The fall of berlin 1945, p.21
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.21

           Antony Beevor

  Grand Admiral Dönitz was favoured because of his complete loyalty and because Hitler saw his new generation of U-boats as the most promising weapon of revenge. In German navy circles, Dönitz was known as ‘Hitlerjunge Quex’ – the devoted Nazi youth in a famous propaganda movie – because he was the ‘mouthpiece of his Führer’. But Bormann appeared to be the best-placed member of the ‘Kamarilla’. Hitler called his indispensable assistant and chief administrator ‘dear Martin’.

  The officers also watched the deadly competition among the heirs apparent within the ‘Kamarilla’. Himmler and Bormann addressed each other as ‘du’ but ‘mutual respect was thin on the ground’. They also observed Fegelein, ‘with his dirty finger sticking into everything’, do his utmost to undermine Himmler, a man whose friendship he had sought and achieved. Himmler appears to have been oblivious of the treachery. He generously permitted his subordinate, no doubt as the Führer’s brother-in-law presumptive, to address him as ‘du’.

  Eva Braun had already returned to Berlin to stay by her adored Führer’s side right to the end. The popular notion that her return from Bavaria was much later and totally unexpected is undermined by Bormann’s diary entry of Wednesday 7 March: ‘In the evening Eva Braun left for Berlin with a courier train.’ If Bormann had known of her movements in advance then so, presumably, had Hitler.

  On 13 March, a day in which 2,500 Berliners died in air raids and another 120,000 found themselves homeless, Bormann ordered ‘on the grounds of security’ that prisoners must be moved from areas close to the front to the interior of the Reich. It is not entirely clear whether this instruction also accelerated the existing SS programme for evacuating concentration camps threatened by advancing troops. The killing of sick prisoners and the death marches of concentration camp survivors were probably the most ghastly developments in the fall of the Third Reich. Those too weak to march and those regarded as politically dangerous were usually hanged or shot by the SS or Gestapo. On some occasions, even the local Volkssturm was used for execution squads. Yet men and women condemned for listening to a foreign radio station apparently constituted the largest group among those defined as ‘dangerous’. The Gestapo and SS also reacted brutally to reports of looting, especially when it involved foreign workers. German citizens were usually spared. In this frenzy of reprisal and revenge, Italian forced labourers suffered more than almost any other national group. They suffered presumably because of a Nazi desire to take revenge on a former ally who had changed sides.

  Soon after issuing his order for the evacuation of prisoners, Bormann flew to Salzburg on 15 March. Over the next three days he visited mines in the area. The purpose of this must have been to choose sites for concealing Nazi loot and Hitler’s private possessions. He was back in Berlin on 19 March, after an overnight train journey. Later that day, Hitler issued what became known as the ‘Nero’ or ‘scorched-earth’ order. Everything which might be of use to the enemy should be destroyed on withdrawal. The timing, just after Bormann’s journey to conceal Nazi loot, was an ironic coincidence.

  It was Albert Speer’s latest memorandum which had suddenly triggered Hitler’s insistence on a scorched-earth policy to the end. When Speer tried to persuade Hitler in the early hours of that morning that bridges should not be blown up unnecessarily, because their destruction meant ‘eliminating all further possibility for the German people to survive’, Hitler’s reply revealed his contempt for them all. ‘This time you will receive a written reply to your memorandum,’ Hitler told him. ‘If the war is lost, the people will also be lost [and] it is not necessary to worry about their needs for elemental survival. On the contrary, it is best for us to destroy even these things. For the nation has proved to be weak, and the future belongs entirely to the strong people of the East. Whatever remains after this battle is in any case only the inadequates, because the good ones will be dead.’

  Speer, who had travelled straight to Field Marshal Model’s headquarters in the Ruhr to persuade him not to wreck the railway system, received Hitler’s written reply on the morning of 20 March. ‘All military, transport, communication and supply facilities, as well as all material assets in the territory of the Reich’ were to be destroyed. Reichsminister Speer was relieved of all his responsibilities in this field and his orders for the preservation of factories were to be rescinded immediately. Speer had cleverly used an anti-defeatist argument, saying that factories and other structures should not be destroyed since they were bound to be recaptured in a counter-attack, but now Hitler had rumbled his tactic. One of the most striking aspects of this exchange was that Speer finally realized that Hitler was a ‘criminal’ only after receiving his patron’s reply.

