The fall of berlin 1945, p.19
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.19Antony Beevor
The Soviet programme’s main handicap, however, was a lack of uranium. No deposits had been identified yet in the Soviet Union. The main reserves in Europe lay in Saxony and Czechoslovakia, under Nazi control, but before the Red Army reached Berlin they appear to have had only the sketchiest information on the deposits there. On Beria’s instructions, the Soviet Purchasing Committee in the United States asked the American War Production Board to sell it eight tons of uranium oxide. After consultation with Major General Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, the US government authorized purely token supplies, mainly in the hope of finding out what the Soviet Union was up to.
Uranium deposits were discovered in Kazakhstan in 1945, but still in insufficient quantities. Stalin and Beria’s greatest hope of getting the project moving ahead rapidly therefore lay in seizing German supplies of uranium before the Western Allies got to them. Beria had discovered from Soviet scientists who had worked there that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Dahlem, a south-western suburb of Berlin, was the centre of German atomic research. Work was carried out there in a lead-lined bunker known as the ‘Virus House’, a codename designed to discourage outside interest. Next to this bunker stood the Blitzturm, or ‘tower of lightning’, which housed a cyclotron capable of creating 1.5 million volts. Beria, however, did not know that most of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s scientists, equipment and material, including seven tons of uranium oxide, had been evacuated to Haigerloch in the Black Forest. But a German bureaucratic mix-up had led to a further consignment being sent to Dahlem instead of Haigerloch. The rush for Dahlem was not to be entirely in vain.
There had never been any doubt in the minds of the Nazi leadership that the fight for Berlin would be the climax of the war. ‘The National Socialists,’ Goebbels had always insisted, ‘will either win together in Berlin or die together in Berlin.’ Perhaps unaware that he was paraphrasing Karl Marx, he used to declare that ‘whoever possesses Berlin possesses Germany’. Stalin, on the other hand, undoubtedly knew the rest of Marx’s quote: ‘And whoever controls Germany, controls Europe.’
The American war leaders, however, were clearly unfamiliar with such European dicta. It was perhaps this ignorance of European power politics which provoked Brooke into his uncharitable opinion after a working breakfast with Eisenhower in London on 6 March: ‘There is no doubt that he [Eisenhower] is a most attractive personality and at the same time [has] a very very limited brain from a strategic point of view.’ The basic problem, which Brooke did not fully acknowledge, was that the Americans at that stage simply did not view Europe in strategic terms. They had a simple and limited objective: to win the war against Germany quickly, with as few casualties as possible, and then concentrate on Japan. Eisenhower – like his President, the chiefs of staff and other senior officials – failed to look ahead and completely misread Stalin’s character. This exasperated British colleagues and led to the main rift in the western alliance. Some British officers even referred to Eisenhower’s deference to Stalin as ‘Have a Go, Joe’, a call used by London prostitutes when soliciting American soldiers.
On 2 March, Eisenhower signalled to Major General John R. Deane, the US liaison officer in Moscow, ‘In view of the great progress of the Soviet offensive, is there likely to be any major change in Soviet plans from those explained to Tedder [on 15 January]?’ He then asked whether there would be ‘a lull in operations mid-March to mid-May’. But Deane found it impossible to obtain any reliable information from General Antonov. And when finally they did state their intentions, they deliberately misled Eisenhower to conceal their determination to seize Berlin first.
In the difference of views over strategy, personalities unavoidably played a large part. Eisenhower suspected that Montgomery’s demands to be allowed to lead a single, full-blooded thrust towards Berlin were prompted solely by prima donna ambitions. Montgomery had done little to conceal his conviction that he should be the field commander while Eisenhower was left in a figurehead position. Above all, Montgomery’s unforgivable boasting after the Ardennes battle had clearly entrenched Eisenhower’s bad opinion of him. ‘His relations with Monty are quite insoluble,’ Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke wrote in his diary after that breakfast meeting on 6 March. ‘He only sees the worst side of Monty.’ Yet the Americans, with some justification, felt that Montgomery would in any case be the worst choice to lead a rapid thrust. He was so notoriously pedantic about staff details that he took longer than any other general to mount an attack.
Montgomery’s 21st Army Group in the north at Wesel faced the greatest concentration of German troops. He therefore planned a set-piece crossing of the Rhine with large-scale amphibious and airborne operations. But his minutely prepared performance was rather preempted by events further south. Hitler’s frenzied reaction to the US First Army’s rapidly reinforced bridgehead at Remagen was to order massive counter-attacks. This stripped other sectors of the Rhine. Soon, Patton’s Third Army, which had been clearing the Palatinate with a panache reminiscent of that local cavalry leader Prince Rupert, was across the river at a number of points south of Koblenz.
Once Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had also crossed the Rhine on the morning of 24 March, Eisenhower, Churchill and Brooke met on the banks of the river in euphoric mood. Montgomery believed that Eisenhower would allow him to charge north-eastwards towards the Baltic coast at Lübeck and perhaps even Berlin. He was soon disabused.
