When East met West to end World War II

At a river in the heart of Hitler’s Germany, the United States and Soviet Union came together, but while war united them,  peace would split the superpowers apart.

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of History Revealed

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When East met West to end World War II
US troops of the 69th Infantry Division shake hands with Russian soldiers on the damaged bridge over the Elbe at Torgau, 26 April 1945. (Allan Jackson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When US 2nd Lieutenant Bill Robertson went on patrol on 25 April 1945, he had no idea he was about to make contact with the Russians.

It was only a matter of time before the two fronts met – with the Germans pushed back from the west since D-Day and the Red Army swiftly advancing from the east – but intelligence had been sketchy.

As Robertson drove into Torgau (a German town south of Berlin) and approached the River Elbe, he heard that a Soviet force was on the east bank at that moment.

To minimise the chances of the Russians accidentally firing on his patrol, Robertson hastily daubed a bedsheet with red and blue powder to make it look like the Stars and Stripes.

When Soviet Lieutenant Alexander Silvashko saw this makeshift flag, he ordered one of his men to cross the damaged bridge over the Elbe. He was met half-way by Robertson. They shook hands, exchanged mementos (wristwatches and uniform patches), shared a toast of schnapps and posed for photos.

 

Bridge of Friendship

The following afternoon, the official meeting of East and West took place on the river banks, celebrating what became known as ‘Elbe Day’. To mark the joining of the two forces – which meant that Hitler’s army had been cut in half – commanders and dozens of soldiers from each side met at Torgau.

Meanwhile, statements were released by Washington, Moscow and London affirming their commitment to crush the Third Reich.

"This is not the hour of final victory in Europe, but the hour draws near," stated US President Harry S Truman.

In truth, it didn’t take long. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker only five days after Robertson met Silvashko, and Germany’s unconditional surrender followed on 7 May.

In Europe, World War II was over, but the friendly spirit of Elbe Day wasn’t to last. Even the peace agreement caused a rift between the Western and Eastern powers, and relations continued to worsen as the conquered Germany was divided into occupation zones, in accordance with the 1945 Yalta agreement.

Things never recovered and the US and Soviet Union spent the next 40 or so years in conflict. But, even during the depths of the resulting Cold War, the day when their armies formed a bridge of friendship over a German river was remembered with fondness and hope for reconciliation.
 

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