  Speer, who had been touring the front from Field Marshal Model’s headquarters, returned to Berlin on 26 March. He was summoned to the Reich Chancellery.

  ‘I have reports that you are no longer in harmony with me,’ Hitler said to his former protégé. ‘It is apparent that you no longer believe that the war can be won.’ He wanted to send Speer on leave. Speer suggested resignation instead, but Hitler refused.

  Speer, although officially deposed, still managed to thwart those Gauleiters who wished to carry out Hitler’s order, because he retained control over the supply of explosives. But on 27 March, Hitler issued yet another order, insisting on the ‘total annihilation by explosives, fire or dismantlement’ of the whole railway and other transport systems and all communications, including telephones, telegraph and broadcasting. Speer, who returned to Berlin in the early hours of 29 March, contacted various sympathetic generals, including the recently deposed Guderian, as well as the less fanatical Gauleiters, to see if they supported his plan to continue thwarting Hitler’s mania for destruction. Guderian, with ‘funereal laughter’, warned him not to ‘lose his head’.

  That evening Hitler began by warning Speer that his conduct was treasonous. He asked Speer again whether he still believed that the war could be won. Speer said that he did not. Hitler claimed that it was ‘impossible to deny the hope of final victory’. He talked about the disappointments of his own career, a favourite refrain which also confused his own fate with that of Germany. He demanded and advised Speer ‘to repent and have faith’. Speer was given twenty-four hours to see whether he could bring himself to believe in victory. Hitler, clearly nervous of losing his most competent minister, did not wait for the ultimatum to expire. He rang him in his office at the armaments ministry on the Pariserplatz. Speer returned to the Reich Chancellery bunker.

  ‘Well?’ Hitler demanded.

  ‘My Führer, I stand unconditionally behind you,’ Speer replied, suddenly deciding to lie. Hitler became emotional. His eyes filled with tears and he shook Speer’s hand warmly. ‘But then it will help,’ Speer continued, ‘if you will immediately reconfirm my authority for the implementation of your 19 March decree.’ Hitler agreed at once, and told him to draw up an authorization which he would sign. In the document, Speer reserved almost all demolition decisions for the minister of armaments and war production, that is to say for himself. Hitler must have sensed that he was being deceived, and yet his greatest need appears to have been to have his favourite minister back at his side.

  Bormann, meanwhile, was issuing orders through the Gauleiters on a wide range of issues. It came to his attention, for example, that doctors were already carrying out abortions on many rape victims who arrived as refugees from the eastern provinces. On 28 March, he decided that the situation had to be regularized and issued an instruction classified ‘Highly confidential!’ Any woman requesting an abortion in these circumstances first had to be interrogated by an officer of the Kriminalpolizei to establish the probability that she had really been raped by a Red Army soldier as she claimed. Only then would an abortion be permitted.

  Speer, in his attempts to prevent needless destruction, was a frequent visitor to Army Group Vistula headquarters at Hassleben. He found that General Heinrici entirely agreed with his aims. Speer claimed when interrogated by the Ame
ricans after the defeat that he had suggested to Heinrici’s chief of staff, General Kinzel, the possibility of withdrawing Army Group Vistula to the west of Berlin to save the city from more destruction.

  Heinrici had now been given responsibility for the defence of Berlin, so he and Speer worked together on the best way to save as many bridges as possible from demolition. This was doubly important because water mains and sewage pipes were an integral part of their construction. The fifty-eight-year-old Heinrici, according to one of his many admirers on the general staff, was ‘in our eyes the perfect example of a traditional Prussian officer’. He had recently been awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords and Oak-Leaves. This ‘grizzled soldier’ was a scruffy dresser who preferred a frontline sheepskin jacket and First World War leather leggings to the smart general staff uniform. His aide tried in vain to persuade him to order a new tunic at least.

  General Helmuth Reymann, a not very imaginative officer who had been designated the commander of Berlin’s defence, was planning to demolish all the city’s bridges. So Speer, with Heinrici’s support, played his defeatist card again and asked Reymann whether he believed in victory. Reymann could not, of course, say no. Speer then persuaded him to accept Heinrici’s compromise formula: to restrict his demolition plans to the outermost bridges on the Red Army’s line of advance and leave the bridges in the centre of the capital intact. After the meeting with Reymann, Heinrici told Speer that he had no intention of fighting a prolonged battle for Berlin. He just hoped that the Red Army would get there quickly and take Hitler and the Nazi leadership unawares.

