Despite being relegated to a subordinate role in the conquest of Germany by Eisenhower, General Montgomery acquitted his responsibilities in the north of the country with diligence.
After crossing the Rhine, Montgomery’s 21st Army Group separated into three parts. The First Canadian Army turned north to liberate the northern Netherlands and the northwest corner of Germany (including the principal German naval base of Wilhelmshaven); command of the US Ninth Army was passed to Bradley and sent south to meet up with the First Army and encircle the Ruhr; while the British Second Army headed for the Baltic coast.
The bulk of Montgomery’s forces, the British Second Army, moved in an oblique line across the plains of northern Germany towards the Baltic coast. The Bremen–Hamburg autobahn was crossed on 19 April 1945.
A number of watercourses – the Ems and Weser rivers and two canals – presented obstacles for Montgomery’s army, and five hundred bridges were built to carry its men and vehicles forwards. Its greatest challenge was crossing the Elbe on 29 April. Montgomery met with limited resistance from German Army Group H, under the command of General Johannes Blaskowitz; by now, Nazi military strength was thinly spread and fuel in short supply. As Montgomery proceeded, he was able to take the Luftwaffe’s last operational airfields. Aided by the arrival of the first RAF jets, the Allies established control of the airspace over northern Germany.
Eisenhower urged Montgomery to quicken his progress. Now that the defeat of Nazism appeared inevitable, British and American politicians turned their thoughts to the occupation of Germany and the order of the postwar world. Stationing their troops in the liberated territories would give the Allied nations clout after the war, and although the Soviets were their allies, the Anglo-American commanders would readily take lands in the designated Soviet zone and return them later on to serve their own interests.
Advancing from the Elbe, Montgomery took both Lübeck and Wismar on 2 May 1945, just hours before the Russian troops of Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky arrived from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in northeastern Germany. British troops were now deep inside the Soviet zone of occupation agreed at the Yalta Conference in February, but were unable to prevent the Soviets reaching Schleswig-Holstein, the Jutland peninsula and Denmark. Montgomery halted on a line through Hamburg (liberated on 3 May) and Lübeck. The new German head of state, president Karl Dönitz, was left stranded in Flensburg on the Danish border.
On 4 May, a delegation of high-ranking German officers arrived at Montgomery’s tactical headquarters on Lüneburg Heath. It was led by Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg on behalf of Karl Dönitz and Wilhelm Keitel, Commander-in-Chief of the German armed forces. Dönitz was still hoping for a negotiated armistice with the Anglo-American allies, but Montgomery convinced von Friedeburg that Germany’s situation was hopeless. Berlin had capitulated, Germany had been organized into zones of occupation, and – in any case – Montgomery could not accept the surrender of any armies engaged with Soviet forces. After some discussion, Dönitz and Keitel authorized von Friedeburg to sign an instrument of surrender of all German forces in the Netherlands, northern Germany and Denmark; the document was officially signed at 6pm on 4 May. War in northern Germany was over. Islands and ships were included in the capitulation and all U-boats were ordered to return to base.
On 7 May, Montgomery formally met his Russian counterpart, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, in Wismar. Two months after the end of the war, the British withdrew from the Baltic ports.
In the late 1930s, the thickly wooded island of Peenemünde, at the mouth of the Oder river on the north coast of Germany, was chosen as the secret location for a weapons research centre and test site. It became the largest installation of its kind in Europe, employing 12,000 people, including forced labourers.
The Polish Resistance (AK) managed to infiltrate Peenemünde and, in April 1943, information about the research centre and the progress of its work on the V1 and V2 was smuggled out of Poland via Switzerland and delivered to Britain. On the night of 17–18 August 1943, the RAF attacked Peenemünde with almost six hundred heavy bombers, dropping more than 1600 tons of bombs over the site. Many German personnel were killed, but one of the leading scientists on the programme, Wernher von Braun, survived. The raid was considered a success: development of the V1 and V2 was halted at Peenemünde and moved to other sites in a response estimated to have delayed the first offensive launch of the V1 by six months.
