One of Britain's most acclaimed historians presents the experiences and ramifications of the last day of World War II in Europe
May 8, 1945, 23:30 hours: With war still raging in the Pacific, peace comes at last to Europe as the German High Command in Berlin signs the final instrument of surrender. After five years and eight months, the war in Europe is officially over.
This is the story of that single day and of the days leading up to it. Hour by hour, place by place, this masterly history recounts the final spasms of a continent in turmoil. Here are the stories of combat soldiers and ordinary civilians, collaborators and resistance fighters, statesmen and war criminals, all recounted in vivid, dramatic detail. But this is more than a moment-by-moment account, for Sir Martin Gilbert uses every event as a point of departure, linking each to its long-term consequences over the following half century. In our attempts to understand the world we inherited in 1945, there is no better starting point than The Day the War Ended.
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About the Author
Martin Gilbert was knighted in 1995 "for services to British history and international relations." Among his many books are The Righteous (0-8050-6261-0), The Holocaust (0-8050-3848-7), The Second World War (0-8050-1788-7), and Churchill: A Life (0-8050-2396-8). He lives in London, England.
One of Britain's most distinguished historians, Martin Gilbert was knighted in 1995. A fellow of Merton College, Oxford, he is also the official biographer of Winston Churchill. Among his books are The Holocaust, The Second World War, Churchill: A Life, Auschwitz and the Allies, The First World War, and Never Again.
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The Day of the War Ended
May 8, 1945 - Victory In Europe
By Martin Gilbert
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 Martin Gilbert
All rights reserved.
Victory-in-Europe Day was proclaimed and celebrated in Britain, the United States and Western Europe on 8 May 1945. In the Soviet Union the celebrations were held on the following day. Newspaper photographs of VE-Day show dancing in the streets, fireworks, illuminations and scenes of jubilation. These moments of exhilaration remain fixed in the minds of all who took part in them, a high point of relief and rejoicing after the hardships, sorrows and privations of war.
VE-Day was the focal point of celebration and memory, but for many people, both soldiers and civilians, the war had ended earlier, for some much earlier. For the millions of military and civilian victims of combat, oppression and genocide, the war ended on the day of their death. Not a single day passed without the deaths of hundreds, in battle, in reprisal actions and in concentration camps. On average, more than twenty thousand people, soldiers and civilians, were killed each day of the Second World War; the same number that were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. For those who survived battle, aerial bombardment, execution and incarceration, the war ended with their liberation or repatriation from captivity. There were also more than a million Russians, including hundreds of thousands of former prisoners-of-war, who were repatriated, not to freedom, but to the Soviet gulag.
Liberation had come to northern France in June and July 1944, within weeks of the Normandy landings. The citizens of Paris had celebrated their freedom in August 1944, those of Warsaw in January 1945. In the same month the Soviet army reached Auschwitz, liberating the few thousand survivors still incarcerated there. Most of the prisoners at Auschwitz had, however, been moved to concentration camps within Germany before Auschwitz fell; those who had survived these 'death marches' were freed in April 1945. Also liberated in April were many of the prisoner-of-war camps in which hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen had been held captive, some for more than five years.
The series of Allied victories, which began in North Africa in 1942 and in Russia in 1943, and which eventually brought the war to an end, had been won at an extraordinarily high cost in human life. Britain had been at war, and Poland had been under German occupation, for more than five and a half years. France, Belgium, Holland and Norway had suffered nearly five years of occupation. Greece, Yugoslavia and western Russia had been occupied for nearly four years. At sea, in the air, and from the air, the war had taken a daily and relentless toll.
