Historical Notes: If at first you don't surrender . . .

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The Independent Culture
VE DAY commemorates the surrender of the German Armed Forces which took place on 8 May 1945. Or did it? Thereby hangs a tale.

On 6 May 1945 General Jodl arrived at General Eisenhower's headquarters in Rheims, empowered by Admiral Doenitz, Hitler's designated Head of State, to surrender the Armed Forces of the Reich. The Supreme Allied Commander telegraphed the details of the surrender to Moscow and it was proposed that General Sousloparov, a liaison officer at Shaef (the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied European Forces), should sign on behalf of the Soviet High Command. Did Stalin, the telegraph asked, wish to modify any aspect of the arrangements? Did he want a different representative or the signing to happen at a different place? However, there was no response. Eisenhower assumed consent and went ahead with the signing as proposed. At 0141 hours on 7 May an "Act of Military Surrender" was signed by Jodl, Sousloparov and Bedell Smith, Chief of Staff at Shaef.

Eisenhower notified the Allied Chiefs of Staff who were then in Moscow. There was to be no press release, pending an announcement by the three governments. This was fortunate indeed. Eisenhower's communication had crossed with the belated arrival of the Soviet response - now overtaken by events - to his earlier telegram. It was a shock. The Soviet High Command would not deal with a representative of Doenitz. They did not agree to Sousloparov as signatory on their behalf. And they did want a different location. Further, there were omissions from the Instrument of Surrender agreed by the Allied governments in July 1944. Eisenhower's hasty reply was carefully understated: he referred to "a brief" Instrument of Surrender "signed before receipt of your message".

Stalin was not alone in querying the authenticity of the document used at Rheims. Alarm bells were ringing at Shaef. Eisenhower's political adviser, Robert Murphy, had made a startling discovery. What had just been signed was not the official text - which he himself had sent to Shaef months earlier. General Bedell Smith had already retired to bed, so Murphy roused him. Together they hastened to Smith's office, where the correct document was unearthed in the General's personal top-secret cabinet. Smith had simply forgotten about it. When alerted that the end was near, he had hurriedly delegated some staff officers at Shaef to draw up an Instrument of Surrender from "miscellaneous sources". It was this document which had just been signed.

From Washington the US State Department demanded an explanation. Smith claimed that Shaef had never received any specific directive from the State Department about surrender terms, in spite of requests. When the great moment approached, "in view of the urgent circumstances we proceeded with the short surrender document which was drafted here". "A paper" had been received which would have given a guide to the agreed terms, but "unfortunately this was overlooked". This confidential message from Smith to Secretary of State Hull was intercepted by the British Political Office at Shaef and its contents passed to the Foreign Office. The story was relished in London: "[Smith's] protestations reveal a state of affairs in Shaef which makes one thankful that it has not long to live. An almost incredible tale."

So the Germans surrendered all over again next day in Berlin, this time with an all-star cast. Field Marshal Keitel, General Stumpf and General Admiral von Friedeburg signed for the German High Command; Air Vice-Marshal Tedder, Eisenhower's deputy, for the Allied Expeditionary Force; and General Zhukov for the Supreme High Command of the Red Army. To round off the occasion, Zhukov gave a dinner party. It began at midnight and finished at 5.30am with a tour of the ruins.

Patricia Meehan is the author of `The Unnecessary War: Whitehall and the German opposition to Hitler' (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992)