By Dr Peter JohnstonHead of Research, National Army Museum
Late on March 23, 1945, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery launched Operation Plunder, as part of a coordinated Allied set of crossings to get across the Rhine and break into northern Germany.
Supported by Operation Varsity, the largest airborne operation in history to be conducted on a single day and in one location, the operation was a success.
Nearly six years after the outbreak of the Second World War, the British were across the Rhine and advancing deep into Germany.
This began a period of rapid, if difficult, advance for Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, the final stage of a march to victory that had begun on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
The area west of the Rhine had been cleared in heavy fighting, in particular during the battles through the Reichswald forest and beyond that had seen towns like Kleve captured on February 11, 1945.
The Germans were forced to retreat eastwards across the Rhine, blowing any bridge they could – but crucially leaving one at Remagen, which the Americans seized and turned into a bridgehead.
Towards the end
Once across the Rhine in force, towns in Germany began to fall to the advancing Allies one by one.Some, like Osnabrück were taken with little resistance. But others were held tenaciously by the Germans.
Celle in Lower Saxony was occupied by the 15th Scottish Division on April 12.Uelzen was captured on April 18 and Bremen on April 25.
Among the towns being captured were Prisoner of War camps holding British prisoners, as well as those from other Allied countries.
The 7th Armoured Division liberated Stalags XIB and 357 near Fallingbostel - some of whose inmates had been captured at Arnhem during Operation Market Garden, Montgomery’s attempt to cross the Rhine and break into Germany through the Netherlands the previous year. But the British also found disturbing evidence of the atrocities that the Nazis had inflicted on Europe.
In early April 1945, General Sir Evelyn Barker’s VIII Corps were advancing north-eastwards across Germany towards the Baltic.
Word had reached them that the Germans were looking to call a local truce. On April 12, a German emissary was brought into the advancing Corps HQ to negotiate the terms.
Among the British troops closest to this area were the soldiers of the 11th Armoured Division. They had crossed the Weser on April 5with 270 tanks and were closing on Lüneburg, aiming for the River Elbe and advancing across the woodland and heather of the Lüneburg Heath.
But they had been fighting hard, and heavy losses meant that whole battalions had been withdrawn from the division and replaced.
On their line of march lay a camp at a place called Belsen.
On April 15, the first British troops entered the camp. They were utterly unprepared for what they found. There were more than 60,000 emaciated prisoners in desperate need of sustenance and medical attention. Worse still, 13,000 corpses lay around the camp, unburied and rotting.
It was unlike anything any of the British soldiers had ever seen.
In his radio report from the camp that day the veteran BBC journalist Richard Dimbleby, who had been accompanying the troops as they went into the camp, said simply: “This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
Despite still being at war, the British took on the humanitarian crisis.
Emergency medical aid was organised and attempts were made to clean up the camp by burying bodies and implementing a form of quarantine to prevent the further spread of disease among the weakened population.
Aiding the living was also a major task, and the British seized the nearby German camp at Hohne to use as a hospital for the prisoners.
Despite all their efforts, a further 14,000 people died after the camp had been liberated.
Towards ‘Stunde Null’
Despite fierce fighting, day by day the Allies were advancing deeper into Germany, getting closer to Berlin and the heart of the Reich while the Soviet Union advanced from the east.
Victory was within reach. The only question remaining was how much longer the Germans would continue to fight.
As the advance across Germany had continued, more towns and cities fell to the advancing British and Canadians. The small city of Lüneburg in Lower Saxony, 50 kilometres southeast of Hamburg, had been captured on April 18, 1945.
The headquarters of 21st Army Group had been established in the Villa Möllering in the village of Häcklingen.
It was here that a German delegation arrived with an offer of surrender on May 3.Initially the Germans had wanted to negotiate a partial surrender of a small number of their forces, but their offer was rejected.
Montgomery demanded a total, unconditional surrender of all forces on his northern and western flanks. When the Germans hesitated, Montgomery was unequivocal, and is reported to have said: “If you do not agree to the ... surrender, then I will go on with the war and I will be delighted to do so.”
This was agreed the next day, and on May 4, 1945, Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of the German forces in northwest Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein. But this did not end the Second World War in Europe.
That only came with the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender, which took place first at Reims on May 7, then again in the early hours of May 9 at Karlshorst in eastern Berlin, this time with representatives of the Soviet Union High Command present.
Wednesday, May 8, had been designated as Victory in Europe Day.
Europe was – officially at least – at peace.
For Germany, it was “Stunde Null”, Hour Zero, marking the end of the Second World War and the beginning of a new era.
As Montgomery said in his message to British and Canadian troops on that day: “We have now won the German war. Let us now win the peace.”
Occupation, and a new war
On August 25, 1945, 21st Army Group was renamed the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).
It was responsible for the occupation and administration of the British Zone of a divided Germany.
However, as relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated rapidly in the aftermath of victory in the Second World War, it eventually formed the core of the British forces responsible for the defence of West Germany during the Cold War (1945-89).