The fall of berlin 1945, p.10
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.10

           Antony Beevor
 

  Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, meanwhile, had been progressing even more rapidly in its drive to the north-west. He told his two tank armies to avoid areas of resistance and to advance between seventy and 100 kilometres a day. Yet on 25 January, Stalin rang Zhukov in the afternoon to tell him to rein in. ‘When you reach the Oder,’ he said, ‘you’ll be more than 150 kilometres from the flank of the 2nd Belorussian Front. You can’t do this now. You must wait until [Rokossovsky] finishes operations in East Prussia and deploys across the Vistula.’ Stalin was concerned about a German counter-attack on Zhukov’s right flank from German troops along the Pomeranian coastline, what became known as the ‘Baltic balcony’. Zhukov begged Stalin to let him continue. If he waited another ten days for Rokossovsky to finish in East Prussia, that would give the Germans time to man the Meseritz fortified line. Stalin agreed with great reluctance.

  Zhukov’s armies were crossing the region the Nazis had called the Wartheland, the area of western Poland which they had seized after their invasion in 1939. Its Gauleiter, Arthur Greiser, was an unspeakable racist even by Nazi standards. His Warthegau province had been the scene of the most brutal evictions imaginable. Over 700,000 Poles lost everything, their possessions as well as their homes, which were handed over to Volksdeutsch settlers brought in from all over central and south-eastern Europe. The dispossessed Poles had been dumped in the General Gouvernement without shelter, food or hope of work. The treatment of Jews had been even worse. Over 160,000 had been forced into the tiny ghetto in Lódź. Those who did not die of starvation ended up in concentration camps. Just 850 remained alive when the Soviet tanks entered the city.

  The Polish desire for revenge was so fierce that Serov, the chief of NKVD of the 1st Belorussian Front, complained to Beria that it interfered with intelligence-gathering. ‘Troops of the 1st Polish Army treat Germans especially severely,’ he wrote. ‘Often captured German officers and soldiers do not reach the prisoner assembly areas. They are shot en route. For example, on the sector of the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, eighty Germans were captured. Just two prisoners reached the assembly area. All the others had been executed. The two survivors were questioned by the regimental commander, but when he sent them to be interrogated by his intelligence officer, the pair were shot on the way.’

  Zhukov’s decision to force forward with his two tank armies paid off. The Germans never had a chance to organize a line of defence. On the right, the 3rd Shock Army, the 47th, the 61st and the 1st Polish Armies advanced parallel to the Vistula and headed between Bromberg and Schneidemühl to protect the exposed flank. In the middle, Bogdanov’s 2nd Guards Tank Army pushed on, followed by Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army. And on the left Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army charged ahead to Poznan. But Poznan was not like Lódź. On reaching Poznan on 25 January, Katukov saw that it could not be captured off the march, and pushed straight on as Zhukov had instructed. Poznan was left to Chuikov, following closely with the 8th Guards Army, to sort out. He was not pleased, and it seems only to have increased his dislike for Zhukov.

  Gauleiter Greiser, like Koch in East Prussia, had fled his capital, having ordered everyone else to hold fast. He had refused to allow the evacuation of any civilians until 20 January, and as a result it seems that in many areas more than half of the population failed to get away. Vasily Grossman, who had attached himself again to Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, became increasingly conscious of ‘the German civilian, secretly watching us from behind curtains’.

  There was plenty to watch outside. ‘The infantry is moving in a whole variety of horse-drawn vehicles,’ Grossman jotted in his notebook. ‘The boys are smoking makhorka, eating and drinking, and playing cards. A convoy of carts decorated with carpets passes by. The drivers are sitting on feather mattresses. Soldiers no longer eat military rations. They eat pork, turkey and chicken. Rosy and well-fed faces are to be seen for the first time.’ ‘German civilians, already overtaken by our leading tank detachments, have turned round and are now moving back. They receive a good beating and their horses are stolen from them by Poles who take every opportunity to rob them.’ Grossman, like most Soviet citizens, had little idea of what had really happened in 1939 and 1940, and therefore of the reasons why Poles hated the Germans as much as they did. Stalin’s secret treaty with Hitler, dividing the country between them, had been veiled by a news blackout in the Soviet Union.

