One of the principal rivers of Germany; length 1,166 km/725 mi. It rises on the southern slopes of the Riesengebirge, Czech Republic, and flows northwest across the German plain to the North Sea. One of the chief waterways of Europe, it is navigable for ocean-going vessels as far as Hamburg (101 km/62 mi from the mouth), and for smaller boats as far as its junction with the Vltava (845 km/525 mi). The river basin is approximately 145,039 sq km/56,000 sq mi.
Course and tributaries The river rises at an altitude of 402 m/1,320 ft on the southern slopes of the Riesengebirge (Czech Republic). At Melnik it is joined by the Vltava (Moldau). Soon after cutting a gorge through the basaltic Erzgebirge , it crosses the frontier into Germany near Decin, flows past Dresden and Meissen, and begins its long course over the North German Plain, passing through the cities of Torgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg, and Hamburg. In Hamburg, the river divides into two arms before forming a 97-km/60-mi-long estuary. Its chief tributaries are the Vltava and Ohre (in the Czech Republic) and the Mulde, Saale, Havel, and Elde in Germany. For about 100 km/62 mi it formed the boundary between the former East and West Germany. It finally reaches the North Sea at Cuxhaven. A canal system connects the Elbe with Berlin and the Oder River (to the east), with the Ruhr region and the Wesser and Rhine rivers (to the west), and the Baltic Sea (to the north).
History Known as the Albis to the Romans, the river marked the farthest Roman advance into Germany (9 BC), and was later the eastern limit of Charlemagne's conquests. After 1871 and German unification, great improvements, including harbours, docks, and canals, were made in the river's navigation, although flooding remained a problem. After World War I the recognition of Czechoslovakia as a separate nation gave new political importance to the Elbe, which was declared by the Treaty of Versailles to be an international river below the confluence of the Vltava. Germany repudiated its internationalization after the Munich Pact (1938). After World War II, the Elbe lost much of its traffic due to the establishment of a separate port for the German Democratic Republic at Rostock, and the diversion of traffic away from Hamburg. Trade with
Czechoslovakia began to revive in the 1960s but fell away after the Soviet invasion of 1968. In the 1970s the Elbe Lateral Canal was built connecting Hamburg to the Mittelland Canal via Lüneburg.
World War II In the operations on the Western Front in 1945 General Omar Nelson Bradley, the US general commanding the Central Group of Armies, was directed by General Eisenhower in April to capture a bridgehead over the Elbe and to be prepared for operations farther east. The US Ninth Army reached the Elbe, south of Magdeburg, on 11 April and crossed the river the next day. A second bridgehead south of Wittenberg was achieved by the 5th Armoured Division of 13th Corps on 13 April. On 14 April the 3rd Armoured Division of 7th Corps reached Dessau, immediately south of the confluence of the Mulde and Elbe. On the 25 April US patrols of the 69th Division, which had probed eastward from the Mulde, met elements of the Soviet 58th Guards Division in the Torgau area on the river. The Eastern and Western fronts joined on the river and Germany was cut in two.