Military history

Chapter Twelve

Victory: April 1-May 7. 1945

EASTER CAME on April 1 in 1945. In many cases the celebration of the Resurrection brought the GIs and German civilians together. Sergeant Lindy Sawyers of the 99th Division and his squad had moved into a house that was big enough to allow the frau and her two small girls to remain. He remembered that on the day before Easter, "I entered the house and heard a wail from the mom and kids." He asked what was wrong and was told that some of his men had stolen the family Easter cake. Sawyers investigated and caught two recruits who had done the deed. He returned the cake to its owners. "There was great rejoicing and I felt virtuous, for a second at least."

Sergeant Oakley Honey recalled that as his squad left the house they had slept in, "the old lady was handing something to each guy as we left. As I got to the woman, I could see tears in her eyes as she placed a decorated Easter Egg in my hand. We had treated them well and not disturbed the main part of the house. For this they were thankful. There was an unwritten code. If you had to fight for a town, anything in it was yours. If we were allowed to walk in unopposed, we treated the population much better."

On Easter Sunday, 1944, the US Army had had no troops or vehicles on the European continent north of Rome. One year later there were over 1 million GIs in Germany, most of whom had been civilians in 1943, many of them in 1944. Tens of thousands of American trucks, jeeps, DUKWs (amphibious vehicles), armoured personnel carriers, selfpropelled artillery, and more rolled down the roads, covered by thousands of aeroplanes ranging in size from Piper Cubs to B-17s and B24s. In the villages and towns civilians stood on the sidewalks, awestruck by this display of mobility and firepower. Few had any illusions about how the war was going to end. The older German civilians were delighted that Americans, rather than Russians or French troops, had come to their towns and could hardly do enough for them.

The youngsters were different, and not just those teenagers in the Volkssturm units. In one town Sergeant Honey stood next to an elderly German man and a ten year-old boy. As the Shermans and brand new Pershings (America's first heavy tank, armed with a 90-mm cannon) rumbled by, the boy said, "Deutsches Panzer ist besser." Honey looked down at him and asked, "If German tanks are better, why aren't they here?"

But the GIs were surprised to find how much they liked the Germans. Clean, hardworking, disciplined, cute kids, educated, middle class in their tastes and lifestyles-the Germans seemed to many American soldiers to be "just like us." Private Webster of the 101st hated the Nazis and wished more German villages would be destroyed, so that the Germans would suffer as the French and Belgians had suffered and thus learn not to start wars. Despite himself, Webster was drawn to the people. "The Germans I have seen so far have impressed me as clean, efficient, lawabiding people," he wrote his parents. "In Germany everybody goes out and works."

In some cases the GIs mistreated the civilian population, and they engaged in widespread looting, especially of wine, jewellery, and Nazi memorabilia. Combat veterans insist that the worst of this was carried out by replacements who had arrived too late to see any action. Overall, it is a simple fact to state that the American and British occupying armies, in comparison to other conquering armies in World War II, acted correctly and honourably.

So the Germans in areas occupied by the Americans were lucky, and they knew it. Thus the theme of German-American relations in the first week of April, 1945, was harmony.

CORPORAL ROGER Foehringer was in the 106th Division and had been captured along with four buddies. On Easter Sunday their guards began marching them east, to flee the oncoming American army. Foehringer and his men dropped out of the line, hid in a wood, and thus escaped. They started moving west. Near the village of Versbach someone shot at them. They ran. Up on a hill they saw two elderly gentlemen waving their arms, motioning for the GIs to come their way. They did. The Germans showed them a cave and indicated they should stay put. They spent the night. They could hear and see the German army heading east.

In the morning, Foehringer related, "two young boys came into the cave and brought with them black bread, lard and ersatz coffee. Hot!!!

We couldn't communicate with them, but they let us know we should stay put. Late in the afternoon of the 6th, the boys came running up to the cave yelling, 'Die Amerikaner kommen! Die Amerikaner kommen!'

So we and the boys raced down the hill towards Versbach. The whole little village was surrounding a jeep in the centre of the square and on top of the hood of the jeep was an American sergeant waving a .45 around in the air."

