By April of 1945, the War in Europe was already certainly decided. Numerous international conferences, most recently the Yalta Conference of February 1945, had confidently established a power sharing arrangement among the Allied Nations for how the defeated Germany would be divided and administered.
All that remained was to make the unconditional defeat a reality, through the total occupation of Germany, by British and American forces from the West, and under Russian occupation from the East.
The place Eastern and Western Forces would finally been would be the village of Torgau, on the Elbe River.
Already far east of the planned border between Western and Soviet occupation zones, General Dwight Eisenhower picked the point on the Elbe River for its visibility, isolation and convenience. The Soviet Command had long demanded to have the right to occupy Berlin, and with a separate power-sharing agreement set up for the capital city, Eisenhower was quite happy to have the Soviets take on the last bastion of Germany’s most fanatical defenders.
Instead, the Army had orders to remain on the West side of the Elbe, be on the watch for Russian arrivals, and to be as friendly as possible when they arrived.
Friend or Foe?
During the Yalta Conference, a specific signal was agreed upon. At the approach of each other’s forces, American troops were supposed to fire a special green-colored signal cartridge from their rifles. The Soviets, on the other hand, were supposed to fire a red-colored signal.
But this fact had never been relayed down to the American scouts patrolling around Torgau. A solider with 273rd Regiment of the 69th Infantry, Lt. Bill Robertson spotted who he believed were the Russians. Soviet Lt. Alexander Sylvashko led that group, who has also spotted the Americans.
Per instructions, Sylvashko fired the red signal shot. But Robertson unfortunately had no similar ammunition prepared on his side. Thinking quickly, Robertson and the rest of his patrol made a crude homemade flag with a patch of blue and the familiar red and white stripes.
Sylvashko was initially incredibly suspicious of the homemade flag. But after sending other Russians out to get a closer look and seeing them flash the “V” hand signal for victory, he finally came out to greet the Americans formally.
The bridge over the Elbe River had been severely bombed during the War. Yet across its unstable and crumbling span, American and Russian now came together and shook hands as comrades-in-arms.
A Day of Friendship
The following day, a massive celebration occurred on the river banks, in which commanders and dozens of soldiers from each side met and exchanged gifts. Buttons, stars and patches from each other’s uniforms were all common gifts.
Sylvashko and Robertson came together for one more formal photograph to commemorate the meeting.
The Rise of the Iron Curtain
By May 2nd, Hitler was dead and Berlin was in Soviet hands.
The official German Surrender ending hostilities came into effect on May 7th, 1945. Americans soon followed the agreement set forth at Yalta and retreated their forces behind what would become known as the “Inner German Border”.
This Border would grow and strengthen in the coming Cold War to become the foundation of a feared Iron Curtain between competing spheres of global influence.
But in April, for just a moment, East and West were able to meet, put aside their differences, and celebrate the end to conflict, if just for a little while.
Plaques dedicated to the event exist in Moscow, Washington D.C. and Torgau, Germany. Celebrations around each plaque are held every April 25th.
This includes an official plaque at Arlington National Cemetery which bears the simple passage:
“In Recognition of the Cooperation by American, Soviet, and Allied Armed Forces During World War II. This Marker Symbolizes the Link Up of Soviet And American Elements at the Elbe River 25 April 1945.”