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To ensure that the guns fell silent when they were supposed to and that the killing stopped, a squadron of GIs was led deep behind enemy lines in Czechoslovakia by a German officer.

The 40 men of B Troop, 23rd Reconnaissance Squadron, 16th Armored Division, had grown used to the “hurry up and wait” routine that was an everyday occurrence for warriors in soiled ODs. Gathered on the tarmac of the airport at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, the veteran troopers huddled around their five M-8 armored cars, peeps (jeeps to anyone not in an armored unit) and an ambulance, awaiting their next assignment.

May 7, 1945, had been a memorable day thus far. In the morning, the squadron led the way into Pilsen, where overjoyed citizens showered its mud-spattered vehicles with Bohemian lilacs. By afternoon the unit was at the airport, joined by three Army correspondents, a Reuters reporter named Kerr, a Czech army lieutenant and the squadron’s medical officer. They stood around for two hours waiting for the officer who would take them on the next leg of their journey. At 1730 hours, the restless and bored men decided to break out their K-rations and eat dinner. It would be another 31⁄2 hours before the man they had been waiting for finally arrived.

Had they known how important Wilhelm Meyer-Detring was, they might have been less upset. The colonel headed the planning section of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) and was also the special emissary from the Flensburg government of Admiral Karl Dönitz, Adolf Hitler’s successor.

Unknown to the men at the airport, the German surrender had been signed in France at 0241 hours May 7. May 8 would be the day of the Reich’s complete and final capitulation. Meyer-Detring’s arrival in Czechoslovakia in the final hours before the surrender deadline would be crucial in bringing about the transition to peacetime without further loss of life.

Trapped in eastern Bohemia between Soviet forces to the east and the Americans to the west were the men of German Army Group Center, commanded by Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner. The situation was fluid, with communication between OKW and units in the field almost nonexistent. If Schörner’s considerable force did not receive word of the surrender, the results might be disastrous.

A day earlier, a Czech partisan uprising had broken out in Prague. The Allies feared a bloodbath if Schörner’s desperate men moved to crush this uprising, and desired a cessation of hostilities as quickly as possible.

To prevent the potential collision of Allied forces advancing from the east and west, however, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had agreed to honor Soviet General Aleksei Antonov’s request to hold his men at the predetermined demarcation line separating the two armies and not move into Prague. German forces, meanwhile, continued to engage the Czech partisans, and it was up to Meyer-Detring to reach Schörner and deliver news of the cease-fire in person. The 23rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron had the responsibility of delivering the messenger safely to his destination. In so doing, the squadron would penetrate farther east than any other American unit in the European theater.

Commanding the bored GIs of the reconnaissance squadron was Major Carl O’Dowd. Waiting with him for the German colonel was Lt. Col. Robert Pratt from V Corps intelligence. Disgusted with the delay, Pratt had just told O’Dowd that his men could stand down for the evening when a lone Douglas C-47 with British markings began to circle the field.

The plane landed and taxied to the group of American officers and men. First out of the door was a heavily armed Royal Air Force crewman, followed by a distinguished-looking German officer. After confirming his identity, Meyer-Detring urged that the party set out immediately for Prague.

Within a half-hour, the cavalrymen were on the road, headlights blazing and white flags flying. Meanwhile, the Czech resistance grapevine began working overtime to let everyone know the Americans were coming. As if on cue, each village that O’Dowd’s men reached was a blur of blue, white and red flags, flowers and joyous civilians. The recently liberated Czechs surmised that the column was headed to Prague, and at each stop partisans tried to climb aboard the armored cars so they could join their comrades in the capital.

As the Americans neared Prague, they began to encounter roadblocks as high as 10 feet, each made of granite street pavers. Guarded and suspicious, the de- fenders of these improvised palisades would keep a careful eye on O’Dowd’s men until it could be confirmed they were in fact Americans, at which point the Czechs would swarm the GIs and their vehicles. As touching as these outpourings of affection were, each one delayed the column. Eventually O’Dowd asked one of the Czechs to take him to the chief of police, who he hoped would be able to lead him quickly to the Germans so Meyer-Detring could deliver his message.

The column continued moving ahead, progressing through Prague’s medieval road labyrinth, coming upon one street barricade after another, each carefully deconstructed to allow the escort and Meyer-Detring to pass. Finally, O’Dowd and his interpreter, a Lieutenant Verber, were led on foot through a rabbit warren of alleys, courtyards and passageways to a basement five stories underground that was filled with Czech officers and wounded. It was there that they finally met up with the chief of police, who agreed to take them to the German lines.

With the chief’s help, the troopers found the first German barricade without difficulty. American and German flares illuminated the scene—two large horse-drawn vans blocking a street between tall buildings. O’Dowd directed the lights of his armored car toward the barrier and approached it with Meyer-Detring, Pratt, Verber, Lieutenant Gerard Dalton and Sergeant Meyer Roedels. With some hesitation and considerable uncertainty, O’Dowd took the white flag from his vehicle and stepped over the beams of the barrier, waving his “little bunch of cheese cloth,” and wishing he had a bedsheet and an anti-aircraft searchlight instead. The crack of a Mauser rifle broke the silence. O’Dowd hunkered down and motioned the others ahead.

More flares—first white, then green, then another white—lit the night, with only the sound of O’Dowd waving his flag breaking the silence. Somewhere on the German side, another nervous shot rang out. Meyer-Detring shouted out a command and identified himself and his mission. A lone voice instructed the officer to approach alone. The colonel set his cap straight on his head, adjusted his uniform and walked forward out of sight. O’Dowd and the others could only hear their escort’s footsteps against the granite street blocks, and then nothing.

