fighting in Nuremberg (search), on April 20, 1945, Sgt. Joe Borriello and the Third Infantry Division sent Hitler a birthday message: a picture of the Nazi leader's backyard in downtown Nuremberg with infantry troops lined up, raising the American flag.
Two days later, following an award ceremony at Zeppelin Field, a candle for the fuhrer's cake: the destruction of the swastika, the Nazis' ultimate symbol.
Deep inside his bunker, a paranoid Hitler continued to order his staff to round up anyone suspected of trying to kill him. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death catapulted Hitler's psychosis to new heights. He continued to order killings as his inner circle fell apart.
The Nazis "ruthlessly hunted down anyone who had any remote connection with the bomb plot, and by the end of the war, they'd hanged something like 5,000 people," said the historian Hastings. "Hitler continued to exact retribution in the most terrible fashion for those he'd perceived as betraying the cause right to the bitter end."
Armaments Minister Albert Speer knew the game was up. SS and Gestapo leader Heinrich Himmler was secretly negotiating with the Swedes and an arrogant Hermann Goering was convinced he was going to be the new fuhrer.
Only a select few remained loyal. One of them was Eva Braun and another was Armin Lehmann, the 16-year-old soldier handpicked to be presented to Hitler on the Nazi leader's 56th birthday.
"Hitler was shaken so badly he couldn't even really shake your hand," Lehmann said. "He had, his arm was shaking so much that he had to hold on to his jacket."
Meanwhile, Soviet marshal Georgi Zhukov had closed in on Berlin with 2.5 million Russian troops, 20 field armies and more than 40,000 mortars and artillery pieces. In the battered Reich chancellery, a mentally and physically degrading Hitler gorged himself on chocolate cake and waited for the end.
While he was on courier duty dodging Russian bullets, Lehmann delivered messages to and from Hitler's bunker to the remnants of the Third Reich. In his recent book on Hitler's bunker, Lehmann recounts his experiences, describing the area as "a madhouse" with orgies and drinking in excess. In the midst of it all, Hitler decided to marry Braun.
An engineer who repaired ventilation systems in the bunker had been captured by Stalin's secret police squad and told the Russians about the wedding.
"The Russians didn't believe a word of it," said Hastings. "They said, 'You can't have a wedding in the middle of this climactic battle for the end of the Second World War.'"
A day after the wedding, on April 30, 1945, Hitler and his new wife committed suicide by ingesting cyanide capsules. Hitler first tested the poison on his beloved dog, Blondi. Some say Hitler also shot himself. It's believed that the couple's bodies were burned in or around the bunker.
German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, also poisoned their six children and killed themselves.
Liberation at Dachau
Pvt. Richard Marowitz of the 42nd Infantry Division was a skinny Jewish 19-year-old from Brooklyn. He was a talented trumpet player assigned to an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. During a routine mission on April 29, 1945, he walked through the gates of hell.
"Thousands of bodies. There were 30,000 in the camp," Marowitz said of the Dachau concentration camp. "Human skeletons walking down the street drop dead in front of you. ... When you see the pictures, you can shake your head, but if you were there, it's an unbelievable scene, just absolutely unbelievable."
Marowitz said prisoners pointed out those SS troops who tried to don prisoners' clothing to blend in.
The day after Marowitz witnessed the horrors of Dachau, he was sent to gather intelligence from Hitler's Munich apartment. He didn't find anything very useful but he did find Hitler's silk top hat with the initials "A.H." in gold letters.
"To this day, I could see his head in the hat," Marowitz said. "And I threw it on the floor, jumped off the chair, onto the hat and stomped the hell out of it … it made me feel better to jump on the hat. Too bad his head wasn't in it."
A week after Marowitz's dance, the remnants of the Third Reich surrendered to the Allies and the world danced with him.
VE Day Today
These witnesses to Hitler's last days slowly went back to normal lives.
Marowitz became a magician and lives in his native New York. Myrthe Schneider married and raised a family and continues to live in Germany. Hans Fehrs and Joachim Fest both served time as prisoners of the Allies. After their release, Fehrs worked as a salesman for a German paper company. Fest became an acclaimed author of six books on the Third Reich. Armin Lehmann married an American and worked 35 years in the travel industry; he continued to warn young people about the dangers of fanaticism.
Borriello returned to Meriden, Conn., and spent 40 years as an educator. Joe Regan married his sweetheart, Kay, and worked at Boeing Aircraft for 36 years. And Francis Sanza married Evelyn, who, during he war, worked as an electrician on submarines. They line in Napa, Calif.
Military officials Montgomery of Britain, Eisenhower of the United States and Zhukov of the Soviet Union raised their glasses in a rare toast; their united front crushed the Third Reich and drove Hitler to suicide.
But the battle for Germany killed tens of millions of people and left Europe in ruins. Over 200,000 Americans were killed. In the aftermath, Americans invested billions of dollars to rebuild Europe and help Germany become one of the strongest democracies and economic powers in the world.
For those who brought an end to the Third Reich, theirs is a war story that deserves to be told.
FOX News' Pamela K. Browne and Ayse Wieting contributed to this report.