Just outside the town of Torgau in eastern Germany, elements of the United States Army’s 69th Infantry Division and the 5th Guards Army of the Soviet Union came face to face following a long campaign of rolling back Adolf Hitler’s conquest of the continent. Less than two weeks later, the Allies would celebrate victory in Europe....
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin signed off the formal divisions outlined by the European Advisory Committee a few weeks before. The Red Army, rapidly overtaking the Nazis in Poland and Czechoslovakia, seemed poised to capture the lion’s share of the territory, especially with the British and Americans having just received reinforcements after the Bulge. With all parties settled on the post-war borders, Churchill issued a statement ‘that the agreed occupational zones must not hamper the operational movements of the armies. Berlin, Prague, and Vienna could be taken by whoever got there first.’
Privately, however, the British Prime Minister was deeply troubled by the Soviet success in Eastern Europe. Having observed the Communist government for nearly three decades since the fall of the royal family in October 1917, Churchill correctly noted that the differing political ideologies would likely clash on the continent after World War II. In his meetings with Roosevelt, he lobbied for pushing the Western armies as far into Germany as possible in order to prevent the spread of Communism: ‘If they also take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contributor to the common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?’
Churchill’s plea was acknowledged, but its effectiveness limited due to military reality. Made less feasible by American and British losses early in 1945, not to mention the fact that the Soviets were already much closer to the agreed boundaries, the West would have to settle for a more pragmatic approach to marching on Germany. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower shifted the objective to the River Elbe, believing it made for a solid target considering the capabilities of the men under his command.
On April 7, 1945, Eisenhower presented his ideas to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. After several rounds of input from Churchill, the general assured the Prime Minister that, if the possibility of taking Berlin existed without compromising the operation as a whole, he would make every effort to reach the German capital. He acknowledged the political concerns Churchill had, continuing, ‘I regard it as militarily unsound at this stage of the proceedings to make Berlin a major objective, particularly in view of the fact that it is only 35 miles from the Russian lines.’
Within a week, a challenge came in from the front: General William Simpson, heading the US Ninth Army, had reached the Elbe and wanted to sweep towards Berlin. The prestige of snatching the center of Hitler’s once-proud government was not lost on men from both sides, but Churchill summed up the situation well in a memorandum to the British Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden: ‘The Russians have two and a half million troops on the section of the front opposite that city. The Americans have only their spearheads, say twenty-five divisions, which are covering an immense front and are at many points engaged with the Germans.’
Eisenhower’s orders to Simpson and the rest of his commanders on the ground were emphasized again: the western banks of the Elbe would be the stopping point. When the Red Army and its Allied counterparts faced each other after completing the defeat of the Nazis, Eisenhower wanted officers at the top of each division to meet to formalize the transition into occupation.
Just outside Torgau on April 25, 1945, approximately 60 miles south of Berlin, four Americans from the 69th Infantry Division of the US First Army disobeyed Eisenhower’s directive and climbed into a small boat to scout the far side of the Elbe. Within a few minutes of reaching the opposite shore, the men encountered a patrol from the Soviet Union’s 58th Guards Rifle Division. After years of fighting, the Eastern and Western Fronts had finally joined together for the first time. Two days later, unit commanders formally shook hands in front of photographers to mark the occasion.
For the Nazis, the event cemented the inevitability of defeat. When combined with a German retreat out of Italy on the same day, the writing was on the wall for the Third Reich. On April 30th, Hitler committed suicide with his wife Eva at a bunker in Berlin. Eight days later, May 8th, the Allies officially declared victory in Europe. The Germans surrendered without conditions, essentially freezing the Western and Eastern armies in place for a Cold War that would last until the early 1990s.