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As Adolf Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich crumbled in the vise of the Allied armies advancing from both east and west, it was apparent that the spring of 1945 would see the last of the war in Europe. Or would it?
Rumors of an alpine redoubt–a mountainous natural fortress in Southern Germany where well-armed Nazis would continue the fight indefinitely–circulated among Allied troops. Although they had been squeezed into an ever tightening sliver of the Fatherland, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers were still under arms, and the possibility of an alpine redoubt was very real.
The U.S. 71st Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Willard G. Wyman, was moving eastward through Germany and Austria. Just two days before Germany's unconditional surrender, the 71st was focused on making contact with elements of the Soviet Red Army that were steadily advancing northwest from the Austrian capital of Vienna.
On May 6, 1945, the 71st Division's cavalry reconnaissance troop was ordered on yet another mission in search of the Soviets. They failed to find a single Soviet soldier. But what they did find was the headquarters of German Army Group South, the largest organized field command remaining in the Wehrmacht, along with a staff of senior German officers ready and willing to discuss a surrender of the entire force. Army Group South consisted of four field armies, each numbering approximately 200,000 men.
The Soviets remained elusive, but the handful of American cavalry troopers eased the minds of Allied commanders by securing the surrender of Army Group South, whose combat veterans might have made the rumored alpine redoubt a grim reality.
In previous briefings, the cavalry reconnaissance commanders had received additional routine missions, such as area and route reconnaissance or flank protection measures. The May 6 briefing was different; the cavalry troop's sole mission that day was to find the Soviets. Moreover, the cavalry soldiers were surprised to learn that they would be alone. Division elements would not be following as they had done in the past. The cavalry troop was to go forward on its own while the division remained in its current location at the Enns River, which was the proposed demarcation line between American and Soviet forces.
Only the 71st Division's reconnaissance elements would be allowed to cross the Enns, and only to locate and conduct linkup operations with the Soviets. Furthermore, the reconnaissance troop would have to accomplish this mission with only the gasoline they already had in their vehicles. The combat elements of the 71st Division had maintained a frenetic pace as they advanced to the Enns, and they had outrun their logistical support by 200 miles.
Captain Bernard C. Johnson organized the forces of the 71st Reconnaissance Troop into two elements. The first element was composed of the 2nd and 3rd platoons, under the command of 1st Lt. Delno Burns. The second element consisted of the 1st Platoon, commanded by 1st Lt. Edward W. Samuell, Jr. The 1st Platoon, less one armored car and two jeeps, embarked on the mission with only two-thirds its assigned combat strength.
Burns' forces crossed the Enns River just north of the town of Steyr, Austria, while the 1st Platoon crossed just south of the town. Shortly after the crossing, the 1st Platoon encountered German troops, armed but not hostile, moving west toward the American lines. Samuell shouted to them that the war was over. The German soldiers politely inquired as to where they should go. The platoon directed the new prisoners to move toward Steyr.
Moving east through the small town of Klein Raming, the now-recombined 71st Reconnaissance Troop moved down a small valley toward Neustift. There the roads were clogged with German troops heading west to Steyr under the protective umbrella of the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Detachment, which was given the task of maintaining order in the area during that period). Near Neustift, the American force encountered a group of approximately 400 German soldiers, who were lined up along the road. All of Burns' vehicles passed by the Germans without incident.
When the 1st Platoon went by, one of its armored cars skidded off the shoulder and became stuck in the soft soil next to the road. Burns ordered Samuell's platoon to proceed to the town of Waidhofen. When the German soldiers–who had apparently never before seen Americans–saw that the platoon needed help, they pitched in to assist in getting the car back on the road. (The German soldiers might have thought that they had reached the safety of the American area of operations–they did not know that the American cavalrymen were operating in the Soviet zone.) Once the armored car was operational again, the 1st Platoon headed due east, moving north of and parallel to Burns.
Near Predmass, the platoon was halted by a Hungarian roadblock. At first, Samuell was somewhat alarmed. Previous encounters with the Hungarians near the Isar River had been hostile, and the Americans still had a great deal of ill feeling and distrust for the Hungarians. At the roadblock, Samuell was confronted by two Hungarian generals who wanted to surrender their divisions immediately and demanded safe conduct to the American lines. Samuell told the generals that he was only authorized to deal with their German superiors on the matter of surrender, but if they so desired, they could disarm themselves and proceed on the roads toward Steyr. There they could discuss their demands with Americans who had the authority to deal with them.
