Unknown History: The Americans Arrive in Berlin

We teamed up with the Unknown History podcast on Quick and Dirty Tips to bring you their latest series based on Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin. Read on for more about Episode 3, which discusses American colonel Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley and his troops storming in to take Berlin nine weeks after the Red Army captured the ruined city.

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. 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.

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.” 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.

To learn more about the history of World War II, visit Unknown History on Quick and Dirty Tips. Or, you can listen to the podcast below. 

Listen to Episode 3: