Halt at the Elbe

Page 479

Chapter 22

The Decision To Halt at the Elbe

by Forrest C. Pogue
(See end of file for information on author.)

On 12 April 1945, the day of President Roosevelt's death and eighteen days before the Russians took Berlin, Ninth U.S. Army units crossed the Elbe River near Magdeburg, some fifty miles from the German capital. (See Map X inside back cover.) They established a second bridgehead farther south on the following day. German counterattacks forced them to withdraw from the northern position on the 14th, but the Americans held the southern bridgehead. These elements were ordered to hold in place while other units arriving at the Elbe were turned toward objectives south and north along the west bank of the river. On 5 May, a week before the Russians liberated Prague, the Third U.S. Army pushed spearheads inside the Czechoslovak frontier and, on the day the war ended, was in a position to advance in force to the Czechoslovak capital. Despite the pleas of the Czechoslovak leaders and the appeals of Mr. Churchill, these units were not sent forward. Many observers have concluded that only a political decision, perhaps made weeks before, could have held General Dwight D. Eisenhower's forces at the Elbe. Careful examination of the Supreme Commander's action indicates that he halted his troops short of Berlin and Prague for military reasons only. [1]

[1] This study in substantially its present form was published with the 

title, "Why Eisenhower's Forces Stopped at the Elbe," in World Politics, 

IV, No. 3 (April, 1952), 356-68. It is based on Chapters XXIII and XXIV 

of the author's volume The Supreme Command (Washington, 1954) in UNITED 

STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II with additions based on subsequent 

publications. Other published works valuable for a study of the subject 

are: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (New York: Doubleday and 

Company, Inc., 1948); Omar N. Bradley, A Soldier's Story (New York: 

Henry Holt and Company, 1951); William D. Leahy, I Was There (New York: 

Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1950); Winston S. Churchill, 

Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952);John 

Ehrman, Grand Strategy, Vol. VI (London: Her Majesty's Stationer 1956) 

in the British official History of the Second World War; U.S. State 

Department, Foreign Relations of the United States, The Conferences of 

Malta and Yalta (Washington, 1955).

Page 480

The Situation in the Spring of 1945

It is important to remember that before the first of April 1945-the time at which General Eisenhower decided to halt his forces when they reached the Elbe-the zones of occupation for Germany and the sectors of occupation for Berlin had been agreed upon by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. France had been invited to participate in the arrangements. The zones had been outlined, along general lines suggested by the British, by the European Advisory Commission (EAC) as early as January 1944. The United States and Great Britain had agreed on the main proposals at the Quebec Conference in September 1944 and had settled everything except the control of the Bremen-Bremerhaven enclave when their representatives met at Malta in January 1945 on their way to the Yalta Conference. The Soviet Union accepted the EAC recommendations at Yalta in early February 1945, and the fact that zones of occupation had been established was announced at the close of the meeting. As a result many people assumed that the zones were worked out at this time and some bargain made in regard to Berlin and Prague. Prime Minister Churchill, in writing of this question, has made the situation clear in his statement: "The Soviet armies were at this very moment swarming over the pre-war frontiers, and we wished them all success. ... It was well understood by everyone that the agreed occupational zones must not hamper the operational movements of the armies. Berlin, Prague, and Vienna could be taken by whoever got there first. [2]

At the time of the Yalta Conference, when final plans for the defeat and occupation of Germany were being discussed, it was reasonable to assume that Berlin, Prague, and even cities west of the Elbe might fall to the Red forces. [3] The Allied forces, which were just recov-

[2] Philip E. Mosely [adviser to the U.S. delegation to the European 

Advisory Commission in London], "The Occupation of Germany: New Light on 

How the Zones were Drawn," Foreign Affairs, XXVIII, No. 4 (July, 1950), 

580-604; U.S. Dept. of State, Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945, pp. 

110-23, 131, 498-99, 511-12, 514-15, 570, 592-93 639, 970; Churchill, 

Triumph and Tragedy, p. 510.

[3] Roosevelt obviously assumed that Berlin would fall to the Russians 

if one may judge by his statement to Stalin that he had made several 

bets en route to Yalta as to whether the Americans would capture Manila 

before the Russians took Berlin. Stalin said he felt the Americans would 

win their prize first because of the heavy resistance which the Russians 

were meeting on the Oder. U.S. Dept of State, Conferences at Malta and 

Yalta, 1945, pp. 510, 727.

