“Now We’ve Won The German War, We Must Win The Peace”

The end of the war in Germany marked the beginning of the rebuilding of Europe, but in the Far East WWII still raged

On Wednesday May 9, 1945, for the first time in almost six years millions of people across Europe woke up to peace.

Many had celebrated long into the previous night - euphoric street parties had been held across the British Isles and in the towns and cities of Allied countries, including France and the USA.

But for the people of Germany, the end of the Third Reich and the sudden occupation of their land by hundreds of thousands of foreign soldiers, the day marked the start of a great uncertainty. How would the surrendered forces of the Wehrmacht be handled? And what of the millions of civilians, many of whom had lost everything in bombings by the RAF?

Questions like this also troubled General Dwight Eisenhower and the British military commander of the 21st Army Group, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery.

Field Marshal Montgomery’s saying was, “Now we’ve won the German war, we must win the peace.”

The National Army Museum’s in-house historian, Dr Peter Johnston, in an interview with Forces News has described the important issues facing Montgomery and the men he commanded.

“He is very much treating this as another operation, something that has to be tackled with all seriousness.

“The idea that the 750,000 men of 21st Army Group are simply going to be demobilised and sent home is not even considered because it cannot be done.

“The British are going to have to play the full part in reconstructing Germany, or at least re-establishing what Germany is going to be in the post war settlement.”

During the war, about nine percent of the German population had been lost. And in the months after defeat, roughly one-quarter of German territory was handed to Poland and the Soviet Union in a territory settlement agreement.

Native Germans living in those areas were made to leave, initiating a mass movement of refugees into the new German land.

Some reports say that a further two million German civilians died during this process.

Of course, unbeknown at that stage, was that the eventual consequence of this dividing up of the old Germany would, within three years, be the start of the Cold War.

The initiation of the rebuilding of Germany resulted in the British creating a new organisation called The British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), made up of the soldiers who had earlier liberated a Nazi-occupied Europe.

Dr Johnston said that although the BAOR was created to “administer” the British districts of post war Germany, their role had to adapt into something more pivotal to maintaining world peace as the initial post war years progressed.

“The British Army of the Rhine is created to effectively administer these districts and areas.

“It’s not designed to fight the Russians, at least at this stage, but that’s what it becomes from 1948 onwards.

“But initially, it’s designed to administer these areas; that’s what the British Army of the Rhine is for.”

While the BAOR concentrated on the initial stages of reconstruction in Germany, on the other side of the world the war continued for millions of people.

Although war with Japan would turn out to be over in just a handful of months, at that point little was known by the British of the American plans to introduce new, atomic, weapons - weapons that would force the Japanese to a surrender by the end of the summer.

This meant that for thousands of Allied soldiers based in Germany, the respite from action was at that stage only looking like being a temporary situation. And because of that, the on-going war in the Far East was not far from the minds of the British soldiers who had begun preparing physically and mentally for the challenge of taking on the might of Japan.

War in Japan for the Allied soldiers based in Europe would, in the end, never come to pass.

By August, the top-secret work of the USA’s Manhattan Project, the team of scientists tasked to create the world’s first nuclear bomb, had made a breakthrough.

The newly inaugurated US president, Harry Truman, when confronted with the means to devastate whole cities at a time with the invention of this new weapon, decided to use its incredible might in an attempt to bring the Japanese to surrender.

On August 6, 1945, the first Atomic Bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima resulting in the deaths of 146,000 civilian people. It failed to bring about a surrender, and so three days later, President Truman authorised the use of a second bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki.

Another 80,000 people were killed.

Japan’s military leadership could take no more, and so on August 15 a full, unconditional surrender of the Japanese people was announced by Emperor Hirohito, which was later formalised on board the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

The Second World War was finally over.