Why Eisenhower Halted at the Elbe
Roosevelt's death did not stop West's drive to Berlin -- but Ike did, with a controversial decision
BOSTON — THE last month of fighting in World War II in Europe was punctuated by two events so startling that they diverted government and public attention from the triumphal progress of the Allied armies.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died at Warm Springs, Ga., on April 12.
On that day or the next (the record is not clear) it became known that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had ordered the armies under his command to stand on the Elbe River. They were forbidden to push on to Berlin.
On April 12, 1945, I was traveling along the Allied front with a group of war correspondents. We were in Luxembourg that night, in a hotel. In the middle of the night I was awakened and saw the bearded face of NBC correspondent John Vandercook standing at the foot of my bed. ''The President is dead,'' he said.
My first thought was, ''What will this do to the war?'' I dressed and went outside. An American GI passed by. I asked, ''Have you heard the news about the president?'' I could see tears in his eyes. He said, ''I feel like my father has died.''
Just then, slits of light from nearly blacked-out headlights came around the corner: a convoy of ''dragon wagons'' -- tank transporters. There was a long line of them moving to the front. I knew then that Roosevelt's passing would not change the war. FDR's death was a tragedy, but the vast machine of war rolled on.
Only in one place did that event seem to make a difference. In Berlin, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels rushed to Hitler and said, ''We are saved!'' Hitler rejoiced. He thought that somehow the passing of the American president would help him. His delusion was short-lived. His own end came 18 days later.
In our group of journalists, most of us were old enough to remember that at the end of World War I, Allied armies halted in the Rhineland. Afterward, everyone seemed to think a big mistake had been made, that the Allies should have marched to Berlin.
On April 15, our group went to Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims, France. We were ushered into his office. We all asked the same question, automatically, ''Why stop on the Elbe? Why don't you reach for Berlin?''
We learned the whole story later. Ike had consulted his field commanders. Gen. Omar Bradley estimated that to take Berlin would cost 100,000 casualties, but Gen. George Patton said, ''We had better take Berlin, and quick.'' Lt. Gen. William Simpson, in command of the US Ninth Army, had reached the Elbe at Magdeburg on April 11 and secured two bridgeheads. On April 14 he asked General Bradley for permission to go on to Berlin. Bradley relayed the request to Ike. Ike said a firm ''No.''
Reporters with General Simpson's Army rode in jeeps to the outskirts of Berlin without incident or obstruction. The Germans had ceased fighting at that point. Simpson's bridges were only 60 miles from the city.
Eisenhower gave us three reasons for standing on the Elbe: His armies were already well beyond the line of the western occupation zones that had been agreed to with the Soviets. Why take casualties for land that would have to be handed over? He had always worried about his troops meeting Soviets on the run around a corner. He thought it safer to meet them with a broad river between. And, finally, ''Berlin is only a political objective, not a military objective.''
Bradley, in his book, ''A Soldier's Story,'' said: ''As soldiers we looked naively on the British inclination to complicate the war with political foresight and nonmilitary objectives.''
The decision to stand on the Elbe was Ike's, the most controversial decision of his public career. At the time, Britain's Winston Churchill was furious. He wanted every effort made to reach Berlin before the Soviets. And he protested to Roosevelt that Ike had informed Stalin of this decision without consulting Churchill or Roosevelt.
Ike had told Stalin by telegram on March 28. By March 30 he was replying to a request from Gen. George Marshall in Washington for an explanation. He sent a long memo to General Marshall on March 30 that obviously did not satisfy Marshall, because he asked for more on March 31. These two cables, plus Ike's major reply on April 7, are reprinted in Eisenhower's book, ''Crusade in Europe.''
Prime Minister Churchill felt that Eisenhower had seriously overstepped his authority by making the decision on his own and was even more at fault for communicating it to Stalin directly without clearing it with his political principals.
Could the Allied armies of the West have reached Berlin before the Russians? Probably. At the time the Western Allies reached the Elbe, some Germans units were already trying to surrender. Others were moving toward the West in the hope of surrendering to anyone but the Russians. Bradley, in his book, wrote: ''At the time, we probably could have pushed on to Berlin.'' Soviet Marshall Georgi Zhukov had not yet crossed the Oder. But it is also true that Simpson's first Elbe bridgehead was beaten back by three German divisions rushed out from Berlin. Not all German units were yet ready to surrender.
The fact that the Nazis allowed a jeep with a few war correspondents to drive to the edge of Berlin does not prove that Simpson's Ninth Army would have been tolerated.
And the Germans were certainly not ready to give up in the East. The Soviets launched their final big offensive on Jan. 11, 1945, but not until mid-April did they reach the edge of Berlin. German resistance on the Eastern front was much more serious than that in the West -- another reason the US Ninth Army might have reached Berlin first.
IKE did allow British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery to push along the Oste to Lubeck -- even to Wismar and Rostock. The purpose was to block off the Jutland Peninsula to keep the Soviets out of Denmark. That was a political objective on which the British had insisted. In a sense, it was the first political move in what would become the cold war.
But Ike would not allow his troops to the south to move beyond the Elbe. From April 11 until the armistice on May 7, the Allied armies of the West stood along the Elbe as the Russians hammered through Berlin and across the 60 miles of open country to the Elbe. One Russian unit reached the Elbe at Torgau on April 25. Other units came along quickly so that by the the end, Ike had achieved one thing he considered important -- a broad river between his soldiers and the Russians. He was certainly correct on that point. By doing it that way, he had prevented any accident between Western and Russian troops. The meeting was safe.
*Other articles in this series ran Jan. 30, Feb. 13, and March 6.