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Hitler's secret underground fortress.

In a hidden stronghold high in the Alps, a last-chance Nazi army could hold out for years.

The idea delighted Hitler.

It made the Allies sweat.

AS THE WESTERN ALLIES PREPARED TO INVADE GERMANY in February 1945, the editors of Time magazine warned that the end of the war in Europe might not be as near as most military observers believed. The editors thought the days of the Wehrmacht--Germany's collective armed forces--were numbered, "but what of the top Nazis who can not hide?" Retribution was certain for them.

Time's answer read like a movie plot: "With a compact army of young SS and Hitler Youth fanatics, they will retreat, behind a loyal rearguard cover ... to the Alpine massif which reaches from southern Bavaria across western Austria to northern Italy. There immense stores of food and munitions are being laid down in prepared fortifications. If the retreat is a success, such an army might hold out for years."

Time was repeating sketchy but widely credited rumors that Adolf Hitler, anticipating the collapse of Germany's defenses, had ordered the creation of a stronghold in the Bavarian or Italian Alps where he could make a last stand. Known variously to the Germans as the Alpenfestung ("Alpine Fortress"), the Bavarian Redoubt, or the Inner Fortress, and to the Allies as the National Redoubt, this self-contained defensive complex supposedly featured fortified works atop sheer cliffs and underground caves, tunnels, and bunkers. These were said to be large enough to house massive reserves of rations, munitions, and state-of-the-art weaponry that included rocket launchers, long-range ballistic missiles, and jet aircraft. If enough German fighting men fell back to this refuge before Allies could overtake them, they might mount a formidable defense. Even if they couldn't stave off defeat, they might at least unleash a suicidal bloodbath of catastrophic proportions.

It was a chilling scenario, but it rested on rumors--and fragmentary, inconsistent rumors at that. The brass at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) found it difficult to give such rumors full credence. But the possibility that some sort of defensive work might exist had been a source of lingering concern to American intelligence and operations officers since the latter part of 1944 and even, by some accounts, as early as the fall of 1943. And to many military observers, the idea of a National Redoubt did not seem farfetched. After all, Hitler and his fanatical supporters had already resorted to extreme measures to extend the life and influence of the Third Reich. He might view a final slaughter as a fitting climax to his bloody quest for world domination.

There were powerful psychological reasons for the Americans to take the idea of a redoubt seriously. A last stand for the Nazis, even if ultimately unsuccessful, might erase or at least soften the stigma of German defeat. SHAEF's chief of staff for intelligence, Major General Kenneth W.D. Strong, feared that outcome. He knew it could allow generations of Germans to claim their country had never surrendered. They might also conclude that the Nazi regime's twisted values remained worthy and relevant.

On the other hand, there were logical reasons to discount the rumors of a National Redoubt. Although vast--some 240 miles from east and west and 80 miles from north to south--the alpine area in question was not rich in the industrial and agricultural resources required to support such an enterprise. It also seemed unlikely that a massive labyrinth of surface and underground defenses could have been constructed in almost total secrecy.

Still, Allied intelligence could not say with certainty that the redoubt did not exist. By early 1945, the Western Allies' intelligence officers were sharply divided on the matter. Brigadier General Reuben E. Jenkins, the Sixth Army Group's operations chief, noted that some intelligence experts accepted the likelihood of a "final defense project" in the Alps. But just as many others felt the whole idea was enough "to tax the credulity of even the most pessimistic" military intelligence officer.

Even supreme Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower seemed torn. His orders and actions during the early months of 1945 show he was unconvinced that a mountain edition of the Siegfried Line was waiting in the Alps to confront his armies. The image of an underground bastion encased in layers of concrete and steel and bulging with weaponry reeked of fantasy. And yet Eisenhower worried that some sort of rallying point might indeed have been established in southern Germany or northern Italy. It seemed entirely plausible that, once pummeled into retreat, hordes of Germans, urged on by fanatical officers, might stream south in hopes of holding out on terrain favorable to a "defense in depth" (when a defender digs in for a prolonged resistance, giving of territory little by little over a long time to bleed the enemy until he is weak and vulnerable to counterattack.)

