In the closing months of World War Two, some of the most fierce fighting ever seen in Europe intensified to the East and West of Berlin.
Since D-Day in June 1944, Allied forces had steadily fought through northern Europe. After ten long months, including suffering difficult set backs at places like Arnhem, General Eisenhower found himself in command of hundreds of thousands of soldiers situated on the edges of Germany’s capital city, Berlin.
Some of the fighting had been so hard fought that entire cities had been reduced to rubble.
As 1945 commenced, the desperation felt by the Wehrmacht in the face of endless fighting to the East and West of Germany, reached high levels and resulted in some anguished decision making by the commanders responsible for running Germany’s war machine.
With the war in France lost, German officials redeployed 20,000 members of the Luftwaffe into front-line infantry roles, to sure up their numbers against the allies.
The Nazi party itself went a stage further in a move separate from the German Army, by establishing a peoples’ militia on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler.
This ‘Volkssturm’ was made up of largely untrained German civilians, loyal to the party and its leader. The Militia back-filled the main fighting forces on the German fronts and was even made up of women and children.
In the 2020 satirical film, Jojo Rabbit, set in the dying days of the Third Reich, Director Taika Waititi depicted these hopeless civilian fighters being ordered forward, wave by wave, into the might of advancing Allied tanks and machine gun fire.
Jojo Rabbit illustrated the incredible death and destruction faced by the German people as the Battle of Berlin intensified through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy and served as a contemporary reminder of the futile nature of the fight those civilian housewives, schoolboys and retired soldiers found themselves in as VE Day approached.
At the end of April, Adolf Hitler committed suicide and the war entered its final days.
Replacing Hitler as leader, the new Reichspräsident, Karl Donitz, almost immediately opened dialogue with the western allies, initially negotiating for a partial surrender to allow his inherited German Army to swoop to the East of Berlin and continue fighting the Russians.
In an interview with Forces News, the National Army Museum’s in-house historian, Dr Peter Johnston, described the desperation of the German leadership as Allied forces closed in.
“After Hitler’s suicide at the end of April during the Battle of Berlin, there’s increasingly an idea that actually more force is going to be needed to fight the Russians, so perhaps a peace can be negotiated with the allies. The way this manifests itself for the British is while Montgomery’s 21st Army group is advancing there, on May 3, a German delegation comes, and they want to surrender.
“They want to effectively surrender so they can pivot eastwards. The terms that Montgomery sets are, 'I will only accept the unconditional surrender of your forces in this area'. And the German’s initially refuse.
"Montgomery says, 'Well if you do refuse, I shall simply carry on with the war and I’ll be delighted to do so.'"
After Montgomery’s defiance, the Germans went away to think about things. When they returned a day later, Dr Johnston said by that time, a change of heart had occurred among the German leadership, and that now a surrender looked possible.
“The following day they come back, and they do accept this unconditional surrender in their local area, which is North-West Germany, Holland, Denmark, and that’s where they are going to surrender their troops and surrender them to the British.”
Dr Johnson continued by saying that, among the new German high command, a preference was expressed that they would rather surrender to British and American forces, over surrendering to the Russians who were closing in on Berlin from the East.
This was based on the perception that British and American soldiers would be kinder to the surrendering German soldiers, but also to the German people.
Dr Johnston added: “Because the other thing they are very conscious of as well is, if the German soldiers and the Wehrmacht forces fighting there are forced into the Russians, they are far more likely to be treated more humanely under the rules of war as they are by the British and Americans, then perhaps they are the Russians.
“There’s this huge sense that not only do they want the Germans soldiers to be able to surrender to the British, but they really are quite keen to secure a safe passage for German civilians.”
The bloodshed was finally ended when, on May 7, 1944, Donitz authorised the unconditional and total surrender of the German state.
The surrender occurred in the early hours of May 7 and was signed on paper in the presence of General Eisenhower, the future 34th President of the United States, in the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, at Reims in North-East France.
About 24 hours later, the formal surrender was ratified and the day officially became known throughout the world as Victory in Europe Day.