The Hungarians moved away, and the platoon continued eastward through Predmass and Aichen. East of Aichen, Samuell halted the 1st Platoon to assess the gasoline situation. The armored car drivers reported that if the platoon proceeded farther they would not have enough fuel to return to Steyr. Although the jeeps had more gasoline, they could not share gasoline with the armored cars.
While Samuell and Staff Sgt. Lawrence B. Rhatican, his second-in-command, were discussing this problem, a German motorcycle messenger came down the road at a rapid pace. Rhatican blocked the road, and the messenger stopped. As he had done several times before, Rhatican called upon Technician 5 Charles Staudinger, an armored-car gunner and assistant radio operator with the 1st Platoon who had been born in that area of Austria and was fluent in German, to interpret for the messenger. Staudinger asked the messenger in a friendly manner if he could find some gasoline for the platoon. The German replied that if Staudinger went with him he would find fuel in the next town, Waidhofen. Staudinger climbed on the back of the motorcycle and took off with the German messenger.
Shortly after Staudinger's departure, some SS troops, led by a major and a sergeant major, came out of the surrounding woods. They showed no sign of hostility, and Samuell and the major spoke while the SS sergeant major interpreted. The SS major wanted to know if he could be of any assistance. Samuell asked for gasoline for the armored cars. The SS major agreed on the condition that the platoon would not tell American aircraft where the dump was located. Samuell assured him that the platoon would not divulge the location, and the major sent the sergeant major and some German troops to get the fuel. When the SS sergeant major returned, the Germans and Americans filled up the armored cars. When that was done, Samuell thanked the Germans and they went back into the woods.
Meanwhile, Staudinger and the German messenger arrived on the outskirts of Waidhofen. The German messenger told Staudinger to wait outside his boss' office building. Within a few minutes, an SS major walked out of the office and approached Staudinger in an arrogant manner. He had the German messenger blindfold Staudinger and put him into a car. They drove a short distance and entered the courtyard of the picturesque Schloss (castle) Rothschild, overlooking the Ybbs River. Staudinger was taken into the castle, and his blindfold was removed. He was told to wait outside the door to an office, where he overheard what seemed to be a loud argument coming from within. At first he could not understand the heated discussion. But when the voices became louder, he heard someone suggest that he should be shot, and he became alarmed.
Staudinger abruptly burst through the office door, proceeded to the table, around which a number of high-ranking German officers were seated, and pounded forcefully on the table with his fist. To the astonishment of the German officers, the American soldier announced in German that he was indeed a U.S. soldier, that he was there to secure their surrender and that the officers were to issue orders for all troops under their command to lay down their arms immediately.
The German officers were stunned by this display. After several moments of complete silence, one officer got up and told the others to remain in the room. He then took Staudinger upstairs to another office. There, Staudinger was told to wait outside. The German officer–who Staudinger believed was a colonel–entered the office and closed the door. After several minutes, the German came to the door and motioned for Staudinger to enter. Once inside the room, Staudinger saw a very tall, immaculate German general wearing the traditional gray uniform with bright red collar markings and high black boots.
The general repeated the demand that Staudinger had issued to the group of officers in the office below. The American replied that the general had understood him correctly. To Staudinger's astonishment, the general then asked if the American had the authority to accept a surrender. Staudinger, thinking quickly, immediately responded that he did not possess such authority, but his superior officer, who was located on the outskirts of town, not far from the castle, could handle it. The general called in an aide who was fluent in English, a Captain Bates, and told him to take Staudinger to pick up his officer and bring the officer back to Waidhofen. Bates took Staudinger downstairs and blindfolded him. Then the two of them got into a shiny black Mercedes Benz and drove away from the castle. They headed for the 1st Platoon, located just east of Aichen.
Staudinger was convinced that the castle he had just visited was the headquarters of a German unit larger than a division. In all of the discussions he had overheard, Staudinger had not picked up any German words that suggested the size of the organization. He had not heard the German word for division, corps or army, but he did hear reference to 'a group of soldiers.' Staudinger knew it was important for him to learn the size of the unit, but he had been unable to find that out.
