September 12, 2017

1945. Charles Collingwood's Eyewitness Account of the German Surrender

The Third Reich is Destroyed
"Col. General Gustaf Jodl, German Chief of Staff under the Doenitz regime, signing the document of unconditional surrender. (Charles Collingwood can be seen operating recording machine in the back).  Prints and Photographs Division" (source)


TUESDAY, MAY 8, 1945 – 9:18 A.M.

Germany surrendered at 2:45 on the morning of May 7th, 1945. At that moment, General Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German Army, signed the last document. He sat there very straight with his head bent over the papers, and when he had signed the last one, he put the cap back on the pen and looked up at the men sitting across the plain wooden table. Opposite him sat General Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's Chief of Staff.

General Smith looked tired. He'd been negotiating for 33 hours, but his mouth was hard and so were his eyes. As he looked to his right, General Jodl could see a big, powerful man in the uniform of a Russian general sitting next to General Smith. He was General Susloparov, the Russian delegate. Over his shoulder peered the extraordinary head of another Russian. The head was bald as a gourd, with fierce, unwavering eyes, whose bright and sinister gaze did not for an instant leave the drawn face of General Jodl. Jodl did not meet his eyes for long but looked around the table at Admiral Sir Harold M. Burrough, the Allied Naval Commander, at General Spaatz, the Air Commander, at General Sevez, the French representative. Then General Jodl looked again at General Smith.

"I would like to say something," he said. Smith nodded, Jodl rose stiffly to his feet.

"Herr General," he said in a voice that choked and almost broke. "With this signature the German people and the German Armed Forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the victor's 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.

"In this hour I can only express the hope that the victors will treat them with generosity."

Then General Jodl sat down quickly. No one else said anything. The Germans looked around as though wondering what to do next, and at another nod from General Smith they got up—General Jodl, his aide, and General Friedeburg, who commands the German Navy. With Jodl in the lead they walked quickly out of the room.

With sixteen other correspondents I witnessed this scene, which formalized the most complete and resounding defeat in the history of the world, which meant relief and hope to millions of sorely-tried people. It was the end of the war, the climax of a series of piecemeal surrenders.

The final surrender took place at a quarter to three on Monday morning. The negotiations began late Saturday afternoon. Admiral Friedeburg, who had earlier surrendered northern Germany, Denmark, and Holland to the British, arrived at General Eisenhower's headquarters at Reims, France just after five P.M. on Saturday. He wanted to talk about complete surrender. He tried to pull once more the old dodge about surrendering to the Western Allies and not to the Russians. He was, of course, flatly refused.

Since Friedeburg was not empowered to sign a final surrender, he was told to get someone who was. He sent a message to Dönitz, asking for someone who could sign. The next day, Sunday, at 5:08 P.M., Jodl landed at Reims. The expectation was then that the surrender would be signed almost immediately, but Jodl turned out to be one tough customer.

Colonel General Gustav Jodl, the German plenipotentiary, is a typical, stiff-necked, Prussian professional soldier. He is ugly, and his face is ravaged by what appears to be some kind of skin disease, but he is as straight as a gun barrel and the embodiment of what we think of as Prussian arrogance.

Admiral Friedeburg was relatively easy to negotiate with. He seemed rather a pleasant old fellow. But there was nothing pleasant about Jodl.

The conferences dragged on. Finally Jodl dispatched another message to Admiral Dönitz. Everyone sat down to wait. The Russians had a cocktail party. The French general went back to his quarters. Some of the British and American negotiators took a quick nap. The Germans sat morosely in the house that had been set aside for them.

Just before two o'clock in the morning, when it looked as though everything was over for the night, the negotiators began to drift back to the supreme headquarters and the École Professionnelle in Reims. General Spaatz came in first. He looked quite content. Then General Bedell Smith drove up. He was not given to visible emotions, but as he walked up to his office he looked almost jubilant. Then the Russians came in grinning from ear to ear and after them the rest trickled in.

About two-thirty they began to go into the war room where the instruments of surrender were to be signed. Let me try to picture for you this scene as I saw it when I was there early Monday morning. Here's this room—not a very big room, as rooms go. The walls are covered with maps in bright reds and greens almost up to the ceiling. On these maps is all the information General Jodl would have traded an Army Group to have a week ago. Our battle order, our communications system, our supply network, our casualties, and perhaps most important of all, the Germans' own hopeless position clearly marked out.

This room, General Eisenhower's war room, is bathed in the hot glow from the blinding lights the photographers have set up. At one end is a long table. A very plain, very old, rather rickety wooden table, the top side of which is painted black. Around this table are fourteen chairs. Twelve of them are arranged around one side, and the other two, with their backs to us, occupy one whole side of the table. This is where General Jodl and Admiral Friedeburg had to sit.
Broadcast script from May 1948 (from Bill Downs' papers)
The only people in the room now besides us correspondents are a milling mass of photographers in constant movement climbing up and down ladders, aiming cameras, adjusting lights, wheeling up two huge moving picture cameras, and around the walls there is a battery of recording apparatus set up to catch every word by our friends the radio engineers of staff, the people who get our broadcasts through.

