The fall of berlin 1945, p.18
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.18

           Antony Beevor

  German attempts from outside to break the Soviet ring round the Oppeln Kessel were repulsed and half of the 30,000 Germans trapped there were killed. Konev was assisted by an attack further to the southeast by the neighbouring 4th Ukrainian Front. On 30 March, the 60th Army and the 4th Guards Tank Army seized Ratibor. The 1st Ukrainian Front now controlled virtually all of Upper Silesia.

  Despite the constant loss of German territory, the Nazi leadership still did not change its ways. The grandiose title of Army Group Vistula became not merely unconvincing, but ridiculous. Even this, however, was not quite as preposterous as its commander-in-chief’s new field command post west of the Oder.

  Himmler’s headquarters were established ninety kilometres north of Berlin in a forest near Hassleben, a village to the south-east of Prenzlau. This distance from the capital reassured the Reichsführer SS that there was little risk from bombing raids. The camp consisted mainly of standard wooden barrack blocks surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. The only exception was the ‘Reichsführerbaracke’, a specially built and much larger building, expensively furnished. ‘The bedroom,’ noted one of his staff officers, ‘was very elegant in reddish wood, with a suite of furniture and carpet in pale green. It was more the boudoir of a great lady than of a man commanding troops in war.’

  The entrance hall even had a huge imitation Gobelins wall tapestry with a ‘Nordic’ theme. Everything came from SS factories, even the expensive porcelain. So much, thought army officers, for the Nazi leadership’s practice of ‘total warfare’, as vaunted by Goebbels. Himmler’s routine was equally unimpressive for a field commander. After a bath, a massage from his personal masseur and breakfast, he was finally ready for work at 10.30 a.m. Whatever the crisis, Himmler’s sleep was not to be disturbed, even if an urgent decision had to be made. All he really wanted to do was to present medals. He greatly enjoyed such ceremonies, which offered an effortless assertion of his own preeminence. According to Guderian, his one dream was to receive the Knight’s Cross himself.

  Himmler’s performance at situation conferences in the Reich Chancellery, in contrast, remained pathetically inadequate. According to his operations officer, Colonel Eismann, Himmler increasingly repeated at the Reich Chancellery the words Kriegsgericht and Standgericht, court martial and drumhead court martial, as a sort of deadly mantra. Retreat meant lack of will and that could only be cured by the harshest measures. He also spoke constantly of ‘incompetent and cowardly generals’. But whatever the faults of generals, they were sent home or transferred to another post. It was the retreating soldiers who were shot.

  The Standgericht, or summary version, was naturally the method which Führer headquarters advocated. It had already been sketched out in principle. Just after the Red Army reached the Oder at the beginning of February, Hitler had copied Stalin’s ‘Not one step back’ order of 1942, with the creation of blocking detachments. It included, as paragraph 5, the instruction, ‘Military tribunals should take the strictest possible measures based on the principle that those who are afraid of an honest death in battle deserve the mean death of cowards.’

  This was then elaborated in the Führer order of 9 March setting up the Fliegende Standgericht, the mobile drumhead court martial. Its establishment consisted of three senior officers, with two clerks and typewriters and office material, and, most essential of all, ‘1 Unteroffizier und 8 Mann als Exekutionskommando’. The guiding principle of its actions was simple: ‘The justice of mercy is not applicable.’ The organization was to start work the next day, ready to judge all members of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. Hitler’s blitzkrieg against his own soldiers was extended to the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine in an instruction signed by General Burgdorf. He instructed them to make sure that the president in each case was ‘firmly anchored in the ideology of our Reich’. Martin Bormann, not wanting the Nazi Party to be outdone, also issued an order to Gauleiters to suppress ‘cowardice and defeatism’ with death sentences by summary courts martial.

  Four days after the Führer order on the Fliegende Standgericht, Hitler issued yet another order, probably drafted by Bormann, on National Socialist ideology in the army. ‘The overriding priority in the duties of a leader of troops is to activate and fanaticize them politically and he is fully responsible to me for their National Socialist conduct.’

