The fall of berlin 1945, p.23
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.23

           Antony Beevor

  One of the highest priorities for interrogation of captured ‘tongues’, deserters and other prisoners was the subject of chemical weapons. The Soviet military authorities were understandably concerned that Hitler might want to use chemical weapons as a last-ditch defence, especially after all the Nazi leadership’s claims of ‘miracle weapons’. Reports reached Sweden that chemical weapons had been distributed to special troops in long boxes, with the inscription ‘Can only be used on the personal order of the Führer’. The Swedish military attaché heard that only fear of killing everyone in the vicinity prevented them from being used. If true, this would mean that supplies of Sarin and Tabun nerve gas from the Wehrmacht chemical weapons research centre in the massive citadel at Spandau had been distributed. Field Marshal Kessel-ring apparently told SS Obergruppenführer Wolff that Hitler’s advisers were urging him to use the ‘Verzweiflungswaffen’ – ‘the weapons of despair’.

  Albert Speer, when interrogated by the Americans a few weeks later, readily acknowledged that Nazi fanatics during this period had ‘argued for chemical warfare’. But although Soviet sources allege that a gas attack using aircraft and mortar shells had been made against their troops in February near Gleiwitz, the lack of detail offered suggests that this was either a false scare or an attempt to provoke an interest in the threat. Soldiers were ordered to operate in gas masks for four hours a day and to sleep in them for at least one night. Paper garments and protective stockings were issued, and so were canvas masks for horses. Orders also went out to protect food and water sources, and to prepare basements and cellars in headquarters against gas attacks. But how much attention was paid to these instructions by the Red Army is very much open to question, especially since NKVD regiments were responsible for ‘chemical discipline’.

  Training in the German panzerfaust was taken much more seriously. Large quantities of the weapon had been captured and groups of ‘trained fausters’ were organized in each rifle battalion. Political officers coined the rather predictable slogan, ‘Beat the enemy with his own weapons.’ Training consisted of firing one of these rocket-propelled grenades at a burnt-out tank or wall at a range of about thirty metres. In the 3rd Shock Army, Komsomol instructors issued them out and taught the selected fausters how to aim. Sergeant Belyaev, in the 3rd Rifle Corps, fired at a wall fifty metres away. When the dust settled, he found that it had blasted a hole large enough to crawl through and smashed into the wall beyond. Most of those who tried them out were similarly impressed. They saw their advantage in the fighting which lay ahead in Berlin, not in the weapon’s official anti-tank role, but to blast through walls to get from house to house.


  Waiting for the Onslaught

  During early April, as Berlin awaited the final Soviet onslaught along the Oder, the atmosphere in the city became a mixture of febrile exhaustion, terrible foreboding and despair.

  ‘Yesterday,’ the Swedish military attaché reported to Stockholm, ‘the well-meaning von Tippelskirch invited us to another evening at Mellensee, and I went more out of curiosity than anything else. The expectation of hearing anything interesting was not high, since now everything happens from one moment to the next. The evening was quite tragic. The atmosphere was one of hopelessness. Most of them did not even pretend to keep up appearances, but showed the situation as it really was. Some became maudlin, seeking comfort in the bottle.’

  Fanatical determination existed only among those Nazis who believed that surrender in any form meant execution. They, like Hitler, were determined to ensure that everyone else shared the same fate as themselves. In September 1944, when the Western Allies and the Red Army had been advancing towards the Reich with great speed, the Nazi leadership wanted to fight on against its sworn enemies even after defeat. It decided to set up a resistance movement to be known by the codename Werwolf.

  The name Werwolf was inspired by a novel set in the Thirty Years War by Hermann Löns, an extreme nationalist killed in 1914 and revered by the Nazis. In October 1944, when the idea started to be put into effect, SS Obergruppenführer Hans Prützmann was appointed Generalinspekteur für Spezialabwehr – General Inspector for Special Defence. Prützmann, who had studied Soviet partisan tactics during his time in the Ukraine, was summoned back from Königsberg to establish a headquarters. But, as with many Nazi projects, rival factions wanted to create their own set-up or bring existing ones under their control. Even within the SS, there were to be two organizations, Werwolf and Otto Skorzeny’s SS Jagdverbände. The figure rises to three if you include the unactivated Gestapo and SD version to be known by the codename Bundschuh.