Page 481

ering from the effects of the Ardennes counteroffensive, not only were still west of the Rhine, but still faced heavy fighting along the flooded Roer. There were disquieting reports, later proved inaccurate, that the Germans were preparing a mountain redoubt in southern Germany and Austria from which they could harry the Allies and prolong the war for months to come. This was a particularly unpleasant prospect for the United States which wanted to end the war quickly in Europe in order to shift men and supplies to General MacArthur in the Pacific. Moreover, it is doubtful if U.S. public opinion-far more favorable to a return to normal than to political arrangements for the future, especially arrangements considered to be more in the interest of Britain and France than of the United States-would have backed any action which required new commitments in Europe, particularly east of the Elbe.

So far as military commanders were concerned, their desire was to end the war in Europe as quickly as possible and to avoid political complications. This view seems to have been shared to some extent by members of the State Department. [4] General Eisenhower, schooled in a military tradition which held that commanders should keep their eyes on the military road to victory and leave political decisions to civil authorities, was operating under a directive which called only for military action against Germany. This initial directive, which was not changed during the war, stated that his task was to "enter the continent of Europe, and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces." In the absence of any requirement from the Combined Chiefs of Staff to take measures which would strengthen the position of the Western Allies against future Soviet aggression, he emphasized a military rather than a political approach in planning the final offensive. Nothing in the contemporary record indicates that he deviated from the position which he stated after the war when writing about the effect of his plans of the division of Germany into occupation zones. This division, he wrote, "did not influence our military plans for the final conquest of the country. Military plans, I believed, should be devised with the single aim of speeding victory; by later

[4] In mid-April 1945, officials of the European and Russian Affairs 

Divisions of the Department of State were reported to believe "that for 

governments to direct movements of troops definitely indicated 

political action and that such movements should remain a military 

consideration at least until SHAEF is dissolved and the ACC (Allied 

Control Commission) is set up" [italics in the original]. Members of 

the War Department in noting this view concluded that the State 

Department preferred "a straight military solution" to the problem of 

moving Allied troops out of areas which they might seize in the Russian 

zone of occupation. Memo by G. A. L. [Brig Gen G. A. Lincoln] to Gen 

Hull, Military Contacts with the Russians, 13 Apr 45, CCS 805/7 and CCS 

805/8, OPD 381, Sec. V.

Page 482

adjustment troops of the several nations could be concentrated in their own national sectors." [5]


Berlin was listed as the military goal of the Western Powers by SHAEF in a pre-D-Day plan of May 1944. [6] However, by mid-September 1944, when Soviet forces had reached the gates of Warsaw and had forced the collapse of Rumania, the Supreme Commander declared that while Berlin was still "the main prize," Allied strategy would have to be co-ordinated with that of the Russians. He thought that, should the Red forces "beat us to Berlin," the British forces ought to be pushed northward to take the Hanover area and the ports around Hamburg and that Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley's forces should seize part or all of the Leipzig-Dresden area "depending upon the progress of the Russian advance." [7]

In the fall of 1944, Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery pressed repeatedly for a single Allied thrust toward Berlin, northeastward from the Rhine, preferably by his army group aided by an American army under his command. In discussions over the "broad front" versus "narrow front" strategy, General Eisenhower made clear that for the moment he was more interested in the Ruhr than in Berlin. Germany, he believed, had two hearts: one, industrial (the Ruhr), and the other, political (Berlin). He wished to concentrate on the Ruhr on the theory that if the industrial heart stopped, the political heart would also die. [8]

After the Ardennes battle, the British commander revived his proposals for a single thrust to Berlin. Any chance which he had for leading the main offensive in his sector was ended in March when Bradley's forces seized the Remagen bridge and developed a major bridgehead across the Rhine. With the United States forces, which now far outnumbered the British troops on the Continent [9] in a strong posi-

[5] Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 396. (Copyright 1948 by Doubleday 

and Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission.)

[6] SHAEF Planning Draft of Post-NEPTUNE Courses of Action after the 

Capture of the Lodgment Area, Main Objectives and Axes of Advance, I, 3 

May 44, SHAEF SGS Post OVERLORD Planning, 381, I.

[7] Eisenhower to Bradley, Montgomery, and Devers, 15 Sep 44, SHAEF SGS 

Post OVERLORD Planning, 381, I.

