The fall of berlin 1945, p.22
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.22Antony Beevor
Soldiers passed the day either catching up on sleep or writing home, even though little post had been getting through since the end of February. Officers felt that this collapse of the postal system at least had one advantage. There had been a number of suicides when soldiers received disastrous news from home, whether damage from bombing or members of the family killed. Captured German soldiers told their Soviet interrogators, and it is impossible to know whether they were speaking the truth or trying to curry favour, that their own artillery fired salvoes to explode behind their trenches as a warning not to retreat.
Soldiers knew that they were going to be overwhelmed and they waited only for one thing, the order to retreat. When a platoon commander rang back to company headquarters on the field telephone and received no reply, there was nearly always panic. Most jumped to the assumption that they had been abandoned by the very commanders who had ordered them to fight to the end, but they did not want to risk the Feldgendarmerie. The best solution was to bury themselves deep in a bunker and pray that Soviet attackers would give them a chance to surrender before chucking in a grenade. But even if their surrender was accepted, there was always the risk of an immediate German counter-attack. Any soldier found to have surrendered faced summary execution.
Despite all its weaknesses in trained men and ammunition, the German Army at bay could still prove itself a dangerous opponent. On 22 March, Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army attacked at Gut Hathenow, on the treeless flood plain near the Reitwein Spur. The 920th Assault Gun Training Brigade with the 303rd Döberitz Infantry Division was alerted. They deployed rapidly on seeing T-34 tanks. Oberfeldwebel Weinheimer yelled his fire orders: ‘Range – Armour-piercing – Target – Fire!’ Gerhard Laudan reloaded as soon as the gun recoiled. The crew established a good rhythm of firing. They hit four T-34S in a matter of minutes, but then there was a blinding flash of light and they felt a huge blow as their armoured vehicle shuddered. Laudan’s head struck the steel plate. He heard their commander scream, ‘Raus!’ Laudan forced open the hatch to throw himself out, but was yanked back by his headset and microphone, which he had forgotten to detach. By the time he had extracted himself with only minor wounds, he found the rest of the crew outside sheltering in the lee of the vehicle. Amid the chaos of enemy tanks charging around, there seemed to be no chance of rescue or recovery. But then their driver, Soldat Klein, climbed back into the vehicle through a hatch. To their astonishment, they heard the engine restart. They scrambled back inside and the vehicle reversed slowly. They found that the enemy shell had struck the armour near the gun, but fortunately there was a gap there between the outer armour and the inner steel skin of the hull. This had saved them. ‘For once “soldier’s luck” was on our side,’ Laudan commented. They were even able to drive the vehicle back to the brigade repair base at Rehfelde, south of Strausberg.
Both on the Oder front and on the Neisse opposite the 1st Ukrainian Front, officers suffered from mixed feelings. ‘Officers have two opinions of the situation,’ Soviet interrogators reported, ‘the official version and their own views, which they share only with very close friends.’ They firmly believed that they had to defend the Fatherland and their families, yet they were well aware that the situation was hopeless. ‘One should distinguish between regiments,’ a captured senior lieutenant told a 7th Department interrogator at 21st Army headquarters. ‘The regular units are strong. The discipline and fighting spirit are good. But in the hastily thrown-together battle-groups, the situation is totally different. Discipline is terrible and as soon as Russian troops appear, the soldiers panic and run from their positions.’
‘To be an officer,’ another German lieutenant wrote to his fiancée, ‘means always having to swing back and forth like a pendulum between a Knight’s Cross, a birchwood cross and a court martial.’
Preparing the Coup de Grâce
On 3 April, Marshal Zhukov flew from Moscow’s central airfield back to his headquarters. Konev took off in his aeroplane almost at the same time. The race was on. The plan was to launch the offensive on 16 April and to take Berlin on 22 April, Lenin’s birthday. Zhukov was in constant touch with the Stavka, but all his communications with Moscow were controlled by the NKVD in the form of the 108th Special Communications Company attached to his headquarters.
‘The Berlin operation… planned by the genius commander-in-chief, Comrade Stalin’, as the political department of the 1st Ukrainian Front put it so diplomatically, was not a bad plan. The trouble was that the main bridgehead seized by the 1st Belorussian Front lay right under the best defensive feature in the whole region: the Seelow Heights. Zhukov admitted later that he underestimated the strength of this position.
The tasks facing the staffs of the two main Fronts involved in the operation were huge. Russian-gauge railways had been rapidly laid right across Poland and the temporary bridges over the Vistula to bring up the millions of tons of supplies required – including artillery shells and rockets, ammunition, fuel and food.
The Red Army’s principal raw material, its manpower, also needed restocking and refashioning. Casualties in the Vistula-Oder and the Pomeranian operations had not been heavy by Red Army standards, especially when considering the huge advances made. But Zhukov and Konev’s rifle divisions, averaging 4,000 men each, had never really had a chance to refill their ranks. By 5 September 1944, 1,030,494 criminals from the Gulag had been transferred to the Red Army. The term criminal also included those sentenced for failing to turn up at their place of work. Political prisoners, or zeky, accused of treason or anti-Soviet activities were deemed too dangerous for release even to shtraf companies.