  In theory, the training programmes covered sabotage using tins of Heinz oxtail soup packed with plastic explosive and detonated with captured British time pencils. A whole range of items and even garments made of Nipolit explosive were designed, including raincoats with linings made of explosive. Werwolf recruits were taught to kill sentries with a slip-knotted garrotte about a metre long or a Walther pistol with silencer. Captured documents showed that their watchword was to be, ‘Turn day into night, night into day! Hit the enemy wherever you meet him. Be sly! Steal weapons, ammunition and rations! Women helpers, support the battle of the Werwolf wherever you can.’ They were to operate in groups of three to six men, and were to receive rations for sixty days. ‘Special emphasis was put on gasoline and oil supplies’ as targets. The Nazi authorities ordered 2,000 radios and 5,000 explosive kits, but few were ready in time. American incendiary bombs dropped in bombing raids were collected and concentration camp inmates were forced to check them and extract the material for re-use.

  On 1 April at 8 p.m., an appeal was broadcast to the German people to join the Werwolf.‘ Every Bolshevik, every Englishman, every American on our soil must be a target for our movement… Any German, whatever his profession or class, who puts himself at the service of the enemy and collaborates with him will feel the effect of our avenging hand… A single motto remains for us: “Conquer or die.”’ A few days later, Himmler issued a new order: ‘Every male in a house where a white flag appears must be shot. Not a moment must be wasted in executing these measures. By male persons who must be considered responsible for their actions this means everyone aged fourteen years and upwards.’

  The true objective of Werwolf, as a document of 4 April confirmed, came from the Nazi obsession with 1918. ‘We know the plans of the enemy and we know that following a defeat there would be no chance. of Germany ever rising again like after 1918.’ The threat of killing anyone who collaborated with the allies was to prevent a ‘Stresemann-Politik’, a reference to Gustav Stresemann’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The Nazi Party was rooted in the humiliation of that defeat and it brought Germany back there again with terrible interest.

  Hitler Youth boys were sent off to their selected areas, where they were told to bury their explosive, then contact the local Nazi Kreisleiter for accommodation and rations. They were all given single unspecified missions, then told to go home as if nothing had happened. Towards the end, the training became very hurried, so many of them were more likely to blow themselves up rather than the enemy.

  Ultimately, Werwolf achieved very little, apart from a couple of assassinations – the mayors of Aachen and Krankenhagen – and the intimidation of civilians. Hitler Youth chalked slogans on walls such as, ‘Traitor take care, the Werwolf is watching.’ Both Skorzeny and Prützmann seem to have become less enamoured of the project as the allies closed in – if one is to believe Skorzeny’s account in his interrogation. (Prützmann committed suicide after one brief interview.) In any case, Himmler also had a change of heart in mid-April, just when negotiations via Sweden were on his mind. He instructed Prützmann to change Werwolf activity ‘to that – exclusively – of propaganda’. The only problem was that the Werwolfsender radio transmitter, under the control of Goebbels, continued to order partisan action.

  On the Eastern Front, the rapid advances of the Red Army from January to March meant that hardly a
ny groups were trained or equipped in time, and the only stay-behind groups were usually Volkssturm members, who had been cut off. The Werwolf propaganda simply lent SMERSH and the NKVD rifle regiments an urgent focus to their usual paranoia. In the west, the Allies found that Werwolf was a fiasco. Bunkers prepared for Werwolf operations had supplies ‘for 10–15 days only’ and the fanaticism of the Hitler Youth members they captured had entirely disappeared. They were ‘no more than frightened, unhappy youths’. Few resorted to the suicide pills which they had been given ‘to escape the strain of interrogation and, above all, the inducement to commit treason’. Many, when sent off by their controllers to prepare terrorist acts, had sneaked home.

  Some have pointed out that the whole Werwolf project did not fit with the national character. ‘We Germans are not a nation of partisans,’ wrote an anonymous woman diarist in Berlin. ‘We wait for leadership, for orders.’ She had travelled in the Soviet Union just before the Nazis came to power and, during long discussions on trains, Russians made jokes about the German lack of revolutionary spirit. ‘German comrades would storm a railway station,’ one said, ‘only if they could first of all buy platform tickets!’

