The war was not yet over even if a series of armistices had been arranged between the Allied forces in the west and their German counterparts. The overall surrender of Germany still awaited the outcome of negotiations at Eisenhower’s HQ at Rheims in France.
There were millions of displaced persons across Europe and their needs could not wait. A first priority for both the US 8th Air Force and RAF Bomber Command was the repatriation of Prisoners of War back to reception centres in England. The heavy bombers now flew out to Germany one more time.
Ron Smith was a veteran of 65 bombing operations as a rear gunner in a Lancaster, the majority of them with the Pathfinders, who were always first over the target. Now he flew out on a very different operation:
That sinister feeling as we crossed the Dutch coast was revived even though the war was over. ‘Hope all the Jerries know about the bloody armistice,’ a voice remarked, as we skimmed the roof-tops of a large town, where the population were waving excitedly.
Across Germany, we stared aghast at the total destruction in town and city alike. In most cases it was difficult to find a building in any way complete, just skeletons in fields of rubble.
So this was what the thousands of tons of bombs had done, all those awful nights, when I had watched the terrible upheavals below. To see it all in broad daylight from only a few feet above, as the macabre scene unfolded behind me, was like viewing the end of the world.
As we circled the airfield at Lubeck, I could see scores of aircraft parked row upon row below, including a number of American Flying Fortress bombers. We came in for a perfect landing, and the Wing Commander laughingly remarked: ‘Must put on a good show with an audience like this.’ After taxying to our position, we were instructed to stay with our aircraft, and on no account to leave the airfield. The ex- prisoners of war were on their way by convoy.
The thumbs-up signal again, and I locked myself in as, at last, we turned for take-off. This our skipper accomplished with practised ease, flying at low level across the German countryside, which looked not unlike our own. It was all over for the people down there, too. I mused upon their feelings as they saw the fleet of aircraft, which they must have heard so often high in the darkened heavens, now speeding low over their homes.
Over the sea, sparkling in the early evening sun, the skipper gave me the clearance to leave the turret and, after checking to ensure the lock was engaged, I eased along backwards until I could join our passengers. I sympathised with those who had been air-sick, and handed out more paper bags.
One or two of the more adventurous were persuaded to climb into the mid-upper turret, and it was with some difficulty that each in turn was induced to come down and give his friends the opportunity to enjoy the novelty. Our pilot even allowed visits up front, and I had a busy time conducting our now eager passengers back and forth past the cramped positions of the wireless operator and the navigator.
As the English coast appeared below, a corporal, whom I had just positioned up forward, leaned over eagerly, his face aglow with excitement. It was all too much: at the sight of his beloved homeland tears ran down his cheeks. I put my arm around his shoulders as he sobbed.
After we had landed, at an airfield where the hangars had been converted into a reception area, I opened the door and lowered the ladder into place. A large crowd of cheering WAAFs and nurses were waiting. I gave a mock bow, perfectly well aware who they were anxious to greet. The soldiers climbed down, bewildered, to be ushered across the tarmac with an attentive female on each arm.
Also flying into Rheims that day was General Jodl, sent by Doenitz to attempt one more delay before they signed the formal surrender terms. Eisenhower was not persuaded to start negotiating any more than he had been the day before :
Jodl arrived in Rheims on 6 May. In his cold, impersonal manner he repeated the arguments von Friedeburg had offered. General Eisenhower’s terms, he pointed out, provided explicitly that all troops were to remain in the positions they occupied at the moment of surrender. But the German High Command simply could not guarantee that the German forces facing Soviet troops would abide by this condition.
This fact created a dilemma in which the German Government had in the end no choice but to abandon the thought of surrender, and to let things drift as they would – and that meant chaos. He, Jodl, had come to Rheims mainly to state this dilemma and to ask the Americans for their help in solving it.
‘You have played for very high stakes,’ Smith said when Jodl had ﬁnished. ‘When we crossed the Rhine you had lost the war. Yet you continued to hope for discord among the Allies. That discord has not come. I am in no position to help you out of the difficulties that have grown of this policy of yours. I have to maintain the existing agreements among the Allies. As a soldier I am bound by orders.’ He looked at Jodl and concluded, ‘I do not understand why you do not want to surrender to our Russian allies. It would be the best thing to do for all concerned.’
‘I shall send a radio message to Marshal Keitel,’ he said in a strained voice. ‘It is to read: “We sign, or general chaos.”’
The reply arrived at half-past one o’clock in the morning of 7 May: ‘Admiral Doenitz authorizes signature of surrender under conditions stated.— Keitel.’
At Rheims on 7 May 1945, General Bedell Smith for General Eisenhower, General Souzloparov and General Jodl signed the document which ended Germany’s second attempt to dominate the world.
The mission of this Allied Force was fulﬁlled at 3 a.m., local time, 7 May 1945. Eisenhower.
Telegram to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, 7 May
The final signing did not take place until the early hours of the morning of the 7th.
Time Magazine has an original picture story of the signature ceremony at Rheims.