Surrender in Italy 1945

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General von Senger surrenders to General Clark at Fifteenth Army Headquarters. Note General von Senger, an anti-Nazi, gives the correct German Army salute

In Italy, the German High Command was still divided over whether to accept the surrender terms agreed to at Caserta. Some generals had already passed the word to their troops, ordering them to cease fire at two o’clock that afternoon. Others were refusing to comply, arguing that there could be no surrender while the war continued against the Russians. Hitler’s death had released them from their binding oaths, but they still wouldn’t budge without a direct order from Field Marshal Kesselring, who was nominally in command of the Wehrmacht forces in Italy. But Kesselring was in the field somewhere and couldn’t be contacted by phone.

The situation was so tense that the generals at Bolzano had begun to arrest each other as they disagreed vehemently about what to do. General Karl Wolff of the SS had been in secret negotiations with the Allies for weeks and was determined to honor the agreement signed at Caserta. Sitting in Wehrmacht headquarters at about half past one that morning, he feared the worst as orders came for surrender-minded officers to be arrested at once. Sneaking out of the tunnel complex with a couple of other generals, Wolff hurried back to SS headquarters in the Duke of Pistoia’s palace. There he learned that the Wehrmacht was about to surround the building with a tank unit.

Wolff had tanks of his own, which he quickly deployed around his command post. SS troops took up defensive positions while Wolff sent an urgent message to Field Marshal Alexander, pleading for help from Allied paratroopers. The SS were crouching over their weapons, waiting for the Wehrmacht to attack, when the telephone rang. It was Field Marshal Kesselring for Wolff.

Kesselring had just learned that the proposed surrender was going ahead without his authorization. He rang at 2:00 a.m. and, over a bad line, blasted Wolff for the next two hours, calling him every name under the sun as he lambasted him for his treachery in talking secretly to the Allies. Other officers joined in, discussing the situation over the phone and swearing at one another as they argued about what to do next. Wolff stood his ground, pointing out that surrender was not only inevitable but the best option still open to them, since there was nothing to be gained from fighting on. Unusually for an SS officer, he saw no point in fighting to the last man. He told Kesselring so quite bluntly:

It is not only a military capitulation in order to avoid further destruction and shedding of blood. A ceasefire now will give the Anglo-Americans the potential to stop the Russian advance into the west, to counter the threat of Tito’s forces to the port of Trieste and of a Communist uprising that will try to establish a Soviet republic in northern Italy … Since the Führer’s death has released you from your oath of loyalty, I beg you as the most senior commander of the entire Alpine region devoutly and with the greatest sense of obedience to give your retroactive sanction to our independent action which our consciences impelled us to take.

Kesselring wasn’t convinced, but could see Wolff’s point. Ringing off at 4:00 a.m., he promised to think it over and get back to him. Half an hour later another officer rang to say that Kesselring had reluctantly agreed to the surrender and was withdrawing the directive for various officers to be arrested.

Headquarters at Bolzano wasted no more time. The order to surrender went immediately to all the remaining units that hadn’t already received it. The radio messages were sent en clair, since the Germans no longer had any need to disguise their intentions from the Allies. At two o’clock that afternoon, as agreed, German forces in Italy ceased all hostilities against the Allies. In the Italian theater at least, the war was over.


Wolff was quite right about Trieste. The Allies were already on their way, aiming to take control of the port from the German garrison before Tito’s Communists could seize it for Yugoslavia.

The charge was led by the New Zealanders. They left Monfalcone at eight thirty that morning, intending to complete the remaining seventeen miles to Trieste without delay. But the cease-fire did not come into effect until two that afternoon and, anyway, did not apply east of the Isonzo River, where the Germans retained the right to defend themselves against partisans. There were still isolated pockets of resistance along the road as individual German units continued to put up a fight.