Further transfers from the Gulag were made in the early spring of 1945, once again with the promise that a prisoner could expunge his crime with his blood. In fact, the need for reinforcements was deemed so great that at the end of March, just over two weeks from the offensive against Berlin, a decree of the State Defence Committee ordered a wide range of categories of prisoners to be produced from each oblast, NKVD department and from pending cases in front of procurators.
It is doubtful whether the idea of exchanging a Gulag death – ‘a dog’s death for dogs’, as it was called – for a hero’s death motivated a majority of these prisoners, even if five of them became Heroes of the Soviet Union, including one of the most famous heroes of the war, Aleksandr Matrosov, who reputedly threw himself against a German embrasure. Life in the camps had taught them to think no more than a day ahead. The only thing likely to inspire them was a complete change of routine and the chance of misbehaviour. Some of the ex-Gulag soldiers did indeed ‘redeem their guilt with their blood’, either with shtraf companies or in mine-clearing units. Those integrated with sapper companies appear, not surprisingly, to have fought much better than those sent to shtraf companies.
Liberated prisoners of war, those who had survived the appalling conditions of German camps, were treated little better. In October 1944, the State Defence Committee had decreed that, when liberated, they should be transferred to special reserve units of military districts for screening by NKVD and SMERSH. Those sent straight from reserve battalions to frontline units were often far from healthy after their ordeal. They were always treated as deeply suspect. Front commands did not hide their unease about reincorporating ‘soldiers who were Soviet citizens released from fascist slavery’. Their ‘morale’ had been considerably lowered by ‘false fascist propaganda’ during their long imprisonment. Yet the methods of political officers were hardly likely to cure them of their worst impulses. They read them orders of Comrade Stalin, showed them films of the Soviet Union and the Great Patriotic War, and encouraged them to recount ‘the terrible atrocities of the German bandits’.
‘These men were important to the army,’ the political department of the 1st Ukrainian Front wrote, ‘because they were full of burning hatred for the enemy, and because they longed for revenge for all the atrocities and abuses they had suffered. At the same time they were not yet accustomed t
In the 5th Shock Army, the 94th Guards Rifle Division received a batch of forty-five former prisoners of war just five days before the Oder operation was due to take place. Political officers clearly did not trust them. ‘Each day,’ one of them wrote, ‘I spent two hours talking to them about the Motherland, about the atrocities of Germans, and about the law concerning betrayal of the Motherland. We distributed them among different regiments to exclude the possibility of having two people in the same company who might have been in Germany together or who came from the same region. Every day and every hour we were informed of their morale and behaviour. To make them hate the Germans we used photographs of Germans abusing our civilian population, including children, and we showed them the mutilated corpse of one of our soldiers.’
The distrust of former prisoners of war was based on the Stalinist fear that anybody who had spent time outside the Soviet Union, whatever the circumstances, had been exposed to anti-Soviet influences. The fact of being in a German prison camp meant that they had been ‘constantly influenced by Goebbels propaganda’: ‘They did not know the real situation in the Soviet Union and Red Army.’ This suggests that the authorities feared that memories of the catastrophe of 1941 and any association of it with the leadership of Comrade Stalin had to be eliminated at all costs. Political officers were also appalled by a question apparently ‘often asked’ by former prisoners of war: ‘Is it true that all the equipment used by the Red Army has been bought from the USA and England and that that’s the job of Comrade Stalin?’
The NKVD was also concerned. ‘Bad supervision and the unserious attitude of commanders’ had failed to control cases of indiscipline, the breaking of state laws and ‘immoral behaviour’. Even officers had been involved: ‘The territory liberated by the Soviet Army is full of enemy elements, saboteurs and other agents.’ The unserious attitude of commanders had extended to installing curtains which covered the side windows of staff cars. This presumably was done to conceal the presence of a senior officer’s ‘campaign wife’, a mistress usually selected from the signals or medical unit attached to their headquarters. Even though Stalin had tacitly permitted the institution of ‘campaign wives’, the NKVD ordered that ‘these [curtains] must be removed by checkpoints’.
Indoctrination was the highest priority, both for political officers and for the NKVD, which was in charge of ‘Checking Fighting Fitness for Battle’. ‘Political preparation’, according to this criterion, was the most important of all categories. Special propaganda seminars were arranged for non-Russian-speaking nationalities in the 1st Belorussian Front, following the arrival at the end of March of a new draft. These included Poles from the ‘western Ukraine’ and ‘western Belorussia’ and Moldavians. Many of these conscripts, however, had seen the mass arrests and deportations of 1939–41 by the NKVD and resisted their indoctrination, which concentrated on the Communist-inspired self-sacrifice of Red Army soldiers. ‘They regarded it quite sceptically,’ one political department reported with alarm. ‘After the conversation on the feat of Hero of the Soviet Union Sergeant Varlamov, who blocked the embrasure of an enemy firepoint with his body, there were comments that this cannot be possible.’