[8] This concept appears in several of General Eisenhower's letters. The 

particular figure of speech is that of Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, 

SHAEF Chief of Staff, who used it in explaining the Supreme Commander's 

viewpoint. Interv with Smith, 1 Nov 51.

[9] Mr. Churchill recognized the importance of this disproportion of 

strength in his statement to the British Chiefs of Staff during the 

March and April debate over strategy. "I hope ... we shall realize that 

we have only a quarter of the forces invading Germany, and that the 

situation has thus changed remarkably from the day of June 1944...." 

Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 460. See also Pogue, Supreme Command, 

pp. 409-13.

Page 483

tion to attack through central Germany to the Leipzig-Dresden area, it is not surprising that General Bradley's advice stressed the difficulties of the advance on Berlin and the value of striking toward Dresden. The U.S. commander has summarized the situation as he then saw it in A Soldier's Story. Nearly two hundred miles separated Montgomery's Rhine bridgehead from the Elbe, while Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov had nearly a million men on the Oder with some elements within thirty or forty miles of the German capital. Even if the Allies reached the Elbe before Zhukov crossed the Oder, the British and U.S. forces would still have to cross fifty miles of lowlands marked by lakes, streams, and canals to get to Berlin. When asked by General Eisenhower for an opinion, General Bradley estimated that a breakthrough from the Elbe would cost 100,000 casualties. "A pretty stiff price to pay for a prestige objective ," he told the Supreme Commander. And, remembering that the Allies had already agreed that the Russian occupation zone would run within one hundred miles of the Rhine, he added, "Especially when we've got to fall back and let the other fellow take over." He says candidly of his thinking of this period:

I could see no political advantage accruing from the capture of Berlin that would offset the need for quick destruction of the German army on our front. As soldiers we looked naively on this British inclination [the desire to go on to Berlin] to complicate the war with political foresight and non-military objectives. [10]

With these arguments in mind and fearing that the enemy might successfully establish his redoubt in the south, General Eisenhower concluded near the end of March that he should push his main force from the Kassel-Frankfurt area to the Elbe, split the German forces, cut off Berlin from the National Redoubt area, and then turn his forces directly to the north and to the southwest of the Elbe. These maneuvers would enable him to seize ports on the North Sea and the Baltic and also clean up the area to the south before the enemy could assemble a force there. This meant that the main offensive would be under Bradley's command. [11] On 28 March he asked the Allied military missions in Moscow to inform Marshal Stalin of his intentions.

The British Chiefs objected strongly, saying that the Supreme Commander had gone outside proper channels in notifying Stalin of his plan to stop at the Elbe. They held that Eisenhower's proposals were contrary to his previous assurances that the main battle would be fought in the north; that they relegated their forces to a secondary position; and that they failed to include capture of Berlin-an impor-

[10] Bradley, A Soldier's Story, pp. 531-37, 544.

[11] Eisenhower to Mil Mission, Personal to Marshal Stalin, SCAF-252, 28 

Mar 45, SHAEF SGS Bomb-Line, Liaison, and Co-ordination of Fronts, 

373.5, I.

Page 484

tant political prize. It was apparent that the minimizing of the British position in the final offensive was of great importance at this stage of the debate. Mr. Churchill made this clear in a private memorandum to the British Chiefs of Staff on 31 March when he said:

3. It seems to me that the chief criticism of the new Eisenhower plan is that it shifts the axis of the main advance upon Berlin to the direction through Leipzig to Dresden, and thus raises the question of whether the Twenty-one Army Group will not be so stretched as to lose its offensive power, especially after it has been deprived of the Ninth United States Army. Thus we might be condemned to an almost static role in the north and virtually prevented from crossing the Elbe until an altogether later stage in the operations has been reached. All prospect also of the British entering Berlin with the Americans is ruled out. [l2]

Churchill had warned the British Chiefs of Staff that Eisenhower's credit with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff stood very high as a result of recent victories and that they might "riposte heavily." "The Americans will feel that, as the victorious Supreme Commander, he has a right, and indeed a vital need, to try to elicit from the Russians their views as to the best point for making contact by the armies of the West and of the East." In a sharp exchange, in which the American Chiefs of Staff seemed to criticize British strategy and operations in the Rhineland, the Joint Chiefs held that in the existing fluid state of fighting, Eisenhower was the only person in a position to judge what measures were best for destroying the armies and their will to resist. [13]

