Table of Contents
The Battle of Berlin 1945
The encirclement of Berlin by the forces of Stalin’s Red Army, on April 25th 1945, was not the first time that war arrived to the streets of the Nazi capital. Nor could it be said that the opening volleys of Soviet artillery hitting the city on April 20th were the start of Berlin’s physical ruin. The Battle of Berlin, in many ways, began much earlier.
Capable of inflicting a measure of carnage unprecedented before the early 20th century, the air fleets of the British Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force had been repeatedly pounding the city since 1940.
Five years before the arrival of Soviet ground forces.
Gradually reducing the blackened heart of the Third Reich to smouldering rubble.
With geography and technology more often than not limiting conflict to the frontiers of any belligerent state – never before in human history had the capital of an enemy power been subjected to so much; and from such a distance.
Over the course of these five years, Berliners would endure more than 350 independent air raids.
Some, like those on November 22nd 1943 carried out by the British and February 3rd 1945 by the US forces – would remain etched into the minds of the city’s residents for their ferocity and randomness long after the final shots of the war had been fired. For as predictable as these raids would become in their regularity, they would remain distinctly inaccurate when measured by their precision and capability of hitting valuable targets.
The Soviet had in-fact already attacked Berlin well before 1945 – when their own air force flew missions to the Nazi capital – although these were dwarfed in size and effectivenvess by the combined Anglo-American raids.
In almost all instances it would be the everyday residents and infrastructure of the city, as much as the munitions factories, government buildings, and military fortifications, that would bear the brunt of the Allied bombardment.
Not much would be different when Soviet long-range artillery eventually came within firing distance of the Nazi capital on April 20th 1945.
Battering what remained of the centre of Berlin into a disfigured and crippled mass.
As relieved as Berliners must have been on April 20th to finally see the last of the Anglo-American raids, the end of one torturous method of destruction would only signal the passage to another.
The thunderous arrival of Stalin’s forces had already begun earlier in the day with the mass pulverisation of the city. Ensuring that the fight for the largest city in the Reich, the nucleus of Hitler’s regime, would be as bloody and contested as possible.
For as the Soviets knew, rubble could provide an impregnable defence.
Just as Berliners would be deathly familiar with the drone of air raid sirens and rumble of allied aircraft – the brutality of urban warfare would already be burned into the consciousness of every one of the 2.5 million Soviet soldiers poised outside the Nazi capital in April 1945.
The cities of Stalingrad and Leningrad – that bore the names of the Soviet leaders – had been viciously contested in battles that ended in decisive Soviet victories – albeit with massive losses – and would serve as rallying cries in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ to expel the fascist invader.
A war which would only end with the Nazi capital taken and the flag of the Red Army flying high over the Reichstag building.
After almost four years of bitter conflict and horrifying loss of life, the forces of the Soviet Union reached the “Gates of Berlin” in April 1945 – and 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 soldiery gathered outside Berlin in preparation for this final engagement was undoubtedly 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 troops wearing shades of different uniforms came from every republic of the Soviet Union. Russians and Belorussians, Ukrainians, 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.
Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 – codenamed Operation Barbarossa – had come unannounced and without declaration of war. A violation of the non-aggression treaty that the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Molotov and Ribbentrop, had orchestrated two years before. That had resulted in the two powers carving up neutral Poland and establishing European ‘spheres of influence’.
The advance of Hitler’s forces into the Soviet Union in violation of the double Faustian pact – the ‘Midnight of the Century’ – had been rapid – with units reaching the outskirts of Moscow by December 1941. After years of contesting territory and some of the bloodiest fighting the world had ever seen – that would leave the bodies of millions in its wake – the Red Army would finally arrive back in Poland in 1944 to confront Nazi Germany within its own original borders.
That year, the Soviet Red Army had engaged the forces of the German Wehrmacht in no fewer than ten offensives. Greatly improving its ability to encircle and annihilate vast swathes of Nazi forces as the war progressed. New equipment such as upgraded T-34/85 and IS-II tanks, the role of a decentralised and enhanced Soviet Air Force, and the mobilisation of the Soviet states to a war footing had brought much success.
Time and time again, though, the Red Army would prove that even though its tactics had much improved since the bitter defeats of 1941 and 1942, numerical supremacy would more often than not serve as the common deciding factor in most battles. The Berlin operation would be no different, as masses of troops levelled off to descend on the Nazi capital and overwhelm the vastly outnumbered defenders.
The Vistula-Oder campaign from January 1945, directly preceding the Battle of Berlin, would see the Red Army take Krakow and Katowice, surround Danzig and Königsberg, and march unopposed into Hitler’s abandoned Wolf’s Lair headquarters in Rastenburg on January 27th. The same day, troops of the First Ukrainian Front (322nd Rifle Division, 60th Army) would liberate the Auschwitz death camp.
After having established two bridgeheads across the Vistula that could have seen the Red Army come to the aid of Polish resistance fighting in the Warsaw Uprising, the Polish capital of Warsaw was also finally captured and ‘liberated’ in January 1945, following a six month pause.
All told, some 600,000 Soviet soldiers and officers gave their lives to defeat the Nazi forces occupying present-day Polish territory in the Vistula-Oder campaign.
By January 31st, this Soviet offensive would come to a halt at the ‘Gates of Berlin’ – while the forward troops rested, others were tasked with consolidating territory – mopping up any remaining resistance encircled or bypassed during their advance.
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 the battle, it would be concluded in only 17 days – without the extensive use of siege tactics or an extended period of stalemate.
The opening days of the battle, particularly for the Seelow Heights some 90km to the east, would seal the fate of the city.
This series of 18 posts (including introduction and aftermath) will tell the story of the Fall of Berlin in 1945 – day-by-day – through the eyes of the defenders, the Soviet personnel tasked with attacking the city, but also the millions of civilians who would share the burden.
This final confrontation was a military feat bar none – all told, 402 Red Army personnel were bestowed the USSR’s highest degree of distinction, the title Hero of the Soviet Union (HSU), for their valor in Berlin’s immediate suburbs and in the city itself.
Two hundred thousand people would perish over the space of 17 days of fighting – from the sandy banks of the river Oder, to the final objective on top of the Reichstag, and the capitulation of the forces in the city on May 2nd.
The result would be a decisive Soviet victory – the most symbolic of the war.
The death of Adolf Hitler and the coup de grâce to National Socialism.
When the Western Allies finally arrived in Berlin some two months later, on July 4th, it was to a city unrecognisable to visitors fortunate enough to have witnessed the German capital in its pre-war splendour.
A city that still today bears the scars of the street-by-street, house-by-house, cellar-by-cellar fighting that would become emblematic of the last major offensive of the war.
The Soviet offensive that would begin on April 16th 1945…
April 16th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day One - The Soviet Offensive Begins
…Start of the Soviet offensive …Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front struggles to reach the 2nd German defensive line…the 1st Ukrainian Front push through the left flank of the German 9th Army…Hitler issues a call to arms…
Berlin’s development from twin merchant settlements (Berlin and Cölln) to a medieval outpost in the ‘sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire’ and capital of one of Europe’s most powerful nations – Prussia – would see the city transformed in terms of trade, might, and prestige.
By the 20th century, its boundary would expand well beyond its medieval quarter to include the farmland and villages that previously dotted its periphery – with the Greater Berlin Act of 1920 providing the skeleton framework for the districts that still exist in the city today.
The topography of this once irrelevant settlement, however, has stayed largely the same. Extensive flatland, sandy soil, and a high water table.
Offering little in terms of natural defenses.
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 almost 90 km to the east, along the rivers Oder and Neisse.
It was on the hilly terrain just to the west of these two rivers, and the fluvial terraces and floodplains surrounding them, that the decisive confrontation before Soviet forces managed to clear a path directly to the Nazi capital would be fought.
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, marshalled to fight a mighty battle to deny the Red Army access to not only the Nazi capital, but 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.
It would be a fight for the survival of the Thousand Year Reich.
Yet, while Hitler remained in Berlin in April 1945, he still believed that the main Soviet attack would be aimed at Prague and not Berlin. For as German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, famously said: “Whoever holds Prague holds Europe.”
To the Soviet forces gathered east of the city, the reality could not be clearer, as the Nazi party had in-fact learned in the course of its rise to power: whoever holds Berlin holds Germany.
For if the Coliseum falls, Rome falls with it.
Issuing a call to arms on April 16th, in typically bombastic language, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler would implore every soldier on the Eastern front to do his duty in fighting the Jewish Bolshevik arch-enemy. Stating: “In this hour the entire German nation looks to you, my soldiers in the east, and only hopes that by your fanaticism, by your arms and by your leadership, the Bolshevik onslaught is drowned in a blood bath.”
The earlier successes of the German Army, considered so spectacular at the time – defeating France in 46 days, pushing to the outskirts of Moscow in 1941 – could not have seemed more distant by 1945. With the shattered remnants of the previously unstoppable Nazi war machine now fighting a futile defensive campaign to halt the staggering might of the Soviet forces.
Of the Soviet Fronts (Army Groups) that would take part in the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation (as it was known by the Soviets), the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian would spearhead the move on Berlin. Encirciling the Nazi capital in a combined assault that would eventually extend from the Baltic coast to the border with Czechoslovakia.
Two Soviet Marshals would be tasked with conquering the city:
- Marshal Georgy Zhukov – who had led the defense of Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad – would serve as Stalin’s point man and head of the 1st Belorussian Front.
- Marshal Ivan Konev, head of the 1st Ukrainian Front, responsible for the liberation of Kiev, Odessa, and Kharkiv – and considered ruthless even by Stalin’s standards – would command the forces gathered on Zhukov’s left flank, pushing to the south of Berlin.
And in an additional supporting role, set to extend across the northern flank of the Soviet advance, were the forces of the 2nd Belorussian Front led by Polish Red Army Marshal, Konstantin Rokossovsky. Disgraced and imprisoned as a traitor in Stalin’s 1937 Great Purge, Rokossovsky had rehabilitated himself upon being released without explanation and allowed to return to army ranks in 1940. He would participate in almost every strategically important Soviet battle of the war, and oversee, with Zhukov, the biggest defeat in German military history – Operation Bagration.
By April 16th 1945, Zhukov’s mighty 1st Belorussian Front was positioned directly east of Berlin, having crossed the river Oder near Küstrin and secured a number of bridgeheads at the end of the Vistula-Oder campaign. The eastern German city of Frankfurt am Oder at that time remained in Nazi hands, with the bulk of Zhukov’s forces located further north – facing the entrenched defensive positions of the 9th Army, part of German Army Group Vistula, and led by General Theodor Busse – at 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.
Stalin would ensure that Chuikov’s 8th Guards would play a starring role in the capture of Berlin.
Troops of the Communist 1st Polish Army, and 61st Army would be positioned in the northern part of Zhukov’s formation, leading to the town of Schwedt.
Two huge tank armies – the 1st and 2nd Guard – would also lay in wait – as the infantry were first tasked with clearing the way.
The numbers would be skewed in favour of the attackers from the start:
- 768,100 Soviet troops in Zhukov’s sector facing just over 100,000 defenders
- 3,059 Soviet tanks in Zhukov’s sector vs the 587 under command of the 9th Army.
- 18,934 Soviet artillery pieces and mortars vs the 2,625 gathered by the 9th Army.
Further south, Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front stood prepared with more than 500,000 men to confront the 4th Panzer Army, part of Army Group Centre, and led by Fritz-Hubert Gräser. After serving in Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad the 4th Panzer had conducted a fighting withdrawal through Poland and finally been tasked with securing the defenses along the Lusatian Neisse River between Görlitz and Guben.
Konstantin Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front of 300,000 men, to the north of Zhukov, would assist in controlling the right flank – having advanced into East Prussia and then across northern Poland to the mouth of the river Oder at Stettin. Rokossovsky would be tasked with moving against General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 3rd Panzer Army, part of German Army Group Vistula, to cut off reinforcements and aid the main breakthrough of Zhukov’s central push at the Seelow Heights.
All eyes were on Zhukov’s troops and his promise to Stalin that the Battle of Seelow Heights would be over by the end of the day.
His orders for April 16th, distributed as small leaflets handed man to man, were simple: “‘The enemy will be crushed along the shortest route to Berlin. The capital of Fascist Germany will be taken and the banner of victory planted over it.’”
The son of a shoemaker, Zhukov was conscripted to serve in the Imperial Russian Army during the First World War and – after joining the Bolshevik cause early on, in 1917 – would serve in the cavalry during the Russia Civil War. However, the battle that had truly settled the trajectory of his career took place in 1939, against Japan’s Kwantung Army on the border between the Mongolian People’s Republic and the Japanese-controlled state of Manchukuo.
The future Marshal of the Soviet Union had been put in charge of the battered First Soviet Mongolian Army Group and tasked with directing the decisive battle in what is now known as the Soviet-Japanese Border War. Soviet forces had struggled to repel the Japanese assaults and Zhukov was called on to execute a successful counterattack.
Before engaging the Japanese forces, he ordered an intense artillery barrage accompanied by the Soviet air force’s first ever fighter-bombing operation to soften up resistance. Instead of confronting the Japanese head-on, Zhukov then sent tanks and infantry around the enemy flanks to encircle the forces and attack the rear supply areas.
A tactic which the German Wehrmacht would similarly turn into a deadly art with its operations from 1939 – executing rapid Blitzkrieg tactics with strong pincer movements and forcing enemy armies into cauldrons (Kessel) to be surrounded and annihilated.
It was in this way that the Soviet Union would lose more than 3 million men in 1941 – in the first six months of Operation Barbarossa.
In planning the defeat of the 9th Army on the Seelow Heights, the stocky and imposing Zhukov would meet with Stalin in Moscow on April 1st and be tasked with smashing his troops directly against the bulk of the Nazi forces – with Konev to the south moving forward his deep left hook to complete the encriclement of Berlin. Rokossovsky would be scheduled to join the fight to the north four days later, on April 20th, and maintain the right.
The operation would start on April 16th with Berlin set to fall on April 22nd – Lenin’s birthday.
First an immense artillery barrage, followed by the main body of troops overrunning 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.
Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front attacked at 4am Berlin time, across the Oder, with Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front crossing from the Neisse shortly afterwards.
The opening barrage during the Battle of the Seelow Heights would see some 9000 Soviet guns firing 500,000 shells in 30 minutes.
In comparison, the Battle of the Somme, the major British-French offensive in 1916 during the First World War – the largest battle on the Western Front – opened with an artillery barrage of a scale and ferocity unheard of before in human history. Over five days, 1,438 guns would fire 1.7m shells. At the rate of fire carried out at Seelow, Zhukov’s gunners could have exceeded that in less than two hours.
The British aim in 1916 had been to obliterate the enemy defenses with an intense bombardment that may well have enabled the troops to then simply walk through the devastated lines. The plan was betrayed to German interrogators – by two soldiers from Ulster.
The ground underneath the Somme is chalky. The German Army in 1916 had exploited this and prepared a series of deep dugouts for soldiers to hide in and avoid the British barrage. Although German casualties would eventually outweigh the British ones – the betrayal of the Somme plans and preparations made by the Germans would mean the British would advance less than 10km (6 miles). At a rate of more than 42,000 casualties for every kilometre taken. Losses on the first day were the worst in the history of the British Army, with 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom were killed.
Zhukov would similarly suffer from an over-optimistic reliance on artillery.
And a betrayal.
Facing the combined Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front on April 16th were troops serving under General Gotthard Heinrici, commander of Army Group Vistula. Dubbed Unser Giftzwerg (Our Poison Dwarf) by the men under his command, Heinrici was a highly decorated soldier who had served during the First World War at the Battle of Verdun.
Thanks to the capture and interrogation of a Soviet soldier south of Küstrin, Henrici would correctly predict not only Zhukov’s frontal assault but also the preparatory artillery barrage and his defensive strategy would be adjusted accordingly.
Like the German troops in 1916 at the Somme – Heinrici’s Army Group Vistula was prepared for Zhukov’s opening artillery barrage and had largely withdrawn to the second Hardenberg line of fortifications when the bombardment commenced. In an attempt to both reduce casualties to a minimum while also luring the Red Army into a false sense of security, deceived into thinking that losses on the heights would be higher.
Instead of holding the open plain, Heinrici had chosen to fortify the rising Seelow Heights – some 48 metres high overlooking the Oder and the advancing Soviet troops. A series of three defensive trench lines (the Hauptkampflinie (Front Line), Hardenberg-Stellung, and Wotan-Stellung) were established complete with bunkers and anti-tank ditches. These defensive fortifications would stretch across 10–15 mi (16–24 km) – and prove a formidable obstacle to Zhukov’s troops.
The land occupied by the Soviet forces following the Vistula-Oder campaign of early 1945, was also saturated by the spring thaw – German engineers would increase 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.
The hastily shifted troops would maintain Heinrici’s second defensive line to engage in fighting – although then subject to the rolling barrages Red Army gunners would put down to try to cover the advancing troops – while German guns rained down their own fire on the attackers.
Red Army infantrymen would then need to manoeuvre across heavily cratered terrain to take the Hauptkampflinie – a further hindrance created by the impact of the hundreds of thousands of rounds fired at this focal point of Georgy Zhukov’s frontal push.
The Soviet Marshal’s attack was equally as methodical but would almost immediately fall apart.
Using high powered anti aircraft searchlights operated by female Red Army soldiers to illuminate the heights, Zhukov had hoped to aid the advance of his infantry. Certainly the effect was impressive: war correspondent Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Troyanoskii would describe the illumination of the Seelow Heights as like “a thousand suns joined together”. This, however, only served to backlight the troops and leave them easier to target as they moved across the swampy floodplain.
Three red signal flares fired into the sky signalled for the phalanx of searchlights on the Küstrin bridgehead to light up the battlefield.
The three green flares that followed would then call on Zhukov’s guns to pour a storm of fire onto the German positions.
As terrifying as this must have been for the defenders, it would have an additional effect on the attackers -the soldiers of the Red Army had learned to roar at the top of their voices to try to equalise the pressure when near formations of artillery yet many were left bleeding from their ears as the ground shook and a hot wind howled through the forests.
These were the men who had seen their villages and cities obliterated – their families murdered, their crops spoiled – with nothing but misery to return home to. Having travelled half a continent to reach the Oder, while the guns continued to belch flames many moved forwards screaming at the sky and swarming across the river in whatever they could. Some swimming, fully equipped, through the water. Accompanied by thousands of recently released prisoners – emaciated and bearing signs of torture at the hands of their German oppressors.
Now looking only for revenge.
Filling the ranks were also prisoners released from Soviet gulags – offered the chance of a hero’s death instead of a ‘dog’s death for dogs’ in the prison system. Five of these prisoners would be awarded the status of Hero of the Soviet Union for their actions during the course of the war.
By the end of April 16th, Zhukov’s gunners would have used over 1,250,000 rounds on this first day alone. But his troops had only managed to advance some 8km in parts – reaching the villages of Trebbin in the north and Sachsendorf further south.
The Soviet Marshal had promised Stalin that he would take the Seelow Heights within the day and the troops of the 1st Belorussian had only made it as far as the 1st line of defensive fortifications – and with heavy losses. The 1st Polish army did manage to cross the Oder near Güstebiese (today Gozdowice) but would remain tied up in fighting there for two more days as the entire front stalled.
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. The 1st and 2nd Tank Guard Armies would be ordered to move up to the front in the afternoon – causing chaos for the traffic controllers tasked with ensuring an orderly movement across the bridgeheads.
Despite the hopeless position of the German 9th Army on April 16th, its forces were still holding nearly everywhere.
Two hours after the artillery bombing of the Seelow Heights began, Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front started its attack on the German 4th Panzer army – between Guben and Görlitz. Unlike the troops of the 1st Belorussian Front further north, these soldiers had no bridgeheads established before the battle to cross to the west bank.
