All Over Europe, the Lights Come on Again
News of the peace reaches a small town in Austria; British prisoners walk free as German soldiers trudge home
BOSTON — VICTORY Day in Europe was a big and exciting event in all the major cities of the Grand Alliance, but on the battlefields in Germany, it came quietly.
Combat had largely ceased on all those battlefields when the news spread after April 30, 1945, that Hitler had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. Fighting had already ceased along the western front after Eisenhower's troops closed on the Elbe River.
They first reached the Elbe on April 11. As the units came up to the river, they no longer had an enemy in front of them. No German tried to recross the Elbe. Those German units still under orders East of the Elbe were concerned with the Russians coming at them from the east, and by then most German commanders were retreating in front of the Russians in the hope of surrendering to the Western Armies.
All along the Western front after April 30, individual German commanders and various German government officials were establishing lines of communication to the Allies. I was in Salzburg, Austria, on May 5 and was invited to accompany a truce party through the German lines the next morning. The purpose was to reach the headquarters of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who then was commander in chief of German forces in West Europe.
We set off in early morning on May 6, a convoy of several jeeps and a radio communication van. In the first jeep was a German staff officer wearing an overcoat with red lapels. As we passed the last Allied checkpoint and headed toward the first German position, the officer stood up and showed himself as prominently as possible. Fortunately he was seen as we rounded a turn and faced the muzzle of a German antitank gun. We were allowed to pass. All our vehicles flew large white flags.
We had driven along without further incident through largely forested and mountainous country for perhaps an hour when we heard a large explosion up ahead. We soon came to a place where the road, which at that point was clinging to the side of a mountain, had been blown off. That part of the German line was held by an SS unit that had refused orders to let our convoy pass. We had no chance of getting through. So back we went to Salzburg for the night, and started off again the next morning, May 7.
This time taking a different route, we sailed through without incident, passing through the resort town of Kitzbuhel, Austria. We ended up in the evening at Zell-am-See, Austria, a small resort on a lake. We were housed in a hotel (which I revisited years later and found unchanged). The commanding officer of the unit went off to confer. The rest of us settled in the lounge of the hotel to listen to the news on the radio.
One word came over the radio loud and clear, waffenstillstan. Everyone there knew enough German to figure out what was being reported. An armistice had been signed at Eisenhower's headquarters at Reims, France.
I looked out over the lake and saw a light come on over on the far shore, then another and another. In a minute or so, lights came up all around the lake until it was ringed with a necklace of light.
Soon the lounge door opened and in came a soldier in a British uniform. He said that the guards had opened the gates of his prison camp and gone away. The prisoners were free to walk out. Others drifted in, several British, several Yugoslavs. There was no excitement. We talked quietly.
The war in Europe was over.
V-E Day, celebrated the next day, is something like Pearl Harbor Day, an event when you remember vividly exactly where you were when you heard the news. I remember every detail of another morning in a hotel on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu in 1941, when I heard a lot of banging sounds, and woke my wife and told her to listen because ''it is a good imitation of an air raid.'' I thought it was an exercise.
The trip to Zell-am-See is like that. I remember the dingy furniture in the hotel lounge, the smell of the long-unwashed uniforms of the newly released prisoners of war, the first light across the lake and then, one by one, the others coming on.
I also remember on the trip to Zell-am-See the looks on the faces of people we passed: a farmer in his field, gaping at us, another shaking his fist, another waving. Our convoy with its white flags was their first knowledge of what was happening: The war was over; Germany had lost.
We had no trouble getting back to Salzburg the next day. I caught a ride back to Paris on the afternoon courier plane. By evening I was in the vast throng that flowed up the Champs-lysees to the Arc de Triomphe at its crest.
The next day, we sat in the gardens of the Palais Royale and looked overhead as the greatest air display of all time soared over Paris. Everything that could fly from all over England and France and Germany was in the air that day, flying over the City of Light.
There was a quiet sequel. Two or three days later, I flew to Copenhagen with British Maj. Gen. Sir Francis de Guingand, who was to accept the German surrender in Scandinavia. He had a platoon of British paratroopers. We landed at an airport surrounded by German troops in uniform and in military formation. There was no problem. A day or two later, I drove with a British officer to Flensburg, Germany, a city on the Danish border that had been used by the German high command as its last headquarters.
Over most of the route we passed column after column of German soldiers, marching quietly home.
Under the rules of war, prisoners of war must be fed and housed by their captors. The German troops we passed from Copenhagen to Flensburg were not treated as prisoners of war. They were still under German command. The Allies had, prudently, allowed the German military system to continue to function. It was left to the rump German government at Flensburg to handle the return of the German Armies, and to feed and house them on the way home. The Germans were told to manage their own demobilization, which they did well, at no expense to the Allied Armies.
So ended Hitler's dream, but not in the flaming, thundering Gotterdammerung that he had ordered (and his armaments and munitions minister Albert Speer had countermanded). The German Army just walked home.
* Other articles ran Jan. 30, Feb. 13, March 6, and April 10. Former Monitor writer Joseph C. Harsch covered World War II from Washington, D.C., the Pacific, and Europe.