In April 1945, after almost four years of bitter conflict and horrifying loss of life, the forces of the Soviet Union finally reached the ‘Gates of Berlin’ – with over six million men and women in uniform bearing down on central Europe and threatening a final confrontation between the Weltanschauung of National Socialism and Stalinist Soviet Communism.
The stage was set for a ferocious battle in the Nazi capital – the largest confrontation between Axis and Allied forces that would take place on German soil. One where vengeance would be weighed in blood.
However, it would be a mistake to think that the Battle of Berlin was decided entirely within the city itself. Despite the ferocity of this engagement, it would be concluded in only 17 days – without the extensive use of siege tactics or an extended period of stalemate.
As the opening days of the battle, particularly for the Seelow Heights some 90km to the east, would seal the fate of the city.
The official Soviet plan for the attack on the Nazi capital – the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation, as it was known – called for the troops of the Red Army to have conquered the city by April 22nd – the anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth. But in the opening stage of this immense battle the Seelow Heights would prove a formidable obstacle, far more so that Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov – or his direct superior, Joseph Stalin – expected.
In 1945, the “Gates of Berlin” were not so much situated on the fortified outskirts of this city of millions – that had grown dense and rich during its time as the capital of the Imperial Kingdom of Prussia and cold and mean as the heart of Nazi Germany – but further east, along the rivers Oder and Neisse.
Instead of choosing to reinforce the city and brace for a prolonged siege, troops available for the defense of Berlin were sent to hold the Oder-Neisse frontline as part of Army Group Vistula, marshalled to fight a mighty battle to deny the Red Army access to not only the Nazi capital, but the territory of the entire inner German Reich.
To be dealt a blow here, on the city’s eastern approaches, would likely make the fall of Berlin to the Soviet advance a foregone conclusion. For as the saying goes: if the Coliseum falls, Rome falls with it.
Of the Soviet Fronts (Army Groups) that would take part in the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation, the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukranian would spearhead the move on the Nazi capital. With the 1st Belorussian, led by Georgy Zhukov, tasked with pushing over and beyond the Seelow Heights.
Passing through the centre of this elevated terrain was the Reichstrassee 1 (now the B1 federal highway), which previously ran from the Dutch border near the city of Aachen to the distant Prussian city of Königsberg. Here, and directly opposite the strongest part of the defenses, were the 3rd and 5th Shock Army, the 47th Army, and 8th Guards. The latter having fought as victors at the Battle of Stalingrad – commanded by the man who had defended the city, Lieutenant General Vasily Chuikov.
First an immense artillery barrage would be unleashed, followed by the main body of troops who were expected to quickly overrun the German positions, then straight to Berlin. The most direct line of attack and the shortest route to the city.
In the early hours of April 16th, under cover of darkness, the Berlin offensive started at Seelow Heights, as thousands of artillery pieces and Katyusha rocket launchers bombarded the defensive fortifications. The opening barrage during the Battle of the Seelow Heights would see some 9000 Soviet guns firing 500,000 shells in 30 minutes. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front attacked at 4am Berlin time, across the river Oder and towards the Seelow Heights, but quickly stalled.
On April 17th, a kamikaze squadron had been mobilised by the German Luftwaffe to attack the bridgeheads established across the river Oder being used by the Soviets to reinforce their front. Thirty five pilots would die on April 17th for a limited and temporary success.
The land occupied by the Soviet forces following the Vistula-Oder campaign of early 1945, was saturated by the spring thaw – German engineers had increased this hazard by releasing water from a reservoir upstream, which turned the plain into a swamp. Making the movement of tanks and mechanised units problematic and near impossible in parts. And seriously slowing down the Soviet advance.
Zhukov had hoped to aid the advance of his infantry by using high powered anti-aircraft searchlights operated by female Red Army soldiers to illuminate the heights. This, however, only served to backlight the troops and leave them easier to target as they moved across the swampy floodplain. By the end of April 16th, Zhukov’s gunners had used over 1,250,000 rounds on this first day alone. But his troops had only managed to advance some 8km in parts.
On hearing of the limited movement of his front echelon troops, Zhukov decided to commit his tank armies to the fight just after midday, although they were not scheduled to be brought up until the Seelow Heights had been seized.
On April 18th, Zhukov’s troops did manage to advance north of Army Group Vistula’s main force – the 9th Army – but was hit with serious counterattacks – with some of the heaviest coming from the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland and the 23rd SS Panzergrenadier Division Nederland. By nightfall on April 18th, Zhukov’s force had pushed 3-8km in the centre and reached the third and final line of German defenses – but were already 48 hours behind the deadline that Zhukov had set himself to Stalin to break through beyond this final line.
Stalin’s Red Army would finally move beyond the Seelow Heights on April 19th 1945 – but at a heavy price. Over the course of this mammoth confrontation, the 1st Belorussian Front lost nearly three times as many men as the German defenders. But by the end of the 19th there was a gap in the eastern front about 19 miles wide – from Wriezen to Behlendorf – with the remnants of the once mighty German 9th Army split into three parts. Berlin finally lay open for the taking – and Soviet artillery would start pounding the city’s northern suburbs the next day, just in time for Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
The Seelow Heights site today is maintained as a memorial, with a museum and military cemetery to commemorate the thousands who fell here during the battle for the ‘Gates of Berlin’.
Towering over graves and the military equipment – a katyusha rocket delivery platform and artillery pieces – is a statue designed by artist Lev Kerbel, also responsible for the soldier at the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park, Berlin and the huge bust of Karl Marx in Chemnitz. Of particular interest is the permanent exhibition inside the museum and the commentary on the relevance of this battle in East German historiography, as this ‘new Germany’ balanced its sense of political and ideological identity against its history.
The immense battle at Seelow Heights although often the focus of any study of the Battle of Berlin, was not the only confrontation on the Eastern Front at that time – as further south the forces of Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukranian Front managed to break through the Nazi defensive lines before Zhukov and speed towards the Nazi capital.
The race to Berlin was always going to be a propaganda coup for anyone who made it there first – and raised the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag, considered Objective No. 1 in the battle for Hitler’s capital. But before entering the city, thousands would have to perish whilst the way was cleared.
Still today remnants of this mighty battle – munitions and human remains – are regularly unearthed. Grim reminders of the cost of war – and the price paid to defeat Hitlerism.