  The headquarters staff at Hassleben were interrupted by a constant stream of less welcome visitors. Gauleiter Greiser, who had claimed urgent duties in Berlin when abandoning the besieged population of Poznan to their fate, had turned up at Army Group Vistula headquarters and hung around listlessly. He said he wanted to work as an aide on the staff. Gauleiter Hildebrandt of Mecklenburg and Gauleiter Stürz of Brandenburg also turned up, demanding briefings on the situation. There was just one question which they really wanted to ask – ‘Wann kommt der Russe?’ – but they did not quite dare, because it was defeatist.

  Göring was also a frequent visitor to Army Group Vistula headquarters from his ostentatious mansion at Karinhall. He made much of the Sonderstaffel – the special planning group led by the famous Stuka ace Lieutenant Colonel Baumbach to target the Soviet bridges and crossing points to their Oder bridgeheads, dropping newly developed radio-controlled bombs. The Kriegsmarine also organized ‘Sprengboote’, an explosive version of Elizabethan fireships, floating downriver. Attacks from neither the air nor the river achieved any lasting damage. Repairs were made with great sacrifice by Soviet engineers working in freezing water. Many of them lost their lives to the cold or the current. Colonel Baumbach admitted to army staff officers that it was pointless to continue. It would be better to distribute the aircraft fuel used to armoured units. Baumbach, who, according to Colonel Eismann, had none of the ‘Primadonna-Allüren’ of many fighter aces, was a realist, unlike the Reichsmarschall.

  Göring’s vanity was as ludicrous as his irresponsibility. According to one staff officer at Army Group Vistula, his twinkling eyes and the fur trimming on his specially designed uniform gave him more the appearance of ‘a cheerful market woman’ than a Marshal of the Reich. Göring, wearing all his medals and thick gold-braid epaulettes, insisted on going on tours of inspection, and then spent his time sending messages to army commanders complaining that he had not been saluted properly by their men.

  During one planning session at Hassleben, he described his two parachute divisions on the Oder front as ‘Übermenschen’. ‘You must attack with both my paratroop divisions,’ he declared, ‘then you can send the whole Russian army to the devil.’ Göring failed to acknowledge that even many of the officers were not paratroopers at all, but Luftwaffe personnel transferred to ground combat duties of which they had no experience. His cherished 9th Parachute Division would be the first to crack when the attack came.

  Göring and Dönitz intended to raise at least 30,000 men from Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine base units to throw them into the battle. The fact that they had received virtually no training did not seem to concern them. A marine division was formed, with an admiral as divisional commander and only one army officer on the staff to advise them on tactics and staff procedures. Not to be outdone in the competitive bidding between the armed forces, the SS had formed more police battalions and a motorized brigade of Waffen SS headquarters staff. It was designated ‘Thousand and One Nights’. SS codenames became curiously exotic as the end of the Third Reich approached: the brigade’s tank-hunting detachment was codenamed Suleika and the reconnaissance battalion Harem.

  On 2 April, one of Himmler’s staff officers proposed from the special train of the Reichsführer SS that another 4,000 ‘front helpers’ could be added to the figure of 25,000 men marked to come from the Reichspost. The Nazi leadership was trying to meet the target of ‘Der 800,000 Mann-Plan’. Army Group Vistula headquarters argued that if there were no weapons to give all these untrained men, then they would be worse than useless. Yet the Nazi authorities were quite prepared to distribute a few panzerfausts among them and give them a grenade each to take a few of the enemy with them. ‘It was quite simply,’ wrote Colonel Eismann, ‘an order of organized mass murder, nothing less.’

  The Nazi Party itself tried to keep alive the idea of the Freikorps Adolf Hitler. Bormann was still discussing it on Wednesday 28 March ‘with Dr Kaltenbrunner’. Members of the SS were conspicuously punctilious about their academic qualifications. They were also keen to display their historical knowledge at a time when Dr Goebbels was dragging up every example of reversals of military fortune for his propaganda barrage. Frederick the Great and Blücher had been overused, so Kaltenbrunner recommended to the propaganda ministry the defeat of King Darius of Persia.