Unlike Zhukov, Konev would choose to lay a smoke screen to obscure the battlefield – rather than use searchlights to illuminate it. The cover would be laid over a distance almost four times as long as the front he would advance on, aiming to confuse the German forces as to where his attack would come from. Unlike Zhukov’s artillery barrage, Konev would choose to focus his fire on preselected targets – rather than rely on saturation fire. Methodically chopping through enemy strongpoints and blasting paths through the German positions that his assault troops and tanks could use to advance.
Having ordered a rapid assault across the river Neisse at more than 150 places, Konev then hoped to smother the enemy by pushing armoured divisions into the attack the moment that footholds were established. A tactic that would take him closer to Berlin than his Soviet rival Zhukov.
As – although Konev had not been tasked with taking the city – he hoped the swift movement of his forces would ensure his role in its fall. A fact that Stalin would focus on the next day while stoking the competition between the two Soviet Marshals to see who would be the first to claim the prize of capturing the Nazi capital.
Back at his command post, Army Group Vistula leader, Gotthard Heinrici would address his anxious staff officers, advising that the situation looked bleak. “They cannot hold out much longer,” he said. “The men are so exhausted that their tongues are hanging out.”
Reporting to his superior, General Hans Krebs, afterwards he would concede that: “considering the size of the attack, we have not lost much ground.” While cautiously adding: “(But) I have learned never to praise the day until the twilight comes.”
He need not have worried much, little before midnight tanks of the Soviet 1st Guards Army managed to capture the first three houses in the northern suburbs of the town of Seelow.
But the bulk of the Soviet forces on Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front would remain stalled – at least for the time being.
April 17th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Two - Zhukov Struggles At The Seelow Heights
…The second German defensive line at the Seelow Heights is broken…Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front is given permission to push towards Berlin…An RAF Mosquito raid arrives and attacks Berlin in the evening…
While Soviet forces continued to push against Army Groups Vistula and Centre some 90km to the east, the millions of residents of Berlin waited to see whether the threadbare remnants of the mighty Wehrmacht could withstand this Red onslaught.
Or, more simply put, for how long.
The pre-war population of Berlin had been reduced by evacuation, redeployment of labour, and casualties – from a peak of around 4.3 million to between two and two and a half million in April 1945. Two years earlier, Propaganda Minister of Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels – in his capacity of Gauleiter (district leader) of Berlin – had closed schools and organised the evacuation of some one million inhabitants in response to the threat of Allied air raids. With refugees flooding into the Nazi capital from the provinces of East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia, in the last year of the war – bearing tales of horror at the hands of the Soviets – Berlin’s population had naturally increased in size. But nothing substantial enough to overburden the city’s robust infrastructure.
Despite its wide streets – that limited the spread of fire from Allied air raids and allowed fire engines to maneuver around rubble – Berlin could boast of being the most heavily bombed city in Germany – if not the world.
But the population had yet to suffer from hunger. Food rationing was somewhat adequate considering the circumstances. Public order was being maintained – with 12,000 police still patrolling the streets – and in spite of the growing destruction of the city municipal transportation remained operational.
Many Berliners later recollecting the calm before the Soviet arrival would emphasise the infection of atrocity stories, brought by the cart-load from the east, about Soviet revenge enacted on the local population – rapes and executions. To others a mood of passive resignation prevailed. Or simply the refusal to believe that things could be so desperate.
And that Ivan could be knocking on the door.
On the western front, British and American forces were also creeping closer to the Nazi capital.
In February 1945, however, following the secret Yalta Conference attended by the leaders of the Big Three (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill), German intelligence had come into the possession of a dossier codenamed ‘Operation Eclipse’ detailing the division of Germany agreed between the victorious allied powers – and outlining the limits of the Allied advance. The next month, Gotthard Heinrici – in his role as head of Army Group Vistula – was presented with a copy of the papers. Poring over the enclosed maps he could easily conclude that – if true – the western allies had agreed upon the Soviets alone taking Berlin, which would later be divided between the three powers, while the British and American forces would drive deep into Germany to reach the Elbe.
His reaction was clear: “Das ist ein Todesurteil” – this is a death sentence.
By mid-April, the Western Allies – overseen by Dwight Eisenhower – had penetrated deep into German territory, claiming over 50% of the country. But to Gotthard Heinrici it would be little consolation that the Western Allies would remain to his rear when the beleaguered forces of Army Group Vistula struggled to absorb the effects of the Soviet assault east of Berlin. Knowledge of Operation Eclipse among the high command would not stop rumours of discord between the Soviets and Western Allies spreading amongst the German population, or the hope that the Americans or British would make it to the capital first spreading amongst Berliners.
Berliners would eagerly await any positive news that might indicate the city’s relief – but to no avail.
Despite the remarkable calm and order in parts of its cities, Nazi Germany was in-fact flailing wildly in its dying throes.
In a futile attempt to limit the advance of the Soviet forces on the Oder on April 17th, a kamikaze squadron had been mobilised by the German Luftwaffe to attack the bridgeheads established across the river being used by the Soviets to reinforce their front. These Selbstopfereinsatz (Self-sacrificing missions) were being conducted from the town of Jüterbog by pilots of the Leonidas squadron. Thirty five pilots would die on April 17th for a limited and temporary success.
Early in the day – as this squadron plunged into bridges behind them – the troops of Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front remained stuck at the Seelow Heights, having advanced the previous day to the first line of fortified defenses – and struggled to push further.
Failure in the Red Army, of course, did not come without consequence, beyond the losses on the battlefield – as over the duration of the war over 230 generals and admirals would be shot or drafted into penal battalions for failure to deliver the right results. Under these circumstances, the lives of every day soldiers became more expendable – if progress demanded it, the road to success would be paved over their corpses.
Before the start of the battle, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had seen an increase in membership applications from the soldiers of the Red Army readying to fight outside Berlin on the Oder and Neisse rivers. As unlike the British and American forces, the Red Army had no dog tag system of identification and thus no way of identifying corpses to inform families. If a Communist party member became a casualty though, the party would take care to notify next of kin.
Penal units of prisoners granted reprieve from their Siberian exile would be the most expendable. Although the Soviet Shock Armies that would be used to break through enemy defenses were often ordered to undertake nightmarish frontal assaults and batter at an enemy until gaps could be exploited by the more elite units.
Marshal Zhukov’s inability to move beyond the first line of German defenses on April 16th – the first day of the Battle of Seelow Heights – had meant the early deployment of his reserve forces and Tank Guards to try to speed up the advance. After the theatrical start to his attack, the Soviet Marshal would resort to a tried and tested method.
What could not be achieved through tactical éclat Zhukov would attempt to achieve through brute force – by bludgeoning the Nazi defenders with the overwhelming numerical supremacy of his Front.
Progress on April 17th, however, would be equally as limited, as the soldiers of the Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front struggled through minefields and across the flooded plain to reach the second line of German defenses – much more heavily manned than the first – but in few cases could push any further. One of the few exceptions coming when Vasiliy Chuikov’s 8th Guards, formed after the Battle of Stalingrad, managed to reach the Seelow Heights by noon on April 17th.
The mighty mechanised units of the Red Army, deployed to aid the attack, would be stuck churning mud. While anti-aircraft guns, manned by the German defenders blasted the Soviet troops at close range. Thinning the ranks and leaving burning wreckage to further hinder the advance.
Word from the field had reached Colonel General Mikhail Katukov, commander of the First Guards Tank Army, with the lead officer of his 65th Brigade stating: “We are standing on the heels of the infantry. We are stuck on our noses!”
In the weeks before the battle, the soldiers of the Red Army based along the front had been preparing themselves for the bloody offensive to come – but few, certainly not Zhukov, would have predicted how hard fought the initial stage of the battle would be.
And how determined German resistance would remain.
Konstantin Rokkosovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front to the north of Zhukov would remain in their positions on April 17th – leaving Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front further south of the main thrust as the flanking force looking to capitalise on the gains that they had made the previous day.
Unlike Zhukov, Konev was having much better luck in his sector.
It looked like the comradely competition between the two Marshals was entering a new stage. One which may see Konev reach Berlin before the man Stalin had chosen personally to lead the charge.
Marshal Ivan Konev’s resolve was evident in his orders of April 17th – the result of an earlier radio-telephone report to Joseph Stalin. The combined troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front, led by the 3rd Guards Tank Army and the 4th Guards Tank Army, were to take advantage of the delay to the advance further north.
The new target would be Berlin.
“Berlin for us was the object of such ardent desire,” Konev would later say. “That everyone, from soldier to general, wanted to see Berlin with their own eyes, to capture it by force of arms. This too was my ardent desire… I was overflowing with it.”
While Zhukov’s forces slugged it out with the Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, Konev had breached the line further south and had now been given the permission to exploit the gap.
“The tanks will advance daringly and resolutely in the main direction,” his orders would state. “They will bypass towns and large communities and not engage in protracted frontal fighting. I demand a firm understanding that the success of the tank armies depends on the boldness of the manoeuvre and the swiftness of the operation.”
The initial push would be towards the towns of Cottbus and Spremburg – with the Konev’s Tank Armies hitting the third defensive line there on the Upper Spree hard – to make a right turn towards Potsdam and threaten Berlin. His troops would discover an unmarked ford by which his two tank armies could speed up their advance and avoid engaging the two fortress towns, offering as they did the only bridges capable of taking heavy armour. Crossing the Spree virtually intact, they would thrust northwards – head for 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”).
Throughout the first two days of the Soviet offensive on the Oder-Neisse line, Berliners on the outskirts of the city would register their concern at the sound of the distant guns – and changing atmospheric pressure. Yet, even with the city in sounding distance of the Soviet advance, the vast majority of the city’s industrial concerns were still producing. Gun barrels and mounts rolling off the line at the Rheinmetall-Borsig factory in Tegel, tanks and self propelled guns from Alkett in Ruhleben, and electrical equipment from the Siemens plant in Siemensstadt. All urgently making its way to the front – only 80km away.
Streets were crowded. Movie theatres were full. And at a cinema near Potsdamer Platz, reserved for German soldiers, the historical full-colour epic Kolberg (dealing with the heroic defense of the Pomeranian city during the Napoleonic Wars) was playing on special orders of Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels.
By nightfall, Zhukov’s 5th Shock Army and 2nd Guards Tank Army finally pushed through the second line of German defenses on the Seelow Heights, codenamed Hardenberg – with one final line (Wotan) to break through. The 47th and 3rd Shock Armies, along with the 1st Guards Tank Army had also advanced – although the distances would still be measured in single digits.
As had been happening not so infrequently since 1940 – the British arrived in Berlin on the evening of April 17th. Disrupting life and forcing many of the city’s inhabitants to flee to air raid shelters and hide in cellar spaces.
Little evidence remains of the raid or its effectiveness – except that it was executed in a manner typical of the time, with a fleet of Royal Air Force De Havilland Mosquitos taking off to head to the Nazi capital late in the evening and returning to base early on the 18th. Sixty-one of these fast flying bombers would take part in the nocturnal attack.
Two would not return.
April 18th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Three - Zhukov Takes The Seelow Heights/Konev Takes The Spree
…1st Belorussian reaches the third defensive line of the 9th Army’s preparations …Stalin orders Marshal Rokossovsky to begin his part of the operation, two days ahead of schedule…1st Ukrainian cross the river Spree…a Royal Air Force Mosquito raid hits Berlin from the night of the 18th to 19th…
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s mistrust of the officer corps of the Germany Army would only increase with his years in power – and after a failed assassination against him in July 1944, he would come to increasingly demand sycophantic and fanatical obedience from his military leaders beyond any sense of professional competence.
Placing SS leader, Heinrich Himmler, in charge of the replacement army in Germany following this assassination attempt would leave the man whose ideological troops had overseen the implementation of Nazi racial policy and the extermination of undesirables now responsible for the training of all new military formations and the control of all forces inside Germany. Yet, despite his dedication to the National Socialist cause, Himmler’s only military experience had been to serve in the Bavarian Army as a member of a reserve battalion in 1918.
As the First World War ended, the future Reichsführer-SS was still in training, and would see no active service – instead pursuing further education as an agricultural scientist.
Hitler himself would serve as Commander In Chief of the German Army (Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres) from 1941 – after dismissing Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch – and personally direct the defense of Berlin and the eastern approaches to the city that the Soviet forces on April 18th continued to threaten.
While the German troops of the 9th Army fought on against the combat elements of the 1st Belorussian Front slowly grinding their way beyond the Seelow Heights, further south on the frontline the men assigned to German Army Group Centre were struggling to contain the advance of Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front.
The troops facing Konev’s men to the south east of Berlin in April 1945 were serving under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner. A dedicated Nazi who had participated in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, Schörner was considered by Hitler to be one of his most competent officers. Perhaps in that he was well known as a strict disciplinarian with an ideological obsession with brutality, who would swifty deal with deserters in flying courts martial and summary executions.
Men he certainly could have used for his defense of the southern approach to the Nazi capital.
Despite being an extremely capable commander, Schörner had also incorrectly predicted that the main thrust of the Soviet advance in April 1945 would be towards Prague and not Berlin.
An opinion that Hitler himself was only too happy to hear. As he has concluded the same.
Like many previous interventions that Hitler had made to military campaigns, his involvement in the defense of Berlin in 1945 would only serve to make a disastrous situation catastrophic. As troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front burst through Schörner’s left flank and turned towards Berlin – and not Prague.
After its intial success on April 16th and 17th, Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front would push towards the river Spree and Berlin having quickly established and secured bridgeheads across the river Neisse – punching through Schörner’s defensive line and pouring men and tanks into the gaps. Finding a lack of defense in depth, Konev’s tanks managed to cross the Spree near Cottbus around noon on April 18th – before making their way north towards Lübben – and the boundary that had been established by Stalin where Konev’s forces and those of Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front were set to meet.
Zhukov, however, would be nowhere close by that time. A reality that threatened to change the entire Soviet plan of attack.
Could Konev make it to Berlin before Zhukov?
Meeting the two Soviet Marshals in Moscow at the start of April 1945, in preparation for the Battle of Berlin, Stalin has established a series of control lines behind the German defenses – to indicate where the division between the advancing Red Army troops should be. Rather than extending across German territory, the Soviet leader had only drawn the line as far as the town of Lübben – a small town in the region of Lower Lusatia.
Indicating that what remained on the western side of that line was open territory – and that should Konev’s troops manage to surge forwards faster that those of the 1st Belorussian Front assigned to assault the main concentration of German forces at the Seelow Heights, it was conceivable that Konev might be allowed to take the prize of the Nazi capital himself.
Despite brutal fighting, Konev’s tanks had moved at unbelievable speed – much to his orders the previous day of demanding boldness and swiftness on the part of his mechanised troops. Leaving behind them huge quantities of twisted metal from burned out tanks and equipment and bodies scattered across the terrain.
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. These SS units were made up of volunteer foreign fighters from Norway and Denmark, and the Netherlands and had seen action on the Eastern Front – mainly fighting partisans in Yugoslavia.
Fuelled by a visceral hatred of Bolshevism, the SS foreign legion fighters would go down as some of the most formidable involved in the Battle of Berlin. They had joined to fight on the Eastern Front and in the process had lost their countries.
They would soon lose their cause.
Accompanying these two SS Panzergrenadier Divisions was the SS-Panzer Abteilung 103 (503rd) that would halt Zhukov’s forces between Prötzel and Bollersdorf on the morning of April 19th. A dozen King Tiger tanks and eight flak tanks would repel a large Soviet armoured assault for the loss of just one King Tiger. Abteilung 103 would claim 64 Soviet tanks destroyed in the engagement, leaving the Second Guards Tank Army severly mauled.
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.
Having finally taken the Seelow Heights around 7pm on April 17th, Red Army troops would now have to deal with the so-called Wotan line of defenses established by Army Group Vistula, west of the town of Müncheberg.
The new task of navigating through the open countryside, confronted by a different series natural obstacles, would now present other challenges beyond those faced when assaulting the Seelow Heights and its surrounding defenses.
As such, the forces of the 1st Belorussian would continue to make limited progress through April 18th due to the general lack of coordination, as units manoeuvred through the dirt roads that ran through the heavily forested hills around the Seelow Heights and were caught in traffic jams – with high armour losses as Zhukov’s tankers were picked off and massacred by German anti-tank squads.
With few attempts at reconnaissance made, Zhukov’s Tank Guards Armies would attempt to move forwards along the Reichsbahn 1 towards the town of Müncheberg – forming a single line in an attempt to cover as much distance as possible – only to run straight into unscouted German positions and be ambushed by Panzers, anti-tank guns, and soldiers. The flanking units winding down secondary roads would encounter similarly serious opposition. Fratricide was also a common concern for the Soviet troops as there would be little cooperation between the formations of units often advancing side-by-side through unfamiliar pine forests and rolling hills – with little rest over the 48 hours since the Berlin operation began.
The Soviet artillery practice of ‘boxing’ whereby a blanket of fire would be laid down behind the frontline to stop enemy reinforcements while Red Army infantry attacked the cut-off defenders often served only to hinder Zhukov’s orders demanding a speedy advance. As Soviet troops would take a position and continue to move into their own artillery barrage before being driven back to their original positions by the enemy counterattack that would emerge once the bombardment had ceased.
Beyond their tenuous defenses the German troops were left dealing with their own growing list of problems – vehicles having to be abandoned after running out of fuel; soldiers losing contact with their commanders and wandering the battlefield; and the growing suspicion of ‘Seydlitz Troops’ (soldiers who had switched sides and were sent to the German lines in uniform with orders to blend in with the defenders and spread confusion) meant that no-one unfamiliar could be trusted.
Further north, Konstantin Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front was still regrouping from mopping up in East Prussia and Pomerian – but would be called up by Stalin to start moving virtually off the march. An expression of the Soviet leader’s frustration at the lack of success within the first 48hrs on the part of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian.
Between Schwedt to the south and Stettin, Rokossovsky’s troops would move against General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 3rd Panzer Army. A Panzer Army which had in fact no true Panzer formations but four infantry and five panzergrenadier Volkssturm divisions, to defend a 95km frontier leading to the Baltic coast.
Rokossovsky’s task was particularly difficult, as it involved crossing both the east and western branches of the River Oder, which were separated by a two mile flood plain bordered by dykes. This meant that the 2nd Belorussian would struggle to bring artillery, and tanks, into the fight; instead relying on the Red Army Airforce to make up for the deficiency.
The offensive would begin in the early hours of the next day with artillery preparation and air strikes – with the main push coming a day later on April 20th – Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
Like the previous evening, Royal Air Force Mosquito bombers would descend on the city in the dark hours of April 19th. Fifty seven bombers dropped their loads on the Reich capital before returning to their bases. All would return home safely.
The Nazi leader was personally familiar with the various types of Allied aircraft that would appear in the skies over Berlin – he certainly could recognise a B-17 when he saw one. He would frequently mention the Royal Air Force’s De Havilland Mosquito in meetings with military staff, aptly named for its ability to remain a nuisance to the Reich capital. A small reconnaissance aircraft made of wood, it was difficult to detect on radar and would often move low and fast to overfly the Reich with almost total impunity.
By April 1945, this hardly mattered, as the much vaunted Luftwaffe was a hollow shell of itself with many of its personnel drafted to the front to join the desperate fight to defend the capital.
April 19th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Four - Fighting For Berlin's Eastern Approaches
…Soviets troops break through the final line of Heinrici’s Seelow Heights defenses …German forces attempt to defend Berlin’s eastern approaches…the 1st Belorussian Front threatens to surround the German 9th Army…Royal Air Force Mosquito attack on the city (79 bombers)…
The 9th Parachute Division of Herman Göring’s elite paratroopers had not absorbed the Soviet artillery’s percussive bombardment of the Seelow Heights particularly well. Nor the initial onslaught of Red Army troops directed against them. Not that they could be blamed for being more than alarmed – vastly outnumbered as they were.
