A Great Silence

FIELD Marshal Montgomery’s final wartime encampment crowned a hilltop on the Lüneburg Heath, thirty miles southeast of Hamburg in a landscape of beech, birch, and half-timbered farmhouses with blue- or pink-tinted plaster. “The lovely colors of the countryside spread away for miles, pools of dark green in the clumps of pine, purple in the heather,” wrote Alan Moorehead, who nonetheless considered this an “abode of witches and warlocks and sprites.” Tommies fished unconventionally in a nearby trout hatchery, with revolvers and grenades. The spires of two Lüneburg churches soared above the treetops to the north, and pathetic groans could be heard from local hospitals jammed with damaged German soldiers. A sign in an abandoned Luftwaffe barracks still insisted “Der Führer Hat Immer Recht”—The Führer Is Always Right—and a storage room there had yielded fine maps of England, Scotland, and the Soviet Union, reminders of the Reich’s foiled ambitions.

At 11:30 A.M. on Thursday, May 3, a German sedan escorted by two British armored cars crawled past the village of Wendisch Evern. The small convoy halted beneath a Union Jack that had been hoisted over a trio of camouflaged caravans. Four officers stepped from the sedan, two in gray army greatcoats and two in the long leather watch coats of German naval officers. The door of the middle caravan swung open and an elfin figure in battle dress and khaki trousers emerged, hands clasped behind his back in a pose of severest rectitude. Drawing themselves to attention, the four Germans snapped salutes, which Montgomery returned with the casual brush of a finger against his black beret.

“Who are you?” he bellowed. “What do you want?” A slight, sallow officer in a high-peaked cap stepped forward to introduce himself as Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg. Under the Führer’s last political testament, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz had succeeded Hitler as head of state, or what remained of a state, in a provisional capital in Flensburg, near the Danish border. Admiral von Friedeburg had in turn succeeded Dönitz as commander-in-chief of the German navy, or what remained of a navy.

“I have never heard of you,” Montgomery shouted. One British staff officer whispered to another, “He’s been rehearsing this all his life.”

Undaunted, Friedeburg on Dönitz’s authority proposed surrendering the three German armies fleeing the Soviets between the Baltic and Berlin. “Certainly not,” Montgomery replied. “Those armies are fighting the Russians, so they must surrender to the Russians. The subject is closed.” He would accept only individual soldiers giving up with raised hands, “in the usual way.”

After mulling the matter for a moment, the field marshal added, “Will you surrender to me all the German forces between Lübeck and the Dutch coast, and all supporting troops such as those in Denmark?” That would be a tactical battlefield surrender by enemies opposing 21st Army Group, not a strategic capitulation to undermine Moscow. When Friedeburg protested that he had no authority for such an arrangement, Montgomery cut him off. “I wonder,” he said, “if you really know what your position is?”

Calling for a map, he quickly pointed out the catastrophe befallen German forces on every front, while delivering a tongue-lashing about concentration camps and the suffering caused by the Reich. “You had better go to lunch and think it over,” the field marshal said. He personally would “be delighted to continue fighting.” Escorted to a tent, the four Germans dined alone on a table laid with a white sheet. As his comrades nipped from bottles of red wine and cognac, Friedeburg wept—“an embarrassing scene,” Moorehead wrote—then agreed to take Montgomery’s counterproposal to the high command. He drove off at midafternoon, promising to return the following day.

At five P.M. on a rainy Friday, May 4, the field marshal bounded into the Lüneburg press tent, “jaunty, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his light naval duffle-coat,” R. W. Thompson recorded. “Had a good tea?” Montgomery asked the reporters. “Forces to be surrendered total over a million chaps. No so bad, a million chaps. Good egg!” A colonel soon appeared to announce that Friedeburg and his delegation had returned. “Ha! He is back. He was to come back with the doings,” the field marshal said. “Tell them to wait.” For half an hour he rambled on, then popped to his feet. “And now we will attend the last act. These German officers have arrived back. We will go and see what their answer is.”

The answer was yes. Friedeburg trudged into Montgomery’s caravan for a brief tête-à-tête, where he reported that Grand Admiral Dönitz—invariably called Donuts by Allied soldiers—had agreed to the British terms. Dönitz had also instructed Friedeburg to open negotiations with Eisenhower directly; the grand admiral clearly hoped that every hour of delay would allow thousands more Wehrmacht troops and German refugees to escape to the west. Eyes bright, Montgomery gestured to a photo on the wall. “Tell me,” he said, “is this a good likeness of Field Marshal Rundstedt? I always like to study my opponents.” Yes, Friedeburg said, the resemblance was excellent.

