The week the war ended

Seventy-five years ago this month, peace finally came to a destroyed Europe

The news headline everyone was waiting for filled the front pages on 2 May, 1945. Hitler was dead. He left behind a devastated nation in no condition to continue to fight. And yet. Before putting the pistol to his head, Hitler had appointed his successor, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, with orders beyond the grave to continue the war “by all possible means”.

But Doenitz was a realist. Hitler’s vision of Armageddon had no appeal. Instead, his aim was to end the war on terms that stopped short of unconditional surrender. To do this he set out to exploit the perceived divisions in the Allied ranks. It was not an unrealistic ambition.

The gulf between America and Britain on one side and the Soviet Union on the other was wide. Doenitz knew that a Western alliance including Germany facing off against the Soviet Union was not an immediate prospect. He calculated more favourable odds on a settlement with Britain and America, allowing Germany to fight on in the East where hundreds and thousands of German troops and refugees were fleeing the Russian advance.

Since the main exodus was across the Baltic to the German north coast and to Denmark, where Montgomery and his 21st Army Group held sway, it made sense for Doenitz to target the Field Marshal for his first pitch at compromise. He planned to take advantage of his adversary’s inflated ego to win concessions that General Dwight Eisenhower as Supreme Commander would find hard to retract.

Having dispensed with most of the Nazi old guard, Doenitz chose his old colleague Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg to lead the German delegation. His brief was “to save the maximum number of German soldiers and Europeans from Bolshevism and enslavement”.

With two senior military colleagues and an adjutant, Friedeburg crossed the British lines on the morning of 3 May.

The encounter was of a meeting of opposites. The German officers were dressed impeccably, all in greatcoats, the navy favouring black leathers, the army light grey. For about five minutes no one moved. Then, as Montgomery’s ADC, Colonel Trumbull Warren, recorded: “Quietly the door of the centre caravan opened and there stood a rather short Anglo-Irishman, wearing khaki trousers and battle dress.”

Every military leader has to be a performer. But, in celebrating victory, Montgomery was inclined to ham acting. Walking slowly down the line, he started with von Friedeburg. “Who are you?” he shouted. Friedeburg told him.

“I have never heard of you. What do you want?”

Would Montgomery be prepared to receive the German soldiers and civilians fleeing the Red Army? Montgomery skirted the question. Those who were fighting the Russians had to surrender to the Russians. The point at issue was the surrender of German troops facing the 21st Army Group. If this was not up for discussion Montgomery was ready to continue fighting.

Field Marshal Montgomery (seated right) reads the terms of surrender to German General Admiral von Friedeburg (centre) and Admiral Wagner in a cramped tent on Lüneburg Heath, 4 May 1945

After a few more words, Montgomery left his visitors standing while ordering for them “the best possible lunch and to supply them with all the drinks they wanted”. Warren recalled: “At his rather more spartan meal, Montgomery planned the afternoon session. He told us to put two maps on the table, showing overwhelming Allied strength, an exaggeration but effective nonetheless.”

Even so, Friedeburg played for time. Encouraged by an apparent softening in Montgomery’s attitude to German troops and refugees escaping the Russians (“I am no monster,” declared the Field Marshal) Friedeburg asked for a 48-hour intermission while he reported back to Doenitz. He got 24 hours.

With authority to accept Montgomery’s terms, Friedeburg and his party returned to Lüneberg Heath the next day just after 5pm. It was raining. A full contingent of war correspondents had gathered. The Germans were kept standing miserably in the rain. Eventually they were led to a tiny army tent set up for sound recording and with photographers crowded on one side.

“Rather like a schoolmaster taking an oral examination,” noted the correspondent Alan Moorhead, “Montgomery dominated proceedings, milking the occasion for all it was worth.”

At his headquarters at reims, General Eisenhower was losing patience. It was early in the evening of 4 May before he heard from Montgomery. He about to leave his headquarters when Kay Summersby, his personal secretary, suggested he give it five more minutes. At 7pm the call came. Eisenhower was laconic: “Fine, fine. That’s just fine, Monty.” If the plenipotentiaries had authority from Doenitz to stop all fighting, then they were to come to Reims. Montgomery thought they had full powers but they wanted more time.

Montgomery was misinformed. The “full powers” Eisenhower expected were for an unconditional German surrender on all fronts. This was not within Friedeburg’s brief. What he hoped to negotiate was the surrender of all German forces in the West. Those facing the Russians still had a job to do.

