The Race to Meet -1945


Infantrymen of the U.S. First Army (left) extended welcome hands to Russian troops on a broken bridge over the Elbe River at Torgau, Germany on April 25, 1945. The meeting of the soldiers of both nations cut the German Reich in two.



War correspondents had begun offering odds on which American unit would be first to encounter the Russians as the Allied armies drew ever closer in eastern Germany. Men in the 84th Division painted welcome signs with Cyrillic lettering, and the appearance in a 69th Division command post of two brigands in Cossack attire caused great excitement until their accents unmasked them as British reporters playing a practical joke. An American order suspended artillery fire beyond the Elbe for fear of hitting the Russians; it was rescinded after cheeky Wehrmacht troops exploited the lull to sunbathe along the east bank. SHAEF and Moscow adopted recognition signals to prevent fratricide: red flares and a single white stripe around tank turrets for Soviet forces, green flares and a double stripe for the Yanks. GI scouts with field glasses scanned the fens along the Mulde River in search of the counterparts they now called “GIvans.” A giddy report on April 23 identified a Russian tank, which closer scrutiny revealed as a grassy hummock with a clothesline strung across it.

East of Leipzig on the foggy morning of Wednesday, April 25, three patrols from First Army’s 69th Division ventured into the uplands beyond the Mulde, ignoring orders from the U.S. high command to remain within five miles of the river. At 11:30 A.M., in the farm hamlet of Leckwitz, one group of three dozen GIs encountered a solitary Soviet horseman with Asian features mounted on a small pony; the rider swiftly galloped away. Continuing two miles to the Elbe, near Strehla—some twenty-five miles beyond the Mulde—the men spied soldiers milling along the east bank, medals glinting on their chests. After commandeering a sailboat and using hands and rifle butts to paddle across, the Americans shook hands with their Russian comrades from the 175th Rifle Regiment, exchanging smiles and extravagant gestures. But a message radioed to the regimental command post confused Strehla with Groba, four miles south; when an Army reconnaissance plane took ground fire without spotting any Soviets, the report was discounted as erroneous.

Twenty miles north and two hours later, Second Lieutenant William D. Robertson, a slender young intelligence officer, drove into the tenth-century river town of Torgau with three enlisted men in his jeep. Black smoke curled from a burning glass factory. The streets, lined with chestnuts and hawthorns, stood empty except for a few freed slave laborers and two sedans of German soldiers blind drunk on champagne. Gunfire could be heard from the Elbe, just east.

Lacking either green flares or a radio, Robertson smashed the glass door of an apothecary shop on Mackensenplatz, where his men scavenged enough tempera paint to convert a bedsheet into a crude flag with five horizontal red stripes, and blue stars daubed onto a white field. Climbing to the battlements of the hulking Hartenfels Castle above the river, they unfurled their colors, bellowing, “Cease fire! American. Amerikanski. Russia. America.… We have no flares!”

After a brief, unnerving riposte of Soviet machine-gun fire that chewed at the castle walls, two Red Army soldiers could be seen creeping across the twisted girders of the demolished Elbe bridge. Robertson and his men pounded down the stairs to meet them halfway before crossing to the far bank for a shared meal of sardines and canteen cups filled with cognac. When afternoon shadows grew long, Robertson drove back to his battalion encampment in Wurzen, carrying four soldiers from the 173rd Rifle Regiment wedged into his jeep as proof of the rendezvous.

Thursday morning brought the full, overwrought merger of east and west. A flying column of fifteen jeeps packed with photographers and correspondents arrived in Torgau to find a scene “like an Iowa picnic,” in one lieutenant colonel’s description, albeit with promiscuous celebratory gunfire. Soviet soldiers had looted a nearby accordion factory and “Song of the Steppes” carried down the river. Half a dozen varnished shells from the Torgau Racing Club—the only river craft to be found—shuttled GIs and reporters to the east bank for black bread and apples washed down with vodka.