For some of those who participated in the early battles, the war had ended swiftly. Fifty-five years later one British airman, Sergeant Roger Peacock, shot down during a bombing raid over Germany in July 1940, recalled the abrupt conclusion to his war, and the events that led up to it: 'On September 3rd, 1939 I was already engaged on flying duties as the third, and least, member of the crew of a light bomber of 2 Group Bomber Command. It was not long before it became quite clear to the realists among us – most of us that is – that we were not likely to survive. By the time the French campaign began, on May 10th, 1940 (a day known irreverently to us as Woompit Day, a reference to the noise made by the copious light flak with which the enemy supported his advancing troops) a man fresh from Operational Training Unit and posted to a fighting squadron might expect to live rather less than three weeks. Some men – men at eighteen or so? – lasted a mere day. In July 1940 No 40 Squadron had three commanding officers; the second flew in at teatime one day, to replace his predecessor lost only hours earlier. He showed willing by putting his name on the Dawn Battle Order, took off next day at 3.30 am and failed to return. He had not even unpacked, which meant that tidying up his affairs was relatively simple.'
Each morning when Peacock awoke he inevitably wondered, like all his fellow-airmen, 'whether that day would be my last. I had prayed, of course, not for survival (which would have been cheating) but that I might be spared long enough to see the spring in my beloved England. My prayer was granted; it was in the closing days of July 1940 that Lachesis and Atropos caught up with me. In the course of an attack on the Luftwaffe airfield at Jever, a few miles west of Wilhelmshaven, our kite was disabled. There was a comical failure of communication: the two men in front baled out at some 8,000 feet or so, but I sat calmly in the back while the aircraft descended in sweeping spirals, waiting to be told when to go. By the time I found that I was alone and knelt beside my hatch, the kite was down to some four hundred feet and I wondered dispassionately, but briefly, whether it was worth while trying to use my parachute or whether an instant and painless death was preferable.'
Peacock jumped. 'There was just time to pull the D-ring before I found myself spreadeagled on my back in a potato field. Some determined twitching of my various extremities convinced me that once I had got my breath back I would be well. My pilot landed only a few yards away and together we turned our backs on the blazing wreck of our poor Blenheim. In vain: within a few yards I was accosted by a nervous gentleman in an unfamiliar uniform, holding a quavering pistol within inches of my chest, and demanding, "Hände boch: Sie sind mein Gefangener". It was ironic that only recently – perhaps the previous day – I had committed to memory that very phrase, offered to its readers by the Daily Express as a guide to "How to Receive a German Paratrooper who lands in your Back Garden" (an invasion was expected daily). The next thing he said, having assured himself that I was unarmed was, "For you the war is over." Perhaps he had learned that from his paper?'
Roger Peacock remained a prisoner-of-war for nearly five years. Ten million soldiers like him were to reach the end of their fighting war in a prisoner-of-war cage or prison barrack. More than three million Russian soldiers captured by the Germans on the Eastern Front died of deliberate exposure and starvation, their lives ending amid great cruelty and ignominy.
From the first serious reversal of the tide of war in Russia in the summer of 1943, hundreds of towns and villages in the East were freed from the Nazi oppressor. In southern Italy, liberation from fascism came in the autumn of 1943. While the outcome of the war was still uncertain, gravely injured Allied prisoners-of-war were repatriated from Germany, though not from Japan or, as far as German prisoners-of-war were concerned, from the Soviet Union. Civilian internees from Western countries were also returned home.
One such civilian internee, the British-born Ursula Wright, who had been held in various camps in Vichy France, including Vittel, since the end of 1940, later recalled the day in October 1943 when her war ended: 'I was repatriated through an exchange of prisoners, along with a number of other internees. We travelled by train through Germany, with many stops in railway sidings, and finally arrived at the port of Rostock. Here we met Count Bernadotte who was negotiating our transfer through Sweden. We sailed to Trelleborg and went from there to Göteborg under the care of the Swedish Red Cross. I remember the lovely porridge, with thick cream, served on the train, so different from our camp fare.'
