- Historic Sites
The Last Days Of The Third Reich
Forty years ago, a tangle of chaotic events led to the death of Hitler, the surrender of the Nazis, and the end of World War II in Europe
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
Eisenhower blew up. Thus far, the invasion of Germany was costing unexpectedly high American casualties. Men were still dying, and Eisenhower wanted the bloodshed stopped. He instructed Smith to tell Jodl that “unless they immediately ceased all pretense and delay, I would close the entire Allied front and would,’ by force, prevent any more German refugees from entering our lines.” The surrender was to be signed immediately and become effective within forty-eight hours, giving the Germans just enough time to get the word out to their troops. With that, the supreme commander, who had been pacing impatiently in his office waiting for the war to end, went home to his chateau.
Smith presented Elsenhower’s ultimatum to Jodl. The German asked if he might be left alone to meditate. Jodl emerged an hour later and sent a message to Doenitz: “Eisenhower insists we sign today. If not, the Allied fronts will be closed to persons seeking to surrender individually, and negotiations will be broken off. I see no alternative—chaos or signature.”
Elsenhower’s demand outraged Admiral Doenitz. It was blackmail. Doenitz informed his ministers, with disbelief, that Eisenhower “would order his men to fire on any German troops who approached the American lines, even if they came unarmed with the intention of surrendering.” The head of a regime that had taught the world new definitions of barbarism observed that “such an action constitutes a breach of the Geneva Convention.”
But, Doenitz’s aides argued, if even the hard-nosed Jodl now accepted the inevitability of unconditional surrender, what choice did they have? Still, a twohour discussion ensued at Flensburg.
In the school at Reims there was a large room where, before the war, French boys played Ping-Pong and chess and took their final examinations. Eisenhower had made this area his war room. Here he held daily staff conferences. The room was an undistinguished site for an epic event in history, but Ike had nevertheless chosen it for the pending surrender signing. He wanted to get the matter over as quickly and with as little fuss as possible. When the fighting in Europe ended, there was still a war to be fought against Japan.
The pale blue walls of the war room were papered over with maps, reports of troop dispositions, casualty lists, locations of stores, and charts depicting railroad and communication networks. A huge graph, shaped like a thermometer, showed the rising numbers of German prisoners pouring into Allied hands. An old, cracked table, twenty by eight feet, stood at one end of the room. At this table the Act of Military Surrender was to be signed.
Seventeen war correspondents and photographers, chosen as the press pool to cover the event, milled around the war room. A signing had first been announced for 7:00 P.M. , then canceled and rescheduled for 11:00 P.M. , then canceled again, as Reims awaited Admiral Doenitz’s reply. The reporters spent this time griping about another Elsenhower decision. News of the surrender was to be embargoed for forty-eight hours. Eisenhower wanted the press blackout so that a second ceremony could be held in Berlin on May 8 to satisfy the Russians. The end of the war would then be announced simultaneously by the Allied heads of state in Washington, London, and Moscow to take effect at one minute past midnight on May 9.
Elsenhower had been exquisitely sensitive to Russian feelings as the war’s end approached. He had invited the Soviet High Command in Moscow to designate a Red Army officer to come to Reims and represent the Soviet Union. The Russians had assigned the role to the genial, longtime Soviet liaison officer to SHAEF, Maj. Gen. Ivan Sousloparov. Ike had also transmitted an advance text of the Act of Military Surrender to Moscow. But as the hour for the signing drew near, no response had yet been received from the Russians.
With no word yet from Doenitz, Dwight Elsenhower had gone to bed. But soon after midnight on May 7, his telephone rang. His staff secretary was on the line saying that word had just been received from Flensburg. Doenitz was ready to sign. Capt. Harry C. Butcher, Eisenhower’s naval aide, arrived at the Reims schoolhouse at one-thirty that morning. Butcher, a former CBS official, advised Ike on public relations matters. The general had also asked him to act as “custodian of fountain pens” during the ceremony. Butcher had been given two pens, one solid gold, the other gold-plated. The pens had been sent to Eisenhower by a friend, Kenneth Parker, head of the Parker Pen Company. Parker had asked Eisenhower if he would use these pens for the Nazi surrender. Eisenhower planned to send the gold-plated pen back to Parker and give the solid gold pen to President Truman. “What about Prime Minister Churchill?” Butcher had asked. “Oh, Lord,” Ike said, “I hadn’t thought of that.”
As Butcher entered the school, the press pool was alerted that the surrender would take place momentarily. The war room, cluttered with cameras and banks of klieg lights, its floor treacherous with cables, now resembled a movie set. The photographers moved the table to give themselves better camera angles.