  For Himmler, the man who preached pitilessness to waverers, the stress of command proved too much. Without warning Guderian, he retired with influenza to the sanatorium of Hohenlychen, some forty kilometres to the west of Hassleben, to be cared for by his personal physician. Guderian, on hearing of the chaotic situation at his headquarters, drove up to Hassleben. Even Lammerding, Himmler’s SS chief of staff, begged him to do something. Learning that the Reichsführer SS was at Hohenlychen, Guderian went on to visit him there, having guessed the tactic to adopt. He said that Himmler was clearly overworked with all his responsibilities – Reichsführer SS, chief of the German Police, minister of the interior, commander-in-chief of the Replacement Army and commander-in-chief of Army Group Vistula. Guderian suggested that he should resign from Army Group Vistula. Since it was clear that Himmler wanted to, but did not dare tell Hitler himself, Guderian saw his chance. ‘Then will you authorize me to say it for you?’ he said. Himmler could not refuse. That night Guderian told Hitler and recommended Colonel General Gotthardt Heinrici as his replacement. Heinrici was the commander of the First Panzer Army, then involved in the fighting against Konev opposite Ratibor. Hitler, loath to admit that Himmler had been a disastrous choice, agreed with great reluctance.

  Heinrici went to Hassleben to take up command. Himmler, hearing of his arrival, returned to hand over with a briefing on the situation which was full of pomposity and self-justification. Heinrici had to listen to this interminable speech until the telephone rang. Himmler answered. It was General Busse, the commander of the Ninth Army. A terrible blunder had taken place at Küstrin. The corridor to the fortress had been lost. Himmler promptly handed the telephone to Heinrici. ‘You’re the new commander-in-chief of the army group,’ he said. ‘You give the relevant orders.’ And the Reichsführer SS took his leave with indecent haste.

  The fighting in the Oder bridgeheads either side of Küstrin had been ferocious. If Soviet troops captured a village and found any Nazi SA uniforms or swastikas in a house, they often killed everyone inside. And yet the inhabitants of one village which had been occupied by the Red Army and then liberated by a German counter-attack ‘had nothing negative to say about the Russian military’.

  More and more German soldiers and young conscripts also showed that they did not want to die for a lost cause. A Swede coming by car from Küstrin to Berlin reported to the Swedish military attaché, Major Juhlin-Dannfel, that he had passed ‘twenty Feldgendarmerie control points whose task was to capture deserters from the front’. Another Swede passing through the area reported that German troops appeared thin on the ground and the ‘soldiers looked apathetic due to exhaustion’.

  Conditions had been miserable. The Oderbruch was a semi-cultivated wetland, with a number of dykes. To dig in against artillery and air attack was a dispiriting experience, since in most places you reached water less than a metre down. February was not as cold as usual, but that did little to lessen the cases of trench foot. Apart from the lack of experienced troops, the German Army’s main problems were shortages of ammunition and shortages of fuel for their vehicles. For example, in the SS 30. januar Division, the headquarters Kübelwagen could be used only in an emergency. And no artillery battery could fire without permission. The daily ration was two shells per gun.

  The Red Army dug their fire trenches in a slightly rounded sausage shape, as well as individual foxholes. Their snipers took up position in patches of scrub woodland or in the rafters of a ruined house. Using well-developed camouflage techniques, they would stay in place for six to eight hours without moving. Their priority targets were first officers and then ration carriers. German soldiers could not move in daylight. And by rest
ricting all movement to darkness, Soviet reconnaissance groups were able to penetrate the thinly held German line and snatch an unfortunate soldier on his own as a ‘tongue’ for their intelligence officers to interrogate. Artillery forward observation officers also concealed themselves like snipers; in fact they liked to think of themselves as snipers at one remove, but with bigger guns.

  The spring floodwaters on the Oder proved an unexpected advantage for the Red Army. Several of the bridges which their engineers had constructed now lay between twenty-five and thirty centimetres below the surface of the water, turning them into artificial fords. The Luftwaffe pilots, flying Focke-Wulfs and Stukas, found them very hard to hit.

