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Endgame 1945 highlights the gripping personal stories of nine men and women, ranging from soldiers to POWs to war correspondents, who witnessed firsthand the Allied struggle to finish the terrible game at last.
Through their ground-level movements, Stafford traces the elaborate web of events that led to the war’s real resolution: the deaths of Hitler and Mussolini, the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, and the Allies’ race with the Red Army to establish a victors’ foothold in Europe, to name a few. From Hitler’s April decision never to surrender to the start of the Potsdam Conference, Stafford brings an unprecedented focus to the war’s “final chapter.”
Narrative history at its most compelling, Endgame 1945 is the riveting story of three turbulent months that truly shaped the modern world.
Also by David Stafford
Ten Days to D-Day: Countdown to the Liberation of Europe
Spies Beneath Berlin
Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets
Secret Agent: The True Story of the Special Operations Executive
Churchill and Secret Service
in memory of
Sydney, who fought
Say no more than How will it be with me? for however it be thou wilt settle it well, and the issue shall be fortunate . . . if a great boar appear, thou wilt fight the greater fight; if evil men, thou wilt clear the earth of them. But if I die thus? Thou wilt die a good man, in the accomplishing of a noble deed.
I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. . .War is Hell.
GENERAL WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN
Wars do not end when the fighting stops, and military victory in itself is no guarantor of peace. The wounded continue to die. The dispossessed still seek a place to call home. Parents search for lost children among the ruins, and families and friends try desperately to reunite. Soldiers of the defeated forces face weeks, months and even years interned in prisoner-of-war camps often far distant from home. The victors do not suddenly turn their swords into plowshares. They hunt down enemy leaders, confront those who wish to continue the fight, and wrestle hard to establish law and order. Only then can peace come. For this requires more than the absence of conflict, and is harder to build than battering cities to rubble.
Histories of the Second World War in Europe invariably end with the surrender of German armies and the celebration of VE (Victory in Europe) Day on Tuesday, 8 May 1945 (or 9 May in the former Soviet Union). From a military perspective alone this is misleading, because fighting continued in some places well past that date. Yet even where conflict ceased, allied soldiers did not suddenly fling aside their weapons, celebrate wildly, and return home. On the contrary, for most of them, VE Day was merely a brief pause in the continuing and exhausting experience of being in uniform and under arms. Thanks to Adolf Hitler’s manic vision, Europe in 1945 was a disaster zone, and the aftermath of war proved as demanding as battle itself.
It required the surrender of millions of enemy soldiers; the urgent quashing of looting, rioting and random violence; the robust and often severe restoration of law and order; the reestablishment of basic services such as electricity, gas, water and sewerage; the restoration of smashed roads, railways and telephone systems; the quest for the proceeds of the large-scale looting of European gold and art treasures; and, not least, the search for Nazi and Fascist leaders fleeing retribution and justice. The participants did not stop writing their diaries or letters home, and neither did they consider that their war was over; for one thing, those directly involved in the fighting expected to be transferred to the Far East to finish the conflict against the still-undefeated Japanese.
Nor did the fighting become less bitter as liberation dawned. Indeed, the final weeks of the war saw some of the cruelest moments of all, providing a terrible climax to a conflict already marked by brutality and death on a scale unprecedented in human history. Since D-Day in June 1944, allied armies had suffered a sequence of bitter setbacks that continually postponed the day of victory. When they finally entered the German heartland, Hitler made it clear that he would fight on to the bitter end. Referring to the armistice sought by Germany at the end of the First World War, he firmly told the Wehrmacht in his proclamation on “Heroes’ Memorial Day”–11 March 1945–that “the year 1918 will not repeat itself.” To rule this out, no price, not even destruction, was too high. A week later, he issued his so-called Nero Order. Nothing was to be kept for the enemy to use: mines were to be blown up, canals blocked, telecommunications wrecked, and Germany’s cultural heritage destroyed.
Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, expressed the same chilling nihilism more pithily: “If we have to leave the scene,” he wrote in typically theatrical fashion, “we’ll shut the door so tight that no other government will ever open it again.” What all this meant was that allied soldiers could expect a remorseless fight to the death.1
As for civilians, liberation often marked the beginning and not the end of their tribulations, a bittersweet moment of exhilaration and despair. It was only with the overrunning of concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Belsen and Dachau in April 1945 that the full scale of Nazi atrocities became apparent to Western eyes. For the survivors, the trauma of returning home was just the start of a painful process of readaptation to normal life. While, for the thousands of Jews who discovered that they had no homes or families to go back to, the struggle now began in earnest to build their own new state of Israel. For civilians who had not been transported to the camps–the vast majority of Europeans–VE Day was little more than a moment of brief relief in a life of continuing hardship and daily struggle.
