Victory celebration at Saxelfur: Germany cut in half

In history, April 25, 1945 is remembered as Saxelfur Day, as the allied armies from the east and west met at the river Saxelfur on that day. However, neither was…

In history, April 25, 1945 is remembered as Saxelfur Day, as the allied armies from the east and west met at the river Saxelfur on that day. However, neither was prepared for the other and the Russians opened fire on the Americans. These shots could be called the first of the Cold War.

The photograph of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 was meant above all to radiate determination, but in reality it is just a picture of three older men in comfortable chairs.

This image lacks any of the drama that characterized many photographs of decisive events in the war, such as from Torgau, Germany, where American and Russian forces first met.

Nevertheless, this image is one of the most famous from the Second World War era because of the power it symbolically displays. In 1945, it was these three men who held the power to shape the world.

And that’s actually exactly what they did at the conference in the old Imperial Palace in Yalta, Crimea.

The showdown with Japan was on the agenda, but these three men also argued about Poland, which the British had planned to defend and went so far as to declare war, but which was now undeniably under Stalin’s heel. But above all, these “big three” thought to determine the future of Germany.

“How empty must the skulls of these three clowns be?”

Joseph Göbbels on Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt.

Göbbels scoffed at the Yalta Conference

Some of the main lines drawn up in Yalta were no secret. On the contrary, they were revealed in a joint statement on February 11, 1945.


“It is our firm will to wipe out German military tyranny and German Nazism and to ensure that Germany will never again be in a position to disrupt world peace.” This was made absolutely clear in the declaration.


And for that purpose, the would-be victors wanted to dissolve the German state and the German army. They also planned to close or take over the parts of the industry that could be used for military purposes.


In addition, the dismembered Germany had to compensate for all the damage that had been caused by the war. This was to be enforced by dividing the country into territories.


The French were also to get a slice of the pie, and the Poles were promised a more favorable slice east of Germany for permanent possession.


Among those who read the statement was the German Minister of Propaganda, Göbbels, who made somewhat bitter comments. “How empty must the skulls of those three clowns be—two of them anyway?” he asked mockingly.


These words appeared in an article he wrote under the heading “The Year 2000”, in which he painted a grim picture of the future after Germany had lost the war.


“The third one, Stalin, has set himself much bigger goals than his two companions, but he does not want to make those intentions public at all,” predicted Göbbels.


He envisioned how pre-war US isolationism and Soviet expansionism would upset the balance between the three great powers, leaving Europe at the mercy of Stalin.


However, the declaration was essentially worthless, Göbbels said in his article, because Germany would not lose the war. In the real world, outside the office walls of the master of propaganda, however, the defeat of the Germans was approaching very quickly.


Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American commander-in-chief and commander of the forces of the Western powers, had already reached the Rhine River.


To stop the advance, the Germans had blown up all the bridges over the river – except one.


Churchill wants to take Berlin

It was only due to a series of coincidences that the bridge at Remagen, not far from Bonn, had not been destroyed: the Germans had planted explosive charges a long time ago, but due to complicated bureaucracy, the order not to bomb the end of the road arrived until very late.


When it came to action, the remote detonator malfunctioned and one soldier was left to zigzag to avoid the American bullets and manually detonate the explosive charges.


The explosion sent up a huge plume of smoke, but when it cleared, both the Germans and the Americans saw that the great steel arches were undamaged. The explosive material had simply not been of the quality required.


Before more bombs could be detonated, American soldiers rushed in and cut the fuses. The bridge was then in their hands, and it didn’t change anything even though Hitler lost control of himself in anger and had the supreme commander of the forces at Remagen executed.


Now Eisenhower had no choice but to conquer the part of Germany that the Americans were supposed to receive according to the Yalta Agreement. On March 28, he informed the Red Army that he intended to advance east to the river Saxelf, and from there his troops then headed south and north.


Eisenhower saw his telegram (with the registration number SCAF-252) as a routine coordination between the Allied forces, but Winston Churchill was appalled.


The British Prime Minister wanted to be the first to Berlin, even though the capital was in the Soviet part of the country according to the Yalta Agreement.


Such a victory was important to Churchill because he planned to use it to put pressure on Stalin, who was now in the process of reneging on the promise of restoring democracy in Poland. “Berlin is a purely political objective, not a military one,” Eisenhower said.


He saw warfare and politics as completely separate phenomena and believed that the two should not be confused at all. Churchill had to bow down, as it had become quite clear in 1945 that in relations between Britain and the powerful Americans, Britain was the little brother.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin went by the name “The Big Three”.

Germany would never rise again

The “big three” – Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt – held a week-long conference in the old Russian Imperial Palace at Yalta in the Crimea in early February 1945.

There they agreed on the distribution of territories after the end of the war. These three men had very different opinions: Churchill suspected Stalin of planning to conquer all of Europe, and he tried to get the support of Roosevelt, who, on the other hand, placed the main emphasis on the establishment of the United Nations, which was supposed to create peace between all nations.

For this, however, Roosevelt needed Russian support and therefore gave in to the demands of Stalin, who wanted to secure control over Eastern Europe.