  While Goebbels the minister of propaganda still preached final victory, Goebbels the Gauleiter and Reich Defence Commissar for Berlin ordered obstacles to be constructed in and around the city. Tens of thousands of under-nourished civilians, mostly women, were marched out to expend what little energy they had on digging tank ditches. Rumours of resentment at Nazi bureaucracy, incompetence and the time wasted on useless defence preparations began to circulate, in spite of the penalties for defeatism. ‘In the whole war,’ one staff officer wrote scathingly, ‘I have never seen a tank ditch, either one of ours or one of the enemy’s, which managed to impede a tank attack.’ The army opposed such senseless barriers constructed on Nazi Party orders, because they hindered military traffic going out towards the Seelow Heights and caused chaos with the stream of refugees now coming into the city from villages west of the Oder.

  Brandenburger farmers who had to stay behind because they had been called up into the Volkssturm meanwhile found it increasingly difficult to farm. The local Nazi Party farm leader, the Ortsbauernführer, was ordered to requisition their carts and horses for the transport of wounded and ammunition. Even bicycles were being commandeered to equip the so-called tank-hunting division. But the most telling degree of the Wehrmacht’s loss of equipment during the disastrous retreat from the Vistula was its need to take weapons from the Volkssturm.

  Volkssturm battalion 16/69 was centred on Wriezen, at the edge of the Oderbruch, close to the front line. It mustered no more than 113 men, of whom thirty-two were on defence works in the rear and fourteen were ill or wounded. The rest guarded tank barricades and bridges. They had three sorts of machine gun, including several Russian ones, a flame-thrower lacking essential parts, three Spanish pistols and 228 rifles from six different nations. One must assume that this report on their weapon states is accurate since the district administration in Potsdam had issued a warning that to make a false report on this subject was ‘tantamount to a war crime’. But in many cases even such useless arsenals were not handed over because Nazi Gauleiters told the Volkssturm to give up only weapons which had been lent by the Wehrmacht in the first place.

  Nazi Party leaders had heard from Gestapo reports that the civilian population was expressing more and more contempt for the way they ordered others to die but did nothing themselves. The refugees in particular were apparently ‘very harsh about the conduct of prominent personalities’. To counter this, a great deal of military posturing took place. The Gau leadership of Brandenburg issued calls to Party members for more volunteers to fight with the slogan, ‘The fresh air of the front instead of overheated rooms!’ Dr Ley, the chief of Nazi Party organization, appeared at Führer headquarters with a plan to raise a Freikorps Adolf Hitler with ‘40,000 fanatical volunteers’. He asked Guderian to make the army hand over 80,000 sub-machine guns at once. Guderian promised him the weapons once they were enrolled, knowing full well that this was pure bluster. Even Hitler did not look impressed.

  Over the last few months, Goebbels had become alarmed at Hitler’s withdrawal from public view. He finally persuaded him to agree to a visit to the Oder front, mainly for the benefit of the newsreel cameras. The Führer’s visit, on 13 March, was kept very secret. SS patrols watched all the routes beforehand, then lined them just before the Führer’s convoy arrived. In fact Hitler did not meet a single ordinary soldier. Formation commanders had been summoned without explanation to an old manor house near Wriezen which had once belonged to Blücher. They were astonished to see the decrepit Führer. One officer wrote of his ‘chalk-white face’ and ‘his glittering eyes, which reminded me of the eyes of a snake’. General Busse, wearing field cap and spectacles, gave a formal presentation of the situation on his army’s front. When Hitler spoke of the necessity of holding the Oder defence line, he made it clear, another officer recorded, ‘that what we already had were the very last weapons and equipment available’.

  The effort of talking must have drained Hitler. On the journey back to Berlin, he never said a word. According to his driver, he sat there ‘lost in his thoughts’. It was his last journey. He was never to leave the Reich Chancellery again alive.


  Objective Berlin

  On 8 March, just when the Pomeranian operation was getting into full momentum, Stalin suddenly summoned Zhukov back to Moscow. It was a strange moment to drag a Front commander away from his headquarters. Zhukov drove straight from the central airport out to Stalin’s dacha, where the Soviet leader was recuperating from exhaustion and stress.