This was a daunting prospect. The Alps abounded in treechoked elevations (some as high as 12,000 feet), punctuated by narrow valleys and bottomless gorges, and accessible only via winding, easily obstructed roads. Many of Eisenhower's subordinates shared his concern. General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the Twelfth Army Group, claimed in his postwar memoirs that the specter of a National Redoubt became an "obsession" not only at SHAEF but also at lower echelons of command.

Evidence suggests that the National Redoubt became a major factor in Eisenhower's March-April 1945 decision to shift from operating in northern Germany, with Berlin as a possible objective, to sweeping instead toward Austria and perhaps Gzechoslovakia. The Western Allies' original strategy involved a thrust across the Rhine River to surround and eradicate the defenders of Germany's Ruhr Valley, after which British and American forces would drive northeastward. This plan remained in force, with minor adjustments, through year's end. But after the US Ninth Army crossed the Rhine at Remagen, Germany, on March 7, 1945, Eisenhower swung many of his forces sharply south, toward the Alps.

Eisenhower's strategy had long-lasting repercussions, so his reasoning has been scrutinized ever since by historians and military analysts. One consequence was the virtual abandonment of Berlin, Germany's capital, to Soviet forces advancing from the east. But this may not have concerned Eisenhower. It already seemed likely that the Russians would beat their Western comrades to Berlin. Besides, Eisenhower knew that postwar occupation zones had already been sketched out across Germany by Allied leaders. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for one, did not appear averse to letting Berlin fall into the Soviet sphere of influence. Back home, opinion polls indicated that the American people were wary of long-term commitments in postwar Europe and wished to avoid a messy dispute over the city.

Another consideration for turning south, cited by both Eisenhower and his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, was to avoid indefinitely prolonging a war that was on the verge of being won. The prospect of the Germans in the north somehow slipping away to an alpine rendezvous and hunkering down to fight on was undesirable. Roosevelt and Eisenhower wanted to end the fighting in Europe as quickly as possible so they could transfer large forces to General Douglas MacArthur, the Pacific theater commander. US public opinion, too, favored an early peace.

Only victory and the war's end would reveal whether Eisenhower's concerns . and the darkest fears of his G-2 experts were founded or not. But as it turned out, the National Redoubt was nothing but a cleverly promoted myth. The irony was that it originated not with German propagandists, who merely did the promoting, but with American diplomats. As historian Rodney Minott notes in his 1964 book The Fortress that Never Was: The Myth of Hitler's Bavarian Stronghold, "unhappily for the Americans, they inadvertently created the myth and were forced to live with it." The myth got its start in September 1944, when an unidentified American diplomat in Zurich, Switzerland, cabled a report to the US State Department. The report called Washington's attention to the impressive fortifications that the Swiss had constructed on their border with Germany in 1940-42. The Swiss had dubbed their defensive complex, which included three major forts, the National Redoubt. The diplomat suspected that if a small nation like Switzerland was capable of erecting such a stronghold, the more resourceful and desperate Germans certainly could build one.

The diplomat's reasoning remains murky. Perhaps he knew that a year earlier the German army had surveyed territory along the borders of Lichtenstein, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. Nothing had come of the project, though its purpose remained unclear and mysterious. More concrete and observable was the war being fought in the Italian theater, where the forces of German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring stoutly resisted the advancing Allies. Kesselring's lines were falling back ever closer to the Alps, where there were World War I-era defenses. Some Allied planners feared the Germans intended to improve those works, dig in, and fight to the bitter end.

The diplomat who cabled Washington may have shared these concerns. Perhaps he speculated that the Germans were already working on a major fallback position in the northern or southern Alps. If it were completed before Germany was forced to surrender, its defenders could prolong the fighting for two years or more, possibly inflicting more casualties than the Allies had absorbed so far in the war.