The results

  • After the war, Germany had to be occupied and disarmed, and the population had to be safely turned away from the Nazis.
  • An international tribunal should try German war criminals.
  • The Germans were to pay war reparations.
  • The Germans were to hand over the province of East Prussia to the Soviets.
  • The Poles were to cede the eastern regions to the Soviets, but in return received territory east of Germany.
  • The Soviet Union committed to declaring war on Japan.

Stretch along Berlin

The advance of the American forces in Germany was very rapid. On flat and open ground, the tank forces met limited German resistance, and after a remarkably short time, the first American troops reached the west bank of the Saxelfa on 11 April.

General William Simpson was filled with the will to win when he sent troops across the river to secure two bridges.

“We had been the first to cross the Rhine and now we wanted to be the first to Berlin,” he wrote in his memoirs. “We only thought about one thing, to take Berlin, to get through and to the Russians.”

It was only 80 kilometers to the German capital. General Simpson ordered one tank regiment and one infantry regiment to be placed on alert.

He estimated the situation so that with a rapid advance it would only take one night to cover the whole route. But for that he needed permission from above.

On April 15, Simpson asked for the green light from his boss, Omar Bradley who carried the mission to Eisenhower.

The news from Saxelf put Eisenhower in a dilemma. His generals assumed a continued push to the east, knowing nothing of SCAF-252’s telegram.

Only Eisenhower and Bradley knew that the Western armies were not destined to take Berlin. The agreement to let the Soviets take Berlin had been kept secret so as not to dampen the fighting spirit of the soldiers.

“I am confident that the 9th Army could have taken Berlin with relatively few casualties.”

General Simpson

Eisenhower’s conclusion

The commander-in-chief was still able to change his mind and allow the tank brigade to advance to the north. Eisenhower therefore asked Bradley to assess possible casualties in a counterattack to Berlin.


He received rather uncomplicated calculations in response. Bradley estimated that the counterattack and the fighting that inevitably awaited within the city limits could cost some 100,000 dead and wounded American soldiers.


“It’s a pretty heavy price to pay for this aggrandizement,” Bradley argued, “especially considering we’re going to have to pull back and hand the city over to someone else.”


Eisenhower decided to stick to his previous decision: the armies of the Western powers would not go to Berlin. Bradley delivered this message to Simpson, which left him deeply disappointed, and he continued to resent it throughout his life.


“I am confident that the 9th Army could have taken Berlin with relatively few casualties long before the Russians reached the city,” the commander wrote.


He never doubted that Bradley’s calculations were wrong, and six years later, Omar Bradley actually came to the same conclusion himself.


“At that time we probably could have made it to Berlin,” he admitted in his memoirs, published in 1951.


“As soldiers, we had a rather naïve view of Britain’s ability to complicate the conduct of the war by putting political goals ahead of military ones.”


But the decision was made and everyone had their role. Simpson’s army and the other armies of the Western Powers had to content themselves with digging trenches at Saxelfur as they worked their way along the river.


On April 16, the day after Eisenhower finally decided to withdraw at Saxelfur, more than a million Soviet troops launched an attack on the German defenses on the Oder River. It was the beginning of Stalin’s advance on Berlin.

Met with piles of corpses

Almost two weeks after General Simpson reached Saxelfa, other American troops approached the river about 80 miles (130 km) to the southeast.

The 69th Infantry Division was well ahead of the other divisions, and on April 25th reconnaissance units were sent forward to see what lay ahead.

Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue was the commander of a reconnaissance team of 26 men in jeeps. White flags hung from the windows of houses, but he saw no people anywhere and thought he knew why.

A German mayor had told him that the Russians were close by. Now the Germans in the area feared becoming victims of robberies, murders and rapes by Russian soldiers.

Kotzebue stopped at a farm where he found the farmer, his wife and children at the kitchen table. All they cared about was that they all died after taking poison.

The survey team continued to Saxelf, where they found a small boat. A few soldiers got into the boat and rowed it across the river with their pistols.

On the other side, many bodies of civilians were found on the river bank. The bodies of German men, women and children lay there amid their baggage and overturned horse-drawn carriages.

Soon after, a Soviet reconnaissance force arrived. Kotzebue put his hand up to his helmet and everyone else did the same. Then people just looked suspiciously at each other.

The conditions there did not offer handshakes, hugs and pats on the back. It was 1:30 p.m. and East and West had finally met in the middle of enemy territory – at a small village called Strehla.

In Torgau, Soviet and American soldiers celebrated – unaware of the animosity that had built up between their leaders.

The lieutenant looks around

Lieutenant Kotzebue led the Americans who first encountered the Russians, but this historical moment did not bring him fame.

When headlines such as “Mättust vi Saxelfur” adorned the front pages of newspapers in the following days, another lieutenant was in the main role and in a completely different place on this same river. William D. Robertson provided leadership of a reconnaissance unit in the same battalion as Kotzebue.

Around ten o’clock in the morning on April 25, he began a reconnaissance trip through rural roads, where he thought he would get an overview of the chaos that reigned in these parts: On every road walked exhausted German soldiers, released prisoners of war and foreign forced laborers.