The whole place is brilliantly lit. It looks like a movie set. About two-thirty in the morning General Spaatz walks in. He is followed in quick succession by the Russians. Then Air Marshal Robb comes in; Admiral Burrough. Pretty soon Bedell Smith himself enters, the man who bore the brunt of the long hours of negotiation. He looks tired, but there's a look of grim satisfaction about his tight mouth. The other generals come in. The last is the little French General Sevez. He looks out of breath, as though he'd run up the stairs. Everyone stands about by their chairs, waiting for the Germans. General Spaatz makes a soldierly pleasantry to the Russians and they grin broadly. Everyone tries to appear completely at ease, but the air is tense, tense, tense.

Then the Germans come in. Jodl's face is like a death mask; drawn, unnatural looking, and with every muscle in it clenched. Admiral Friedeburg is more relaxed, but he too is not enjoying himself. Jodl's aide bobs about like a headwaiter in a restaurant. Their uniforms are immaculate and rather spectacular in the German fashion. Both Jodl and his aide have the double red stripe of the German General Staff on the sides of their cavalry breeches. They reach the table, bow in unison, and wait. General Smith motions them to sit down. Everyone sits down.

Then the cameramen start bounding about after the fashion of cameramen, like so many monkeys in the zoo. They run at top speed all around the room, up and down ladders, flash-bulbs going all the time. It's an incredible scene. The generals are clearly annoyed, but still the photographers untiringly dash about, getting in the way of General Strong, Eisenhower's G-2—who is by this time handing around the documents to be signed.

Jodl signs the surrender at 2:41, and then General Smith, who hands it to the Russian General Susloparov, and finally the French General Sevez signs it. This happens four times—a copy for each nation. Meanwhile, Admiral Burrough and General Smith sign a paper relating to the conditions for disarming the German Navy. And Smith and Spaatz sign one for the Air and Ground Forces.

By 2:45 the last signature has been affixed. The photographers are still in full cry, leaping over one another to get their pictures. It has become completely ridiculous, but still they go on. They're fascinated by the face of General Susloparov's interpreter. He's a Russian with a head completely bald, not a hair, and a glittering eye which he fixes on the Germans like the very eye of doom. To get a good shot at him, a photographer leans over the Germans, elbowing Jodl out of the way, and flashes his bulb at the Russian.

The Germans sit there through it all, stiff, unblinking, tasting to the bitter dregs of their cup of humiliation. Then came the most dramatic moment of all. Everything had been signed. There was no longer any possibility of quibbling or evasion.

The German Third Reich, which had once made the world tremble, had collapsed in bloodstained fragments. Colonel General Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German Army, asked General Bedell Smith's permission to speak. He stood up stiffly, like a man holding himself in against some unbearable pain. In a strangled voice, like a sob, he said: "With this signature the German people and the German Armed Forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the victor's hands. In this hour, I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity."

When General Jodl sat down after that, it was all over. At a sign from General Smith, the Germans stood up, bowed again, and quickly left the room. Up to this time they had not yet seen General Eisenhower or Air Chief Marshal Tedder, his deputy. All the negotiations were undertaken by General Smith and General Strong, but after the surrender Jodl and Friedeburg were taken to the Supreme Commander. Eisenhower and his deputy, Air Marshal Tedder, stood side-by-side behind Eisenhower's desk, unsmiling.

The Germans bowed and stood there. Eisenhower asked them curtly whether they had understood the terms of surrender and whether they agreed to carry them out. The Germans said "Yes," and then they were taken away.
German representatives Major Wilhelm Oxenius, Colonel General Alfred Jodl, and General Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg in Reims, France to sign the German Instrument of Surrender on May 7, 1945 (Photo by Ralph Morsesource)
It was all over. The Germans had surrendered, and later General Eisenhower said a few words. This is what he said:

"In January 1943, the late President Roosevelt and Premier Churchill met in Casablanca. There they pronounced the formula of unconditional surrender for the Axis Powers. In Europe, that formula has now been fulfilled. The Allied Force, which invaded Europe on June 6, 1944, has, with its great Russian ally, and forces advancing in the south, utterly defeated the Germans by land, sea, and air.

"Thus, unconditional surrender has been achieved by teamwork; teamwork not only among all the Allies participating but almost all the services—land, sea, and air. To every subordinate that has been in this command of almost 5,000,000 allies, I owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. The only repayment that can be made to them is the deep appreciation and lasting gratitude of all free citizens of all the United Nations."

With those words, General Eisenhower finished the evening's ceremonies. It was all over. Eisenhower relaxed, everyone relaxed. One almost forgave the photographers—the most terrible war in human history had finally come to an end. The mad dog of Europe was put out of the way. The strange, insane monstrosity that was Nazi Germany had been beaten into submission. To millions of people this was the end of suffering. It was perhaps the best news the world had ever had: the surrender of Reims had been signed.