Unknown to the sender or the intended recipient of the Zurich telegram, the commander of a Nazi SS courier center near the Swiss border intercepted the transmission. Later American reports from Switzerland, conveying additional concerns about a possible German redoubt, also fell into German hands. All these were brought to the attention of the local gauleiter (Nazi Party district leader), Franz Hofer, who sensed military and political value. He relayed them to German army headquarters in Berlin, urging that work on an Alpenfestung begin at once. Along with many other civilian officials, he believed the war could no longer be won on the battlefield. Yet the Wehrmacht, by rallying in the mountains, might hold out long enough to drive a wedge between the Allies, who appeared to have competing postwar interests, and perhaps secure a separate peace. At first Hofer's advice went unheeded. Hitler's attention was absorbed by internal military affairs in the aftermath of a July 20 attempt on his life by some of his own generals. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Paul Josef Goebbels might seem to have appreciated the value of a fortress, even a phantom fortress. But when he learned of Hofer's submission, he responded by prohibiting the domestic press from mentioning any such thing. For Goebbels, talk of a last stand anywhere in the war zone smacked of defeatism.

Undeterred, Hofer and other civilian and military leaders who believed that a redoubt, real or imaginary, could be a useful tool, went to some lengths to refer to one publicly. Although mainstream media had been silenced, smaller news outlets inside Germany picked up the story and circulated it. Radio stations carried enthusiastic but deliberately vague reports for domestic consumption. This piecemeal press campaign worked, and within weeks, American newspapers and magazines were stoking fears of a Nazi safe haven.

ON Sunday, November 12, 1944, the New York Times Magazine carried an article claiming the territory surrounding Berchtesgaden, Hitler's retreat in the Bavarian Alps, was defended by extensive fortifications that included tunnels and caves filled with food and guns. In early February 1945, Hanson Baldwin, the Time's influential military correspondent, predicted that once Berlin fell, a new front would open in the Alps. Around the same time, a piece in Collier's magazine warned that guerrilla activities involving SS troops, Hitler Youth, and other Nazi fanatics would begin in the mountains of southern Germany as soon as conventional warfare ceased.

America's allies were divided over the question of whether Germany really had a fortified National Redoubt. British officials doubted it, but the Russians suspected that the wily Hitler had an 11th-hour trick up his sleeve. The Soviet government informed the Associated Press's Moscow bureau that a mountain enclave and plans for a doomsday defense were established facts. Beginning in late 1944, the Daily Worker, voice of the Communist Party USA, repeated the claim in one edition after another.

Allied reaction to press reports of a redoubt finally caught Goebbels's attention. Suddenly aware that the story, if properly handled, could strengthen military and civilian morale, he rescinded his press prohibition in January 1945 and began providing "facts" about the stronghold to editors at home and in neutral countries. The response was so favorable that Goebbels added to his ministry a section devoted to planting reports that a National Redoubt was up and running, ready for immediate use. German POWs would relay these stories to their captors; after Germany was invaded, civilians would repeat them, with all manner of embellishment. Over time, the security service of the SS helped by leaking fictitious information--including blueprints of the redoubt's supposed position and data on its defensive capabilities--to US intelligence agents.

Once Goebbels changed his mind, he quickly persuaded Hitler that the illusion of a National Redoubt had at least "nuisance value" as a hoax. Hitler went a step farther: he decided to make the hoax a reality. Calling Hofer to Berlin, he instructed him to super vise construction of a redoubt in his province. But Hitler's reasoning was the product of a mind addled by impending defeat and failing health, and it was too late by this time to accomplish anything worthwhile. Still, Hofer returned home, somehow recruited 2,000 civilian laborers, and put them to work on a defensive position far less imposing than Goebbels's fearsome fabrication.

Hofer's efforts were superfluous. The myth of the redoubt had been sufficient to create fear and even to influence Allied military planning. By early April 1945, with the fighting winding down on other fronts, Eisenhower ordered his southernmost echelon to sweep through Bavaria, crushing every obstacle in its path. When his deputy chief of staff for operations, Major General Harold R. Bull, suggested that the area of operations be expanded to include the Alps of western Austria, Eisenhower readily agreed.