  Grossman did not hide unpalatable truths from himself, however, even if he could never publish them. ‘There were 250 of our girls whom the Germans had brought from the oblasts of Voroshilovgrad, Kharkov and Kiev. The chief of the army political department said that these girls had been left almost without clothes. They were covered in lice and their bellies swollen from hunger. But a man from the army newspaper told me that these girls had been quite neat and well dressed, until our soldiers arrived and took everything from them.’

  Grossman soon discovered how much the Red Army men took. ‘Liberated Soviet girls quite often complain that our soldiers rape them,’ he noted. ‘One girl said to me in tears, “He was an old man, older than my father.” ’ But Grossman refused to believe the worst of the true frontoviki. ‘Frontline soldiers are advancing day and night under fire, with pure and saintly hearts. The rear echelon men who follow along behind are raping, drinking and looting.’

  The street battles in Poznan provided a foretaste of what lay ahead in Berlin. Grossman, who had spent so much time in Stalingrad during the battle, was interested to see what Chuikov, who had coined the phrase the ‘Stalingrad Academy of street-fighting’, was going to do. ‘The main principle in Stalingrad,’ Grossman observed, ‘was that we upset the balance between the power of machinery and the vulnerability of infantry. But now Academician Chuikov is forced by circumstances into the same sort of situation as at Stalingrad, only with roles reversed. He is attacking the Germans violently in the streets of Poznan, using huge mechanical power and little infantry.’

  He spent some time with Chuikov during the battle for Poznan. ‘Chuikov is sitting in a cold, brightly lit room on the second floor of a requisitioned villa. The telephone rings constantly. Unit commanders are reporting on the street fighting in Poznan.’ Between calls, Chuikov was boasting how he had ‘smashed the German defences round Warsaw’.

  ‘Chuikov listens to the telephone, reaches for the map, and says, “Sorry, I’ve just got to put my glasses on.” ’ The reading glasses looked strange on his tough face. ‘He reads the report, chuckles and taps his adjutant on the nose with a pencil.’ (When angry with an officer, Chuikov more often used his fist, and it was not a tap, according to one of his staff.) ‘He then shouts into the telephone, “If they try to break through to the west, let them out into the open and we’ll squash them like bugs. Now it’s death to the Germans. They won’t escape.” ’

  ‘It really is amazing,’ Chuikov remarked sarcastically in one of his gibes against Zhukov, ‘when you consider our battle experience and our wonderful intelligence, that we failed to notice one little detail. We didn’t know that there’s a first-class fortress at Poznan. One of the strongest in Europe. We thought it was just a town which we could take off the march, and now we’re really in for it.’

  While Chuikov remained behind to deal with the fortress of Poznan, the rest of his army and the 1st Guards Tank Army pushed forward to the Meseritz line east of the Oder. Their main problem was not German resistance but their supply lines. Railroads had been smashed by the retreating Germans, but also Poland had a different gauge of track from the Soviet Union. As a result, the movement of supplies depended on trucks, mostly American Studebakers. Significantly, there has been little acknowledgement by Russian historians that if it had not been for American Lend-Lease trucks, the Red Army’s advance would have taken far longer and the Western Allies might well have reached Berlin first.

  Almost every Soviet soldier remembered vividly the moment of crossing the pre-1939 frontier into Germany. ‘We marched out of a forest,’ Senior Lieutenant Kloc
hkov with the 3rd Shock Army recalled, ‘and we saw a board nailed to a post. On it was written, “Here it is – the accursed Germany.” We were entering the territory of Hitler’s Reich. Soldiers began looking around curiously. German villages are in many ways different from Polish villages. Most houses are built from brick and stone. They have tidily trimmed fruit trees in their little gardens. The roads are good.’ Klochkov, like so many of his fellow countrymen, could not understand why Germans, ‘who were not thoughtless people’, should have risked prosperous and comfortable lives to invade the Soviet Union.