Meanwhile, back at the 1st Platoon area, several German labor battalion commanders had come out of the woods. The officers were neither arrogant or discourteous. They were curious about the status of the region; in particular, they were interested in the likelihood of the Russians' taking the area. Samuell became convinced that he possessed information of value to the Germans. Samuell knew that his platoon was operating east of the line of demarcation between American and Soviet forces and that the Soviets might soon occupy that very place.
While the 1st Platoon leader was engaged in conversation with the German battalion commanders, the 2nd and 3rd platoons had made their way uneventfully from Neustift to the outskirts of Waidhofen. Arriving there at about 3 p.m., Burns encountered heavy German military traffic. Like Samuell, he was searching for the Soviets, but he was encountering enormous numbers of German soldiers directly in his line of march.
Burns' troops eventually worked their way into Waidhofen and to the Ybbs River bridge. But the Germans had routed traffic in only one direction across the bridge, east to west. SS troops were serving MP duty on the bridge, and they were not letting any Germans go eastward over it. When Burns made an attempt to cross, the SS troop stopped him as well. He could see they would not give in, so rather than start a losing fight with the SS that surely would have been supported by the thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers in the immediate vicinity, Burns decided to return to Steyr. Burns saw this as his best option, since he was facing the same gasoline shortage problem that Samuell had.
Meanwhile, after the German labor battalion officers had left the area near the 1st Platoon, Samuell saw the shiny Mercedes Benz arriving with flags flying on both front fenders. The car stopped and out stepped Staudinger, followed by Captain Bates. Staudinger walked up to Samuell and Rhatican and informed them that there was a high-ranking general in the nearby town who wanted to surrender.
The German captain then approached Samuell and stated that he represented the commanding general of the units operating in this area and that his general would like to see Samuell personally. Bates then described the demands that Staudinger had made. Bates added that Samuell would have to come by himself to see the general and that it could be of considerable importance to Samuell personally. He made it clear that something of major importance was about to take place.
Samuell agreed to go with Bates, but he wanted Staudinger to accompany him. Bates agreed to that and then blindfolded the two Americans. The three men got into the Mercedes and rode back to the castle in Waidhofen.
When they arrived at the castle, Bates removed Samuell's and Staudinger's blindfolds and then took the men upstairs to the general's office. Bates made the introductions and identified the German general as Lt. Gen. Heinz von Gyldenfeldt, who they later learned was chief of staff of German Army Group South. Gyldenfeldt asked Samuell if he had the authority to accept a surrender. Samuell replied that he had no such authority, but that he was in direct communication with his division, which did have authority.
Gyldenfeldt asked Samuell if he had met any resistance on his way east. When the American replied that he had not, the German stated that orders had been issued to all German forces west of the Ybbs River directing them not to fire on American forces unless fired upon first. The order had been particularly emphasized to the SS troops in the area. The general added that special liaison officers had been attached to SS units to see that such units conformed to the special nature of these instructions.
Gyldenfeldt was most anxious that Samuell, or any other Americans for that matter, make no attempt to cross the Ybbs River to the east. Samuell assured him that the troops under his own command would not cross the Ybbs, but he could not answer for other U.S. forces.
During the course of the discussion, another general entered the room. He was dressed in the same fashion as General Gyldenfeldt but was not nearly as impressive-looking. This other general, who turned out to be Colonel General Lothar von Rendulic, commander of Army Group South, entered the discussions and explained that the reason for keeping Americans west of the Ybbs River was that, if they crossed the river, they might be inadvertently fired on by German forces. Samuell also gained the impression that if American forces were sighted approaching the German rear it might create panic among the German forces confronting the Soviets.
At the beginning of Samuell's conversation with Gyldenfeldt, the general had wanted to know what Samuell was doing in this area of operations and started to admonish Samuell for not conforming to normal military courtesies by letting him know that his platoon was in the general's area. But he broke off when he remembered that he was talking to the enemy, not an ally. Thinking that telling the Germans that the Allies on the two fronts were attempting to link up might compel them to surrender, Samuell told him that his own mission was to locate the Soviets.
