"Treat them nicely". Sixty years ago, U.S. forces and the Red Army met in Torgau, Germany. By Martin Herzog
"Who has ever heard of Torgau," asked the Soviet daily, Pravda. "But now, this place has just gone down in history!" That is because it is the small town on the Elbe River where U.S. forces and the Red Army met for the first time since becoming allies and uniting in the fight against Nazi Germany. The meeting was expected to take place, but the way it happened on April 25, 1945, was not at all planned.
He should not be here. He should have turned around several miles ago. The orders were clear: Patrol the Mulde River; check for refugees who are coming in from the East in large numbers; then return to the command post in Trebsen. Patrol activity was not allowed more than five miles east of the river. But now, Lt. Bill Robertson of the 273th Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division is driving his army jeep further east toward the Elbe River, accompanied by three of his comrades and equipped with only a single machine gun on top.
Robertson's patrol passes through small deserted villages. Outside of Torgau, they hear about a prison camp holding American soldiers. So they head into town, hoping to liberate their comrades - And, hey, why not go down in history? Why not be the first ones to encounter Soviet troops?
For this had been the main topic of the day: Who would be first? What would it be like? And what would they be like, those Russians: brothers in arms, yes, but strangers, anyway.
When asked how to deal with the Russians on this occasion, Gen. Hodges, Commander of the First U.S. Army, simply replied: "Treat them nicely." All patrols were given orders not to communicate with the press in case of an encounter but to report back immediately. The plan was to publish the event simultaneously in Washington, London and Moscow.
Everything was very well organized. When the "Big Three" - Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin - met in Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula three months earlier, they not only discussed the future world order. Their military also agreed on several security procedures to avoid friendly fire when the armies met: carrying clear symbols of identity, for one, or firing different colored star shells as a sign of recognition: green for the Americans, red for the Russians.
Robertson and his small patrol are anything but prepared for this encounter. They have no radio to report contact; they do not have any star shells to fire - no green, no red, none at all. They do not even have a decent flag. On their way, they force a civilian to hand them a white bed sheet. They tear a big piece out of it and store it in their jeep. A white flag is perhaps not appropriate, but better than arriving empty-handed, thinks Robertson.
Torgau is deserted. The Wehrmacht left the place only a few hours before. Only a few dozen civilians remained in the town. Robertson's party stops at the prison camp, situated in an old fortress, where they find 40 men. But there is not much time to celebrate: they hear gunfire ringing from the Elbe River and head toward the riverbank.
On the way, a German civilian tells them that the Russians have already arrived on the east bank of the river. This is their chance! But then there is an ambush; a sniper fires at them. They scatter. Is it the Russians? Did they not recognize them? They have to make sure they are identifiable as Americans. Robertson decides to break into a nearby drugstore. They tint the white sheet with red stripes and a blue rectangular spot in the upper left corner. It's not quite the star-spangled banner, but it will serve the purpose, thinks Robertson. Afterwards, he looks for a high building or a tower near the riverbank.
Somebody is waving a dirty cloth. Lt. Alexander Sylvashko can see him through his binoculars. The man waving the cloth is just a hundred meters away in the window of a nearby tower and he seems to be yelling, too. But what is he saying? Sylvashko is skeptical: "I thought it was another provocation by the Germans dressed in civilian clothes," the 84-year-old Sylvashko remembers 60 years later. "They had shown up in the morning on the other side of the river with white armlets and signs of surrender. When we signaled to them to come over they started firing at us - and we shot back, of course."
"It was a warm sunny day, this April afternoon," Sylvashko recalls. "Lilacs were blossoming on the river bank." One would, however, think he was too busy to notice the beauty of the landscape. When they had arrived that morning, the Germans shelled his platoon. So, they used their artillery to drive them out of Torgau and fought the remains of the German resistance. All bridges across the Elbe were destroyed, blown up by the retreating German forces. Right in front of them, scattered bricks and steel beams from a crumbled bridge stuck out of the high, roaring water. It was hard to cross and Sylvashko did not even try. He had orders to halt at this position east of the river as the U.S. forces and the Red Army had agreed to this procedure a few days earlier. So, Sylvashko had his men dig trenches. Then they waited for the Americans to show up.
But who is this idiot on top of a tower, waving some kind of flag, yelling something like "Amerikanski!" Are these supposed to be the Americans? Sylvashko has never seen one before; neither has any of his platoon. He gives the order to fire a red star shell, the signal of recognition. He waits a couple of minutes: no answer. "No green star shell - no Americans," Sylvashko thinks. "It seemed like another SS trick. I ordered a 45 millimeter gun to fire at the tower." Two shells hit close to the spot where the flag waver stood. The man is gone and there is silence. Another two minutes pass. "Then there were four soldiers coming up the bridge, dressed in uniforms we had never seen before. They brought along a Russian prisoner who shouted 'we are Americans! Don't shoot!' "
So, here they are, the first Russian soldiers to meet the first American soldiers on enemy ground. United by having defeated the German aggression - but still divided by the Elbe. Robertson waves at them and Sylvashko waves back. They have to crawl on their hands and knees across the crushed rocks to get to each other. Andrejew, one of Sylvashko's men, goes first, while he himself backs up the others. Robertson and Andrejew meet exactly in the middle of the collapsed bridge, on a steel bar, shaped like a "V." What a symbol! It is pretty instable, so they just pat each other's shoulders, both grinning, both not knowing what to say.