  Reports also indicate that, although not part of the Werwolf programme, members of the Gestapo had been transferred to the Kriminalpolizei on the grounds that the Western Allies were sure to reinstate them later once military government was installed. As the reality of final collapse sank in, supposedly fanatical believers turned rapidly to self-preservation. Some SS members, to avoid prosecution, simply snaffled for themselves the false documents prepared for Werwolf members. Others procured Wehrmacht uniforms and the pay-books of dead men to provide themselves with new identities. German soldiers were furious that while the SS had been carrying out random executions for desertion, many of their officers were preparing their own escape. German prisoners of war told their American interrogators that tailors had been ordered to stitch a large Ρ on jackets so that SS men trying to hide could masquerade as Polish workers.

  The Nazi leadership did not just rely on the ‘flying courts martial’ and SS execution squads to terrorize soldiers into continuing the fight. The tales of atrocities from the propaganda ministry never ceased. Stories of women commissars castrating wounded soldiers, for example, were circulated. The ministry also had its own squads both in Berlin and close to the Oder front, painting slogans on walls as if they were the spontaneous expression of the civilian population, such as ‘We believe in victory!’, ‘We will never surrender’ and ‘Protect our women and children from the Red beasts!’ There was, however, one group who could demonstrate their feelings about the war without fear of reprisal. German wounded who had lost hands or arms would say ‘Heil Hitler!’ and ‘raise their stumps ostentatiously’.

  The man with the least enviable task at this time was Lieutenant General Reymann, the officer appointed Commander of the Greater Berlin Defence Area. He faced the culmination of the Nazis’ organizational chaos. General Haider, the army chief of staff sacked in 1942, was scathing on the subject. Both Hitler and Goebbels, the Reich Commissar for Defence of the capital, he wrote later, refused to give any ‘thought to defending the city until it was much too late. Thus, the city’s defence was characterized only by a mass of improvisations.’

  Reymann was the third person to hold the post since Hitler had declared Berlin a fortress at the beginning of February. He found that he had to deal with Hitler, Goebbels, the Replacement Army commanded by Himmler, the Luftwaffe, Army Group Vistula headquarters, the SS, the Hitler Youth and also the local Nazi Party organization, which controlled the Volkssturm. Hitler, having ordered that Berlin should be prepared for defence, then refused to allocate any troops to the task. He simply assured Reymann that sufficient forces would be provided if the enemy reached the capital. Neither Hitler nor Goebbels could face the reality of defeat. Goebbels in particular had convinced himself that the Red Army could be held on the Oder.

  Berlin’s population in early April stood at anything between 3 and 3.5 million people, including around 120,000 infants. When General Reymann raised the problem of feeding these children at a meeting in the Reich Chancellery bunker, Hitler stared at him. ‘There are no children of that age left in Berlin,’ he said. Reymann finally understood that his supreme commander had no contact with human reality. Goebbels, meanwhile, insisted that there were large reserves of tinned milk and that, if the city were encircled, cows could be brought into the centre. Reymann asked what the cows would be fed on. Goebbels had no idea. To make matters worse, the food depots were all situated on the outskirts of the city and were vulnerable to capture. Nothing was done to move either Wehrmacht or civilian supplies closer in.

  Reymann and his chief of staff, Colonel Hans Refior, knew that Berlin had no hope of holding out with the forces at their disposal, so they recommended to Goebbels that civilians, especially women and children, should be allowed to leave. ‘Evacuation,’ replied Goebbels, ‘is best organized by the SS and the police commander for the Spree region. I will give the order for evacuation at the right time.’ It was quite clear that he had not for a moment seriously considered the logistic implications of evacuating such a mass of people by road and rail, to say nothing of feeding them on the way. There were not nearly enough trains still in service, and few vehicles with fuel capable of transporting the weak and the sick. The bulk of the population would have had to walk. One suspects that Goebbels, like Stalin at the start of the battle of Stalingrad, did not want to evacuate civilians in the hope that it would force the soldiers to defend the city more desperately.