The Prime Minister moved quickly to deal with and dispose of "these misunderstandings between the truest friends and comrades that ever fought side by side as allies." He denied any attempt to disparage or lower the prestige of the Supreme Commander. While indicating that he felt that the U.S. Joint Chiefs had done less than justice to British efforts by their remarks, he made clear that his great concern was that the shift in the direction of the attack would leave the British forces in a static condition along the Elbe when and if they reached it. He then proceeded to shift the argument from the military to the political level by noting that the Russians were already in a position to overrun Austria and take Vienna. He asked: "If they also take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contributor to the common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future? I therefore consider that from a political standpoint we should march as far east into

[12] Marshall to Eisenhower, W-61337, 31 Mar 45, Eisenhower personal 

file; Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 460-61.

[13] Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 46-62; Marshall to Eisenhower, 

W-61337, 31 Mar 45, Eisenhower personal file.

Page 485

Germany as possible, and that should Berlin be in our grasp we should certainly take it. This also appears sound on military grounds." [14]

The President, in a reply which clearly reflected the U.S. Army's views, held the debate to military considerations. He explained that the U.S. Chiefs' insistence on upholding the Supreme Commander was an enunciation of a well-known military principle rather than an anti-British reaction. Any impression that they were reflecting on the performances of the 21 Army Group arose, he thought, from a failure to stress factors such as military obstacles and the strength and quality of opposing forces which had contributed to the difficulties facing Field Marshal Montgomery's units. The President could not see that Eisenhower's plans involved any far-reaching changes from the strategy approved at Malta. He regretted that at the moment of a great victory the Allies should "become involved in such unfortunate reactions." [15]

General Eisenhower assured the British Prime Minister that he had no intention of relegating the British forces to a restricted sphere. He thought it likely that once Allied forces reached the Elbe, U.S. forces would be shifted to Field Marshal Montgomery who would then be sent across the river in the north and to a line reaching at least to Luebeck on the Baltic coast. As for the drive to Berlin, he made no promises. If it could be brought into the Allied orbit, he declared, honors would be equally shared between the British and U.S. forces. [16] Mr. Churchill informed the President that the changes in strategy were fewer than he had initially believed and assured Roosevelt that relations with Eisenhower were still of the most friendly nature. [17]

Mr. Churchill's words ended the discussion over the British role in future campaigns, but did not dispose of the question of Berlin as a political matter. Made suspicious by the alacrity with which Marshal Stalin agreed to General Eisenhower's decision to drive for Leipzig instead of Berlin and by Soviet agreement that Berlin was no longer of strategic importance, the British Chiefs urged that this point be reconsidered. The U.S. Chiefs replied that "Only Eisenhower is in a position to know how to fight his battle, and to exploit to the

[14] Churchill to Roosevelt, 931, 1 Apr 45, Incl to CCS 805, 29 Mar 45, 

ABC 384 Europe (5 Aug 43), Sec. 1-D; Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 

464-66; Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 399.

[15] Draft of message for the President to the Prime Minister (with 

notation "dispatched as is per White House") in reply to message of 1 

Apr 45, Operations Division (War Department) files ABC-384, Europe (5 

Aug 43), Sec. 1-D.

[16] Eisenhower to Churchill, FWD-18428, 1 Apr 45, Eisenhower personal 


[17] Churchill to Roosevelt, 933, 5 Apr 45; Marshall to Eisenhower, W-

64244, 6 Apr 45, Eisenhower personal file. Churchill's message ended 

with the Latin quotation: "Amanium irae amoris integratio es" which the 

War Department translated as "Lovers' quarrels are a part of love" and 

sent to General Eisenhower.

