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The Americans Arrive in Berlin

Nine weeks after the Red Army captured Berlin, American colonel Frank "Howlin' Mad" Howley and his troops stormed in to take the ruined city.

By
Giles Milton
7-minute read
Episode #94

Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley was stationed one hundred miles to the southwest of Berlin when he was given the green light to head to the German capital. His mission was for reconnaissance purposes: to reconnoiter the districts of the city assigned to the Americans and prepare for the arrival of the First Airborne and Second Armored Division troops.

It was June 17, and Howley was firing on all cylinders. Seven weeks after the Russians took control of the city, the Americans were finally moving into their sector.

Howley knew he would be writing himself into the history books. He also knew that this had been the dream of every soldier since the D-day landings.

Howley knew he would be writing himself into the history books. He also knew that this had been the dream of every soldier since the D-day landings. To mark the occasion, he vowed to arrive in such style that his Russian allies would remember it for the rest of their lives. “It was my intention,” he said, “to make this advance party a spectacular thing.”

His team had expanded greatly since their time in Barbizon. It now comprised some five hundred people, including intelligence officers, logistics experts, and secretarial support. He had also acquired 120 vehicles, mostly jeeps, half-tracks, and ten-ton trucks.

Howley decided to abandon all the vehicles requisitioned from the Germans since most were covered in dents. “I didn’t want the Russians to see a miscellaneous collection of vehicles representing the American army.” His was to be an all-American convoy, and he ordered each jeep and truck to be scrubbed, polished, and touched up with paint. He also arranged to have several hundred American flags printed and placed in the windshield of each vehicle, along with canvas flags on the right front fender of each lead car.

Every convoy needs to be led from the front, and Howley’s was no exception. Riding in the vanguard of this proud unit was the colonel himself, driving his magnificent Horch Roadster.

The convoy was equipped with a supply lorry laden with ten thousand bottles of wine and whiskey to help them celebrate their historic arrival. Every convoy needs to be led from the front, and Howley’s was no exception. Riding in the vanguard of this proud unit was the colonel himself, driving his magnificent Horch Roadster. He was most impressed when the other vehicles swung into line behind him. “Quite a parade,” he mused, “with a company of the Second (‘Hell on Wheels’) Armored Division bringing up the rear and formal-looking machine guns bristling from the half-tracks.”

This great armored column fired its engines on the morning of June 17 and began roaring eastward toward the autobahn. “We moved along in gala spirit,” wrote a gleeful Howley. As the vehicles advanced, the half-tracks flung a swirl of dust into the late spring air, making the column visible for miles around.

The excitement mounted as they neared Dessau, where a small pontoon spanned the River Mulde. This marked the frontier between the American and Soviet zones of occupied Germany. Once they crossed the bridge, they would be entering territory controlled by the Red Army.

As Howley steered his convertible Horch onto the rickety bridge, he noticed a giant arch on the far bank “with huge pictures of Lenin and Stalin gazing down upon us.”

As Howley steered his convertible Horch onto the rickety bridge, he noticed a giant arch on the far bank “with huge pictures of Lenin and Stalin gazing down upon us.” These were flanked by a banner with a Cyrillic inscription that read, “Welcome to the Fatherland.” He felt as if they were entering a land “that had been annexed by the USSR.”

A Russian officer was awaiting them on the far side of the bridge. He guided him toward a much larger bridge that traversed the River Elbe. There, a phalanx of Russian guards snapped their salutes.

Howley’s crew had been expecting a trouble-free trip to Berlin, but they now came across an unexpected snag. “Suddenly we were confronted by a roadblock, a red and white pole leaning across the road.” Howley’s instinct was to push it aside with one of the half-tracks, but he chose discretion over valor. “We didn’t want to break the pole or force the guard.” This was just as well, for he was directed to the Russian border control, where a Soviet officer named Colonel Gorelik was awaiting him with a drink.

Howley was keen to press onward to Berlin, but he thought it polite to accept the colonel’s offer. “German champagne was served and toasts drunk. We thanked our host and prepared to depart.” But his departure was blocked by the Soviet colonel. “You cannot go just yet. There is a formality.”

When they refused to allow Howley and his men into their own sector, he had no option but to return to his previous headquarters, a humiliating retreat.