  From the regional headquarters for the Berlin district, a solid building on the Hohenzollerndamm, Reymann and his staff tried to find out how many soldiers and how many weapons could be counted on. Colonel Refior rapidly discovered that the ‘Berlin Defence Area’ carried no significance. It was just another phrase, like ‘Fortress’, coined in Führer headquarters which people were still supposed to defend to the death. He found that dealing with such ‘short-sightedness, bureaucracy and bloody-mindedness, was enough to turn anybody’s hair white’.

  To defend the outer perimeter alone, ten divisions were needed. In fact, the Berlin Defence Area possessed in theory only a flak division, nine companies of the Grossdeutschland guard regiment, a couple of police battalions, a couple of pioneer battalions and twenty Volkssturm battalions which had been called up, but not trained. Another twenty would be called up if the city were surrounded. But although the Berlin Volkssturm amounted to 60,000 men on paper, it included both ‘Volkssturm I’, who had some weapons, and ‘Volkssturm II’, who had no weapons at all. In many cases, a former regular officer would send his unarmed Volkssturm soldiers home when the Red Army approached the city, but commanders who were Party functionaries seldom showed even the most basic humanity. One of the Nazi Kreisleiters was convinced that the only thing to do was to keep the men away from the influence of their wives, from the ‘Muttis’, who might undermine their will to resist. But this was doomed to failure. No rations had been allocated for the Volkssturm, so they had to be fed by their families. In any case, commanders in charge of the defence soon found that only veterans of the First World War showed ‘a sense of duty’. Most of the rest slipped away whenever the opportunity presented itself.

  The most heavily armed force in Berlin was the 1st Flak Division, and yet it did not come under Reymann’s command until the battle started. Based on the three vast concrete flak towers – the Zoobunker in the Tiergarten, the Humboldthain and the Friedrichshain – this Luftwaffe division had an impressive arsenal of 128mm, 88mm and 20mm guns, as well as the necessary ammunition to go with them. Reymann’s artillery otherwise consisted of obsolete guns of various calibres taken earlier in the war from the French, Belgians and Yugoslavs. There were seldom more than half a dozen rounds per gun, often less. The only guideline on conducting a defence of the city was a pre-war instruction, which Refior described as a ‘masterpiece of German bureaucratic art’.

  The Nazi Party in Berlin talked of mobilizing armies of civilians to work on defences – both an ‘obstacle ring’ thirty kilometres out and a perimeter ring. But the maximum workforce ever achieved on one day was 70,000; it was usually no more than 30,000. Transport and a shortage of tools were the main problems, apart from the fact that most Berlin factories and offices continued to work as if nothing were amiss.

  Reymann appointed Colonel Lohbeck, an engineer officer, to take over the Party-led chaos of defence works and he called on the school of military engineering at Karlshorst to provide demolition teams. Army officers were nervous about Speer’s attempts to save the bridges within Berlin. They could not forget the execution of the officers over the bridge at Remagen. Reymann’s sappers supervised the Todt Organization and the Reich Labour Service, both of which were far better equipped than the civilian corvée, but they found it impossible to obtain fuel and spare parts for the mechanical diggers. Most of the 17,000 French prisoners of war from Stalag III D were put to work in the city, creating barricades and digging foxholes in pavements at street corners. How much they achieved is open to question, however, especially since French prisoners round Berlin were those most regularly accused of being ‘Arbeitsunlustig’ – reluctant to work – and of escaping from their camps, usually to visit German women.

  Attempts to liaise with the field commanders, who were supposed to provide fighting troops for the defence of the city, were far from successful. When Refior went to visit Heinrici’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Kinzel, at Army Group Vistula headquarters, Kinzel simply glanced at the plans he presented for the defence of Berlin and said, ‘Those madmen in Berlin should stew in their own juice.’ The Ninth Army’s chief of staff, Major General Hölz, regarded the plans as irrelevant for other reasons. ‘The Ninth Army,’ said Hölz, in a manner which Refior found rather too theatrical, ‘stands and stays on the Oder. If it should be necessary, we will fall there, but we will not retreat.’

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