Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, commemorates the end of the Second World War in Europe and took place on 8th May 1945 bringing WW2 in the West to an end. Much of Europe lay in waste, Germany was in ruins, and millions had died on the battlefield or killed by Nazi genocide. More than 70 years later the echoes of the Second World War still resonate across Europe.
But what do we know about the end of WW2 in the West?
1. There Were Three Surrenders
On 4th May 1945 German forces in north Germany surrendered to 21st Army Group commanded by General Bernard Montgomery. This process had begun on 3rd May, when a group of senior German officers had approached the British to discuss the surrender of German troops pulling back from the Russian assaults coming in from the east and to try and minimise civilian casualties. To Montgomery this was a conditional surrender, when Eisenhower had made it clear that only unconditional surrender was acceptable. Monty explained to these officers the dire situation they were in and after some of them went away to discuss the matter with their superiors, they returned on 4th May and just after 6pm the formal surrender was signed with the ceasefire coming into effect at 08.00 on 5th May 1945. All Allied forces under Monty’s commander were immediately informed.
Generaladmiral Von Friedeburg who had headed up the surrender delegation was then detailed to travel to SHAEF headquarters in Reims. Here he attempted to surrender German forces in the West but Eisenhower wanted the complete surrender of all German forces on the Eastern Front as well. This required Generaloberst Jodl to seek further permission from Admiral Dönitz, and then finally at 02.41 on 7th May 1945 the unconditional surrender was signed at Reims. All Allied forces in the field were informed that the war would end at 23.01 on 8th May.
When news of this signing reached Stalin, he was furious as there was little Russian representation. He was adamant that any final Nazi surrender should be in Berlin, the German capital, and so a process began to assemble German representatives resulting in Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel signing a surrender with other officers at the Wehrmacht’s military engineering school at Karlshorst, which was by then headquarters of the Soviet Fifth Shock Army.
Of the senior German officers who signed the three surrender documents, Von Friedeburg committed suicide, and both Jodl and Keitel were executed following the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Today there are surrender museums at the Reims and Karlshorst sites, with a small memorial on Luneberg Heath where the Germans surrendered to Montgomery.
2. Hitler’s Death Was Announced on The Radio
On 1st May 1945 Adolf Hitler’s death was announced on German Radio by Admiral Karl Dönitz. Hitler had committed suicide in the bunker at Berlin on 30th April. The radio report, now listed on the Jewish Virtual Library site, went as follows:
ANNOUNCER: The German wireless broadcasts serious, important news for the German people.
(Three rolls of the drums are heard.)
ANNOUNCER: It is reported from Der Fuehrer’s headquarters that our Fuehrer Adolf Hitler, fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism, fell for Germany this afternoon in his operational headquarters in the Reich Chancellery.
On April 30 Der Fuehrer appointed Grand Admiral Dönitz his successor. The grand admiral and successor of Der Fuehrer now speaks to the German people.
DÖNITZ: German men and women, soldiers of the armed forces: Our Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, has fallen. In the deepest sorrow and respect the German people bow.
At an early date he had recognized the frightful danger of Bolshevism and dedicated his existence to this struggle. At the end of his struggle, of his unswerving straight road of life, stands his hero’s death in the capital of the German Reich. His life has been one single service for Germany. His activity in the fight against the Bolshevik storm flood concerned not only Europe but the entire civilized world.
Der Fuehrer has appointed me to be his successor.
Fully conscious of the responsibility, I take over the leadership of the German people at this fateful hour.
It is my first task to save Germany from destruction by the advancing Bolshevist enemy. For this aim alone the military struggle continues. As far and for so long as achievement of this aim is impeded by the British and the Americans, we shall be forced to carry on our defensive fight against them as well. Under such conditions, however, the Anglo-Americans will continue the war not for their own peoples but solely for the spreading of Bolshevism in Europe.
What the German people have achieved in battle and borne in the homeland during the struggle of this war is unique in history. In the coming time of need and crisis of our people I shall endeavor to establish tolerable conditions of living for our women, men and children so far as this lies in my power.
For all this I need your help. Give me your confidence because your road is mine as well. Maintain order and discipline in town and country. Let everybody do his duty at his own post. Only thus shall we mitigate the sufferings that the coming time will bring to each of us; only thus shall we be able to prevent a collapse. If we do all that is in our power, God will not forsake us after so much suffering and sacrifice.
3. German Soldiers Fought on to the Last
The news announcement on the radio of Hitler’s death seemed to spread across Germany very rapidly but Allied soldiers in the West found German soldiers just as willing to fight on despite this.
In early May 1945, the 1st Lake Superior Regiment of the Canadian forces were advancing near Oldenburg in Germany when they were ambushed. A 75mm gun knocked out a Bren Gun carrier killing one man, and then a Private Smith killed a German armed with a Panzerschrek who was trying to knock out the Sherman tank he was riding on by firing at him with his Sten gun while the tank was still moving. When the body was examined close by two others wounded in the engagement were also found; one was a woman in German uniform who when asked why she was fighting told the Canadians defiantly “We fight and die for the Fuehrer”.
4. The Last Allied Soldier Killed was in Czechoslovakia
American combat photographer Robert Capa was in Leipzig in April 1945 following the progress of US forces as they advanced through Germany. In some street fighting in the city he photographed a two man machine-gun team on a balcony. Moments later, one of them was killed by a sniper. Capa photographed his body and it was published at the time as the ‘last man to die in WWII‘.
However, the fighting continued beyond the time in Leipzig and by May 1945 US Forces had entered Czechoslovakia. It was here, only hours before the final ceasefire came into effect, that PFC Charles Havlat was killed in a German ambush against the reconnaissance elements of the 803rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. This echoed what had happened in the First World War, when the final Allied soldier killed was also an American, and more than that Havlat was of Czech decent, so it was a sad coincidence that he died on the soil of his family’s homeland. Charles Havlat was buried on the battlefield and later his grave was moved to the Lorraine American Cemetery.
The names of the last British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in WW2 are not yet in the public domain, although they will feature in my forthcoming book Last Men Falling about the final weeks of the war in the west.
5. Many Allied Nations would not bury their Dead on German Soil
At the end of the Second World War in Europe there were thousands of graves of Allied servicemen who had died in combat in the last few weeks of the war, from many different nationalities. Under international wargraves agreements the long term future of these graves in proper War Cemeteries was secure but certain nations decided that they did not want their men buried on ‘Nazi soil’.
The Americans in particular were not in favour of having War Cemeteries on enemy ground, so a decision was made post-war to move the dead to either the American Lorraine Cemetery or Netherlands American Cemetery. There does not seem to be any rationale behind which cemetery a US servicemen would end up in: the dead from Leipzig in April 1945, for example. are buried in both cemeteries.
The Canadians had a similar policy. In 1944/45 they were involved in the liberation of the Netherlands and in the final weeks their troops crossed the border to fight on German soil. Again, their dead from this period were buried on the battlefield but post-war they were all moved into Holland and buried at Holten Canadian War Cemetery. The plots towards the rear of this cemetery are almost entirely made up of Canadians who died in Germany.