This was also a time of retribution and revenge. The Second World War precipitated the climax of two decades of ethnic rivalry and ideological conflict, and almost everywhere society trembled on the brink of civil war or serious disorder. The end of the fighting permitted the winners to vent their rage on those of their opponents who had collaborated with the enemy. This presented the liberating armies with another urgent problem in the wake of their hard-won triumphs.
It was only after the fighting stopped, moreover, that help could reach the millions of people transported and enslaved by the Nazis in their insatiable search for labor to run the war economy of the Third Reich. For the first time, the army of relief workers who descended on Europe were able truly to appreciate the full scale and depth of the human misery involved. They also confronted a vast new wave of refugees, some fleeing westwards ahead of Stalin’s armies, others deliberately uprooted from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe because they were ethnically German. This, the largest forced migration of peoples in European history, took little notice of the celebrations of VE Day and it, too, threatened a new round of instability and conflict.
Even in unoccupied Britain, a political tremor was about to throw the nation’s triumphant war leader, Winston Churchill, out of office. In the United States, the inexperienced new president, Harry Truman, struggled hard to master the complexities of the international power game for which he had been ill-prepared by his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is scarce wonder that historians have described the end of the war in Europe as little more than a “semblance of peace,” as a “poisoned peace,” or most recently as a case of “no simple victory.”2
In Britain and the United States, the story of the Second World War is invariably told through its military campaigns. This is understandable. Neither country was occupied, and apart from British civilians affected by the German bombing of their cities, the war was most directly experienced by those who took part in the campaigns in Northwest Europe and Italy and the Far East. But the history of war is too important to be left to military historians alone, and in Europe the conflict had its greatest and most devastating impact on civilians. For most of them, it was not an affair of movement and battle but “a daily degradation, in the course of which men and women were betrayed and humiliated, forced into daily acts of petty crime and self-abasement, in which everyone lost something and many lost everything.”
More than one recent historian has reminded us of this, and of the fact that for half the continent the peace that came in 1945 was that “of the prison yard, enforced by the tank.”3 How the might of the Red Army smashed westwards to capture the great capitals of Central and Eastern Europe such as Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Budapest, and what this meant for their post-war life, is a story that has been told in a legion of books. It provides all the more reason to be thankful that the continent’s other great capitals, such as Paris, Rome and Brussels, were liberated by the Western liberal democracies of Britain and the United States–and that London was never occupied at all. Without that, the history of Europe would have taken a radically different and far more dismal turn.
This is why I deal here with the final weeks of the war and its immediate aftermath in that half of Europe liberated by the Western allies. I make no attempt to offer a comprehensive account but rather a portrait, a partial glimpse of the complex tapestry that was Europe during the endgame of Hitler’s war.
Behind and amid all great events lie individuals, their experiences and their actions, and it is only through understanding these that we can fully grasp the larger picture. Historical events, noted the exiled German author and historical journalist Sebastian Haffner in his brilliant memoir of life in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, have varying degrees of intensity. Some barely impinge on true reality–which means the central, most personal parts of an individual’s life–while others wreak havoc and leave nothing standing. Only through reading biographies, especially the all too rare ones of unknown individuals, can we appreciate this. “There,” writes Haffner, “you will see that one historical event passes over the private (real) lives of people like a cloud over a lake. Nothing stirs, there is only a fleeting shadow. Another event whips up the lake as if in a thunderstorm. For a while it is scarcely recognizable. A third may, perhaps, drain the lake completely.”4
This explains the approach I have taken here: to present the interwoven narratives of a handful of individuals caught up in the end-of-war storm that engulfed the lives of millions, based on their letters, diaries, memoirs and personal testimonies. The cast includes women as well as men, civilians as well as soldiers, and people of several nationalities. I have chosen them because of the intrinsic interest of their individual stories, the ways in which they illuminate the broader themes I have mentioned, and the light they cast on some particular dimension of the war.
They include a German mother held prisoner by the SS and brutally separated from her two sons; a young British commando who reaches the Baltic coast, only to witness the aftermath of the horrendous and tragic accidental death of thousands of concentration camp victims; an equally youthful American soldier fighting in Italy who tries desperately to overcome his fear of death and preserve his idealism amid the horrors of battle; a middle-aged war correspondent traveling with George S. Patton’s Third US Army into southern Germany who descends deep into a salt mine to see for himself the hidden gold reserves of Germany and piles of art looted by the Nazis; a Canadian officer who gets caught up in a bitter, last-ditch battle in Holland; a German-Jewish exile fighting as a British secret agent behind the lines in Austria; a New Zealand intelligence officer whose campaign in Italy ends in confrontation with the communists in the disputed city of Trieste; an American paratrooper whose war against the Nazis elides seamlessly into a struggle against the Russians in Berlin; and a woman with long experience of refugee work helping liberated slave laborers and concentration camp victims in Bavaria.