Page 486

full the changing situation." As for Berlin, they felt that such "psychological and political advantages as would result from the possible capture of Berlin ahead of the Russians should not override the imperative military consideration, which in our opinion is the destruction and dismemberment of the German armed forces." [18]

On 7 April, General Eisenhower presented his views to the Combined Chiefs of Staff. He said he was reluctant to make Berlin a mar objective since it had lost much of its military importance; it was in ruins and many of the government workers had left the city. His chief interest at the moment was in dividing the enemy forces by a thrust to the Elbe near Leipzig and by establishing the Allied left flank on the Baltic near Luebeck. His only political reaction was shown in his statement that the push to the Baltic coast would prevent the Red Army from occupying any part of the Danish peninsula. If, after accomplishing these aims, his forces could take Berlin, well and good. He made it quite clear that while he was working on a basis of military objectives, he was willing to consider political factors in his decisions. He then added:

But I regard it as militarily unsound at this stage of the proceedings to make Berlin a major objective, particularly in view of the fact that it is only 35 miles from the Russian lines. I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs purely military considerations in this theater, I would cheerfully readjust my plans and my thinking so as to carry out such an operation. [19]

Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, has written that there is no evidence in his notes that the Combined Chiefs of Staff ever took up the question of Berlin. The decision was thus left to the Supreme Commander, who was free to make it on purely military bases. His attitude was made clear on 8 April when, in answer to Montgomery's request for ten U.S. divisions for a main thrust toward Luebeck and Berlin, he said:

As regards Berlin I am quite ready to admit that it has political and psychological significance, but of far greater importance will be the location of the remaining German forces in relation to Berlin. It is on them that I am going to concentrate my attention. Naturally, if I can get a chance to take Berlin cheaply, I shall take it. [20]

That General Eisenhower's decision was not based on a desire to favor American forces over the British was made clear less than a

[18] Paraphrase of U.S. views given Marshall to Eisenhower, W-64349, 6 

Apr 45, Eisenhower personal file; Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 


[19] Eisenhower to Marshall, FWD-18710, 7 Apr 45, Eisenhower personal 


[20] Eisenhower to Montgomery, 8 Apr 45, Eisenhower personal file.

Page 487

week later when the Ninth U.S. Army reached the Elbe and its commander, Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, asked permission to go to the German capital. The Supreme Commander reiterated his order to hold on the Elbe and to turn units northward in the direction of Luebeck and southward toward the so-called National Redoubt. His action recalled the strategy which he had suggested as early as September 1944. In informing the War Department of his action, General Eisenhower said that not only were the Baltic and Bavarian objectives more important than Berlin but that to plan for an immediate effort against the German capital "would be foolish in view of the relative situation of the Russians and ourselves.... While it is true we have seized a small bridgehead over the Elbe, it must be remembered that only our spearheads are up to that river; our center of gravity is well back of there." [21]

By the third week in April, Mr. Churchill seems to have accepted the Supreme Commander's views on Berlin. He cabled Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, then in the United States, on 19 April:

... It would seem that the Western Allies are not immediately in a position to force their way into Berlin. The Russians have two and a half million troops on the section of the front opposite that city. The Americans have only their spearheads, say twenty-five divisions, which are covering an immense front and are at many points engaged with the Germans.

In views which paralleled earlier suggestions of General Eisenhower's, he emphasized that it was most important for Montgomery to take Luebeck, since his arrival there "before our Russian friends from Stettin would save a lot of argument later on." He also believed it important to push on to Linz to meet the Red forces there and to gain the region south of Stuttgart where the main German installations connected with atomic research were located. Mr. Eden agreed completely, adding: "I am sure that you still have Prague in mind. It might do the Russians much good if the Americans were to occupy the Czech capital...." [22]

It is not clear whether the British Foreign Minister discussed Mr. Churchill's views with Mr. Truman. The President made his views evident on 21 April when, in answer to Churchill's cable regarding arrangements relative to zones of occupation, he replied that "the tactical deployment of American troops is a military one," and suggested that a certain latitude and discretion be permitted the Supreme Commander in these matters. Admiral Leahy, in commenting on the

[21] Eisenhower to Marshall, 15 Apr 45, Eisenhower personal file; 

Bradley, A Soldier's Story, pp. 537-39.

[22] Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 515-16.

Page 488

President's message, sums up the Berlin situation admirably for our purposes:

... He [Eisenhower] made a military decision in the field to rest on the Elbe, to which he knew he would have to withdraw anyway as soon as the German resistance collapsed. My notes do not show that the matter ever came before the Combined Chiefs of Staff. The Russians, after overcoming savage street-by-street resistance, announced the complete capture of Berlin on May 2, 1945. [23]