General Hodges had been building up the Remagen bridgehead and Patton, in a remarkably short time, had developed his main bridgehead south of Mainz. Eisenhower ordered them to converge their attacks eastwards before Hodges’s First Army swung left to encircle the Ruhr from the south. He then, to Montgomery’s utter dismay, detached Simpson’s Ninth Army from his 21st Army Group and ordered Montgomery to head for Hamburg and Denmark, not for Berlin. The US Ninth Army was to form the northern part of the Ruhr operation to surround Field Marshal Model’s Army Group defending Germany’s last industrial region. The greatest blow to British hopes of a push north-eastwards towards Berlin was Eisenhower’s decision on 30 March to concentrate efforts on central and southern Germany.
Bradley’s 12th Army Group, augmented by the Ninth Army, was to cross the centre of Germany as soon as it had secured the Ruhr to head for Leipzig and Dresden. In the south, General Devers’s 6th Army Group would head for Bavaria and northern Austria. Then, to the anger of the British chiefs of staff, who had not been consulted about the important change of emphasis in the overall plan, Eisenhower communicated its details to Stalin at the end of March without telling them or his British deputy, Air Chief Marshal Tedder. This signal, known as SCAF-252, became a bitter issue between the two allies.
Eisenhower weighted his attack southwards partly because he was convinced that Hitler would withdraw his armies to Bavaria and northwestern Austria for a last-ditch defence of an Alpenfestung, or Alpine Fortress. He conceded later in his memoirs that Berlin was ‘politically and psychologically important as the symbol of remaining German power’, but he believed that ‘it was not the logical nor the most desirable objective for the forces of the Western Allies’. He justified this decision on the grounds that the Red Army on the Oder was much closer and the logistic effort would have meant holding up his central and southern armies, and his objective of meeting up with the Red Army to split Germany in two.
On the banks of the Rhine only six days before Churchill had hoped that ‘our armies will advance against little or no opposition and will reach the Elbe, or even Berlin, before the Bear’. He was now thoroughly dismayed. It seemed as if Eisenhower and Marshall were far too concerned with placating Stalin. The Soviet authorities were apparently furious about American fighters shooting down a number of their aircraft in a dogfight. Their reaction was in strong contrast to Stalin’s remarks to Tedder in January that such accidents were bound to happen in war. The incident had taken place on 18 March between Berlin and Küstrin. The US Air Force fighter pilots thought that they had engaged eight German
Ironically, it was the Americans, in the form of Allen Dulles of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in Berne, who provoked the biggest row with the Soviet Union at this time. Dulles had been approached by SS Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff about an armistice in north Italy. The Soviet leadership’s demands to participate in the talks were rejected in case Wolff might break them off. This was a blunder. Churchill acknowledged that the Soviet Union was understandably alarmed. Stalin clearly feared a separate peace on the Western Front. His recurrent nightmare was a revived Wehrmacht supplied by the Americans, even if this was an illogical fear. The vast majority of Germany’s most formidable formations had either been destroyed, captured or surrounded, and even if the Americans had provided all the weapons in the world, the Wehrmacht in 1945 bore little resemblance to the fighting machine of 1941.
Stalin also suspected that the huge numbers of Wehrmacht troops surrendering to the Americans and British in the west of Germany revealed not just their fear of becoming prisoners of the Red Army. He thought it was part of a deliberate attempt to open up the Western Front to allow the Americans and British to reach Berlin first. In fact, the reason for such large surrenders at that time was Hitler’s refusal to allow any withdrawal. If he had brought his armies back to defend the Rhine after the Ardennes débâcle, the Allies would have faced a very hard task. But he did not, and this allowed them to trap so many divisions west of the Rhine. Similarly, Field Marshal Model’s fixed defence of the Ruhr was equally doomed. ‘We owed much to Hitler,’ Eisenhower commented later.
In any case, Churchill felt strongly that until Stalin’s post-war intentions in central Europe were clearer, then the West had to grab every good card available for bargaining with him. Recent reports of what was happening in Poland, with mass arrests of prominent figures who might not support Soviet rule, strongly suggested that Stalin had no intention of allowing an independent government to develop. Molotov had also become extremely aggressive. He was refusing to allow any western representatives into Poland. In fact, his general interpretation of their agreement at Yalta was very different from what both the British and the Americans had understood to be ‘the letter and the spirit’ of their accord.
Churchill’s earlier confidence based on Stalin’s lack of interference in Greece had now started to disintegrate. He suspected that both he and Roosevelt had been the victims of a massive confidence trick. Churchill still did not seem to realize that Stalin judged others by himself. It would appear that he had acted on the principle that Churchill, after all his comments at Yalta about having to face the House of Commons over the subject of Poland, had simply needed a bit of democratic gloss to keep any critics quiet until everything was irreversibly settled. Stalin now appeared to be angered by Churchill’s renewed complaints over the Soviet Union’s behaviour in Poland.
