The first contact between American and Soviet patrols occurred near Strehla (Torgau, Leipzig area) after First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue of US 69th infantry division crossed the River Elbe in a boat with three men of an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. On the east bank they met forward elements of a Soviet Guards rifle regiment of the First Ukrainian Front, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gardiev. The same day, another patrol under Second Lieutenant William Robertson with Frank Huff, James McDonnell and Paul Staub met a Soviet patrol commanded by Lieutenant Alexander Silvashko on the destroyed Elbe bridge of Torgau. The picture of smiling officers («Handshake of Torgau») went around the whole world.
The meeting was planned. On April 21, Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force (SCAEF) suggested in a conversation with Soviet Chief of Staff General A. I. Antonov that the allied soldiers meet at the Elbe and Mulde rivers. Having received an approval from Stalin, Antonov agreed and notified the commanders of the 1st and 2d Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian fronts (Marshalls Georgy Zhukov, Konstantin Rokossovsky, Ivan Konev). The allies worked out a system of identification friend of foe. U.S. 69th Infantry Division Commander Major General Emil F. Reinhardt and his Russian counterpart, Major-General Vladimir V. Rusakov, Commanding Officer of the 58th Guards Division, held a meeting. General Aleksei Semenovich Zhadov, the Commanding Officer of the 5th Guards Mechanized Division, organized a reception in honor of the 1st US Army Commander General Courtney Hicks Hodges.
There was no intrigue or political games. The soldiers did justice to each other and showed mutual respect. General Omar Bradley, the commander of the 12th Army Group, said at the reception organized by Marshall Konev, «Our people were watching in admiration the achievements of glorious Red Army. My soldiers tried to follow the example of the 1st Ukrainian Front».
In April-May 1945 the Red Army and its allies also met in other areas of Germany. There was nothing to cause any divisions between the allies. The German leadership entertained a dim hope for a conflict sparked between allies as a result of failure to divide occupied territory. The hopes were dashed.
Hitler had his own political considerations. He wanted to bolster the Berlin defenses at the expense of Western Front. Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, head of German General Staff, talked over conjecturally the possibility of letting Americans do what they want while concentrating efforts on the defenses of Berlin.
The Soviet command knew that Germans cherished hopes for divisions in the allied ranks. The many attempts undertaken by Germans to achieve an arrangement with the British and Americans were positively responded to. Marshall Zhukov issued a directive to the troops. It said «Meeting British and American soldiers the following rules must be observed:
1. The senior officer must immediately get in touch with his counterpart to delineate the sectors according to the instructions received from high command. It’s forbidden to share any information on operational planning.
2. There must be no initiatives on organizing meetings of friendship. The behavior must be amiable. Accept invitations and send your representatives to the meetings. Any invitations must be immediately reported. The permissions must be given at least at the level of Corps commander. Officers and generals assigned for taking part in the meetings must be thoroughly instructed on the rules of conduct in accordance with this directive. Special attention must be given to guarding military secrets.
3. Discipline and order must be observed on all occasions».
After April 25, the US and UK allies concentrated on wiping out the remaining centers of resistance and taking prisoners. It was different for the Soviet forces. The 1st Belorussian and the 1st Ukrainian fronts had to defeat powerful concentrations of enemy’s forces encircled near and to the south of Berlin. The 9th Army and other formations deployed to the south of German capital were 200 thousand strong with over 300 tanks and self-propelled guns and over 2 thousand artillery pieces and mortars. The Soviet forces had the same number of tanks, three times more personnel, and four times more artillery pieces. But they had to overcome fierce resistance. The battle ahead was no bed of roses.
The 1st Ukrainian Front had to prevent the 9th Army from advance to the west. At the same time it took part in the battle of Berlin. It was assigned the mission of liberating Berlin together with the 1st Belorussian Front under the command of Marshall Zhukov which broke German defenses at the Seelow Heights to strike Berlin from the west and simultaneously encircle the enemy from the north having reached the Elbe. At midnight, on April 25, just a few hours before the Elbe meeting the 47th Army met the 4th Tank Guards Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front. The final countdown started.
The Elbe meeting of comrades-in-arms fighting the same enemy was a historic event. But differences remained. They became more visible as the end of war was approaching. The spirit of Elbe was to larger extent the result of soldiers’ diplomacy than efforts of politicians.
Thousands of Russian soldiers were shedding blood near Berlin to bring closer the end of war and save lives of US and British servicemen. At the very same time Winston Churchill gave an order to work out a plan of war against the Soviet Union (Operation Unthinkable) to impose on Moscow the will of the United States and the British Empire! The Red Army’s ally held a stone inside his shirt.