The narrative begins on Friday, 20 April 1945. This is Hitler’s birthday, when the Nazi dictator, trapped in his Berlin bunker, makes it clear that he will fight on to the bitter end and die there if necessary. It ends on Monday, 16 July 1945, when Churchill and Truman arrive in the ruins of the Nazi capital for the Potsdam Conference, the last of the wartime “Big Three” meetings. They make a tour of the devastated city and Churchill, after walking through the rubble-strewn marbled halls of Hitler’s once magnificent Chancellery, wanders into the garden to gaze on the very spot where the dictator’s body was burned after he killed himself. After several moments, he turns away in disgust. That same morning, thousands of miles away in the deserts of New Mexico, the world’s first atomic bomb is successfully tested. Japan’s fate is now sealed and the Pacific War, too, is effectively over.
Yet what peace means is far from clear. Some of the characters are exhausted but feel they have done a good and necessary job. One or two retain a battered idealism. Others are simply happy to have survived. At least one feels disillusioned, and another finds herself lost and bereft. All have experienced or witnessed the horrors of war. Each is anxious about the future and what it holds for them personally. No one can see the future for themselves, or for the world. What will happen in Germany? Is there any chance that democracy can take root? Will it be overwhelmed by the catastrophic influx of millions of refugees? Will Nazism return? Indeed, is it even certain that Adolf Hitler is dead? Will civil war break out at any minute in Italy? Will the country fracture into two parts, the north and the south? Will its monarchy survive? And what about relations with the Soviet Union? Can peace be built with Stalin? Or must it be constructed without or even against him?
When the clock stops on this narrative in mid-summer 1945, none of the answers to these questions is obvious. It is starkly apparent that a necessary victory has been won, but also that it has not yet delivered a peace. Indeed, it has created new problems for those who survive. Only one thing is certain: the war, for all its dreadful cost, has prevented Hitler and the Nazis from making an imperfect world into an even worse one. That, by any measure, makes it worthwhile.
I have many thanks to give to those who helped make this book possible. My first debt of gratitude is to those whose stories I tell here, some of whom are still alive and who generously agreed to meet with me, discuss their experiences of six decades ago and help me in various other ways, ranging from providing documents, letters and photographs to putting thoughts to paper in response to my questions. I thank them all: in Rome, Fey von Hassell, along with her son-in-law David Forbes Watt; in Hamburg, Fred Warner, who sadly has since died, and his wife, Annette; in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Reg Roy; in Gloucestershire, Sir Geoffrey Cox CBE; and in Suffolk, Bryan Samain and his wife, Helen. Leonard Linton of New York kindly agreed to assist me in telling his story but died before we were able to meet; I am grateful to his daughter Sandy for seeing me there and for answering questions and providing photographs. In London, Elizabeth Horder kindly talked to me about her aunt, Francesca Wilson, and lent me portions of her diary; while in York, Rosalind Priestman, another of Francesca’s nieces, guided me to sources about the Quakers and lent me the photograph of her aunt that appears here. Heather Aggins and Russell Enoch also talked to me about their memories of Francesca. To my friend and colleague in Edinburgh, Jeremy Crang, I owe a special thanks for letting me delve freely into the hitherto unexplored papers of his grandfather Robert Reid; while to Robert’s daughter Elizabeth I am grateful for further insights into her father’s wartime family life.
As ever, I am indebted to many expert and hardworking archivists and librarians, invariably underpaid and overworked, who make all historical research possible. The chief librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, kindly gave me permission to draw on the papers of Sir Geoffrey Cox, and I am grateful to Peter Cooke for finding the relevant material for me. Also in New Zealand, Dolores Ho of the Queen Elizabeth II Army Museum in Waiouru provided me with further material about Sir Geoffrey Cox as well as photographs by G. Kaye from the photographic collection of the Kippenberger Military Archive. In the Netherlands, Dr. Hans de Vries, of the Information and Documentation Department of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam pointed me in the right direction at the start of my researches into wartime Holland; while Monique Brinks, of the Groningen Archiv and curator of the April 2005 exhibition “From Me to May: The First Year after the War in Groningen,” kindly found time from her hectic exhibition schedule to talk about the days surrounding the liberation of the city. Local historian Franz Lenselink generously drove me around the Delfzijl area to explore the terrain, gave me a copy of his invaluable pamphlet on the town during the war, and shared his observations about the battle fought there in 1945 by the Cape Breton Highlanders.
