Many far flung garrisons and especially islands were still in German hands at the end of the war in May 1945. Parts of Crete, Dunkirk, the Channel Islands, La Rochelle, St Nazaire and several other French ports, many other Greek islands to name just a few such territories. Clearly a part of the reason lies in Hitler's obsession with holding on to territory beyond the dictates of military logic (but not consistently; other islands, such as Corsica, were let go without a struggle), and a part of the reason lies in the Allies, sweeping all before them in battle, being happy to bypass these garrisons.

There are almost no equivalents in 1940/1 when the situation was (very broadly speaking) reversed. I can only think of Malta as an example. You might think there were numerous islands in Dalmatia, Norway, even Denmark, and certainly the Aegean (which could have been supplied from Egypt) which could have "held out". Of course there were mountainous areas of Greece and Yugoslavia which gradually became free of Axis control but none of them seem to have held out from the beginning.

Why the difference? Why didn't anyone try very hard in 1940/1 to hold out and equally why weren't the Germans happy to bypass garrisons as the Allies were three years later?

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    As regards Malta, I think many military historians see Hitler's failure to take Malta and Gibraltar early in the war when he had the opportunity to have been one of his greatest blunders, at least so far as his war in the west was concerned. As things turned out the Royal Navy controlled both entrances to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and Port Suez throughout the duration of the war, and the RAF was able to use Malta to bomb the German convoys into North Africa. Without those Mediterranean bases Britain would have found it far more difficult to prevail in the North African campaign.
    – WS2
    Feb 19, 2015 at 22:00
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    It also meant that the Italian Navy was not able to get out into the Atlantic where it was needed, and led to its being severely crippled by the joint action of the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy at the battle of Cape Matapan in 1941.
    – WS2
    Feb 19, 2015 at 22:05
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    What about Tobruk?
    – Ne Mo
    Jul 14, 2017 at 13:39
  • There are several factors may play here: holding out makes only sense if there is a chance of help or the people are ready to die/surrender is no way an option. In early WWII people may be less committed to die, and the people with strong fighting spirit generally choose to move to other places, join or regroup with other military units, form immigrant armies or go full partizan/rezistance. Stacking on an island holdout has no real military gain in most cases. German holdouts in 44-45 might be more suicidal, having no real chance to go anywhere.
    – Greg
    Jul 14, 2017 at 15:31
  • As a side note: - Tobruk is not a bypassed point, it is a fortress that survived close to the front line and "only" for a few months - Corsica was struggled by the Germans, but they were not able to hold it because the Free French action was hastily conducted just after Italian surrender, and Italian troops were the only ones in Corsica at the time (so Germans only brought reinforcements that were brought out) Nov 5, 2023 at 20:58

3 Answers 3


There were large pockets of organized resistance in 1940, but they surrendered when their governments did. For the few governments who kept fighting, they had plenty of holdouts. The Axis powers did not surrender until 1945 when almost completely overrun, and they ordered their armies to keep fighting to the last.

Many Allied powers surrendered, or were forced into exile, in or before 1941 and thus their militaries on the mainland were ordered to stopped fighting. In rough order: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and Greece (with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia being occupied by the Soviets). In contrast most European Axis powers did not surrender until spring 1945 and were fanatically ordered to keep fighting.

What would have become pockets of resistance in 1940 were simply surrendered. The rest of the country was conquered and there was no point to the fighting. Many of the "Allies" in 1940 were actually neutral, so there was no joint plan of retreat when one country was overrun. Governments were terrified of the German threat to level their cities with bombers (a novel concept in 1940) if they resisted (as the Bombing Of Rotterdam illustrated) and were more likely to capitulate than fight on. Paris was declared an Open City rather than suffer a battle. Nobody realized how bad Nazi occupation would be.

The great German innovation in warfare in 1940 was the Blitzkrieg, the Lightning War, where the situation changes too fast for the enemy to react effectively. This also counts for governments, watching their armies get surrounded, ordering defense lines prepared not realizing they have already been breached, having their cities and supply lines bombed. In 1940, the Allied armies were not prepared for this and Germany seemed unstoppable. France, Belgium and Netherlands still held considerable territory and arms, and they had plans to form national redoubts in small corners of their countries, but they were losing so fast surrender seemed the only option.

However, some of these had extensive colonial assets and armies which continued to fight on, France, Netherlands and Belgium in particular had extensive Pacific and African colonies. I would count these as "holdouts". Most of their Far East colonies were later taken by the Japanese.

Many soldiers in occupied countries joined resistance groups, particularly in Greece, Norway and Yugoslavia (a lot of rugged terrain to hide in). Governments-in-exile were continuously trying to bring these groups under their control to avoid facing an armed coup when they returned.

By 1941, most of the European Allies had been knocked out of the war, so there were no organized hold outs. In contrast, the Allies which were still fighting (US, UK and the Soviets) did have holdouts.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and left the US Navy unable to support the US Pacific islands, the US army continued to fight a doomed battle. The Battle Of The Philippines lasted six months and Corregidor held out until May 1942. Wake Island held out for two weeks after Pearl Harbor.

