SHAEF HQ, Reims, France March 28, 1945

On this date in 1945 Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower tele­grammed Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that he proposed, after encircling Germany’s Ruhr district, to advance on an west-east axis through the center of Germany to the Upper Elbe River, 50 miles west of Berlin, there to await the arrival of the Red Army. Eisen­hower’s strategy was to cut Germany in half, separate the northern defenders from the southern, then focus his main forces on the supposed “National Redoubt” in the Alps, the rumored holdout for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi fanatics until new German secret weapons or a split in the Allied coalition came to their rescue. (The alpine redoubt was a myth originating with U.S. diplomats, picked up by the news media, and cleverly promoted by Joseph Goeb­bels, Nazi Minister of Propa­ganda, who appreciated its nuisance value in the Allies’ war strategizing sessions.)

British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of nearly a third of the Allied armies, believed Eisen­hower was making a mistake. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was upset that Eisen­hower was prepared to leave the capital and epicenter of the Third Reich to the advancing Red Army, and urged him to “shake hands” with the Soviets as far east as possible. This fate­ful deci­sion was one of Eisen­hower’s most con­tro­ver­sial but it was in keeping with high-level agreements made months before.

As early as January 1944, the Euro­pean Advi­sory Commis­sion (EAC), which was charged with allo­cating zones of occupa­tion to the three victo­ri­ous powers (U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union), endorsed a plan along lines suggested by the British: Berlin would fall within the Soviet occu­pation zone. In Septem­ber 1944, at the Second Quebec (Canada) Con­ference, the heads of the two West­ern powers, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill, discussed the plan.

By the time FDR and Chur­chill were en route to the Big Three con­fer­ence at the Cri­mean resort of Yalta in the Soviet Union (Febru­ary 4–11, 1945), most of the details had been nailed down, including joint occu­pa­tion of Berlin. Stalin accepted the EAC recom­men­da­tions at Yalta, and the crea­tion of mili­tary zones of occu­pation was announced at the close of the con­fer­ence. Eisen­hower, schooled in a tradi­tion that mili­tary com­manders should leave politics to civil autho­rities, was not distracted by the criti­cism of his stop order, and made for the Elbe River, meeting elements of the Red Army at Torgau on April 25, 1945.

Well-Publicized “Handshake of Torgau” on the Elbe River, April 25–26, 1945, Symbolized Defeat of Nazi Germany

Handshake of Torgau: GIs link up with Soviets at Torgau, GermanyHandshake of Torgau: Two U.S., two Soviet officers at Torgau

Left: This photo of GIs meeting Soviet soldiers on the banks of the Elbe is one of the two most famous photo­graphs of World War II; the other was the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in the Pacific. On April 26, 1945, after photo­graphing U.S. and Soviet generals and VIPs at the scene of the Torgau, Ger­many, his­toric link­up the day before, Inter­na­tional News war corres­pondent Allan Jack­son decided to take a picture of soldiers from the two sides shaking hands. He quickly gathered sight­seeing Ameri­can and Soviet soldiers and posed them on oppo­site sides of a broken bridge, taking several pic­tures that became well known and sym­bolic of the two great powers meeting at the Elbe River. A bronze bas-relief panel depicting the Torgau Hand­shake is on the right-side wall (facing the Atlantic Arch) at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Right: Two U.S. officers from Gen. Courtney Hodges’ U.S. First Army and two Soviet officers from Maj. Gen. Vladimir Rusakov’s 58th Guards Rifle Division survey the scene at Torgau. The town on the east bank of the Elbe River lay 33 miles northeast of Leipzig and 70 miles south of Berlin.

Handshake of Torgau: U.S. 69th Division soldiers Robertson and Huff cross Torgau bridgeHandshake of Torgau: Robertson and Silvashko pose for camera, Torgau, Germany

Left: Second Lt. William Robertson and Pfc. Frank Huff of the 69th Infantry Division crawl across the skeleton of the blasted bridge over the swift-running Elbe River (the two can barely be seen in the “V” made by the twisted girders), inching their way to Torgau on the east bank to meet Soviets Lt. Alex­ander Silvashko and Sgt. Nikolai Andrejew, 58th Guards Rifle Divi­sion, on April 25, 1945. Entering the town, Robert­son’s men made pri­soners of some Germans and freed a group of POWs of vari­ous nation­ali­ties. To let the advancing Soviets know that the town was in U.S. hands, Robert­son wanted to raise an Amer­i­can flag from the tower of a castle there, but no one had thought to bring a flag along. Using a white sheet and some paint they found in a shop, Robert­son’s men fash­ioned a crude flag that was then raised above the fortress.

Right: Both grimy-faced but happy, Robertson and Silvashko pose on April 26, 1945, in front of a sign that reads East Meets West, sym­bol­izing the historic link­up of Soviet and American armies near Torgau. Commander of the Twelfth U.S. Army Group Gen. Omar Brad­ley commented on the occasion, praising Soviet troops and lauding his American forces, saying “In ten months you have advanced 696 miles from the [Normandy] invasion beaches. All this has been attained thanks to your courage, your spirit and initiative, and thanks to your comrades who died in order to achieve this.”

Handshake of Torgau: 69th Infantry Division patrol meets Soviet cavalrymen near Torgau, GermanyHandshake of Torgau: Soviet soldier with machine gun/GIs in jeep

Left: Maj. Fred Craig’s patrol, one of three patrols of the 69th Infantry Division, meets a Soviet cavalry unit south of Torgau on April 25, 1945.

Right: A Soviet soldier holding a machine gun converses with cheer­ful GIs milling around a jeep in Torgau. Amer­i­can and Soviet sol­diers exchanged chocolate and vodka and some­times insignia lifted off their uniforms as souvenirs of Torgau.

Silent Film Showing Historic Linkup of Soviet and American Troops at Torgau, April 25–26, 1945