Ninety-six days after the Allies' first landings on the Normandy beaches, a seven-man patrol of the 2nd Platoon, Troop B, 85th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, attached to the 5th Armoured Division, 1st United States Army, crossed the River Our from Luxembourg into the pre-war territory of the Third Reich.
The bridge that normally straddled the border had been demolished by the retreating Wehrmacht, but the waters of the Our were shallow enough for Sergeant Warner W. Holzinger and his men to wade across and cautiously make their way on to the far bank. Encountering no enemy troops, they proceeded up the slope on the German side.
Soon the Americans observed a German farmer at work in the field. Sergeant Holzinger–a German-American who spoke his parents' language–addressed the man, who offered to show them the enemy bunker system. Led by this disarmingly friendly native, they walked a mile or more into Reich territory and, sure enough, found themselves gazing at a set of German fortifications–in this case, consisting of nineteen or twenty concrete pillboxes. Adjoining one of these, incongruously, locals had constructed a chicken shed. There was no sign of enemy forces.
Deciding not to push their luck, the American soldiers quickly retraced their steps and returned to the Allied-held side of the river. They reported at about 18:15 hours on 11 September to their platoon commander, Lt Loren L. Vipond.
The news of their incursion into Germany was quickly radioed to the Headquarters of Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges, Commander of the First Army, from where the long-awaited message flashed around the world: the Allies had finally pierced the Reich.
The 2nd Platoon's dart across the border was the first of several undertaken by American units. In early evening, a company of the 109th Infantry, 28th Division, crossed the Our on a bridge between Weiswampach, in the northern tip of Luxembourg, and the German village of Sevenig. Near St Vith, Belgium, a patrol from the 22nd Infantry, 4th Division, likewise went over the border near the village of Hemmeres and roamed around the countryside for a while. The GIs rounded up and talked to some civilians. Many had been evacuated by the SS. Those of the German population who remained had largely taken to the nearby woods, though for these country people the exigencies of peace proved unsuited to the imperatives of war. A local woman from the small farming community of Heckuscheid reported a little melodramatically: 'Suddenly we realised that the people who had gone back into the village to feed the livestock had not returned: they had been arrested by the Americans who had in the meantime advanced into the village.' To provide proof of their success, the border-crossers brought back a German cap, some currency and a sample of earth.
A more determined incursion in force had to wait until the following day, 12 September, and it took place a hundred kilometers or so north of the previous day's efforts. Shortly before 3 p.m., the Sherman tanks of Colonel William B. Lovelady's armoured task force, an elite outfit that had carved a path to here all the way from Omaha Beach, rumbled in battalion strength past a last farmhouse flying the Belgian flag in anticipation of liberation. Beyond that house, over the railway tracks, clustered more dwellings, but if they flew any banners they were white ones of surrender. Beyond the railway lay enemy territory.
Task Force Lovelady entered the small, picturesque German border town of Roetgen, and occupied it without resistance. In fact, of the locals who risked leaving their houses to take a look at their conquerors, some offered flowers and even, in one case, coffee. They seemed relieved rather than anxious to find themselves under American control. The signals team radioed the task force's immediate superior, Major General Boudinot, of Combat Command 'B', 3rd Armoured Division. Thee hot-blooded, Iowa-born general–a renowned cavalryman and former balloon racer–radioed back: 'Tell Lovelady he's famous! Congratulate him and tell him to keep on going!'
In fact, the newly minted celebrity was forced to pause. On the eastern outskirts of the town, barring advance towards the Reich's interior, lay the formidable 'dragon's teeth' defences of the famous Siegfried Line, constructed in the 1930s at Hitler's order and substantially strengthened since. When Lt Burroughs, who had led the reconnaissance group that cleared the way into Roetgen, dismounted from his vehicle to check a crater on the outskirts of town, he was shot dead by a German sniper. Lovelady took the hint. He decided to settle down and wait.
Nonetheless, the US Army was established on German soil. It was a sensation. Unlike the earlier patrols, Task Force Lovelady was accompanied by a small but eager flock of journalists. The New York Times trumpeted the 'First German town to fall'. Elsewhere it was noted that 'the Germans welcomed their invaders'.