At 6:20 P.M., the admiral emerged from the trailer and, bracketed by two British officers, walked fifty yards to a tent with the side flaps raised. Two BBC microphones sat on a square table covered with an army blanket. “It was a grey evening,” Moorehead wrote, “grey heather, grey heavy clouds, grey coats on the Germans and grey in their faces.” Montgomery arrived directly. “This,” he murmured to reporters, “is a great moment.”

Friedeburg and his comrades rose from their chairs to salute stiffly. Montgomery took his chair, his biographer would write, “the simple, tortoiseshell-rimmed reading spectacles set upon the sharp foxish nose, with five rows of decorations below his lapel, the small gold chain linking the breast pockets of his battle dress, the bony, sinewy hands resting upon the table.” Holding a document titled “Instrument of Surrender,” he read aloud the seven paragraphs in his reedy voice, ending with “The decision of the Allied Powers will be final if any doubt or dispute arises as to the meaning or interpretation of the surrender terms.” Picking up a pen, he dipped it into an inkpot and told Friedeburg, “You will now sign the document.”

Once all German signatures had been affixed, Montgomery added his own, then began to write “April,” crossed out the “A,” and dated the document “4 May 1945, 1830 hrs.” The capitulation would take effect the next morning at eight A.M. and remain valid until superseded by a general surrender to be signed under SHAEF auspices. He sat back with a sigh, removing his glasses. “That,” he said, “concludes the formal surrender.”

“The tent flaps were let down,” R. W. Thompson reported, “and we walked away.” To commemorate what he now called “Victory Hill,” Montgomery ordered that an oak plaque be erected on the moor the next day. The marker was stolen within hours, but no one would forget what had transpired on Lüneburg Heath. Recounting the day’s events in a letter to Brooke before going to bed, the field marshal wrote, “It looks as if the British Empire part of the German war in Western Europe is over. I was persuaded to drink some champagne at dinner tonight.”

*   *   *

Foul weather on Saturday, May 5, spoiled plans to whisk Friedeburg to Reims for a quick end to the war. Instead, he flew to Brussels aboard a British plane before being driven south for 135 miles, arriving shortly after five P.M. at SHAEF’s headquarters in the redbrick Collège Moderne et Technique de Garçons, hard by the sooty rail yards. Humming to himself while putting on a fresh collar in the washroom, Friedeburg then walked into Beetle Smith’s second-floor office. Within twenty minutes, negotiations had collapsed.

Smith and Major General Strong, who together had handled the Italian capitulation for Eisenhower two years earlier, flatly rejected the admiral’s proposed surrender of only those German forces making for the west. The supreme commander, they told Friedeburg, would “not in any circumstances” accept terms other than unconditional surrender to SHAEF and to the Soviet high command simultaneously. Germany’s predicament was hopeless, Smith added; he pointed to several theater maps strewn across his desk, including a phony plan, drawn for Friedeburg’s benefit, that showed attack arrows from east and west aimed at the Wehrmacht remnants in Bohemia and Yugoslavia. The admiral’s eyes again welled with tears, but he was adamant: authority for such a surrender could only come from Dönitz.

Smith walked down the hall to find Eisenhower pacing his office and smoking one cigarette after another. Friedeburg would cable Dönitz, Smith told him, but no surrender was likely for hours, perhaps longer. The admiral had been placed under guard in a house on Rue Godinot and fortified with pork chops, mashed potatoes, and whiskey. “The let-down was horrible,” wrote Kay Summersby. “Everyone left in a gray mood.”

Eisenhower stalked from the headquarters with Telek, his pet Scottie. Fuming, he returned to his château and tried to lose himself in William Colt MacDonald’s Cartridge Carnival, a pulp western ablaze with gunplay, cattle rustling, and crooked gambling. “I really expected some definite developments and went to bed early in anticipation of being waked up at 1, 2, 3 or 4 A.M.,” he wrote Mamie the next morning. “Nothing happened and as a result I was wide awake, very early—with nothing decent to read. The Wild Wests I have just now are terrible—I could write better ones, left-handed.”