The UK had whole armies in North Africa and the Middle East effectively cut off by the German conquest of France, the hostility of the French North African governments, and the threat of Italian naval and air power. They kept fighting. On a smaller scale, Malta and Tobruk held out under siege. Neither could be bypassed nor surrendered, they were vital for supplies. Fighting also continued in India, Burma and East Africa.

The Eastern Front featured huge armies being surrounded and swallowed up first by the Germans, later by the Soviets. There were also surrounded holdouts. Most famously Leningrad was besieged for over 2 years. Sevastopol held out for eight months after the rest of Crimea was conquered and the front had moved far on. Stalingrad held out, and then it was the Sixth Army's turn.

Cut off by neutral neighbors and receiving no support from the Allies, the whole of Finland during the Winter War could be said to be "holding out" against the Soviets. Within that war, whole Soviet divisions were trapped deep in the Finnish wilderness but rather than surrender they would hold out for weeks vexing the greatly overstretched Finns who desperately needed the men elsewhere.

In contrast to the Allies' flexible ideas about reconquest, Hitler (but not his generals) had an increasingly mad notion of never giving up an inch of captured soil. This is a terrible strategy and which left armies in bad positions and many good soldiers and material trapped behind enemy lines. Many armies which could have retreated to fight another day were left surrounded to "fight to the last bullet". Unsupplied armies rapidly become immobile due to lack of fuel and spare parts and are no longer a threat: they simply can't move.

During the reconquest of Europe the Allies had a clear strategy: get to Berlin before the other guy does. Anything that didn't help getting to Berlin was bypassed. To bother with a siege it had to be either in the way, a danger to the rear, or helping with the supply problem.

While we usually think of the Channel Ports as being the classic example of an army bypassed, they were initially of great importance to the Allies and the First Canadian Army was tasked with taking them. They were not considered a threat: the garrison troops being of low quality and lacking mobility; the Germany navy hardly existed as a fighting force, what was left was busy shelling the Soviets in the Baltic; and the German Air Force was desperately defending Germany from Allied bombing. The ports were badly needed for supply, so they would be taken quickly in September 1944.

In contrast, the Atlantic Coast was ignored: west was the other way from Berlin, the ports were too far away from the front to help their supply situation, and the U-Boat threat was defanged. It is only here (with the exception of Dunkirk) that we see Hitler's declared fortress cities hold out.

Most of the declared German fortress cities were taken, in part because it was a political rather than military decision to declare a city a fortress. Only a handful held out to the end and most because they were simply ignored.


These did not 'hold out', they were simply bypassed (with maybe some troops stationed in the vicinity to discourage attempts at breaking out and harassing the allied rear) as irrelevant towards the greater objectives of the campaign, Rome, the Ruhr, and Berlin. Once Germany surrendered formally, these garrisons laid down their weapons just as had garrisons of Dutch troops at Kornwerderzand in 1940, French troops stationed in places not yet attacked by the Germans ditto, etc. etc.
If you want 'holdouts', look no further than the Polish partisans who kept up a campaign against the Germans from deep forests for a long time starting in 1939.


The principle of holding ground, allowing opponents to infiltrate and then counter attacking was developed on the Western Front and had its first major test during the German March 1918 offensive against Gough's Fifth Army; confusion over the new tactic (particularly whether the focus should be holding the Front or Battle Zone) was arguably a major contributor to initial German success but once understood, it worked well. As ever, armies tend to forget lessons, so having repeated the same mistakes in Malaya in 1941/42, wired in boxes were once again used very effectively in the Western Desert and Burma.

To work, this tactic requires high levels of logistical support and air superiority for the 'cut-off' sections plus mobile reserves capable of launching counter attacks. None of these were present in 1940-41 and the Maginot Line ended up as a 1940 version of 1870 Sedan as a result.

Hitler's obsession with holding ground wasn't necessarily wrong in principle but none of the required elements were available, particularly given the scale of the cut off forces. For long periods of the war, the Wehrmacht suffered from mobility issues; most of the available assets were concentrated in a few elite divisions, leaving the remainder reliant on traditional horse drawn transport. This wasn't such a problem in the restricted spaces of Northern Europe, both in 1940 and 1944 but a huge one in Russia; the Germans used large numbers of captured French and British transport for Barbarossa in 1941, which was never replaced. Most of the Lend Lease equipment shipped to the Red Army was soft skinned transport, so by mid 1944, the Russians were far more mobile than the Germans.

Many Festung were created because it was impossible to evacuate the troops quickly enough; in North Africa, one reason Italian troops surrendered in such numbers was because the more mobile Germans used them to hold up the British but they then had no way of escaping themselves. The same issue applied to the Germans in 1944.

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    Sources would greatly improve this answer. Jul 14, 2017 at 12:27
  • Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge is a good example of what you're talking about in your second paragraph as the US forces had all of those things. Jul 14, 2017 at 18:43

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