Before long, a Burgomaster, Herr Schleicher, was appointed, to communicate the orders of the American commander to Roetgen's people. Thus the town moved from the process of being conquered to the condition of being occupied, the first of many hundreds to do so over the following weeks and months.
Not a moment too soon, several hundred miles away the would-be victors were finally agreeing on how that occupation should be conducted.
Lancaster House, a grand late Georgian pile built of tawny Bath stone, lay (and still lies) in the heart of the Establishment village that is London's Mayfair, just opposite St James's Palace and a very short walk from Buckingham Palace. Its construction was, as might be expected, the work of a consummate insider–Queen Victoria's uncle, the Duke of York and Albany, second son of King George III and heir presumptive to the British throne. He ordered it built in 1825.
The Duke, however, would die, childless, less than two years later at the age of sixty-three–allegedly of various diseases induced by a life of dissipation–leaving his house still little more than a shell. It was nevertheless known for a few years as York House, before passing into the possession of the Marquis of Stafford. For nearly ninety years the place was known as Stafford House, and then–after being bought by the public-spirited Lancastrian soap magnate Lord Leverhulme, and in short order presented to the nation–Lancaster House.
Back in 1799, the house's original builder had been put in charge of a British expeditionary force charged with invading France via the Dutch wetlands. Not helped by his inexperience or by the sorry state of the kingdom's land forces at that time, the young Duke there presided over an unreserved military disaster. Ironically, 145 years after this legendary British defeat, his former residence had now become the headquarters of the European Advisory Commission, a body whose work had quite specifically to do with the apportioning of the fruits of one of history's greatest victories.
The EAC took up residence at Lancaster House in January 1944. At the Tehran Conference in November 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had arrived at certain key decisions regarding Germany's fate once the war was over: first, that large parts of its eastern provinces would be assigned to Poland; and second, that the German government would be abolished and the once mighty Reich partitioned. It was the EAC's job to work out the details of this arrangement, along with the mechanisms of the enemy's surrender. To that end, each Allied power appointed a delegate–in Britain's case a powerful Foreign Office official of ambassadorial rank, fifty-two-year-old Sir William Strang, who acted as full-time secretary general of the organisation. In the case of the United States and the Soviet Union, the delegations were led by their respective ambassadors, the affable John G. Winant and the altogether less so Feodor T. Gusev. Not yet forty years old when appointed by Stalin to replace the sociable, cosmopolitan Ivan Maisky the previous autumn, Gusev was by most accounts a charmless and narrow-minded Stalinist bureaucrat. Both he and Winant were, however, very much part-time in their commitment. Military, economic and political advisers naturally did most of the day-by-day donkey work.
The EAC having laboured for the appropriate nine months, on 12 September, as American patrols ducked tentatively into western Germany, it gave birth to a protocol on the surrender and occupation of Germany. This was signed by the delegates amidst the faux Louis XIV splendour of Lancaster House.
In outline, the protocol limited Germany's territory to its 1937 borders, that is, to its borders prior to the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland–and of course before the absorption of huge areas of Poland in 1939–40.
The document stipulated the establishment of three occupation zones, which were to be administered separately. These were to follow existing administrative boundaries and to take population size into account. Moreover, the Allies agreed on the joint administration of the capital, Berlin, by an inter-Allied military body to be known as the Kommandatura.
While the occupation of both the 'Eastern Zone' and the eastern part of Berlin by Soviet forces had already been finalised, the exact allocation of the 'North-Western (British) Zone', the 'South-Western (American) Zone', and the British and American sectors of Berlin itself still remained formally open.
The agreement ignored rather more than it acknowledged–above all there was still no real agreement concerning the eventual fate of Germany as a unitary state–but at least the boundaries of the various Allies' areas of control in post-war Germany as a whole were formally laid down. The fortunes of war would, of course, dictate where the armies would stand at the time of the German surrender. However, as soon as possible after the hour of victory the powers would be bound to withdraw to their apportioned zones and commence the distinctly problematic business of ruling over (and feeding and housing) the population of the defeated Reich.