  Further along the road to the Reich capital, Vasily Grossman accompanied part of the 8th Guards Army sent on ahead from Poznan. Its political department had erected placards by the side of the road on which was written, ‘Tremble with fear, fascist Germany, the day of reckoning has come!’

  Grossman was with them when they sacked the town of Schwerin. He jotted down in pencil in a small notebook whatever he saw: ‘Everything is on fire… An old woman jumps from a window in a burning building… Looting is going on… It’s light during the night because everything is ablaze… At the [town] commandant’s office, a German woman dressed in black and with dead lips, is speaking in a weak, whispering voice. There is a girl with her who has black bruises on her neck and face, a swollen eye and terrible bruises on her hands. The girl was raped by a soldier from the headquarters signals company. He is also present. He has a full, red face and looks sleepy. The commandant is questioning them all together.’

  Grossman noted the ‘horror in the eyes of women and girls… Terrible things are happening to German women. A cultivated German man explains with expressive gestures and broken Russian words that his wife has been raped by ten men that day… Soviet girls who have been liberated from camps are suffering greatly too. Last night some of them hid in the room provided for the war correspondents. Screams wake us up in the night. One of the correspondents could not restrain himself. An animated discussion takes place, and order is restored.’ Grossman then noted what he had evidently heard about a young mother. She was being raped continuously in a farm shed. Her relatives came to the shed and asked the soldiers to allow her a break to breast-feed the baby because it would not stop crying. All this was taking place next to a headquarters and in the full sight of officers supposedly responsible for discipline.

  On Tuesday 30 January, the day that Hitler addressed the German people for the last time, the German army suddenly realized that the threat to Berlin was even greater than they had feared. Zhukov’s leading units had not only penetrated the Meseritz defence zone with ease, they were within striking distance of the Oder. At 7.30 a.m., the headquarters of Army Group Vistula heard that the Landsberg road was ‘full of enemy tanks’. Air reconnaissance flights were scrambled.

  Himmler insisted on sending a battalion of Tiger tanks all on its own by train to restore the situation. His staff’s protests had no effect because the Reichsführer SS was firmly convinced that a battalion of Tigers could defeat a whole Soviet tank army. The fifty-ton monsters were still fastened to their railway flat cars when they came under fire from three or four Soviet tanks. The battalion suffered heavy losses before the train managed to withdraw urgently towards Küstrin. Himmler wanted the battalion commander court-martialled until he was eventually persuaded that a Tiger tank fastened to a railway wagon was not in the best position to fight.

  During this time of extreme crisis, Himmler imitated Stalin’s ‘Not one step back’ order of 1942, even if his version did not have the same ring. It was entitled ‘Tod und Strafe für Pflichtvergessenheit’ – ‘Death and punishment for failure to carry out one’s duty’. It tried to end on an uplifting note. ‘After hard trials lasting several weeks the day will come,’ he claimed, ‘when German territories will be free again.’ Another order forbade women on pain of severe punishment to give any food to retreating troops. And in an order of the day to Army Group Vistula he declared, ‘The Lord God has never forsaken our people and he has always helped the brave in their hour of greatest need.’ Both historically and theologically, this was an extremely dubious assertion.

  Himmler, aware that word was spreading fast of the flight of senior Nazi officials, especially Gauleiters Koch and Greiser, decided to make an example at a lower level. On the same day as his other orders, he announced the execution of the police director of Bromberg for abandoning his post. A bürgermeister who had ‘left his town without giving an evacuation order’ was hanged at 3 p.m. at Schwedt on the Oder a few days later.

  This twelfth anniversary of Hitler’s regime was also the second anniversary of the defeat at Stalingrad. Beria was informed of a conversation picked up by microphones hidden in a prison cell between Field Marshal Paulus, General Strecker, the commander who held out for longest in the factory district, and General von Seydlitz.