In-fact, these were only paratroopers by name; simply air force personnel transferred to combat duties for which they had no experience.
Contrary to any promises made by Göring that these men would hold their ground – or possibly even repel the Soviet advance – many had simply fled. Back through the line of the 9th Army and towards Berlin, when the massive columns as Zhukov’s Russian tanks surged out from the plateau in front of them.
Some of the remaining men were briefly gathered together by an SS volunteer panzergrenadier division, the SS Nordland, and conducted a successful counterattack against the Soviet advance. But by late on April 19th, the remnants of this strange assembly of Göring’s counterfeit elite would already have arrived within the Berlin defensive ring – and were now waiting for the main thrust of the Soviet forces on the capital.
As many of the other units fighting on the Seelow Heights had been subjected to the same repeated artillery bombardment, air attacks, and an onslaught of tanks and infantry – the situation on April 19th was now looking beyond dire for the assorted mix of German Army troops and SS fighters attempting to coordinate themselves in the chaos.
Yet the defenders of the ‘Gates of Berlin’ were still tasked with holding their line from the towns of Wriezen to Batzlow and Reichenberg. With the fortified towns of Prötzel, Müncheberg, and Strausberg behind them.
On the evening of April 18th, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had confirmed an order from the Reichs Chancellery, and thus directly from Hitler, that ‘all forces available, including Volkssturm, have been requested by the Ninth Army to hold second-line positions’. These men would be hurried to the front from Berlin in buses requisitioned for the purpose, only to find the positions they were expected to defend already overrun and the complete front set to crumble. On the 19th April, these men would join the general disarray but play little role in hindering the advance of the Soviet front.
Boys of the Hitler Youth, brought forward to man the roads to the rear of the main defensive force and the approaches to the Nazi capital – to facilitate an orderly withdrawl to positions closer to the city after the Soviet had overrun the Seelow Heights the day before – would soon be steamrolled by Red Army attacks.
As the Volkssturm men brought up were the last major reserves rounded up, along with a regiment of anti-aircraft defense units of the Great Germany Guards, this meant that the capital now stood largely defensely.
The remaining troops in the east soon to be swept back by the Soviet push would bring with them the best chance of the Nazi capital’s survival.
Although they were currently fighting with the odds stacked against them.
Army Group Vistula chief, Gotthard Heinrici, was fond of touring the front and personally assessing the state of its defenses and the standing of the men. By now he had suitable reason to be alarmed. The rag tag groups of troops he had gathered on the Seelow Heights – that even included an assault group company wearing submariners uniforms – had struggled to maintain their positions and communications.
An able commander, Heinrici was also an exception to the hierarchy of the German Army in 1945 – as he was not afraid to express his concerns and contradict the orders of his superiors, even those issued directly by Adolf Hitler. Given the task of defending Berlin’s eastern approaches, the fifty-eight year old was considered by the Army General Staff as ‘the perfect example of a traditional Prussian soldier’ -yet he rarely looked like one. Instead preferring a frontline sheepskin jacket and First World War leather leggings to the general’s uniform that would match his rank and the Knight’s Cross with Swords and Oak-Leaves he had recently been awarded.
In preparation for dealing with the start of the Soviet offensive at the Seelow Heights on April 16th, Heinrici had issued orders that men from the same region should be split up in their units. As it was found troops were less likely to stop another man from their home deserting. Commanders of the 4th Panzer Army facing Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front to the south would confiscate white handkerchiefs from their men – to stop them using them to surrender.
The Soviets must be stopped before the open country leading to Berlin.
Over the next 24 hours Heinrici’s command would be severely tested by Hitler’s orders to defeat the Red Army outside the city at all costs. His 9th Army, led by Theodor Busse, was in the process of being surrounded by Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front. And no doubt entirely annihilated. Unless drastic was taken.
Although Heinrici must have realised the futility of his position, he was also reluctant to send his troops back to the streets of the city. Under the present circumstance, the man playfully dubbed ‘our poison dwarf’ by his troops knew that Berlin could not be defended. Tanks could hardly maneuver on the streets. Artillery had no line of sight.
To General Theodor Busse, retreat was comparable to treason. Hitler’s orders were to stand fast. Even though the 1st Belorussian Front had ripped through large sections of his defenses and were now rushing towards Berlin, with the forces of Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front near Lübben and arching behind his 9th Army to cut off all reinforcements and chance of escape.
One day earlier, the 300,000 troops of Army Group B surrounded in the Ruhr Pocket of West Germany had finally given up fighting, after holding out for two weeks. Although those men had been lucky in one important respect: they had surrendered to the Americans.
Busse, who had served extensively on the Eastern Front, knew to expect no quarter from the Russians.
Despite the general disarray at the front, fanatical pockets of resistance still remained.
Although the First Guards Tank Army managed to take the town of Münchenberg by late afternoon on April 19th, it is credibly reported that 53 Soviet tanks were knocked out along the approaches to the hamlet.
Two Red Army tank brigades drove straight into an ambush laid by King Tigers of the SS Panzer Abteilung 503 near Prötzel, with the SS tankers managing to knock out over 70 Soviet tanks as heavy Panzers overlooking an open field near Grünow – covered in green and brown camouflage and firing the smokeless discharge of their 88mm shells – picked off armour of the 48th and 49th Guards Tank Brigade. The fighting would only stop as the three lead tanks ran out of ammunition and the group was targeted by a Soviet Katyusha rocket strike.
SS troops continued to fight in the area of Müncheberg on April 19th, with the Nordland Division pulling back to Prinzhagen and the Danish fighters further south mixing with Hitler Youth and remnants of the 18th Panzergrenadier Division to try to carry out a counterattack in the Buckow forest. Badly mauled they would pull back into the cover of the trees and the woodland burned around them with Soviet tanks firing into the tree-tops causing splinters to rain down on the defenders. The survivors would eventually make it to Strausberg to bind their wounds and patch up their vehicles.
The SS forces would avoid main roads during their withdrawal, especially Reichstrasse 1 – the direct road from the Seelow Heights to Berlin, as it was clogged with refugees from the east moving towards the city. Vehicles and farm carts would fight for space, all easy pickings for the Sturmovik ground attack aircraft flying in the air whose pilots were more than happy to machine guy convoys of retreating vehicles – civilian traffic or not. Berlin would see its second influx of refugees of the year, making it difficult for military and other official traffic to get through. As April 19th was a beautiful spring day it provided the Soviet air force with perfect conditions for operations.
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 German 9th Army split into three parts. In the centre were the troops of General Helmuth Weidling, whose LVI Panzer Corp would eventually withdraw towards Berlin and the only bridges that could connect it to the main body to the south.
Frankfurt-am-Oder, which had been largely avoided by the Soviet forces at the main body of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian struck further north at the Seelow Heights, was to be partially abandoned. With the garrison there moving to the west bank of the river to defend fallback positions – and wait to be surrounded.
At this time it would still have been possible to remove the remaining elements of the German 9th Army fighting near the River Oder to Berlin to continue resistance in the capital. Yet Hitler continued to point-blank refuse the urgent requests coming from Army Group Vistula to be reassigned elsewhere.
As a result of the success of Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front at the Seelow Heights and the Oder Front in general, a substantial chunk of the German 9th Army would be encircled before it could retreat to Berlin.
But not before exacting a devastating toll on the Soviet forces.
Stalin’s Red Army would finally move beyond the Seelow Heights on April 19th – but at a heavy price. Over the course of this mammoth confrontation, the 1st Belorussian Front would lose nearly three times as many men as the German defenders. From here ahead it would be open country.
As the Soviet front crept closer to Berlin.
And in the evening of April 19th, another Royal Air Force raid arrived to harass the city and its inhabitants. Seventy nine Mosquitos would attack, with all returning home safely afterwards.
April 20th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Five - Hitler's Birthday/Soviet Artillery Reaches Berlin
…Adolf Hitler’s birthday…Soviet artillery hits Berlin’s suburbs…execution of Operation Clausewitz…the Berlin Zoo closes…Hitler orders an evacuation of government departments…the Soviets launch a large-scale offensive south of Stettin…the battle of Bernau takes place as the 2nd Guard Tank Army reaches the town…Hermann Göring demolishes his Carinhall residence…Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front races to Zossen…
Early in the morning of April 20th, Hermann Göring would leave his Carinhall residence north of Berlin for the final time. The Schorfheide forest surrounding the estate had served as a hunting area for nobility for centuries; although now the tranquility of this pine and oak woodland populated by red deer and wild boar was being disrupted by the distant rumble of artillery – as Soviet Marshal Konstatin Rokossovky’s 2nd Belorussian Front drew nearer.
Known to most as the Supreme Commander of the once formidable Nazi Air Force, Göring also possessed many other titles – as the Reichsminister of Forestry, Minister-President of the Free State of Prussia, and Reich Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan.
As such he also held a certain predilection for lavishness and had constructed his country residence of Carinhall, named after his first wife, on the grounds of this large hunting estate – as a veritable vanity project. Werner March, the architect responsible for the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, had been enlisted to ensure the scale of this monumental residence would reflect a man of Göring’s calibre and aspirations.
On the morning of April 20th, though, Göring hit a detonator switch and triggered a series of explosions that would force Carinhall to collapse in on itself. Rather than let his compound fall into the hands of the advancing Soviets, he had enlisted a Luftwaffe demolitions team to prepare the property to be ruined.
Insisting on blowing the place up himself.
Speeding out through the large entrance gates – one of the few sections of the property that remain standing to this day – Göring’s limousine would head towards Berlin and the New Reich Chancellery – to congratulate Adolf Hitler on his 56th birthday.
A convoy of trucks would also leave Carinhall but head further south – their cargo, much of the looted treasure that Göring had acquired over his lucrative career.
The preservation of artwork and antiquities was high on the Nazi agenda – and especially Göring’s – even at such a late stage in the war. Two day later, Adolf Hitler would issue an executive directive stating that despite his scorched earth policy instituted on March 19th – the so-called Nero Decree – denying Allied or Soviet forces access to infrastructure, transportation, or communications on German soil that the destruction of works of art would be categorically forbidden.
Of course, the Luftwaffe vehicles used to transport the Reichsmarshal’s collection could very well have served a more patriotic purpose at the front.
Berlin’s extensive array of antiquities had already been shuffled off into storage at various stages of the war – with the coin collection from the Kaiser Wilhelm museum, the bust of Nefertiti, and even the disassembled Pergamon Altar all gathered together inside a mammoth flak tower in West Berlin. Along with thousands of Greek vases, paintings by Degas, Monet, and Renoir, and nine thousand antique gems.
The ‘Zoo Flak tower’ was one of three pairs of concrete air defense bunkers built across Berlin between 1940 and 1942 – the others located in the Volkspark Friedrichshain and Volkspark Humboldthain. A planned fourth tower at Tempelhof Airport was never built as the airport was already equipped with substantial anti-aircraft equipment.
These bunkers would not only be used to counter air attacks on the city and preserve artworks (in the case of the Zoo Flakturm), but also as civilian air raid shelters.
And in the final stages of the Battle of Berlin – as the front crept closer – the combat batteries would participate in the defence of the city.
Despite the imposing size of these bunkers – Berlin’s defences in April 1945 did not seem to offer much reassurance to its millions of inhabitants. As a joke popular at the time would indicate: “It will take the Reds two hours and fifteen minutes to break through. Two hours laughing their heads off and fifteen minutes smashing the barricades.”
Passing through the city on his way to an assignment in Italy at the start of April was disgraced General Max Pemsel, who had been Chief of Staff of the Seventh Army defending Normandy on D-Day. Considered an expert on fortifications, he would describe the effort in Berlin as “utterly futile, ridiculous!”
As the city braced for the arrival of the Red Army, squads of men, boys, prisoners of war, and foreign labourers were scattered across Berlin still preparing eleventh hour defences. Makeshift fortifactions dotted the city; upturned buses, trams, piles of rubble from wrecked buildings, and tank turrets buried in the streets to provide fixed firing positions.
Some in the city were still holding out on the hope that American or British forces might cross the Elbe and make it to Berlin before the Soviets.
On April 20th 1945, Fritz Kraft, director of the municipal subway system, was given instructions by Berlin’s mayor to prepare for the arrival of the Allies: “If the Western Allies arrive here first, hand them over intact. If the Soviets arrive, destroy as much as possible.” A similar order would be sent to personnel staffing the telephone exchanges throughout the city, although with no clear instructions of how exactly to wreck the exchanges not a single one was destroyed.
Almost all of them would continue to work throughout the Battle of Berlin.
One of the few welcome respites in the city from the chaos of rationing, Allied air raids, and defensive preparations was the city’s Zoologischer Garten. Opened in 1844 as the first zoo in Germany, in April 1945 it stood half destroyed, with many of the animals starving.
Electricity in the Zoo stopped at 10:50am on April 20th, making it impossible to pump water.
Later the same day, the Zoo would finally close its gates from the rest of the war.
Zoo director, Lutz Heck, struggled to face the reality of the situation. Knowing that it would be only a matter of time before the animals would start to die – concluded that the dangerous animals would have to be destroyed. Including the Zoo’s prize baboon. In need of space to think, Heck took one of the zoo keepers fishing in the nearby Landwehr Canal.
Where the men caught two pike.
Although few Berliners would remember Adolf Hitler’s 56th birthday for the blustering tribute that Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, had broadcast over the radio the previous evening, referring to the Nazi leader as the ‘Man of the Century’ – many would later recall the extra rations they received on April 20th and the fine ‘Führer weather’ – the fourth fine day in a row.
As Nazi flags were raised across the city on ruined buildings, ‘crisis rations’ were handed out to the hungry populace, with the women of the city – who vastly outnumbered the men present – queuing throughout the day. Extra bacon or sausage, rice, lentils, peas or beans, sugar, coffee, and some fats. All to last eight days.
Whether Berliners realised it or not, the city was officially a battlefield.
On the morning of April 20th, Adolf Hitler had ordered the execution of Operation Clausewitz – a comprehensive 33 page plan describing how Berlin was to be transformed into a frontline city, dividing the capital into active defensive zones. A single sentence summarised the gravity of the situation:
“The Reich capital will be defended to the last man and to the last bullet.”
By the end of the day collection points would be established for drafting new recruits and pulling together the shell shocked and exhausted German Army stragglers from the streets. Barracks and local sports fields would be used to gather and organise Alarm units of young boys, who would be promptly issued rifles and oversized steel helmets.
At 11:30am, Soviet long-range artillery of the 3rd Shock and 47th Armies had begun bombarding the city’s outskirts, not leaving much time between the end of the Allied air raid from the previous night for the dust to settle. And the beleaguered city’s fire service to deal with the aftermath.
Hitler had been awoken more than two hours earlier, at 9am, in his room in the Führerbunker, to be debriefed on the situation at the front – that the Soviet troops that had broken the line between Guben and Forst were now hurtling towards the capital. Marshal Zhukov’s 47th Army was descending on Bernau, and the 3rd Shock Army was expected to be within the Berlin suburb of Weissenssee within 24 hours.
Faced with this disasterous news, the Nazi leader would return to bed – before waking again to play with his dog, Wolf, then proceeding to a honorary birthday gathering in the New Reich Chancellery with officers of Army Group Centre and Nazi Party functionaries.
Hermann Göring would not be the only member of Hitler’s inner circle to gather at the Chancellery on April 20th 1945.
For many who would gather it would be the last time they would see their beloved Führer alive.
SS leader Heinrich Himmler would make an appearance, as would Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. Hitler’s star architect, Albert Speer – now Minister of Armaments – would pay his respects alongside Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Chief of the Nazi Party Chancellery Martin Bormann and military leaders Karl Dönitz, Wilhelm Keitel, and Alfred Jodl.
Of all the men gathered to pledge allegiance to their Führer, trooping through the great polished marble rooms of the New Reich Chancellery, the two closest to the Nazi leader – and considered most loyal – were already planning their separate fates.
The previous evening, Heinrich Himmler had arranged meetings with Count Folke Bernadotte of the Red Cross and Norbert Masur of the World Jewish Congress to discuss a release of prisoners held in Nazi camps – but also to establish a line of communication with the Western Allies for potential peace talks. Should the circumstances arise where Himmler would find himself in power and be in a position to negotiate with the British and Americans.
Göring’s fleet of twenty four trucks full of looted goods were already on the road from Carinhall, heading away from the doomed capital to safety. Nazi Germany’s Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe – who had arrived at Hitler’s birthday gathering wearing khaki ‘like an American general’ – would also head south to his estate in Obersalzburg. Claiming that from there he would organise resistance in Bavaria.
Unlike the dwindling close circle around him, that was spreading out across what remaining of Germany under Nazi control – on various contrived matters of ‘official business’ – Hitler would state he could not expect his troops to fight the decisive battle for Berlin if he removed himself to safety.
With British forces on the Luneburg Heath, heading towards Hamburg – the US Army on the middle Elbe – and the Red Army already occupying Vienna, the main question facing Hitler was where else was left to run. Despite the insistence of members of his entourage that he should flee to Bavaria – and join Göring to lead the final battle there – Hitler looked set to remain in Berlin.
Although he had not yet made his intentions entirely clear.
That afternoon, he would make his last public appearance, in the gardens of the Reich Chancellery, above the Führerbunker, to present medals to young boys of the Hitler Youth. Some of whom would receive Iron Crosses for attacking Soviet tanks. With his left arm hidden behind his back – and suffering from an uncontrollable tremor – Hitler was largely unable to present the medals himself, instead moving along the line of children and cupping a cheek or tweaking an ear in a disturbing final hour gesture.
Hitler Youth leader, Artur Axmann, would stand nearby and watch, later saying that he was: “shocked at the Führer’s appearance. He walked with a stoop. His hands trembled. But it was surprising how much power and determination still radiated from this man.”
After a similar ceremony with SS fighters, Hitler attended an afternoon briefing on the military situation. His advisors would be clear in their assessment:
- Berlin will be surrounded in a matter of days, perhaps hours.
- Busse’s 9th Army will be encircled and destroyed if not allowed to withdraw immediately.
- The Führer and government ministries should be urgently evacuated.
While government departments would be given permission to leave, Hitler would double down on his desire to stay and fight. According to Luftwaffe adjutant Nicolaus von Below: “Hitler stated the battle for Berlin presented the only chance to prevent total defeat.”
One point of protocol would be reaffirmed on April 20th, the implementation of a directive made five days earlier that should the Reich be divided and Hitler become incapable of leading from Berlin – that Admiral Dönitz should take control in the north, and Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in the south.
Meanwhile, in the chaos of the fighting on the eastern front, amidst the disintegration of his forces and loss of communications, General Helmuth Weidling – the recently promoted commander of the LVI Panzer Corps – was conducting a fighting withdrawal towards the capital. His Panzer Corps thoroughly battered and trying to stave off encirclement from Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front.
Assessing the damage inflicted by Zhukov’s tankers on April 20th 1945, the war diary of German Army Group Vistula for the day would read: First Guards Tank Army “pierced our front in the area of the Autobahn Frankfurt-Berlin and the road Küstrin-Berlin.” While the Second Guards Tank Army “succeeded in tearing up the forces of the LVI Panzer Corps and CI Corps and in breaking through the outer defense area of Greater Berlin.”
As a result of this chaos, on the evening of April 20th, around 8pm, Weidling lost contact with army high command.
In one of the strangest reversals of the battle of Berlin, the commander of the LVI Panzer Corps would be appointed commander of the Berlin Defence Area three days later – but not before being condemned to death as a deserter.
Hitler retired to bed much earlier than usual on April 20th, leaving his mistress Eva Braun to arrange an impromptu party in the Reich Chancellery, taking Martin Bormann and Hitler’s doctor, Theodor Morell, with her. As they drank champagne and danced, the only record available would play on repeat: ‘Blood Red Roses’ by Max Mensing.
