After nearly six years of destructive horror by the Third Reich across the European continent, the ending plays of World War II would finally come in a second-floor room in the College Moderne et Technique de Garcons in Reims, France.
After the suicide of Adolf Hitler on April 30, 1945, the mantle of state had been passed on to Admiral Karl Donitz according to Hitler’s last political testament. Berlin had fallen to the Red Army on May 2. Across Germany, millions of civilians and soldiers sought to surrender to Anglo-American forces rather than face the wrath of the Soviets. Roads and transport systems were clogged with refugees moving to the west.
On the morning of Thursday, May 3, Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg entered the camp of British field marshal Bernard Montgomery at Luneburg Heath, southeast of Hamburg. Friedeburg had taken over the German navy and under the auspices of Donitz now approached Montgomery to inquire about peace terms. When Friedeburg asked if Montgomery would accept the surrender of the German armies escaping from the east and the Red Army, however, Montgomery refused in the name of Allied unity. He countered with an offer to accept the surrender of those German forces immediately opposing his 21st Army Group. Friedeburg stalled. But faced with Germany’s hopeless situation, he returned the following Friday evening to accept the British terms. The capitulation document would be subordinate to a general surrender to Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), but Montgomery signed the document at 1830 hours on Friday, May 4.
The next step would be for Friedeburg to quickly travel to Reims, but bad weather inhibited travel and he did not arrive until Saturday evening, whereupon he promptly began to vacillate over terms again. Friedeburg proposed to surrender only German forces fleeing to the west, again in effect refusing to surrender to the Soviets. On General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s behalf, Generals Walter Smith and Kenneth Strong informed Friedeburg that only unconditional surrender would be accepted. In tears, Friedeburg insisted that only Donitz could affirm such terms.
A long day passed until General Alfred Jodl, head of the Wehrmacht High Command (OKW), arrived the following evening (Sunday, May 6) to continue negotiations. After enduring Jodl’s prediction that, eventually, the Anglo-Americans would have to fight the Soviets, it became clear that the Germans were simply stalling in order to allow as many of their forces and people as possible to surrender to the British and Americans. Eisenhower told his negotiators to inform them that he would close the Anglo-American lines in the west in 48 hours and refuse to take any further Germans into custody regardless of whether they signed the surrender. Faced with the inevitable and in consultation with Donitz, Jodl agreed to sign.
In the early morning hours of Monday, May 7, members of the press were brought into the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) second-floor war room in the redbrick French technical college, with huge maps depicting the immense war draped across the walls around an oak table and chairs. In plain gray covers, the Act of Military Surrender was signed by the Germans and an 11-member Allied delegation.
Eisenhower did not attend, staying in his office down the hall, smoking and walking back and forth. After the 10-minute ceremony, Jodl was led down the hall for a short encounter with Eisenhower, who icily informed him that he would be held personally liable if the surrender terms were violated. Jodl agreed and left; but it would not be enough to keep him from justice at Nuremburg and the gallows. Eisenhower then dictated a cable to tell the news of V-E Day in Europe: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7, 1945.” Officially, V-E Day would be the following day, May 8, 1945.
Peace, albeit incomplete, finally dawned in Europe. Indicative of the diverging political aims of the Allies, the Soviets insisted on a separate German surrender ceremony to the Red Army in Berlin. The event could not take place until May 8, and thus shifted the official Soviet V-E Day celebrations back a day; more importantly, it was a visible crack in the Grand Alliance, separating the Soviet wartime experience and achievement from the Anglo-Americans. Across the globe, brutal war still raged as American forces were locked in savage battle with the Japanese at Okinawa, with a more terrible, violent climax still to come. But with the long-awaited arrival of V-E Day, the Grand Alliance had gone the distance to achieve a triumph in the history of the world: the would-be thousand-year-old reign of Hitler’s Third Reich was eradicated from the face of the earth.
Dr. Keith Huxen is the Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Director of History and Research at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. For more World War II history, visit The National WWII Museum on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and read the museum's blog.