It was said on May 8, 1945, that some of the victors wandered around in a daze. They were puzzled by a strange silence. The guns were no longer firing the permanent barrage, their constant companion, during those last months since they had crossed the Rhine.
Some could not quite believe it was all over. They had longed for an end to the war in Europe for years. “Then suddenly it was upon them all and the impact of the fact was a thing that failed to register–like the death of a loved one,” the historian of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division wrote that year.
On that day in May, a combat engineer sergeant serving with General George S. Patton, Jr.’s Third Army in Austria wrote to his wife, “The war’s over! All we can think about is, thank God, thank God … nobody is going to shoot at me any more. I can’t be killed. I have made it!” Medal of Honor Recipient Audie Murphy, recuperating from his three wounds in Cannes, went out into the crowds celebrating the great victory. “I feel only a vague irritation,” he wrote later. “I want company and I want to be alone. I want to talk and I want to be silent. There is VE Day without, but no peace.”
Recommended: The Colt Python: The Best Revolver Ever Made?
Pockets of German Resistance Remained
Most of the GIs were not given, however, to philosophizing. They simply got blind drunk instead. It was Tuesday May 8, 1945—Victory in Europe Day. It was all over. The Germans were beaten at last. There was peace again. Were the Germans really beaten? Was there really peace in Europe?
Over the past few weeks, the great Allied armies had swept through Hitler’s vaunted “1,000 Year-Reich,” which had lasted 12 years and five months, occupying everything from great, if shattered, cities to remote intact villages and hamlets. But in their urgent drive to kill the Nazi beast, they had left great swaths of territory in German hands. There were German outposts everywhere over hundreds of miles in Germany itself and in the former German-occupied countries, which seemed to come under no one’s control save that of the local commanders.
In the area of Dessau, where the U.S. and Soviet Armies had failed to link up, the entire German infrastructure still functioned. For nearly two months, the locals ran their own post offices, telephone exchanges, and so on, guarded by a sizeable force of German soldiers, with the Allies totally unaware of the situation. Farther north in the area of the German border, SS troops still held out in the forests around Bad Segeberg. Well dug in, they refused to surrender until the commander of the British 11th Armored Division grew sick of the situation. He was not going to risk any more deaths in his division, which had suffered casualties enough since Normandy. Instead, he ordered the commander of the German 8th Parachute Division to do the job for him. Thus, during the week after the war was officially over, German fought German to the death.
The “Night of the Long Knives” and the Battle of Texel
These were not the only ones. On the Dutch island of Texel, across from the important German naval base of Den Heldern, a full-scale mini war had been under way since the end of April 1945. At that time, the 82nd Infantry Battalion, made up of Russian former prisoners of war from Soviet Georgia under some 400 German officers and noncommissioned officers, had been preparing to fight the Canadians who were advancing into Holland. The ex-POWs believed resistance would mean their death in combat or forced repatriation to Russia where again they might well be put to death as traitors.
Instead of fighting for the Germans, they had mutinied under a broad-shouldered former pilot, Lieutenant Sjalwas Loladze. He argued that if they could take their German superiors by surprise and equip themselves with whatever artillery they could find on the island, they would be able to hold out until Canadian paratroopers dropped on Texel and relieved them.
Thus it was that they carried out their own “night of the long knives” in late April. In one night they slaughtered their German officers and NCOs in their beds, some 250 of them, and took the rest of them prisoner. The battalion commander, a Major Breitner, could not be found in his quarters. That was not surprising. He was in bed with his mistress, a local Dutch girl. Hearing the midnight bursts of firing, Breitner thought the Canadians had landed, but he soon discovered that German weapons were being fired and that his troops had mutinied. At gunpoint, he forced a local fisherman to row him over to Den Heldern and alarmed the authorities there.
The next day, the Battle of Texel commenced. The Germans advanced three battalions, some 3,500 men in all, and they soon forced the Georgians to retreat. Still, the former prisoners refused to surrender. Down to 400 men by May, they continued the bitter struggle in which no quarter was given or expected. When a Georgian was taken prisoner by the Germans, he was stripped of his uniform and shot on the spot. The ex-POWs had an even simpler method. They tied bundles of their prisoners together and attached a single grenade to them. It was bloody, but efficient, they thought. Besides, it saved their dwindling supply of ammunition.
While the Canadians, who now occupied that part of Holland, looked on impotently (or so they said later), the men of the Georgian Battalion and their onetime German masters slaughtered each other ruthlessly. VE Day came and went, and they were still at it.
Farmbacher Holds Out in Lorient
On May 8, another cut off German garrison—that of the great German U-boat base at Lorient on the French coast—was still holding out, ignoring both the Allied order to surrender and that of the last Nazi leader, Admiral Karl Dönitz, to lay down their arms. Back in August 1944, Patton had intended to capture the key naval base, but after his army had suffered great losses at Brest and other Breton ports, he had called off the attack.
Lorient was going to be allowed to wither on the vine. Unfortunately for the Allies, Lorient did not wither. For over a year, its commander, elderly General Wilhelm Fahrmbacher, had fought off attacks by the French and American troops who had surrounded the Lorient after Patton had departed with his Third Army. After winning the Knight’s Cross in Russia, Farmbacher had been put out to pasture at Lorient.
During what amounted to a siege, he had been supplied by U-boat and long-range aircraft, supplementing the garrison’s rations with raids on the French and Americans and penetrating their lines in depth to buy food from the local farmers, who were prepared to deal with the enemy—at a price.
Throughout those long months, Farmbacher had succeeded in maintaining the garrison’s morale with a daily supply of that German staple—bread. Unknown to the troops, however, most of that freshly baked Komissbrot was made from sawdust. Fahrmbacher and his chief quartermaster, who kept the matter strictly secret, had had the local rail track pulled up to get at the wooden sleepers below. Daily and in secrecy, these sleepers were sawed up to make sawdust.
Indeed, one of the first things that the fortress commander insisted upon as soon as he was awakened by his soldier servant and given his cup of acorn coffee was for the quartermaster to report the state of the sawdust. Now, over a week after Germany surrendered, Fahrmbacher summoned his quartermaster and asked, “How many railroad sleepers have we left?” The quartermaster hesitated, and the big general knew instinctively that he was in trouble. Slowly, avoiding the general’s eyes, the quartermaster replied, “One!”
Fahrmbacher knew the situation was hopeless. He could not feed the garrison with a couple of sacks of molding flour and the sawdust provided by one lone wooden sleeper. It was time to surrender.
That afternoon, he sent his last message to Dönitz far away in North Germany at the small coastal town of Murwik. It read, “Wish to sign off with my steadfast and unbeaten men. We remember our sorely tried homeland. Long Live Germany.” Thereupon, he ordered one of his officers to make contact with the French besiegers in order to surrender. A little later, the elderly general found himself serving five years in a Parisian jail for having disfigured French property. His real crime was that he did not know the whereabouts of the French postage stamps that had been overprinted with the word “LORIENT” and used by the garrison. His French interrogator had wanted them for himself, knowing they were rare and would soon be valuable. They were, and they are. Today, each one of those 60-year-old stamps is worth at least $1,000.