The jeep, with the lieutenant and three privates on board, had barely set off when the first enemy soldiers appeared – from single soldiers on old bicycles to entire units staggering westward with a look of resignation and hopelessness.

Robertson disarmed the soldiers and handed them a slip of paper with a text to show at the next American outpost. No attempt was made to attack the jeep and in the villages the Americans received a friendly reception.

Around noon they met a group of British prisoners of war. They knew from reports that a group of captured and wounded Americans was in the town of Torgau, which stood just east of Saxelfur.

Robertson confiscated a white sheet from a German citizen and sped off in the jeep to the east.


As late as March 27, 1945, V2 rockets hit London, claiming more than 100 lives.

Churchill wanted a new war

“Operation Unthinkable” was the British code name for a possible war against Stalin that was to begin as soon as the summer of 1945. But as the table shows, it was precisely “unthinkable”.

In the spring of 1945, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, ordered his military council to plan a war with the Soviet Union.

He was angry with Stalin for breaking his promise of democratic elections in Poland. Six years earlier, Britain had declared war on Germany to defend Poland’s independence.

Now everything pointed to Poland falling under Stalin’s iron heel.

An attack would end in disaster

“Operation Unthinkable” was the name of the planned attack by the Western powers on the Soviet Union on July 1, 1945.

The plan was made for Churchill and assumed that the attack would catch the Soviets by surprise.

The British and Americans were to attack and were supported by the Polish exile army along with 10 divisions of German prisoners of war.

But the superiority of the Soviet Army was so decisive that the military commanders opposed the plan.

Defense would be hopeless

Churchill also had the generals assess what would happen after Germany had been defeated and the US had moved its forces away to focus on the Japanese.

Churchill feared that the situation might tempt Stalin to attack Western Europe.

The generals believed that the British would be forced back to the British Isles and after that large bombers were their only hope against Stalin.

Shoot at allies

They made it to Torgau in the jeep without any problems, but Robertson heard gunfire nearby and, in the greater distance, the boom of cannons. They seemed to be approaching a battle zone.

Robertson wondered how he could approach the Russians without those comrades being saddled with no strings attached. He cursed himself for not bringing an American flag with him, but then decided he would just have to make one himself.

The soldiers broke into a pharmacy where they found red and blue colors. They colored the sheet hastily and with good will one could now see a definite resemblance between it and “Stars and Stripes”.

Robertson waved this flag from the tower of Hartenfelshall which rose high on the west bank of Saxelfa. At the same time, he shouted “amerikanski”, “Russia”, “Amerika” and “kamrat”.

Robertson thought he was making a connection, but it turned out not to be. Suddenly, a barrage of machine-gun fire came across the river, and as bullets hit the walls, he became convinced that he himself was the target.

A tank’s bombshell that qualified the turret highlighted that thoroughly. The lieutenant now huddled behind the thick wall and waved his home-made flag frantically, hoping the bullets wouldn’t tear it from his hands.

But then the firing suddenly stopped and across the river a green flare was shot up: the signal that the allies were to use when they came to terms.

But Robertson unfortunately had no green light to answer and the shooting soon started again.

Lieutenant Robertson smiled like a simpleton and clapped his palm on the Russian’s knee.

Staged for a photograph

It was a Russian prisoner of war who saved the Americans. They had found him in Torgau and now they managed to explain to him in German what he should call across the river.


After five minutes he was able to inform Robertson that men were coming over. The prisoner of war then set off on the remains of the steel frame that had previously held up a bridge over the river.


Robertson followed, and after a moment’s hesitation, the Russian set off from the other side, and slowly and steadily they approached each other.


Out in the middle of a bridge, Robertson got on all fours to keep his balance as the Russian slid down a steel pole to him. At this historic moment, Robertson had no relevant catchphrases.


He just smiled like a simpleton and clapped his palm on the Russian’s knee. It was four o’clock in the afternoon – an American and a Soviet soldier shook hands in the center of defeated Germany.


In Torgau there was a celebration when the Russian soldiers brought out their accordions. However, Heimsbyggdin never received news of Lieutenant Kotzebue, who two and a half hours earlier had met Soviet soldiers in much more disgusting conditions after a massacre of German citizens.


The next day, Lieutenant Robertson and the Russian who met him, Lieutenant Aleksandr Silvashko, had to repeat their stunt on the bridge hangers so that pictures could be taken for the papers.


The pictures from Torgau appeared all over the world as they heralded the inevitable defeat of the Germans, even if the fighting continued for another two weeks. Germany had been cut in half and the Allies could claim victory.


At that time, there were not many who – like Churchill – saw that a new conflict was in the offing. The vast majority hoped that there would be bright times ahead and a peaceful coexistence of all the peoples of the world.


As early as July, Churchill lost the parliamentary elections in Great Britain, and it was the turn of the new Labor Party government to deal with Stalin. The world was headed for a whole new war – but this time a cold one.

Read more about Torgau and the big three

Holbrook Bradley: War Correspondent: From D-Day to the Elbe, iUniverse, 2007

Diana Preston: Eight Days at Yalta, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020

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