A new negotiator arrived in Reims at six o’clock on Sunday evening—General Alfred Jodl, the OKW operations chief—with instructions from Dönitz to “find salvation in the west” by explaining “why we wish to make this separate surrender to the Americans.” Joining Friedeburg in Smith’s office, Jodl smugly assured the Anglo-Americans, “Eventually, you’ll have to fight the Russians.”

After ninety minutes of haggling, Smith informed Eisenhower that Jodl and Friedeburg were plainly stalling. “You tell them,” the supreme commander snapped, “that forty-eight hours from midnight tonight, I will close my lines on the Western Front so no more Germans can get through. Whether they sign or not—no matter how much time they take.” In a radio message to Flensburg, Jodl told Dönitz, “Eisenhower insists that we sign today.… I see no alternative—chaos or signature.” The grand admiral complained of “sheer extortion” but gave his consent: “Full power to sign.”

SHAEF typists for days had been hammering out surrender drafts in English, French, Russian, and German. A version intended to be final had been prepared in Reims on Saturday, but some considered it the wrong document. An earlier, authorized “instrument of surrender,” written by the European Advisory Commission the previous summer, had been approved subsequently by Washington, London, Moscow, and Paris. A slightly modified instrument, drafted after the Yalta conference, added a proviso empowering the victors to dismember Germany. But France had only recently been informed of this second, secret version, and now even Moscow seemed ambivalent.

In the absence of firm instructions from the Combined Chiefs, Smith chose to ignore both variants. He opted instead for a third, abridged document, cribbed from a copy of the German surrender in Italy, which Stars and Stripes had just published. Revisions requested by Smith and others in Reims were adapted by a British officer who had been an actor and theater manager in civil life. At the frantic urging of the U.S. embassy in London, a “general enabling clause” was inserted, authorizing the Allies to impose additional military and political conditions as needed. A SHAEF captain painstakingly translated various amendments into German, pecking at a typewriter with a single finger.

This hasty pudding would have to serve. Pared to 234 words in five paragraphs, the document was rushed to the typing pool, which in short order produced eight copies of the “Act of Military Surrender,” each bound in a plain gray cover.

At two A.M. on Monday, May 7, seventeen reporters and photographers were herded up a stone stairway and through a narrow corridor to the second-floor SHAEF war room. Thirty feet square and used in antebellum days for table tennis and chess by students attending the collège, the warm, fusty room contained fifteen unpadded chairs and a heavy oak table. Huge maps hung like tapestries on the faded blue walls, displaying the disposition of Allied armies and airfields from the Arctic Circle to the Aegean Sea. Charts showed weather conditions, SHAEF casualties, and the number of German prisoners, now in seven figures.

“Get ready, gentleman, they’re coming.”

A hissing bank of klieg lights flickered to life. Jodl and Friedeburg walked to the table, erect and glassy-eyed. “The effect of make-believe was, if anything, heightened by the arrival in the room of the German uniforms,” one witness reported. Photographers scuttled about, bent double. The eleven-man Allied delegation followed, including Generals Spaatz and Strong, a Soviet major general, and Beetle Smith. Each took his seat behind a name plate printed on a cardboard strip. Smith looked “ghastly, ill, and exhausted,” wrote Osmar White from a perch in the press gallery. In his office down the hall, Eisenhower feigned Olympian detachment, pacing and smoking.

Strong laid a copy of the surrender document before Jodl. Only the click of camera shutters and a scratching of pen nibs broke the silence. When Smith and others had finished countersigning each sheet, Jodl stood, leaning forward slightly with his fingertips pressed against the tabletop. “I want to say a word,” he told Smith in English, then added, in German with Strong translating, “The German people and the German armed forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the victors’ hands.… In this hour I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity.”

The surrender ceremony had lasted ten minutes. Smith and Strong led Jodl, his cheeks streaked with tears, to Eisenhower’s office. They found the supreme commander seated behind a desk upon which miniature flags of the Allied nations were displayed. Purple circles rimmed his eyes and his jowls sagged. Jodl bowed.

“Do you understand the terms of the document of surrender you have just signed?” Eisenhower asked.

“Ja. Ja.”

“You will officially and personally be held responsible if the terms of the surrender are violated. That is all.”

Jodl saluted, then executed a smart about-face and withdrew under the supreme commander’s cold gaze for an eventual appointment with the hangman.