The sergeant was a mechanic with a tank destroyer outfit from the rear who had got to drinking and decided he was going to the front to see what it was like. So he stole a jeep and took off. He had no idea where he was and hoped Foehringer did. For his part, Foehringer wanted to thank those who had helped him. "Every jeep in the world had a foot locker with all kinds of stuff," he remembered. "Candy bars, rations, bandages and medical supplies. So we opened the foot locker and threw everything to the people." Then all five GIs scrambled onto the jeep. "There wasn't much to us," Foehringer explained. "I was down to 100 pounds, so were the others. So we were only about 500 pounds."

The sergeant drove west, towards Wtirzburg. Foehringer saw "burning German half tracks, tanks, trucks, dead soldiers lying alongside the road, but no sign of troops." Near Wurzburg they came into the lines of the 42nd Division, safe and sound.

Thirty years later Foehringer, with his family, returned to Versbach. He had never gotten the names of the boys who helped him, but through inquiry he got the names of two brothers of about the right age. He went to one brother's home and was greeted by the frau, who took one look and yelled back at her husband, "Mem Gott, it's the American!" He came running. The two men recognized each other immediately and embraced. The other brother was summoned. The families celebrated. Foehringer hosted a grand dinner at the local restaurant.

ON EASTER Sunday, Twenty-first Army Group and Twelfth Army Group linked up near Paderborn, completing the encirclement of the Ruhr. Some 400,000 German soldiers were trapped, while Eisenhower was free to send his armies wherever he chose.

Montgomery wanted to drive on to Berlin. Hodges wanted Berlin, as did Simpson, Patton, and Churchill. But Bradley didn't and neither did Eisenhower. Partly their reason was political. At the Yalta conference the Big Three had agreed to divide Germany into zones of occupation, and Berlin into sectors. If Simpson's Ninth or Hodges's First Army fought its way on to Berlin, they would be taking territory that would have to be turned over to the Soviet occupation forces. Eisenhower asked Bradley for an estimate on the cost of taking the city. About 100,000 casualties, Bradley replied, "a pretty stiff price to pay for a prestige objective, especially when we've got to fall back and let the other fellow take over."

Further, Eisenhower believed that if the Americans tried to race the Russians to Berlin, they would lose. Ninth and First armies were 400 kilometres from Berlin; the Red Army was on the banks of the Oder River, less than 100 kilometres from the city, and in great strength-more than 1,250,000 troops.

Another consideration: Elsenhower's goal was to win the war and thus end the carnage as quickly as possible. Every day that the war went on meant more deaths for concentration camp inmates, for millions of slave labourers, for the Allied POWs. If he concentrated on Berlin, the Germans in Bavaria and Austria-where many of the POW and slave labour camps were located-would be able to hold out for who knew how long.

Eisenhower had issued a proclamation to the German troops and people, in leaflet form and via radio, urging surrender. He described the hopelessness of their situation, and most Germans heartily agreed. Thousands of soldiers threw down their arms and headed home. But a core of fighting men remained, including SS, Hitler Youth, and officer candidates. Many of them were fanatics; nearly all were mere boys. They didn't know much about making war, but they were such daredevils and so well armed they could cause considerable harm. Even after the surrender of the Ruhr, these boys could get all the panzerfausts, potato mashers, machine guns, burp guns, and rifles they could carry.

After the mid-April surrender of 325,000 troops (plus thirty generals) in the Ruhr pocket, the Wehrmacht packed it in. Lieutenant Gunter Materne was a German artilleryman caught in the pocket. "At the command post, the CO of our artillery regiment, holding back his tears, told us that we had lost the war, all the victims died in vain. The code word 'werewolf had been sent out by Hitler's command post. This meant that we were all supposed to divide up into small groups and head east." Not many did, Materne observed. The veterans sat down and awaited their American captors.

The Volkssturm, the Waffen SS, and the Hitler Youth were another matter. They fought fiercely and inflicted great damage. It was chaos and catastrophe, brought on for no reason-except that Hitler had raised these boys for just this moment.

The Allied fear was that Hitler would be able to encourage these armed bands to continue the struggle. His voice was his weapon. If he got to the Austrian Alps, he might be able to surround himself with SS troops and use the radio to put that voice into action.