It is 4 p.m. on April 25, 1945: "The war is over! This was the feeling we all shared at this moment," says Sylvashko. Shortly afterwards they all stand on the east bank of the Elbe and shake hands and embrace and scream at each other out of relief: "We did not understand the words of the Americans and they could not understand us, but that did not matter. Somehow we got the messages across."
More Russian soldiers show up. Suddenly there are food and drinks: Canned fish, cookies, chocolate, wine and schnapps. Russian soldiers and GIs embrace and exchange medals and souvenirs. But the party does not last very long. Sylvashko reports back to his superiors and Robertson needs to return to headquarters. He invites Sylvashko to come along - as living evidence of his encounter. Sylvashko agrees and joins Robertson's patrol with two other men from his platoon - although they still do not really trust their allies. "We were skeptical," Sylvashko said. "We believed their headquarters to be very close to our position, but the ride did not seem to end. We even thought they might be bringing us there as prisoners for interrogation. In such a case, we had orders to defend ourselves to the last round. But as it turned out, that was not necessary."
"Robertson has brought an unusual load," voices ring across the command post in Wurzen when they arrive. At the camp they think the patrol has brought back some drunken Russian workers. When they realize that Robertson has actually made first contact, the group is immediately sent to the regiment's headquarters in Trebson and then to the division's staff in Naunhof where a big welcoming party receives the Russians. For Robertson and his men, the welcome is much less warmhearted: his superiors are not at all amused that he disobeyed orders and Robertson is brought to detention. He is told that he will be court-martialed. But when word finally reaches Gen. Hodges, the commander of the First U.S. Army is pleased to hear about the successful contact and congratulates - not Robertson, of course - but his superior.
Anyway, in the end Robertson is pardoned. Both he and Sylvashko are presented to the waiting press and an official meeting is planned for the next morning. It's already well past midnight when the party returns to the command post in Trebsen. "There we had a late dinner," recalls Sylvashko, "and without noticing it, it turned into an early breakfast."
At dawn on April 26, an overtired Lt. Robertson is on his way to Torgau once again, this time not only accompanied by his new Russian friends, but also leading a platoon of 13 other jeeps. They return to the bridge where they had met the day before and more soldiers from both sides join in.
One of them is Delbert E. Philpott. For the soldiers, it's just a big party. "It was a big relief," Philpott recalls. " 'We live to go home' - was our common feeling. We were not really aware of the historical meaning of the day. But we were released from the tension that there is always someone in front of you waiting to kill you."
The international press also arrived. Official pictures were taken. "Everybody who owned a camera was shooting pictures all the time while we were hugging and kissing," Philpott said.
Allan Jackson, a press photographer asks Philpott and some other soldiers to pose for a picture on the ruined bridge while shaking hands. "This picture was just one of the many taken on this day," Philpott said. "So we just did what he wanted and went on celebrating afterward. Nobody gave it a second thought. And we never expected it to be published, for we were just ordinary soldiers."
But this is the photo that appears on the front page of The New York Times and several London newspapers only a few days later. It becomes one of the most symbolic and most reprinted photos of World War II, even though nobody on it was a member of the original party. For years, Philpott does not know anything about the photo's popularity. He only recognizes his own face decades later when studying an encyclopedia about the event.
The residents of Torgau do not know anything about this historical meeting. Manfred Bräunlich, who at the time was 16 years old, served as one of the town's young voluntary fire fighters. They stayed until almost the end to fight fires started by the bombardment. "We were happy that we could stay," says Bräunlich today. "And I was happy that I did not have to join the Wehrmacht during those last days of the war. We knew that these were the last weeks of the fight - we listened to BBC every night, although this was strictly forbidden." But the day before Robertson's patrol arrived, they had to leave, too. They returned two days later to a quiet Torgau. The celebrations were already over. Both the American and the Russian army had moved on. Only occupation troops patrol the streets. The war is over. Only much later do they learn that their town became a historic place on this day.
And what about Robertson? He becomes a war hero. Sylvashko does not. In the Red Army, being a historic figure does not entitle you to mercy. He also disobeyed orders: he was not allowed to cross the river. Two of his superiors are demobilized from the army, sent home and excluded from the Communist Party. Members of the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB, interrogate Sylvashko. Since he is young and of low rank, he is soon released.
Today, Sylvashko says: "Like Robertson, we were of the lower ranks and followed a patriotic impulse, and we were incidentally at the place of a historic meeting." Shortly after the end of the war against Germany, the Cold War started. It was not until 30 years later that the two veterans would meet again to commemorate the well-planned, yet chaotic events in Torgau at the end of April 1945.
P.S.: There was another U.S. patrol that was sent out on this day, just a few miles down from Torgau. They actually had contact with the Russians before Robertson's patrol, but their radio message was misunderstood and their position recognized only 24 hours later. Just for the record: Kotzebue was the name of the patrol leader.
- Radio journalist Martin Herzog, a native of the Rhine region, specializes in historical writing and works for such radio stations as WDR, Germany's largest public radio broadcaster.