Thus was peace made in Europe. “I suppose this calls for a bottle of champagne,” Eisenhower said, managing a grin. A cork popped to feeble cheers. Photographers appeared, and a newsreel crew. At Smith’s suggestion, various staff officers attempted to compose a suitable cable telling the Charlie-Charlies that the war was over.

As each draft grew more grandiloquent, the supreme commander thanked his lieutenants and then dictated the message himself: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7, 1945. Eisenhower.”

*   *   *

The sharp odors of soap and antiseptic still lingered in the Hotel Fürstenhof near Kassel, where until recently a military hospital had occupied the inn. A week earlier the 12th Army Group headquarters had moved here from Wiesbaden; Omar Bradley occupied a second-floor corner room, sleeping with the window open and a bone-handled .38-caliber pistol by his pillow. At 4:45 A.M. on Monday, a jangling telephone roused him from a deep slumber. “Brad?” Eisenhower’s voice bawled from the receiver. “Brad, it’s all over.” A cease-fire would be imposed immediately, although not until 11:01 P.M. on Wednesday would the surrender officially take hold, allowing time to notify German garrisons in Norway and crews aboard U-boats across the Atlantic.

Bradley climbed from the bed, his hair deranged in gray wisps. Slipping into his frayed West Point bathrobe, he telephoned his army commanders: Hodges in Weimar, Patton in Regensburg, Simpson in Braunschweig, Gerow in Bonn. “Stop them in place,” Bradley said. “No sense in taking casualties.” He dressed and ambled downstairs to breakfast, a canvas map case under his arm. “Now our troubles really begin,” he told a staff officer. “Everyone will want to start for home immediately.” Opening his map board, he smoothed the tiny flags symbolizing each of the forty-three American divisions under his command, arrayed across a 640-mile front. Clutching a grease pencil, Bradley wrote his final entry on the map—“D+335”—then threw open the black-out curtains to gaze on the sun-splashed world outside.

“For the first time in eleven months, there is no contact with the enemy,” the First Army intelligence log noted in Weimar. At 8:15 Monday morning, seventy miles west of Prague, an order to “cease all forward movement” reached the 1st Division, which, since landing in Algeria thirty months earlier, had dispensed 21,000 Purple Hearts. “It’s about goddamn time,” one GI remarked. At his command post in a former German barracks in Regensburg, Patton listened to staff officers describe the disposition of the half-million men under his command. Peace still held little appeal for him. To an aide he mused, “Wonder what the rivers in Japan are like? See if you can get some terrain maps of Japan.” Rising to his feet, with Willie the white bull terrier on his heels, he strode from the command post and down the barracks steps, snapping his fingers.

As word spread of the German surrender, some rambunctious soldiers celebrated with honking horns or what one officer called “mad, dangerous” gunfire; “.30- and .45-calibers coming back down like a hailstorm,” a GI near Salzburg reported. General Gavin advised his diary, “This is it. After two years. One doesn’t know whether to cry or cheer or just simply get drunk.” The 3rd Armored Division—which had hoarded champagne since crossing the Rhine for precisely this moment—drank a toast to Eisenhower, their victorious commander.

Yet many felt subdued—“curiously flat,” in Moorehead’s phrase. Elation seemed misplaced. So many were gone, so many broken. “I should be completely joyous on this occasion. As it is, it comes more as an anticlimax,” a soldier wrote his family. “I remember the many who marched with me, and who also loved life but lost it and cannot celebrate with us today.” An eerie, profound silence fell across much of the battlefield, and even those astonished to have survived felt too weary, or numb, or haunted for hosannas. “I am in a let-down mood,” Devers confessed. In Thuringia, the correspondent W. C. Heinz watched soldiers wander aimlessly among the lilacs and blossoming apple trees, as if baffled to find themselves in a land so benign and beautiful. “We did not know how to kill time,” Heinz wrote.

For the first time in nearly six years, the sun set on a Europe without front lines, a Europe at peace. “Lights scintillated—truck lights, jeep lights, tent lights, flashlights, building lights, farmhouse lights,” wrote a major in the 29th Division. “Everything lit up.” Night stole over the Continent, creeping west from the Vistula to the Oder, and then to the Elbe and the Rhine and the Seine. Darkness enfolded a thousand battlefields, at Remagen and St.-Vith, Arnhem and St.-Lô, Caen and Omaha Beach. Darkness fell, and the lights came on again.

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