At the Imperial War Museum in London Rod Bailey helped me with the Walter Freud Papers, while Stephanie Clarke assisted me in gaining access to the papers of Sigismund Payne Best, along with the generous permission of his widow, Bridget Payne Best. In the United States, Professor Emeritus John Imbrie, veteran and Vice-President of Data Acquisition and Analysis of the Tenth Mountain Division Association, provided me with much valuable material about the division’s wartime operations, answered many of my queries, and made valuable suggestions. Debbie Gemar and Dennis Hagen, of the Tenth Mountain Division Resource Center at the Denver Public Library, Colorado, sent me copies of the morning reports of the Tenth Mountain Division 85th Regiment Company F, April–July 1945, as well as photographs.
At the Defence Intelligence Museum at Chicksands, Bedfordshire, Major Alan Edwards OBE gave me enormous help during the initial stages of my research and helped me discover Fred Warner’s unpublished account of his SOE mission to Austria. In Berlin, Dr. Helmut Trotnow OBE, Director of the Allied Museum, first drew my attention to Leonard Linton’s unpublished memoirs. Sebastian Cox, head of the Royal Air Force Historical Branch at Bentley Priory, Stanmore, provided me with material about the Cap Arcona affair and discussed this tragic event with me. Dr. Yves Tremblay, of the Directorate of History and Heritage at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, Canada, helped with inquiries about Canadian forces in Holland. The late Sydney Hudson kindly let me consult his useful collection of press cuttings made by his father during the war.
I wish also to acknowledge the generous help given by various staff members at the National Library of Scotland, the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College, London, as well as Ian Martin, archivist at the King’s Own Scottish Borderers’ Regimental Headquarters in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Dr. Diana Henderson of the Scots at War Trust. As when I was writing Ten Days to D-Day, the staff at the Naples branch of the Collier County Library in southern Florida provided an unfailingly excellent service.
I have also benefited from discussions with friends and colleagues in many places. To Professor Terry Copp of Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ontario, I am, as ever, indebted for providing material from his own extensive researches on the Second World War that helped me significantly in the early stages of my work. David Ellwood of Bologna University was, as always, generous with his knowledge and contacts, and put me in touch with Professor Giampaolo Valdevit of the University of Trieste, with whom I had an illuminating discussion in Trieste about the complex politics of the city in 1945. John Earle, also of Trieste, was similarly helpful, as was John Shillidy, who wrote to me about his work with British military intelligence there at the end of the war. Lt.-Col. Roderick Mackenzie, formerly of the 178 (Lowland) Medium Regiment RA, sent me the relevant chapter of his memoirs of experiences fighting in support of the Tenth Mountain Division as well as an article by the late Lt.-Col. Hugh Freeth DSO, Silver Star, the regiment’s commanding officer. Dr. F. Akkerman of Haren wrote to me about the fighting for Groningen and the capture of the bridge at Oosterhoogebrug that was crucial to the Canadian advance on Delfzijl. Dr. Coen Tamse and Dr. Homme Wedman of Groningen University provided welcome hospitality in the city and filled in some useful details.
Others who helped at various stages along the way include Martin Clark, Richard Aldrich, Tim Naftali, Tony Hepburn, Alastair C. Duke, Bob Steers, Hayden Peake, Ian McGibbon, Dr. Rob Rabel, Fred Judge, A. Struan Robertson, Mark Seaman, Tessa Stirling, Gill Bennett, Mary Mackie, Beth Slavin, Betty Thomas, Gerry Brent, Seamus Spark, Frank Bright, Madeleine Haag, Tony Williams, Sidney Goldberg of the Normandy Veterans Association, Angus McIntosh, Adrian Gilbert, David Storrie, Matthew Parker, Sandy Gordon, Christopher Woods, Duncan Stuart, Andrew Jeffrey, Tim Carroll, Grant McIntyre, Ian D. Armour, Slawka Mieczyslawa, Joanna Potts, Marion Milne, Dolores Hatch, Jack Granatstein, Christopher Woods, Tom Wales and Sir Tommy Macpherson. My colleagues at the Centre for the Study of the Two World Wars and in the Department of History at the University of Edinburgh, Paul Addison, Jenny Macleod, James McMillan, Jill Stephenson, Donald Bloxham and Pauline Maclean, all helped provide the friendly and supportive working environment every writer needs.