A Line of Demarcation

Thus far the discussion has dealt with military objectives which General Eisenhower hoped to seize by stopping west of the Elbe. It is now necessary to consider a second factor-one which affected Prague as well as Berlin-namely, the effort to establish an easily recognized line of demarcation where the advancing armies could stop. Efforts had been made since late 1943 to establish bomb-lines and since the June 1944 landings to provide closer liaison between Soviet and Western land forces. Near the end of March 1945, the War Department recalled that in 1939 armed clashes arose between German and Soviet troops in Poland until both accepted the Vistula as a line of demarcation. Perhaps prompted by this memorandum, General Marshall wrote the Supreme Commander on March 26:

One of the problems which arises ... is that of meeting the Russians. What are your ideas on control and coordination to prevent unfortunate incidents and to sort out the two advancing forces? One possibility is an agreed line of demarcation. The arrangements we now have with the Russians appear quite inadequate for the situation you may face and its seems that steps ought to be initiated without delay to provide for the communication and liaison you will need with them during the period when your forces may be mopping up in close proximity or in contact with the Russian forces. [24]

General Eisenhower and his advisers initially preferred that no set line be established and that the forces be allowed to go forward until contact was made, using recognition signals to avoid incidents. After considering the matter, the Combined Chiefs of Staff authorized General Eisenhower to tell the Russians that Allied troops would advance until contact was imminent. Army group commanders were then to agree on zones of responsibility. This soon led to complications, as the

[23] Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 514-15; Harry S. Truman, 

Memoirs, Vol. I, Year of Decisions (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and 

Company, Inc., 1955), pp. 61-62, 83; quotation from William D. Leahy, I 

Was There (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1950), pp. 350-51.

[24] WD Memo, with covering note by Maj Gen Clayton L. Bissell, G-2, 

German Line of Demarcation Between Anglo-American and Soviet Operations, 

22 Mar 45, OPD 381; Marshall to Eisenhower, 26 Mar 45, Eisenhower 

personal file; U.S. Dept of State, The Malta and Yalta Conferences, 

1945, pp. 603-05, 640ff.

Page 489

Soviet leaders suspected that the Allies were trying to change the zones of occupation and would not be satisfied until General Eisenhower personally assured them that there was no such intent. [25]

On 21 April the Supreme Commander notified the Russians that, since the logistical position of the Allies was stretched in the center as a result of the rapid drive to the Elbe, they would make no move at that point for some weeks at least. He added that he expected to cross the Elbe in the north to open the north German ports and to drive the Germans north of the Kiel Canal. Other forces were to go southward into the Danube valley. On the following day he suggested that, since a meeting appeared likely in the Wittenberg-Dresden area, he would choose the line of the Elbe-Mulde on the central front as an easily identified line. [26] If the Russians wanted to stop on the Elbe and desired the Western Allies to advance eastward to Dresden, he was willing to do so. He suggested a firm junction on a recognizable line before final mutual adjustments based on local tactical situations were made. [27]

The Russians accepted the line of the Elbe and the Mulde on 24 April. General Alexei Antonov, Red Army Chief of Staff, added that the Soviet Command contemplated occupying Berlin and clearing the Germans from the east bank of the Elbe north and south of Berlin and from the Moldau River valley. [28] This last provision meant that Prague would be taken by the Russians.


Near the end of April the British Chiefs of Staff pointed out that the Western Allies could derive remarkable political advantages from liberating Prague and as much of the rest of Czechoslovakia as possible. General Marshall passed this on to General Eisenhower, adding: "Personally, and aside from all logistic, tactical, or strategical impli-

[25] Eisenhower to War Dept, 5 Apr 45; War Dept to SHAEF, 12 Apr 45; Mil 

Mission Moscow to Eisenhower, MX-23875, 14 Apr 45; and Eisenhower to Mil 

Mission Moscow, SCAF 282, 15 Apr 45, all in SHAEF SGS 373.5 Bomb-Line, 

Liaison, and Co-ordination of Fronts, I.

[26] While, for convenience sake, the Allied halt is usually spoken of 

as "the halt on the Elbe," it is not a strictly accurate statement. 

North of Wittenberge (to be distinguished from Wittenberg), the Allied 

forces crossed the Elbe; from Wittenberge to a point near the 

Czechoslovak border they used the Elbe-Mulde line; south of that they 

followed the Karlsbad-Pilsen line. In the Dresden area the Elbe was east 

of the area where Eisenhower planned to stop.

[27] Eisenhower to Mil Mission Moscow, 21 Apr 45, and Eisenhower to Mil 

Mission Moscow, 22 Apr 45, both in SHAEF SGS 373.5, Bomb-Line, Liaison, 

and Co-ordination of Fronts, I.

