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Europe had peace

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The two headlines, identically large and bold, bracketed a week the likes of which the world had never seen before.

The first said, simply: "Hitler Dead" and the second proclaimed "This Is Victory." And in between there were equally exuberant stories of German soldiers laying down their arms, of civilians in conquered territories rejoicing in their sudden liberation and of Canadian officers brokering a surrender in the Netherlands.

Sixty years ago this week, the European phase of the Second World War -- a ghastly 2,076 days of bloodshed, fear and tyranny -- came to a sudden end.

"On land and sea and in the air the Germans are thoroughly whipped," an exultant U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces, said on May 4, 1945. "Their only recourse is to surrender."

And, indeed, that is what dispirited German soldiers were doing by the tens of thousands.

There were pockets of resistance in Czechoslovakia, Norway and southern Bavaria. But a million gave themselves up to British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group in 48 hours in northern Germany. And on the Elbe River, so many troops were trying to surrender that the overwhelmed U.S. 9th Army was discouraging them. Nevertheless, generals who had led enemy forces just days before were queuing up at regimental command posts for the chance to give up.

"It is a strange ending to a strange war," a correspondent for The Associated Press wrote. "Suddenly the war just melted away into nothingness and the guns were still."

The anticlimactic end to the conflict began on May 1 with the ruffle of drums that preceded the announcement on Hamburg radio that Hitler had died "fighting to his last breath" and that Admiral Karl Doenitz had taken command of Germany. The new fuehrer urged his countrymen to continue the fight and to transfer their oath of loyalty to him. But there were immediate indications this wasn't going to happen.

No sooner had Doenitz eulogized Hitler on the radio as a hero than a "ghost voice" -- likely someone jamming the transmission -- broke in to shout "This is a lie." That night, German resistance in Berlin collapsed as 14,000 "fanatical Nazi diehards" surrendered to the Soviets.

It became clear the next day that, surrender or no surrender, the war in Europe was drawing to a close. Another 70,000 German soldiers laid down their arms in Berlin, securing its capture by the Soviets. Soviet sources said Hitler had not died a hero's death but had committed suicide in his underground bunker.

A million Germans agreed to unconditional surrender in Italy and there were signs that the negotiations that had allowed for food drops in the Netherlands were morphing into surrender talks.

"What a day!" The Globe and Mail said in amazement in a front-page headline. But to New York Times correspondent Clifton Daniel, the sudden collapse of the Nazi leadership was like the last scene in Hamlet in which all the principal players are lying dead on the stage and the whole structure of the nation is shaking to pieces.

The swift succession of events apparently persuaded Adm. Doenitz that further resistance was impossible. On May 3, there were reports that he had fled to the Baltic Sea port of Kiel and subsequently had met Montgomery just over the border in Denmark. Other Germans attempting to follow suit were slaughtered as British, U.S. and Canadian planes sank or damaged more than 64 ships in a day-long attack off the Baltic coast of Schleswig-Holstein.

A Reich minister, Albert Speer, admitted over Danish radio that Germany had been defeated. "The direction of our lives is no longer in your hands," he advised his countrymen.

Units of the 1st Canadian Army captured the German town of Oldenburg that day in a bloodless conquest that foretold the advance the next day in the face of little opposition against the German North Sea naval base of Wilhelmshaven.

In fact, Canada's war in Europe was over.

On May 4, as negotiations over the surrender of the German town of Aurich were being conducted, news reached divisional headquarters that a ceasefire had been reached. The next day's order to cease all operations did not provoke celebrations among the troops, many of whom had been fighting for 11 months from the beaches of Normandy. They were simply relieved that it was over, that no one else would die.

On May 6, German Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz sat down with Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, commander of the 1st Canadian Corps, in the battered lobby of a hotel in the Dutch town of Wageningen. The German was offered nothing more than an unconditional surrender, although his 120,000 troops would be allowed to keep their small arms until they were transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in British-occupied Germany.

The six-member German delegation, which arrived in a flurry of Nazi salutes still with Luger pistols strapped to their thighs, accepted the terms with no debate.

"It might have been a stockholders' meeting called to order in a blitzed room," wrote Globe correspondent Ralph Allen. "No one raised his voice above a conversational murmur. An onlooker who understood neither English nor German would have had difficulty deciding on which side of the table victory lay."

Germany's formal capitulation throughout Europe came just after midnight the next day in the converted schoolhouse in Reims, just outside Paris, that Eisenhower had used as his headquarters. The surrender agreement was signed by General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Wehrmacht, and by Eisenhower's chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Walter Bedell Smith.

The Germans were asked if they understood the terms of the surrender and they said they did. And then Gen. Jodl asked for permission to speak.

"With this signature," he said softly, "the German people and the armed forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the victors' hands. In this war, which has lasted more than five years, both have achieved and suffered more than perhaps any other people in the world. I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity."

The plan was for the wartime leaders, Churchill, Stalin and Truman, to announce the victory simultaneously on May 8. But their war-weary citizens would not wait. Londoners danced in the street as soon as the news of the capitulation was broadcast. Paris, New York and Moscow erupted in bedlam and, according to The Globe, "untamed exuberance ran rampant" from one coast to another in Canada as news of the victory spread.

Even staid Toronto was convulsed in such a "carnival of joy" that stores and offices closed down -- the stock exchange stayed open for just 35 minutes -- and hotel beverage rooms ran out of beer.

News of the victory was broadcast at 10:15 a.m. at the John Inglis plant in Toronto. But this was followed quickly by an appeal to workers to stay on the job and await the next day's official holiday because their output was needed for the Pacific theatre of war.

And so God Save the King was played and they went back to work. There was peace in Europe, but the war wasn't over yet.

Please e-mail the Dominion Institute at staff@dominion.ca if you have any letters or photos from Canadian soldiers who died in the final months of the Second World War.

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