To my agent in London, Andrew Lownie, I am deeply grateful for making the project possible in the first place, and to my editors at Little, Brown in London and New York, Richard Beswick and Liz Nagle respectively, I am profoundly indebted and thankful for their incisive comments, valuable insights, welcome suggestions and unfailing support. To Iain Hunt, Rowan Cope, Bobby Nayyar and Philip Parr, who also helped bring the project to fruition in London, I am very grateful.
Finally, to my wife, Jeanne Cannizzo, editor of first resort and unconditionally supportive companion, once again I can never say thank you enough.
FRIDAY, 20 APRIL 1945
Friday 20 April was Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Since seizing power in 1933 and making himself Führer of the German people, the anniversary had been celebrated throughout the Reich as a public holiday. Across Germany, the blood-red flag of the Nazi Party, with its crooked black swastika, had festooned private balconies and public buildings alike. Radio broadcasts had played special music and adulatory speeches, schoolchildren had enjoyed the day off, and at his Bavarian home at Obersalzberg outside Berchtesgaden Hitler had smiled paternally as blonde young girls presented him with posies of alpine flowers.
But today, as he turned fifty-six, the mood was distinctly unfestive. Josef Goebbels, the Führer’s fervently loyal minister of propaganda, tried to make the best of it all amid the mood of impending disaster. The German people, he announced that morning on the radio, should trust their leader to the bitter end. For this, Hitler himself was now making grim preparation. For weeks he had been in Berlin, living an underground existence in his neon-lit bunker deep below the Chancellery. It consisted of eighteen cramped rooms with a special suite that he shared with his mistress, Eva Braun.
Today, as elsewhere across Europe, it was a sunny spring day in the German capital and the lilacs were in bloom. But throughout the city housewives were desperately stocking up with food in preparation for the battle that everyone knew was coming. Overhead, the once vaunted and feared Luftwaffe was reduced to an impotent weapon, and American and British heavy bombers had been hitting the capital with impunity for months. Only the week before, they had sent the Foreign Ministry and the old Reich Chancellery itself up in flames. Now, overnight, knowing the significance of the date, they had returned for an even bigger raid, and all day the acrid smell of smoke hung heavy in the air. On the ground, Red Army forces had begun their final big offensive against the capital with two and a half million men and were rapidly approaching the eastern suburbs, threatening to surround the city completely. The thunder of heavy artillery was now audible even to those below ground.
Traditionally, the Führer was congratulated first on his birthday just after the stroke of midnight by his personal household staff. But this year he told them the situation was too somber for such ceremonies. Despite this, they persisted. Looking twenty years older than his actual age and his skin a deathly white, he trudged down the line of men and women and limply shook hands with each of them. Then, after sleeping a few hours, in the early afternoon he climbed the steps out of the bunker into the Chancellery garden to take Nazi salutes from selected army units and SS troops. About twenty teenage boys from the Hitler Youth who had been fighting against the Russians were also lined up.
Hitler was wearing his field-gray army uniform jacket with its Iron Cross, awarded for bravery during the First World War. Slowly, he walked down the line, pinching a few of the boys on the cheek and muttering words of encouragement. A newsreel camera recorded the event. Inadvertently, it also captured the violently shaking left hand that he kept firmly behind his back in an effort to conceal it, a mark of his rapid physical decline in recent months. “Here in Berlin,” Hitler told the teenagers, “we are facing the great, decisive battle . . . Our belief that we will win . . . has to remain unbroken. The situation can be compared with that of a patient believed to have reached the end. Yet he does not have to die. He can be saved with a new medication, discovered just in time to save him.”
What the miracle at this stage might be was anyone’s guess. Since the allied landings in France on D-Day the previous June, Hitler and Goebbels had constantly hinted at miracle weapons that would yet win the war, such as the V2 rocket or a new jet aircraft. The week before, it had even seemed that a political rather than a military miracle might save the Reich. Shortly before midnight on Thursday 12 April a BBC–Reuters flash had announced the sudden death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his private retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia.
Goebbels immediately phoned Hitler. “My Führer,” he exclaimed, “this is the miracle of the House of Brandenburg we have been waiting for. This is the turning point predicted in your horoscope!” The Minister of Propaganda was referring to a historical event well known to Hitler, with his megalomaniac habit of comparing himself to the great figures of German history. In 1762, King Frederick the Great of Prussia had been saved from defeat in the Seven Years’ War against Russia by the sudden death of Czarina Elizabeth. Hitler, who kept a portrait of Frederick in his bunker study, reacted to Goebbels’s news with delight. Soon, he told him, the Americans and the Red Army would be exchanging artillery barrages over the roof of the Chancellery.
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- Nov 12, 2007
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- Little, Brown and Company