The instrument for executing this revised strategy was General Jacob L. Devers's Sixth Army Group, comprising Lieutenant General Alexander Patch's US Seventh Army and the French First Army of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. From the start, Devers's job seemed an easy one. When his vanguard crossed the Rhine into Germany in the first days of April, it was virtually unopposed, suggesting that the enemy was teetering on collapse. In fact, heavy fighting lay ahead in Heilbronn, Jagstfeld, and other places. But by mid-month, the Sixth Army Group's nearest opponents, the German First and Nineteenth Armies, were giving way, their units retreating in confusion and panic. Preceded by three armored divisions and supported more or less closely by the French, the Seventh Army rampaged through Germany. Patch's VI Corps was on the right flank in the area of the Black Forest; the XXI Corps was in the center, moving through the thickly wooded hill country known as the Odenwald; and the XV Corps was on the left, between the Main River and the Rhon Mountains.

As they hurtled south in motorized columns, the troops at the forefront of the pursuit received cautions about what they might encounter. Patch's G-2 issued a long-range study of the National Redoubt that repeated the old rumors of weapons stockpiles, underground industrial facilities, and a garrison "comprising hundreds of thousands of SS and mountain troops, well equipped, trained for mountain warfare, and thoroughly imbued with the Nazi spirit."

Devers's men ignored the warnings, and with good reason. As military historian Charles B. MacDonald observed, for the Sixth Army Group, Bavaria was "one endless array of white flags, and those towns and villages that failed to conform usually fell in line after only a few bursts of machinegun fire." Sensing the futility of further resistance, the Germans began surrendering in small groups. By month's end, the daily prisoner haul would number in the thousands.

Patch's GIs and de Lattre's Frenchmen reached the Danube River, thought to be the redoubt's outer ring, on April 22. Crossing the stream against minimal resistance, the Americans overwhelmed even cities supposedly held in force. On the 25th they secured Ulm and Regensburg, two key points on the so-called "redoubt triangle." On the 27th they occupied Landsberg, where an imprisoned Hitler had written the bible of Nazism, Mein Kampf, in 1924. On the 29th, one day before Hitler committed suicide in his bunker and three days before the Russian army occupied Berlin, the XXI Corps fought its way into Augsburg, on the approach to Austria. That same day two divisions of the XV Corps entered the death camp at Dachau, where they liberated 3,000 prisoners and beheld the horrific effects of Hitler's Final Solution. By May 3, the XV Corps had taken Munich, capital of Bavaria and birthplace of National Socialism--"the cradle of the Nazi beast," as Eisenhower put it.

The Alps were now within striking distance, and there was no organized enemy in sight. Clearly, Hitler's diehards had no National Redoubt--no safe haven of any sort. The Wehrmacht had been broken beyond repair. The fighting in Italy was over, and Germany's unconditional surrender was only days away. The invaders' attention now turned in a new direction. In the wake of Munich's capture, the Seventh Army's operations chief noted, "there is a growing need for maps of the Pacific area...."

The Allies had emerged victorious, but they had learned a couple of hard lessons on the way to the Alps. The first was that the effectiveness of any hoax depends on the victim's gullibility. The second was that when the victim happens to be the hoax's unwitting perpetrator, the deception is bound to succeed to some extent. Such was the case with Hitler's National Redoubt, the fortress that never was.

Edward G. Longacre of Newport News, Virginia, is a retired Department of Defense historian. He has written numerous books and articles on the Civil War, World War II, and military aviation.

The Alps tower ahead as German troops surrender to the US 30th Infantry on Max 4. 1945, near Berchtesttaden, Germany. As the war wound down, US brass feared the Nazis had a secret bastion in the Alps where they could hold out. This photo's back notes, "This is the country w here Hitler's troops w ere to make their last stand."

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Author:Longacre, Edward G.
Publication:America in WWII
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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