At Göteborg, those being repatriated were put on board the British ocean liner Empress of Russia, 'painted white to show she was a hospital ship, and there we met many British soldiers, mostly wounded, and their protected personnel aides. We were given a marvellous send-off, with a band on the quay-side, and I believe the King and Queen of Sweden were there. I know Princess Louise, the Crown Princess as she was then, was at our departure, talking to some of the wounded soldiers. She was, of course, English (of the Mountbatten family). After an interesting journey through the Skagerrak we sailed across the North Sea to Scotland, where we were welcomed by a flotilla of little ships and then I, and some soldiers from that area, were transported to Hull. There I was given, which I felt I didn't deserve, a sort of hero's welcome, as the people there had suffered much more from the war than I had.'
During 1944 the pace of liberation grew. With it, in the East, came the imposition of Communist rule over large areas of inter-war Poland. In Yugoslavia, Tito's partisans were wresting much of the country from German control. In Italy, Allied forces entered Rome on 4 June 1944, having established an Italian anti-fascist administration in the south. From the first hours of the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, French villages, and then towns, and finally Paris itself, were freed. For millions of French citizens the war ended that summer and early autumn. Georges Bonnin, who had been arrested early in July for refusing to work in Germany, recalled vividly the day that the war ended for him. It was 20 August 1944. 'I was then in a Gestapo prison in Toulouse. The wardens, ordinary soldiers of the Wehrmacht, asked our small staff to stand in a line, shook hands with us and with a hearty: "Auf Wiedersehen! Alles gute!" ("Goodbye, Godspeed") as if we were old friends, left in a small ambulance. They did not go very far, for they were caught in the Rhône Valley near Avignon. We were so lucky to escape with our lives. A few days earlier four of us had been taken away by the Gestapists and never returned. I learned later that, with two dozen from other prisons, they had been burned alive. It was a symbolic execution; the Wehrmacht general commanding in Toulouse had left giving the instruction to the Gestapo: "Liquidate the prisons.'"
Bonnin also recalled what he described as 'a little twist' in the story. 'Among those wishing well to the departing wardens there was Frau P, who had been arrested by the French in 1939 as German, and re-arrested as Jewish in 1941 by the Germans when they occupied the South zone. She was a remarkable typist: During the interrogations of Jews, she was typing their confessions – she had to – translating directly into German if necessary. Incidentally they were beaten up and their screams could be heard through the open windows. When I arrived at the Nuremberg Trial, whom should I see? Frau P wearing a dark green United States uniform. "Where did I see you?" she asked, slightly alarmed. In the course of the conversation it appeared that she was in fact in touch with the wardens, still prisoners in Avignon. She was making sure that they would get their rations of cigarettes and chocolate. This is all part of the rich pattern of life.'
During the first three months of 1945 the German forces, which had stood triumphant within sight of Moscow, and on the Atlantic coast of France, were driven back by their adversaries deep into Germany. Still they resisted the onward march of the Allies. Seeking to stave off defeat, and to hide the consequences of the Nazi system, they moved hundreds of thousands of slave labourers and concentration camp prisoners deeper and deeper into Germany, trying to keep them away from the advancing soldiers, fearful of what might be the Allied reaction to so many starved, emaciated and desperately sick prisoners and slave labourers. As the Allied armies advanced, enormous numbers of German soldiers laid down their arms. On the Loire, an American officer, Lieutenant Colonel J.K. French, from Virginia, co-ordinated the surrender of 19,000 German troops.
As the Russian forces moved westward during the early spring of 1945, the war ended for the much-bombed, and latterly much-shelled inhabitants of a hundred towns in the regions that were overrun. But the torments of peace could be harsh. In Königsberg, once the capital of East Prussia, there was little to celebrate on the day the war ended, or in the days that followed. The occupation forces did little to feed the inhabitants, many of whom died of starvation. In the words of two historians, 'Rape, looting and pillage defined life'. A German woman in the city later recalled how, after she and her friends had been raped, 'we often asked the soldiers to shoot us, but they always answered: "Russian soldiers do not shoot women, only German soldiers do that."'