It wasn’t until two thirty in the afternoon that the Kiwis reached Miramare, a peninsula with a white castle, across the bay from Trieste. The Germans, defending it with 88mm guns and machine-gun nests in pillboxes, were quickly brushed aside. The New Zealanders’ Sherman tanks pressed on to Trieste and were in the middle of the city by 3:00 p.m., exchanging greetings with Tito’s men, who had arrived earlier from the other direction.

But the fighting was far from over. Various strongpoints in the city were still in German hands, fiercely defended by troops determined to hang on until the New Zealanders appeared, so that they could surrender to them rather than the Yugoslavs. The ancient castle was under siege as the New Zealanders arrived, the German garrison taking pot shots at the partisans and regular Yugoslav troops surrounding them. The Germans fired at the New Zealanders, too, until they realized who they were. Then, to the irritation of the Yugoslavs, they opened the gate and allowed a company of Kiwis in to take their surrender.

The Yugoslavs were quick to retaliate. They continued to snipe from the rooftops, shooting at the New Zealanders in the castle as well as the Germans. The German commander offered to help with the defense if his men could have their weapons back, but was rebuffed. As night fell, the New Zealand defenders and their German prisoners pooled their rations and sat down to a meal together, sharing their food inside the castle while sentries kept a careful watch on the Yugoslavs outside.

At the Law Courts, the SS commander flatly refused to surrender to anyone. A New Zealand officer went forward under a white flag, but the SS man appeared too drunk for a rational discussion. The New Zealanders therefore joined forces with the Yugoslavs, using their tanks to blast holes in the walls of the building while Yugoslav infantry poured through. The fighting continued long into the night. It wasn’t until next morning that the garrison finally agreed to lay down their weapons.

Elsewhere, only the Villa Opicina and a stretch of land along the northern edge of Trieste remained under German control by nightfall on May 2. The rest of the city was occupied by a variety of different forces: New Zealanders, Tito Communists, Chetnik royalists, Slovenian home guards, Serb collaborators, and the Italian nationals—some Fascist, some not—who formed the majority of the city’s population. Many were armed to the teeth and ready to defend themselves if necessary. The New Zealanders had been cheered by the Italians as they raced toward Trieste, but there were cheers for Tito, too, signs along the road claiming the land for Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs themselves were bitterly divided between royalists and Communists, united only in their desire to inflict atrocities on the Germans. The New Zealanders established their headquarters that night in Trieste’s grandest hotel, but it was still anybody’s city as sporadic shooting continued and Tito’s Yugoslavs began the sinister business of rounding up and disarming anyone who didn’t share their particular view of Trieste’s future.


At Caserta, the staff at Allied headquarters spent the first part of the day wondering if the surrender was actually going to happen or not. Field Marshal Alexander had set a deadline the previous night for a response from Wehrmacht HQ, allowing both sides time to give the necessary orders for a cease-fire. But with the Germans bickering among themselves and Field Marshal Kesselring impossible to locate, the night had come and gone without any answer from Bolzano. It wasn’t until later that morning, when the Allies learned that General von Vietinghoff had been restored to his command, that surrender began to seem possible. It was confirmed at noon when Wolff sent Alexander a message from Kesselring promising that the surrender would go ahead at two that afternoon, as agreed.

Nevertheless, Alexander waited until late afternoon before going public with the news. The Germans had asked for it to remain secret for another twenty-four hours, but the orders for a ceasefire had already gone out en clair. Alexander was adamant that the timetable agreed at Caserta must be adhered to. He was under pressure from Harold Macmillan, his political adviser, to confirm the surrender in time for Winston Churchill to announce it in Parliament that day. He didn’t want to do so unless he was quite sure the surrender was actually happening.

It wasn’t until 5:00 p.m., therefore, with good reports from the front and the surrender going ahead as planned, that he and Macmillan felt able to make the announcement. They released the news at six thirty. An hour later Churchill stood up to give the details to a cheering House of Commons. The war in Italy really was over.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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