It was an incredibly uneasy feeling for the veteran combat soldiers. O’Dowd later remembered how he and the others “just stood there knowing [they] were spot-lighted in a hostile land a long way from home.” After what seemed ages, Meyer-Detring reemerged from the darkness and told O’Dowd and Verber that they would proceed to German headquarters in two vehicles. The troopers pulled aside one of the vans blocking the street, and O’Dowd and the others followed Meyer-Detring, who was now in a German sedan.

Unease turned to genuine discomfort as the Americans crossed through the barrier. Hidden by darkness on the other side of the obstruction were two 88mm guns and four Tiger tanks. A German sergeant jumped on the sedan’s running board and pointed the way for about five or six blocks. At least four heavy tanks were parked in each intersection; O’Dowd could not help but think of the outmatched Czech partisans across town.

The cars finally stopped, and German soldiers immediately surrounded the small group, carefully inspecting the Americans. A German corporal lit O’Dowd’s cigarette, breaking the tension, and they all started to talk. They seemed glad to see the Americans, wanting to go home and anxious for the war to be over. A German lieutenant beckoned the Americans to follow Meyer-Detring inside a building. To the GIs’ surprise, beyond the entrance was a beautiful lounge, where Germans offered their guests cognac, wine and champagne. American music played on a large radio, putting O’Dowd and his cohorts at ease. The Germans treated the Americans with great respect but strict military formality. When Meyer-Detring finally entered, the Germans all snapped to attention. The colonel ordered his fellow officers to stand at ease and then poured himself a drink.

The relaxed mood did not last long, however. Meyer-Detring soon learned that Schörner was not in Prague but in a village named Velichovky, or Welchow, which was about 120 kilometers farther east.

Orders were orders, and it was not long before O’Dowd, Meyer-Detring and the armored column were back in their vehicles headed east. Farther behind enemy lines, the greetings at various roadblocks were not always as comfortable as they had been earlier. Stopped on the outskirts of Prague, a drunken English-speaking SS officer taunted the troopers—why hadn’t they brought the entire American army? Were they afraid of German tanks? The Americans simply moved on, the German’s jeers and the random tracers fired by his equally intoxicated men ringing in their ears.

The farther the GIs got from Allied lines, the more dangerous the trip became. At one point, two of the peeps had to leave the column when caltrops improvised from nails that had been strewn along the road by Czech partisans blew out their tires. Left behind by the others, the stranded party was captured by the Germans, and then liberated by the Russians and Czech partisans. Later, the men helped liberate the village of Ostromer.

Meanwhile, O’Dowd’s group continued on its way, arriving at Hradec Králove, or Könniggratz, in eastern Bohemia at about dawn. The Americans had traveled 110 kilometers beyond their original objective, but they didn’t need to worry. As soon as the convoy had been identified, throngs of Czechs poured into the street and ecstatically surrounded it. American flags that had been hidden for the six years of occupation began flying from windows around the town. As warm as the greeting was, however, the column had to continue to Velichovky. Fortunately for the Americans, announcing their arrival at each village was a young Czech “Paul Revere” moving ahead of the column on his bicycle.

The trip, though, was not without its moments of anxiety. A group of some 20 Czech and Russian partisans, operating in the area near Velichovky, fired upon the convoy with their captured German machine pistols and Panzerfausts. When the Russians heard O’Dowd’s explanation of the troop’s mission, they wanted to come along to annihilate the German high command. It took O’Dowd a great deal to convince his allies to stay put and to see to the defense of their local area.

Shortly afterward the column reached Velichovky, a regional spa town known for its treatment of orthopedic conditions. Schörner and his staff had taken over the main building, and Meyer-Detring went to a side building to confer with his colleagues. After washing up, the troopers were invited to breakfast—a true feast of fried eggs, salami, liverwurst, toast, coffee, real butter and cream. O’Dowd’s table companion was a Captain Krüger, who spoke sufficient English. Krüger inquired as to which unit O’Dowd belonged; when he replied, the German said he knew it well—the 23rd had chased his unit out of Pilsen only a day earlier.

Unfortunately for the guests, Schörner had already fled by plane to Bavaria, but Meyer-Detring conferred with the marshal’s staff and fulfilled his mission—to communicate the absolute necessity for the immediate and peaceful surrender of German forces in accordance with the terms of surrender signed by Admiral Dönitz.

Two hours after his arrival, Meyer-Detring emerged from his consultations. The troop was low on gasoline, though, and had to find a source for its return trip to Pilsen. The Germans said they had none to spare, and Meyer-Detring warned that he could not guarantee the reaction should the Americans attempt to take any—the Germans needed the gas to make it to American lines themselves to avoid capture by the Russians. Czech police officials scrounged up enough fuel, and the Americans made their way back to Pilsen on roads choked with German refugees fleeing the Red Army on every form of conveyance imaginable. While passing through the town of Cesk´y Brod, the ˇ Americans managed to save the lives of more than 50 Czech hostages the SS were about to execute.

For its efforts, the 23rd Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron received a letter of commendation from Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner, commander of V Corps. Individual officers and noncoms, including O’Dowd, received Bronze Star Medals for their courage and professionalism on a mission well accomplished.

Czech reenactors annually commemorate the American mission to Velichovky by restaging the convoy and retracing the path taken by the troopers. The town holds ceremonies every year remembering Schörner’s stay in the town and its liberation by the Americans. While this last chapter of World War II in Europe has escaped popular knowledge in the United States, the Czech people have not forgotten.


Omar Bartos and Ramona Murphy Bartos are students of World War II, particularly the American liberation of western Czechoslovakia. For further reading, see The Day the War Ended: May 8, 1945—Victory in Europe, by Martin Gilbert.

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here