By nightfall, Ivan Konev was worried that his 1st Ukrainian Front was falling behind and that his earlier drive towards Berlin was being threatened now Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front further north had gathered momentum. Looking down at a map to study the positions of his forces, he ordered the commanders of the Third and Fourth Guards Tank Army to drive on at even greater speed, cutting through the lines and leaving their flanks exposed.
In a bold, but extremely dangerous move, the Fourth Guards Tank Army would cover 28 miles in less than 24 hours – the Third Guards Tank Army would penetrate even deeper. Pushing 38 miles to the outskirts of Zossen – and the headquarters of the German Army High Command.
To elements of the 1st Ukrainian Front, Berlin was now only twenty-five miles away.
Like the previous four nights, Royal Air Force Mosquitos returned to Berlin to conduct an air raid throughout the night of April 20th – the last RAF raid of the war on the city.
At 2:14am on April 21st Mosquito XVI ML929, of No 109 Squadron, with Flying Officer AC Austin, pilot, and Flying Officer P Moorhead, navigator, claimed the last bombs – four 500-pounders.
April 21st 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Six - The Red Army Reaches Berlin
…The Red Army reaches Berlin…the Flight of the Golden Pheasants…the German Army Headquarters at Zossen is overrun…Hitler orders SS leader Felix Steiner to carry out a relief attack on Berlin…the evacuation of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp concludes…
At 9:30am on April 21st 1945, Adolf Hitler was awakened in the damp concrete Führerbunker by news that Soviet artillery was now pounding Berlin’s central Mitte district. The Nazi leader immediately ordered the air force to silence the guns. A task the now crippled Luftwaffe was far from capable of performing.
Instead the bombardment would only worsen. With the nearby Hotel Adlon – once the city’s grandest establishment – turned into a military hospital to accommodate the mounting casualties in the area.
An observation post at the Berlin Zoo was however able to pinpoint the volleys as originating from the suburb of Marzahn – no further than 8 miles away from Hitler’s chancellery.
Over the next eleven days, Soviet artillery would unleash hell on the Nazi capital. For a city more than accustomed to the routine – and devastating – air attacks carried out by Anglo-American forces – the introduction of desultory Red Army barrages would bring with it a new and more sinister measure of torment – as more than 1.8 million shells rained down on the city. Almost exceeding, in less than two weeks, the total tonnage of explosives dropped by the British and Americans over the past five years.
Unlike aerial bombing, Soviet artillery would arrive without warning – indiscriminately hitting Alexanderplatz and the Tiergarten throughout the day.
The same morning, senior Nazi party officials would swarm the army headquarters for the Defence of Berlin – located on Hohenzollerndamm – to be granted passes entitling them to leave the beleaguered city. This exodus of armchair warriors – dubbed the ‘Flight of the Golden Pheasants’ by locals – would see the army issue 2,000 exceptions to the citywide policy that all capable of fighting against the Bolshevik enemy should stand their ground. “The rats are leaving the sinking ship,” a colonel on the Chief of Staff would retort. The very same party men who had rallied against the army for cowardice when it suffered losses at the front were now leaving the Nazi capital at the height of its hour of need.
Further north of Berlin an exodus of a much different kind was also taking place on April 21st – having begun the previous day – as around thirty thousand prisoners from the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg were death marched west and away from the Soviet advance. Columns of inmates, weakened by their internment in the camp, trailing through northern Brandenburg and Mecklenburg.
Established in 1936, in the shadow of the Summer Olympics, Sachsenhausen served as the nucleus of the concentration camp industry of the Third Reich and a prototype for the other camps that would follow its construction. Run by Heinrich Himmler’s SS, the Nazi party’s ideological warriors, as a proving ground for the brutality and industrial killing that would largely take place further east in places like Auschwitz and the other Operation Reinhard camps.
As these prisoners filed out of the camp and were marched westwards, unaware of their actual destination, many would fall by the roadside – either to be shot by their guards, beaten to death, or left to expire. The corpses of these so-called political enemies of National Socialism littering the countryside in this tragic finale to one of the darkest chapters in German history. Those who might make it to further west alive were possibly to be loaded on boats and barges and taken out to sea to drown, with survivors summarily executed – as to ensure that no evidence would remain of the wickedness these men, women, and children had endured.
Although the Geneva Convention stipulates that prisoners should be moved away from danger, such as an advancing front, the forcible relocation of the prisoners from Sachsenhausen – as with the other Nazi camps – was simply another means of exhausting and ensuring the deaths of these unfortunate souls.
Covering between 20 and 40 kilometres per day, in cold wet weather, through the columns of military vehicles and refugees – and sleeping outside when given time to rest – the Sachsenhausen death marches would travel via Neuruppin or Rheinsberg looking to thread through the British and Soviet front lines. The survivors finally rescued between May 3rd and May 6th, 1945, by soldiers of the 2nd Belorussian Front in Crivitz and Raben-Steinfeld near Schwerin and by American troops of the 7th U.S. Tank Division, near Ludwigslust.
Meanwhile on April 21st, south of Berlin, in one of the last successful German tactical victories on the Eastern Front – the city of Bautzen was attacked by the forces of Army Group Centre. Taking advantage of a gap in the lines made by the rapid advance of Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front pushing towards Dresden.
Konev’s force was spread out across a wide area and with supply lines stretched. The German 4th Panzer Army sought to take advantage of this and break through to Berlin while also relieving the 9th Army in its withdrawal from the Seelow Heights.
As elsewhere, the German forces were a mixed collection of experienced fighters, Hitler Youth, and older Volkssturm men. Opposed mainly by the Polish Communist 2nd Army, the German 4th Army inflicted heavy losses on the Soviet forces and managed to recapture Bautzen.
Though they would not make it to Berlin as a relief force.
Back in the city, around 3,000 Hitler Youth were assembled at the Olympic Stadium to confront the advancing Soviets. Volkssturm troops would eventually join the defense of the Reichssportfeld site, armed with Italian ammunition for their German rifles. As was the case for many of the would be defenders of the city, wearing mismatched uniforms and often carrying whatever weapons were at hand. As Hitler’s Third Reich convulsed in its dying throes, the words the Nazi leader had announced years earlier took on new meaning: “Each mother who gives birth to a child has struck a blow for the future of our people.”
A future that look more and more uncertain – with young cannon fodder and invalid old men used as kindling for the bonfire the Soviet would soon light in the Nazi capital.
Not classified as part of the regular army, the Hitler Youth and Volkssturm units were controlled by the Nazi Party, and would often fight alongside units from the SS – or man barricades setup throughout Berlin. Armed with panzerfaust anti-tank launchers, that many had been trained to use only earlier in the month – at a mass gathering on the Reichssportfeld – if at all.
The spectre of Hitler’s wonder weapons, spread with propaganda slogans such as Die Vergeltung Kommt (Revenge is coming!) hung over the city. As did the belief that relief would come in the form of reinforcements from elsewhere. Rumours of rifts in the Allied coalition – between Stalin and the West – or US airborne troops parachuting into the city would spread through Berlin.
None of which would materialise.
The reality would be much more terrible.
Perhaps most indicative of the verisimilitude of the Nazi bluster of the period was the Volksgranate 45 (the people’s hand grenade) that Volkssturm men would be issued in April 1945. A simple lump of concrete wrapped in a concrete charge that was more likely to maim or kill the thrower than the target.
On April 21st, remnants of the German 9th Army’s central force, and specifically General Weidling’s 56th Panzer Corps, were busy being pushed back towards the capital across the eastern side of the Berlin autobahn ring road. Weidling’s troops withdrew into Berlin’s suburbs after holding a line between Mahlsdorf and Woltersdorf. Through barricades manned by Volkssturm men that would collapse like balsa wood in the face of the Soviet onslaught and past bodies hanging from trees – victims of roadside executions for desertion. The Red Army’s Sturmovik air-to-ground assault planes strafing the convoys of soldiers who were now streaming back to the capital, leaving corpses to be pushed aside and piled against the side of the road.
Hero of the Soviet Union Colonel V. Belousov, in command of a group of Sturmovick fighters of the Sixteenth Air Army reported:
“All day long until it was dark, more and more groups of Ilyushins fought on the battlefield without ceasing, motor vehicles and tanks burned, and enemy infantry was chased through the forests. Anything that survived the air attacks was caught by our tankers and motorized riflemen.”
Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front had begun to push south – in an attempt to preempt Marshal Konev’s arrival to Berlin. The 8th Guard Army would be sent towards the river Spree to capture Erkner, just south of Rüdersdorf, on April 21st. Still bound to encircle the city on the northern flank, Zhukov’s 47th Army was dispatched to Spandau, while the 2nd Guards Tank Army headed to Oranienburg. The 1st Mechanized Corps captured Bernau bei Berlin against little, if any, resistance. The 37th Mechanized Brigade would reach the outskirts of Buch by late morning and advance into the town before proceeding to Karow and liberating some 2,000 Soviet and Polish girls from a labour camp.
On April 21st – elements of the 5th Shock Army would reach 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.
Debate continues today whether it was the borough of Malchow – in Berlin Lichtenberg – where Red Army troops first set foot in Berlin.
Having spent the last two days crossing open countryside, Soviet armour was still advancing rapidly, with infantry arriving behind to clear any pockets of German resistance remaining. 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.
To the south of Berlin, Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front was threatening to take Zossen and capture the German Army High Command.
At 9am, a senior German officer at the headquarters had received a telephone call alerting him that Soviet forces had been spotted in the vicinity – with forty Soviet tanks coming up the road from Baruth to Zossen. By 11am, the German army staff at Zossen were made aware that a reconnaissance detachment sent to investigate had been attacked and suffered heavy casualties. And that despite the proximity of Konev’s troops, Hitler was adamant that the general staff remain in place.
With the compound about to be overrun imminently, the officers of the general staff instinctively continued their briefing – only to hear the distant gunfire fall silent. The Soviet tanks had come to a halt on the Baruth road after running out of diesel.
Soon the order came from the Reich Chancellery in Berlin that the headquarters should be relocated to Eiche near Potsdam and a tank base at Krampnitz. Non-essential staff would be sent to the south of the country.
As this large convoy of vehicles left to head to join the forces in Bavaria, it was hit by one of the last Luftwaffe sorties of the war, after being misidentified as Soviet.
Later in the afternoon, Red Army soldiers would arrive in the Zossen compound to find the caretaker waiting and offering to take them on a guided tour. Only four troops were left at the headquarters, three would surrender immediately, while the fourth was too drunk to do so.
As the German Army Staff were relocating from Zossen, a rumour was starting to spread that General Weidling – the head of the 56th Panzer Corps who was busy struggled against Zhukov’s forces on the Oder front had moved his headquarters to Döberitz, just north of Potsdam – and on the wrong side of the city.
Meanwhile in the Führerbunker, Hitler was now struggling to find a solution to shore up the crumbling front and launch an offensive against the Soviets. Raging against the incompetence of the air force to mount an attack, regardless of having few serviceable aircraft and even less aviation fuel, Hitler instead found the relief he was looking for in the form of an SS group – the III SS Germanische Corps – commanded by Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. From their positions in the Eberswalde, Steiner’s men were to attack against the right flank of the 1st Belorussian Front, heading south to cut off the Russians drive on Berlin. With this he would reestablish a connection between Von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army in the north and the 9th Army that had days earlier experienced its Seelow Heights position crumble and was fighting in the open country east of Berlin.
Calling Steiner, Hitler would say: “Every available man between Berlin and the Baltic Sea up to Stettin and Hamburg is to be drawn into this attack I have ordered.” Later adding: “You will see, Steiner. You will see. The Russians will suffer their greatest defeat before the gates of Berlin.”
At threat of execution for desertion, Steiner was now designated as the relief force for Berlin. Among the many reasons why his plan would not succeed was the simple matter that Steiner just did not have the men. Steiner was meant to have gathered into his group the men from the 9th Army that had been pushed north by Zhukov’s drive to Berlin. But in the chaos, it had been impossible to find the forces.
Yet his name remained on Hitler’s map – and a small flag noting Group Steiner to be moved around the table.
The Nazi leader would also decide on the evening of April 21st to sack the commander of Berlin, General Reymann. Two replacements were considered then rejected until Hitler settled on a Colonel named Käther – chief National Socialist Führungsoffizier. He would be promoted to major general and then lieutenant general before his appointment was cancelled the next day.
Leaving the Berlin Defense Area without a commander just as the Red Army was entering the city.
April 22nd 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Seven - The Red Army Grinds Into Berlin's Suburbs
…Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is liberated by the Soviet and Polish armies……Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front arrives in Berlin reaching the Teltow canal near Klein-Machnow…Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian moves into Weissensee and Pankow and crosses the River Havel north of Spandau…Hitler breaks down at his daily briefing in the Führerbunker…the German Army High Command moves to Krampnitz near Potsdam…the Siemensstadt Volkssturm participate in their first firefight…
Sunday April 22nd 1945 had been the original date outlined in Stalin’s plans for the fall of Berlin – coinciding with what would have been Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. The troops of commander Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, however, were largely still only on the city’s periphery and grinding forwards slowly.
Zhukov had underestimated not only the persistence of the German defenders at the Seelow Heights, that had pushed back his advance by three days, but also the network of streams and canals that crisscrossed the eastern approach to Berlin and the historic territory of the Mark Brandenburg.
Now faced with the task of moving into Berlin, he would command his soldiers to attack in five incisive movemements:
- The 8th Guards Army would force German General Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps back into the city centre
- The 5th Shock Army would push into Berlin’s eastern suburbs
- While the 3rd Shock Army was ordered to advance through the northern part of the city and into the centre
- The 2nd Tanks Guard Army was to flank northwest around Berlin to Charlottenburg on the west side via Siemensstadt
- The 47th Army after moving through Oranienburg was to move even further west to complete the encirclement of the city
While moving into the urban city area, Zhukov was also working to throw a noose around the Nazi capital – restricting movement in and out of the city and denying the defenders any reenforcements.
The spearheads of both the 3rd and 5th Shock Armies however would spend much of the day preparing themselves for the street fighting role that was to follow, with artillery shelling the city, but the troops making little effort to push the line forward.
By the end of the day the 1st Belorussian offensive would move into the outskirts of the city, the districts of Weissensee, Pankow, and Lichtenberg in the east. With additional forces crossing the River Havel north of Spandau. Fierce fighting took place in Köpenick throughout the day.
To the south of the city, troops of Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian front were pivoting towards the Teltow Canal near Klein-Machnow to establish the lower half of Zhukov’s noose.
Having travelled nearly three times the distance as Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, it looked like Konev still had a chance to reach the Red Army’s final objective – the Reichstag – before his rival.
Defence of the city was gradually being organised, with the troops withdrawing from their eastern positions slowly reorganising in the capital. Although neither Gotthard Heinrici, head of Army Group Vistula, or General Weidling, head of LVI Panzer Corps were particularly happy about engaging in urban fighting.
Meanwhile, head of SS Nordland – Joachim Ziegler – was planning on moving his troops south of Berlin then towards the Western allies to avoid the city altogether.
The mixed array of retreated Germany army and SS men, elderly Volkssturm, Hitler Youth, and drafted civilians would soon get their first experience of fighting on the streets of Berlin.
Yet the majority of mobilised Volkssturm units still remained outside the city.
Early on April 22nd, the Siemensstadt Volkssturm – composed of eldery factory workers – would have its baptism of fire, at positions it had been preparing for much of the previous two months immediately north of the Kaulsdorf and Mahlsdorf S-bahn stations. Accompanied by a Wehrmacht battalion on their left flank and the ‘Warnholz’ police battalion on their right flank, the unit would have its forward companies attacked by Soviet tanks from nearby Hellesdorf. After carrying out a rather successful counterattack, the men of Volkssturm battalion 3/115th withdrew to new positions near Friedrichsfelde Ost S-bahn station. Although by midnight that position would become untenable and they would pull back even further into the city.
Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, would publish an editorial in the last edition of Das Reich newspaper calling on every man, woman, and child to fight in defence of the city.
“The hour of our last triumph is awaiting us. It will be bought with blood and tears but it will justify all the sacrifices we have made.” – Joseph Goebbels
For the first time, Berlin’s massive Flak towers would be tasked with engaging ground targets – with the Friedrichshain tower firing 5,000 12.8cm rounds on Red Army tank and infantry formations.
For most of the morning of April 22nd, Adolf Hitler – from his Führerbunker headquarters in Berlin – was feverishly demanding news of the counterattack by SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner and his ghost army further north that the Führer expected would come to relieve the city. After telling Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, General Koller, to send up reconnaissance aircraft, Hitler talked with SS Chief, Heinrich Himmler, and received an optimistic reply that seemed to satisfy him. Although by the midday briefing, it was clear that Steiner’s counterattack was not coming.
Soviet forces had broken the perimeter defensive ring of the city. Dejected and full of rage, Hitler began to scream and yell. Eventually he collapsed into an armchair and wept, saying openly for the first time that the war was lost. And that he would rather kill himself than be captured by the enemy. Putting to rest any belief in the bunker that he might still escape south to Berchtesgaden and organise an ‘Alpine Redoubt’.
On April 21st the Transocean News Agency and the Reichssender Berlin stations fell silent. As the battle for Berlin continued, more and more of the city’s residents would become reliant on foreign news, such as the BBC, for their understanding of the events unfolding. For some time the newspapers in the city had been reduced to single sheet publications, full of party bluster. With the exception of those printed by the Wehrmacht that would sometimes contain reference to villages and towns whereby it was possible to plot out the frontline or guess roughly how far away the Soviet troops were.
Battery powered radios would help make up for the power cuts that were proving better censorship of foreign broadcasts than the Nazi police state previously could.
Word of mouth and the Chinese whispers method of spreading rumors would add to the nightmarish unreality that pervaded the city – as rarely was the news good.
North of Berlin in the sleepy village of Oranienburg, units of the 1st Communst Polish Army and 47th Army – under Soviet command – liberated the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp on April 22nd. Finding around 3,000 emaciated prisoners as well as nurses and doctors, abandoned by their SS captors who had already fled west in the death marches of the majority of camp prisoners the previous day. Three hundred of the camp’s former inmates would not survive their liberation and subsequently died as a result of their incarceration; they are now buried in six mass graves by the camp wall, near the infirmary.
As the ‘model camp’ built by the SS in 1936, Sachsenhausen was built initially to incarcerate political prisoners. But would also see use as an industrial killing facility, where in 1941 some 13,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in a ‘neck-shot’ (Genickschuss) process.
It is estimated that 200,000 prisoners passed through Sachsenhausen and that 30,000 people were murdered there. Medical experimentation, including castration and sterilisation, would take place within the confines of the camp, and disabled men and women were sent from Sachsenhausen to euthanasia centres to be murdered as undesirables.
Soviet troops had already liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, and even managed to overrun Majdanek in July 1944 – the first Nazi death camp to be liberated. What the Soviets discovered at Sachsenhausen would only add to the horror.
But to many Berliners who would hear the news of the camp’s liberation – only 35km north of the city – the stories of barbarity and inhumanity were largely enemy propaganda.
Adolf Hitler’s breakdown earlier in the day had subsided by the afternoon, following a conversation with Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels – where Goebbel’s informed Hitler of his plan to bring his wife and their six children to join the Führer in the bunker – the Nazi leader emerged to address his entourage and confirmed a new plan. General Wenck’s 12th Army, currently facing the Americans on the Elbe, could be turned around and head towards Berlin. General Field Marshal Keitel would coordinate the movement of the 12th Army to the west and the 9th Army to the east, which was still struggling to break out of its near encirclement. Highlighting the seriousness of the situation, Hitler would now clearly state to his generals his intention to kill himself rather than be captured by the Soviets.
It would be victory – or death.
In striking contrast to any notion of business as usual, life in the Führerbunker was descending into madness, as the walls cracked from the repeated bombing and the dust seeped into the air – making it almost unbearable to breathe, especially for the officers crammed into the tiny conference room. Although the ventilation system still worked well, the men would be almost asleep on their feet, as Hitler was the only one to sit. Food and alcohol were in no short supply, which meant drunkenness was a common sight – regardless of rank.