Exactly that was happening, according to OSS agents in Switzerland. SHAEF G-2 agreed. As early as March 11, G-2 had declared, "The main trend of German defence policy does seem directed primarily to the safeguarding of the Alpine Zone. This area is practically impenetrable. Evidence indicates that considerable numbers of SS and specially chosen units are being systematically withdrawn to Austria. Here, defended by nature the powers that have hitherto guided Germany will survive to reorganize her resurrection. Here a specially selected corps of young men will be trained in guerrilla warfare, so that a whole underground army can be fitted and directed to liberate Germany."

Elsenhower's mission was to get a sharp, clean, quick end to the war. The Russians were going to take Berlin anyway. The best way to carry out the mission was to overrun Bavaria and Austria before the Germans could set up their Alpine redoubt. Eisenhower ordered Ninth Army to halt at the Elbe River, First Army to push on to Dresden on the Elbe and then halt, and Third Army and Seventh Army, plus the French army, to overrun Bavaria and Austria.

American POWs were a major concern. The Germans held 90,000 US airmen and soldiers in stalags scattered across central and southern Germany. Rescue missions became a primary goal.

WHEN THE POW camps were liberated, the GIs usually found the guards gone, the POWs awaiting them. The sight of an American or British soldier was a signal for an outburst of joy. Captain Pat Reid of the British army was in Colditz prison, a castle in a rural area of central Germany. The prisoners were Allied officers, "bad boys" to the Germans because they had escaped from other stalags. Colditz was supposed to be escape-proof, but these incorrigibles kept escaping (one via what may have been the world's first hang glider), although few made it to Switzerland. Reid described the moment on April 15, a day after the guards took off, when a single American soldier stood at the gate, "his belt and straps festooned with ammunition clips and grenades, submachine gun in hand." An Allied officer cautiously advanced towards him with outstretched hand. The GI took it, grinned, and said cheerfully,

"Any doughboys here?"

"Suddenly, a mob was rushing towards him, shouting and cheering and struggling madly to reach him, to make sure that he was alive, to touch him, and from the touch to know again the miracle of living, to be men in their own right, freed from bondage. Men with tears streaming down their faces kissed the GI on both cheeks-the salute of brothers."

At Moosburg, Allied POWs who had been marched away from the oncoming Russians, under horrible conditions and at great risk, were gathered-some 110,000 of them, including 10,000 Americans. Major Elliott Viney of the British army was among the POWs. He kept a diary. April 29, 1945: "AMERICANS HERE! Three jeeps in the camp and all national flags hoisted. The boys brought in cigars, matches, lettuce and flour. The scenes have been almost indescribable. Wireless blaring everywhere, wire coming down, wearing Goon bayonets and caps. The SS put a panzerfaust through the guard company's barracks when they refused to fight."

To most German soldiers the sight of a GI or Tommy standing in front of them was almost as welcome an event as it was for the POWs. Those who surrendered safely thought themselves among the luckiest men alive. In mid-April, Sergeant Egger recalled, "I fired at a deer in the evening while hunting but missed, and five German soldiers came out of the woods with their hands up. I bet they thought we had excellent vision."

On the autobahns German troops marched west on the median, while Americans on tanks, trucks, and jeeps rolled east. Sergeant Gordon Carson, heading towards Salzburg, recalled that "as far as you could see in the median were German prisoners, fully armed. No one would stop to take their surrender. We just waved." Private Webster couldn't get over the sight of the Germans, "coming in from the hills like sheep to surrender." He recalled "the unbelievable spectacle of two GIs keeping watch on some 2,500 enemy."

The 101st was riding in DUKWs. Most GIs were riding on vehicles of every description, always heading east. A few infantry, however, were still slogging forward the same way they had crossed France and Belgium and the Rhineland-by foot. "We walked another twenty-five miles today," Sergeant Egger recorded on April 20. "Naturally the men were complaining, but I always preferred walking to fighting."

Sometimes they had to fight. On April 27, G Company came to Deggendorf, northeast of Munich. There were some Hitler Youth in the town of 15,000. They had machine guns and panzerfausts, and they let go. "The bullets sounded like angry bees overhead," Egger wrote. American artillery destroyed the hive. Later, in the by then destroyed town, one of his buddies said to him, "The thought of being killed by some fanatical thirteen-year-old scares the hell out of me. After coming this far I don't want to die now."