Gyldenfeldt asked Samuell if he had any idea where the Red Army was at that time. Samuell replied that he knew that they were west of Vienna, but he was unaware of the location of their lead elements. Gyldenfeldt informed Samuell that the Soviet lead elements were located in the town of St. Poelten, about 80 kilometers east-northeast of Waidhofen.
By the end of that first meeting with Gyldenfeldt, Samuell had agreed to inform the 71st Division headquarters of Gyldenfeldt's desire to arrange for a surrender and to request an American officer with authority to come to Waidhofen to accept it. Through Gyldenfeldt, Rendulic had expressed the desire for Samuell's commanding general to come to Waidhofen, but Samuell informed them that it was unlikely that he would come.
Gyldenfeldt agreed to Samuell's request to allow the American cavalry troopers from Aichen to come to the castle grounds. After returning to his men and bringing them up to date on the events in Waidhofen, Samuell directed them to the castle. In the process, Samuell met up with Burns near the Ybbs Bridge and briefed him on the recent developments, with the Germans. It was around
From the castle grounds, Samuell sent a detailed message to his division headquarters. He told his headquarters that he was at the headquarters of a corps-level unit or higher and requested that a field-grade officer with authority to arrange a surrender be dispatched to Waidhofen. Samuell received a quick reply stating that no officer would be sent to Waidhofen. Instead, Samuell was ordered to bring the German general to Steyr. The message also requested that Samuell identify the size and type of the German headquarters offering to surrender.
Samuell returned to Gyldenfeldt with division headquarters' response. The message from headquarters had specified that the generals should be brought to Steyr immediately, and Samuell received it about 7 p.m.–daylight was waning. If Samuell and the generals did not leave right away, they would be traveling a large part of the way in the dark. Gyldenfeldt, after discussing the matter with Rendulic, agreed to the American instructions. A column was formed for the drive back to Steyr.
Both Gyldenfeldt and Samuell were concerned about the possibility that a German unit might fire on the platoon during the night. The German general sent out information to all units in the vicinity of Waidhofen stating that the American platoon would be operating between Waidhofen and Steyr and specifying that the Germans should not fire on the American troops.
Samuell was given a private room in the castle and served a gourmet meal–including caviar! The lieutenant soon became very uneasy with the arrangement, however, since it isolated him from his platoon. Shortly after his meal, he went into the courtyard, where the cavalrymen were already eating their chow. They had pulled out their individual ration heaters and warmed up their C rations. It had come as a real surprise to the Germans to see individual soldiers prepare their own meals in that way.
Right in the middle of dinner, a line of soldier-waiters came out of the castle, each carrying white napkins and plates of hot beef stew and potatoes from the German mess for the platoon members. The food was excellent. The Americans enjoyed it but were somewhat embarrassed because they saw that hungry German soldiers in the immediate area received no such treatment from their own senior officers.
During the course of the meal, Samuell was standing next to an armored car when he was tapped on the back. He turned and looked into the eyes of one of the most sinister-looking men he had ever seen. He was a giant anthropoid figure of a man, a lieutenant colonel in the Waffen SS. To Samuell's surprise, the German politely commented upon the efficiency of the American soldier in being able to prepare his own meals, then turned around and left–to everyone's relief, including the nearby Germans.
By this time, arrangements had been made to return to Steyr with the German generals, and word was sent to Samuell that the GermanAmerican column would leave at 10 p.m. It seemed to Samuell that this was awfully late to be traveling through territory where there might still be fighting. Between the time that the platoon had moved into the castle grounds and the time that the Germans had reached the decision to leave, many German troops had crossed the Ybbs, moving west. There were now many more Germans from the Eastern Front in between Waidhofen and Steyr. These retreating German forces probably did not know that the American platoon was in the German headquarters.
The Americans were also concerned because neither Samuell nor Rhatican had seen the German generals for more than two hours. The platoon also had lost am radio contact with the division headquarters. This was unheard of, since am radios had been, for the most part, very reliable. And nothing appeared to be wrong with the platoon's sets. To make matters worse, the fm radios could not establish contact because line-of-sight contact could not be made due to the varied elevations in the Austrian terrain.
At last, General Gyldenfeldt sent for Samuell and told him that it was too dangerous to move at night. He requested Samuell to notify the American division headquarters of this change in plans. Samuell informed him that the platoon had lost radio contact with the division. He told the general that he had no idea why communications had been lost and that it did not appear to be the result of any maintenance problem with the platoon equipment; it was more likely an atmospheric or terrain problem.