Nearly six million Germans left their homes and fled westward in front of the advancing Russians. An estimated one million died as they fled, from exhaustion and starvation, from bomb and machine-gun attack from the air, or accidentally caught up in the battle that continued to scar the eastern extremity of the Third Reich. As the German civilians fled, they often came in sight of other columns of men and women: of British and French prisoners-of-war being marched westward to avoid liberation by the Red Army, and of emaciated, terrified Jews, the men and women being marched separately, who were being taken from the slave labour camps of the East to new camps in the West.
By the end of March 1945, Allied armies were on the borders of Germany in both the East and West. France and Belgium had been freed. Fighting was continuing in northern Italy, in Yugoslavia and in Hungary. Holland, Denmark and Norway remained under German occupation. The threat of Hitler's secret weapons had ended: the terrors of the rocket bombs and the prospect of a renewed German submarine offensive were over. Yet the tenacity of the German army on all fronts meant that there would be no sudden collapse, as in 1918. The struggle to end the Second World War would bring the ferocity of aerial and artillery bombardment to almost every corner of the Third Reich. The siege of Breslau, where for eighty-two days the city defenders refused to surrender, and tens of thousands of civilians were blown to pieces in their homes and shelters, indicated that the struggle would have to continue until Germany was completely crushed.
When the First World War had broken out in 1914 there were those in every land who were confident that it would end by that Christmas. When 1945 opened there was equal confidence that the war in Europe would end by the summer, if not sooner. Looming over the prospect of imminent victory, however, was the spectre of the continuing war against Japan, in which American, British, Australian and Dutch troops were bearing the brunt of an implacable enemy. As Germany faced defeat, Japan was still holding on to part of Burma, was occupying Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Indo-China and large areas of China, and was fighting a stubborn retreat across the Pacific Ocean island by island, determined to resist any landing on the Japanese mainland with all the considerable resources at its military and autocratic command.CHAPTER 2
The Beginning of the End 1–24 April 1945
At the beginning of April, fighting on German soil continued on all fronts. The American Ninth and Third Armies had been trying for several weeks to encircle the Ruhr and, on April ist, in a pincer movement which electrified all Allied observers, they met at Lippstadt. 'The German industrial heartland was now severed from Germany,' wrote an American soldier, Charles Feinstein, who was serving in the 3rd Armoured Division. 'Germany could not now win the war (although plenty of fighting was left).' The commander of Feinstein's division, Major General Maurice Rose, was killed a few days later in a small arms battle at an SS training camp in Paderborn. In the Ruhr pocket some 100,000 German soldiers had surrendered by the third week of April. It was the first mass surrender on German soil.
On April 4, American troops advancing deep into Germany reached a camp different from anything they had seen before. More than three thousand emaciated corpses lay in and around the barracks. It was a slave labour camp, Ohrdruf. There were no living prisoners there when the Americans arrived: the German guards had marched the survivors away to avoid their being liberated, or even seen, by the Americans. The Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was alerted. He sent photographs of what had been found in the camp to both London and Washington. Members of Parliament and Congressmen were despatched to Germany to see the evidence at first hand. By the time they arrived, more camps, and with them thousands of emaciated prisoners and slave labourers, had been discovered.
Excerpted from The Day of the War Ended by Martin Gilbert. Copyright © 2004 Martin Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of illustrations,
List of maps,
I Anticipations, 1940–1944,
II The Beginning of the End, 1–24 April 1945,
III The Last Week of April,
IV The First Four Days of May,
V Further Surrenders, 5–6 May 1945,
VI False Dawn, 7 May 1945,
VII Learning the News, 7 May 1945,
VIII War Recedes, 7 May 1945,
IX VE-Day Dawns, 8 May 1945,
X 'The German War is at an End',
XI Britain Rejoices,
XII Liberated Lands,
XIV Germany Prostrated,
XV Austria in Turmoil,
XVI Germany's Vassals Lose Their Chains,
XVII The New World,
XVIII Fighting Against Japan as Europe Celebrates,
XIX VE-Day in Russia, 9 May 1945,
XX VE-Day Plus One,
XXI Trouble Brewing,
XXII Terrible Times: The Aftermath of VE-Day,
XXIII From VE- to VJ-Day,