Wars can start with a bang but end with a whimper. Often an attack or an invasion will begin a war, but even one when one side surrenders, it can take days, weeks, or months for word of the capitulation to get out to everyone.
While the European theater of World War II officially ended on May 8, 1945, the word didn’t reach everyone right away.
Learn more about the last Germans to surrender on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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Communications have always been a problem in warfare. In ancient times, just sending commands from one side of a battlefield to another was extremely difficult. Flags and horns would often be used to send commands because there was no other way to send communications over that distance.
Even with the advent of radio in WWII, battlefields were spread over much larger distances, and communications could still be difficult.
With that, let me summarize the timeline of what happened at the end of WWII in Europe, in the spring of 1945 the Allies were closing in.
Hitler and his cronies were in his bunker in Berlin and the Russians began inching closer. Many of his top generals who saw the writing on the wall began surrendering individually, and Hitler accused them of being traitors as the walls started caving in.
On April 25, Mussolini is killed by a mob in Italy. On April 29, all the German forces in Italy surrendered.
Hitler kills himself on April 30.
After that, things began to fall apart quickly. Technically, the leadership of The Third Reich falls to Admiral Karl Dönitz, not that there was really anything to rule over.
On May 2, the German forces in Berlin surrender to the Soviets.
On May 5, Germans in Bavaria surrendered to American General Jacob Devers.
On May 6, Hermann Göring surrendered to General Carl Spaatz, head of American Air Forces in Europe.
On May 7, at SHAPE, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in Reims, France, Chief-of-Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, General Alfred Jodl, signed the document of unconditional surrender of all German Forces.
The same day, General Franz Böhme announced the surrender of all German forces in Norway with the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European Time on May 8, 1945.”
On May 8, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel surrendered in person to Soviet Field Marshal Zhukov in Berlin. Pretty much all German forces ceased activity, the war in Europe was over, and VE Day was celebrated around the world, and random people started kissing each other in Times Square.
Except, not everyone in the German army was able to surrender. Not the men who were part of Operation Haudegen.
Now you are probably wondering, what was Operation Haudegen?
I’ve done several episodes on other “operations” from World War II, and I’ll probably do more in the future. Most of these “operations” were military operations with the intent of invasion or espionage.
Haudegen roughly translates into “old veteran soldier” in German. With a name like that, you’d think that this was probably some sort of commando operation.
Actually, it was an operation to set up weather stations. The men involved in the operation were mostly scientists.
As Germany expanded their empire via conquests, they got some tiny bits that didn’t really stand out on a map of Europe. In particular, when they conquered Norway, they also took control of the far northern islands of the Svalbard archipelago.
Operation Haudegen was a project by the German Navy to set up weather stations in the far north to provide information for the German military.
In late 1943, 60 men began training for a secret project. They didn’t know what their mission was, but they knew it was probably something in the Arctic. They underwent training in skiing, rappelling, cold weather survival. Non-scientific personnel was taught how to work the weather and scientific equipment. They were even taught how to pull teeth and perform other emergency medical procedures while they were in isolation.
In December 1944, 10 men border a U-Boat in the city of Tromso, Norway, and traveled to the remote Svalbard archipelago.
When they arrived, they had to quickly unload everything from the U-Boat and set up operations in the middle of the winter. They had enough food supplies to last them for two years.
The head of the project was Dr. Wilhelm Dege.
He and his team began radioing weather reports back to the German High Command five times a day, every day.
As 1945 continued, the team in Svalbard heard reports on the radio, and the reports weren’t good.
By April, they were instructed to prepare a landing strip so an airplane could come and pick them up. They created what they could for a landing strip, but no airplanes ever came.
On May 8th they heard the news of the surrender of Germany from their commander in Tromso. They were told to destroy all secret documents and wait for instructions.
They did as they were told, but no instructions ever came. There was complete radio silence.
The problem was, a team of meteorologists above the Arctic Circle wasn’t what anyone was thinking about back in Germany. They had been totally forgotten.
The men on Svalbard were worried. They didn’t know what was happening in Europe. They didn’t know what happened to their families.
Eventually, Dr. Dege made the decision to try and contact the Allies. He figured that a bunch of weathermen on an island wouldn’t be considered war criminals, so that was their best chance of getting off the island.
However, they never got a reply.
It wasn’t until late August that the men on the island finally got in contact with someone in Norway. The Norwegians promised that they would send a boat to come and pick them up.
Finally, on September 4, a seal-hunting ship, sent by the Norwegian navy arrived to rescue the stranded meteorology team.
Dr. Dege insisted on formally surrendering to the Norwegian Captian Albertsen. He handed his pistol over to the captain saying, “I don’t know how to handle this either.”
The Norwegian captain responded by saying, “Can I keep this then?”
And that was the very awkward way in which the last Germans surrendered in WWII.
The men were taken back to Tromso where they were kept as prisoners of war for three months.
Dr. Dege went on to become a geography teacher and passed away in 1976. The men on the island tried to have annual reunions, but they were split between East and West Germany, and the Cold War made it impossible.
Their base is preserved today as a Norwegian historical site.
Oddly enough, while these were the last German soldiers to surrender, it wasn’t the technical end to WWII.
VE Day celebrates the surrender of Germany.
While the Allies occupied Germany for several years, the deceleration of war was still in effect.
A formal cessation of hostilities wasn’t declared between the US and Germany until December 10, 1946.
The final, final legal removal of a state of war that existed from World War II didn’t occur until 1955 when the Soviet Union ended their state of war with Germany, which by that time had been split into two countries.
The last survivor of Operation Haudegen, and hence the last German to surrender in WWII, passed away in 2015 at the age of 92.
Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Mackala.
The associate producer is Thor Thomsen.
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