“The Russians all looked as if they hadn’t had time for a bath since Stalingrad,” Martha Gellhorn would later write, but their tunics were upholstered with “handsome enamel decorations for killing Germans.” Red Army teamsters “handled the horses … rather like the chariot races in Ben-Hur. The pack trains had everything on them: bedding [and] pots and pans and ammunition, and also women.” Above it all rose a “splendid Slavic roar and the clang of wheels on cobbles.” GIs traded cigarette lighters and nail clippers for the lacquered red stars on Soviet caps. Hundreds of freed Russian slave laborers, mostly women in colorful kerchiefs, waited along the west bank for a seat on a makeshift ferry to begin their long journey home.

At three P.M. the 69th Division commander, Major General Emil F. Reinhardt, stepped uneasily into a wobbly shell. A stout Russian mother sat in the bow with her baby in a carriage balanced across the gunwales. “Get that woman off the boat,” an Army officer shouted. “The general needs that boat.” Unwilling to budge, the woman sat as rigid as a ship’s figurehead until the coxswain swung out into the river with mother, child, and the squatting general as passengers. “Reinhardt’s still lucky,” a reporter quipped. “Washington had to stand.” On the far shore a Soviet general advanced to greet him with an outstretched hand.

* * *

An unbroken Allied line now stretched from the North Sea to the Urals, cutting Germany in half and reducing the Reich to shards of a state. So little was left to wreck that Eighth Air Force flew its last bombing raid on April 25, almost at the same hour as the Torgau junction. Fifteenth Air Force, flying from Italy, quit a day later. In the north, a German rump still hugged the North Sea and the Baltic, through Schleswig-Holstein and portions of Mecklenburg and Brandenburg. But this territory was no longer contiguous with Berlin: Soviet armies encircling the city from north and south had met at Ketzin, twenty miles west of the capital. This too occurred on April 25.

Nothing now could thwart the Soviet juggernaut of two and a half million troops and six thousand tanks, although in destroying some ninety German divisions a trio of Soviet army groups in just the three weeks after April 16 would suffer more than three hundred thousand casualties, a bloodletting that made Eisenhower’s aversion to Berlin seem prudent. The city’s final agony had begun, and with it the rape of at least ninety thousand German women. Many smeared themselves with mud or dotted their skin with red spots to simulate typhus. Russian soldiers defiled them anyway, then ripped out water faucets and unscrewed lightbulbs to carry home as plunder. German strangers shook hands in the dying capital and urged one another, “Bleib übrig”: Survive. A diarist described the city as “a hilly landscape of bricks, human beings buried beneath it, the stars above; the last moving things are the rats.”

In the south, the Reich had been reduced to swatches of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, plus a narrowing belt that stretched from the Black Forest through lower Bavaria to the Austrian Tirol and Salzburg. Patton crossed the Czech border and each day ticked off fifteen or twenty miles toward Linz; on April 23, the entire Third Army reported fewer than fifty casualties while capturing nine thousand German soldiers. Patch’s Seventh Army raced south from Nuremberg to seize intact a bridge over the Danube at Dillingen. Fleets of Sherman tanks led the breakneck pursuit, past grazing cows and farmers agape at their plows. The 10th Armored Division alone captured twenty-eight towns in a single day. Few signs of a National Redoubt could be detected.

“We are constantly suffering from misunderstandings with the French,” a recent SHAEF memo had lamented, and perhaps inevitably these final battles would be marred by another snarling brouhaha of the sort that had characterized the Franco-American confederation since the North African campaign. In southwest Germany, General Devers had meticulously choreographed the capture of Stuttgart with three goals in mind: to prevent the escape of the enemy’s Nineteenth Army; to expedite the U.S. attack into western Austria; and, secretly, to capture German atomic scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in remote Hechingen. On Devers’s order, French troops were to seize Stuttgart, but not until the U.S. VI Corps had outflanked the city to block escape routes south. Other American forces would then barrel through, sweeping into Austria before Nazi bitter-enders could cohere for a last stand.