So much for the theoretical map of post-war Germany. In the autumn of 1944 the war was clearly not yet over. While it seemed the Allies' war to win, the real facts that mattered were facts on the ground, and they were still being established. As for the actual map of postwar Germany, it was being drawn not in ink, but in blood.
It is not quite true to say that American patrols were the first Allied units to penetrate German territory. In the east, building on its destruction of the Wehrmacht's Army Group Centre, by July 1944 the Red Army had fought its way almost to the pre-war German border. Marshal Zhukov proposed to Stalin that he press home his advantage by advancing into East Prussia before the Germans had the chance to regroupand organise their defences. However, the Soviet dictator insisted on giving priority to the Polish and Balkan fronts. All the same, on 17 August 1944, a Soviet patrol briefly crossed the border into German territory near the East Prussian border settlement of Stallupönen, a town with a substantial Lithuanian minority. The place had been renamed 'Erbenrode' by the Nazis in 1938 because of sensitivities that the original sounded too 'un-German' (which, of course, it did).
The revenge-hungry men of the Red Army were forced nevertheless to wait two months before mounting anything that could be called an invasion of Germany proper. On 16 October, General Cherniakhovskii's 3rd Belorussian Army Group finally crossed the Niemen River near Goldap and moved in strength into East Prussia. The commander's orders were to annihilate the German formations around the major towns of Insterburg and Tilsit and clear the way for an advance on the provincial capital (and second city of Prussia), Königsberg.
After some initial successes, with several small towns falling to the ruthless Soviet assault, the German 4th Army, showing real courage and tenacity, managed to halt Cherniakhovskii and even drive him back. Thee thirty-eight-year-old Red Army high-flyer, the youngest commanding general in the entire war, had lost 17,000 men in the so-called 'Goldap– Gumbinnen' operation. He was fortunate not to be demoted like the commander of the neighbouring 2nd Belorussian Army Group, Zakharov, who had been punished for his bloody failure to establish two bridgeheads on the Narew River north-east of Warsaw.
Not until early in the new year would Soviet troops re-enter Germany in appreciable numbers. Meanwhile, they had given Germany and the world a terrifying foretaste of what, at least in the east, occupation would mean.
Early on the morning of 21 October 1944, an autumn mist still hung over the rolling East Prussian landscape. Heavy armoured vehicles of the 2nd Battalion of the 25th Soviet Tank Brigade rattled forward along the main highway, heading west into East Prussia towards the major town of Gumbinnen. They had fought their way around fifty kilometers into Germany since the launch of the offensive five days earlier. Most of the native population had already fled, along with (for the moment) the defending Wehrmacht units. Nonetheless, that morning the Russians found horses and carts queuing in front of the bridge over the River Angerapp. They drove their T-34s forward over the bridge, crushing the carts, animals and humans in their path, and pushed on into the apparently deserted–and defenceless–village beyond.
Of Nemmersdorf 's 637 recorded inhabitants, most had been evacuated. But, as the Russians discovered, not all of them. The fate of those who remained was undoubtedly a terrible one, but the historical record remains so confused, the issue so besmirched by wartime political expediency, that it is hard to be sure of all the details. What seems certain is that the German forces quickly returned and made attempts to retake the village and the bridge, which were repelled.
During German air strikes that accompanied the enemy counterattacks, Soviet troops took cover in an improvised bunker in Nemmersdorf. This, it transpired, was already occupied by fourteen or so German civilians. After the danger from the air seemed past, a Soviet officer ordered everyone out of the bunker. It was, apparently, shortly after this that a massacre of civilians began. Some–certainly the civilians from the bunker–were shot at close range, others attacked and battered to death with gun butts or entrenching tools.
Later in the day, the Soviet armoured units were ordered to retreat to a more easily
defensible position on the eastern bank of the river.
Excerpted from Exorcising Hitler by Frederick Taylor Copyright © 2011 by Frederick Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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