AS THE TOMMIES and GIs moved deeper into Germany, they made discoveries that brought on a great change in attitude towards Germany and its people. On April 11 the 3rd Armoured Division got into Nordhausen, on the southern side of the Harz Mountains. Captain Belton Cooper was near the van as the GIs worked their way into town. Suddenly "a strange apparition emerged from the side of one of the buildings. A tall frail-looking creature with striped pants and naked from the waist up. It appeared to be a human skeleton with little signs of flesh, if any. The skin appeared to be like a translucent plastic stretched over the rib cage and sucked with a powerful vacuum until it impinged to the backbone in the rear. I could not tell whether it was male or female. There was no face, merely a gaunt human skull staring out. The teeth were exposed in a broad grin and in place of eyes were merely dark sockets. I did not see how it was humanly possible for this pathetic creature to have enough strength to walk. As we proceeded down the road, we encountered more and more of these gaunt figures standing or sitting but most of them were sprawled on the road where they had collapsed."

Cooper came to a warehouse where German civilians were plundering.

"The crowd was ravenous; they were pushing and shoving. They paid absolutely no attention to the poor pitiful wretches lying in the streets." Further on "we passed three large stacks of what appeared to be wastepaper and garbage piled in rows six feet high and four hundred feet long. The stench was overwhelming and as I looked I noticed that parts of the stack were moving. To my absolute horror, it dawned on me that these stacks contained the bodies of naked human beings. A few were still alive."

General Collins ordered that every civilian in Nordhausen must work around the clock until the bodies were buried. Bulldozers came forward to dig a mass grave. Later Cooper discovered the V-2 rocket factory where the slave labourers worked until they starved. East of Nordhausen he came across a schoolhouse with some trees around it. On closer examination it turned out to be a rocket assembly plant. The trees were aluminium fuel tanks piled on each other and covered with camouflage nets.

Lieutenant Hugh Carey, who became governor of New York in the 1980s, was at Nordhausen on April 11. Thirty years later he wrote,'"! stood with other American soldiers before Nordhausen. I inhaled the stench of death, and the barbaric, calculated cruelty. I made a vow as I stood there that as long as I live, I will fight for peace, for the rights of mankind and against any form of hate, bias and prejudice."

Eisenhower saw his first slave labour camp on April 13. It was Ohrdruf Nord, near the town of Gotha. He called it the shock of his life. He had never seen such degradation, had never imagined the bestiality man was capable of committing.

"Up to that time I had known about [Nazi crimes] only generally or through secondary sources," he wrote. Like so many men of his age, he was deeply suspicious of wartime propaganda. The reality was far worse than the stories and all but overwhelmed him. "I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda." That night he sent communications to Washington and London, urging the two governments to send newspaper editors, photographers, Congressmen, and members of Parliament to visit the camp and make a record. That was done.

Day after day over the next couple of weeks more camps were discovered. On April 15 Edward R. Murrow went to Buchenwald, just north of Weimar. Like every GI who saw one of the camps, Murrow feared that no one could believe what he saw. He gave a description on his CBS radio program. In his conclusion he said, "I have reported what I saw, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I'm not in the least sorry."

Martha Gellhorn of The New York Times visited the main camp at Dachau. Then she flew out on a C-47 carrying liberated POWs to France. She talked to them about Dachau, which they had just seen. "No one will believe us," one soldier said. "We got to talk about it, see? We got to talk about it if anyone believes us or not."

ON APRIL 25, at Torgau on the Elbe River, a lieutenant from First Army, William D. Robinson, met a Red Army soldier. Germany was divided. A celebration ensued. Hundreds of Red Army soldiers found rowboats and rafts and came over to the American side. A factory in Torgau produced harmonicas and accordions, so there was music and dancing. Private Andy Rooney was there for Stars and Stripes. So was combat historian Sergeant Forrest Pogue, interviewing the GIs. They danced with female soldiers-reportedly the best snipers in the Red Army.

