|Speculative History Series Pt. 1|
|A Wider War on the Elbe|
|by Patrick Graham|
For most academics, counter-factual history is at best an entertaining dalliance that lacks the interrogative weight necessary for serious academic inquiry. However, it can be used as a tool to explore the causes and antecedents of actual historical realities. One can glean some of the causes of major events by exploring what may have caused these events to have not of happened and what the consequences of such occurrences might be. It is easy to see how the Second World War can become a magnet for such speculation. Since its conclusion generations of analysts, strategist and amateur ‘armchair generals’ have speculated on how the war might have been prosecuted differently by various belligerent forces and what the outcomes of such changes might have held for the soldiers fighting the war and the world at large.
With the release of Axis and Allies Miniatures: Reserves it becomes a possibility for players and enthusiasts to explore the tactical implications that some of these alternative histories might have brought. There are many fascinating technological advancements and fanciful military forays that never made an appearance at the time. It is interesting to imagine what circumstances might have brought such machines on to the battlefield and see what effect, if any they might have had. As such it is crucially important to explore the context within which such developments occurred.
From February 4th to 11th in 1945, the ‘Big Three’ allied leaders assembled at Yalta in the Crimea to make plans for and hammer out agreements on the inevitable post-war Europe and the conclusion of the war with Japan. It was widely regarded as a coup for Stalin who was able to impress his demands regarding Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, on an ailing President Roosevelt and an increasingly powerless Winston Churchill. At stake was the future of Eastern Europe, promised liberation by England and by extension America and now occupied by Soviet troops. Already, millions of refugees were streaming into the west to escape both the depredations of the Red Army (whose dire work in East Prussia remains a mostly forgotten tragedy) and the possibilities of persecution were they to live under communist rule. The immediate aftermath of the war saw many of these people forcibly repatriated back to their homes by the American and British armies, only to be imprisoned or executed, sometimes not far from the soldiers who grudgingly handed them over to the Red Army. The darker legacy of the Yalta conference meant the much of Europe was condemned to trade between the dictatorship of the Nazis and that of the Soviets. However the alternative to acquiescence to Stalin’s demands may have been equally grim. The outcome of Yalta is not just one of fortitude and resolve, but also one of calculated risk. What became the Cold War could easily have started as a very hot one. This is where the speculation begins.
In January of 1945, once the German Ardennes Offensive, known famously as the Battle of the Bulge, was snuffed out it was clear that that Germany as a military power was in a state of collapse. In spite of this, the scraps of the Wehrmacht continued to fight with as much tenacity as before and display their typical resilience while on the defensive. The Allied armies in the west dithered and it wasn’t until March that a bridgehead across the Rhine was secured, first at Remagen, and its defenses were behind the British, French and American soldiers fighting into Germany. The possibility of an American drive to Berlin dangled in front of the man in command of these armies, General Eisenhower. However, it was quite clear to the Allies that the Soviets were supposed to take the city and that status quo would be the most diplomatic course of action for the Allied armies in the west. History would have them content with securing the rest of the Netherlands and pushing into Southern Germany and Austria. Critics of Eisenhower’s command of the Allied armies claimed that he lacked the vision to make such a politicized military decision, especially when those under his command such as General Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery champed at the bit for the glory of securing the capital of the Reich. Instead Eisenhower waited, and waited until the war was over. It was, in this author’s opinion the correct decision as he didn’t truly have the authority to do as such, but the possibility of Eisenhower unleashing the U.S. Third Army on a drive to Berlin becomes much more tantalizing if the political circumstances were different.
Returning to Yalta and Roosevelt, history has noted the stark contrast between his relationship with the Soviet Union and his successor, Harry Truman. Stalin knew full well that Roosevelt was both sick and willing to back down on several issues if it meant peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. In spite of his daring leadership of a generation of Americans, Roosevelt was somewhat naïve in his optimism and expectations of Stalin to stick to promises of free elections in Soviet occupied territories. They would be promises he would never live to see broken as he died on April 12th, 1945, long before the sham elections of 1947 in Poland or even the conclusion of the war. The comparatively hawkish Truman might have been an altogether different force for America had he been President at Yalta in the case that Roosevelt had not survived to even 1945. However, Stalin was no less hardnosed and given the enormous cost to the Russian people, especially when stacked against the comparatively niggling loss of life by the other combatants, the land that was hard won and paid for with Russian blood in the faced of harrowing German atrocities would not be given up without a fight. If the other Allies were willing to make a stand against Stalin for the fate of Europe it would have certainly led to continued hostilities. However, one must also note the cost of continued war for a nearly exhausted Britain and even the Soviet Union which had already lost close to 30 million people in the conflict. Cooler heads could always prevail in such a situation. Diplomacy could have lead to a partitioned Europe in the east as well.
In this theoretical scenario where World War II would go on until either the Red Army was pushed back to Russia or the remaining Allies knocked off the European Continent, the counter-factual prospects vary greatly. Would Germany join the Americans to drive out the Russians or sit forlornly on the sidelines, trying to rebuild herself as foreigners fought over her territory? Would the United States use nuclear weapons to deny Stalin the conquest of Europe or to decapitate the Soviet Union itself? Such prospects are wild and hazy, but this scenario will focus on something much more specific. On April 25th, the Soviet 5th Guards Army and the American 1st army met on the Elbe River just outside of Torgau. Historically this was a much publicized joining of merry and committed Allies in the war against fascism. However, after the [photographs, the Americans and Russians mostly stuck to their side of the river although remaining very genial until they were redeployed. Given that differences between the Soviet Union and the other Allies regarding the political fate of Europe lead to a state of continued war, how would a hostile rather than friendly meeting had resolved here as the Russians and American armies crossed paths for the first time?
Allied Situation: As word circulates about continued negotiations between American, British and Russian diplomats as the armies of both Patton and Zhukov jockey around Berlin, many soldiers in the relatively new 69th Infantry Division worry about the break out of an all new war with the Soviet Union. The whole front is on high alert as Eisenhower prepares the Allies to be ready for a preemptive Soviet attack through the southern axis of Germany. While new troops are arriving from the United States, those already in Germany have suffered from attrition and many wonder if they alone could hold off a concerted Russian attack. Reinforcements are to arrive in a week, but in the meantime I company of the 453rd Infantry Battalion has been order to defend a mile long stretch of the Elbe River near Torgau. It’s a lot of ground to cover for only 120 men, but with good organization and armored support, they might be able to hold any attack at bay long enough for at least some engineers to arrive and blow the bridges.
Soviet Situation: Stalin’s exhaustion with the negotiations over Eastern Europe have led him to develop plans to strike first while the Allies are still forming up their lines west of the Elbe. While just the utmost forward tip of the massive fighting force congealing to unleash itself on Western Germany, if the rumors are true about American weakness in the South then a bridgehead could easily be exploited. New tanks have been deployed with the spearhead to demonstrate the technical and armored superiority of a new generation of Russian weapons. Seize as many points across the river as possible and drive the American defenders back.
Speculative History Series Pt. 1: A Wider War on the Elbe
In an alternate history, on April 25th 1945, elements of the 69th Infantry Division must hold the Elbe River near Torgau from advancing Russian soldiers. Riding atop tanks and captured German transports, Soviet forces must try to secure even the slightest foothold across the Elbe.
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