Acutely aware of the need to keep the Russians onside, Eisenhower invited General Ivan Susloparov, head of the Russian mission to France, to be in on the forthcoming confrontation. At the same time, he decided to stand back from the negotiations. To avoid being accused of self-aggrandisement he delegated the leading role to his Chief of Staff, Walter Bedell Smith, a hard-nosed general who took pride in his reputation as a “number one square-wheeled SOB”.

Having been delayed by bad weather, Friedeburg arrived in Reims at about 5pm on 5 May. His sallow complexion and sunken cheeks were an indication of the strain he was under. He asked for time to put on a fresh collar. Acting as interpreter, General Kenneth Strong saw him as a “friendly and pleasant officer, little suited to the fanaticism of the Third Reich”. It came as a surprise to find Friedeburg in bullish mood. His opening proposal was for a purely local surrender of all the remaining German troops on the Western front. Surrender to the Russians was “unthinkable”.

For his part, Bedell Smith held to his demand for an unconditional surrender on all fronts. The circular argument was broken eventually when Bedell Smith told Friedeburg bluntly to sign the surrender or to defer to someone with wider powers.

Holed up in Flemsburg on the Danish border, Doentiz revised his strategy. Might Eisenhower agree to a surrender in two stages? It fell to General Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s Chief of Operations Staff and now senior adviser to Doenitz, to fly to Reims to support Friedeburg and to “try and make the period elapsing before the introduction of phase two as long as possible”. Jodl and Friedeburg were taken to Bedell Smith’s office at 6.15pm on 6 May.

“Jodl told us frankly and with deep conviction that we would soon find ourselves fighting Russia and that, if Germany were given time to evacuate as many troops and civilians as possible to the West, there would then be large resources available to help the Allies in their struggle against the Russians.”

Jodl agreed to a general surrender but with a suitable delay for the transmission of orders. Doenitz had wanted four days, Jodl was prepared to settle for two. Eisenhower, when the proposal was put to him, refused to consider any delay at all. But Smith and Strong pointed out that there really were problems with communications to German field commands. Eisenhower agreed but the surrender had to be signed immediately. It would then come into force 24 hours later, at midnight on 7 May.

After a confidential soldier-to-soldier talk between Bedell Smith and Jodl, during which it seems likely that Smith encouraged the belief that more could be done to support German efforts to escape the Bear’s embrace, Eisenhower was persuaded to accept a two-day interregnum between the signing of the surrender and its coming into effect. Bowing to the inevitable, Doenitz authorised Jodl to sign.

General Keitel surrenders to the Allies in Berlin

The palpable relief in the allied camp was not shared by the Russian delegate. Despite repeated requests to Moscow, Stalin was stalling. This put Susloparov in a quandary. If he refused to sign it could be made to look as if the Soviet Union was intent on continuing the war. But if he fell in with the Western Allies his own future would be in doubt. Susloparov took his lead from Eisenhower, who reaffirmed his commitment to a follow-up ceremony in which the Soviet Union would play the dominant role. He agreed to sign.

Kept waiting in a side room for six hours, 18 hand-picked war reporters were taken into a room Eisenhower’s staff used for briefings. At 2.19pm a British colonel walked in and said in a brisk voice: “Get ready, gentlemen, they’re coming.” The floodlights were switched on. Recalled the Australian, Osmar White:

Susloparov, a huge-shouldered giant of a man, filled his tight-waisted Russian jacket and striped whipcord breeches with a sort of bounding physical presence. His gold teeth gleamed as he made casual asides to his aide. All the others had violet shadows under their eyes and their faces were pallid and slack. Five minutes later, General François Sevez, the French representative, hurried in, bowed to the table and shook hands nervously with his nearest neighbour. Then came Bedell Smith. He was never a robust-looking man but under the glare of the Kliegs he looked ghastly, ill and exhausted.All stood a little stiffly behind the chairs awaiting the Germans. The heat from the lights mounted steadily and we began to sweat.

At 2.39pm, Jodl and Friedeburg were ushered in. They stood to attention until Smith nodded to them to take the seats opposite him. Smith asked if they understood the terms of the documents to be signed. They murmured assent.

