May 22, 1945: Operation Paperclip begins.
On May 22, 1945, Major Robert B. Staver transmitted a telegram to the Pentagon stressing the need for the U.S. government to initiate an evacuation of select German scientists, at the time mostly men involved in the German rocket program. This took place approximately two weeks after Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, although the project and the basic idea of interviewing/interrogating German scientists was conceived during the war. The name Operation Overcast was designated in the summer of 1945 until it was replaced by the better-known name “Operation Paperclip”; the project formally began in August of 1945 with two objectives: to learn more about advances made by German scientists and researchers during the Nazi era, and to apply these advances and the minds of German scientists and researchers to achieve American goals. World War II begot significant advances in technology, as bloody and brutal wars are wont to do; on the German side, specifically, scientists created the first rocket-powered planes, the first modern assault rifle, an early cruise missile, and the world’s first ballistic missile. It was therefore in the country’s best interest to acquire and employ the minds behind these technologies, and to deny the Soviet Union these resources.
Under Operation Paperclip, over 1,500 scientists and technicians working in a variety of fields were recruited from Germany to the United States. It was administered by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, which also circumvented Harry Truman’s orders to disqualify any scientists with Nazi sympathies from the program by falsifying records and backgrounds. Wernher von Braun, who was instrumental in the development of the American space program, was also a self-proclaimed non-political member of the NSDAP during the war, and yet he was also complicit in the V-2 rocket program’s extensive use of slave labor, even admitting that he had personally picked out concentration camp prisoners to use as workers. Other prominent German scientists who found work in the United States under Operation Paperclip included Walter Dornberger, another V-2 scientist who in the postwar period worked on the development of guided missiles; Kurt Blome, who was saved from a war crimes conviction at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in exchange for his expertise on biological warfare; and dozens of other German rocket scientists.
Wernher von Braun was indisputably the most famous of them all; for both his work in Germany and in the United States, he was known as the “Father of Rocket Science”. America’s first ballistic missile, the PGM-11 Redstone, was based on his V-2 rocket, as were the rockets used in the the launching of Explorer 1 and the Freedom 7 spaceflight. In July of 1969, a Saturn V rocket designed under the direction of Wernher von Braun and a group of German scientists launched three American men into space on the Apollo 11 spaceflight, the climax of the Space Race.
Russian soldiers and a civilian attempt to move a bronze eagle that had previously been installed above a doorway of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, 1945.
May 2, 1945: Berlin falls to Soviet forces.
The next day, General Wilding, the commander of the German troops in Berlin, finally surrendered the entire city to the Soviet army. There was no radio or newspaper, so vans with loudspeakers drove through the streets ordering us to cease all resistance. Suddenly, the shooting and bombing stopped and the unreal silence meant that one ordeal was over for us and another was about to begin. Our nightmare had become a reality. The entire three hundred square miles of what was left of Berlin were now completely under control of the Red Army. The last days of savage house to house fighting and street battles had been a human slaughter, with no prisoners being taken on either side. These final days were hell. Our last remaining and exhausted troops, primarily children and old men, stumbled into imprisonment. We were a city in ruins; almost no house remained intact.
Eyewitness account of the end of the Battle of Berlin
April 27, 1945: Benito Mussolini is captured.
On this day in 1945, Italy’s former father of fascism, who had adopted the title Il Duce and a dictatorship over his country from the late 1920s until 1943, was captured by Italian communist partisans, along with his mistress Clara Petacci.
In mid-1943, Mussolini was ousted by the Grand Council of Fascism during the eventually successful Allied invasion of Sicily, but he remained in power through the intervention of his German allies, who rescued him and set up under his name a new puppet regime headquartered in Salò, in northern Italy. By this time, Mussolini, his health in a poor state and his characteristic confidence blighted by constant failure, was no longer the bombastic leader who had once marched on Rome, by his own admittance - in an early 1945 interview, he said most uncharacteristically:
I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce … I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.
Allied forces liberated Rome in July 1944, while partisan resistance fought Axis forces from within the country. Amidst this fighting and German retreat, Mussolini, his mistress, and officials of his puppet government made an escape attempt to Switzerland, and then to Spain, but were stopped by communist partisans and then executed the next day in a village in northern Italy. Their bodies were brought to Milan and dumped in the Piazzale Loreto, where civilians hung them upside down on meathooks - and stoned them, shot at them, and spat on them.
Other links: mutilated corpses of Mussolini and Petacci (graphic)
April 11, 1945: Buchenwald concentration camp is liberated.
Buchenwald was established in 1937 near Weimar, making it one of the earliest concentration camps constructed within German borders. During its years of operation, Buchenwald served primarily as a source of slave laborers – political prisoners, Poles , Jews, Romani, criminals, prisoners of war, etc. – who worked to support German factories and production, and who died in massive numbers from their working and living conditions, although Buchenwald and camps like it were technically not considered “extermination camps” (these camps, equipped with gas chambers and crematoriums, were mostly located in Poland). Buchenwald was also made notorious by the brutality of its guards and overseers, most famously Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, who allegedly collected the tattoooed skins of camp prisoners. Tens of thousands of prisoners died at Buchenwald and in its subcamps by the time of its liberation by a detachment of American troops, while some 28,000 were evacuated and forced on a death march just days before the troops arrived.
Margaret Bourke-White, a war correspondent who was present at Buchenwald around the time of its liberation, wrote in her 1946 memoir Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly on the German citizens from nearby Weimar who were made to walk through the camp and look upon the atrocities committed by their countrymen:
This whiteness had the fragile translucence of snow, and I wished that under the bright April sun which shone from a clean blue sky it would all simply melt away. I longed for it to disappear, because while it was there I was reminded that men actually had done this thing — men with arms and legs and eyes and hearts not so very unlike our own. And it made me ashamed to be a member of the human race.
The several hundred other spectators who filed through the Buchenwald courtyard on that sunny April afternoon were equally unwilling to admit association with the human beings who had perpetrated these horrors. But their reluctance had a certain tinge of self-interest; for these were the citizens of Weimar, eager to plead their ignorance of the outrages.
When US forces arrived at Buchenwald, the 21,000 prisoners who had been left behind had taken control of the camp after their SS guards fled, aware of the inevitable arrival of Allied forces.
LIFE Behind the Picture: The Liberation of Buchenwald, April 1945 (graphic images)
Tokyo after the firebombings, 1945.