When Germans Surrendered to an Army of One

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On this date in 1945, German Gen. Alfred Jodl surrendered the Wehrmacht’s forces in Europe to Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, chief of staff for General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The ceremony took place in Reims, France at Eisenhower’s headquarters in a brick building known as “the little red schoolhouse.” The surrender was unconditional, which came into play for Jodl himself: He was hanged after the trials at Nuremberg.  The surrender was also signed by Gen. Francois Sevez for France and Soviet Gen. Ivan Susloparov.

Given their tremendous sacrifices, the Russians had understandably mixed feelings about the Germans surrendering to Eisenhower. Susloparov, in fact, received conflicting orders; only after he affixed his signature to the surrender did he receive new orders from Moscow instructing him not to sign it. The maneuvering between the United States and the Soviet Union that would turn into the Cold War was already beginning.

As for the Germans, they were in a rush to surrender to the Americans precisely because of the brutality and deportations faced by Germans -- soldiers and civilians alike -- captured by the Red Army. It was for this reason that, the night before, a 21-year-old U.S. Army platoon sergeant managed to single-handedly effectuate the surrender of 40,000 Wehrmacht and SS troops -- including 20 German generals.

On May 6, 1945, a small U.S. Army unit on patrol near the Czechoslovakian border outside the German village of Jägersgrün encountered a contingent of two dozen Germans led by a full colonel who’d shed his uniform for civilian clothes. The ranking American soldier on the scene was a Washington, D.C., native named Thomas Stafford. Raised in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, Stafford had been drafted out of Virginia Tech in 1943 at 19 and assigned to the U.S. Army’s 6th Combat Engineer Special Assault Brigade.

Upon his arrival in England, Stafford was promoted to corporal, his rank when he participated in the early stages of the landing at Omaha Beach. By April 1945, he’d been reassigned to a rifle company in the 347th Infantry Regiment. In that famed unit, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, participated in the assault on the Siegfried Line, and crossed the Rhine River. Along the way Stafford was promoted to platoon sergeant after his lieutenant was wounded, and was one of the first Americans to witness firsthand the horrors at Buchenwald.

Perhaps for this reason, he wasn’t all that sympathetic on May 6 when he encountered the German colonel who had ditched his uniform. “I told him he could be shot on the spot as a spy for masquerading as a civilian,” Stafford recalled later. Fortunately for colonel, he happened to speak pretty good English. He told Stafford that the Russians were nearing Prague, while indicating that the German forces in the region much preferred surrendering to Americans.

The colonel also said that he was a staff officer assigned to division headquarters located four or five miles inside Czechoslovakia. At that point, 21-year-old Tom Stafford impulsively committed what he later described as “two very stupid mistakes.” First, he simply put a white sheet signifying truce on his jeep and drove with the colonel some 12 miles behind enemy lines. Second, he didn’t even inform his own captain of what he was doing.

But it worked out.

At the Germans’ division headquarters, Stafford found himself face to face with a German general. “The general asked me why the American forces had stopped their advance after having driven the German Army almost into Czechoslovakia,” Stafford wrote later. “I told him I had no knowledge of why we had stopped, but he could rest assured that we were moving again and this time we wouldn’t stop until we were eyeball-to-eyeball with Russians. Apparently, that was all that was needed to convince him to contact his commander.”

So young Tom Stafford drove deeper into Czechoslovakia and found himself in the presence of the Germans’ corps commander. This general, who also spoke English, eyed the combat uniform of the young American, which conveyed no identifying insignia of rank, and asked him his rank.

“I certainly wasn’t about to tell him that his surrender was being demanded by a Technical Sergeant wearing muddy and dirty clothing -- so I told him I was a captain, commander of an infantry rifle company,” Safford wrote. “He looked me over, commenting that the American Army also must be running out of officer material if it, like the German Wehrmacht, was forced to fill its officer ranks with youngsters barely out of high school.”

“Although I had not yet reached my 22nd birthday,” Stafford recalled, “I told the general that I was 24 and had been fighting the Wehrmacht since June 6, 1944.”

The second part of that statement was certainly true, and it did the trick. All Stafford knew about military surrenders is what he’d seen in the movies, so he asked the corps commander for a token of surrender. In response, the German general unhesitatingly offered his sidearm to the young American. When Stafford returned behind U.S. lines and showed the surrender order to his company commander, the officer laughed and said he didn’t know whether to court-martial Stafford or recommend him for a medal. In the end, he was given another battlefield promotion -- to second lieutenant.

Tom Stafford stayed in the Army after the war. He didn’t make captain -- the rank he’d given himself on the spot in Czechoslovakia on May 6, 1945 -- until 1950. He served two tours in Korea, retiring from active service as a major in 1963. He then went to work as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense. When he retired for good in 1987, Stafford had been awarded two dozen medals and decorations and been in the service of his country for nearly 44 years. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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