The Historical Technical Museum in Peenemünde was built in 1991 on the grounds of the former research centre where the rockets were constructed. As well as information on the programme and the weaponry, displays also focus on the people who lived and worked at Peenemünde.
Opened in 1938 as a subcamp of Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme became an independent camp in 1940. More than half of its 100,400 prisoners, mostly foreign nationals, died under Nazi persecution. The memorial, which was inaugurated on the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in May 2005, encompasses the entire grounds and seventeen of Neuengamme’s original buildings.
Becklingen Cemetery is located on a hillside overlooking Lüneburg Heath, at the site where Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the German surrender from representatives of Admiral Dönitz on 4 May 1945. Burials were transferred to Becklingen from isolated German and POW cemeteries located within an 80km radius; most of those interred here died during the last two months of the war.
Wöbbelin Concentration Camp existed for just ten weeks from 12 February to 2 May 1945. Constructed under extremely harsh conditions by inmates from Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen camps, it was originally intended to house American and British prisoners of war. As the Allies advanced, the still incomplete camp was used between 15 and 26 April 1945 as a reception camp for various evacuation transports, mainly from the satellite camps of Neuengamme. Nearly 5000 inmates from at least 25 nations were interned at Wöbbelin, more than one thousand of whom died as a result of exhaustion, maltreatment and starvation.
On 2 May, units of the 82nd US Airborne Division and 8th Infantry reached the region. The guards left the camp around noon; in the early afternoon American soldiers stumbled upon Wöbbelin, which was not marked on any maps.
A circular path lined by information panels takes the visitor through the grounds of the former camp.
This four-chamber air-raid shelter, built in 1940–41 in the Hamm district of Hamburg and complete with restored furniture, gives a lasting impression of what it would have been like during the bombing raids that racked the city in the summer of 1943. A further exhibit displays the personal effects of people who lived through the war.
Germany’s military maritime museum recalls the history of the naval town of Wilhelmshaven, beginning in 1869 and covering both world wars. The World War II artefacts collection includes a Seehund (a two-man submarine), a barrel of the German cruiser Köln and a ship’s bell. Boat tours leaving from the museum are also available.
In early 1945, no Allied soldier, commander or politician suspected the number of concentration camps that existed in Germany. Nor were they prepared for their inhumanity, which would shock even the most battle-hardened troops. On 15 April, the 11th British Armoured Division opened the gates of a camp whose name was to become notorious throughout the world. Overcrowded and underfed, Bergen-Belsen’s 40,000 emaciated prisoners could hardly comprehend liberation after the horrors they had lived through. Some had resorted to cannibalism to survive, while more than 12,000 corpses were left unburied and had to be bulldozed into immense mass graves. When the British had evacuated the survivors and buried the dead, they razed this “horror camp”.
The site and museum give a good understanding of the events that occurred here. Note that, as with most of the concentration camps, exhibits may not be appropriate for children; much of the material is chilling.
Europe’s second-largest above-ground bunker was begun in 1943 using forced labour; around two thousand people died during its construction. Planned as a production site for type XXI submarines, it was bombed by the RAF in March 1945 and never served its intended purpose.
On 26 April 1945, SS guards loaded prisoners from Neuengamme and several other concentration camps onto three unmarked ships. One of them was the SS Cap Arcona, an ocean liner and former flagship of the Hamburg–South America Line. No one is certain where the ships were headed, but on the afternoon of 3 May, RAF fighter-bombers attacked the convoy and the ships were sunk almost immediately. Afterwards, both the pilots and SS lifeboat crews shot drowning prisoners in the water. Over six thousand prisoners from 24 different European nations were killed in what came to be known as the Cap Arcona disaster. This museum explains the whole story – or at least what’s known of it.
The German Tank Museum in Münster was constructed in 1983. Its military hardware – tanks, uniforms, small arms, medals and so on – covers World War I to the present day.
Ravensbrück was the largest concentration camp for women on German soil. Between 1939 and 1945 around 133,000 women and children as well as 20,000 men were imprisoned here. Ravensbrück Memorial presents the camp’s history in various exhibitions and commemorates the fate of its former prisoners.
Top image: The city of Lübeck today © querbeet/iStock