  After Zhukov had reported on the Pomeranian operation and the fighting in the Oder bridgeheads, Stalin led him outside for a walk in the grounds. He talked about his childhood. When they returned to the dacha for tea, Zhukov asked Stalin if anything had been heard of his son Yakov Djugashvili, who had been a prisoner of the Germans since 1941. Stalin had disowned his own son then for having allowed himself to be taken alive, but now his attitude seemed different. He did not answer Zhukov’s question for some time. ‘Yakov is never going to get out of prison alive,’ he said eventually. ‘The murderers will shoot him. According to our inquiries, they are keeping him isolated and are trying to persuade him to betray the Motherland.’ He was silent for another long moment. ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘Yakov would prefer any kind of death to betraying the Motherland.’

  When Stalin referred to ‘our inquiries’, they were of course Abakumov’s inquiries. The most recent news of Yakov had come from General Stepanovic, a commander of the Yugoslav gendarmerie. Stepanovic had been released by Zhukov’s own troops at the end of January, but then grabbed by SMERSH for interrogation. Stepanovic had earlier been in Straflager X-C in Lübeck with Senior Lieutenant Djugashvili. According to Stepanovic, Yakov had conducted himself ‘independently and proudly’. He refused to stand up if a German officer entered his room and turned his back if they spoke to him. The Germans had put him in a punishment cell. Despite an interview printed in the German press, Yakov Djugashvili insisted that he had never replied to any question from anyone. After an escape from the camp, he was taken away and flown to an unknown destination. To this day, the manner of his death is not clear, although the most common story is that he threw himself at the perimeter fence to force the guards to shoot him. Stalin may have changed his attitude towards his own son, but he remained pitiless towards the hundreds of thousands of other Soviet prisoners of war who had in most cases suffered an even worse fate than Yakov.

  Stalin changed the subject. He said that he was ‘very pleased’ with the results of the Yalta conference. Roosevelt had been most friendly. Stalin’s secretary, Poskrebyshev, then came in with papers for Stalin to sign. This was a signal for Zhukov to leave, yet it was also the moment for Stalin to explain the reason for the urgent summons to Moscow. ‘Go to the Stavka,’ he told Zhukov, ‘and look at the calculations on the Berlin operation with Antonov. We will meet here tomorrow at 13.00.’

  Antonov and Zhukov, who evidently sensed that there was a reason for the urgency, worked through the night. Next morning, Stalin changed both the time and the place. He came into Moscow, despite his weak state, so that a full-scale conference could take place at the Stavka with Malenkov, Molotov and other members of the State Defence Committee. Antonov made his presentation. When he had finished, Stalin gave his approval and told him to issue the orders
for detailed planning.

  Zhukov acknowledged in his memoirs that ‘when we were working on the Berlin operation we took into account the action of our allies’. He even admitted their concern that ‘the British command was still nursing the dream of capturing Berlin before the Red Army reached it’. What he does not mention, however, was that on 7 March, the day before Stalin summoned him so urgently to Moscow, the US Army had seized the bridge at Remagen. Stalin had immediately seen the implications of the Western Allies breaching the Rhine barrier so quickly.

  The British desire to head for Berlin had never been concealed from Stalin. During Churchill’s visit to Moscow in October 1944, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke told Stalin that after an encirclement of the Ruhr, ‘the main axis of the Allied advance would then be directed on Berlin’. Churchill had re-emphasized the point. They hoped to cut off about 150,000 Germans in Holland, ‘then drive steadily towards Berlin’. Stalin had made no comment.

  There was a very strong reason for Stalin to want the Red Army to occupy Berlin first. In May 1942, three months before the start of the battle of Stalingrad, he had summoned Beria and the leading atomic physicists to his dacha. He was furious to have heard through spies that the United States and Britain were working on a uranium bomb. Stalin blamed Soviet scientists for not having taken the threat seriously, yet he was the one who had dismissed as a ‘provocation’ the first intelligence on the subject. This had come from the British spy John Cairncross in November 1941. Stalin’s angry dismissal of the information had been a curious repeat of his behaviour when warned of the German invasion six months before.

  Over the next three years, the Soviet nuclear research programme, soon codenamed Operation Borodino, was dramatically accelerated with detailed research information from the Manhattan Project provided by Communist sympathizers, such as Klaus Fuchs. Beria himself took over supervision of the work and eventually brought Professor Igor Kurchatov’s team of scientists under complete NKVD control.

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