  ‘Captured German generals are in very bad spirits’, Beria was informed. They had been horrified by Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons six weeks earlier, supporting Stalin’s proposal that Poland should be compensated with East Prussia and other areas. The German generals felt that their position in the Soviet-controlled Free Germany movement had become impossible. ‘The Nazis in this matter are more positive than we are,’ Field Marshal Paulus acknowledged, ‘because they are holding on to German territory, trying to preserve its integrity.’

  Even General von Seydlitz, who had proposed the airlift of anti-Nazi German prisoners of war to start a revolution within the Reich, thought that ‘the ripping away of German lands to create a safety barrier will not be fair’. All the captured generals now realized that the anti-Nazi League of German Officers had just been exploited by the Soviet Union for its own ends. ‘I am tormented by a terrible anxiety,’ said Seydlitz, ‘whether we have chosen the right course.’ The Nazi regime had labelled him ‘the traitor Seydlitz’ and condemned him to death in absentia.

  ‘All Hitler thinks about,’ said Paulus, ‘is how to force the German people into new sacrifices. Never before in history has lying been such a powerful weapon in diplomacy and policy. We Germans have been cunningly deceived by a man who usurped power.’

  ‘Why has God become so angry with Germany,’ replied Strecker, ‘that he sent us Hitler! Are the German people so ignoble? Have they deserved such a punishment?’

  ‘It is two years since the Stalingrad catastrophe,’ said Paulus. ‘And now the whole of Germany is becoming a gigantic Stalingrad.’

  Himmler’s threats and exhortations did nothing to save the situation. That very night Soviet rifle battalions led by Colonel Esipenko, the deputy commander of the 89th Guards Rifle Division, reached the Oder and crossed the ice during darkness. They fanned out, forming a small bridgehead just north of Küstrin.

  Berzarin’s men from the 5th Shock Army crossed the frozen Oder early on the morning of Sunday 31 January, and entered the village of Kienitz. They had crossed the ice following the tracks of farmers who had been collecting firewood on the eastern bank. Only the baker and his assistant were awake. The Soviet troops under Colonel Esipenko captured a train with six anti-aircraft guns, thirteen officers and sixty-three young conscripts from the Reich Labour Service. A small group, clad in no more than the clothes in which they had been sleeping, managed to escape across the snowfields to warn the nearby town of Wriezen of the enemy coup de main. Soviet troops were now within seventy kilometres of the Reich Chancellery.

  On the same day, just south of Küstrin, the ebullient Colonel Gusakovsky crossed the Oder with his 44th Guards Tank Brigade, forming another bridgehead. He thus won his second gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union. Soviet troops on both bridgeheads immediately began digging trenches in the frozen marshy ground of the Oderbruch, the Oder flood plain between the river and the Seelow Heights. Artillery regiments were rushed forward to give them support. They expected a rapid and furious counter-attack, but the Germans were so shaken by what had happened – Goebbels was still trying to pretend that fighting was going on close to Warsaw – that it too
k them time to rush in sufficient ground forces. Focke-Wulf fighters, however, were in action over the Oder the following morning, strafing the freshly dug trenches and anti-tank gun positions. The Soviet anti-aircraft division which had been promised did not turn up for three more days, so Chuikov’s men, laying ice tracks across the thinly frozen river, were extremely vulnerable. They managed nevertheless to pull anti-tank guns across on skis to defend their positions.

  The news of Soviet bridgeheads across the Oder was just as much of a shock to soldiers as to local civilians. Walter Beier, who had been spared from the Feldgendarmerie’s trawl of leave-takers on the train from East Prussia, was enjoying his last days at home on the Buchsmühlenweg, between Küstrin and Frankfurt an der Oder. ‘Happiness in the bosom of the family did not last long,’ he recorded. On the evening of 2 February an agitated neighbour came running to the house to say that about 800 Russians had taken up position in an oak wood only 500 metres away.

 
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