Later in the evening, Hitler summoned his two secretaries, Gerda Christian and Traudl Junge, along with his Austrian dietician, Constanze Manzialy, to his sitting room and told the women to prepare to leave to the Berghof in Bavaria with the rest of the staff.
Operation Seraglio, the evacuation to the Berchtesgaden, had already started, with a party preparing to leave the next day. Hitler orders that all personal papers in Berlin, Munich, and Berchtesgaden should immediately be burned. A force of 10 Junkers Ju 52/3m transport aircraft operating from the Berlin-Gatow airfield would shuttle staff to safety in the south of the country, taking with them Hitler’s doctor Morell – who managed to carry an army foot locker of Hitler’s medical records with him.
The women of Hitler’s close circle would, however, refuse to leave him in his final days. Hitler reportedly looked at them fondly and said: “If only my generals had been as brave as you,” before distributing cyanide pills to be used in case of the arrival of the Red Army.
The ‘first lady of the Reich’ – Magda Goebbels – would arrive in the bunker later in the day, bringing with her the six children, ranging from twelve years old down to five: all with names beginning with the letter H. Perhaps a reference to Hitler’s name: Helga, Hilde, Helmut, Holde, Hedda, and Heide. For her loyalty at this desparate time, Hitler would reward Magda Goebbels by presenting her with his own Nazi Party badge, which he always wore on his tunic.
Magda would remain in the bunker with her husband Joseph until the end. Joseph continued to hold the position of Nazi Gauleiter of Berlin but mostly was eager to remain by Hitler’s side with a front row seat to witness the inferno currently threatening to engulf the city.
With typical gallows humour (Galgenhumor), Berliners were already secretly referring to the city as the Reichssheiterhaufen (the imperial pyre).
Goebbels had in-fact ordered the fire engines of Berlin to leave the city on April 22nd in preparation for the Soviet arrival, so that they should not fall into the hands of the enemy. When head of the Fire Department, Major General Walter Golbach, heard of the order he immediately rescinded it and directed the engines to return to the city. Hearing that he was to be arrested for treachery, Golbach tried to commit suicide and failed.
Bleeding from the face he was taken out by the SS and shot.
For the first time in its history, the Berlin Telegraph Office closed down, on April 22nd 1945. The last message it received was from Tokyo, stating: “GOOD LUCK TO YOU ALL.”
On the same day, the last flight from Tempelhof Airport left, taking with it nine passengers to Stockholm.
Despite the growing shutdown of the city, two operations continued – the meteorological station in Potsdam and eleven of the city’s seventeen breweries, considered essential production, continued making beer.
On the night of April 22nd, Soviet Marshal Konev’s 3rd Guard Tanks Army was ordered to prepare to cross the Teltow canal on the morning of April 24th. Additional infantry and artillery would be assigned to the force, which in the meantime was expected to secure the suburb of Buckow of their right flank and try to make contact with the 1st Belorussian Front – having advanced well into the districts of Lichtenrade, Marienfelde, and Lankwitz by nightfall..
Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front had beaten his rival, Zhukov, to the southern suburbs of Berlin – but he needed 24 hours to amass sufficient strength to carry out a coordinated assault on the city centre.
April 23rd 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Eight - Stalin Changes The Inter-Front Boundaries
…The Soviet 3rd Shock Army take Berlin’s northern suburb of Pankow…Stalin’s orders redrawing the lines between the 1st Ukrainian and 1st Belorussian come into effect…Ivan Konev learns that his 1st Ukrainian Front may be able to take the Reichstag…Hitler descends into the Führerbunker for the last time…Hermann Göring attempts to take control…
On April 23rd, the Berlin Defense Area was still officially without a commandant.
Two days earlier, General Hellmuth Reymann had been relieved of his command for defeatism. Concerned at the lack of attempt to evacuate the civilian population from Berlin, in contrast to the Nazi party officials – many of whom had made sure of their own departure (the so-called Flights of the Golden Pheasants) with special permits issued from Reymann’s headquarters – he was reassigned to command a unit in Potsdam to the south-west of the city.
The man who had been expected to take over from Reymann – Generalleutnant Ernst Kaether – had never actually assumed command.
In one of the strangest episodes to take place during the battle of Berlin, the man who would actually oversee the defense of the city for the remainder of its time as the capital of Nazi Germany had – on April 23rd – been ordered to report to Adolf Hitler’s Führerbunker to answer to his own charges of defeatism.
And face possible execution.
After moving the headquarters of his LVI Panzer Corps across the river Spree and southern branch of the Teltow Canal, General Helmuth Weidling would receive an order on April 23rd to report to Hitler’s bunker at 6pm. Where he would be received by Generals Krebs and Burgsdorf before being allowed to make his case directly to the Führer.
Weidling was finally in touch with army command after more than 30 hours of silence.
Rumours of the General’s misconduct had spread far and wide – particularly the suspicion that his troops were relocating to Döberitz, near Potsdam. Far west of the city and away from the front.
Weidling would instead explain that he was moving his corps towards Königs Wusterhausen, in accordance with orders issued by the head of the 9th Army – at that time desperately fighting against the Soviet drive east of Berlin. With the misunderstanding corrected, the general was instead informed that, with immediate effect, he should take over the defense of the southeastern and southern defense sectors of Berlin – codenamed A to E – ordering units to disengage the enemy and redeploy to further prepare the city’s defenses.
- The 9th Parachute Division would redeploy to Lichtenburg (Sector A)
- The Müncheberg Panzer Division would redeploy to Karlshorst (Sector B)
- The SS Nordland Panzergrenadier Division would redeploy to Tempelhof (Sector D)
- The 20th Panzergrenadier Division to Zehlendorf (Sector E)
- The 18th Panzergrenadier Division in reserve just north of Tempelhof
- The Corps Artillery to the Tiergarten
General Weidling would move his headquarters to Tempelhof Airport and all but the Müncheberg Division would make it back into the city during the night of April 23rd/24th.
Not only would this mean officially pulling Weidling’s LVI Corps back into Berlin but abandoning any sense of defending the capital on its eastern approaches – and removing the left flank of General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army (still fighting in the field).
Orders for Weidling’s withdrawal would subsequently doom the 9th Army to encirclement.
The General’s decision to move to Tempelhof meant locating his headquarters next to one of the three major ammunition depots in the city. Shortages in equipment and ammunition at this point in the war were common in all field units but the three depots; one in Jungfernheide Volkspark next to the Siemensstadt complex, one in the Grünewald near the War Academy, and the other in Hasenheide Volkspark next to Tempelhof, were stocked to about 80 percent capacity before the fighting in the city.
The armoured vehicles in the area that were still battleworthy were ordered to Tempelhof Airport to refuel from the Luftwaffe aviation stores and prepare for the coming confrontation on the city streets.
Despite the effort to mix units of defenders, with German Army, SS, and Volksstrum forces fighting side by side, the Soviet would eventually bypass the more effective units by destroying the weaker parts of the line and advancing to later pick off the remnants at leisure. As such the three ammunition depots would be quickly overrun when the eventual urban fighting began.
At 4am on April 23rd, an order from Stalin would add further fuel to the competition between the two Soviet Marshals involved in the battle of Berlin. The demarcation line between Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front was now set at Anhalter Bahnhof, the diplomatic station near the Wilhelmstrasse government quarter.
“Lübben, thence to Teupitz, Mittenwalde, Mariendorf, Anhalter Station of Berlin” – Stalin’s order 11074
This left Konev’s troops within ample distance (150 yards west) of the Reichstag building – the main objective in the city – and with his forces thrusting into the south of the city, a real possibility that he might still beat Zhukov to the prize.
As Stalin’s most admired military commander, it seemed only logical that Zhukov would be entrusted with the job of taking Berlin and thus conquering the capital of the fascist enemy. However, whether due to Stalin’s suspicion that Zhukov may be developing enough of a personality cult to threaten his own, or seeking to add some healthy competition to the drive to Berlin, he had tweaked the initial plan for the offensive at the start of April 1945 to allow Konev’s troops to advance close to the 1st Belorussian Front from the south-side of Berlin.
Zhukov far from expected the resistance that occured on the Seelow Heights and the Oderbruch at the start of the battle, that delayed his forces by three whole days, nor that Konev would punch through so quickly with his tanks and threaten Berlin.
These new orders of April 23rd threatened to change everything.
As the race to see who would be the first to reach the city centre only became more heated.
By April 23rd Soviet troops had arrived into the northern Pankow district of Berlin, leading to the newspaper of the 3rd Shock Army to proclaim: “Motherland rejoice! We are on the streets of Berlin!”
The Second Guards Tank Army would move into Reinickendorf from Wittenau – attempting to push towards the Hohenzollern canal at Jungfernheide.
The 5th Shock Army would start to move down Landsberger Allee in the Lichtenberg district in the early hours of April 23rd, before being engaged by fire from the Friedrichshain Flak tower – destroying a column of heavy tanks.
Anti-aircraft guns would play a prominent role in the battle of Berlin – but not always in their intended role. It was on April 23rd that the flak gunners of the German 1st Flak Division would be called upon to repeatedly engage ground targets near the S-bahn train stations that marked the outer ring of the defensive area.
As Soviet troops prepared to move into the city in force they would coordinate their assault with two air control centres, under the command of Air Chief Marshal Novikov. The principal being the headquarters of the 16th Air Army east of Berlin, and the secondary in the north responsible for coordinating ground-attacks.
Beyond the hellish artillery that the Soviet forces would deploy in the battle of Berlin, they would also utilise air units and individual aircraft to attack specific targets in the city. With observers stationed on rooftops directing aircraft to their targets through the pall of smoke hanging over the city.
Soviet PO-2 biplanes would circle over the city throughout the day, flying in low circles over the battlefield and observing troop movements – and then either marking the locations for air-to-ground fighters to attack or swooping in themselves.
The 7th Department of the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front would also launch a propaganda offensive against the city, air dropping pamphlets telling German soldiers that it was futile to fight on. Almost 50 million of these leaflets would be dropped on the city – and the Department would claim that fifty percent of Berliners who surrendered had one of these leaflets in their possession.
Meanwhile, the head of the German air force had his own personal problems to deal with.
Following Adolf Hitler’s emotional breakdown at his midday briefing on April 22nd, Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, General Koller, had flown south to Bavaria to meet with Hermann Göring and relayed the news of Hitler’s condition and proclamation to his entourage that the war was lost. Adding that the Nazi leader had also stated: “That when it comes to negotiating, the Reichsmarschall (Göring) can do better than I.”
On April 23rd, Göring acted, thinking Hitler incapacitated and that he – being his nominated successor – should take over leadership. In an uncomfortable position, Göring needed to be careful not to overstep his position and be seen as plotting against the Führer but also feared being seen as not fulfilling his duties. He sent a carefully worded message to Berlin:
“My Führer, in view of your decision to remain in the fortress of Berlin do you agree that I take over at once the total leadership of the Reich with full freedom of action at home and abroad as your deputy, in accordance with your decree of June 29 1941? If no reply is received by ten o’clock tonight I shall take it for granted that you have lost your freedom of action, and shall act for the best interests of our country and people. You know what I feel for you in this gravest hour of my life. Words fail me to express myself. May God protect you, and speed you quickly here in spite of it all. Your loyal Hermann Göring.”
Göring’s message was received at the Führerbunker and handled by Martin Bormann, who presented it to Hitler. It didn’t take much for Bormann to convince the Führer that this was outright treason, immediately offering to draft a reply.
Göring would be ordered to resign from all of his post on health grounds.
Furthermore, an SS guard was dispatched to surround the Berghof and Göring effectively became a prisoner of his quarters. With even the kitchens of the property locked, supposedly to prevent the disgraced Reichsmarschall from poisoning himself.
A surprise visitor would also arrive at Hitler’s Führerbunker on April 23rd – Albert Speer had driven from Hamburg, trying to avoid roads blocked with refugees, to see Hitler for the very last time. After taking leave on Hitler’s birthday three days earlier, Speer decided to return and have a private conversation with Hitler.
The conversation would touch on whether Hitler would truly remain in Berlin until the end or travel to Berchtesgaden, in the south. To which Speer advised that it would be better to end it all in Berlin rather than travel elsewhere, where ‘legends would be hard to create”.
By Speer’s account, the two then discussed Hitler’s intention to commit suicide – and Eva Braun’s determination to die by his side.
In the late afternoon, the Nazi leader would take his dog – Blondi – for a walk around the Reich Chancellery gardens before returning back to the Führerbunker for good.
This would be the last time that Adolf Hitler would see daylight.
Late on April 23rd, wireless radio communications occurred for the first time between units of Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front south-west of Berlin and Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front to the north-west.
Due to the short range of Soviet wireless radio transmissions at the time, this could only mean that the units were close – and soon to complete the encirclement of the Nazi capital.
April 24th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Nine - The Red Army Reaches The S-Bahn Ring
…General Helmuth Weidling assumes control of the Berlin defence forces…Soviet troops cross the Teltow canal…Troops of the 5th Shock Army reach the Berlin S-bahn ring network…the SS Charlemagne arrives in Berlin…the Soviets advance on Spandau aiming to close off Berlin from the west…Theodor Busse’s 9th Army is encircled in the Halbe Pocket…Hitler distributes cyanide capsules to his entourage…
At 11am on April 24th 1945, General Helmuth Weidling was informed that following his successful meeting with Adolf Hitler the previous day he had been promoted to Commandant of the Berlin Defence Area – contrary to a previous order that he should be executed for desertion.
He thus became the fifth commander of the Defence Area in less than three months and the third within two days.
The forces available to Weidling to defend the city were far from capable of the task and included roughly 45,000 soldiers in several severely depleted divisions – some part of the German Army and others part of the SS.
Additionally another 40,000 Volkssturm men – veterans of the First World War or simply men conscripted into the fight – joined police units and Hitler Youth to fill the ranks.
Weidling would command the forces in Berlin across eight sectors – designated ‘A’ through to ‘H’ – with battlefield commanders assigned to each area.
- In the west of the city was the 20th Infantry Division
- To the north was the 9th Parachute Division
- To the north-east was the Müncheberg Panzer Division
- To the south and south-east of the city was the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland
- In reserve, Weidling had the 18th Panzergrenadier Division in Berlin’s central Mitte district.
The three flak towers in the city – Zoo, Humboldthain, and Friedrichshain – would also aid in the defense of the city. With plenty of ammunition for their 128mm and 20mm guns. All three had coordinates of every major building throughout the city in their fire control systems – with spotters posted on rooftops to observe enemy troops movements and report back to the towers gunners.
Hitler had personally appointed SS Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke the Battle Commander (Kommandant) for the central government district (District Z or Zitadelle) that included the Reich Chancellery and Führerbunker. Mohnke had served as head of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and was wounded in battle twice by air attacks – once suffering a severe leg wound in the Balkans that would lead doctors to advise that his leg should be amputated. A decision that Mohnke overrode.
Although considered battle hardened by his service on both the eastern and western fronts, Mohnke would only have two weak regiments of around 2,000 men as part of his battle group – Kampfgruppe Mohnke (Battle Group Mohnke) – and due to their position in the centre of the city they would suffer heavily under the intense bombardment of Soviet artillery aimed at the government quarter.
Mixed in among the bands of defenders were the millions of inhabitants of Berlin – the vast majority being female – bracing for the avalanche of chaos and suffering that would follow over the next week. The final act in a tragedy that had seen the lives of millions more extinguished across the European continent.
SS execution squads roamed the city looking for deserters – or suspected ‘Seydlitz Troops’ who would be summarily executed or hanged from lampposts.
Nightmarish atrocity stories were already spreading through the city, with tales of Soviet rapes and executions arriving with the masses of refugees from the eastern front. Some finding solace in dark humour would joke: “better a Russian on the belly than an Ami on the head”. Referring to the Allied air raids that had finally ceased days earlier.
The tragic reality would soon become all too obvious.
On the morning of April 24th, fierce fighting was taking place at the Teltow Canal – between the troops of Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front and the 20th Panzergrenadier Division. With the latter successfully eliminating a bridgehead that the Red Army had established earlier at Lankwitz.
The previous evening nearly 3,000 guns and heavy mortars had been positioned to fire north across the canal – and into the city – bombarding the warehouses sheltering the Volkssturm detachments positioned alongside the 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier Division as waves of Soviet aviators joined in the pummelling of the defences.
With the attack starting at 6am on April 24th, this would be an even greater concentration of fire than Konev had unleashed on the Neisse river crossing eight days earlier.
From a rooftop observation post, Marshal Konev was able to look out across the city of Berlin and assess the scene:
“From the roof of this building we had a fine view of Berlin, especially its southern and south-western districts. The left flank could be seen as far as Potsdam. Our field of vision extended to the right flank where, on the outskirts of Berlin, troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front and the 1st Belorussian Front were to link up.
I remember how vast the city appeared to me. I noted the massive old buildings, in which the district that lay before me abounded, and the density of these buildings; I took note of everything that might complicate our task of capturing Berlin. I also noticed the canals, rivers, and streams that crossed Berlin in different directions and were plainly visible from above. Such a multiplicity of water obstacles promised additional difficulties.
Before us lay a frontline city, besieged and prepared for defence. Had there been a reasonable government at the head of Germany, it would have been logical, under the circumstances, to expect from it an immediate surrender. Only surrender could have preserved what still remained of Berlin; it would also have saved the lives of many of its citizens. But it was apparently futile to expect a reasonable decision and we had to fight it out. As I gazed upon Berlin I reflected that its end would spell the end of the war and that the sooner we took the city the sooner the war would be over.”
The ad hoc nature of the city’s defence and the desperate finality of the fight that would take place in Berlin meant that the Soviet ground forces were expecting to engage in brutal urban fighting that would mean blood shed for every metre advanced.
Red Army tank driver, Alexander Shelomotov, moving up alongside the 29th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade would comment on April 24th:
“In the evening our team, overcoming fierce resistance from the Germans, came to the southern outskirts of Berlin. On the streets everywhere were barricades with disguised anti-aircraft guns hidden behind. In basements and backyards German soldiers with bazookas lurked and the fighting was hard.”
The Soviet 5th Shock Army and 1st Guards Tank Army of Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front would finally overcome a counter-attack by the German LVI Panzer Corps and reach the Berlin S-Bahn ring railway on the north side by the evening of April 24th. The 5th Shock Army would also cross the Spree farther north of Treptow Park with the assistance of the gunboats of the Dnepr Flotilla. While an additional force would head towards Spandau, west of the city, aiming to encircle Berlin.
Encountering fierce resistance from prepared positions in the north, soldiers of the 12th Guards Rifle Corps came up against the mammoth Humboldthain Flak Tower on April 24th, and using artillery support overwhelmed the surrounding area to enter deeper into the Berlin Wedding district. The tower could only be contained and bypassed and remained operational until the end of the battle. Inside was a young German infantryman – part of an ad hoc unit gathered there and held in reserve – named Wolfgang Karow.
“(On April 24th) we were ordered to try and get some sweets from the Hildebrandt Chocolate factory on Pankestrasse, which was nearby in no man’s land, so we put on some large Luftwaffe rucksacks and set off. We arrived without any trouble, but then had to detain an NSDAP (Party) official, who tried to prevent us from entering at gunpoint. We were able to fill our rucksacks with chocolates and return to the bunker without suffering any casualties, and were warmly greeted by our comrades.” – Wolfgang Karow
The much vaunted counterattack from SS Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner that Adolf Hitler had so emphatically insisted take place three days earlier, however, had failed to materialise. Reaching its final line of advance on April 24th – by entering the towns of Klosterfelde and Zehlendorf north of Berlin before being thrown back by a superior foe.