The Soviet authorities were well aware of the main political and military disagreements between the Western Allies, even if they did not know all the details immediately. The rift grew even greater after Eisenhower’s SCAF-252 signal to Stalin. Eisenhower, stung by the furious British reaction, wrote later that the Combined Chiefs of Staff, after Tedder’s visit to Moscow in January, had allowed him to communicate directly with Moscow ‘on matters that were exclusively military in character’. ‘Later in the campaign,’ he wrote, ‘my interpretation of this authorization was sharply challenged by Mr Churchill, the difficulty arising out of the age-old truth that politics and military activities are never completely separable.’ In any case, Eisenhower’s view that Berlin itself was ‘no longer a particularly important objective’ demonstrated an astonishing naϊvety.
The irony, however, is that Eisenhower’s decision to avoid Berlin was almost certainly the right one, albeit for totally the wrong reasons. For Stalin, the Red Army’s capture of Berlin was not a matter of bargaining positions in the post-war game. He saw it as far too important for that. If any forces from the Western Allies had crossed the Elbe and headed for Berlin, they would almost certainly have found themselves warned off by the Soviet air force, and artillery if in range. Stalin would have had no compunction in condemning the Western Allies and accusing them of criminal adventurism. While Eisenhower gravely underestimated the importance of Berlin, Churchill, on the other hand, underestimated both Stalin’s determination to secure the city at any price and the genuine moral outrage which would have greeted any western attempt to seize the Red Army’s prize from under its nose.
At the end of March, while the British and American chiefs of staff disagreed over Eisenhower’s plans, the Stavka in Moscow put the finishing touches to the plan for ‘the Berlin operation’. Zhukov left his headquarters on the morning of 29 March to fly back to Moscow, but bad weather forced him down in Minsk shortly after midday. He spent the afternoon talking with Ponomarenko, the secretary of the Communist Party of Belorussia, and, since the weather had still not improved, he took the train to Moscow.
The atmosphere in the Kremlin was extremely tense. Stalin was convinced that the Germans would do everything possible to make a deal with the Western Allies in order to hold off the Red Army in the east. The American talks in Berne with General Wolff about a possible cease-fire in northern Italy seemed to confirm his worst fears. Yet the Soviet leadership’s intense suspicions failed to take into account Hitler’s fanaticism. Figures around him might make peace overtures, but Hitler himself knew that surrender in any form, even to the Western Allies, offered him no future, save humiliation and the gallows. There could be no deal without some form of palace coup against the Führer.
Zhukov, who was to be responsible for seizing Berlin, also shared Stalin’s fears that the Germans would open their front to the British and Americans. On 27 March, two days before he left for Moscow, the Reuters correspondent at 21st Army Group wrote that British and American troops heading for the heart of Germany were encountering no resistance. The Reuters report rang alarm bells in Moscow.
‘The German front in the west has entirely collapsed,’ was the first thing Stalin said to Zhukov when he finally reached Moscow. ‘It seems that Hitler’s men do not want to take any measures to stop the advance of the allies. At the same time they are strengthening their groups on the main axes against us.’ Stalin gestured to the map, then knocked the ash from his pipe. ‘I think we are going to have a serious fight.’
Zhukov produced his front intelligence map and Stalin studied it. ‘When can our troops start to advance on the Berlin axis?’ he asked.
‘The 1st Belorussian Front will be able to advance in two weeks,’ Zhukov replied. ‘Apparently the 1st Ukrainian Front will be ready at the same time. And according to our information, the 2nd Belorussian Front will be held up liquidating the enemy at Danzig and Gdynia until the middle of April.’
‘Well,’ Stalin replied. ‘We’ll just have to start without waiting for Rokossovsky’s Front.’ He went to his desk and leafed through some papers, then passed Zhukov a letter. ‘Here, read this,’ Stalin said. According to Zhukov, the letter was from ‘a foreign well-wisher’ tipping off the Soviet leadership about secret negotiations between the Western Allies and the Nazis. It did, however, explain that the Americans and British had refused the German proposal of a separate peace, but the possibility of the Germans opening the route to Berlin ‘could not be ruled out’.
‘Well, what have you got to say?’ said Stalin. Not waiting for a reply, he said, ‘I think Roosevelt won’t violate the Yalta agreement, but as for Churchill… that one’s capable of anything.’
At 8 p.m. on 31 March, the United States ambassador, Averell Harriman, and his British counterpart, Sir Archibald Clerk Kerr, went to the Kremlin, accompanied by General Deane. They met Stalin, General
The very next morning, 1 April, Stalin received Marshals Zhukov and Konev in his large study in the Kremlin, with its long conference table and the portraits of Suvorov and Kutuzov on the wall. General Antonov, the chief of the general staff, and General Shtemenko, the chief of operations, were also present.
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