[28] Mil Mission Moscow to Eisenhower, MX-24032, 24 Apr 45, and Mil 

Mission Moscow to Eisenhower, MX-24055, 25 Apr 45, both in SHAEF SGS 

373.5, Bomb-Line, Liaison, and Co-ordination of Fronts, I.

Page 490

cations, I would be loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes." [29]

General Eisenhower insisted that the northern thrust-toward Luebeck and Kiel and the southern drive in the direction of Linz and the National Redoubt be given priority. Provided additional means were at hand, he planned to attack the enemy also in Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and Norway. He thought that the Western Allies would be able to deal with Denmark and Norway, but concluded that the Red Army was in a perfect position to clean out Czechoslovakia and would certainly reach Prague before the U.S. forces. He assured General Marshall: "I shall not attempt any move I deem militarily unwise merely to gain a political advantage unless I receive specific orders from the Combined Chiefs of Staff." There is nothing to indicate that they gave him any such orders. [30]

The Supreme Commander informed the Russians on 30 April that, while the operational position was being adjusted along the Elbe and the Mulde, he would cross the lower Elbe to establish a firm flank near Wismar. From the headwaters of the Mulde southward, he intended to hold the line approximately along the 1937 frontiers of Czechoslovakia. Later, Allied forces could advance to Karlsbad, Pilsen, and Budejovice. On the southern flank, he proposed to advance in the general area of Linz. If at any time the situation required the Allies to advance farther, he was willing to take such action. [31]

When, on 4 May, General Eisenhower indicated his willingness to move from the Pilsen-Karlsbad area to the line of the Elbe and Moldau and to clear their western banks, the Russians strongly dissented. To avoid possible incidents, General Antonov asked General Eisenhower not to move his forces in Czechoslovakia east of the line Budejovice-Pilsen-Karlsbad. He pointedly reminded the Supreme Commander that the Red Army had stopped east of Wismar on the Baltic at his request, and hoped by the same token that the Allies would stop their advance in Czechoslovakia. General Eisenhower agreed not to move farther. Thus he left Prague to be liberated by the Russians. [32]

SHAEF was notified on 5 May that Czech partisans had liberated Prague. Before the day's end, German armored forces converged on the

[29] Marshall to Eisenhower, W-74256, 28 Apr 45, SHAEF Cable Log. (This 

also contains a statement of the British position.)

[30] Eisenhower to Marshall, FWD-20225, 29 Apr 45, SHAEF Cable Log. In a 

letter to the author of 20 Feb 1952, General Eisenhower said that no 

political directive was ever given him to stop at the Elbe or to go to 

Berlin or Prague.

[31] Eisenhower to Mil Mission Moscow, SCAF-323, 30 Apr 45, SHAEF SGS 

373.5, Bomb-Line, Liaison, and Co-ordination of Fronts, II.

[32] Eisenhower to Mil Mission Moscow, 4 May 45, Mil Mission Moscow, MX-

24166 4 May 45; and Mil Mission Moscow, MX-24193, 5 May 45, all in SHAEF 

SGS 373.5 Bomb-Line, Liaison, and Co-ordination of Fronts, II.

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city from outside Prague and on the following morning Czechoslovak representatives asked for aid. They also requested that Czechoslovak forces, then with General Bradley's army group, be sent into Prague. Czechoslovak appeals were also made directly to Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., whose forces were near Pilsen. This word reached Col. Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr., of the European Allied Contact Section at SHAEF, on the morning of 7 May after the Germans had surrendered at Reims. He naturally said that Prague was included in the terms of surrender and that hostilities had ended. [33]

Unfortunately, seizure of the radio station in Prague by Czechoslovak partisans had led to confusion on the part of Germans in Czechoslovakia, who were inclined to discredit the report and continue fighting. Therefore, although the war was ended, Prague was still in danger from the German forces near that city. Mr. Churchill wired General Eisenhower on 7 May that he hoped the latter's statements as to his intentions would not prevent an advance to Prague if forces were available and they did not meet the Russians first. [34]

More urgent appeals came from the Czechoslovaks on 7 and 8 May, some being made directly to Mr. Churchill. When the Czechs talked later to SHAEF officials, they were told that the proper procedure had been followed, since if Mr. Churchill felt that something could be done he had the facilities for taking up the matter directly with the U.S. Government. [35]