  Army Group Vistula’s two armies received largely unrealizable promises from the Nazi leadership. General Hasso von Manteuffel’s so-called Third Panzer Army, on the Oder front north of the Ninth Army, had little more than a single panzer division. The bulk of his divisions were also composed of composite battalions and trainees. General Busse’s Ninth Army was a similar hotch-potch. It even included an assault gun company wearing U-boat uniforms.

  That sector of the Oderbruch front was almost entirely manned by training units sent forward with a small ration of bread, dry sausage and tobacco. Some soldiers were so young that they were given sweets instead of tobacco. Field kitchens were set up in the villages just behind the lines and the trainees were marched forward to start digging their trenches. A comrade, one of them wrote, was ‘a companion in suffering’. They were not a unit in any usual military sense of the word. Nobody, not even their officers, knew what their duties were or what they were supposed to do. They just dug in and waited. Jokes reflected their mood. One of the current ones, a captured soldier told his Soviet interrogator, was, ‘Life is like a child’s shirt – short and shitty.’

  German soldiers with enough experience of war to know that any fool could be uncomfortable took great pride in creating a ‘gemütlich’ ‘earth bunker’, usually about two metres by three metres, with small tree trunks holding up the metre of earth cover above. ‘My main dugout was really cosy,’ wrote one soldier. ‘I turned it into a little room with a wooden table and bench.’ Mattresses and eiderdowns looted from nearby houses provided the final home comforts.

  Since firelight or smoke attracted the attention of snipers, soldiers soon gave up shaving and washing. Rations started to get worse towards the end of March. On most days, each soldier received half a Kommissbrot, a rock-hard army loaf, and some stew or soup which reached the front at night, cold and congealed, from a field kitchen well to the rear. If the soldiers were lucky, they received a quarter-litre bottle of schnapps each and, very occasionally, ‘Frontkämpferpäckchen’ – small packs for frontline combatants containing cake, sweets and chocolate. The main p
roblem, however, was the lack of clean drinking water. As a result many soldiers suffered from dysentery and their trenches became squalid.

  The faces of the young trainees were soon gaunt from tiredness and strain. Attacks by Shturmovik fighter-bombers in clear weather, the ‘midday concert’ of artillery and mortar fire, and random shelling at night took their toll. From time to time, the Soviet artillery ranged in on any buildings, in case they contained a command post, and then fired phosphorous shells. But for the young and inexperienced, the most frightening experience was a four-hour stint on sentry duty at night. Everyone feared a Soviet raiding party coming to grab them as ‘a tongue’.

  Nobody moved by day. A Soviet sniper shot Pohlmeyer, one of Gerhard Tillery’s comrades in the ‘Potsdam’ Regiment of officer cadets, straight through the head as he climbed out of his slit trench. Otterstedt, who tried to help him, was also picked off. They never spotted the muzzle flash, so they had no idea where the shot had come from. The Germans on that sector, however, had their own sniper. He was ‘a really crazy type’ who dressed up when off-duty in an undertaker’s black top hat and tailcoat, to which he pinned his German Cross in Gold, a vulgar decoration known as ‘the fried egg’. His eccentricities were presumably tolerated because of his 130 victories. This sniper used to take up position just behind the front line in a barn. Observers with binoculars in the trenches would then relay targets to him. One day when little was happening, the observer told him of a dog running around the Russian positions. The dog was killed with a single shot.

  Ammunition was in such short supply that exact figures had to be reported every morning. Experienced company commanders were over-reporting expenditure to build up their own reserves for the big attack, which they knew must come soon. German formation commanders became increasingly uneasy during that last part of March. They felt that the Soviets were playing with them ‘like a cat with a mouse’, deliberately achieving two goals at once. The battle for the bridgeheads on the west side of the Oder was not only preparing the Red Army’s springboard for Berlin, it was also grinding down the Ninth Army and forcing it to use up its dwindling supplies of ammunition before the big attack. German artillery guns, restricted to less than a couple of shells per gun per day, could not indulge in counter-battery fire, so the Soviet gunners were able to range at will on specified targets, ready for their opening bombardment. The major offensive against the Seelow Heights towards Berlin was only a matter of time.

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