The remaining elements of General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, which fought against the head-on drive of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front at the Seelow Heights from April 16th was finally surrounded on April 24th – after being pushed into the Spree Forest south-east of Berlin. Elements of the 3rd Army of the 1st Belorussian Front linked up with the 1st Ukrainian Front’s 28th Army at Teupitz completing the encirclement – and forming what would come to be known as the Halbe Pocket. This would consist of around 80,000 men, some 80 tanks, and between 150 and 200 vehicles. The envelopment by the two Soviet pincers meant that these men would spend the rest of the war attempting to break out from the encirclement – with around one third eventually making it to the west. The rest would be either killed or captured by Soviet forces.
Grand Admiral Dönetiz, based in the north of Germany, was signalling that he was prepared to send all available German sailors to Berlin as reinforcements to defend the capital. The plan to crash land these troops in Junkers 52s in the centre of the city would fortunately – at least for the sailors – never be realised.
On the evening of April 24th, at around 10pm, the last German reinforcements made it into Berlin – French SS fighters who were part of 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French). Destined to become the last defenders of Defence Sector Zitadelle and Adolf Hitler’s Führerbunker and among the last fighters to surrender in the city.
Summoned to the city from an SS training camp near Neustrelitz, SS Charlemagne Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg roused his men and asked for volunteers – as the two armoured personnel carriers and three heavy trucks at his disposal could only take a limited number. Although the majority wanted to go, Krukenberg along with Hauptsturmführer Henri Joseph Fenet selected around 300 men – including the 72 year old division chaplain, Monsignor Count Mayol de Lupe.
These troops were forced to take a long detour in arriving to avoid the Soviet advance columns. Leaving from their base early on April 24th, the convoy travelled via Neuruppin, reaching the Berlin-Hamburg highway near Friesack – and the masses of refugees and fleeing soldiers clogging up the route.
Eventually the unit reached the Grünewald forest near the Berlin Olympic Stadium via Marquardt, Glienicke and Gatow without encountering any of the Berlin defence apart from three Hitler Youth armed with Panzerfausts and patrolling on their bicycles.
According to Krukenberg, the big bridges across the Havel on the strategic Berlin-Spandau road at this time were barricaded but unguarded.
As the last regular unit to arrive in the city, the Charlemagne had just made it into Berlin in time – before the complete encirclement of the city by the Soviet Fronts.
April 25th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Ten - The Red Army Encircles Berlin/Elbe Day
…Soviet troops complete the encirclement of Berlin…Soviets and US forces meet at the Elbe…SS Charlemagne leader, Krukenberg, is appointed commander of Defence Sector C and arrives in Neukölln…the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute is captured…the Karstadt Department Store is destroyed…the Soviet armies attack the Halbe Pocket…Army Group Centre retakes the city of Bautzen…
At midday on April 25th 1945, troops of Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front completed their encirclement of Berlin. Meeting in the small town of Ketzin, north-west of the city – on the river Havel, near Potsdam.
Part of the Havelland district, Ketzin was well-known in the area for its Späth nursery – one of the largest plant nurseries in the world in the late 1800s. Owner, Helmutt Späth, would be imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and executed by the Nazis in February 1945.
The same day as Berlin’s encirclement, Zhukov’s forces succeeded in reaching the Elbe and making contact with US forces to the west of Berlin – at around 1:30pm.
The main Nazi radio station, Deutschlandsender, would not report on either of these major events as on April 25th, after days of intermittent broadcasting, it fell silent permanently.
Lead elements of the 58th Guards Rifle Division, under Major General Vladimir Rusakov, met on April 25th 1945 with US soldiers from the 69th Division at the town of Torgau on the Elbe – signalling the exact moment when the Allied forces met to cut Nazi Germany in half. Both heads of state – Stalin and Truman – were immediately informed in messages passed up the chain of command via Bradley and Eisenhower, and Konev to General Antonov of the Soviet Stavka.
A group of American journalist were sent in to cover the meeting, and a banquet was hastily ordered by the commander of the Soviet 34th Corps, with large portraits of Stalin and smaller ones of Truman – the red material used to decorate the tables and the vodka on offer clearly stating who was really responsible for the celebration. The most attractive female soldiers of the 5th Guards Army would also be sent forward in fresh uniforms.
Midway through the celebrations, two American journalists – Andrew Tully of the Boston Traveller and Virginia Irwin of the St Louis Post – decided to abscond with a jeep and cross the river to head to Berlin. Armed with a map that reached as far as Luckenwalde, and an improvised American flag from the banquet that they had tied to their jeep, they reached Berlin by nightfall. Meeting a Soviet Major, and communicating in French, they were taken to a command post in a half-ruined house by the Major, completely unsuspecting that their trip was entirely unauthorised.
The two returned to Torgau the next day, after a night of vodka toasts, Russian pastries, and mutton cooked over charcoal.
Both Soviet and US authorities were furious about their exploits and Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, would decide that because the pair entered Berlin illegally that their stories would have to be approved by Soviet censors first before being published. Dooming them to be well out of date by the time they reached print.
Far to the south of Berlin, in the city of Bautzen, days of bloody house to house fighting had seen the troops of Ferdinand Schörner’s Army Group Centre retake the city from Polish Communist and Soviet forces. Adolf Hitler would send congratulations to Schörner on his victory, which not only inflicted heavy casualties on the 1st Ukrainian Front but stopped the drive to Dresden – which, like Bautzen, would remain in German hands until the country’s capitulation on May 9th.
Although this is considered one of the last successful German armored counterattacks of the war, the true objective of breaking through the Soviet lines and coming to Berlin’s aid would remain un-realised.
While Schörner’s Army Group Centre was celebrating the recapture of Bautzen, the 9th Army, surrounded in the Halbe Pocket, was being hit hard by Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front. On the afternoon of April 25th, the Soviet 3rd, 33rd and 69th Armies joined the 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps in attacking the surrounded troops of Theodor Busse’s beleaguered 9th. Suspecting that the 9th Army would try to cross the Berlin-Dresden Autobahn and undertake a breakout, the 1st Ukrainian Front moved its 3rd Guards Army to support the 28th Army and engage any forces trying to flee.
To the north of Berlin, the 3rd Belorussian Front under Konstantin Rokossovsky managed to finally seize a large bridgehead on the Oder River south of Stettin forcing the centre of the 3rd Panzer Army back to Prenzlau. Progress towards the Baltic coast by Rokossovsky’s troops would be slow, as it would involve crossing the most complicated section of the river Oder with two east and west branches separated by a two mile floodplain.
From April 25th Soviet troops around Berlin would largely be tasked with not only mopping up any resistance they had bypassed along the way but also taking control of the territory that had been allocated as part of the future Soviet zone of occupation.
Units of the 105th, 107th, and 333rd NKVD Frontier Guards would be placed in a cordon around Berlin to ensure the encirclement of the city. Although it should be noted that the Soviet encirclement of Berlin would still contain a number of gaps – that would be exploited by fleeing units throughout the battle, including the members of Hitler’s entourage who would escape from the Führerbunker on May 1st/2nd. The sheer size of the city made complete control of the periphery impossible, even with the number of Soviet troops massed to take the Nazi capital.
The same day, Joseph Stalin received a report on the situation in Berlin from NKVD intelligence chief Lavrenti Beria. In it Beria’s deputy, Ivan Serov, described the obstacles the Red Army were facing when entering the city:
“No serious permanent defences have been found inside the ten-to-fifteen kilometre zone around Berlin. There are fire-trenches and gun-pits and motorways are mined in certain sections. There are some trenches just as one comes into the city, but less in fact than any other taken by the Red Army.”
These observations would be kept secret so that Soviet propaganda efforts could expound on how formidable a foe they faced in Berlin.
The previous day, the first news of a Soviet attack on Berlin had reached the world, when the London edition of Pravda printed preemptive confirmation the Nazi capital was surrounded and cut off from the world. It would keep with the party line:
“The Germans had made a thorough, skillful job of their defences. All the way from one line to the next, the attacking troops were under flanking fire. All the fields were criss crossed with ditches, many of them flooded. Camouflaged anti-tank guns lurked in the orchards. I have never seen anything to equal the density of the German trench system on the Berlin approaches…”
Beria’s report also addressed the distrust the local population had for the Soviet soldiers arriving, that there are no regular soldiers and officers surrendering as they are afraid of what they had done in Russia. They would surrender to the Americans, while the Volkssturm men could surrender to the Bolshevik because they were guilty of nothing.
The secret police chief would suggest that In order to create a ‘normal atmosphere’ for the military administration of the German territory an overhaul of command was needed – with the deputy front commanders of the 1st and 2nd Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian appointed for civilian affairs.
Needless to say these were all NKVD men who, importantly, owed no responsibility to the military chain of command – at a time when Stalin was afraid of the potential power of triumphant generals.
Stalin would consent – but perhaps had bigger things on his mind that day.
After taking the district of Dahlem, with its spacious villas occupied by Nazi bigwigs (earning it the name of Bonzenville), on the 24th – Red Army troops managed to capture the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics on April 25th. Although the frontline troops and their officers were seemingly unaware of the significance of the site, the area was quickly swarming with NKVD intelligence agents. Developments taking place in the United States as part of the Manhattan Project, meant that Stalin was eager to secure scientific facilities and their supplies in order to further his attempts to replicate American progress – and beat the US to The Bomb.
Scientists capable of processing uranium would be sought out and the NKVD chief metallurgist General Avraami Zavenyagin would set up a base on the outskirts of Berlin with a team of scientists and researchers to oversee the acquisition of materials and dismantling of laboratories.
The team would write in their report of the successful discovery of: “250kg of metallic uranium: three tons of uranium oxide; twenty litres of heavy water.”
All disposed of at great speed for one very important reason: that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was actually in the Allied zone of divided Berlin. The quick removal of these materials was deemed necessary so that they didn’t fall into the hands of the British or Americans.
Having arrived in the city late the previous evening as the last regular unit to make it in Berlin before the Soviet encirclement, SS leader Gustav Krukenberg – head of the Charlemagne Division – reported to the Führerbunker early in the morning of April 25th. He would then continue across the city to the Berlin Defence Area headquarters on Hohenzollerndamm to meet Berlin Commandant General Weidling. Krukenberg was given new orders to take command of the 11th SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division SS Nordland, at that point engaged in futile fighting at a bridgehead south of the Teltow canal in Britz – and oversee Defense Sector C.
Setting up his command post in the pneumology centre opposite Hasenheide park, Krukenberg established a fall-back position around the Hermannplatz in the district of Neukölln, where parts of the SS Norge and Danmark Panzergrenadier Regiments would be joined by around 100 Hitler Youth armed with Panzerfaust rocket launchers and positioned to slow down the Soviet tank assault.
From a lookout position in the twin towers of the Karstadt Department store, Volkssturm spotters would report that it was possible to see the advance of the four Soviet armies moving into the south of the city:
- The 5th Shock Army through Treptow
- The 3rd Guards Army into Mariendorf
- Both the 8th Guards Army and 1st Guards Army into Neukolln
The Karstadt department store on Hermannplatz, once the biggest and most modern department store in Europe, had been used for food storage and also as the Heeresbekleidungsamt, the German Army Clothing Board, during the war. Covering over 70,000 m2 of space, with a famous roof gardens, delivery van lift and 11-storey light towers, it was considered by many as one of the wonders of Berlin that would draw visitors from around the world.
Under uncertain circumstances on April 25th, it would either be blown up by the retreating SS or destroyed by the advancing Soviets.
But not before being looted by the SS and local residents.
With the 5th Shock Army closing in from the Teltow Canal and the 1st Guards Tank Army fighting to take Tempelhof Airport nearby, the SS in Neukolln were faced with an overwhelming force and certainly could not hold their positions for long.
Despite this, the French SS and Hitler Youth under Krukenberg would claim fourteen Soviet tanks during the evening and night before the survivors were gathered to launch a joint counterattack alongside the bulk of SS Nordland from the Neukölln town hall early the next morning.
Hit-and-run defensive tactics would now become more and more common as a matter of necessity, when faced with the overwhelming advantage that the Soviet attackers possessed in firepower. Although this was somewhat contrary to Wehrmacht doctrine, the ad-hoc adoption of urban fighting techniques meant innovation on the frontline – form, fight, disperse became the new status quo.
Berlin’s wide avenues – used by the Red Army for its advance – often ran perpendicular to fortified train stations and waterways – with major targets already pinpointed by the three Flak towers in the city that were readily engaging and devastating Soviet armour and infantry formations from a distance. The attempt to expedite the fall of the city by introducing armour to the city streets would lead to Increasing tank losses and force the Red Army to change its tactics to small unit actions.
As Vasily Chuikov, commander of the Soviet 8th Guards Army would admit in his memoirs: “To surround a city is an operational art, the storming of a city is a matter of tactics carried out by small units.”
The Soviet Stavka (Soviet Military Command) records for April 25th 1945 note: “The intensity of the fighting increased. There was a struggle for each house and each storey of each house…It is difficult to conduct operations in the streets of a large city and that was especially true of Berlin where each house and each cellar spat fire.”
Regardless of any spirited defense or coordinated counterattack, Soviet troops made considerable headway into the city on April 25th.
Even managing to penetrate the city’s inner defences.
- With the 3rd Shock Army’s 79th Rifle Corps crossing the Hohenzollern Canal at dawn, taking the Plötzensee prison, and holding the north side of the Westhafen Canal.
- The 12th Guards Rifle Corps crossed into Moabit by the Fenn Bridge at Nordhafen.
- And the 7th Rifle Corps even managed to fight its way to the edge of Alexanderplatz, touching the eastern side of Defence Sector Zitadelle. Although stopped by the forces holding the Police Presidium, the Hertie department store, and the S-bahn station.
- The 9th Rifle Corps and 220th Tank Brigade advanced north-west into the city and became engaged in heavy fighting around Görlitzer Bahnhof
Underscoring the rivalry between the two Soviet Marshals tasked with the Berlin Operation, Georgy Zhukov also ordered his 8th Guards Army to cross the boundary that Stalin had outlined two days earlier.
Denying his rival, Konev, his route to the city centre and the Reichstag.
Fratricide would become far more common from April 25th, as the two Soviet front crossed in the city and soldiers exchanged fire in the rubble strewn streets – not knowing if they were facing friend or foe.
In a rare admission of inter-front deaths, 1st Belorussian Front leader Ivan Konev would write in his memoirs:
“When at the front, as a consequence of some negligence or other suddenly you attack your own men, and even more so if you inflict losses, this is always perceived very sharply and dramatically. This was perceived especially sharply during the battle for Berlin, all the more so in that reports of such a type came in one after another during the entire day of the 25th, and apparently not only to be, but also to Zhukov…”
April 26th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Eleven - The Red Army Takes Tempelhof Airport
Tempelhof Airport falls to the Soviets…General Wenck’s forces recapture the Beelitz Hospital…Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army reach the Kreuzberg, the highest point in the city centre…Soviet troops infiltrate the underground train network…Berlin’s telephone system is disconnected from the outside world…
A heavy thunderstorm hit Berlin during the early hours of April 26th bringing with it torrential rain that managed to extinguish some of the fires burning throughout the city.
Still, intense fighting continued – especially in the area around Tempelhof airport, with Soviet artillery and Katyusha rocket launchers blasting the aerodrome’s administrative buildings. Wrecked fuselages of Focke-Wulf fighters littered the tarmac, as the remnants of the Müncheberg Panzer Division attempted to hold off the Soviet advance into the south of the city for as long as possible.
The airfield was roughly one mile square and defended by a Luftwaffe unit using anti-aircraft guns in an anti-tank role, base personnel in an infantry role, and a Hitler Youth tank-hunting group serving alongside the remnants of the Müncheberg. The northwest corner of the complex included a massive arc of administrative buildings and hangars where aircraft would remain in stand-by, ready to fly out any remaining Nazi officials.
To the south of the airfield was the S-bahn ring – and the Inner Defense Ring of the Berlin Defense Area with a group of fuelless tanks dug in to hold the perimeter.
A common feature in the city, beyond the guarded barricades made of tram carriages and piled rubble, were tank turrets appearing out of the ground – used as fixed guns in the final battle for the Reich.
On April 25th, the 28th Soviet Rifle Guards Corp along with two of the 1st Guards Tank Army’s brigades fought their way through the two defensive lines at Tempelhof but only managed to get on to the airfield grounds, without securing the buildings.
It would be on April 26th, around noon, that the remaining defenders would be subdued – the airfield commander captured alive – and some 2,000 German women soon put to work to clear the obstacles on the runway. Within thirty six hours of its capture, Tempelhof Airport would be used by the Soviet Air Force, in some instances to fly out seriously wounded casualties to base hospitals.
The troops of the Vasily Chuikov’s 8th Guard Army – formed after Chuikov’s victory in the battle of Stalingrad – pushed through the airport and into Schöneberg with the Landwehr Canal firmly on their right flank. Taking Victoria Park, artillery would later be brought into the area and rolled up the Kreuzberg – the highest point in central Berlin – from where the 205mm guns could fire over open sights to the Anhalter Bahnhof less than a mile away.
The point in the city that Stalin had designated the forces of the 1st Ukrainian Front should meet with the 1st Belorussian Front pushing into the north of Berlin.
The situation at the Gatow Airport – in the west of the city – on April 26th was similarly dire, with the airfield falling into Soviet hands the next day. German aviatrix Hanna Reitsch would arrive at the Gatow base on April 26th in one of the last aircraft, bringing with her Luftwaffe Colonel-General Ritter von Greim in a Focke-Wulf 190. Von Greim had been summoned to the Führerbunker to confer upon him the command of the Luftwaffe in the rank of Field Marshal, something that certainly could have been done from a distance. Deciding against travelling through the city on foot, or by vehicle, the two took a Fiesler Storch and flew to an improvised landing strip near the government district.
With the Soviets threatening to take Tempelhof and Gatow for days, the bomb craters on the East-West Axis in the Tiergarten – between the Brandenburg Gate and the Siegessäule – had been filled in to enable planes to land near Hitler’s command post by the afternoon of April 24th.
It would be the only air route out of the city for the final days of the battle.
On April 26th, with the city’s defender’s ammunition dwindling – an attempt was made to drop ammunition containers from Me 109s in the Tiergarten, with only one-fifths of the crates recovered. As a result, two Junkers 52s were flown in and landed at 10:30am on April 26th, bringing with them ammunition and taking off thirty minutes later laden with seriously wounded for Charite hospital. One of these planes would collide with an obstacle on takeoff and crash, killing all on board, so this method was also quickly abandoned.
Six Fieseler Storch aircraft flying to Berlin would also all be shot down, as were 12 Junkers 52 transports bringing in SS reinforcements to the city.
By nightfall, the 3rd Guard Tank Army had overrun the city’s final ammunition dump at the unfinished War academy in the Grunewald forest (one of three major dumps: Grünewald, Jungfernheide, Hasenheide) advancing around the AVUS speedway and past the Olympic Stadium into Charlottenburg. Slowly fighting its way through residential areas, the tanks would advance in columns 100 metres apart, with scouts on the flanks and submachine gunners at the front. Engineers, artillery, and assault groups would follow the tanks with all resistance being smothered by heavy fire while long range artillery pounded the streets ahead.
While Soviet tanks – such as the formidable T-34/85 and the huge IS-II – moved through the city streets, alongside SU-76 assault guns and even Sherman tanks; supporting infantry units would now advance building to building through the ruins – often blowing holes between the buildings to flank defensive barricades and machine gun nests before surprising the defenders from the rear.
Adopting new tactics on entering urban terrain was essential to adapt to the new close-combat threats faced on Berlin’s streets – and the disastrously high casualty rate of the initial days of the Red Army’s arrival. Notably due to weapons such as the Panzerfaust – a handheld single fire rocket launcher – employed with deadly success by bands of roaming Hitler Youth to immobilise Soviet armour.
