Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Story of Susan Hibbert: Death of the Last British Witness to the Signature of the German WW2 Surrender

by Kathryn Hadley

Susan Hibbert is believed to have been the last British witness to the signing of the German surrender in Reims, in May 1945. She died at the beginning of last month, on February 2nd, aged 84. An obituary was notably published on the website of The Telegraph. The surrender was signed in the temporary headquarters of General Dwight Eisenhower, commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces, in a room in what was Reims’ technical college. At the time, Hibbert was a British staff sergeant in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and working at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), which had been moved to Reims in February 1945. Hibbert was responsible for typing the English version of the Act of Military Surrender. The document itself was allegedly quite short although it included numerous attachments. She was thereafter also given the task to type the signal informing the War Office in London that the war had come to an end - “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945”.

Hibbert described how:

‘For five days we were typing documents. We started early in the morning and
finished late at night. I typed the English documents, three other secretaries
typed the French, Russian and German versions’.

Drafts were sent to Washington, London and Moscow. On May 6th, General Alfred Jodl, chief of staff at the Wehrmacht, arrived in Reims as the representative of Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, who had taken over the German leadership following Hitler’s suicide at the end of April. Hibbert began typing the Act of Military Surrender that morning and finished some 20 hours later in the early hours of May 7th. Once the typing of the documents was complete they were taken to the 'War Room' to be signed. When Jodl was called into the room at 2.30am, ten allied officers were already seated at the table. Eisenhower remained in another room, but Hibbert and her colleagues were invited into the room to witness the signature of the documents. The document was signed at 2.41am.

On a trip to Reims last September, I was able to visit Eisenhower’s supreme headquarters and was granted access to the 'War Room' itself or Salle de la Signature, which has remained intact and is now listed as a Historic Monument. The room remains exactly how the allied officers, Jodl, Commander Wilhelm Oxenius, Admiral von Friedeburg and the translators left it following the signature of the Act of Surrender. The chair of the Soviet translator, Chenaiev, has been left in the same position, slightly behind those of the two Soviet officers, and the walls still show the strategic military maps which helped to win the final battles of the war, as well as the weather forecasts for May 6th, 1945! An incredible and breathtaking step back to this historic moment!

Hibbet described the signature itself:

‘The actual signing was carried out quietly and solemnly. There was no
She also recalled how, after the interpreter had read the surrender terms, Jodl addressed Eisenhower’s chief of staff Lt Gen Walter Bedell Smith in German:

‘With this signature the German people and the German armed forces are for
better or worse delivered into the victor’s hands. In this war, which has lasted
more than five years, they have both achieved and suffered more than perhaps any
other people in the world. In this hour I can only express the hope that the
victor will treat them with generosity.’
According to Hibbert, the allied officers did not answer and there were no salutes. The Germans simply rose and left the room.

The surrender took effect on May 8th, 1945, at 11.01pm, Central European Time. Hibbert was notably mentioned in dispatches for her work on Eisenhower’s staff and, 60 years later, she was awarded the medal of honour of the city of Reims at a reception hosted by the French prime minister of the time, Jean-Pierre Raffarin. There remains, today, only one other surviving witness to the surrender, Albert Meserlin, who is now 88 and was Eisenhower’s American staff photographer.

Susan Hibbert was born in London on May 21st, 1924. Following her completion of a course at a secretarial college, Hibbert was sent for a job interview at the Foreign Office because she spoke good French, where she was interviewed by French major. She was, however, turned down on the grounds that she was too young. She later discovered that she was being interviewed about becoming a possible Resistance worker. Hibbert instead joined the ATS and was employed in various posts in England, notably at Eisenhower’s headquarters in London and Portsmouth, before moving to France. Following various positions in Normandy, Paris and Versailles, she eventually moved to Reims. In the aftermath of the war she was employed at the Control Commission for Germany in Frankfurt. She met her husband Basil Hibbert, a former RAF pilot, in Berlin, where she moved in 1947. The couple lived in Bonn for some time before returning to London. When her father entered parliament as a Conservative MP for Chertsey in 1950, she was employed as his secretary. Her father was later attorney general in the Churchill administration between 1951 and 1954, as Sir Lionel Heald.

What were the terms of the German surrender? What were the consequences of the Allied policy of unconditional surrender? For more information, read our articles The Most Ruinous Allied Policy of the Second World War and Germany's Unconditional Surrender

It is possible to visit the site of Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters in Reims and the Signing Room, which have been preserved as a museum.
Musée de la Reddition (German Surrender 1945)
12, rue Franklin Roosevelt
51100 Reims
Telephone: 00 33 3 26 47 84 19
Pictures: The 'War Room' and Jodl's chair. Note the chair of the Soviet translator, slightly behind those of the officers who sat around the table!


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CarolPark said...

I'm sorry to report that the last remaining witness to the signing of the document officially ending WWII has died. Albert B. Meserlin passed away in New Jersey, USA on March 29th, 2009.

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