Jodl signed with a gold pen that Eisenhower later presented to President Truman. After Generals Smith, Susloparov and Sevez had signed both documents, Jodl stood and, addressing himself to Smith, said in English, “I want to say a word”. Then, in German: “General! With this signature the German people and German armed forces are for better or worse delivered into the victor’s hands . . . In this hour I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity.”

The official time of the signatures on the surrender documents was 2.41am local time on 7 May.

Eisenhower posed for the crowd of photographers, holding up the two pens used for the signing to make a V for victory. He spent the next hour on the telephone. His call to London tells us something of communication in the pre-digital age. General Hastings (“Pug”) Ismay, Churchill’s Chief of Staff, was sound asleep when the Supreme Commander put through his call.

“Is that you, Pug?” “Yes, Ike. What has happened?” “They have signed on the dotted line. It’s all over.” Ismay was back in bed when it occurred to him that Eisenhower might have left it to him to pass on the news to Downing Street.

“To be on the safe side, I rang No 10, but the operators had evidently failed to disconnect me from Reims and my telephone was dead. There was nothing for it but to collect some coppers, put on a dressing-gown, and go to the public call-box a hundred yards down the road. I had no difficulty in making contact with No 10, only to be told that Mr Churchill had already heard the glad news and gone to bed.”

Eisenhower’s relief did not last long. A signal from Moscow revealed that Stalin was not happy. The Germans showed no signs of giving up on the Eastern Front. Stalin suspected that the Western Allies were stitching up a “shady deal” with the enemy. A little too late in the day, he ordered Susloparov to sign nothing.

Protestations from Eisenhower did little to mollify the Soviet leader whose anger was intensified by a muddle over the public announcement of the surrender. An embargo on news was to last until the following day, May 8, when the German surrender would be declared simultaneously in Paris, London, Moscow and Washington. Under protest, the press corps went along with the decision while knowing full well that on the home front the party mood of the American and British public threatened to turn sour.

Why was it taking so long? It was a question that Edward Kennedy, of the news agency Associated Press, decided to answer. He put through a brief report to the AP office in London. Since the British censors had no special instructions on surrender stories, they allowed the report to be relayed to New York. Less than ten minutes later, the story was around the world. At this point, bureaucratic inanity took collective hold. Kennedy’s press colleagues were bullied into denying the story. Confusion was total. Churchill was quickly on to his “secret line” to the White House arguing for the official announcement to be brought forward. The response was unhelpful. President Truman refused to act “without the approval of Uncle Joe”. Churchill blustered his objections to an “idiotic position”. Telegrams were sent to Moscow appealing for cooperation. When Stalin failed to respond, Churchill cabled Washington, “I can delay no longer”: 8 May was to be VE Day.

Truman continued to hold on for word from Moscow. It came shortly after midnight, Washington time. Stalin wanted the announcement to be postponed until he had given further consideration to the surrender terms. At this, even Truman’s patience ran out. Early the following day he held a news conference to announce the German surrender on all fronts.

Up to 30,000 revellers gathered in Times Square to hear sirens and whistle blasts from the tugs and cargo boats on the Hudson, a refrain taken up by motorists hooting their delight. A great paper-throwing orgy began with paper cascading from a hundred thousand windows.

Partying in Britain was slower to start. Those who had been out the night before had searched in vain for the bright lights that would signal that the war was well and truly over. Street lights and shop signs had been extinguished for so long that few of them were working. The flag-wavers did better. There were Union Jacks everywhere, on poles jutting out from windows, strung across streets and between lampposts and fluttering from the rooftops of every official building. Church bells were rung enthusiastically, if not always in harmony.

Warm sunshine brought out the crowds. At dusk a huge V sign shone over Leicester Square. Crowds waving rattles and blowing paper trumpets climbed lampposts and on to cars.

The scene shifts to Berlin. A two-storey building, once the mess for the German military school, had been chosen for the last act. Eisenhower decided not to attend. It was pointed out that he would lose face since Marshal Zhukov, Moscow’s representative at the signing, was his junior. His deputy, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, went in his place along with General Carl Spaatz and, for the French, General de Lattre de Tassigny, a close ally of Charles de Gaulle, who was to travel separately.

De Tassigny almost missed his appointment with history. When he landed at Magdeburg, 62 miles short of Berlin, he heard that the plane arranged to transport the Allied representatives had already departed.