The method of sending tanks forward to take ground and ensure the rapidity of the advance may have worked for the Red Army in open countryside but left armour at the mercy of hidden defenders without sufficient infantry support in Berlin’s rubble strewn streets.
Advancing unsupported past strongpoints only left tanks stranded deep in enemy territory – with limited visibility, sporadic radio communications and maps that were often useless considering the amount of destruction caused by the Allied bombers.
The evening of April 25th and throughout the cloudless day of April 26th – the Soviet Red Air Force carried out a massive attack on Berlin – codenamed Operation Salute, organised by Air Chief Marshal Novikov. Following an initial strike of 100 bombers, a total of 1,368 aircraft were thrown at the city throughout the operation’s two days – with 569 dive bombers given specific targets to attack.
Creating an even more hellish moonscape for the Red Army troops to struggle their way through.
Effective – and often creative – use of infantry assault groups would be essential for the Soviet advance.
On April 26th, Red Army soldiers began to use the city’s underground tunnels to infiltrate the city – likely the first use of this subterranean network was by the 7th Rifle Corps, frustrated with its progress through the district of Hohenschönhausen and heading towards Alexanderplatz.
Movement along Frankfurter Allee towards Alexanderplatz by the 5th Shock Army was aided by siege artillery, that could be finally brought into action after the railway bridges at Küstrin on the river Oder were repaired, added to the army reserve artillery now also under control of Marshal Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front.
Further north-west, tankers of the 34th Guards Tank Regiment drove over the Potsdamer and Anhalter railway lines and penetrated as far as the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche on Kurfürstendamm.
This advance west placed the 1st Belorussian Front well across the line of advance of the 3rd Guards Tank Army and inter-front boundary established by Stalin – into 1st Ukrainian Front territory.
Almost certainly at Marshal Zhukov’s urging, the forces of Vasiliy Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army had placed themselves in a dangerous position – to further deny Ivan Konev’s troops the opportunity to swing around and take the Reichstag first.
A series of German counter attacks carried out on April 26th managed to bring limited success – as the whole area of Friedrichshain to Alexanderplatz was overrun by small groups of German infantry that managed to infiltrate through Red Army lines. IS-II, T 34/85 tanks and self-propelled guns would be brought up by the Soviet troops to try to hold the line – with gunners firing point-blank over open sights.
With the arrival of the Soviet army to the streets of the Nazi capital came increased stories of rapes carried out at gunpoint by Red Army soldiers, families committing suicide en mass rather than deal with the Russian revenge, and Berliners being executed if weapons or uniforms were found in their homes.
In many instances the wounded from the battles would be taken care of in homes rather than medical facilities – with the women and girls left in the city tending to these injured men often immediately removing and burning their uniforms, hoping they would be mistaken for civilians injured in the crossfire if discovered.
Nazi party policy had always been aimed at protecting women from the brutal reality of war – instead propounding the image of the perfect female as being the mother who rears her children to serve the nation. As the male-dominanted patriachal image of Nazi society violently disintegrated, the few remaining radio stations still on air would appeal to women to do their part.
“Take up the weapons of wounded and fallen soldiers and take part in the fight. Defend your freedom, your honour, and your life!”
Few would answer the call.
As the battle for Berlin advanced, the city’s still functioning telephone network took on a new purpose. Despite the expense that had gone into constructing Adolf Hitler’s Führerbunker, the signalling facilities were far from capable of serving as the nerve centre for coordinating a battle of this size. Forced to improvise, the inhabitants of the bunker were left phoning civilian apartments throughout the city, using numbers chosen at random in the telephone book, to ask for a situation report.
If a Russian voice replied, the area could be deemed occupied.
Similarly, Red Army soldiers – the frontiviki tasked with being the first to take Berlin – would make good use of the network – more for amusement than information.
Calling random numbers to announce their arrival.
An extra absurdity added to the carnival of violence taking place across the city.
During the course of the day, Berlin’s telephone links with the outside world would be severed. The network in the city would remain functioning but with radio contact as the only way of the military communicating with forces outside the city.
Regardless of any possible contact; there would be no relief force for the defenders of the Nazi capital.
Responding to Adolf Hitler’s urgent request for assistance in the capital, General Wenck launched his relief attack on the city on April 26th – with his troops covering eleven miles that afternoon and reaching the Beelitz Hospital by evening. Wenck had pushed towards Potsdam, south west of Berlin, where the Soviets did not appear too strong, and the young trainees of the Scharnhorst, Theodor Körner Infantry, Clausewitz Panzer Division, and Ferdinand von Schill infantry had sliced through the Soviet positions.
Beelitz hospital had been in enemy hands for the past three days, with its doctors, medical staff, valuable medical supplies, and around 3,000 wounded more than pleased to see Wenck’s forces. Using a commandeered train Wenck was able to shuttle many of these wounded further west.
As a result of the fighting in the districts around Berlin’s city centre, the remaining armour of SS Nordland Division, 503. Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung), which included eight Tiger II tanks and several assault guns, were ordered to take positions in the Tiergarten on April 26th, where they would remain for the final fight to take the Reichstag.
That evening, SS leader, Gustav Krukenberg, was informed that the troops of SS Nordland and SS Charlemagne under his command should fall back to Defence Sector Z, right in the heart of Berlin.
At his usual evening conference in the Führerbunker, Hitler was presented with an evacuation plan by Berlin Defence Area Commandant, General Weidling. The breakout would be immediately rejected by the Nazi leader, who would say:
“Your proposal is fine, but what does it imply? I do not want to wander about in the woods waiting to be attacked. I am staying here and will fall at the head of my troops. You carry on your defence!”
Weidling would keep the plan prepared anyway, in case the opportunity should arise to escape the doomed capital.
April 27th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Twelve - The Red Army Reaches The Government Quarter
…Soviet tanks appear on Wilhelmstrasse…SS Nordland retreat into the central government district of Defence sector Z…Berlin’s underground train tunnels are flooded..Himmler’s SS adjutant Hermann Fegelein is caught trying to escape…Vasiliy Chuikov moves his headquarter to near Tempelhof Airport…
As the Soviet troops moved throughout the city from district to district, breaking through defensive lines and clambering through the tenements and courtyards, the unit commanders were faced with the task of moving behind their troops and struggling to keep up with the pace of the crooked advance.
The previous day, Berlin Defence Area Commandant, General Weidling, had been forced to abandon his headquarters on Hohenzollerndamm and move to a new command post in the cellars of the Bendlerblock army buildings south of the Tiergarten. Shortly afterwards he would have to move again to the cramped Army Signals bunker outside when a shell crashed through the floors above, causing a heavy safe to smash down into the cellar and kill a young Bund-Deutscher-Mädel girl working there as a volunteer nurse.
Hitler Youth leader, Artur Axmann would also move his headquarters from Kaiserdamm 86 in the west to Wilhelmstrasse 64 in Defence Sector Z, where he could be closer to the Nazi leader.
After taking Tempelhof airport on April 26th, Vasily Chuikov – head of the Soviet 8th Guards Army – moved his field headquarters from Johannisthal Airfield in south-eastern Berlin to a traditional Berlin apartment on Schulenburgring 2 in Tempelhof on April 27th. Previously occupied by a lady named Anni Goebbels – no relation to the Nazi party Propaganda Minister of the same name.
He would remain here until for the rest of the battle for the city – and importantly use this apartment to accept the surrender of Berlin on May 2nd.
Chuikov decided to dedicate the next 24hrs to resting his troops and consolidating the territory already taken, in preparation for crossing the Landwehr Canal. The 28th Guards Rifle Corps having established a firm base for launching the forthcoming operation by securing the areas around Nollendorfplatz and Lützowplatz – although these two squares would remain in German hands until the end of the battle of Berlin.
Chuikov’s troops would soon be tasked with attacking the area to the south of the Tiergarten as far as the East-West Axis, including the Potsdamer Platz and Anhalter Bahnhof leading to the Reich Chancellery.
Having made serious headway into the districts that once surrounded Berlin’s royal quarter – the historic central Mitte district – Red Army troops were now probing the heart of the capital.
On April 27th, Soviet tanks fighting in the western districts of the city managed to break through the Berlin Zoo perimeter wall and were able to fire on the nearby Zoo Flak tower, although with little result. One of three mammoth defensive fortifications around the city, this tower would continue to plague the Red Army drive into the city centre until the end of the battle of Berlin.
SS Major General Mohnke, tasked with defending the central district, would record on April 27th that Soviet tanks had even managed to push as far as Wilhelmstrasse before being destroyed. Two captured Czech-made T38T tanks, covered in swastikas, were sent forward by the Soviets at the front of a column aiming to reach the Chancellery. Although as the group moved through German lines the ruse was spotted and the tanks engaged by a Sturmgeschütz III assault gun manned by SS Nordland men.
Mohnke would thus move 105mm howitzers into Gendarmenmarkt, Pariser Platz, and Leipziger Strasse to cover the perimeter of his zone – although the gunners only had 12 rounds per gun and were ordered to fight on as infantry when they had exhausted their supply.
The general plan for the Soviet advance into Sector Z – the central government quarter – for the final confrontation would involve moving troops along four main axes in the city:
- From the east, along Frankfurter Allee to Alexanderplatz
- From the south, along Sonnenalle to Belle-Alliance-Platz
- From the west, along Potsdamer Straße to Potsdamer Platz
- From the north, along Müllerstrasse to the S-bahn ring and towards the Reichstag
The demarcation line at Anhalter bahnhof between the forces of Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front of Ivan Konev’s forces would still provide a modicum of contest between to two Soviet Marshals – as Konev’s troops leapfrogged their way around obstacles in the south and south west of the city, and Zhukov’s force pushed east and against the S-bahn ring in the north.
On April 27th, it still looked like Konev’s forces in the south might manage to push through the Tiergarten central park and take the final prize themselves – the Reichstag building.
In the south-east of the city, two understrength German divisions – the SS Nordland and Müncheberg Panzer Division – were now facing five Soviet armies and being forced back into the centre.
In the north west, the Soviet 7th Guards Tank Corp had orders to reach the banks of the River Spree at Ruhleben and link up with the rest of the 1st Belorussian Front across the water but were ambling along at a slow pace – the unit commanders confused by the maze of rubble filled streets with limited map reading skills, broken radios, and compasses that seemed to be suffering from the large amount of metal in the area from the fighting.
By April 27th, the Zhukov’s forces had bypassed the Beusselstrasse S-bahn station strongpoint in the north and were pushing through the Moabit district, although the heavily built up nature of the area meant that progress was slow and costly.
Reportedly among the defenders of the Moabit district in April 1945 were men of General Andrei Vlassov’s White Russian units. Vlassov had been a Red Army general decorated with the Order of the Red Banner for his efforts in the defence of Moscow. After being captured by the Nazis during the siege of Leningrad, he defected and formed the Russian Liberation Army in a huge propaganda coup for Hitler’s regime.
A gap between Chausseestrasse and the Charite hospital and Schönhauser Alle in Pankow would still remain until the end of the battle – and be where some of the last fighting in the city would take place, as breakouts from the central defensive zone were attempted by the few remaining survivors.
Others would try to escape west through a narrow route toward Spandau.
By April 27th, the defenders of the city were crushed into a corridor around ten miles long and three miles wide.
At the evening conference in Hitler’s bunker, the Nazi leader suddenly noticed that SS leader Himmler’s liason officer, Hermann Fegelein was missing – and had not been seen for three days. Immediately issuing orders for him to be found, Hitler suspected desertion.
Fegelein was eventually traced to an apartment in the west of the city, on Bleibtreustraße off Kurfürstendamm, where he was discovered drunk, unshaven, and in the company of an unknown woman. A comedy of errors would ensue whereby Fegelein was contacted by telephone and told to return to the Führerbunker but did not appear. An escort was sent to fetch him; but then discovered there were no officers of adequate rank to bring him back. Finally he was brought back to the Chancellery and stripped of his rank for suspected desertion; before being handed over the SS Major General Mohnke for trial. Proceedings would then be delayed due to Fegelein being too drunk to answer for himself at the time.
Party secretary, Martin Bormann, would hand over a suitcase of passports, valuables, and money that Fegelein had been caught with – as evidence of his suspected desertion – to Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller. Suspecting that they had in-fact caught the source of the leak of information from the Führer’s headquarters for the previous months, and that the woman that Fegelein had been caught with – who had escaped in the initial confusion – was a British spy.
If Hitler could not accept blame personally for the failings of the Third Reich, others would have to step up to take the blame. And if in the final days of the fight for its life, the National Socialist system could not succeed, Hitler would make sure that his opinion: that it was not the failure of the idea but the failure of the people who did not deserve the idea, would be known.
For just as much as the Soviet commanders would treat their soldiers as expendenable in pursuit of the goal of conquering Berlin; the Nazi defenders would consider the population of the city fodder for the battle too.
Marauding gangs of SS men were roving the city still looking for deserters, collecting men in uniform and checking identities, while summarily executing or hanging others from lampposts.
Sometime on the 27th, the underground tunnels – which had been infiltrated by the Soviet advance – and were also being used as makeshift civilian shelters, were flooded. Reportedly on Adolf Hitler’s personal orders. Although whether the flooding was a result of battle damage to the tunnel structure, remains uncertain.
The SS Nordland had retreated back into the Stadtmitte area of the city by this time and commander, Gustav Krukenberg, had been allocated a derelict railway carriage as his command post at the Stadtmitte U-bahn station.
Observing the flooding of the tunnels around Anhalter Bahnhof, a Second Lieutenant named Krömer would say:
“The station looks like an armed camp. Women and children huddle in niches, some sitting in folding chairs, listening to the sounds of battle. Shells hit the roof, cement crumbles from the ceiling. S-bahn hospital trains trundle slowly by.
Suddenly a surprise. Water splashes into our command post. Shrieks, cries and curses. People are struggling around the ladders reaching up the ventilations shafts to the street above. Gurgling water floods through the tunnels. The crowds are panicky, pushing through the rising water, leaving children and wounded behind. People are being trampled underfoot, the water covering them. It rises a meter or so then slowly runs away. The panic lasts for hours. Many drowned. Reason: on someone’s orders engineers have blown up the safety bulkhead control chamber on the Landwehr Canal between the Schöneberger and Möckern bridges to flood the tunnels against the Russians. The whole time heavy fighting continues above ground…”
April 28th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Thirteen - Stalin Redraws The Battlelines Again
…Word of Heinrich Himmler’s betrayal reaches Hitler…Himmler’s adjutant, Hermann Fegelein, is executed…Youth Divisions attempt to relieve Berlin from the south-west but are pushed back…Ivan Konev talks to Stalin and is assigned to take Prague…the Soviets arrive at the Moltkebrücke leading to the Reichstag…General Heinrici is relieved of command of Army Group Vistula…Konev is given orders for a new boundary in Berlin…Soviet General Berzarin takes control of Berlin…
Early on April 28th, Luftwaffe ace pilot Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Rudel flew to Berlin in a Heinkel 111, aiming to land on the East-West Axis in the Tiergarten and the improvised air strip that had been constructed there adjacent to the Reichstag building. Targeted by Soviet anti-aircraft fire, Rudel was told landing would be impossible and never arrived in the city. He did, however, get a view of the devastation from above:
“It was very difficult to recognise the features of the city because of enormous clouds of smoke and a thin layer of mist. The fires were so fierce in some places that we were dazzled by them and prevented from seeing anything. I had to concentrate on the shadows in order to see anything and was unable to pick out the East-West Axis. There were flames and cannon-fire everywhere. The spectacle was fantastic.”
What he would not have managed to see from above was the toll the battle had taken on the local inhabitants and defenders. Bodies sat rotting under the debris of collapsed buildings. Women would still queue for water at outside pumps, scattering at the sound of artillery barrages or rifle fire, before coming together again in a neat line like Napoleonic infantry.
Improvised military field hospitals, that could be mistaken for slaughterhouses, had been set up in different buildings of defence district Zitadelle to treat the wounded – with soldiers taken to the Hotel Adlon, SS men delivered to the Reich Chancellery cellars, while the main city artery of Unter den Linden came to look like an open hospital in the later days of the battle.
A bloody wound stuffed with rubble and corpses.
Beneath the swirling smoke and mist of the city, would also be tens of thousands of Red Army casualties – more than 80,000 Soviet soldiers would die before the battle was over. With three mass graves eventually established in Berlin as war memorials after the war – one in Pankow, Treptower Park, and another less than a mile from the Reichstag building.
Others were simply buried where they fell.
The depleted ranks of the Soviet armies would come to be filled with recently liberated prisoners of war. Thirsty for revenge and often immediately pressed into service following their emancipation. The kind where they would be expected to fight to prove their allegiance.
The bloody advance into Defence Sector Z had come at a high cost to the Soviets – other battles though had been more costly, and the prize was nowhere near as great. The Battle of Stalingrad, for instance, that raged for nearly seven months costs the Red Army over 450,000 dead.
Although now, for the first time in four years of fighting against the fascist aggressor, the armed forces for the Soviet Union were within distance of the last objective of the war – the Reichstag building.
Lead elements of the 79th Rifle Corp advancing down the Alt Moabit street, in the afternoon, caught sight of the twisted remains of the building through the clouds of smoke and dust that obscured the centre of the city.
During the advance on the Reichstag, the leader of the 1st Guards Tank Brigade – Abraham Temnik – had been mortally wounded when his vehicle hit a mine. Born into a jewish family in Ukraine, Temnik had joined the Red Army in 1929 and served in the battle of Khalkhin Gol in Mongolia, where Marshal Georgy Zhukov would make his name.
When as head of the 1st Belorussian Front, Marshal Zhukov, ordered the Commander of the 1st Guards Tank Army General Katukov to select a unit to enter Berlin, Katukov chose the 1st Guard Tank Brigade, which – with Temnik in charge – succeeded in breaching the defenses of Berlin on April 21, 1945.
Abraham Temnik’s brigade was later entrusted with advancing into Berlin’s western district of Charlottenburg – and would be credited as being the first into the district, as the young boy from Ukraine stood in the hatch of the lead tank with a battle flag in his hands.
Whether this can be simply attributed to Soviet propaganda or not – Temnik would become one of the 402 Red Army soldiers awarded the status of Hero of the Soviet Union for exemplary actions and personal heroism during the Berlin operation. He would die from his wounds on April 29th – one day before the Soviet flag would be raised on the Reichstag.
The question of who would take the most important objective in Berlin was finally resolved on April 28th 1945 – when Stalin decided to redirect the men of the 1st Ukrainian Front under Ivan Konev’s command in the south of the city. Instead of moving on the Reichstag, his men would be sent to Savignyplatz in the west and tasked with clearing the remaining areas of the city beyond the Tiergarten. Konev would also be given a much greater order the same day; contacting Stalin to report on the progress of his Front, the Soviet leader would ask: “Who do you think is going to take Prague?” To which Konev suggested that his 1st Ukrainian Front would be able to move on the city from the west of Dresden.
At midnight Moscow time (10pm in Berlin), the Soviet military command issued new interfront boundaries based on a line which would run Mariendorf/Tempelhof Goods Station/Viktoria-Luise-Platz/Savignyplatz S-bahn Station.
Everything to the north would be designated as territory for the 1st Belorussian Front – and to the south reserved for Konev’ 1st Ukrainian Front.
The prize of taking the Reichstag building would be Georgy Zhukov’s alone – the task would fall to troops of the 3rd Shock Army in Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front to cross the heavily defended Moltkebrücke on April 29th.
The only means of crossing the River Spree to attack the Reichstag building – this massive stone bridge was barricaded at boths ends, mined for demolition, and strewn with barbed wire and other obstacles. To the south of the bridge were the buildings of the diplomatic quarter and the Ministry of the Interior, followed by a series of trenches, gun emplacements, and mined areas. The windows in the Reichstag offered a commanding view of the area but had been bricked up save for small gunports – while artillery and mortar teams were located in the Tiergarten. A large water obstacle extending right across Königsplatz, the square in front of the parliament, would also heavily influence the line of Soviet attack.