General Eisenhower continued to honor General Antonov's request of 5 May that the U.S. forces remain west of the Pilsen-Karlsbad line, while keeping the Russians informed of Czechoslovak pleas for aid. Thus, when on 8 May the Czechoslovaks asked for bombers to be sent to Prague, SHAEF forwarded the message to Moscow with the comment that no action was being taken. On the same day a report was passed on to the effect that Czech Partisans were under attack by the Germans. The Czechoslovaks were notified that Allied forces had stopped at the request of the Russians and that all appeals for help should go to them. [36]

In order to stop the enemy attacks, a U.S. patrol was sent with a German representative of Admiral Karl Doenitz' headquarters to Field Marshal Ferdinand Schoerner, who commanded the forces in Czechoslovakia, and warned him of the serious consequences which

[33] Series of messages, 6, 7, and 8 May 45, SHAEF EACS SH/9 


[34] Churchill to Eisenhower, 2920, 7 May 45, Eisenhower personal file.

[35] Note on transmittal slip of request from Czech Mil Mission, 9 May 

45, SHAEF EACS SH/9 Czechoslovakia.

[36] Czech Mil Mission to SHAEF, 6 May 45; 12th Army Group to SHAEF, 7 

May 45; and SHAEF to Mil Mission Moscow, FWD-21001, 8 May 45 all in 

SHAEF SGS 370.64 Czechoslovakian Resistance Groups; Eisenhower to Mil 

Mission Moscow, 8 May 45, Eisenhower personal file.

would follow if he did not speedily bring hostilities to an end. General Eisenhower warned all German soldiers by radio that any continuation of hostilities would be severely punished by the Allies. [37]

The Russian forces ultimately entered Prague on 12 May. Some eighteen days passed before they gave permission for Czechoslovaks in General Bradley's army group to come to the city.


The decision to halt Allied troops short of Berlin and Prague had been severely criticized both in Europe and the United States on political grounds. It is argued that Churchill was right in suggesting that we proceed as far as possible into Germany in order to strengthen our hands for later negotiations with the Russians. [38] Other say that we should have recognized the Russian menace earlier and have prepared our strategy to block the Soviet advance into Central Europe. This obviously takes up beyond the scope of this study into the making of foreign policy. We should also have to answer such questions as: (1) what would the Russians have done if we had embarked on a policy of racing them to various European capitals in the spring of 1945? and (2) what would have been the effect of the action on the war in the Pacific?

It is evident that the political leaders in the United States had framed no policy for dealing with an aggressive Soviet Union in Central Europe. It is equally clear that no political directive was ever issued to General Eisenhower by his American superiors or by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. His initial directive called for the defeat of Germany's armed forces, and it was obvious from messages that he received from Washington that military solutions were preferred. In this situation, the Supreme Commander reached his decisions relative to Berlin and Prague on military rather than political grounds. It is difficult to believe that critics of his decision would argue that he should have taken political action on his own initiative. When considered from the purely military viewpoint of the quickest way to end the war in Germany with the fewest number of casualties to our troops, leaving the maximum number available for rapid redeployment to the Pacific, his decision was certainly the proper one.

[37] Report of Col. Wilhelm Meyer-Detring [OKW officer who was sent by 

Doenitz to Schoerner, 10 May 45], OKW, Einsatzabteilung Heer 2.V-

22.V.45. The broad details of the report are confirmed by V Corps 

Operations in the ETO, p. 454; Eisenhower to OKW, 10 May 45, and 

Eisenhower to Mil Mission Moscow, 10 May 45, both in Eisenhower personal 


[38] The British official historians on the strategy of this period says 

that the strategy which the British wished to adopt in Germany was 

designed "not for reasons of defence or attack against Russia ... but 

with the object, which they recognized must remain subsidiary to the 

immediate military task, of negotiating from strength." Ehrman, Grand 

Strategy, VI, p. 150.

FORREST C. POGUE, Director, George C. Marshall Research Center. Ph.D. in history, Clark University; American Exchange Fellow, Paris, 1937-38. Taught: Murray State Teachers College. Combat historian with the First U.S. Army, World War II. Croix de Guerre. Historian, OCMH, 1947-52. Author: The Supreme Command (Washington, 1954), UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II.