The Western Front, 24th March 1945

The Western Front, 19th April 1945



One of the many large groups of German who surrendered en masse in the final days of the War

German prisoners of war in Wittenburg

No.2 Troop, "B" Squadron, 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment

Men of No.3 Troop, "A" Squadron, Reconnaissance Regiment, April 1945

Elements of the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment in Schwerin, May 1945

The Mortar Platoon of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks at Schwartow

The 3rd Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery in Wessenstedt

Lieutenant Hunter and Captain Maddox of the 3rd Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery in Wessenstedt


Even before the defences along the Rhine had been breached, Germany's military situation was quite hopeless. If Hitler had ever possessed a sense of realism, it had deserted him long before 1945, for he refused to bow to the inevitable and consider a surrender which might spare his countrymen from annihilation. No such sympathies were in his heart. Since the collapse of his forces at Stalingrad in the East and Normandy in the West, Hitler had consistently ordered that there should be no retreat and that every position be held to the last, even when it could have greatly improved the overall military situation to withdraw. Berlin was to be no different; to him, it was preferable to condemn an entire race to obliteration than to yield and face the horrors of a world without National Socialism. He had contested that the Germanic race was superior to all others, yet they had lost the struggle, and so, according to the laws of nature, they must perish.


Faced with such derangement from their leadership, the German military machine began to separate into two distinct factions; the fanatics, who would fight to the death or commit suicide rather than submit, and those who would take the first opportunity to surrender or only offer token resistance before doing so. The cream of German manpower, which had achieved such remarkable success in 1940, had by and large died after six years of war, and as their replacements also fell away, the gaps in the line were increasingly filled with old men of the Volksturm and young boys of the Hitler Youth. The latter could offer fierce resistance, making up in a fanatical devotion to the myth of Nazism, and a childish sense of invulnerability, what great chasms were apparent in their training. As a work of propaganda, Goebbels could wax lyrical about the virtues of ordinary citizens and children coming forward to defend the Reich, but, in reality, regardless of whatever damage they managed to inflict, they were simply cut down by the hardened veterans of the Allied armies.


These, then, were what awaited the Allies as they advanced across the Rhine and pushed deeper into Germany. The experience of the 6th Airborne Division was typical; with no definite front line, rapid progress was made and regularly but briefly checked when the vanguards ran into isolated enemy battlegroups, typically consisting of a company of infantry from all walks of the armed forces, backed up by machine-guns, mortars, and perhaps a few heavier weapons such as tanks, anti-aircraft and self-propelled guns. The Allied vanguards, capitalising on this disorganisation by throwing caution to the wind and advancing with the utmost haste, suffered heavily in these engagements, yet this opposition was consistently brushed aside and a further considerable haul of prisoners gathered in. But for the fanatical elements, such resistance became less and less as April wore on, until it became commonplace for the advancing columns to pass large numbers of unarmed and thoroughly fed-up Germans on the roadside, marching into captivity.


Once the Rhine had been crossed, the main focus of the Allied advance was with the 12th US Army Group in the centre, heading in the general direction of Leipzig near the Elbe, with the 21st Army Group covering their left flank and the 6th US Army Group on their right, pushing south towards the Swiss border and Austria. In the centre, the 1st and 9th US Armies enacted a pincer movement and, on the 1st April, cut-off Army Group B in what was to become known as the Ruhr Pocket. Charged with its reduction and elimination, elements of the two armies were combined to form the 15th US Army, which finally accepted the surrender of no less than 29 Generals and 317,000 Germans on the 18th April. Their commander, Feldmarschall Model, once known as the Führer's Fireman for his repeated ability to tidy up disasters and create opportunities from chaos, was faced with one fire that he could not extinguish, and three days later he walked into a wood and shot himself. The Americans, meanwhile, continued the advance on the Elbe, the 9th Army reaching the western bank first on the 11th April.


In the North, the 1st Canadian Army crossed the Rhine in Holland and, on the 14th April, avenged an old defeat when they recaptured Arnhem. Thereafter they cut the country in two and, against stiff opposition, drove north to liberate Eastern Holland. The 2nd British Army, meanwhile, continued to push into North-West Germany to cover the American left flank, until they received orders to concentrate their efforts on an advance to the Baltic. Their first elements reached the Elbe, near Hamburg, on the 19th April.


In the East, with the overwhelming majority of the remnants of the Wehrmacht opposing them, Marshals Zhukov and Konev, commanding the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian Fronts respectively, began their assault crossing of the River Oder on the 16th April 1945, each of them racing the other to have the honour of leading the assault on Berlin. Zhukov's progress was uncharacteristically clumsy, relying more on relentless and bloody forward pressure than manoeuvre, yet it was he who won the final nod from Stalin to take the city. The Germans continued to resist fanatically, many in the hope that the Western Allies would arrive before the Russians finally overwhelmed them, unaware that they had halted on the Elbe and had no intention of venturing any further. The fighting continued through the streets of the capital with unceasing ferocity, the defenders becoming fewer and slowly forced back. On the 30th April, weary of moving imaginary armies around the map in his bunker and finally realising that there was no hope, Hitler took cyanide and shot himself. Grand Admiral Doenitz was appointed Führer in his place, and, incredibly at this final stage, the new administration imagined that a negotiated peace was now possible with Hitler gone, but it was quickly made clear to them that nothing short of unconditional capitulation would be acceptable. The guns fell silent in Berlin on the 2nd May, having claimed the lives of 125,000 Germans and over 100,000 Russians, including those fighting on the fronts to the north and south of the city.


The final surrender took time to materialise. At his Headquarters, on the 4th May, Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the surrender of all the German forces in the 21st Army Group's area from Admiral von Friedburg, representing the German High Command. Even so, the Allies continued to move towards their final objectives, and it was not until the 7th May that the final surrender was made to General Eisenhower at his Headquarters in Rheims. In the presence of representatives of the United States, Russia, Britain and France, Colonel-General Jodl and Admiral von Friedburg signed an assent to the unconditional surrender of all German forces on all fronts. This came into effect at a minute past midnight on the 8th May. The world celebrated VE Day.