ON APRIL 27 the 12th Armoured Division approached Landsbergam-Lech. Major Winters was one of the first to arrive. "The memory of starved, dazed men," he related, "who dropped their eyes and heads when we looked at them through the chain-link fence, in the same manner that a beaten, mistreated dog would cringe, leaves feelings that cannot be described and will never be forgotten. The impact of seeing those people behind that fence left me saying, only to myself, 'Now I know why I am here!'"

To the south. Third Army was penetrating Czechoslovakia (already assigned to the Russians for occupation) while Seventh Army raced eastwards past Munich and down into Austria (where no boundary lines had yet been set). Eisenhower urged the GIs to get as far into Austria as possible.

There wasn't much resistance.

As individuals, squads, companies, regiments, divisions, corps-as entire armies the Germans were surrendering. The crazies were still fighting, like chickens with their heads cut off, even though Hitler had shot himself on April 30. But most of the shooting was over. The dominant thought in every GI's head was home. On May 6 Don Williams of Stars and Stripes wrote an article that gave them the bad news: "No man or woman, no matter how long he or she has been in service, overseas or in combat, will be released from the Army if his or her services are required in the war against Japan." There would be a point system for demobilization: so many points for length of service, time already spent overseas, combat decorations, and the number of dependent children in the States. Soldiers deemed essential for war duties would either stay on as occupation troops or ship out for the invasion of Japan. "In the meantime," Williams wrote, "don't write home and tell your mother or sweetheart that you'll be home next week or next month. For most of you, it just ain't so."

On May 7 the campaign of the US Army in Northwest Europe came to an end. That morning, at SHAEF headquarters in Reims, German delegates signed the unconditional surrender. The Russians insisted that there be a second signing, in Berlin, which took place on May 8.

Men reacted differently. Sergeant Ewald Becker of Panzer Grenadier Regiment 111 was near his home in Kassel. "We went out onto the streets to surrender. The first vehicle to come was an American jeep and as I raised my hands he waved and grinned at me and continued to drive. Then another jeep with four men. They stopped and gave me chocolate and drove on. Then a German vehicle came with a white flag. I asked him what was going on and he said the war has been over for two hours. I went back to the village and we tapped the first available keg. Within two hours, I can say with confidence, the entire village was drunk."

Sergeant James Pemberton, 103rd Division, by the end of the war had been in combat for 347 days. "The night of May 8, I was looking down from our cabin on the mountain at the Inn River Valley in Austria. It was black. And then the lights in Innsbruck went on. If you have not lived in darkness for months, shielding even a match light deep in a foxhole, you can't imagine the feeling."

Many units had a ceremony of some sort. In the 357th Combat Team, 90th Division, the CO had all the officers assemble on the grassy slopes of a hill, under a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes. The regimental CO spoke, and the division commander spoke. Lieutenant Colonel Ken Reimers remembered counting the costs. "We had taken some terrible losses-our infantry suffered over 250 per cent casualties. There was not a single company commander present who left England with us."

The 90th Division had been in combat for 308 days-the record in ETObut other divisions had taken almost as many casualties. The junior officers and NCOs suffered most. Some of America's best young men went down leading their troops in battle. Dutch Schultz paid his officers and NCOs a fine tribute: "Not only were these men superb leaders both in and out of combat, but, more importantly, they took seriously the responsibility of first placing the welfare of their men above their own needs."

THERE is NO typical GI among the millions who served in Northwest Europe, but Bruce Egger surely was representative. He was a mountain man from central Idaho. In October 1944 he arrived in France, and on November 6 he went on the line with G Company, 328th regiment, 26th Division. He served out the war in almost continuous frontline action. He had his close calls, most notably a piece of shrapnel stopped by the New Testament in the breast pocket of his field jacket, but was never wounded. In this he was unusually lucky. Egger rose from private to staff sergeant.

In his memoir of the war Egger spoke for all GIs: "More than four decades have passed since those terrible months when we endured the mud of Lorraine, the bitter cold of the Ardennes, the dank cellars of Saarlutem. We were miserable and cold and exhausted most of the time; we were all scared to death. But we were young and strong then, possessed of the marvellous resilience of youth, and for all the misery and fear and the hating every moment of it the war was a great, if always terrifying, adventure. Not a man among us would want to go through it again, but we are all proud of having been so severely tested and found adequate. The only regret is for those of our friends who never returned."

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