May, 1945: V-E Day Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After repelling the German counterattack in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, the commander in chief of Allied forces in Western Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared for the final offensive into the heart of Germany. He planned two major crossings of the Rhine in the spring of 1945–one on the north by Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group, consisting mainly of British and Canadian troops, and the U.S. Ninth Army; another in the center by General Omar N. Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group; and a third in the south by the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies. Adolf Hitler, the führer of Germany, had ordered his commanders to defend every inch of ground, and as a result of this directive, Eisenhower was able to destroy much of the German army in battles west of the Rhine in February, 1945. He also was able to capture the Ludendorff railroad bridge over the Rhine at Remagen on March 7, so that he had a bridgehead in the center; consequently, he abandoned plans to cross the river on his left and right flanks, and instead he rushed troops across the Rhine at Remagen.

After repelling the German counterattack in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, the commander in chief of Allied forces in Western Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared for the final offensive into the heart of Germany. He planned two major crossings of the Rhine in the spring of 1945–one on the north by Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group, consisting mainly of British and Canadian troops, and the U.S. Ninth Army; another in the center by General Omar N. Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group; and a third in the south by the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies. Adolf Hitler, the führer of Germany, had ordered his commanders to defend every inch of ground, and as a result of this directive, Eisenhower was able to destroy much of the German army in battles west of the Rhine in February, 1945. He also was able to capture the Ludendorff railroad bridge over the Rhine at Remagen on March 7, so that he had a bridgehead in the center; consequently, he abandoned plans to cross the river on his left and right flanks, and instead he rushed troops across the Rhine at Remagen.

American troops advancing into war-torn Germany. (National Archives)

The Campaign

By March 28, Bradley’s forces had passed through Remagen and reached Marburg, where they were ready to swing northward to link up with Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group, which also had crossed the Rhine and had cut off German Army Group B, assigned to defend Germany’s main industrial area, the Ruhr Valley. Eisenhower informed Montgomery that once the latter’s encirclement of German units had been completed, the U.S. Ninth Army (which had been fighting with Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group) would revert to General Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group for the final thrust into Germany.

This administrative shift was a major change in Eisenhower’s overall strategy. Before the capture of the railroad bridge at Remagen, he had intended that Montgomery should spearhead the major military effort east of the Rhine, with Berlin as the primary target; now he was shifting the emphasis to General Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group headed for Dresden. On March 28, Eisenhower informed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin of his intentions, implying that he would leave capture of the German capital to the Soviet armies advancing from the East.

Allied Disagreements

The prime minister of Great Britain, Winston S. Churchill, was furious. He considered Eisenhower’s shift in emphasis uncalled-for from the military point of view and held that Berlin should remain the prime objective for both the British and U.S. forces. Eisenhower insisted that Berlin was no longer important, because no German armies or government agencies of any significance remained in the capital. The Supreme Allied Commander wanted to end the war as soon as possible; to do so he had to destroy the remaining armed forces of Germany, which were concentrated in southern Germany. Churchill insisted that politically it was essential for the British and Americans to capture Berlin, for if the Soviets were allowed to capture the capital, they would gain an exaggerated opinion of their contribution to the common victory. Churchill also implied that if the British-U.S. forces took Berlin, they could hold the city for the purpose of making postwar deals with the Soviets.

The division of Germany into zones of occupation already had been decided, and Berlin was located within the territory allotted to the Soviet zone. Berlin itself was to be divided into sectors among the Allies. Eisenhower held that it would be foolish to waste U.S. and British lives in taking a city that would have to be handed over by prior agreement to the Soviets because it was to be allocated to their zone. At no time did Churchill advocate repudiating earlier agreements with the Soviets concerning the division of Germany, although he did want “to shake hands as far east as possible” with the Red Army.

After Germany’s capitulation, Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower (right), Omar N. Bradley (left) and George S. Patton (behind Eisenhower) inspect art treasures stolen by German forces and hidden in a salt mine in Germany. (National Archives)

Churchill could not give orders to Eisenhower; that prerogative was reserved for the combined chiefs of staff of the United States and Great Britain, or the president of the United States. The chief of staff of the U.S. Army, General George C. Marshall, saw to it that Eisenhower was given a free hand in field operations. Churchill appealed to President Roosevelt, but Roosevelt’s foreign policy was to make every effort to attain good relations with Stalin, and he refused to order Eisenhower to race the Soviet army to Berlin. After Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, the new president, Harry S. Truman, adopted the same policy. Eisenhower was free to do as he thought fit, and he sent his armies into central and southern Germany, avoiding Berlin. The Soviets captured the German capital in late April. Eisenhower’s forces reached the Elbe River in central Germany between April 19 and May 2.

Partition of Germany

On April 25, U.S. and Soviet patrols met near Torgau and cut Germany in half. Hitler committed suicide on April 30; his successor, Admiral Karl Dönitz, began negotiations for surrender on May 4. Dönitz wanted to hand over German forces to the Western Allies, hoping thereby to avoid punishment from the Soviets for German crimes in the east, but Eisenhower refused to comply. Dönitz, his country in ruin, agreed to the immediate unconditional surrender of all Germany’s armed forces. German and Allied representatives met at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Rheims, France, on May 7, 1945, and signed the necessary documents that made the surrender effective the following day. Truman declared that day, May 8, to be V-E Day (victory in Europe day).

It soon became evident that the documents signed at Reims were not the correct versions previously agreed upon by the Allies. Confusion reigned. The documents had not been approved formally by the Soviets, did not make provisions for authoritative Russian translations, and were signed by an obscure Soviet general without Stalin’s knowledge. Although the United States tried to downplay the mistake, the Soviets insisted upon a second surrender ceremony with the proper documents and different representatives in Berlin. That ceremony took place on May 9, a date that Soviets subsequently commemorated as the “true” V-E Day. The Soviets had achieved a symbolic victory over the United States, as the second signing ceremony bolstered Moscow’s dark intimations that the Western Allies sought to marginalize the Soviet Union in the postwar order. As much as marking the end of the war against Germany, V-E Day also can be seen as the opening of the Cold War.

Categories: History