The quality of military training clearly left much to be desired. ‘A large number of non-operational losses are due to the ignorance of officers and their bad training of soldiers,’ an NKVD report stated. In one division alone, twenty-three soldiers were killed and sixty-seven wounded in a single month solely due to the mishandling of sub-machine guns: ‘This happens because they are piled or hung up with loaded magazines still on.’ Other soldiers were wounded when messing around with unfamiliar weapons and anti-tank grenades. Ill-informed soldiers put the wrong detonators into grenades, and some ‘hit mines and shells with hard objects’.
Red Army sappers, on the other hand, needed to take risks, often to make up for the shortage of supplies. They took pride in recycling the contents of unexploded shells and German mines lifted by night. Their private motto remained ‘One mistake and no more dinners.’ They used to extract the explosive, then warm it up and roll it out on the inside of their thighs, like girls in a Cuban cigar factory, and finally feed it into one of their own wooden mine cases, which could not be picked up by German mine detectors. The degree of danger depended on the stability of the explosive which they extracted. Their courage and skills were highly respected by both rifle units and tankists, who never usually conceded anything to another arm or service.
The programme of hatred of the enemy had started in the late summer of 1942, at the time of the withdrawal to Stalingrad and Stalin’s ‘Not one step back’ order. It had also been the time of Anna Akhmatova’s poem ‘The Hour of Courage has Struck’. But in February 1945, the Soviet authorities adapted her words: ‘Red Army soldier: You are now on German soil. The hour of revenge has struck!’ It was, in fact, Ilya Ehrenburg who first changed her words, he who had written in 1942, ‘Do not count days; do not count miles. Count only the number of Germans you have killed. Kill the German – this is your mother’s prayer. Kill the German – this is the cry of your Russian earth. Do not waver. Do not let up. Kill.’
Every opportunity had been taken to drum in the scale of German atrocities in the Soviet Union. According to a French informant, the Red Army authorities exhumed the bodies of some 65,000 Jews massacred near Nikolayev and Odessa, and ordered them to be placed alongside the road most used by troops. Every 200 metres a sign declared, ‘Look how the Germans treat Soviet citizens.’
Liberated slave labourers were used as another example of German atrocities. The predominantly Ukrainian and Belorussian women were made to tell soldiers how badly they had been misused. ‘Our soldiers got very angry,’ a political officer remembered. But then he added, ‘To be fair, some Germans treated their workers quite well, but they were a minority and in the mood of the time, the worst examples were the ones we remembered.’
‘We were constantly trying to step up hatred towards Germans,’ the political department of the 1st Ukrainian Front reported, ‘and to stir up a passion for revenge.’ Messages from forced labourers found in villages were printed and circulated to the troops. ‘They put us in a camp,’ one such letter read, ‘in a grey dark barracks and force us to work from morning to night and feed us on turnip soup and a tiny piece of bread. They are constantly insulting us. This is how we have spent our youth. They took all the young people from the village – even the boys who were only thirteen years old – to their accursed Germany and we are all suffering here, barefoot and hungry. There are rumours that “our people” are getting close. We can hardly wait. Maybe we’ll soon see our brothers and our suffering will end. The girls came to see me. We all sat down together to discuss it. Will we survive this terrible time? Will we ever see our families? We cannot stand it any more. It is terrible here in Germany. Zhenya Kovakchuk.’ Another letter from her gave the words of what she called ‘the song of the girl slaves’.
Spring is over, summer has come
Our flowers are blossoming in the garden
And I, such a young girl,
I spend my days in a German camp.
Another method for arousing hatred used by political officers was the ‘revenge score’. ‘In each regiment soldiers and officers were interviewed and facts of atrocities, “looting and violence by Hitler’s beasts”, were established. For example, in one battalion, a frightening revenge score was compiled and it was put on a poster: “We are now getting our revenge for 775 of our relatives who were killed, for 909 relatives who were taken away to slavery in Germany, for 478 burnt-down houses and for 303 destroyed farms”… In all regiments of the [1st Belorussian] Front “revenge meetings” were held and aroused great enthusiasm. Troops of our Front as well as soldiers of the whole Red Army are the noble aveng
‘There was a big slogan painted up in our canteen,’ a cypherene with the headquarters of the 1st Belorussian Front remembered. ‘ “Have you killed a German yet? Then kill him!” We were very strongly influenced by Ehrenburg’s appeals and we had a lot to take revenge for.’ Her own parents had been killed in Sevastopol. ‘The hatred was so great that it was difficult to control the soldiers.’
While Soviet military authorities were cultivating their soldiers’ anger ready for the final offensive, their 7th Department for propaganda was trying to persuade the German soldiers facing them that they would be well treated if they surrendered.
Occasionally raiding parties from reconnaissance companies would capture a Feldpost sack full of letters from home. These would be read and analysed by the German Communists or ‘antifas’ – anti-fascist prisoners of war attached to the department. Letters would also be taken from all prisoners for analysis. They were interested in the mood of the civilian population, the effects of American and British bombing and any references to shortages of food at home, especially the lack of milk for children. This information would be passed back upwards, but also put together for propaganda leaflets, printed on a mobile press attached to army headquarters.
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