Gyldenfeldt understood the urgency of the matter. He authorized the American platoon radio operators to enter the large German radio communication vans near the castle grounds to use the more powerful sets belonging to Gyldenfeldt's command. The platoon was fully aware of the irregularity of such authorization. A high-ranking German officer was authorizing the enemy to go into one of his most sensitive installations with authorization to use any of the equipment to establish contact with the enemy headquarters.
Platoon radio operators, led by Dominic Morabito, went into the vans and discovered that German military radio frequencies in the area overlapped the needed American military frequencies. There was only one alternate frequency on which they could hope to contact the 71st Division headquarters. The platoon radio operators worked all night to establish contact using both the platoon's am radios and the German equipment, but to no avail. Then suddenly, without explanation, contact was re-established with the 71st Division on the Americans' own radios at dawn.
Meanwhile, late in the evening, Captain Bates tried to arrange sleeping quarters for the American guests. He worked overtime to secure beds for the Americans only to discover them asleep, with the exception of the platoon's posted guards, either on their vehicles or in the German intelligence office.
Once radio contact had been re-established with division headquarters, the message of the previous evening was sent with the follow-up explanation that no move had been initiated because of the danger of encountering hostile German forces unaware of the platoon operating in their area. Gyldenfeldt notified Samuell that the generals would be departing Waidhofen around noon for Steyr, and that information was passed on to the 71st Division.
During the early morning, with the help of the radio operators (who had access to German radio communication documents) and taking into account General Gyldenfeldt's comment that Field Marshal Erich von Manstein had been the unit's former commander, the platoon established that they were in the headquarters of German Army Group South. This was the largest German field command still in existence on May 7, 1945. Army Group South consisted of four field armies, each numbering approximately 200,000 soldiers. Three of the four armies surrendered directly to the 71st Division. The fourth was swept up by the advancing Red Army.
After spending the night at the German headquarters, the Americans were convinced that this organization was fully capable of withdrawing in a southwesterly direction toward Berchtesgaden and establishing a redoubt defense in the mountainous re-gion. They appeared to have the know-how, morale, equipment and supplies to put up a formidable fight that could cost many American lives. It was extremely important to get these German generals to Steyr to surrender before they had any second thoughts. Later, Rendulic himself revealed that he had moved a force up the night before to attack the cavalry platoon, but at the last minute had decided against it.
Samuell agreed to provide Gyldenfeldt with a means of direct communication between the general and his staff. Rhatican's section, with an armored car, would remain in the castle courtyard with direct access to the general's operations officer.
The column of vehicles carrying the German generals left Waidhofen shortly after noon. When they arrived in Steyr, they discovered that the 71st Division headquarters had set up a very formal surrender ceremony; Maj. Gen. W.G. Wyman, the division commander, met with General Rendulic. From Steyr, the generals drove in their own staff car with an MP escort to the town of Reith, to meet with General Walton Walker, the commander of the U.S. XX Corps, which was headquartered there. Rendulic signed the Articles of Unconditional Surrender at 6 p.m. on May 7, 1945, with an effective date of one minute past midnight on the 8th.
After the surrender was signed, Samuell returned to Waidhofen, where the rest of the platoon had remained. The 1st Platoon was again fed an evening meal from the German mess, after which Samuell met with the German army group staff. Samuell described what had happened at Steyr, and the operations officer mentioned the fact that he had already received a message from Gyldenfeldt over the platoon radio. He informed Samuell that arrangements had been made to move as many members of the army group as they could across the river at Steyr by midnight on May 8.
The next day, Gyldenfeldt released Rhatican's section from its communications role at the castle. Samuell received orders to return to Steyr with the remainder of the platoon on May 8.
The war in Europe was over, but the men of the platoon felt then, as many survivors of the war do today, that if Rendulic and Gyldenfeldt had decided to fight in a southern German redoubt, the U.S. Army would have had a very difficult time routing them from the mountains. The platoon summarized its history in a statement written by Dominic Morabito soon after the surrender: 'We may not have won the war by our lonesome, but we sure as hell finished it.'
This article was written by Major Dominic J. Caraccilo and originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of World War II magazine.
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