Not only would the Red Army troops have to fight their way across the Möltkebrucke, they would also have to secure the heavily defended Diplomatic Quarter to establish a firm base for launching their main attack on the Reichstag.
Soviet estimates of opposition in the area were around 5,000 German troops – although the defenders were most likely fewer in number. With an unknown number of Allgemeine-SS defending the offices of the Interior Ministry, the route between the Möltkebrucke and the Brandenburg Gate lined with around 100 men, and a further 250 sailors from the Grossadmiral Dönitz Battalion and 100 Volkssturm in reserve. A number of tanks from the 11th SS Hermann von Salza Tank Battalion were also lurking in the Tiergarten.
Typical of the defense of the city at this time; lacking in men, material, and facing an overwhelming foe.
Earlier in the day, the final attempt to relieve Berlin was made by youth divisions attacking from the south-west of the city – part of General Wenck’s 20th Corps. These units – the Clausewitz, Scharnhorst, and Theodor Körner, were made up of men from officer training schools, and although they may have been some of the best troops held in reserve, they failed to succeed in pushing through the Soviet lines. Covering a distance of around 24km before being halted near Potsdam – some 32km from Berlin.
The Nazi capital was now doomed to its final dying throes.
For the German forces still fighting for their existence outside Berlin, there were other issues to contend with – as the Soviets continued their advance through the open country. The 3rd Panzer Army, led by General Hasso von Manteuffel, was marching away from Berlin in an attempt to halt the Soviet breakthrough at Neubrandenburg. As one of the two armies that made up Army Group Vistula, Manteuffel’s men were tasked with protecting the left flank of the capital from being overrun by the Soviet Marshal Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front.
Driving through the countryside north of Berlin, on April 28th, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel – Commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht noticed troops of the 7th Panzer Division and 25th Panzergrenadier Division moving north – contrary to orders from army command that Manteuffel’s troops should head to Berlin.
Heinrici had personally authorised the 3rd Panzer Army to retreat and was ordered to meet Keitel – dubbed by many of the men who served beneath him as ‘the gravedigger of the army’ – along with Manteuffel at a crossroads near Fürstenberg.
After receiving the full weight of Keitel’s rage, Heinrici was relieved of his command of Army Group Vistula.
The same day, Red Army Colonel General Nikolai Berzarin assumed his role as the Chief of Garrison and City Commandant of Berlin, promptly issuing a curfew for German citizens and ordering the registration of all men of the armed forces, SS, SA, and police and firefighting services. Berzarin was commander of the 5th Shock Army, units of which had been the first to reach the outskirts of Berlin on April 21st. In an echo of the Tsarist tradition of rewarding the first commander to enter a city with command over it, Marshal Zhukov had appointed him commander of the city three days later.
Berzarin would work to re-establish order in the ruined German capital, creating a city police force and supplying the population with food, water, gas and electricity, as well as reopening schools and theatres.
While the battle of Berlin still raged, the Soviets were already preparing the ground for their total conquest of the city.
Meanwhile, the embattled SS Müncheberg Division, having fought through the district of Wilmersdorf, had pulled back towards the centre of the city by April 28th. Second Lieutenant Krömer described the situation:
“Potsdamer Platz is a ruined waste. Masses of wrecked vehicles and shot-up ambulances with the wounded still inside them. Dead everywhere, many of them frightfully mangled by tanks and trucks. In the evening we try to get news from the Propaganda Ministry of Wenck and the American divisions. There are rumours that the 9th Army is also on its way to Berlin and that peace treaties are being signed in the west. Violent shelling of the city centre at dusk with simultaneous attacks on our position. We cannot hold onto Potsdamer Platz any longer…”
Soviet General Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army had made substantial progress on April 28th along the broad expanse of Leipzigerstrasse and were now less than 1,500 yards from the Reich Chancellery.
Where in the Führerbunker beneath the Chancellery gardens on the evening of April 28th more unwelcome news would reach the Nazi leader.
At around 9pm word of SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s negotiations with Count Bernadotte of Sweden were intercepted by the Propaganda Ministry from a Reuters broadcast in German on Radio Stockholm and relayed to Hitler. As Vice President of the Red Cross, Bernadotte had been secretly negotiating with the SS leader for the release of concentration camp prisoners – bargaining chips for Himmler who had his sights on a greater prize, a meeting with US commander Dwight Eisenhower and the possibility of German surrender on the western front while prolonging the battle in the east.
Hitler was furious at Himmler’s treachery and ordered his immediate arrest.
Betrayal by Der Treue Heinrich (The loyal Heinrich) only further exaccerbated the Nazi leader’s suspicion of those around him and his faith in the allegiance of the most trusted members of his inner circle.
Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s assistant, remained in Gestapo custody and was interrogated by secret police chief Heinrich Müller – confessing that he had known about Himmler’s approaches to Count Bernadotte. He was taken away by an SS escort and shot. Not even his marriage to Gretl Braun – whose sister, Eva, Hitler would soon marry – could save him
That night, Hitler announced his intention of marrying his long term mistress and Joseph Goebbels – who had repeatedly professed his fanatical dedication to loyally remain by the Führer’s side until the end – was tasked with procuring an official who to perform the ceremony.
Soon a nervous and overawed figure emerged, wearing his brown Nazi party uniform and Volkssturm armband – by the name of Wagner.
A fitting irony in one of the final episodes in Hitler’s Götterdammerung.
April 29th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Fourteen - The Red Army Assault On The Reichstag Begins
…Soviet forces drive into the west of the city and capture the Charlottenburg Palace…Adolf Hitler marries Eva Braun…Hitler dictates and signs his political testament…the 3rd Shock Army crosses the Moltkebrücke and starts its assault on the buildings surrounding the Reichstag…Hitler hears of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s execution in Milan…
In the early hours of April 29th, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler married his long-term mistress, Eva Braun, in a ceremony conducted in his underground Führerbunker. The young photographer’s assistant from Bavaria had been by his side, but kept out of the public eye, since 1931 – and would remain with him in the bunker until the end.
The ceremony would only last around ten minutes, and be carried out in the presence of Propaganda Minister Goebbels and Head of the Nazi Party Chancellery Bormann.
There were no female witnesses.
Before the wedding, Hitler had already dictated his personal and political wills to his secretary, Traudl Junge, and would return to impatiently oversee Junge transcribing her shorthand notes immediately after the ceremony.
Describing his grim intentions for married life, Hitler would announce: “I myself and my wife – in order to escape the disgrace of deposition or capitulation – choose death. It is our wish to be burnt immediately on the spot where I have carried out the greatest part of my daily work in the course of twelve years’ service to my people.”
According to Junge she was then asked by Hitler to take note of his final political testament. In it he would decry that he never intended to be faced with war in 1939, blaming instead Jewish interests for the subsequent carnage. Closing the first part of his political testament, Hitler again outlined his intention to end his life, saying: “I have therefore decided to stay in Berlin and there to choose death voluntarily when I determine that the position of the Führer and the Chancellery itself can no longer be maintained.”
Once typed out, Hitler’s political testament would be signed by four witnesses – Goebbels, Bormann, and Generals Burgdorf and Krebs – and distributed to three messengers. One copy to be sent to Admiral Dönitz, one to Marshal Schörner, head of Army Group Centre, and the other to the headquarters of the Nazi party in Munich.
Returning to the former German system of President and Chancellor – with no room for another Führer – Hitler designated Admiral Dönitz as Reichspresident and Joseph Goebbels as Chancellor.
Shortly afterwards, Hitler retired to his quarters with his new wife, as his secretary, Traudl Junge, was left to finish typing Joseph Goebbels’ testament.
Goebbels’ and his wife Magda wouldl conspire to murder their six children before committing suicide on May 1st, with Junge would later saying of the children: “they knew nothing of the fate awaiting them, and the adults did all they could to keep them unaware of it.”
At 10am, a Hitler Youth runner appeared at the upper bunker of the New Reich Chancellery to report that Soviet tanks were now only 500m from the building. Thirty minutes later, the air balloon supporting radio-telephone communications between the bunker and army headquarters was shot down.
Ending all telephone communication between the bunker and the outside world.
With fighting in the city now largely condensed into a sausage-shaped area extending from Alexanderplatz to the banks of the Havel in the West – and German control barely a mile wide in places – Berlin Defence Area Commandant General Weidling was fighting a losing battle. Around 30,000 men were estimated to remain of the fighting force, with ammunition dwindling and supplies running out fast, Weidling concluded that the defenders could only hold out for another 48 hours at the most.
During the night of April 28th/29th, the Soviet 79th Rifle Corps made preparations for crossing the River Spree at the Möltkebrucke and advancing to capture the Reichstag building. Using heavy tanks to push aside the barricades on the north side of the bridge, infantry attempted to carry out a surprise attack just after midnight – unheralded by any artillery barrage.
Caught in a hail of fire from the enfiladed machine guns and blasted by mortars that had already been zeroed in on the bridge, they were quickly brought to a halt. As the SS Anhalt troops based on the south side of the bridge had also used the night of April 28th to further reinforce their positions.
Another attempt was made by the Soviets to bash through the southern barriers on the bridge using heavy tanks, only to see the advance reduce to twisted metal and fire by the anti-tank guns nearby, the tanks of the SS Hermann von Salza Panzer Battalion, and the supporting fire of the Zoo Flak tower.
The bridge was eventually secured – if only temporarily – by Red Army infantry, who flooded into the Diplomatic Quarter, leaving mounds of bullet riddled corpses in their wake.
A counterattack from the SS would then drive the Soviet troops back across the bridge and be further confused by the unexpected arrival of the German 9th Parachute Division from the Lehrter Railway station. Breaking the Soviet lines from the north, these troops would cross the bridge to the south and bring with them around 100 reinforcements for the battle.
At around 7am, the Soviet 150th Rifle Division prepared to cross the bridge and take the two buildings of the Ministry of the Interior – dubbed the ‘Himmler House’ – after a ten minute artillery barrage. The troops fought their way across the Möltebrucke under heavy fire, leaving the remaining attackers to throw grenades into the building interior, starting fires as the carpets and furniture burned, and filling the building with smoke that would both aid and hinder their advance. It would take the rest of the day before the buildings were secured.
Across to the east side of Defence Zone Zitadelle, the 5th Shock Army spent the day fighting strong resistance from Waffen SS troops, moving to take the Börse train station (now Hackescher Markt) and the Rotes Rathaus, the red brick city hall. Fighting in the Police Presidium at Alexanderplatz would eventually stop at around 3pm – but be some of the most brutal room-to-room combat in the city.
For the first time in the battle of Berlin, the SS and Gestapo Headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (today Niederkirchnerstraße) came under attack, from the 301st Rifle Division. The officials still located there having organised themselves into a group of desperate defenders.
Colonel-General Vasiliy Chuikov’s attack by the 8th Guards Army was scheduled to begin across the Landwehr Canal, in an arc extending from the Bendlerblock army headquarters to Hallechers Tor, on April 29th.
Among the soldiers gathered for the assault was the standard bearer of the 220th Guards Rifle Regiment, Sergeant Nikolai Masalov. In the quiet before the barrage, Masalov heard the crying of a three year old German girl on the opposite side of the canal. He managed to crawl across under covering fire from his comrades and rescue the girl, lying in rubble next to her dead mother.
His deeds would be immortalised in a giant statue of a Soviet soldier saving a child in the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park – constructed after the battle to commemorate 7,000 of the more than 80,000 soldiers who would die fighting to take Berlin.
Despite the rush to the Reichstag and the emphasis on Berlin’s central historic district, fighting on April 29th continued in the west, particularly on the boundary of Kantstrasse – as the 3rd Guard Tank Army held control of Westend and were struggling along Kaiserdamm further north while pushing deeper into the city and the Tiergarten central park.
Soviet armour would eventually cross the Potsdamer Bridge on April 29th – utilising an unusual method. Frequently falling victim to the armed groups of Hitler Youth that would hunt Soviet tanks with Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons, crews had taken to attaching bedsprings and sandbags to the side of their vehicles. In the hopes that these objects would deflect the projecticles.
After infantry struggled to cross the Potsdamer Bridge and tanks were being knocked out one by one by a dug-in Tiger tank covering the crossing, someone had the idea to cover the protective coating of the next tank in the line with oil and smoke canisters. When it burst into flames on the bridge, the defenders were quick to conclude that it had been disabled, paying little attention to it careering forward across the bridge and into their fortifications.
Only then did they realise that the tank was still very much alive and had secured enough cover for the infantry to then cross and overwhelm the defenders.
When Soviet troops of the 1st Mechanized Corps finally crossed the River Spree and reached the Charlottenburg Palace on April 29th 1945, they found little of the former glory of Prussia. The palace had been considerably damaged by Allied air raids in November 1943 and February 1945.
This 17th century baroque palace was once a summer residence for Berlin’s ruling Hohenzollern royal family, built for queen Sophie Charlotte by her husband – Frederick I – then the elector of Brandenburg, destined to become the first Prussian king in 1701.
Beyond the extensive gardens influenced by the work of André Le Nôtre, landscape architect for the park of the palace of Versaille, and the mausoleum constructed to house the first German Emperor, Wilhelm I, and his wife Augusta – this fairytale residence was once destined to house the ‘eight wonder of the world’. A chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors often simply referred to as the ‘Amber Room’.
No longer part of the palace, it was given to the Tsar Peter the Great in 1716. Looted during the Second World War from its home in the Catherine Palace in St Petersburg, its whereabouts remain unknown. Although it was last seen in April 1945 in the city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad).
A symbol of Prussian-Russian friendship – lost in the pursuit of glory.
Back in the Führerbunker, at around 10pm on April 29th 1945, Adolf Hitler received word of the fate of his friend and ally, Benito Mussolini. News of Mussolini’s death at the hands of Italian partisans would arrive in the form of a transcript of a radio broadcast reportedly accidently picked up by an orderly who was trying to tune a shortwave radio.
Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge, would note that having read through the text, the Nazi leader would take a pen and underline three words referencing Mussolini’s condition:
‘HANGING UPSIDE DOWN’
April 30th 1945 - The Battle of Berlin - Day Fifteen - The Red Banner Flies Over The Reichstag
…The Soviets enter the Reichstag building and raise the flag of the Red Army…General Weidling informs Hitler that the defenders will soon exhaust their ammunition…Hitler gives permission for an attempted breakout…Field Marshall Schörner, still struggling further south of Berlin, is made the last Commander in Chief of the German Army…the Glienicke Brücke is destroyed…Hitler and Eva commit suicide…liberation of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
By the early hours of April 30th, General Weidling – Commandant of the Berlin Defence Area – had informed Hitler in person what had already occurred to him the previous day. That the fight in the city was almost over and that the defenders would probably exhaust their ammunition sometime in the evening.
Hitler would finally concede to authorising a breakout of forces from the encircled city at 10pm – allowing some in his close entourage to relieve themselves of their commitment to the sinking ship.
The problem for these potential escapees was where it would be possible to break the Soviet encirclement of the city.
The question of direction being a little simpler to answer: West, and away from the Red Army advance.
To the south-west of the city, connecting Berlin to neighbouring Potsdam, the Glienicke Bridge had been maintained – in the hope that it would serve as an entry point for the relief forces of General Wenck’s 12th Army. An army that would never arrive in Berlin. Sometime on April 30th, the bridge was finally destroyed – whether by German explosives or Soviet fire is still unclear.
The crooked advance of the Soviet forces into Berlin had left some areas of the city in much better condition than others – as the damage inflicted on the city would vary greatly from block to block, with some areas reduced entirely to ruin and others visited by only minor damage. Some small corridors did still exist through the Soviet frontlines that would be exploited over the coming days by the remaining defenders of the city – and some of Hitler’s entourage – once it became clear that the Führer had abandoned his post.
While the events of April 30th 1945 in the Führerbunker are still disputed – the cast of characters in attendance and their various roles has been relatively well confirmed through documentation, interrogation, and interviews.
Hitler’s final day started at around 6am, when his trusted valet, Heinz Linge, discovered the Nazi leader sat on his bed, already fully dressed, when he arrived at his room in the Führerbunker for the customary wake-up-call. Thirty minutes later, Hitler would ascend the steps of the bunker towards the Chancellery garden to see the sun once more. As he approached the door, shelling began outside, and he would instead turn around and return to his quarters.
Summoning Party Secretary, Martin Bormann, to his room around 12:30pm, Hitler would explain his plan to take his own life – along with his wife ‘Fraulein Braun’ (Hitler would never refer to her as Frau Hitler) – and that he had instructed his bodyguard Otto Günsche to cremate the bodies. Bormann had earlier made every attempt to persuade Hitler to escape to Obersalzberg, but in vain.
The Nazi leader would then discuss the situation with his bodyguard, Günsche, and tells him that the time had come and that his chauffeur, Erich Kempka, should bring the petrol to burn the bodies immediately.
After eating his final meal – prepared by his personal chef, Constanze Manziarly – a dish of spaghetti with a cabbage and raisin salad at 1pm, Hitler would gather the staff members in the Führerbunker to say goodbye. Among them, Martin Bormann, Joseph and Magda Goebbels, and Hitler’s secretaries. Traudl Junge would later comment that upon shaking Hitler’s right hand she realised he was looking right through her.
At around 3:30pm, the noise in the bunker would be punctuated with the sound of a single gunshot.
Suicides in Berlin had reached a peak in April 1945 – with nearly 4,000 registered cases – more than any other month the Nazi party was in power. On April 30th 1945, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva, added their names to that long list.
Otto Günsche would stand guard outside Hitler’s office, as the Nazi leader took his life alongside Eva. Also waiting outside were Goebbels, Bormann, and some other staff. Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, was in the upper bunker corridor when she heard the sound of a gunshot, to which Helmuth Goebbels’ would loudly exclaim: “Bullseye!”.
“Bormann went in first. Then I followed the valet Linge. Hitler was sitting in a chair. Eva was lying on the couch. She had taken off her shoes and placed them neatly together at one end of the couch. Hitler’s face was covered in blood. There were two guns. One was a Walther PPK. It was Hitler’s. The other was a smaller pistol he always carried in his pocket. Eva wore a blue dress with white collar and cuffs. Her eyes were wide open. There was a stench of cyanide. The smell was so strong that I thought my clothes would smell for days – but this may have been my imagination.” – SS Colonel Otto Günsche, Hitler’s bodyguard
Three SS guards and valet Heinz Linge would then carry Hitler’s body to the Chancellery garden, as Martin Bormann lifted the body of Eva Hitler, covered in a blanket out into the corridor where Erich Kempka carried her to the stairs before Günsche took over.
Chauffeur Kempka then arrived with petrol and the bodies were placed in a shallow depression outside the bunker, near an abandoned cement mixer. Joseph Goebbels’ would produce a box of matches, whereup Linge lit some paper to create a torch and set fire to the bodies.
As the funeral party returned to the safety of the staircase, a final Heil Hitler was shouted, arms raised, before they descended again into the underground purgatory of the bunker.
“(Even after the bodies were burned), we were imprisoned by the very presence of Hitler again. We could not get away from it (the smell). It smelled like burning bacon.”
Erich Kempka, Hitler’s chauffeur
Sitting next to Traudl Junge, shortly afterwards, Hitler’s bodyguard Otto Günsche would grab a bottle of schnapps from her hand and confess: “I have carried out the Führer’s last order. His body has been burned.”
At around 6:30pm, two Waffen SS officers (Ewald Lindloff and Hans Reisser) managed to partially cover up the shallow bomb crater full of remains with dirt. It had been more than 2 hours since the bodies were brought to the surface, and the SS men would have to return to the remains with more petrol at least once to reignite the fire and complete the job.
Subsequent interrogations would suggest around 200 litres of petrol was used.