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, Konev’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 would be hastily ordered on April 27th 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 Berlin 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 fronts 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…”
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The Battle Of Berlin 1945: A Day-By-Day Account
Hamilton, Aaron Stephan (2020) Bloody Streets: The Soviet Assault On Berlin | ISBN-13 : 978-1912866137
Le Tissier, Tony (2010) Race for the Reichstag: the 1945 Battle for Berlin | ISBN: 978-1848842304
Le Tissier, Tony(2019) SS Charlemagne: The 33rd Waffen-Grenadier Division of the SS | ISBN: 978-1526756640
Mayo, Jonathan (2016) Hitler’s Last Day: Minute by Minute | ISBN: 978-1780722337
McCormack, David (2017) The Berlin 1945 Battlefield Guide Part I the Battle of the Oder-Neisse | ISBN: 978-1781556078
McCormack, David (2019) The Berlin 1945 Battlefield Guide Part II The Battle of Berlin | ISBN: 978-1781557396