The German Retreat from the East

Throughout the fall and winter of 1944, Soviet forces slowly but steadily made their way toward Germany through eastern Europe. The brunt of the assault was concentrated on Poland, where most of the Nazis’ concentration camps were located. By early November 1944, the German S.S. was trying frantically to dismantle these camps and hide evidence of the atrocities that had taken place. The Nazis forced those prisoners who were still living to march on foot westward to Germany. On November 20, Hitler himself retreated, abandoning his staff headquarters at Rastenburg along the Polish-German border and relocating to Berlin.

The Yalta Conference

On February 4, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin came together for a now-famous meeting at Yalta, a resort on the Crimean Peninsula in the USSR. During the meeting, the “Big Three,” as they came to be called, discussed their strategy for the last stages of the war. They agreed that Britain and the United States would provide bomber support for Soviet troops fighting along the eastern front.

The three leaders also spoke about the issue of how Europe would be divided after the war, with particular concern regarding the situation in Poland, which was by this point controlled entirely by the Soviet Union. With considerable difficulty, Roosevelt and Churchill managed to pressure Stalin into holding democratic elections in Poland. However, these turned out to be heavily rigged in favor of a pro-Soviet Communist government.

The Soviet Advance

Meanwhile, the Red Army had moved deep into Hungary and, by early December, had taken most of the country except for the area immediately around Budapest. U.S. and British aircraft provided support as the Soviets advanced into German territory, making devastating bombing attacks on the cities of Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin. Dresden, in particular, was almost completely destroyed.

By late March 1945, the Red Army had secured all of eastern Europe. It continued its advance into Austria, capturing the capital of Vienna on April 13. By this time, the Allied forces coming from France had crossed the Rhine River and were moving swiftly toward Berlin from the west. The Allies decided to let Soviet forces enter Berlin first, while British and U.S. forces concentrated on other areas to the north and south.

Roosevelt’s Death

On April 12, 1945, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose health had been failing for some time, died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his vacation home in Georgia. The United States saw an outpouring of grief, as Roosevelt had been president an unprecedented twelve years and, in addition to being an effective commander in chief and diplomatic leader, had almost single-handedly rallied the American people through the hardships of the war. Vice President Harry S Truman succeeded Roosevelt as president.

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