Howley and his men were held up for many hours, to their great annoyance, and when they were finally escorted into Berlin, it was made abundantly clear that they were not welcome. Howley fumed and argued with the Soviets, but when they refused to allow him and his men into their own sector, he had no option but to return to his previous headquarters, a humiliating retreat. 

It was to be another two weeks before Howley once again set off for Berlin. This time he was confident of success, for it was as if the entire American Army was on the move. The autobahn that linked Halle with the German capital was “the highway to Bedlam . . . jam-packed with tanks, trucks and other vehicles, Military Government people and troops, all hurrying toward the previously forbidden city.”

When a lone Red Army officer tried to halt Howley’s vanguard advance, he was given a swift lesson in American authority.

When a lone Red Army officer tried to halt Howley’s vanguard advance, he was given a swift lesson in American authority. One of Howley’s men jumped from his car “and personally deposited the struggling Russian in the ditch to allow our column to pass.” This time there were no hitches. Howley’s detachment finally pulled into Berlin in the late afternoon, by which time a summer storm was pelting huge raindrops from the thunderous sky.

There was mayhem as thousands of troops poured into the ruined city. Howley’s A1A1 unit was better prepared than most, carrying field equipment and tents. The colonel directed his men to the forested Grunewald district and ordered them to pitch camp. “Under the dripping trees, I pulled up my vehicles in a protective circle, as in the old covered-wagon days on the prairie, and posted guards. Not a Russian, not a German, could have interfered with us.”

He was still accompanied by his chic Parisian interpreter, Helen-Antoinette Woods, who had changed out of her trousers and into a skirt because she was fed up with being sexually harassed.

Apartment buildings were guttered by fire and explosives. It looked like a cemetery of giants.

One of Howley’s intelligence officers, William Heimlich, was sent on a recce of the rain-washed city and was depressed by what he found. “Apartment buildings were guttered by fire and explosives . . .” he said. “[It] looked like a cemetery of giants.” The few people out on the streets were pale and malnourished. “Shocked into utter silence. They moved about the city like zombies. They were starving, that was clear.”

Those who had known Berlin before the war were left reeling by the scale of the destruction. The American correspondent Curt Riess had spent his youth in Berlin; now he found his old stomping ground had been wiped from the map.

“Gone was the school I had attended, the house where my parents had lived, the house where my grandmother had spent her last years. It seemed to me that a great part of my life was completely and utterly gone.”

Frank Howley set to work immediately, recruiting twelve hundred German laborers to fix up billets. No longer would his men have to camp out in the Grunewald; Berliners were turfed out of their homes with a moment’s notice. When still in Barbizon, Howley had told his men that possession was ten-tenths of the law. Following this maxim to the letter, he helped himself to a rambling Wilhelmine villa in leafy Dahlem. It was a house fit for a regent, a solid cake of a building with a grand portico and four gigantic urns decorating the stone-lined pediment.

“Gone was the school I had attended, the house where my parents had lived, the house where my grandmother had spent her last years. It seemed to me that a great part of my life was completely and utterly gone.”

Howley sent his senior officers on a fact-finding tour of the six American districts they were to command. When they reported back to him later that afternoon, they spilled a sorry tale of looting and theft, with the Soviets engaged in grand-scale industrial pillage. “They had dismantled the refrigeration plant at the abattoir, torn stoves and pipes out of restaurant kitchens, stripped machinery from mills and factories, and were completing the theft of the American Singer Sewing Machine plant when we arrived.”

When the Soviets refused to allow Howley’s men into the districts the Americans were to run, the colonel took matters into his own hands. “We move in at daybreak and set up Military Government,” he told his commanders. “Don’t get into a fight, but protect yourselves if you have to.” It was a high-risk strategy, for it was possible the Russians would resist the American action. His commanders swept into their appointed districts at dawn the following morning, securing key buildings, seizing mayoral offices, and raising the Stars and Stripes. They also posted two ordinances: the first declared the establishment of the American Military Government, the second announced the penalties for crimes committed against Americans.

Within hours, Howley received news of their success. “By the time the Russians woke up . . . the whole thing was an accomplished fact.”

Nine weeks after the Red Army had captured Berlin, a third of the city was finally in American hands.

Image under Public Domain

About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.