It is hard not to believe that Eisenhower was responsible for this snub. While he respected de Gaulle, he resented what he saw as an arrogant assumption that a defeated nation should be a full participant in the peace settlement. The Russians were more accommodating. A car with military escort was provided to take de Tassigny to Berlin.

At the end of a tiring journey de Tassigny was welcomed into the band of Allied brothers. But there remained obstacles. First was a problem over who should sign the surrender document. Up to the point of de Tassigny’s appearance Zukov was unaware that the French were involved. However, instructions from Moscow ruled that if de Tassigny signed, one of the other participants had to step down. The obvious choice was Spaatz since Tedder was signing on behalf of Eisenhower and the British government. Spaatz was not having that. De Tassigny appealed to Tedder: “If I return to France having allowed my country to be excluded from signing the capitulation of the Reich, I deserved to be hanged. Think of me!”

A compromise was hammered out. Zhukov and Tedder were to sign as contracting parties, Spaatz and de Tassigny as witnesses. The protocols had to be retyped. And there was still another matter to sort out. The French colours were nowhere to be seen. De Tassigny declared that France could not be represented at the ceremony without her flag alongside those of her Allies.

But where could a French flag be found? The Russians offered to make one from a Hitlerite banner, a white sheet and a piece of blue serge cut out of an engineer’s overalls. Unfortunately, the Russian girls responsible for the needlework had no knowledge of vexillology. When the flag was produced it has the blue, white and red bands one above the other, a perfect representation of Dutch pride. The work had to start again.

The German delegates, Field Marshal Keitel, Admiral Friedeburg and General Hans-Juergen Stumpff for the Luftwaffe, were flown to Templehof and taken to a small villa. “It was about one o’clock in the afternoon,” recalled Keitel. “We were left absolutely to ourselves.” It was approaching midnight before the now furious Keitel was escorted to the mess hall of the barracks.

Zhukov took the chair with the plenipotentiaries of Britain and America on either side of him. At ten minutes past midnight Keitel was brought forward, blinking into the glare of the newsreel lights. He clicked his heels and saluted with his marshal’s baton. His eye fell on the French flag and then on de Tassigny. “Ach,” he growled. “The French are here too. It only wanted that.”

Notable by his absence was General Susloparov. He was part of the Allied contingent that flew to Berlin but, said Strong, “From the moment he stepped out of the aeroplane at Templehof we never saw him again.” In fact, Susloparov did not disappear entirely. After the war he surfaced as an instructor at Moscow’s Military Academy.

In Susloparov’s place was Andrey Vyshinsky, Soviet deputy foreign minister and Stalin’s legal frontman in the 1930s Moscow show trials. Soon to be sitting in judgment over German war crimes at Nuremburg, Vyshinsky himself was, by any standards of common decency, guilty of crimes against humanity.

The Germans sat at a small table at right angles to the main table. After a brief pause, Zhukov asked if they were prepared to sign. Keitel replied with a loud “Ja.” The crowd of reporters and photographers pressed in on them. When a Russian newsreel man, carrying a heavy camera, barged his way through to the front, punches were thrown.

After Zhukov declared the capitulation ceremony to be at an end, Keitel raised his field marshal’s baton in salute, turned on his heel and led the way out of the hall. Strong recalled: “This was the second time I had taken an active part in capitulation ceremonies. Both brought home to me the futility and tragedy of war. Both I hated intensely. After the waste of the past years I felt that they were curiously degrading to the victors, as well as to the vanquished.”

An all-night banquet with inexhaustible supplies of the best food and wine was punctuated by a succession of toasts starting with a fulsome dedication to Stalin. The celebrations ended at 6am with a tour of Berlin, described by Strong: “We drove past the Opera House, down Unter den Linden, past the Reichstag, and finally stopped at Hitler’s Chancellery. Its smoke-stained walls were still standing but much of the roof had gone. Although I had known Berlin intimately, I found it quite impossible to recognise any of the usual landmarks.”

As for Doenitz, he had failed to soften the ignominy of capitulation. It was now the turn of the Reich to submit to occupation. But by dragging out the negotiations, he could take credit for the biggest-ever seaborne rescue with up to two million troops and civilian refugees ferried across the Baltic ahead of the vanguard of the Red Army.

Tried at Nuremburg along with other Nazi leaders, Doenitz escaped the death penalty. Instead, he served a full ten-year sentence in Spandau. Friedeburg took his own life. Keitel and Jodl were hanged as war criminals.

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