General de Gaulle had other ideas. Washington and London had yet to specify a postwar French zone of occupation in Germany, and General de Lattre’s French First Army seemed relegated to a minor role in the coup de grâce about to befall the Third Reich. Stuttgart offered a wide door to the Danube, Bavaria, and Austria, which, in De Gaulle’s calculation, would “support our intentions as to the French zone of occupation.” Holding a large tract of Roman Catholic southern Germany could enhance French prestige and perhaps provide a French client state abutting Alsace.

With Deux Mètres urging him on, De Lattre deftly used one French corps to surround the southern half of the Black Forest and another to envelop Stuttgart from the south and east. French tanks rumbled into the city on April 21—“like a merry-go-round,” De Lattre reported—and two days later the occupation was complete. When Devers on April 24 ordered his French subordinate to stand clear, De Gaulle stepped in. “I order you to keep a French garrison in Stuttgart … until the French zone of occupation has been settled,” he told De Lattre. Moreover, French field commanders were to ignore both Devers and Eisenhower. “French forces,” De Gaulle said, “should be employed in accordance with the national interest of France, which is the only interest that they should serve.” De Lattre apologized to Devers, but declared that he could “answer only to the French government.” Seventh Army’s chief of staff complained in his diary, “Penny politics by penny people.”

“The good and upright Devers was angrier than I have ever seen him,” De Lattre’s chief of staff reported, particularly after much of the German Nineteenth Army—though reduced to just seventeen thousand men—scampered off. Insult soon followed injury. The U.S. VI Corps approached the Danube city of Ulm to find that De Lattre’s tanks had arrived ten hours earlier, forty-four miles outside the designated French sector. When Devers again protested—“This is an absurdity which cannot exist and must not exist”—De Lattre pleaded that the city held special significance for France as the battlefield where Napoléon had routed the Austrian army in 1805. Again ignoring orders to decamp, the French general pressed his attack until a tricolor flew above Ulm. “De Lattre,” Devers later concluded, “was trying to be Napoleon.”

This opéra bouffe now grew sinister. German civilians fled Stuttgart to seek American protection from predatory French colonial troops. An English woman married to a German claimed that “every female between twelve and eighty” in her village had been assaulted. “Hens and women,” she added, “were the main thing they were after.” The U.S. 100th Division warned General Patch, “Situation in Stuttgart worst imaginable.… Rape, pillage and plunder have been rampant.” A reporter asserted that thousands of women were herded into a tunnel and raped; a French commander was said to have responded, with a shrug: “What can you do with the Moroccans?”

After advising De Lattre that “Stuttgart is chaotic,” Devers drove into the city at nine A.M. on Friday, April 27, to see for himself. He found the dire reports to be “greatly exaggerated”—rather than fifty thousand women raped, the figure was “fewer than two thousand,” some of whom had been violated by rampaging foreign workers or renegade Germans. Seventh Army noted dryly, “French procedure in occupying a German city is traditionally different from that of American forces.”

Eisenhower now intervened. In a tart cable to De Gaulle on April 28, he promised to inform London and Washington that “I can no longer count with certainty upon the operational use of any French forces they may contemplate equipping in the future.” The new U.S. president, Harry S. Truman, added his own rebuke in a note to De Gaulle.

But with a war to finish, neither Devers nor the supreme commander wanted to prolong this Gallic distraction. French troops for the moment would remain in Stuttgart, where the execution of a few rapists apparently persuaded Devers that “conditions were very much better.” Patch’s legions meanwhile pressed south. American intelligence agents outflanked the French to arrest some of the German scientists they sought in Hechingen, although the top prize, the Nobel physicist Werner Heisenberg, had pedaled off to Bavaria on his bicycle the previous day and would not be snared for another week.

Bickering over the French occupation zone would continue until a formal settlement was signed in late June. In addition to a sector in Berlin, Paris received a stretch of the Rhineland as far north as Remagen, but not Karlsruhe, Wiesbaden, or Stuttgart, as De Gaulle desired. France and the United States, whose blood camaraderie dated to the American Revolution, would emerge from the war as wary allies, their mutual mistrust destined to shape postwar geopolitics for decades.

Devers coined the perfect epigraph. “For many months we have fought together,” he wrote De Lattre, “often on the same side.”

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