The final Soviet operation to inflict a decisive blow to Hitler’s regime by occupying the Nazi capital of Berlin would last for 17 days – starting on April 16th 1945. From the Oderbruch, and the present border between Germany and Poland, to the top of the Reichstag, this battle would claim the lives of around 80,000 Soviet soldiers
The troops gathered outside Berlin in preparation for this final engagement undoubtedly must have been a strange sight, with so many different dialects and languages that officers could often not communicate with their troops. Varied as much in physical appearance as in battle dress, these soldiers – wearing shades of different uniforms – came from every republic of the Soviet Union. Russians and Belorussians, Ukranians, Karelians, Tartars, Georgians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Bashkirs, Mordvinians, Irkutsks, Uzbeks, Mongols, and Cossacks. They came on horseback, and on foot, on captured vehicles – and lend-lease American ones too.
The howl of Stalin’s organ, the much feared Katyusha rocket launcher, signalling their arrival. They would bring with them the tools of their trade – PPSh-41 submachine guns and satchel charges, to aid in the gruelling urban combat – even pick-axes and dynamite to blow holes in buildings through which the infantry would advance. Supported by T-34 and IS-II tanks, self-propelled guns such as the SU-76, SU-100, and ISU-152. Teams of horses would drag supplies and wounded.
When the smoke of battle finally settled, around 23,000 of these fallen Red Army troops would find their final resting place within the city limits of Berlin – divided between three huge cemeteries.
The largest in the German capital, in-fact the largest Soviet cemetery on European soil outside of Russia, is the Soviet War Memorial in Schönholzer Heide – sometimes referred to as the Soviet Cemetery in Pankow.
Two Soviet Fronts (Army Groups) would participate in the Battle of Berlin – the 1st Belorussian Front, commanded by Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov, and the 1st Ukranian Front, under the command of Marshal Ivan Konev.
The initial Soviet plan of attack on the city saw Zhukov’s troops storming across the Seelow Heights, to the west of the river Oder, and straight into the heart of Berlin. A phase in the operation that Zhukov had promised Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, would only take one day – in-fact it would take almost four days before troops of the 1st Belorussian Front would be securely speeding through open country to envelop Berlin, after having finally smashed through the last German defensive line on the Eastern Front.
While the men of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front struggled to push through the centre, Ivan Konev’s forces had already managed to break through the left flank of the German defensive line and were speeding towards Berlin – with the Third Tank Army arriving at the German Army Headquarters at Zossen on April 20th. Having crossed the river Spree earlier in their drive virtually intact, these troops would then thrust northwards – heading along the road leading from Zossen to Berlin – ‘Der Weg zur Ewigkeit’ as it had been dubbed by German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (“The road to eternity”).
Zhukov was increasingly concerned that the prize of conquering the Nazi capital was going to fall into Konev’s hands, and demanded that his troops push through into Berlin at all costs.
On April 21st – elements of the 5th Shock Army finally reached the eastern Berlin suburb of Marzahn – signalling the arrival of the Red Army in the city. A single storey building on Landsberger Allee (no. 563) – occupied by a vegetable gardener named Gustav Frick in 1945 – stands today as a memorial to the arrival of Soviet troops. Although debate continues as to whether it was actually Marzahn or the borough of Malchow – in Berlin Lichtenberg – where Red Army troops first set foot in Berlin.
What is certain is that on April 21st 1945, they finally reached the city limits.
Film aficionados may recognise this site from the 2006 movie Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), in which it featured as the setting for one of the movie's key scenes.
Having spent the last two days crossing open countryside, Soviet armour was still advancing rapidly, with infantry arriving behind to clear any remaining pockets of German resistance. Ensuring a swift arch across the north of the city and into Berlin’s outskirts. But the denser the urban terrain, the more difficult tactical operations would become for the Soviet troops.
By the end of April 21st 1945 – the original date outlined in Stalin’s plans for the fall of Berlin – the 1st Belorussian Front had moved into the outskirts of the city, pushing through the districts of Weissensee, Pankow, and Lichtenberg in the east.
Fighting past what would become the Soviet Memorial in Schönholzer Heide – until this time a recreation ground that had grown in popularity from the 19th century.
Whilst enveloping the Nazi capital in a pincer move that would connect near the city of Potsdam to the west, the two Soviet Fronts were also busy grinding into Berlin’s central district – with a clear dividing line right through the heart of the city. Stalin Order 11074 stated that from April 23rd, the diplomatic station of Anhalter Bahnhof near the Wilhelmstrasse government quarter would serve as the final dividing object – giving both Zhukov, and importantly Konev, the opportunity to press on into the city centre and take the Reichstag before the other. An important landmark that both commanders were striving to storm – that would forever indicate their status as conqueror of Berlin. This only served to further increase the momentum of the Soviet troops, and the number of casualties.
When the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation finally ended, the Soviet tally for losses was measured at 304,887 killed, wounded, and missing, between April 16th and May 2nd.
The Schönholzer Heide cemetery would become the final resting place for 13,200 of these dead.
Of the three Soviet War Memorials in Berlin, this is not only the largest, but it was also the last to be completed – as opposed to the memorial in the Tiergarten, which was unveiled in 1945, and the Treptower Park memorial, which was finished in time for the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1949. Some of the individual soldiers buried here are easier to identify than in the other memorials, as there are 100 bronze tablets where the names, ranks and birth dates of these troops are listed, on the walls of the cemetery.
The main focus of the memorial is a statue personifying the Motherland, which is situated in front of a 33.5 meter tall obelisk made of syenite. The statue’s base, which is made out of black porphyry, contains 42 bronze tablets – on which the names of fallen officers are inscribed.
The entrance to this memorial is a sculptured avenue of pine trees, leading to two granite pillars with symbolic wreaths and bronze bowls with an eternal flame. Flanking the entrance there are two gate buildings with bronze reliefs depicting parts of the Great Patriotic War. Nearby it is possible to find eight coats of arms, symbolising the different branches of the Soviet armed forces. Similar to the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, there are also quotes from Joseph Stalin on display, in German and Russian, inside the two entrance towers.
While much of this memorial appears similar to the other Soviet war memorials in the city, there is the notable exception here that many of the soldiers and officers – including two colonels – buried here have their names listed in tribute. Although the names adorning the walls constitute only one-fifth of the fallen. Most of the Soviet dead would be buried unidentified – their sacrifice relayed to their families as the ultimate price paid in the service of liberating Europe from fascism.